In Transdisciplinary design, we’re always talking about transformation. How can we change the way we record skills in higher education? How can we change our course towards a socially and ecologically unsustainable future? How can we change the way community organizations collaborate? These are big challenges, stuck in webs of complex systems, where the effect of any small change reverberates in unknown ways from one issue to the next. Sometimes we address this with prototyping, throwing an idea into the system and seeing what happens. But other times it feels like anything we create within the system will only promote the current state of affairs. We need a blank slate to try out something new.
For example, a recent project addressed that question about recording skills in higher education. While kicking off the project with a workshop full of education experts, we noticed that even as they struggled against it, their thinking was rooted in a system of quantified, top-down methods for assessing student success. Ideas around Netflix-like programmed matching between student skills and employer needs came up, and although we all felt a little creeped out, the appeal was clear. After the workshop, we could have created a new resume module, or a platform that allowed some qualification within the quantified system. But instead, we chose to use speculative design to carve out a space to answer the real questions on the table. We created a narrative that lunges into the future towards the ultimate end of our current trajectory, when we’ve invented The Program, an all-knowing piece of software that orchestrates humanity into an efficient, well-oiled, “utopian” machine. Here we find the Netflix-like skill matcher in all of its glory and discomfort.
[Our project, “The Collapse”. The plot line on the poster represents our current trajectory, resulting in the collapse, and then the more ideal sustainable world that can help us reconsider our current efforts.]
As a class, we’ve discussed the change-making value of design in these speculative worlds. Sure, they allow you to experiment wildly, but what’s the value of that if nothing actually happens? Does a piece of speculative design displayed in a gallery reach the audiences it’s meant to provoke? Virtual worlds create a similar blank slate for wild ideas. In Julian Dibbell’s article “A Rape in Cyberspace“, he shows how a particular unfortunate event in the online community LambdaMOO sparked an overhaul of the virtual space’s political structure. While this creates very interesting conversations and some radical social experimentation, would we ever be able to apply lessons from that experience to our country’s governmental systems?
Similar to speculative futures and virtual worlds, ritual is another way to create space separate from everyday life to make change. In a recent conversation with Rabbi Jill Hammer, she defined “ritual” as the act of creating a defined space for transformation. Breaking down its architecture, she highlighted the importance of opening and closing the experience to signal a change in expected behavior. Within this structure, two people can be wed together. A child can become an adult. Spring can turn to Summer. Grief can be released. The importance of the end of the ritual is often discussed as an incorporation of the transformation into everyday life.
Opening these experimental spaces may be helpful for radical change, but real transformation will not happen unless we re-integrate the discussion and conclusions into reality. In our education project, for example, our narrative pushes past the dystopic “utopia”, through its collapse, and into a space where we can share a solution centered around human connection and qualitative reflection. This gives us the opportunity not only to expose an ideal solution, but to explore the question of why it wouldn’t work in the current system, inviting the audience to map a path towards a better world.
[Discussion questions at our “Collapse” exhibit, encouraging viewers to use the speculation to inform and inspire their current work]