Global FUTR Lab, FutureEverything 2015
The last Tuesday in February is one of those deceptively clear days; bright blue skies and a fierce wind, cold enough to bite your fingers off. Tramping through an underpass beneath Manchester’s A57, we pass a row of massive advertising hoardings -- pitched high enough to be seen by drivers cruising along the motorway above, but enclosed by security fences and watched over by CCTV to keep passers-by at arms-length. Behind us, a hand-built brick jetty transforms the worn concrete hills supporting the motorway into skate ramps.
This was the first day of the Global FUTR Lab, a two-day intensive workshop bringing together a group of ten incredible and very disparate participants from the UAE, Pakistan, Japan, South Korea, Nigeria, Ukraine, and the UK. Commissioned by FutureEverything and in collaboration with the British Council, we created a set of tools participants could use to pull back from the specificities of their own projects to look at the wider context and systemic dynamics of the spaces in which they worked. Focusing on the relationships between infrastructures and innovation, we helped participants move beyond simple linear models of technological development and their assumptions about the intrinsic value of ‘disruption’ to a richer, sharper, and more critical understanding of how we can work to remould, scaffold, or route around existing socio-technical systems.
In this capacity, Manchester was a gift; an industrial powerhouse turned global cultural centre, its history and built environment are both resource and inspiration, allowing us to dodge idealised tropes of the ‘creative city,’ and explore how layers of industrial and cultural heritage influenced our participants’ projects and practices.
The day began with a round of introductions and a two-hour walkshop, exploring Salford and central Manchester by foot. As Fern Wickson and her colleagues describe, walkshops offer a way to engage with the spaces and landscapes in which the ‘dark matter’ of technology and innovation – its ethics, politics, and culture – manifest. As we moved along the underpasses, canals, stations and tramlines, we photographed and talked about what we found – for example, the layerings of several centuries of development around Canal Street, transformed from an early site where goods were transported to and from the local cotton factories; to, with the collapse of the cotton industry, a site where people could meet (dark enough for concealment, but with good transport links), later targeted by the local police; to, with the support of the council and the LGBT community, regeneration as a community and commercial hub.
Back inside, and out of the biting wind, we gathered round a larger map of the city, which we annotated with our photos and conceptual observations as a way of starting to chew-over and make connections between some of the things we had seen: in the railway arches, the re-use and creative repurposing of existing systems and bits of the built environment; from graffiti, the use of culture as a resource and means of laying claim to space; from the shipping containers plonked in housing estates – folds in the connections between local geography and global supply chains. Most importantly, the city provided common ground for discussion, disagreement and critique, allowing a group of participants with very different disciplinary and cultural backgrounds to point to specific, concrete things in the environment – allowing for the group to reflect on which of the things we had seen resonated with their own lives and practices, and which were lost in translation (and why).
As a lead-in to the challenges of designing and operating within complex global systems, we began by inviting participants to map their experiences of Manchester onto a large 3x3 matrix, poking at local, national and international phenomena with tools from systems thinking, futures and design. How did they link up? Where did things pull against each other, and where did they resonate?
Repeating the exercise in smaller groups, we asked participants to swap out their observations of Manchester for their own projects, pushing them to break up their practice and projects, splitting it into its constituent elements, and spreading it across the 3x3 matrix. This acted as a visualisation device for participants (with the help of questioning, critiquing and prodding from their groups) to explore tacit assumptions, rules of thumb, and the systemic dependencies hard-baked (perhaps without question) into their work.
To close, we used a deck of custom-designed cards to get participants thinking about how a range of possible ‘wild card’ incidents – solar flares destroying satellites; abundant clean energy; the end of alphanumerics – would impact on the systems, futures and designs that underpin and support their work. With Lab participants coming from a range of backgrounds, we nudged them towards a more speculative mode of thinking, boosting individual projects’ capacity to respond to global and local uncertainties and change
As an example of this process at work, those of our participants whose projects involved mapping and cartography quickly picked up on their reliance not only on satellite technologies, but the large corporate bodies which provided many of the platforms on which their projects were based. These participants spent time heatedly debating and unpicking their dependence on some of the very organisations and institutions they had originally pitched themselves as working to bypass. We used this as the starting point for a final, whole-group discussion on technological, social, and cultural points of dependency, touching on questions about the time and resource demands of individuals’ contributions to technological commons and open-source software. The discussion also steered into how participants personally supported themselves: in pursuing deviant and ‘disruptive’ models of entrepreneurship and innovation, they have to face the realpolitik of their contemporary economic environment, particularly when considering what it might take for distributed networks to punch at the same weight as corporations, producing stable, reliable technologies for a sizable user base.
George’s work on the challenges of teaching engineering ethics and Tobias’ experience teaching critical and speculative methods to diverse groups provided a base for much of our work planning the Global FUTR Lab. The kind of topics on which we, as Strange Telemetry, focus our attention tend to be things that spill over and across tidy disciplinary boundaries, and it can be hard to see how all the different elements lock into the apparently ‘real,’ tangible objects and artifacts of technology and innovation. In this context, getting participants – whether students, creative entrepreneurs, or clients embedded in larger organisations – to engage meaningfully with messy political, structural, and ethical issues often requires active and experiential tools.
Using methods that depend on lived experiences proved far trickier with such a diverse group, and over such a compressed space of time. In this, we were fortunate to be working out of Manchester, a city and built environment which gave us the base material from which to construct a number of common reference points, offering a richer, more grounded experience that what we might have found in an anonymous, neutral ‘innovation space.’ The matrices and speculative cards, too, proved immeasurably valuable in scaffolding our deconstruction of a set of incredible, but complex and diverse, projects, highlighting their commonalities, and allowing us to cast an eye on their current dependencies and fragilities through the ‘safe space’ of the speculative and the imaginary.
The Global FUTR Lab was an opportunity to field-test ideas and methods Strange Telemetry have developed on education, mentoring, and collaboration outside of the institutional setting; spanning disciplines, stressing individual reflexivity, and drawing on the specificities of place. Working with an enormously talented and culturally-diverse group of participants with their own pre-existing projects and worldviews cast us in role closer to coaches than instructors, as facilitated by a globally-oriented cultural organisation and a locally-embedded festival; both of which have very different aims and remits from those of a traditional educational institution. Each of these factors contributed to the shape of a unique, rewarding and groundbreaking two-day workshop, and helped fuel Strange Telemetry’s desire to further explore, develop, and scale this lab format, and its constituent toolkits.