Saturday, April 15, 2017

"Inside the Big Business of Imagining the Future"

From The Verge:

The Future Agency
In the Dubai of 2050, the world looks both instantly familiar and utterly strange. Here, urban planning is driven by an omniscient AI installed at the top of a skyscraper; your smart bathroom mirror tracks your physical health; and you interface with the government through a personalized “genie,” a hologram in the form of a virtual Emirati gentleman in traditional garb. All of these future products are skinned in a particular visual aesthetic of friendly white-on-black animated icons like a minimalist, sentient version of Apple’s iOS.

This uncanny scene was on display at the United Arab Emirates’ second annual Government Summit, hosted in Dubai in February 2014. A three-day event comprised of dozens of speakers — including Sir Richard Branson — and over 4,000 participants, it bills itself as the “largest annual government gathering in the world.” The gathering was meant to “build hope, build life and future, and make people happy,” said Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, prime minister of the UAE and royal ruler of Dubai, during the event. The urban AI, hologram genie, and smart bathroom were part of the Museum of Future Government Services, a series of seamless interactive installations that demonstrated to attendees — Emirati politicians and civil servants, as well as foreign dignitaries and business leaders — how the UAE would serve its citizens several decades hence.

The Museum of Future Government Services was created by Tellart, a technology-focused design agency, headquartered thousands of miles away in Rhode Island. Launched in 2000, Tellart now employs 38 individuals spread across offices in Providence, New York, San Francisco, Amsterdam, and Dubai. The UAE government is one of the company’s largest clients; the two entities collaborate on the Government Summit events and are developing a permanent Museum of the Future in Dubai.
Of course, none of the products demonstrated at the 2014 summit actually existed. Rather, Tellart’s job is to create believable, immersive visions of the future based on the needs of its clients, which range from the UAE to Google, Purina, and the California Academy of Sciences — anyone who needs a little bit of tomorrow today. As the company’s co-founder Nick Scappaticci says, “We are the industrial designers of the 21st century.”

Tellart is at the forefront of an industry that doesn’t really have a name. What it does is sometimes labeled “design fiction,” a genre that might be defined as “prototypes that allow you to suspend your disbelief about the ways the world is changing around you,” says Alexander Porter, the co-founder of Scatter, a virtual reality storytelling studio in Brooklyn.

Design fiction is created by a loose confederation of agencies, artists, engineers, and designers who are shaping our expectations of technology and society in decades to come by showing us what that incipient world might look like, down to its cliche brand logos. It’s science fiction made real in the form of interactive exhibitions, product demonstrations, and behind-the-scenes consulting work. And it tends to pop up at any event Davos-ish enough to include the word “influencers.” 

Alongside Tellart, the industry is made up of organizations like Barbarian Group, the now-defunct BERG London, Fake Love (acquired by The New York Times Company in August 2016), and Google’s Creative Lab. Even if you’re unfamiliar with these names, it’s likely you’ve seen their handiwork in high-tech viral videos, like this rendering of a mundane living room turning into an immersive intergalactic VR video game, created by the studio Marshmallow Laser Feast for Sony; Superflux’s 2011 “Song of the Machine,” a prophetic rendering of VR technology as seen through a walk in London; or the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology’s miniature quadcopters caught assembling a rope bridge in midair. 

Lesser future design fiction projects resemble mediocre advertising, the detritus of CES or the fever dreams of a self-styled futurist like AOL’s Shingy. It can be as basic as a drone that takes selfies or a 3D burrito printer. “There’s a lot of stuff that almost exists to chase the Fast Company headline,” says Colin James Nagy, Barbarian Group’s former chief of media and strategy. Yet however reductive, these design miniatures still help form our idea of what the future can be.

“It's really easy to freak people out with science fiction. It's a heavy responsibility,” says Tellart co-founder Matt Cottam when I first meet him and Scappaticci at the company’s New York outpost, located in the corner of a Chelsea loft. He cites a maxim from the author and New School sociology instructor Barbara Adams: “Every act of future making is an act of future taking." Cottam continues, “While creating a high fidelity image of the future may broaden people's imagination for what's possible, it can also really narrow their perception of what's possible or what their options are.”

He cites a potent example: one Museum of Future Government Services installation involved handing guests warm towels in the way an upscale hotel might. After the guests gave the towels back to attendants, they were scanned for biometric data to determine visitors’ identities and backgrounds. A screen displayed a visualization of their bodies and whether or not any dangerous communicable diseases were found. 

After passing through, one pregnant Emirati woman came to Cottam worried that the scan might have impacted her baby. “I was like, ‘That scanner was a Microsoft Kinect and a projector,’” Cottam says, no more harmful than playing a video game. Although no actual biometric data scan happened, the experience left the attendee feeling that the technology was invasive and dystopian.

While predicting the future is an eternal pursuit, rendering it experiential is a more modern innovation. The 1939 World’s Fair, with its theme of “The World of Tomorrow,” included Futurama, an exhibit sponsored by the General Motors Corporation and designed by the industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes. Its major forecast was a highway system connecting the entire country, and its rendering of a city block, with clean glass-and-steel buildings rising above a street crowded with cars, has been borne out by history, though not always in a positive sense; the installation’s “super highway of tomorrow” looks like the worst parts of the New Jersey Turnpike today.

Data-driven future prediction emerged around 1948 with the launch of RAND Corporation. The nonprofit think tank’s “scenario analysis” practice connected military planning with private technology development. RAND’s tactics were adopted by Shell in the 1970s, creating a precedent for the corporate future-consulting we see today....MUCH MORE