I’ve been back for the best part of a week, but Colombia still haunts me.
From the air, it’s a country of lush green mountains, wide flood-plains with fat brown rivers winding and ox-bowing their way through the rich russet soil; fertile, not so much tamed by its people as persuaded into an agreement where no one is quite sure who’s getting the better of the deal. As in many other Latin countries where the scars of colonialism are still bright and angry beneath the new skin of change, there are plenty of places where it looks like “progress” – that deathless shibboleth – has the upper hand: industrial farming practices and the new uptick in gold mining, courtesy of the volatile markets for food and precious metals, have gouged red-brown wounds out of the land, left rivers low and mountains decapitated. But you don’t have to drive far to see how fast nature can reclaim its territory when left to its own devices, nor the rural communities which live lightly – if untidily by European standards – upon the land. The humid air whispers of a barely restrained fecundity; growth is everywhere.
Economic growth is, of course, more unevenly distributed, and Medellín (pronounced Meh-deh-jEEn – the Latin double-l changes its sound considerably from place to place) showcases these inevitable inequities clearly. Its mild but variable climate, a function of its position in a deep valley high in the mountains, belies its closeness to the Equator; known to Colombians as “the City of Eternal Spring”, its skies boil with turbulent clouds between bursts of bright blue clarity, and thunder grumbles sullen from the peaks most afternoons. The temperature hovers around the low- to mid-twenties Centigrade most of the year; rain is commonplace and occasionally torrential, but rarely stays for long. The central valley is spattered with light and heavy industries, along with a newish rash of corporate postmodernist architecture; the lower slopes have sprouted a forest of red-brick towerblocks which look uniform from a distance, but whose variety becomes clear at close range. In the interstices – and further up the slopes, where the incline and the possibility of flash flooding precludes large-scale construction and reliable infrastructure – the higgledy-piggledy terraces and jumbled bricks’n'breezeblock stacks of the underclass spread wherever they can, their narrow streets a lively riot of mural’d concrete walls, barrowboys chattering their patter through jury-rigged PA systems, and the buzz and rasp of the city’s countless motorcycles and scooters as they struggle against the gradient. The gap between wealth and poverty is made all the clearer by their mutual proximity, a cheek-by-jowl life that is not without its frictions; gothic high-tech and favela chic stand across the avenidas from one another, studiously ignoring one another while they wait for the future to arrive.
There are, of course, people trying to bridge that gap and skry that future – which is what I was invited there for, along with my fellow Fractal facilitators: Johanna Blakley, director of research at the Norman Lear Center, University of SoCal; Keiichi Matsuda, architect, film-maker and augmented reality authority; and Reshma Shetty, MIT PhD and co-founder of Ginkgo BioWorks, a synbio start-up based in Boston.
We spent one morning talking to the management team of UNE, a Medellín-based media outfit that sells not just bandwidth but content; they were looking for new ways in which they might provide more useful services to the less well-off of the region, and picked our brains about applications and systems that might add value to their current offers. At the same time, we got to learn some high-level cultural home truths that would serve us well later in the week, not least the fact that – despite being an incredibly friendly and helpful people – Colombians are very slow to trust one another, even at the neighbourhood level. Given the country’s recent history of political unrest and paramilitary conflict – which is, sadly, what Medellín is still best known for here in Europe, to go by the reactions I got when I told people where I was going – this probably isn’t entirely surprising. But it’s not the sort of thing you’d notice as a tourist; hospitality is a big deal to Colombians, and that seems to include an instinctive elision of their domestic troubles. (Compare and contrast to we Brits, who seem increasingly keen to download our sociocultural angst on anyone who’ll listen.)
The main event, however, took place at the Botanical Gardens; the format was largely without precedent, as far as anyone involved was aware, and might be best described as a kind of community-engagement design-fiction experiment. Rather than have four guests do their talking-heads schtuck to an attentive but otherwise passive audience, the Fractal crew decided that we were there to facilitate the audience in telling stories about the three topics in play, namely augmented reality, 3d printing and synbio.
The initial run was done on the Friday afternoon with a thirty-strong gang of schoolkids, aged 11 or so. We’d introduce the topic, then encourage the audience to ask questions and talk about what sort of things they’d do with the technology in question, were it already a reality; then we’d gradually segue into storytelling, with yours truly introducing a character and an opening scene and encouraging the audience to step to the mic and continue the action.
The stories the kids came up with were predictably wild, but the adults attending the three longer sessions the next day weren’t exactly holding themselves back, either, once they’d got into the spirit of the thing. Every time with every story, there’d be a clear pivoting point where everyone suddenly grokked the possibilities, grasped the idea and its implications… and that’s when the stories started getting weird. From my own vantage point, it felt like that point was close to the boundary between the purely physical and the spiritual; while I don’t want to lay any claim to anthropological insight, here, it seem that – much as in the other Latin countries I’ve visited – the division between the earthly and the spiritual is more permeable in Colombian culture, which is still fairly conservative and religious in character, and it was in that disputed territory that speculative thinking really came alive for our audience. Which isn’t to say that there was much handwringing about “playing god”; indeed, it was only raised twice, and without much drama, though one must assume that the audience for a futures event would be somewhat self-selecting in that direction.
But, by way of validating what any fiction writing tutor worth their salt will tell you, it was the human dramas foregrounded against the technological innovations that engaged people with the ideas – and while the stories were far wilder and more playful than one would expect from, say, an established English-language science fiction zine, the central issues and dilemmas of these imminent innovations came quickly to the fore. I got a real kick out of watching people take their turns at the mic, watching their faces as they really got into what they were saying; even though the concrete results of a futures event like this are incredibly hard to measure or quantify, it was plain to see that, when “given permission” to extrapolate and imagine, ordinary people are just as capable as futurists and technologists – if not more so, in some ways – of engaging with complex technologies and understanding how they might change the world they live in, for the better and for the worse.
Full kudos for this ambitious and ground-breaking experiment should go to Vivi and Hernan, the dynamic duo who have somehow assembled and run Fractal events for the past five years while holding down other jobs. There’s no top-table TED schmoozing or delegation of responsibility to paid flunkies, either; both of them seemed, at times, to be surgically attached to their phones and laptops, constantly hustling and arranging and fixing, keeping in touch with their extensive network of helpers and contacts, almost all working on a voluntary basis, wrestling with the bureaucracy of local government, making sure contracts were signed and exchanged, permissions secured, meetings organised. At the same time, they were consummate hosts, constantly on hand, showing us the sights, introducing us to local businesspeople and academics, and feeding us what seemed like endless (not to mention excellent) Colombian food. I can’t remember ever being made to feel so valued (which was hell for my Imposter Syndrome), or so very welcome; as weeks of ostensible work go, it was a hectic delight, and the closest thing I’ve had to a proper holiday in quite some time.
So thanks again to Vivi and Hernan, for inviting me to Medellín and making me feel so welcome; I consider myself very much in their debt. And the world futures community would do well to keep an eye on Medellín and Fractal: they’re busily finding ways to take the control and creation of futures narratives out of the hands of “experts” and put them into the hands of ordinary people, and that’s something we should all make an effort to learn from.