Category Archives: Climate Change

design, marketing, and manipulation as ideological imperative

I seem to be linking Cennydd Bowles a lot lately, but why would one not? So here’s a nice, short injunction from the man himself, off the back of his having thrown out the question “when does design become manipulation?”, and being real unsettled by the answers he got:

Design influences. It persuades. But if it manipulates, something’s wrong. The difference isn’t just semantic; it’s moral. A manipulative designer abuses their power and strips people of their agency, reducing them to mere pawns. I see almost no circumstances in which that’s ethically acceptable.

So if you think all design is manipulation, please stop designing.

I think I’m pretty much on the same page as Bowles, here, though I think—as last time, when he was asking tech sector folk to show epistemic humility—there’s a structural issue going un(der)examined. Pose it as a question: why might so many designers, and/or people who know (or presume to know) what design is about, think it’s mostly a matter of manipulation? Because manipulation is what most designers who get a job with the label ‘designer’ on it will be paid to do, which in turn means that most courses meant to turn out people with qualifications as designers will (if they want to hit their employability metrics for the course!) be teaching them, implicitly or explicitly, that design is mostly about manipulation.

Now, some of this may be down to the nuance between manipulation and Bowles’s preferred terms, influence and persuade. I mean, I think of myself as very much A Words Guy, but I’d struggle to delineate the difference in those terms without writing at considerable length; this is always the challenge when it comes to values. Bowles’s tell-your-spouse-what-you-did-today technique, elsewhere in that post, is admirably efficient at highlighting the distinction as it manifests in our perception of meaning, but doesn’t delineate that distinction. I suspect Bowles might say it shouldn’t need delineating. And I would agree, it shouldn’t—but perhaps, in this less than ideal world, it does.

But why is that? Well, because of those structural forces I mentioned, which result in people with earnestly-held good intentions thinking in ways that ensure the continuation of the thing they think they’re trying to combat. Here’s another example, via friend-of-the-show Andrew Curry; if asking designers where influence ends and manipulation begins results in contortions and confusions, then what happens when a marketing guy wants to use marketing to solve climate change issues?

Well, what happens is the marketing guy—with the instinctive judo move that presumably comes from spending a great deal of your time trying to convince C-suite suits to fork over another tranche of consulting fees—will reframe the problem as being located in the firm’s customers rather than the firm itself. This is, of course, the classic neoliberal move of individualising responsibility for systemic failings—but, to be clear, it is coming from what I am going to assume is a sincere and genuine wish to reduce emissions.

The next step, though, is the clincher, because it’s the same one that informs most attempts at climate policymaking:

… marketers should stop focussing on their clients’ businesses and focus on their customers’ instead. They should, in short, start creating narratives about changing behaviour rather than moments of consumption.

Why is this the clincher? Because it’s a behaviourist model of human agency; it’s our old fictional friend homo economicus, just waiting to be given the right information, narrative or ‘nudge’ (as specified by various mutations of the long-since-discredited by nonetheless seemingly unkillable Information Deficit Model) that will ‘change’ their ‘behaviour’, which is somehow simultaneously rational (because neoclassical economics, and all that stems from it, insists on the rationality of the economic actor), woefully uninformed, and easily changed.

It is also, as anyone who has read (for example) their Elizabeth Shove, utterly wrong. The reasons people do the things that they do in the hugely variable and particular ways they do them has very little to do with simple utility-maximising decision-making, and a great deal to do with context.

I could go on about the social practice model of human agency for hours, but I’m already drifting away from my point, which is this: the consumptive behaviours which Mr Marketer here wants to change were indeed shaped by marketing in times past, but assuming that merely pointing that behaviourist model at a different behaviour will be sufficient to reverse it is naive at best. Because the problem is not the behaviours of the consumers, or even (if you want to get all Uncle-Karl’s-Volume-1 about it) the scheming avarice of cartoon capitalists, but rather the complete and unquestioning immersion of both within an economic model that valourises, nay necessitates, the externalisation of costs.

This guy uses McDonalds as an example, and wonders why they don’t reduce their footprint by, say, somehow discouraging people going to the drive-thru in a gas-guzzler SUV. Why don’t they take more responsibility for their customers’ chunk of the emissions of the business?

First off it’s hard to calculate […] it is hard to track what customers and end users are really doing. These things are hard to measure.

To reiterate, again: this guy is sincere, I’m sure of it. I expect he’s even a nice guy. I wish him no ill. (Hell, he even notes that the Measurement Problem doesn’t seem to be at all insurmountable when it comes to targeting advertisements, or fine-tuning supply-chains for cost reductions.) But nonetheless, his conception of human agency—which is the foundation of his industry (Adam Curtis got you covered on that stuff), as well as the econo-political ideological keystone of the world in which we all live—means he can’t come up with a better list of things for marketers and their clients to do than this:

The next generation of marketers working on sustainability are moving beyond doomist thinking (yes, we’re in very, very deep trouble, now what are you going to do about it?) to an obsession with delivering genuine change.

  • Less shaping the narrative, more shaping behaviour.

  • Less ‘sustainability theatre’ workshops, more testing MSP (Minimal Sustainable Product).

  • Less internal focus and a lot more customer centricity.

  • Less risk management, more business model innovation.

  • Less reporting that reassures investors, more accurate measurement and responsibility for carbon being emitted.

In closing, we must do all we can to decouple growth from carbon emissions and unlearn the worst excesses of consumption behaviour. We need to 1) educate, 2) regulate and we need to 3) activate.

I’m starting by activating customers, unleashing the latent desire in all of us to reduce our carbon footprints through what we buy (or don’t buy), the choices we make and the habits we form.

I mean, that last line, there; as if “unleashing latent desire” (which, historically, has meant fabricating desires wholesale) isn’t exactly what got us in to this mess! Or the ‘graph above: decouple growth from carbon emissions? Sure, OK, that sounds like a nice idea, so we’ll set aside the historical fact that growth, as we understand that term in both the vernacular or the more specific economic sense, is entirely predicated on the emission of carbon, and we’ll look at your three steps to success and—oops, shit, stalled at number one, it’s the Information Deficit Hypothesis once again! Because if you think of people as programmable economic robots, that’s always where you start, that’s where marketing has always started, it literally cannot start from any other model, and that’s why trying to market your way to a carbon-free future is like trying to drink yourself sober.

Andrew Curry gets it, in his commentary on the above (my emphasis):

Of course, the problem with a lot of this is that meaningfully reducing emissions involves reducing consumption, especially by the most affluent. And even with business model innovation, it’s hard to maintain growth or increase profitability while reducing consumption. Marketers don’t get paid for doing that. The incentive systems are all wrong.

And that, in a very digressive blog-ranty way, is my attempt to explain why it is that so many designers think that design is basically manipulation: because most design is done in the ultimate service of capital accumulation, and as such it has failed if it does not maximise consumption. Doesn’t mean designers are bad people. Doesn’t even mean that marketers are bad people (though I can see the ghost of Bill Hicks raising an eyebrow at me). It means that the assumptions of neoclassical economics are so deeply embedded in every structure of our society that we can’t think outside of them… and it’s those assumptions, among which is the vital principle of increasing profit through the externalisation of costs, whether financial or otherwise, that have resulted in our treating the planet like a combination of cornucopian replicator and bottomless rubbish-pit.

I mean, sure, I would like it if we could get designers to think about what they’re doing, and whether they’re being manipulative rather than persuasive or influential, and to choose the latter over the former. That is a good goal! The problem is, if you did it really well, you’d end up with a bunch of designers finding themselves out of work (whether by choice, or through an inability to find morally acceptable gigs), and them being replaced by folk whose somewhat more straitened circumstances would—quite understandably!—make them less likely to undertake such reflections, and less likely still to act upon them.

Does that mean that it’s not worth having the discussions that Bowles and others are trying to have, here? Not at all. Any more fundamental change to the our ontological conception of the world and our relation to it is going to require a lot of that sort of reflection, and not just in the fields of design and marketing. But it’s that more fundamental change that we have to have as the utopian horizon of any and all such conversations, because otherwise we’re just twiddling with placebo dials (to use a design term).

Whatever label you choose to put on the tangle of systems-of-systems in which we are enmeshed, you have to start from the understanding that it is incredibly good at recuperating the many critiques directed at it. This ability is in no small part down to the magic of marketing, and of its more knowingly unethical siblings PR and ‘reputation management’; it really is stories all the way down. But another important element is, I suspect, the homo economicus model, and the individualisation of responsibility which it enables. While that model dominates, designer’s gonna design to manipulate (because the user could always choose not to follow the dark patterns, right?) and marketer’s gonna unleash those latent desires (because what could be wrong about making a profit from fulfilling the sense of lack you went to so much effort to engender in someone, right?) and ecomodernist’s gonna keep claiming that we can somehow, if we just innovate real hard while clicking the heels of the Ruby Slippers together, have growth without fossil fuels (because growth is an utterly unquestionable Good Thing, the rotten beam to which every other plank in this disintegrating raft is tied with twine and good intentions, and only some sort of primitivist lunatic who hated the less fortunate would not want growth, right?). They will do this because, on their planet—which is, to be clear, yours and my planet too, to a lesser or greater extent—these are completely rational and (crucially) moral things to do.

The problem is, that planet bears significant non-similarities to the one on which we happen to actually be living. The cognitive dissonance of that increasingly obvious disconnect is starting to get pretty serious; but as Latour has noted, no amount of recourse to capital-S Science and its supposed rationalities—which were originally sourced, long before the actual sciences got the names by which we know them, from none other nascent discipline than economics—can back us out of the alley into which they have already driven us.

So by all means, let’s highlight the distinction between manipulation and persuasion, between “behaviour modification” and treating people as sentient beings in webs of relationships, and all that other stuff—but let’s see that as the start of the process, not the end. Treating the symptoms will not cure the underlying malady.

And so the last word goes to Edward Abbey:

Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.

efficiency (slight return)

Decent piece here at the Atlantic on not just plastic, but the necessity of plastics—by which I mean less their necessity to us, “the consumer” (though they have indeed become profoundly necessary, due to their embeddedness in so many of our day-to-day practices), than to their manufacturers, as a way of getting rid of by-products from other processes, and of obeying a more fundamental imperative. Take it away, Rebecca Altman:

When [Union Carbide] started making plastics in the late 1920s, no market was itching to buy them. But the company, in a sense, had to make plastics.

Its new commercial antifreeze, Prestone, was synthesized from natural gas and created a by-product, ethylene dichloride, a chemical that had no practical purpose and so was stockpiled on-site. Quickly, it amassed in unmanageable, “embarrassing” quantities, as one Carbide newsletter later put it. Its best use, the company decided, was in making vinyl chloride monomer, recognized as a carcinogen since the ’70s, but back then a building block for a rascally class of plastics no one had commercialized yet—vinyls.

This isn’t an isolated example, but rather an illustration of how product development often unfolds for chemicals and plastics. For Carbide and other 20th-century petrochemical firms, each product required a series of multistep reactions, and each step yielded offshoots. Develop these, and the product lines further branch, eventually creating a practically fractal cascade of interrelated products. Everything that enters the system, explains Ken Geiser, an industrial-chemicals-policy scholar, in his book Materials Matter, must eventually go somewhere; matter being matter, it is neither created nor destroyed. And so it must be converted: made into fuel, discarded as pollution, or monetized. After many iterations, Carbide arrived at Vinylite, finally made workable by blending two types of vinyls: polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and polyvinyl acetate.

According to an internal marketing report, Carbide spent years trying to “synthesize” new customers and invent new uses for Vinylite, while a credit department eased the financial burden of adopting it. The company even sent technical teams around the country to teach manufacturers how to use the resin, all with limited success. Celluloid, before Bakelite, and polystyrene afterward, had similar troubles gaining purchase.

Then came ww2, with all the usual Schumpeterean creative-destructive opportunities for new materials and products, which let them get a toe-hold. Then came the post-war boom, and that production capacity had to do something with itself… which is why the literal evangelism of plastics (whether in particular forms or as a general category of materials) was so well established that it could be deployed as the famed career advice given to Dustin Hoffman’s character by the time they filmed The Graduate.

But there’s a kind of spiral logic involved in all these sorts of lock-ins, and it has to do as much with the economic conceptualisation of efficiency, which regular readers may recall has been bugging me for a while, and which is a major plank in a chapter I’m working on at the moment. Put very simply, economic efficiency is nothing to do with being frugal or sparing with resources, but rather maximising their throughput: a resource left unexploited is money left on the table (or, in the case of fossil fuels, left under the ground). Altman explains how this plays out in the must recent season of the plastics saga:

But the nature of petrochemicals issued its own economic imperative. Plastics had to be a high-volume product to recoup the substantial capital investments necessary to build and then operate such complex facilities, among the largest, most expensive, and most energy-intensive in the process and manufacturing sectors. Yet again, the same problem: more plastics that need more uses and more markets.

The U.S. “fracking boom,” or what’s been called the “shale revolution,” has fueled plastics’ most recent expansion. Fracking has made the U.S. the world’s largest producer of oil and gas, resulting in “a glut,” Kathy Hipple, a senior research fellow at the Ohio River Valley Institute, told me. This oversupply of feedstock drove another round of investments in plastics plants, which in turn, Hipple explained, has forced an excess of plastic packaging onto the market—more than demand can absorb. These plastics, now primarily polyethylenes and polypropylenes made from natural-gas liquids, have reduced polystyrene to a minor player in the packaging and disposables market—about 2 percent. Tongue in cheek, I’ve taken to calling plastics’ latest output “frackaging.”

But the economics of plastics is once again changing. As energy and transportation shift away from fossil fuels, plastics seem to many oil and gas producers like one of the few opportunities to keep growing, to keep going. Some new “mega-plants,” such as China’s Zhoushan Green Petrochemical Base, convert crude oil, rather than refinery by-products, directly into chemicals and plastics.

And this is (partly) how plastics would come to produce a greater share of the world’s carbon emissions. Should U.S. plastics production continue to grow as the industry projects, by 2030, it will eclipse the climate contributions of coal-fired power plants, concludes Jim Vallette, the lead author of a new Beyond Plastics report. Or, by another measure, the current growth trajectory means that by 2050, the industry’s emissions could eat up 15 percent, and potentially more, of the global carbon budget. How much varies by feedstock and type of plastic, but on average, 1.89 metric tons of carbon-dioxide equivalents (a composite measure of greenhouse gases) is produced for every metric ton of plastic made.

Now, the point often gets made—and fairly, too—that there’s a whole bunch of stuff for which we need to use plastic, as no other extant material can be used for the same applications. This is why exhortations to completely abolish all fossil fuel use, while well-intended, are misguided; perhaps we can develop alternatives to them further down the line, but for certain applications (particularly medical stuff, but not exclusively) we’re stuck with them for now.

(But hey, if you’re looking for the patent that will secure your finances for the rest of your life, design a solar panel whose deployment—electronics included–requires no plastics! Good luck!)

However, that’s a pretty small category of things; by winding back to essential plastics only and nixing fossil fuels as fuels, we could get by with using orders of magnitude less of the stuff. What Altman’s essay shows (as do various academic papers, for those who like the references and the details; this one’s a doozy, all the more so for being written from within the machine, so to speak) is that not only is there no imperative to stop extracting oil and gas and making plastics, but also there’s no incentive to not keep accelerating the process.

So, disincentives, then? Well, yeah, some sort of genuine cost-to-polluter non-tradable carbon tax will almost certainly be necessary. But there ain’t no financial instrument which cannot successfully be gamed eventually by the sort of folk who get a boner at the thought of Number Go Up. The disincentives that will make a difference will need to be way broader than taxes or laws, more on the level of acute moral hazards.

And that brings us into a troubling space, for any number of reasons—not least of which is the implication that, if you want to get rid of a fundamental plank of the ideological operating system on which the whole planet is currently operating because it is deeply dysfunctional and pervasive, you’re going to have to not just come up with its replacement, but also a plan to make the switch… unless you want to rely on the goad of undeniable ecological disaster, which is probably more feasible in terms of its actually having an effect, but also really not the sort of choice you want to make deliberately rather than have thrust upon you. Plus I’m going to hazard a guess that the chaos of a such a circumstance is going to be just as amenable to ideological frameworks even more stupid and nasty than the one we’re currently caught in.

So, yeah—if you were hoping for a ray of sunshine or a “solution” here, well, you’re reading the wrong blog, sorry. But it bears noting that however annoying you may find those people who pipe up and say “capitalism is the culprit” in any such discussion as this—and however much you may agree with Latour, as I do, that words like ‘capitalism’ are black boxes which must always be opened and unpacked and examined in detail, lest they become just another secular deity in the pantheon of we who have never been modern—those people are not wrong.

Where they go wrong is in assuming that ending it is something like turning off a switch somewhere… but that’s a rant for another day, assuming you’ve not heard some version of it already. There’s still ways out of this metaphorical boat, mind you, that don’t involve taking an axe to the keel. But solutions of any flavour—be they carbon taxes or carbon capture, blockchains or bloodless revolutions that manage to convince almost everyone of their rightness overnight—are not gonna cut it.

repeating falsehoods like incantations

From Timefulness by Marcia Bjornerud:

An irony of our technological advancement is that it has created a society that is in many ways scientifically more naive than the preindustrial world, in which no citizen who learned physics through backbreaking work and understood climate through subsistence agriculture would have assumed that he or she was exempt from the laws of nature. The “modern” kind of magical thinking is characterized by the belief that repeating falsehoods like incantations can transform them into scientific truth. It is also yoked to a quasi-mystical faith in the free market, which, according to the prophets, will somehow allow us to live beyond our means indefinitely.

p164

A very accessible and relevant introduction to geology in the context of the Anthropocene. Also calmly but firmly refutes pretty much every geoengineering “solution” in circulation, and offers short shrift to the methadone of (B)CCS.

half-arsed cynicism as gateway drug to solutionism, example #632

So close, but yet so far. Alan Jacobs on geoengineering:

The argument that the exploration and testing of geoengineering technologies should be stopped is not “a worthwhile argument.” It’s a dumb argument. We cannot afford to put all our eggs in the emissions-reduction basket, for the simple reason that there is no good reason to believe that the world’s governments will impose the necessary constraints.

So we can’t trust the world’s governments to come through on emissions reduction, but we can somehow trust them to “impose the necessary constraints” to prevent unilateral and poorly-thought-through geoengineering interventions adding new perturbations to a complex system the size of a planet which we’ve already made a mess of by meddling with it unthinkingly?

C’mon, man. If you’re going to be cynical, at least fucking commit to it.

“The We Time”: two papers on transition design

  • Hesselgren, M., Eriksson, E., Wangel, J., & Broms, L. (2018, June 28). Exploring Lost and Found in Future Images of EnergyTransitions: Towards a bridging practice of provoking and affirming design. Design Research Society Conference 2018. https://doi.org/10.21606/drs.2018.324
  • Wangel, J., Hesselgren, M., Eriksson, E., Broms, L., Kanulf, G., & Ljunggren, A. (2019). Vitiden: Transforming a policy-orienting scenario to a practice-oriented energy fiction. Futures, 112, 102440. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.futures.2019.102440

These two papers both deal with Vitiden, a speculative-design futures project whose final output (as a PDF) can be found here. This review, as is often the case on this blog, is more aimed at extracting useful and transferable conceptualisations and methodological frames than digging into the details of method, but if you’re at all interested in design research as applied to energy futures, or any futures-oriented work whatsoever, I recommend getting hold of both of them, along with the final document linked above.


Hesselgren et al. (2018). “Exploring Lost and Found in Future Images of EnergyTransitions: Towards a bridging practice of provoking and affirming design”

I’m going to start with Hesselgren et al., a conference paper whose full title uses the term “bridging practice”, which feels to me like a clear echo of Auger (2013; reviewed here) without Auger, so to speak; it may well be that the term is sufficiently canonical in design research that it can pass without the need for citing a source. But the real merit of this paper in light of my ongoing work is its concretisation of cognitive bridgework in the emergent (sub)discipline of transition design (TD hereafter), which is also defined and positioned herein.

(Note that the publicly accessible version of this paper has no page numbers, and that all page references here presume a count that starts from 1 on the title page thereof.)

Introduction

Here Hesselgren et al. address the gap between emissions reductions pledged and actions actually taken, and refer back to earlier studies re: resistance/avoidance of addressing even locally obvious instances of climatic change; this is interpreted as showing that “it is not lack of information that upended action […] but that people tend to shut down information that makes them uncomfortable. Through avoiding negative emotions and refraining from thinking about the future, climate change is actively (although not consciously) made into a ‘back-of-the-mind’ issue” (p2).

[Supplemental note-to-self: there is presumably a literature concerned with the dynamics and side-effects of such subconscious repression of the immediately and environmentally obvious, which would be worth looking into, particularly if there’s a CC-oriented thread thereof.]

The authors also cite various sources for claims that an excess of “alarmism” depersonalises climate change (CC hereafter) in such a way as to prevent engagement and action; fear of CC consequences is noted as a potential driver of pro-environmental action, but “many people suffer from a perceived lack of agency and alternatives”, such that fear leads instead to “feelings of helplessness, hopelessness and inaction” (p2).

While I have yet to finish and review it, it’s worth noting here that Garforth’s Green Utopias (2018) includes a strong swathe of citations counterarguing that climate dystopias (can) serve to breach the BAU-trap of “adaptation/mitigation” discourses, opening up imaginative space for radically alternative futures through the articulation of necessity. This is dystopia less as a goad, exactly, and more as the hazard whose envisioned presence encourages us to steer away from it—the Scylla across the strait from the Charybdis of technosolutionist ecomodernism, to use a metaphor I’m growing increasingly fond of.

Hesselgren et al. briefly try to thread that needle, marshalling citations whicha) favour of the “concretisation” of CC consequences made “more specific” and more spatio-temporally immediate, b) note the lack of “positive images of […] low-carbon futures”, and c) point out the parallelism of catastrophic dystopias on the one hand and, on the other hand, solutionist futures which are “devoid of loss”, which can also block or distract from efforts to instigate change (p2).

Thus this paper positions futures studies (FS) and TD as “empowering tools” for mitigation efforts, and seeks to “explore ways to identify and articulate what people see as lost and found in the transition to a low-carbon society […] ways to confront the lost, so this seems less threatening, and to mentally and emotionally invest in the found, to make the transition more appealing” (p2, authors’ emphases); in other words, something rather like the critical utopian modality in sf, navigating carefully (and contingently!) through the difficult strait of Messina invoked above.

Framing

The project is framed within the field of transition design, a transdiciplinary branch of design research aimed at “exploring and enabling transitions toward more sustainable futures”. Drawing on Irwin, Kossoff & Tonkinwise (2015), TD positions the designer as a “change agent”, and relies on four main planks of practice: 1) visions for transition, 2) theories of change, 3) posture and mindset, and 4) new ways of designing. Regarding 2) and 3), Hesselgren et al. note that TD advocates for a precautionary mindset/posture, but also a participatory one, and this is linked to both the Geelsean MLP-based transitions literature and the Shovean social-practice (SPT) perspective:

[TD] could be used to mediate between sociotechnical transition theories, with their top-down hierarchical approaches, and social practice theories with their bottom-up focus on everyday life and flat ontology.

p3

(SPT is noted as being particularly useful for TD due to the pre-existing orientation of design to libidinality; I parse this as a claim that the “use case” is always already a sort of speculative ethnography of the practice, albeit one with highly variable motivations and sophistication.)

Also in the frame is the practice of co-design, in which “bridging between pasts, presents and futures is often used” to spark creativity in participants; this, as mentioned before, feels rather like Auger (2013) without Auger, though that may be an artefact of my unfamiliarity with the broader (co-)design research literature. Hesselgren et al. further argue that co-design can help to “explore the connection between the tangible, present and local (such as dinner practices) with the more abstract, future and global (such as climate change impacts)” (p3), but also note the challenge inherent in this aim, and the lack of tools to assist participants in making these temporal and spatial “movements”.

(I note in passing that the medium of that connection, considered concretely, is infrastructure, though it is the conceptual connection and movement with which this paper is concerned; however, I suspect there may be a useful way to collapse that distinction.)

This leads us to a pair of paradigms or approaches to design, namely provocation and affirmation: the former is intended to destabilise/de-familiarise the routine and “taken for granted”, thus clearing the way for re-presentation and re-narration, while the latter “support[s] an exploration of the self [while] providing full preferential right of interpretation to the user” (p4).

Concretisation

I am by necessity skipping over a lot of the detail of the execution of the Vitiden project in this review, so going directly to the papers themselves is highly recommended: it’s a lovely, low-key and subtle work of energy futuring. My aim here is to extract concepts and methodological principles for use in projects with a similar intentionality, so I will simply note for now that Hesselgren et al. observe that the “source scenario” for the project—the ‘Legato’ quadrant from the Swedish Energy Agency’s Fyra Framtider report (2016)—provided descriptions of behavioural shifts, but that these “were quite detached from everyday life […] making it difficult for people who were not energy systems experts to engage in this future and understand how it would affect them” (p4-5); furthermore, some were “focussed on ‘production’ activities, such as how and where to go to work, and […] the rest mainly dealt with transport” (p5). Domestic practices were notable by their absence, and absence explained by the scenario’s mitigation targets being calculated primarily through efficiency measures in production and/or infrastructure (which is an inevitable consequence of the Geelsean perspective, IMHO); this necessitated the introduction of “eating and residing practices”, partly because it is plain that these would be affected by ‘upstream’ effiency measures, but also, crucially, because “previous experiences have shown that it is very difficult to engage people in discussions about everyday life while excluding large parts of it” (p5); this, then, is Haraway’s argument for situated knowledges against the (Geelsean) god-trick, borne out in the experience of design research.

In describing the workshop methods deployed, Hesselgren et al. discuss the use of pre-prepared props or “trigger materials”, which were intended to “[help] the participants to bridge the tangible-present-local to the abstract-future-global, and with particular emphasis on finding ways to balance the provocative with the affirmative” (p6); this is the clearest connection to Auger (2013) on the SD prototype, the notion of the “cognitive bridge”—and in particular, the strategies of adaptation, provocation and versimilitude.

Discussion

In the closing sections of the paper, Hesselgren et al. note that the balance between provocation (i.e. estrangement of the mundane) and affirmation (i.e. refusing to frame the mundane of the participants as “wrong”) is tested through the production of the trigger materials. One example is a self-administered carbon-footprint assessment, as “sensitizing device” that “create[d] space for reflection” and provocation, thus linking the necessity and possibility of change to lived practices (p11); they cautiously conclude that the materials produced to this end “managed to, if not bridge, at least allow for a coexistence of provocative and affirmative approaches” (p12).


Wangel et al. (2019). “Vitiden: Transforming a policy-orienting scenario to a practice-oriented energy fiction”

Now to Wangel et al., which also deals with the Vitiden project, but approaches it instead through the process of converting—or “translating”—a top-down corporate scenario into a practice based “energy fiction”. Both the concept and methodology of this “translation” are of interest and utility, and as with the paper discussed above, I’ll be sticking here to the parts which are most useful to that end; do check out the actual paper, it’s well worth the time.

After noting the visual rhetorics of the original report containing the “source scenario”—heavy on stock photography, and the inevitable crude signifiers of “the natural” juxtaposed with technological innovation tropes and intimations of abstract velocity, and invariably portraying humans as solitary, distanced and faceless—Wangel et al. describe their ambition to take the Director General’s preface at its word, and to develop the abstracted visions therein into something more concrete:

We decided to […] develop what we felt was missing—a re-presentation of the future that takes its starting point in the activities of everyday life, and that invites to reflections and debate also for those [sic] who are not used to (or interested in) reading and interpreting reports.

p3

Wangel et al. chose to describe these bottom-up futures as “practice-oriented scenarios (pos)” as a deliberate (and minor, in the Deleuzian sense of the term?) counterpoint to the design-oriented scenario (DOS), which is intended to support “innovations in and by design” (p3). Stated more broadly, then, the aim of the project, “to create more accessible re-presentations of energy scenarios, is accompanied by initiating an inquiry into the possibilities and limitations of shifting from the more general scenario perspective to a practice-oriented design fiction” (ibid).

Theoretical frame, sustainability/practices

As mentioned in Hesselgren et al. above, the Vitiden project was built upon the foundation of the Shovean strand of applied social practice theory, which “changes the focus from seeing (and treating) people as individual decision-makers, driven by a (bounded) rationality, to addressing them as skillful social negotiators” (p3); in the process, research methodologies need “to appreciate what people perceive as the (their) normal ways of doing things, and how these ‘normal’ and ordinary routines are maintained, evolve and/or change over time” (ibid).

Also mobilised here (by drawing on work by the excellent Lenneke Kuijer, among others is the notion of the proto-practice, the nascent forms of of what Shove has called “innovations-in-waiting”; these are suggested as prime sources for prototyping probes, as through their experimental realisation, “these future practices can be made present (in the dual sense of the word), and experienced, examined and rehearsed” (p3); they are also related here to Levitas’s notion of the interstitial utopia, such that Wangel et al. here define interstitial practices (which are proto-practices with a sustainability orientation, in this case) as “practices that are based in and contribute to the production of alternative economies and counter-narratives” (p4, emphasis in original).

Theoretical frame, futures/speculative design

Much familiar material here, drawing on the FS tradition of the future as open and thus imaginable, and “a critical social-constructivist perspective on what futures are seen as probable, possible and preferable” (p4); likewsie the Twentyteens thread of ‘alternative futures’ with a focus on social practice perspectives and the “re-presentation” of scenarios through the use of creative/artistic methods, which the authors see as a democratising trend, “increasing the availability of alternative futures across societal groups” (ibid). Of particular interest and influence here are the “speculative ethonography” approaches of speculative design and architecture, wherein the speculation is fundamentally (though not exclusively) material in orientation.

Method, results, conclusion

The process of re-presentation used for Vitiden is explored in rich specific detail in the methods section; while not pertinent to this review, it is strongly recommended to anyone engaging with this sort of work, whether directly or indirectly. The results section, meanwhile, presents a simplified overview of “the process of transforming a policy-orienting scenario to a practiced-oriented design speculation” as a three-stage schema of translation (p14) with the following steps:

  1. setting the scope of the transitions
  2. exploring practices and contexts
  3. re-presenting the future

This is unpacked as two parallel and interlinked translations: one focussed on the translation of content (i.e. from policy-orienting -> practice-oriented: the concretisation of god-trick abstractions), and the other focussed on form (i.e. policy/PR report -> design speculation: this might be thought of as a switching of narrative modality from the passive/corporate voice, which might be thought of as a sort of omniscient and disinterested third-person perspective, to first- or limited-third-person; also could be seen as analogous to the problematic but nonetheless useful distinction in practical narratology between “telling” and “showing”). This doubleness of the translation process is seen as crucial: doing the translation of content without also translating the form would forfeit the opportunity to reach wider audiences and thus provoke a more affective engagement with futurity (p14). The three stages are summarized neatly, along with some considerations and hazards to be kept in view throughout any attempt at implementation.


In the context of work done (and yet to be done) at LU, the paper by Hesselgren et al. is the next link in a methodological/conceptual chain from Auger, picking up the strategic concepts of provocation and affirmation and articulating them as a (sensitive and challenging) balancing act in execution, and orienting them toward the exploration of a pre-constructed (or pre-bounded) context or world in collaboration with (as opposed to for an audience of) publics. With reference to the Museum of Carbon Ruins (MCR hereafter), for example, it should be noted that the “future” it presents is much more weighted to the provocative, which explains some of the audience responses to the ‘standard’ version of the intervention; however, the version of MCR performed at the Anticipation conference in Oslo in 2019, with its Brechtian breachings of the temporal frame, flip-flopped between provocation and affirmation rather than attempting to hold them in balance, thus sustaining and troubling the cognitive bridgework of the performance as a whole. Whether this approach would have been viable with an audience that was not predominantly academic (and thus already more accepting of both CC complicity and the necessity for action, not to mention already familiar with the abstract practice of thinking about and re-narrating futures) is an open question, but one that can be cautiously answered in the negative; the Oslo performance was as much a meta-methodological demonstration as an intervention, and thus took the theatrical form to an extreme that might not be viable elsewhere. That said, as an edge case and proof-of-concept, it still stands as a useful case for thinking about the deployment of similar interventions aimed at a broader and less specialised audience.

Meanwhile, Wangel et al’s specification of the double-translation is particularly valuable, as it not only offers the possibility of wider engagement, but also frames that broadening as a necessity in practical terms: it’s not an advantageous extra step, but rather an extension of established techniques of futuring in such a way as to improve on them in substantive terms. The narratological equivalences applied above are my own, but—if you will excuse the shameless meta-movement of this claim—they act as a translation of the translation, enabling the movement of this double-articulation from design research into other futurity-oriented fields, e.g. sociotechnical and/or climate imaginaries, where thinking in terms of story is more established and flexible; the accessibility, relateability and immersive capacity of different media stand as affordances for futuring, and further research and experimentation will serve to identify their various strengths and weaknesses. Seen another way, the argument positions the corporate report as a particular medium with its own rhetorical affordances which, albeit unintentionally, exclude and alienate non-expert publics from engagement with the energy futures depicted therein; using the tools of design—or of literature, or cinema, or theatre, or comics, or music, or, or, or—not only opens up futurity itself, but also the possibility of participation in re-presentation thereof.