rough guidance: some reflections on the making of travel guides to places that don’t (yet) exist

Somehow I haven’t really talked much about the Rough Planet Guide to Notterdam here at VCTB; I think that’s partly due to an anxiety about “crossing the streams”, getting my day-job stuff tangled up in what is very much a scratch-pad-pub-booth-talking-to-myself sort of website these days, but also to some extent the same anxiety that keeps me from talking in too much detail about, say, a fiction project: sometimes the act of telling people about what you’re intending to do drains the impetus to actually, y’know, do it.

(But then again, sometimes talking about what you intend to do can light a fire under your easily-distracted arse, so, I dunno.)

But the Guide has been out for a while, we did the formal launch event earlier this month, hardcopies are starting to appear in various people’s mailboxes across the world, and promotional bits and bobs are starting to appear as well, so I guess it’s long past time to dis-embargo myself.

As the title presumably suggests, the Rough Planet Guide to Notterdam is a tourist guide to an imaginary future city which has a fair bit in common with an actual city whose identity you might well be able to infer. There’s a pretty decent summary of what we did and why we did it, with a non-academic bent, over at the Rapid Transition Network blog; the Guide itself (which can be downloaded gratis from here in PDF form) contains a more detailed and theoretical explication of the methodology, for them as wants such as thing.

As the thing starts to recede into the realms of personal history, I’ll presumably talk about it a lot more—particularly as the core idea of the travel guide format as a vehicle for climate futures will be carrying through into my Marie Curie postdoc project (which technically started a month ago but, hahaha, academia). However, a lot of that talk may end up on the project website that I need to get set up fairly soon; documenting the thing as process as well as “deliverable” is something I feel I want to do for my own sake, but also because I think this stuff needs to be reflexive when you’re trying to do it the way I’m intending to do it. But for now, I think I need to start that process here—and besides, it’s a great way to procrastinate from working on the paper I’m supposed to be drafting today!

So, yeah: there are two big differences between the Notterdam Guide and the (tentatively-titled) Rough Planet Guide to (Zero-Carbon) Skåne, and the first difference is that while the former is set in an imaginary location, the latter is tied to actual geographies (and histories). In a sense, then, and somewhat contrary to my claims, the Notterdam guide is something of a classic utopia: it is a no-place. The unreality of Notterdam was a two-fold convenience, in that it gave us a template for a European city big enough to contain all the sorts of change we wanted to look at, while it also gave us a chance to hand-wave away details that we didn’t have time to deal with while staying within the scope of the work-package that the Guide was meant to fulfill. The REINVENT project somewhat predetermined the sorts of change we were looking at: the theme was decarbonisation, but tied to particular industries (steel, plastics, meat’n’dairy, pulp’n’paper), and while we went beyond those sectors (because to make an imaginary city hang together, particularly from the POV of a would-be tourist, you need some infrastructure going on), showing the consequences of successful decarbonisation in those industries was the brief.

Well, actually, it wasn’t the brief at all, as I obliquely suggest in the methodology: the brief was a “handbook of best practice for innovation”, which was something of an oxymoron even before the project research clarified the obvious, namely that trying to be programmatic about innovation is the sort of absurdity that only people who’ve been huffing the B-school nitrous for a long, long time could ever come up with. It took a lot of drafts for me to find a polite way of putting that! But we’re very pleased to have twisted the thing around to a focus on practices in something closer to the social-practice-theory sense of things, and to have produced a document that has almost certainly already been read by more people than would ever have so much as downloaded the originally-proposed “handbook”.

And that broadening of the audience for transitions research outputs was very much the point of the operation, or at least one point. Again, as I argue in the methodology (and the article linked above, and in a seminar I’ll be doing, virtually, for the University of Liverpool’s climate science school next month—watch this space, that one may be public-access), decarbonisation should be everyone’s concern, but it’s (somewhat by necessity) an elite/expert discourse; shifting the focus from the “how?” of decarb to the “what if we?” makes for a perspective where the issues take on an immediacy and relevance that is all to often absent from the abstractions of climate policy (“two degrees of warming”, reduced emissions”, etc etc.). Producing something that is both legible to non-experts and (we hope) attractive and engaging enough that they’ll actually read it… well, we’re pretty sure that there’s little (if any) climate and/or transitions research-comms work that has done that, at least not to this extent.

This leads us to the second big difference between the Notterdam guide and the Skåne guide: the Notterdam guide is almost entirely produced by experts for a non-expert audience, while the Skåne guide (at least as proposed in my funding bids) will be co-produced with communities (of both location and practice). This approach has some connection to action research, and in particular to the experiences of a good friend in one of her early projects, but it also has a lot to do with the influence on me of social-practice placemaking, and socially-engaged arts more generally; I spent a lot of time with someone whose thinking in this space really changed the way I thought about the matter of publics and expertise, and I want to stay true to that, and to an idea that is perhaps best summed up by the statement that “people are experts in their own lives”. To put it another way: a great deal of climate futurism involves clever experts like yours truly telling people how the future will be, and how they should deal with that; the Skåne guide, by contrast, will start by telling people how we think their context will look at a particular moment in the future, and then asking them how they think they might live in that situation.

This will be challenging in all sorts of ways—not least among them the way in which it will essentially involve me learning on the fly how to do a sort of arts-and-design-based ethnography-of-the-future with communities in whose dominant language I can barely order a meal and a beer without writing myself a script ahead of time. Another challenge is that we are going to get a bunch of answers that we probably don’t want to get: answers that don’t seem relevant, or that don’t represent what we think of as the “right” response to the reconfiguration of sociotechnical practices. That this prospect worries people is already implicit in discussions I’ve had about the project as it starts to begin; hell, it worries me, too.

But that’s exactly why it needs doing. We’ve spent too long giving people the futures we think they should want; it’s long past time we ask them what they actually want. Because unless we can present people with a post-transition future they can actually see themselves in, however well-intentioned we may be about it, we’ll just end up imposing the next technological utopia in a long chain thereof.

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