Tag Archives: narrative prototyping

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.

It’s about data and smugness.

In practice, I don’t know that mainstream economists really care that much about the “ends” side of things. For instance, when they talk about “demand,” they aren’t talking about how many people actually want something or how badly they want it. For these guys, “demand” is the quantity of a commodity that people are willing and able to pay for, at a given market price. If ten thousand people in a wasteland are dying of thirst, and they have no money and no way of getting any money, what’s the “demand” for a sip of water in this particular market? It’s zero.

I’m talking about mainstream economics here. Since the so-called marginalist revolution at the end of the nineteenth century, the discipline has tended to ignore idle speculation about why we value this or that. There are exceptions, like hedonic shadow pricing, or research on entrepreneurship, or maybe some market design stuff. But mostly we’re just too weird and ornery. And besides, everybody’s different! Friedrich von Hayek is the big cheerleader for this perspective. And that shift was part of a bigger shift whereby mainstream economics became increasingly mathematical and “scientific.” The word “science” appears in Robbins’s definition, for instance. Much of the discipline, some would argue, also became increasingly less grounded in reality.

By contrast, science fiction — and other kinds of literature — is obviously extremely interested in getting inside people’s heads and hearts, and figuring out not only what people desire, but also why and how, and what it feels like. And how desires might change. And the deeper significance of those changes. When you write a novel, you’re not going to start off saying, “Okay, I am going to assume that my characters preferences will remain fixed.” So maybe that’s one reason the meeting between science fiction and economics can be quite fruitful. Science fiction has the same love for abstraction and modelmaking, and shares a certain sense of what “rigor” is … but it’s fundamentally about actual human experience in a way mainstream economics just isn’t.

The inestimable (and brilliant, and loquacious) Jo Lindsay Walton, interviewed on the intersection of economics and science fiction by Rick Liebling for The Adjacent Possible; a long read, but full of gems.

The above recapitulates, albeit in JLW’s own style, the argument I’ve been making for narrative prototyping in my own academic work: a model must be exposed to the social dimensions which it has necessarily externalised. Human behaviour is inherently unquantifiable — and indeed, the more we attempt to quantify it (and “manage” it on that basis), the more inhumane the results become.

What applies to economics applies equally to infrastructures; it’s wicked problems all the way down, and solutionism is a wicked problem in and of itself (as Keller Easterling also appears to be arguing). Until we understand the role of desire — in the DeleuzoGuattarean sense, but also to some extent in the weaponised-behavioural-psychology-AKA-marketing sense — in sociotechnical change, we will achieve nothing but an accelerating accretion of “solutions” which turn out to be new and intractable problems in their own right.

(See also Tainter on increasing complexity as a strategy for addressing problems arising from existing complexity; to paraphrase very broadly, it works, but it works ever less effectively every time, and only until it no longer works, at which point you’re wandering around the ruins of your civilisation wondering where it all went wrong.)

A putative reality that does not (yet) exist

The goal of the process is to put people in circumstances whereby they’re invited and enabled to think and feel into the potential and implications of a putative reality that does not (yet) exist. They do not have to buy it hook, line and sinker; the point is more commonly to invite them to test it out. So, creating those circumstances means alternating between the conceptualisation of your creation at several levels of abstraction: the logic of the scenario, and the accessibility and comprehensibility of the experience provided (part of which is furnished by the context of the encounter which you may not be able to fully control, but which you can certainly try to co-opt). Aspects of this process are captured well by a phrase of futurist Riel Miller which he uses to describe scenario production: ‘rigorous imagining’. The rigour that you need to bring to the imagining is increased when you’re trying to manifest it palpably in experience, rather than leaving it in the splendid abstractions of text or statistics, which are the most common modes of scenaric representation.

Stuart Candy on the goal of “experiential futures” work.

A new narrative for narratives

A few days back a colleague linked me to this editorial at Nature about the use of full narrative forms in critical/speculative foresight work, which they link back to the establishing work of Brian David Johnson, who was at Intel at the time but now splits his labour between Arizona State U, consulting, and a fellowship with “a visionary innovation company that’s focused on growth”.

That latter vector of Johnson’s current employment probably sums up most of the issues I had with soi disant “science fiction prototyping” (SFP): it was framed quite explicitly as a product/service visioning process, was virtually devoid of methodology (let alone rigour), and made absolutely nothing of the critical potential of science fiction’s narrative toolkit. As such, it really didn’t stand too apart from long-established design paradigms, except for perhaps being a bit more honest about the “making stuff up and seeing where you might profitably take the ideas” aspect. My frustration with this rather shallow engagement with the potential of the narrative tools specific to science fiction has informed much of my academic work right from the start, arguably beginning with my first solo paper (Raven, 2014).

The Nature editorial largely rotates around a more recent paper in Futures (Merrie et al, 2018) in which the authors have taken the SFP idea and

… applied it to a topical environmental concern: the fate of the world’s oceans. The project paints four scenarios for 2050–70, each of which builds on current trends in oceans governance and the fishing industry, as well as ongoing development of marine science and technology. More-uncertain outcomes — the possible collapse of ice sheets and the formation of deep-sea dead zones as a result of onshore pollution — play out differently for better and worse.

In other words, they’ve balanced out the speculative/imaginative aspect of science fiction with the critical/contraPanglossian side — and it was extremely gratifying to find another of my papers (Raven & Elahi 2015) cited in their literature review, because frankly it’s felt like I’ve been beating my head against a brick wall on this stuff, at least as far as the mainstream futures scene is concerned (which, like BDJ’s employers, maintains an uncritical worship of the suitcase word “innovation”, and is focussed on delivering growth — or at least the immediately plausible prospect thereof — to corporate clients).

The Nature editorial continues:

Narrative has an important role in the communication of science, but can it also help in the pursuit of research? Purists may baulk, but stories already feature heavily, from the promised potential of work pitched in grant applications to the case studies of impact that funders increasingly ask for when projects finish. Climate-change science has long relied on emissions scenarios that diverge according to how future societies might behave. These rely not on extrapolation of current trends, but on imagined differences in, for example, whether nations come to cooperate or opt to pursue their own agendas. And climate-change policies are being planned on the basis of stories of future technology — carbon capture and negative-emissions equipment included — that many argue are pure fiction and will never materialize.

It’s a huge relief to see that said in such a well-known and well-read scientific organ, and not just for the sake of self-aggrandizement: I’ve been pushing those ideas for five or six years, but many others have been pushing them for at least twice as long, and it feels like all that effort might finally be paying off.

Solutionism, it turns out, is not exclusive to Silicon Valley — though I suspect that the Valley’s financial and political clout are complicit in its mainstreaming throughout the global policy scene, as well as the science and engineering ends of the academy (which, in the UK at least, have slowly been drawn into the gravity well of bloated full-service consultancy-and-outsourcing parasites like Carillion and its ilk). But also complicit are the Panglossian flatteries of corporate foresight consulting practices: after all, if you don’t tell them what they want to hear, you probably don’t get invited back to next year’s “visioning retreat”. It’s investor storytime all the way down.

But the cracks in that metanarrative are starting to show… which is all the more reason to keep chiseling.