Design for an unknown future

Le 08/06/2018 — TakeOff Conference, Lille

In July 1989 I was 8 years old. It was summer holidays and I was browsing through one of those kids’ science magazines. When you are 8 years old, the amount of universe you are aware of is limited to about 10km around you. Your house, your school, the places where your parents take you. Suddenly, this magazine was telling me that the world around me was potentially limitless. Unknown and gigantic. I spent a few days being overwhelmed by this discovery, which was daunting and fascinating at the same time.

My parents are baby-boomers. They lived their youth in the 60s. They experienced a world without unemployment, where everything was developing very fast, from vital infrastructures to individually packaged foods. Jobs were for life. Today, cars are everywhere and we designed cities around them. They are a social status and a symbol of freedom. Gas will never run out. Everything is growing exponentially. Concrete, supermarkets, buildings, stock option portfolios. Lights always on. Advertisements everywhere. We live in an era of hyperconsumption, hypercapitalism, hyperproductivity.

In some areas of the world, there is no unpackaged or unprocessed food. Often, there is no other option in stores. Going to the supermarket is normality. We live as if they were natural to our ecosystem. Natural yet vital.

It’s a world of numbers. No company is allowed to stop growing. The only way to success is a 2-digit profit growth.

In this world of exponential growth, I became a designer. The notion of abundance was natural to me and I unconsciously incorporated it into my practice, placing human beings and profit as the two obvious focal points. From day one, I bought into the idea that to exist, you had to contribute to this global growth. I started my career feeding into the limitless system, not questioning it. Designing the near future.

A future of automation, transportation and contextual information. A future where all our worries disappear behind a beautiful screen, embedded in a non-polluting vehicle which already knows where you’re going. A future without disease, with clean interfaces, travel and world peace, where you can have any food delivered to your current location and pay for everything cashless with your fingerprint. We are told that beautiful tech will save the world.

As designer and professor James Auger says, design has already been feeding a lot of the possible futures. Yet we have no idea if what we foresaw is still doable. Or good.

On February 7th, 2018 at Interaction 18, Anab Jain from Studio Superflux gave a talk called « More than human centered design ». Through her practice of speculative design, she invited us to widen our perspective to more than just ourselves. Anab told us the tale of jellyfish, which on an evolutionary level, would actually outlive us. Humanity right now is less resilient than jellyfish. Jellyfish don’t rely on a supply chain of trucks and planes to fill their fridges. They don’t rely on an electricity grid fed by power plants to survive through winter. Dammit! They don’t even need the internet!

Following Interaction 18, I met for a coffee with my former graphic design teacher. I told him about Anab’s talk and how it confirmed what I was already realizing in the background about our world and our future. He told me about this book. In 1968, a group of scientists, economists, political leaders and diplomats from around the globe met in Italy, joined by a common concern about the future of humanity. A few years later, they published "The Limits to Growth", a study of interactions between humans and earth. Their results were not filled with hope.

They created a model, gathering variables like population, food production, industralisation, pollution and available resources. They ran simulations, altering the parameters each time to see which would sustain the current activity strain.

All but one lead to the same scenario: if humanity continues on our path of insatiable progress, our society collapse in the midst of the 21st century, leading to severe depletion of resources and a massive population decline. The scenario that did not lead to collapse required that we drastically change the course of this progress, which, as you can imagine, did not happen. Thirty years later, they published an update to the book, showing their predictions were confirmed by today’s figures.

One of its authors, Professor Dennis Meadows, said in 1972 that the notion of "sustainable development" was already outdated and hopeless.

It will not be the first collapse in human history. The Roman empire, the Mayan civilisation, Mesopotamians, the Easter Islanders… They were all technically advanced and powerful societies.
Can a society like ours really collapse?

The reasons why an advanced society can collapse can be very different. For instance, studies have shown that the Easter Island inhabitants disappeared mainly because of deforestation, which triggered chain reactions making the island unfit for human life. Three scientists have laid out a model called HANDY (Human And Nature Dynamics) to further study these collapses. They found two common points to all of them:

  • Stratified societies with high disparities between rich and poor
  • Incapacity / unwillingness of elites to see the problem and act.

Here’s an extract from their report: "While some members of society might raise the alarm that the system is moving towards an impending collapse and therefore advocate structural changes to society in order to avoid it, Elites and their supporters, who opposed making these changes, could point to the long sustainable trajectory “so far” in support of doing nothing."
Rings a bell?

A wise thought came to me.

I might as well tell you that everything we talked about during the past two days is utterly useless. It’s over, people. No more smart fridges, no more pull requests, jellyfish are coming to get us.

Or better, some of us will survive.
The world will be made of an old, ignorant sociopath on top of a tower and billions of jellyfishes. Fantastic perspective, right?

We human beings are SO bad at seeing the elephant in the room.

While we are talking about miracles, let’s have a look at science.
We have lost track of energy, how we use it and what it does for us.

This is olympic track cyclist Robert Förstemann. His thighs are bigger than my waist. It takes him several minutes of high intensity cycling to toast a single piece of bread. Watch the video here. Now imagine how many guys like him you would need to boil a kettle once a day. He produced 0,021 kWh. This is equivalent to your computer being on for 20mn. Can you imagine a world where you have only a few hours of electricity a day?

The only reason we can sustain our current lifestyle is because Earth has gifted us with the most beautiful and powerful resource. Oil. Today, it powers 100% of airplanes, boats and trucks and 80% of cars. We use 1000 barrels of oil per second.

This is basic math, there is no controversy about this. It is the Hubbert curve. Any finite resource of any kind meets a point where its utilisation will diminish, until it is depleted. Same with a box of cookies. Same with oil on Earth.

Some optimistic people say we are a bit before the curve hits maximum.
The club of Rome and many other scientists and economists think we are here.

But you might ask: what about solar power, wind turbines and all? Nope. Look at the graph. Renewables are in PINK, here on top. Today, renewable energies are far from being able to replace fossil fuels. We have NO replacement for oil, coal or nuclear. None.

Our current comfort is the result of an unsustainable exploitation of a natural resource that is irreplaceable today. Meaning that…

But you knew that already :D

Another thing that has no substitute, ever. Metals. We’d better find a solution to software updates that make your phone outdated, because soon, Apple won’t be able to build new units. We are talking about 20 to 30 years from now. It’s not our kids, or our grandkids. IT IS US. It is us and our beautiful technology.

Mitigation of Shock is a fantastic and kinesthetic dive into the hostile world of 2050. Studio Superflux imagined a home where you grow your own crops indoors, farm your own edible insects and where your smart fridge keeps telling you you need milk, years after supplies ran out.

Oil doesn’t need to disappear to create problems. We live in a capitalist world. If oil corporations have more trouble extracting the oil, they will just sell it for a higher price. We are not far away from a world where a litre of petrol will cost several euros, or more.

Before tornadoes roam the earth, our current climate will simply become harsher. Intense rains, stronger winds, warmer heatwaves…

Pollution and climate can mess with culture enough so that most of the crops won’t grow. We would have to find new ways of feeding ourselves and to cultivate produce at home.

Alright. Pretty heavy things right? Here’s some fluff to allow you to breathe.
Follow Macha on Instagram, she’s the cutest cat ever.

To me, an externality is the result of a narrow and lazy design process. Mostly, we willingly ignore the consequences of our acts. Either because we don’t want to see what is going to happen, or because we have not been told. "Every morning, a garbage truck takes my trash away. There is no "away". Question these non-answers. What do you think we will do with all the waste caused by old solar panels? We don’t know. Passing it on to the next generation to figure out is bullshit.

As Alan Cooper outlined, externalities are those things that affect us or that we affect that are pushed out of our attention whether by force, neglect or influence. With all the numbers growing exponentially in tourism, telecommunications, transportation and GDP, we did not see the externalities we were creating. At the same time, ocean acidification is peaking, so is tropical forest loss or carbon dioxyde.

Which brings us to think about legacy. Our externalities create things that we will not be able to erase. This beautiful building can be found in the city of Lyon. It used to be one of the most innovative, yet criticised, urban hubs. It connects a train station, a bus station, parking space and a motorway in one central building. Although it literally splits the city center in two, the superstructure was built by removing huge amounts of groundwater. Its weight actually keeps it buried. If we were to remove the superstructure, the water would drown the area.

Luckily, this building doesn’t have a nuclear core. Some others do. Some people are currently working at developing a language that would be understandable even after several centuries or after multiple civilisational changes, so that we can label abandoned nuclear plants as "dangerous". And maybe apologise to them in a way…

Alan Cooper introduced the concept of being a good ancestor: we should think about the consequences of what we put into the world, and start to outline what could go wrong in the long term.

This graph shows the amount of CO2 we produced since the eighteen sixties. Note that carbone is quite a stable thing, so everything we have ever produced will take ages and ages to degrade. When I mean ages, I mean dozens of centuries to even start. So everything we produce is here to stay.

Scientists have a name for what is happening: "Anthropocene" : an era unknown to us, with parameters we’ve never seen before. Our activity has modified our environment so much that the amount of CO2 we produced during the last 2 centuries is enough to give us +2 degrees rise in global temperature. This might happen, and it might happen soon. In 80 years.

Phew. Some more fluff.

From the moment we code, draw, write, publish, 
upload anything that anybody can use, 
we are responsible for its existence.

We have the mission to question things.
When we built electric cars, the very principle of if was not even questioned. Why? In a paradigm with scarce energy, why would we keep a car so big, with so many wheels covered with rubber, if it’s such a big waste of energy? Only works with a petrol engine in a world where oil is infinite.

I suggest 4 big design enablers which can help us tackle the challenges of this future.

I see prosperity not as the act of gathering as much wealth as we can, but a state of happiness, where our needs are satisfied. Not exceeded.

Let’s define our needs and scale our profits down to those needs. We would save a lot of resources just by doing that and acknowledging where we had enough.

  • Design things that scale to a real, studied, quantified need. Define how and when the need is met.
  • Money is a happy side effect of good design. It should not be your driving purpose.
  • Measure success on human, natural and social impact, not figures nor numbers.
  • Create artifacts with little to no externalities.
  • Create and rely on decentralised systems only.
  • Treat any resource as finite and precious.
  • Aim for the longest use life.
  • Plan artifacts’ obsolescence, make it known to their users.
  • Create artifacts which respect their future owners and users, allow them to be respected too by being durable and repairable.
  • Create with restoring the dignity of all living beings in mind.
  • Create organisations which ensure equal power, equal voice, a decent living wage and good conditions to their contributors.
  • Create artifacts and systems whose waste and afterlife can be incorporated into a cycle. Plan those life cycles accordingly.
  • Create things that are interconnected, interoperable, reusable, understandable.
  • Design with respect of the natural ecosystem in which your artifact will exist.

Designers James Auger and Julian Hanna built this beautiful artifact. A lamp powered by gravity. You just need to look at it to understand how it works. The light bulb is actually the weight powering the lamp, it moves along with time, showing you how much energy you’ve consumed and how much is left. A perfect example of respectful, gridless, clever design.

In the seventies, a French couple decided to design their autonomous lifestyle. They set to use few energy, but enough energy. And they invite us to do the same and assess our real needs. They share their knowledge since more than 40 years now, and the wind turbine pictured here did its job for 20 years. More than a car can do. All designed and built by "normal" people. Here's the whole autonomous borough project website: http://heol2.org

"What is political action?", Patrick Baronnet asks us. "Is it the act of demonstrating in the streets, or of bypassing the "grid" and organizing individually
and interdependently? The grid obliterates many simple, affordable solutions which are under our control. — The grid is Facebook or Google.

How can we apply that to tech and our every day jobs. A few ideas and principles:

  • Rely on open systems rather than centralised silos,
  • Inform users openly, truthfully,
  • Open-source 
your code,
  • self-host your projects,
  • Mentor other devs...

Let’s wrap everything up. Here’s what we could do.

Things are not okay right now. Let’s just face it. The situation in which we are right now is fundamentally non reversible. But by pretending there’s no elephant in the room, we forbid ourselves to move on towards hands-on solutions. We cannot afford to wait for electoral mandates to take decisions. Let’s start designing like it was already tomorrow, not today.

Let's change the terminology we use: "sustainable development" is an oxymoron. Metrics of "success" should change too: short-term profit is not a sign of success, neither GDP being a good metric for a country’s wealth. Growth can’t be infinite. Our physical world has tangible limits, so should our growth. Inanimate objects deserve rights (Mountain Uluru in Australia has been given rights to prevent its destruction by aggressive tourism, despite the massive gains it was making.)

Show it’s possible. Try, build, test, proof. We are talking about something that can’t yet be experienced with our five senses. Like Anab Jain says, people need kinesthesic artifacts to acknowledge concepts.

We must acknowledge that we are on the top layers of the power system. We can’t ignore that. When society collapses, the first in line are the poorest. Let’s restore society by destroying social stratums. "Legislate around desired outcomes, not mechanisms" (Alan Cooper). Minorities are elites’ favorite scapegoats. But they are not our ennemies. The real ennemy is ourselves. And stubborn elites. Global warning is a symptom, not a cause. As Mike Monteiro says, let’s make poverty illegal. Let’s force elites to face their duties.

One of the symptoms of collapsing societies is hyperspecialisation: less and less people able to do random things. James Auger says: "We need to be participants to systems. If we lose the basic making skills, we are lost in front of a device". Reverse engineer stuff like vacuum cleaners and simple systems, for a start. Let’s share our knowledge and make it accessible to anyone in the world. Preserve the commons, fight for them so that they remain intact and open. Watch his talk "Reconstrained design" at MiXiT 2018.

We designers have an instrumental role to play in this, for we are able to consider systems in our practice.
But we need to federate everyone in order to solve bigger issues. Lawyers, economists, ethnologists, students, politics (the ones who actually want to do things), researchers, thinkers… Everyone should be welcome because everyone can contribute to fill the problem solving pool. If you need an answer, go ask the right person.

Change is not bad nor good. It is just change, and it is part of every cell that we are made of. We can’t change everything. The best we can do is work with whatever is left for us. We can only hope elites will collapse first because the system they rely on isn’t resilient and will beget their fall. It is time for us to create stronger subsystems and communities bonding on help and sharing.

There are thousands of thousands of possible futures. It is now up to us to decide how low we want to go, or to prevent the bar from lowering even more.

And despite everything, what if it still goes wrong? Learning about a future collapse is hard. And it’s easy to fall into fear or despair. Putting this talk together was hard on me. I spent a few weeks digging into a ton of quite depressing data. It was a real inner struggle to make sense of it.

But I still remain optimistic, for I am convinced that change means opportunity. The message I want to spread
Maybe the economic or energetic collapse of our society means that we will eventually listen to nature and
Maybe we will learn new vital skills, maybe we’ll create new communities, or connect differently with other
It might be time to clean our world of the useless and damaging things we have created, to come back to a wiser way of living, driven by different values than the ones of capitalism.

Today is an opportunity to think about where we come from and where we can go. — So tomorrow I want you to:

  • Hug your loved ones,
  • Consider the daily practice of your job,
  • Dismantle a hairdryer and share your findings on a wiki.

Very special thanks to

  • Anab Jain
  • Leyla Acaroglu
  • Mike Monteiro
  • Alan Cooper
  • James Auger
  • Alexandre Monnin
  • Thomas Jund
  • Thomas Di Luccio
  • Goulven Champenois
  • Rik Godwin

Homework / Reading List

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