Close your eyes. What do you see when you imagine futures?
A home in outer space? Your family’s next generations? Another Big Bang?
When I pose this question to friends and colleagues, artists and designers, my goddaughter and my husband, the responses are both distinct and overlapping. They’re often informed by the news that week—global climate catastrophe is a frequent reply—but they’re also always a product of deeply individual hopes and fears. Some envision positive utopias where health and equity are more firmly embedded in our daily lives, while others (often as the age of the respondent climbs) speak of greater loneliness and alienation from each other and the ecosystems around us, and technology as a threat rather than a boon.
Over a few years of researching the intersections of contemporary design and different futures I have asked this question more times than I can recall. Several things have become clearer to me through the ensuing conversations. The first is that it’s never ‘the’ future—futures are as multiple, contingent and socially located as the humans and other living beings that can imagine them. The second is that when we talk about futures, we are actually talking about our presents—whether imagined or concrete, futures are foils to discuss and reshape our current lived experiences. And third is that while this question and many of the responses to it have transhistorical resonances, having been repeatedly asked and answered again and again over the ages, there are also historically specific aspects to this freighted call and response. While humans have always wondered what comes next in terms of food, families, and the social, political, economic, and technological systems around them, the objects and frameworks that shape the material worlds in which we find ourselves—that shape what happens now and what will happen tomorrow, next year, in millennia to come—have very specific characteristics that are dependent on time and place.
It is these designs—where design is understood expansively to mean anything from products to the built environment to our clothing to speculative research questions—that interest me as a curator and historian of visual culture. They are also the subject of a collaborative book and exhibition about to open at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Designs for Different Futures.
The questions that open this short essay are also the first thing that will greet visitors at the exhibition’s entrance. The project is predicated on the idea that throughout human histories, it has been part of the human condition to envision possible futures for ourselves and others. For designers and architects, doing so is part of their daily jobs, driving them—and in turn the rest of us—to grapple with issues large and small. Though we expect their work to offer solutions, in truth it can raise as many questions as answers.
The projects included in Designs for Different Futures range from the practical to the hypothetical. Thinking about topics like lab-grown meats, new possibilities for birth and breastfeeding (the first time I have personally encountered such fundamentally important designs in a mainstream exhibition), robotic companions, speculative cities, and fictional extraterrestrial pictorial language helps us contend with what is happening right now, revealing some of the opportunities and imbalances faced by humans today, and involving us by providing tools to pursue what may come next—incrementally, iteratively, joyfully, apocalyptically, or with a blind leap toward the unimaginable.
There will be just over ninety different works on display. Detailing just three here describes some of the complex topics and questions about our interpersonal, environmental, and material futures that the designers and artists in this show—and we, too, in many cases—grapple with.
Designed by Stephan Bogner, Philipp Schmitt, and Jonas Voigt, Raising Robotic Natives is a provocation rather than a viable product, and consists of four speculative proposals for parents and carers: an industrial robotic arm equipped with a baby bottle; a child-friendly dragon costume to cover the robotic arm and transform it into a playmate; a children’s book titled My First Robot; and a kill switch to deactivate the robot in case of emergency or caregiver choice. With tongue in cheek, the designers propose that robotic feeding would save parents fifteen to thirty minutes per bottle, but their work begs larger questions: are we prepared to let machines take over intimate tasks like these? And who does this labour of care-taking for the next generation right now—how many of them are unpaid, just like the robotic arm?
Filled with water and air, the key components of life on Earth, the inflatable spheres of Another Generosity by Finnish company Lunden Architecture react directly to small changes in their immediate environment. Sensors discern fluctuations in carbon dioxide emitted by people breathing, which causes the pods to sigh (something we had to work hard to get just right in the Museum’s highly monitored galleries). The colour of the light glowing within the cells changes with the surrounding temperature (another difficult task in a climate-controlled museum) manifesting at intimate scale the effect humans have on the greater planetary atmosphere. As many scientists connect escalating natural disasters to our disregard for the fragility and finiteness of the natural world, Another Generosity provokes questions and curiosity, rather than focusing on product-oriented or solution-based responses to sustainability within design (perhaps because no such thing truly exists).
In Perspire, an otherworldly pair of purple ballet pointe shoes, young British designer Alice Potts experiments with bodily fluids, combining them with natural vegetable and plant dyes in apparel and footwear. Here, the sweat from a dancer’s exertions has manifested in crystals on the surface of ballet slippers, pigmented with dye made from red cabbage. The results are closer to poetic prophecy than they are immediately practicable, but they underscore the power of speculative design to inspire collaboration between groups with specialised knowledge. Part of a larger series titled Perspire, the slippers point toward alternative futures in which our accessories are highly personalised through both aesthetic choices and the bio-signature of their materials. Theoretically, the shoes also have practical healthcare applications, given that sweat can flag hydration levels and the presence or absence of key nutrients in the body.
Within the heart of the exhibition, and as part of an eighteen-month preparation between the curatorial team and the Education Department at the PMA, the gallery space has been designated for the Futures Therapy Lab where visitors can work though their questions and critiques of the objects, themes, and designers in the exhibition in the company of trained facilitators. Built into the Lab is a generous library of almost 100 books. We asked designers represented in the exhibition, museum staff and visitors, Philadelphia community members, and people from across disciplines to name the one book that made them—and will make other visitors to the exhibition—think most about different possible futures. From classic works of science fiction, to collections of poems, nonfiction works, artist’s books, and titles that perhaps few others will have read, the Library offers multiple perspectives on designing pasts, presents, and futures.
Designed from different vantage points, our visions of tomorrow are as myriad as the number of living beings that walk the planet. There’s no single future waiting to unfold. Rather, myriad possible futures coexist and offer competing visions of what might be. Some of them will come to fruition, while others remain dreams or threats. The exhibition is not a comprehensive reflection of the futures that might await us because no such thing exists. But rather, it opens age-old questions to anyone who engages with it. Designs for Different Futures asks us to consider not only what we all see when we imagine different futures but, we hope, helps people understand futures as constructions that stem from our own historical moments, our own hearts and minds. Knowing this is the case, the far more important question becomes: who designs these futures for and with us, and what are our own roles in re-imagining them in the present?