Dan Lockton

Design, Imagination, and Futures

Why is humanity finding it so hard to do anything about the climate crisis? Why is humanity finding it so hard to do anything about systemic racism? Why is society finding it so hard to take mental health seriously? Why are we in the messes we’re in?

‘Unregulated capitalism’ might be your answer—and there are many facets, from personal to cultural to global. But a meta-level issue seems to be that we’re ‘trapped’ in particular ways of imagining—how the present is, and how different futures could be. Our narratives, our understandings of ourselves and the systems we’re in, are limited by enormity or complexity or invisibility, or our inability to experience the world in the way that someone else does. When we think about change, we focus on individual behaviour rather than systemic issues and power structures. In an age of crises in climate, energy, health, politics, and social inequalities, imagination is more important than we perhaps realise. If we can’t imagine different futures, we’ll end up where we’re headed. We need other visions.

Terms such as the “crisis of imagination” (Ghosh, 2016) may sound vague, but as used in relation to (just) transitions—in the context of major challenges for humanity and the planet—they highlight the value that design research and practice can bring. Designers are adept at enabling people to share and externalise their thinking with others, at spurring and bringing out creativity, at giving voice to groups whose views and ideas are under-represented in dominant narratives, and, crucially, at turning ideas into forms that people can engage with—prototypes which can be experienced, used, lived with, and reflected upon. Designers can bring plural possible futures to life, in the present—not only imagining, but ‘rehearsing’ futures—through facilitating and designing tools for participatory (re-)imagining.

While my work—with amazing collaborators—on projects such as New Metaphors, another project called IMAGINE(!), and Playing with the Trouble, only scratches the surface of what’s needed, I’m fortunate to be able to work within a network of great people and projects expanding the diversity of futures we can imagine, including for example the Plurality University NetworkUntitled AllianceUrban Heat Island Living, and BrusselAVenir. These are the kinds of initiatives and projects which can help people, together, create and explore possible futures, imagine, and experience new ways to live, and understand ourselves and the world around us better.

Dan Lockton: Assistant Professor, Future Everyday, Department of Industrial Design, Eindhoven University of Technology in Eindhoven, NL, and Director of Imaginaries Lab in Amsterdam, NL.

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