Future Imaginaries

Future Imaginaries is an ongoing series of events organised by the Innovation Insights Hub which brings together influential thinkers and doers to share perspectives on some of the key sites where visions for the future are contested and realised. 

Each discussion or workshop takes a specific site and scale from materials to interfaces, and from publics to policies, as well as exploring the expertise required to generate and explore futures. This page gives an overview of each event, the speakers and the discussions that unfolded, and also provides access to audio recordings.

Material Imaginaries


Panel Discussion | Speakers: Carole Collet, Central Saint Martins, UAL and Susanne Kuechler, UCL Chair: Lucy Kimbell, UAL
Held on 20 September 2016 at Central Saint Martins, UAL

For several decades designers have been engaging directly with scientists, technologists and companies involved in the production of new materials. Through their experimental material practices, creative practitioners as well as scientists and technologists are involved in shaping the imaginaries tied up with new materials.

In this dialogue Carole Collet gave an overview of how contemporary design connects with bioscience. Drawing on her background in sustainable textiles and her Design and Living Systems Lab, Carole showed how different designers are exploring the aesthetic and ethical dimensions of such work and the political and ownership issues that emerge from this. She argued that there are three approaches designers use when engaging with the living world – bio-mimicry, which is copying mechanisms found in the living world and producing a technological or material version, such as in Velcro; harnessing living systems with organisms as co-workers (such as working with bees or mushrooms); and hacking and re-programming living cells and substances through synthetic biology.

The second speaker, anthropologist Susanne Kuechler drew on fieldwork in Oceania to review the ‘social life’ of materials. One example is how cloth introduced in the colonial era to homogenise local cultures was re-purposed and adapted in relation to existing practices, resulting in a kind of material resistance to the colonial project. She then discussed the homogenising of the diverse range of materials in culture today and highlighted the social practices, local knowledge and expertise that co-emerge with materials.

Bringing together these two perspectives – sustainable textiles practice working with living systems and anthropology – opened up new ways of thinking about the intersections between the material and the social in the context of designing new matter. What kinds of social relations are brought about by particular materiality’s? Does synthetic biology take away the unpredictability of working with materials? How does working with living systems change production and consumption patterns and practices? Will new materials have the right to exist?

About the speakers

Carole Collet is Professor of Design for Sustainable Futures and Director of the Design & Living Systems Lab at Central saint Martins, University of the Arts, UK. Her research work explores the interface of biological sciences and design to challenge established paradigms and develop new sustainable materials and forms of production for the future. She recently curated ‘Alive, New Design Frontiers’ to question the emerging role of the designer when working with living materials and technologies such as synthetic biology. Through her design and curatorial work she has established a critical framework for designing with living systems as a new approach to sustainable design. Her design work has been featured in international exhibitions and she regularly contributes to conferences on the subject of textile futures, biodesign, biomimicry, synthetic biology, future manufacturing, sustainable design and climate change. 

Suzanne Kuechler is Head of Department and Professor in the Department of Anthropology at University College London. Her early research in social anthropology included fieldwork in New Ireland, Papua New Guinea. Current research is directed towards an ethnographic exploration of the nature and perception of materials, with special reference to networks of knowledge transmission active linking centres of innovation to the materials industry and sectors of design. Her fieldwork on patchwork quilts in the Cook Islands, Eastern Polynesia, examined the effect of the uptake of cloth on culture and society, honing in on the material, technical and cognitive processes involved in material translation. Recent research conducted as part of the European Project on Sustainable Development in a Diverse World examined the relation between material aesthetics and the emergence of transnational societies, bringing together data from Pacific Diaspora with comparative data collected in European cities. Recent books include The Social Life of Materials (Bloomsbury, 2015) co-edited with Adam Drazin. 

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Expertise Imaginaries

Panel Discussion | Speakers: Marc Ventresca, Said Business School, University of Oxford, and Glenn Robert, King’s College London Chair: Lucy Kimbell, UAL
Held on 22 September 2016 at Central Saint Martins, UAL

The emergence of Design Thinking promised a different way of posing and solving problems that starts with users and their worlds as they experience them, proceeds through iterative prototyping and involves people in co-designing solutions. Design Thinking has been adopted and adapted in a wide range of contexts including business, public service design, humanitarian challenges, social innovation and policy in which non-designers deploy these approaches and methods. Although there are important differences, Design Thinking shares with other kinds of emergent expertise such as Lean Entrepreneurship, Agile Software Development, hacker culture and art-based research, a commitment of learning by making and practical experimentation.

In this discussion speakers explored to what extent these practices challenge conventional ideas of expertise and knowledge and what is brought into view and excluded through their application in different organisational or knowledge contexts. Marc Ventresca highlighted the emerging need for expertise that can be used by organisations to explore futures that don’t yet exist. He noted a range of new forms including consultancies and ‘social labs’ helping organisations develop strategies, produce innovations or sustain change.

The second speaker Glenn Robert went on to discuss design thinking and co-production in healthcare services. Over more than a decade he and others have explored using ‘experience based co-design’ in a wide range of healthcare settings, helping form part of a ‘business case’ for quality improvement activity. In what ways do design approaches impact on organisational action, and what is required to make sense of this?  To what extent is innovation tied to the development of new kinds of expertise? How can such expertise be developed and harnessed when it is often emergent, open ended and distributed?

About the speakers

Marc Ventresca is an organizational and economic sociologist who works on innovation, infrastructure, and institutions at Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford. He is associate professor in strategy and innovation, Saïd Business School and governing body fellow at Wolfson College. His current research investigates institutional politics, innovation, and governance in knowledge-intensive industries, including work on inclusive markets in Bangladesh, ecosystem services markets in Amazon Peru, and the global growth of financial markets in support of high tech industries. His work is featured in TEDxOxbridge, Huffington Post, and other global knowledge sites. Marc is also Academic Lead for ‘Ideas to Impact’ initiative, a collaboration with the Oxford Sciences Division. He works with the Global Agenda Councils of the World Economic Forum. He is currently research lead for the EY Oxford collaboration on ‘Purpose-Led Transformation’. 

Glenn Robert is Chair in Healthcare Quality & Innovation at King’s College London. His current interests include drawing on the field of design and the design sciences and identifying and testing any frameworks and methods that might have value in addressing some of the organisational design and development challenges facing the NHS. A particular focus of recent work has been on developing and testing an ‘Experience-based Co-design’ approach to service improvement over the last decade.

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Policy Studio

Plasticine model spelling out how to synthesize
Policy Studio workshop. Photo: Lucy Kimbell

Workshop leaders: Lucy Kimbell, UAL; Jennifer Rubin and Saba Hinrichs, Kings College London; Noah Raford, Museum of the Future Foundation, UAE
Held on 23 September 2016 at Central Saint Martins, UAL

This ‘Policy Studio’ workshop brought together 26 designers, policy makers, managers and researchers to explore new approaches to policy making that involve the use of design and futures methods. During the workshop participants had an opportunity to learn about and discuss new developments at the intersection of design, futures and policy innovation with a particular focus on nutritional justice. First, participants heard from Noah Raford about how futures approaches are being used in the UAE Prime Minister’s Office, including examples of speculative products and services to address obesity. Then, participants heard from Jennifer Rubin and Saba Hinrichs, both of the King’s Policy Institute, about analysis and policy ideas addressing access to nutrition for children.

During the rest of this practical workshop, participants collaborated in small teams to make visual and material representations of the lack of access to good nutrition for children, and then generated and visualised potential policy solutions. The concepts that came out of this intense process highlighted the potential of these methods to reframe problems and to engage participants creatively, even if they had just met. For instance, the problematic allure of junk food wrapping was an inspiration for packaging vegetables and fruits to appeal to children; and the long hours pupils spend at school, seated and inactive, were reframed as an opportunity to design movement and activities into the curriculum. One participant, a lecturer in legal studies, marveled: ‘Playing with bits of paper, we made things physical and actually got really specific’. Discussion also included how such expertise can be developed inside government entities, and the political visions of collective futures that these ways of working are tied up with.

About the workshop leaders

Jennifer Rubin joined the Policy Institute at King's College London in 2015 as Director of Analysis and Professor of Public Policy. Her approach has been to bring world-leading research to bear on pressing policy and practice challenges and dilemmas. As Director of Analysis in the Institute, she advocates this approach as well as providing strategic direction to the Institute's academic research and policy analysis functions. Jennifer’s principal research areas include migration, integration and intolerance; communities, crime and justice policy. Before joining King’s Jennifer built and led the justice and home affairs research programme at RAND Europe for ten years.

Saba Hinrichs is a Senior Research Fellow at the King’s Policy Institute, King's College London, working primarily on health policy. Saba’s background is in Engineering and Health Policy and her interests are in advancing health research and delivery systems, and the need to engage with policymakers to bring evidence, ideas, and innovation into practice for this purpose. Her expertise is in the use of systems engineering principles for research, policy design, impact assessment, and complex evaluations of healthcare services. 

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Policy Imaginaries

Keynote Lecture and Respondent, Speaker: Noah Raford, Museum of the Future Foundation, UAE, Respondent: Carl Miller, Research Director, Centre for the Analysis of Social Media, Demos
Held on 23 September 2016 at Central Saint Martins, UAL

Policy making is increasingly tied up with the construction and mediation of publics using new kinds of device and data in which the future-making practices of design can play a role. Technological infrastructures including data science and distributed devices spread the practices of governance into every day life. Civil servants and politicians have opportunities to use open innovation and participatory governance methods to engage and become accountable to publics in new ways.

In this lecture, Noah Raford discussed what extent government can propose future visions for society and what the implications are of constructing policy imaginaries via digital platforms, speculative devices and videos and data science. He drew on his work within the Prime Minister’s Office of the UAE. This includes several activities including developing the Museum of Future Public Services, a temporary exhibit created as part of an annual government summit; networks connecting organisations involved in using blockchain; the ‘Drones for Good’ competition; and the Museum of the Future, now being built in Dubai. For Raford, ‘design trumps data’ and he proposed ‘Your job is prototyping a new bolder vision of the state … Let us reimagine the role of the state in society’.

Respondent Carl Miller from the think tank Demos then reflected on the UK context in which the UK government makes its services ‘digital by default’, aims to use evidence-based policy making and do more for less. He saw the potential for design approaches to provide further public engagement with the digital revolution in order to imagine a future for of all of society.

About the speakers

Noah Raford is COO of the Museum of the Future Foundation in the UAE Prime Minister’s office in which he has been working since 2011. He led the development of the Museum of Future Public Services, an annual exhibition which showcased speculative objects and experiences highlighting future visions of governance. Noah has a background in architecture and futures.

Carl Miller is the Research Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media (CASM) at Demos. He is interested in how social media is changing society and politics, and how it can be used to inform decisions. Carl writes on social media and politics for the Sunday Times, and is a Visiting Research Fellow at the Policy Institute, King’s College London.


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Interface Imaginaries

Keynote Lecture and Respondent
Speaker: James Ash, University of Newcastle, Respondent: Betti Marenko, Central Saint Martins, UAL
Held on 11 November 2016 at Central Saint Martins, UAL

The interface has emerged as a key site of cultural practice and research with the expansion of digital devices and networked media into everyday life. Often the responsibility of designers and software developers, the work of designing interfaces poses questions about what kinds of relations between people and technologies are possible or desirable? In the design of interfaces, what kinds of subjectivities are constructed?

In this lecture James Ash presented an account of interfaces that goes beyond a focus on media, design or representation but instead starts with an exploration of what happens in the mediation between bodies, technologies and practices. His research draws on the design of digital games as a particular kind of interface, in which games designers attempt to modulate players’ capacities via what Ash calls ‘interface envelopes’.

Ash proposed that an interface is a medium in itself; the interaction between a human being and a technical object which cannot be reduced to its constituents. To describe the specifics of what happens within interfaces, Ash developed the concept of 'envelope power' - a ‘distracted present’ which captures and holds players’ attention tied up with the workings of cognitive capitalism. Within a video game the player feels as though they have options for play which result from exterior forms of memory within the interface such that ‘space and time are become tightened and loosened’, resulting in new capacities to act. The use of 'tools' such as the game control are based on memories and associations with real world weapons which have an effect on how a user interacts with the interface and shape how a user senses difference and acts. With the development of augmented reality, this ‘perpetual now’ could become more common.

In her response to James Ash, Betti Marenko said Ash’s work helps us rethink the implications of human-technological relations. She suggested that video games are a testing ground for technologies which, when rolled out within other developments, will affect all of us. Interfaces are vehicles for technological agendas. Real elements of spontaneity in gaming are controlled, affecting how many 'envelopes' come up. What might be the implications when these capacities are exported to non-gaming contexts.

Audience questions opened up topics such as the addiction to virtual non-risk, pleasure-only experiences and whether skill development within gaming.

About the speakers

James Ash is a Senior Lecturer in Media and Cultural Studies at Newcastle University. His work investigates the cultures, economies and politics of digital interfaces. He is author of The Interface Envelope: Gaming, Technology, Power (Bloomsbury Press, 2015) and has published a range of articles on technology, interface design and games in journals including Theory, Culture and Society, Body and Society and Environment and Planning D: Society and Space.

Betti Marenko leads the Contextual Studies element on BA Product Design at Central Saint Martins. Her research is at the intersection of design, philosophy, human-machine interaction and digital materiality to inform a context-driven approach to design, always investigated as part of wider ecologies of practices, processes and behaviors. Betti is the co-editor of Deleuze and Design (Edinburgh University Press, 2015) and the author of essays on design theory, digital materiality, affect and animism.

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