Experiential Futures at the World Economic Forum

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On April 6th – 8th, the World Economic Forum (WEF) hosted its first ever Global Technology Governance Summit (GTGS), bringing thousands of leading technologists, academics, businesspeople, policymakers and political representatives together to discuss the sprawling array of fast-moving challenges in this space. Associate Professor Stuart Candy and his Experiential Futures class were virtually on hand to present work they did as part of a project where they created “artifacts of the future.”

“It's great to have a chance to bring design storytelling into the real world in this way, and perhaps even to help influence policymaking conversation with it,” said Candy. “Not only was this the Forum's first Global Technology Governance Summit, but I think this collaboration with a design/foresight class was also a first, which makes the project a sort of milestone for all of us, in the collective journey to normalize design-led futures methods in support of high stakes conversation.

“Taking so much of the university experience online during the COVID pandemic has been really challenging on many fronts, but sometimes it has had strange silver linings –– like the chance for a whole class to be involved in a global event hosted from Japan, and to feature their design work in a way that's accessible on the same footing, by people anywhere in the world.”

During GTGS, Experiential Futures students displayed their work in the form of websites and media that shed light and open up horizons of futures to explore. These projects were designed in response to the brand-new Technology Futures report published by the World Economic Forum and Deloitte. Students’ work delved into how the world could look decades from now and provide a glimpse of how some key issues in technology governance might play out.

“Across the board, the aim was to make future fragments that are simultaneously mind-expanding and feel real, that are narratively and emotionally compelling, and that reward time spent on them so the conversation can go deeper,” said Candy. 

But why does formulating these futures help with the issues we’re facing today?

“The litany of issues in technology governance we face today is partly a result of a lack of systematic anticipation in the past,” explained Candy. “No matter how important or well informed a stakeholder might be, decision-making is inherently limited by the horizons of our ability to imagine the possibilities and implications in play, and also by the diversity of perspectives available.

“Interventions of this kind provide a way to simultaneously deepen and diversify the futures thinking in the mix.”

The student projects showcased were:

  • Tech Tea – A podcast from the year 2050, hosted by an AI-wrangler and a dark web journalist, that focuses on the darker side of the metaverse. (By Alice Chen, Karen Escarcha, Amrita Khoshoo & Hannah Kim)
  • Influence 2035 - An event bringing together panelists, from full-time content creators to data providers and robot admins, to discuss the gig landscape. (By Jianzhe Gu, Sanika Sahasrabuddhe & Catherine Yochum)
  • After-Math - A global consultancy in 2040 committed to helping individuals, teams, and organizations regain independence from virtual influence and data-toxicity in order to rediscover the world around us. (By Adam Cowart & Russell Singer)
  • Wikipolicy – A 2032 Year-in-Review Report from the policy arm of Wikimedia that shows how thy manage accountability, transparency, and logics of care in algorithmic and participatory policymaking advancements. (By Rachel Arredondo, Kylon Chiang, Esther Kang & Jack McClain)
  • Outliers Data Talent - A hypothetical agency that builds on the story of Maple / information LEnS scenario, where job-seekers provide a vast array of personal data around the clock to interested companies in exchange for pay. (By M Kuznetsov, Alex Polzin & Maddy Sides)

“This podcast expands on a design fiction story embedded within the report about the future of education - a student Maiah who trains from the age of 9 to become a virtual doctor,” said Karen Escarcha (MPS ’21) about her team’s project, Tech Tea. “We gravitated towards this potential future because of the richness and complexity it offered in terms of questions around tech governance. The audio format of a podcast helped us give a window into Maiah's world in a low-resource, low-barrier format. A podcast is accessible and familiar for viewers, which allowed us to take more creative liberty when writing the story and background of the world such as creating fictional characters and advertisements.

“By creating artifacts and formulating stories about potential futures, we are able to provoke and prod about issues we face today,” added Escarcha. “We can begin to ask ourselves questions like is this what we really want or how can we make sure this does or doesn't happen? From there, the hope is that we start to take action and make decisions today that have implications for the types of futures we want.”

For PhD Researchers Adam Cowart and Russell Singer and their project After-Math, they looked to create a provocative scenario in which the personas from all 4 of the World Economic Forum's scenarios form a coaching/mentorship consultancy to help people disconnect from the virtual space.

“Formulating these futures can be helpful, especially on the technology front, because while we may argue about the user-friendliness of certain technologies, and the ethics and economic/social impacts of technologies, we rarely challenge the right of these technologies to exist, to proliferate, and to influence our lives,” said Cowart. “So these types of futures can pose the questions like: if we keep heading in this direction, these are the types of things that could happen. Are we cool with that? It’s also pretty important NOT to be overly dystopian in these projections.

“What are generative ways of engaging with the future?” 

“The value of these futures comes from their ability to shift the conversation around the issues we face today,” said Rachel Arredondo (HCII) when talking about Wikipolicy. “To pull someone out of their current understanding and empower them to envision how it could be different. The issues we face today are not hopeless or random but without intention we might miss the chance to create alternative outcomes of the future. When we fail to consider the alternatives, ultimately other people, especially those invested in the current system, will determine that future. “

As we look towards these possible futures, it’s apparent that the input and skill of designers are a vital part of working towards today’s as well as tomorrow’s solutions.

“Good design and skillful media making have a unique and powerful ability: to breathe life into a future hypothetical, so instead of a thought experiment, you make use of a high-resolution prototype or fragment of a future world to ask ‘what if’,” added Candy. “Raising questions about our possible pathways, by creating the feeling that you're actually encountering a future first-hand, can make for a mind expanding experience that's almost eerie. It can serve at the same time as a powerful catalyst for new insights and, eventually, perhaps, wiser decisions. 

“I also think it's important both practically and ethically, for designers themselves –– regardless of what kind of design they do or want to do –– to make a habit of engaging the longer term, and ask questions like: what worlds can I, and should I, help to bring about or avoid?”

More info about the Global Technology Governance Summit >>

More info about Experiential Futures >>

Date Published: 
Tuesday, April 20, 2021
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