Design and the Future

It’s difficult to know what the future holds. The future is by no means empty —it will be occupied by built environments, infrastructures and things that we have designed. It will bear the consequences of our histories, structures, policies and lifestyles, which we daily (re)produce by habit or with intent in design. The future is already loaded with our fantasies, aspirations and fears, by persuasively designed visions and cultural imaginaries. Designed things, lifestyles and imaginaries, or ‘stuff-image-skill’ (Scott, Bakker and Quist 2012), endure, proliferate and occupy the future. By (re)producing things, lifestyles, and imaginaries, design takes part in giving form to what will be in the future.

This is sometimes made explicit in design. The future, time, memory, and change were themes in acceptera, for example, the first manifesto of Swedish Modern design (Åhrén et al. [1931] 2008). Acceptera evoked, in text, image and proposed designs, a modern, or future, ‘A-Europe’, ‘The society we are building for’ and ‘B-Europe’, or ‘Sweden-then’, fragmented spatially, temporally and socially. Some values, customs, peoples, and cultures were portrayed as regressive and stuck across past centuries. It was a manifesto for a specific kind of development, in a predetermined direction, an arrow of time leading to a particular, singular, and common future. The politics of this designed future are also explicit in this example —acceptera was published by the Social Democratic party, and it has had powerful and lasting effects on the ideological and socio-material construction of the Swedish welfare state (Mattsson and Wallenstein 2010).

Design can be understood as a powerful practice that takes part in giving form to the future, or, as acceptera exemplifies, a possible or preferred future. Thus, the future, or futurity, in design may expose relevant issues for design research and design anthropology concerned with ‘the possible’.

Futurity is at stake in many design arguments and practices. Assumptions about the direction of time, progression and progress seem to underlie popular design rhetorics concerning ‘the new’, ‘transformation’, and ‘innovation’, for example. Directed action toward preferred futures may even be understood as fundamental to some conceptions of design—for example in the classic formulation by Herbert Simon: ‘Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones’ (1996: 130) thereby ‘addressing differences between the desired and the present’ (1996: 141). Particular ideas or ideals of the future are mobilized by socially- and politically-engaged designers (e.g. Ericson and Mazé 2011) or by ‘redirective designers’ addressing ‘defuturing’ phenomena such as climate change (Fry 2010).

Discussions of the future may raise questions such as what can be known about the future and how. In design research, such epistemological questioning can become preoccupied with the nature and scope of knowledge and recourse to more established ways of relating to such questions from the natural and social sciences. Indeed, if we reason, as above, that the future is not empty and, further, that we can know something about what has come before, then we can know something about what the future holds by studying the past and the present.

But futurity also raises other questions. We can query, for example, an ontology of time structured in the three categories of past, present and future. Indeed, this tripartite ontology can itself be queried as a historically- and culturally-specific assumption, and alternatives can be explored (e.g. Grosz 1999; Inayatullah 1990; Jameson 2005). Within a tripartite ontology, still further questions can be raised in terms of relations and differences between the temporal categories. Contemporary philosopher Elizabeth Grosz, for example, poses a potential of futurity that is given precisely by the ontological assumption that the future is different. It is, categorically, not the past nor the present. Exploring notions of ‘the possible’ in Henri Bergson’s philosophy, she queries the future as other than a ‘preformed version of the real’ (Grosz 2001: 12). From this perspective, futurity can be a conceptual modality through which it is possible to ask: How can things be different?

The future as different is a political as well as a philosophical question. Grosz also queries ‘the supervalence of the future’ (Grosz 1999: 7), or how the future can have agency and wield power over the present. It is this question that is central to the field of futures studies or research, originally developed in the context of policy planning, which can be understood as engaging the future to inform, understand and/or control the present (Wangel 2012). Futures researcher Sohail Inayatullah articulates: ‘every planning effort involves philosophical assumptions as to what is considered immutable and what is negotiable; the significant and the trivial. Thus, every effort to plan the future is submerged in an overarching politics of the real’ (1990: 116). The future exposes basic philosophical questions about our assumptions and worldviews. That things can be different also raises political questions about what can, or should, change and what difference that makes.

As design takes part in giving form to the future, to possible or preferred futures, we need more and critical ways of relating to issues of futurity. Asking How can things be different? raises philosophical and political questions. These are questions for design as we aspire and/or claim to ‘make a difference’ and go about ‘changing existing situations into preferred ones’ (Simon 1996), ‘making things better’ (to borrow the motto of Philips Design, Baxter 1996) or ‘Massive Change’ (as Bruce Mau proposes, Mau and Leonard 2004). But the future is not merely something that might be known and thus available for us to determine (or design), a destination that might merely be defined and reached with the right methods. Although the future is not empty, it is open, and this makes all the difference.

In contemporary philosophy, the concept of difference engenders a critical modality, in which relations between and among things may be questioned and alternatives constructed. Perhaps because it is difficult to know what the future holds, the future has a hold over us. As Grosz recounts, the unavailability of the future to knowledge is what propells us forward; in Hermann Minkowski’s philosophy, the future is a mysterious and majestic horizon ‘without which we could not continue to live’ (in Grosz 1999: 21). Inherently full of surprises, ‘newness’, unknowns and the ‘untimely’, the future is a fundamentally active force, it has agency. From this perspective the future does not only surrender to our sciences, control and occupations. To the extent that the future holds surprises, unknowables and, importantly, others or ‘future people’ will have the capacity to change us, to reframe our present and rewrite history, the future has a ‘decolonizing’ power.

For design, this requires us to rethink our own ‘will to power’ over the future. Our designed ‘stuff-image-skill’ gives form to the future in many ways – rather than inhibiting us from designing, the agency of the future means that things will always turn out differently from the way we intend them. That we cannot entirely know or control the future does not mean that our concept, critical and persuasive designs should proliferate any old ‘vision of the future’ or (unsustainable) behavior. It does not give us license to leave behind questions of norms, morals and politics. A danger, as sociologist Ruth Levitas suggests (2007), is that if our utopias (or future designs) are only the expression of our desires, we risk a perpetual present mode of living with alienation. We need to be even more selective and explicit about our positionality and how our (design) practices open or foreclose other(s) agency, the possibilities for others to ‘see and act’ in relation and otherwise.

Ramia Mazé


This is an excerpt of an article previously and originally published as Ramia Mazé. (2016) ‘Design and the Future: Temporal politics of ‘making a difference’ in R.C. Smith and T. Otto (eds), Design Anthropological Futures, 37-54. London: Bloomsbury Academic.


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