Futurecrafting in Cornwall with FoAM Earth

The future is in short supply at the moment, particularly in a country with so many things changing – it is a constant surprise that there are so few ideas about where we could be headed. At the smaller scales too, at FoAM Kernow, in common with many organisations there is a feeling we tend to be so fixated on the current problems (do we need to invoice for that project, have we replied to this important email, have we reached an agreement on the next steps for this other project), that we miss the long view. Why are we doing this? What are we doing it for? Do we know if this is the right approach? These seem difficult to answer when stuck in short term thinking.

One of the central parts of FoAM’s research for some time has been future preparedness. Through a series of projects Maja and Nik have been building up a collection of methods that allow an individual or organisation to picture itself in a future under a range of conditions called scenarios. Scenarios are designed to be extremes, or caricatures of the possible – if you can describe them well enough, you can envisage how you or your organisation would adapt to them. The goal is to reach a point where change is something that can be reasoned about in advance, rather than reacted to as it happens.

Our initial question was (as FoAM Kernow): “What do we want to be doing? ” broken down a bit more specifically into these points:

  1. What would be choose to do?
  2. What makes a FoAM Kernow project?
  3. What are our selection criteria & success criteria?
  4. How to say no?
  5. How to back out of projects where contributions are less relevant?
  6. What is our role as collaborators?
  7. What is the nature of our collaborations?

After this we went through a series of exercises to build up a comprehensive list of things both internal and external that could cause changes to our organisation. These were quite diverse, but we seemed to focus on external things a bit more than internal ones e.g.: inaccessibility of lab equipment, the rise in nostalgia as a form of solutionism, and that more people are active in politics than there used to be.

The aim is to figure out two significant ‘critical uncertainties’ (interestingly, these are not necessarily the most essential ones, but the most uncertain) which we can use to build our scenarios from. We ended up with these:

The way are living is DOOMED! ⟷ The status quo is FINE!Continuous learning & exploring the new ⟷ doing what you know. same old.

The first uncertainty defines the amount to which our society has the capacity to deal with the many big problems currently facing it. The second one we took to have meaning both internally and externally – society being more or less progressive and open to new ideas, as well as the requirement that we would need to learn new things, or whether our existing skill set is sufficient.

The next thing we did was to draw them as two axes and split them into four scenarios which represent the extremes of these uncertainties. We were then able to describe the world and our place in it by focusing on each one in turn, importantly giving them names which really helped give them character. This part was really fun, as they really are caricatures, and resulted in quite a lot of laughter – even (or especially) when describing what might be quite uncomfortable futures.

Poundland [the way we live is fine, we only do what we know]

This is a world where everything works out fine without any new knowledge needed. It’s hopeful in that we dodge some bullets, but a lot of top down control needs to be exerted for this world to operate, so it’s restrictive in a conservative, traditional way.

“Stasis reigns in Poundland. While class inequality is as bad as it always was, there isn’t much questioning authority. Most people defer decisions to the powers that be. The ruling class is conservative, praising traditional values. Critical education has made way for edutainment and propaganda. Hard Brexit happens seamlessly, the borders are locked down, society surveilled. There are a lot less people in Poundland than there were in the UK. Climate change is not as bad as people thought in the 2010s. A new ice age has arrived and we’re coping. With appropriate urgency, solutions can be found to maintain reasonably comfortable lifestyles.

On the surface, FoAM is doing everything right, yet has not much visible power. We receive government funding to start a new university for applied sciences and technologies, focusing on mitigating effects of the Ice Age. Beneath this benign face, we are guerrilla teachers. Using workshops and other forms of adult education, we prepare our students to think for themselves. With the university as a front, we are hiding in plain sight.”

To a certain extent this seems to be a world that is close to the vision of groups like those behind Vote Leave – a future where the UK is a “Singapore on the shores of Europe”, deregulated to the point where we can kickstart our economy and closeted workforce into higher productivity. It’s a bit like the future described in this book (reading of which was a bit of a follow up for this scenario):

Britannia Unchained: Global Lessons for Growth and Prosperity is a political book written by several British Conservative Party MPs.
Britannia Unchained: Global Lessons for Growth and Prosperity is a political book written by several British Conservative Party MPs.

The problems in society identified in this book seem pretty good – but the unshakable belief in the free market pushes issues like human rights, health, quality of life and the environment into irrelevancies with only passing mentions – the assumption (as in this scenario) that these things will ‘somehow just be fixed’, so prosperity can continue.

Silicon Wharf [the way we live is fine, with a thirst for knowledge]

Silicon Wharf is a progressive, shiny future where everything is solvable by big investment in new knowledge. It’s a world of expensive institutional buildings with odd angled walls, carpet tiles and people wearing lanyards, it’s a very EU future vision – and seems mildly nostalgic and quaint, perhaps because it is a world reliant on abundance of many things.

“The Silicon Wharf is ruled by technocrats (both in government and corporate sector), with rationality and logic as the dominant virtues. It is a node in a globalised network of excellence, where the “best minds” work on technological solutions to climate change. There is a lot of funding for (blue sky) research, as long as the results are presented as innovative products and services that can be scaled up to produce social and/or environmental impact (e.g. carbon sequestration into diamonds for the luxury market). There are mega infrastructure projects under way, championed by China. Brexit has been cancelled and Cornwall has become a key player in the Europe of Regions. The world is increasingly open and there is much cross- border exchange (of knowledge, people, stuff).

The FoAM network has expanded to hundreds of studios and has formed its own NoE (Network of Excellence). The network works on long-term technology research and development and disruptive education. We focus on technologies that are relevant, accessible, tangible and open source. The knowledge we gain through R&D we pass on to anyone who is interested, in workshops and other p2p educational formats. We teach people to make things that can solve their immediate issues, and teach them to teach each other. We get to engage in interesting translation and dissemination activities, which take us out to different contexts, regions and cultures. We’re therefore continuously learning and expanding our horizons.”

Life in this world seems quite easy but somehow dangerous too – just imagine the amount of administration we’d be doing, there are lots of spreadsheets here! The general openness to new learning would make this an exciting place though, with lots of travel possible, due to new innovation excellence in transportation technology.

IRK (Independent Republic of Kernow) [the way we live is doomed, with a thirst for knowledge]

This is in some ways a collapse scenario, nothing has worked out but there is still a thirst for new ways – and because acceptance that the old ways are broken are unavoidable, there are opportunities to attempt much bigger alterations and experiments.

“The Independent Republic of Kernow is a good place to live in highly uncertain times. Urban centres have become danger zones of poverty, disease and violence, so the predominantly rural IRK receives many urban emigrants and refugees. While there is a low life-expectancy in IRK, life is filled with buzzing experimentation and excitement. People dare to take risks, knowing that their survival depends on learning from failure. There are different political and economic experiments (including UBI, a new tithe system, etc.). As the NHS collapsed, new forms of Medical Citizen Science are on the rise. A plethora of infrastructure projects appear and disappear. Hybrid land-sea infrastructure is the most experimented with, as IRK has become a seasonal island. New Dawn traders deploy their sail ships to bring in goods from further afield, but most of the produce is locally sourced (short-chain economies, including initiatives like New Lina, End of The World Garden…). There isn’t much leisure or time to rest, so burnout has become a plague. Some burnt-out people created Circles of Stability, where they tell each other fables of bygone stable lifestyles. While these circles often promote hopeless nostalgia, most of the world has moved to new myths: biomimetic stories of humans becoming social-insects.

FoAM has moved into the Eden Project. We are issuing our own currency (FoAMcoin) and are part of several trade networks (incl. the well established Feral Business Network). The main dome is a productive garden where we grow food and medicine for our collaborators and wider network (in collaboration with other horticulturalists and farmers in the area). What we can’t use ourselves, we barter for other goods. One of the domes is converted into the warehouse for New Dawn traders, another is devoted to agritech experiments and another is focusing on our communication infrastructure projects, such as waterproof mesh networks. We’re trading produce, but primarily we exchange skills. We aim to cultivate a skill-ecosystem that includes a wide range of people with diverse knowledge, talents and skills. We travel more, using slow modes of transport. Some of us stay in Eden, while others opt for journeyer lifestyles with no fixed studio and no desk (work). FoAM thrives in this trans-local republic, and even though we know we might die soon, we’ll die happy and fulfilled.”

So, appropriately IRK is the opposite of Poundland, life has the potential to be good but generally short – whereas in Poundland stability was rigidly enforced and life seemed hard. When we were discussing this scenario there was a lot of laughter and general surprise that this would be the best one in a lot of ways, even though everything is doomed.

Swamp.ac.uk [the way we live is doomed, we only do what we know]

The last scenario is, by all rights the worst one possible – there is no desire or drive for learning new things, so everything is irretrievably broken. However, one of the significant things that happens when futurecrafting is finding that what you thought were the worst case scenarios have features of them that are still interesting and desirable. This is the scenario of escapism, VR and games – it also has the best parties. As scenarios are extremes, they are not going to happen – but they do give indications of situations that we might recognise in future so we can connect with these desirable outcomes, even if they are a result of an overall situation we might not wish for.

“The way humans live is doomed, and we have accepted it. It’s too late to change anything anyway. We’re living in a Trump-inspired world, in what is left of the UK. There is no funding for research, no electric car subsidies, but regional funding and (corrupt) local philanthropy is growing. It’s all about who you know. Universities are small, focusing on keeping the local population occupied (some dedicated to spreading ‘the word’ of the regional philanthropic magnates). Brexit is still in (perpetual) negotiation, leading to additional economic, social and political paralysis and fragmentation. A sense of powerlessness and inequality permeates everything, leading to a simmering, low level civil war. In their despair people turn to escapism and nostalgia. VR games and end of the world parties are plentiful, with people crowding together ‘to go out with a bang’.

FoAM has realised that the only way to survive in this world is to build a stable institution ourselves, to become one of the power players (in loose alignment with local rulers). We abandoned our individual passions; instead, all our energy goes into collective endeavours. Our institute is known for developing high quality and transparent technologies. Our biggest department focuses on techniques and technologies for maintenance and repair of crumbling infrastructure for everyday life. Our other line of work is less known in the mainstream, but hugely popular with the escapist underground; we organise exorbitant crypto-parties and citizen science game-fests (VirusCraft became hugely popular, funding most of our non-profit programmes). Accesslab is our public outreach programme, helping people make sense of the nonsense they’re faced with every day. Seemingly dealing with short term issues, we’re actually teaching (subversive) long-term thinking.”

It seems that the only hope in this world would be to somehow nurture a shift to a more IRK like situation, attempting to show in small ways some way out of the powerlessness. The significance of AccessLab in this world is interesting, as it would be increasingly important here to connect a science starved of funding with the reality of the situation to keep it relevant, as well as making it useful for providing potential new avenues.

Of course we live in neither the worst or best of all possible worlds, but thinking of the extremes helps us to be prepared for moves in the middle ground; combinations of these futures are more likely. We can now use these scenarios to plan projects, for each potential new thread of investigation we can consider how many of these scenarios would it work under, and the more the better.

We’ve had quite a lot of success over the past couple of years with really popular projects we’ve nurtured into existence ourselves, which seem to strike a chord and get a lot of attention – Sonic Kayaks, AccessLab and midimutant for example. These scenarios are a new tool for us to continuously gauge the relevance of what we are doing, and provide hints for how to make an idea useful regardless of how the future pans out.