SpeculativeEdu

Interview: FoAM

October 9, 2019

Maja Kuzmanovic and Nik Gaffney, founders of the transdisciplinary network FoAM: “Design can provide ways to change, circumvent or adapt an unsustainable status quo.”

Photo by FoAM, CC BY-SA 2.0

Maja Kuzmanovic and Nik Gaffney co-founded FoAM, a transdisciplinary network at the intersection of art, science, nature and everyday life. Maja works as a transdisciplinary artist, futurist, experience designer and process facilitator. Nik is a tangential generalist, designer, programmer and sous-chef. They currently operate as the nomadic studio FoAM Earth, exploring futurecrafting as a way of re-enchanting the present. Their recent projects have taken them from arid deserts to lush forests, from community kitchens to repurposed armouries. Guided by FoAM’s motto “grow your own worlds” they prototype possible futures, create experimental situations, incite discussions, and suggest alternatives. Since 2000 FoAM’s work has been shown worldwide at venues including the Iceland Design Centre, Victoria and Albert Museum, The Eden Project, BOZAR, Vooruit, Bioart Society, Ars Electronica and The Venice Architecture Biennale.

How connected was your education with the Speculative Design (or related) approach you are using in your work today?

MK: As a design student I was interested in studying change – why it happens, how it happens and what changes have the most potential to influence futures. However, this wasn’t offered as a field or subject at the Utrecht School of the Arts when I was studying there in the 1990s, although there were some established design consultancies specialising in forecasting. Thanks to a sympathetic director of fashion design, I managed to put together a makeshift course by combining classes from the art academy and university, alongside internships and research surveys in industry. This enabled me to connect different approaches to studying change from several perspectives. It also helped me develop a capacity for speculative thinking. My graduation work was an interactive storytelling piece that would likely be considered Speculative Design today. In many ways, speculation about possible futures (grounded in a broad understanding of the past and present) became the subject of my studies as well as how I studied. I had envisioned a course to study change from a generalist’s perspective, realised that it didn’t exist, then explored ways to prototype it by making connections between different disciplines and contexts. This mindset has become central to us at FoAM, where transdisciplinary, pro-active learning is a significant aspect of our work.

NG: The methods we use have been informed just as much by what we found lacking in formal education, as by what we have learnt in academic or professional settings. In most of our projects, we are ourselves learning, teaching and sharing material as we work. Over the years we have developed informal, yet structured programmes of workshops, master-classes and futuring sessions, such as Splinterfields or the Art of Futuring. Our understanding of education is not as something that can be separate or complete, but an ongoing, essential part of living in uncertain times.

Could you please select one of your favourite Speculative Design projects and tell us what you like about it?

At FoAM we tend to use a variety of approaches, including Speculative Design, to prototype possible futures and artistic experiments. One of our longest running, perhaps most sprawling projects is groWorld. In some ways it’s so entangled and metabolically central to our work that it’s become almost indistinguishable from the mycelial mesh of FoAM itself. groWorld has been “in progress” since FoAM’s formation, cycling between growth and decay over nearly two decades. The description of groWorld is simultaneously succinct and suggestively open — “we’re interested in minimising borders and maximising edges between humans and plants, by entangling culture and cultivation {sym}, building and growing {bio} and nature and technology {sys}”. groWorld could be seen as a temporary ecology involving tangible, direct actions such as planting and cultivating gardens, (re)vegetation and agricultural manure management software (the Farm Crap App). Alongside are speculative experiments (such as Borrowed Scenery), human plant interfaces (with HPI or MPEIR devices), conversations with patabotany, augmented ecology or adventures into the machine wilderness.

groWorld encourages an ongoing ebb between speculative possibilities, fallow rest and unexpected new growth. Since its inception there have been many groWorld off-shoots and tendrils, recently including the Ephemeral Garden, Random Forests and Rooted Hauntology. Whenever we think that it might be time for groWorld to conclude, someone will renew or update part of it, or create a new branch. A forest of a project, it’s capable of sprouting from the compost, subsuming rhizomes, trajectories and objects.

(Photo by FoAM CC BY-SA 2.0)

What we like about groWorld is that it invites experiential engagement with abstract concepts, like environmental degradation or interspecies communication. Whether by experimenting with horticulture or software development,  creating alternate reality narratives or immersive environments, the project can act as a lure for experiencing a possible world, one in which the vegetal rather than economic growth becomes central to human society. It hints and suggests, then leaves enough room for people to fill in the gaps, to take our proposition and make it their own; translating groWorld into concrete situations that are relevant in their own lives — a seedballing campaign, a seasonal ritual, a plant-inspired curriculum, a vegetal co-working space or a training ground for environmentally conscious AIs.

If students asked about the practical or professional applications of this type of design, what would you say? (Or, What are the practical or professional applications of this type of design?)

One of the key assumptions with speculative approaches to the world is that design probes or small scale experiments can enable a wider creative, critical engagement with the entities and systems that surround us. If design has the potential to change things (hopefully for the better) then it’s worth thinking about how, why and what we are engaging with.

Design, and in particular Speculative Design, can provide ways to change, circumvent or adapt an unsustainable status quo. It can offer tools and techniques to critically explore how things might be otherwise, to prototype, experiment and hopefully make informed decisions grounded in experiential learning. This sense of agency is entangled with consequences (intended or not) and responsibilities for individuals, organisations, communities, societies or the planet.

Since futures and Speculative Design have increasingly become a part of business, industry and politics, a designer with a generalist mindset could apply their work in almost any field of interest. The question to ask is what activities are most worthwhile, considering the environmental, cultural and social turbulences we’ll continue to be faced with. What applications would you like to see? In what contexts and at which scale could your work be significant? What would make the most substantial difference?

Speculative Design explores concrete questions or specific provocations in the present, from the perspective of possible futures.

In your opinion what is the purpose of Speculative Design?

It’s been said that all design is speculative, but there is a particularity to the guises of “Speculative Design”. Speculative Design explores concrete questions or specific provocations in the present, from the perspective of possible futures. At its best, it can create an “otherwise” which shows us something important about our current situation. By prototyping questions, suggestions or critique as tangible objects or sensory experiences, they can be more fully explored and understood. Speculative Design can be a way of testing ideas for the next product cycle, yet it can also provide methods to ground and inspire meaningful long term action.

Please suggest up to three key metrics for evaluating the success of a project.

A method of evaluation is only beneficial if it provides direct ways to help understand a project, process or results. It may help to have some structure, but too much can stifle a project. Focusing on the wrong metrics will almost certainly lead things in a burdensome or irrelevant direction. Metrics can always be gamed and not everything that is important can be measured. Yet, appropriate metrics can be useful. In choosing, or designing evaluation metrics, it’s essential to ask if what is measured matters, and if what matters is measured.

In our experience, evaluation, reflection and feedback works best as an inherent part of the process. Rather than an “autopsy” at the end, iterative feedback can provide support and guidance throughout the project. One technique that we’ve found useful — with a good balance between structure and informality — is to ask “What? So What? Now What?” (known more formally as an “Adaptive Action Cycle“) — as we answer these three questions individually or collectively, we can reflect on what has happened, analyse the implications our actions might have and decide how we can proceed (or not). This type of feedback calls for continual adjustments between ideas and their implementation, which can often improve the work and help avoid potential problems. It’s one way of keeping preferred futures alive, while simultaneously responding appropriately to current change.

(Photo by FoAM, CC BY-SA 2.0)