Daniel Kaplan: Design is a powerful way of mobilising and rejuvenating imaginaries

February 5, 2019

James Auger talks with Daniel Kaplan, French futurist and entrepreneur, about his new Plurality University initiative and design’s relation to future imaginaries.

Daniel Kaplan is a futurist and entrepreneur, with one leg in innovation and another in fiction. He currently leads the Plurality University project, a global network of people who mobilise the resources of the imaginary to broaden the scope of thinkable futures. Before that, in 1986, he created one of the world’s first digital communication agencies. In the 1990s, he contributed to the Internet’s development and evolution. In 2000, he created the Next-Generation Internet Foundation (FING), a nonprofit Think-&-Do-Tank to “anticipate digital transformations”. He has written or directed over 25 books and reports. He is a member of several large companies’ and research centres’ Foresight Committees. He teaches at SciencesPo and Telecom ParisTech.

Although you don’t explicitly mention speculative design (or “design fiction” as is more common in France) in the Plurality University blurb, many of the aims and approaches, in particular the notion of future imaginaries, are held in common. In your opinion, what is the power of design when detached from the goals of a market-driven economy?

We do mention Speculative Design in most Plurality University documents – why we don’t in the blurb you mention is a mystery to me. To me, design is a really powerful way of mobilising and rejuvenating imaginaries. For at least three reasons: it calls upon the senses, all senses, and communicates/engages beyond language; good design mixes form, function and the process of creating them, or rather, it teaches us that there is no way to separate them; good design is multidisciplinary and collective, it forces people to work together in creating and interpreting stuff. We need all that to reimagine futures.

The use of “University” in the title suggests a place of learning, although in a decentralised and non-formulaic way. How should our educational systems change to address the problems we face at this time?

The “University” in Plurality University is both useful and problematic. It is initially an ironic reference to the Singularity University, questioning both the “technological singularity” perspective, and the overwhelming dominance of the techno-centred narrative about the future – as well as its roots in a single culture (that of supersmart and energetic white American men). But we are not creating a university with its walls, students, academic staff and curriculum. However, yes, we hope a lot of learning will take place there: learning from one another’s practice and imagined futures, learning by doing things together, formalising methods and practices so that others can use them, and spreading a kind of (fiction-rich) “futures literacy” as broadly as possible.

Not all educational systems are alike. However, most are disciplinary while we need multi-disciplinarity and complexity; most (especially in Europe) focus on knowledge rather than capabilities, and value theory much more than practice – not to mention imagination; most focus on individual rather than collective work. Not only does this prepare students poorly for what they’ll need to do when they work, but more importantly, it does not produce citizens, i.e., people who feel entitled and enabled to take responsibility towards collective futures.

I would like to see more education systems where people collectively learn by producing knowledge, and produce knowledge by mixing analytical, theoretical, creative and technical work, and by opening both the process and the outcome to critical discussion.

Plurality University

Many of the discussions at the founders’ meeting very consciously addressed notions of power and the historical role of the West in global decision making and the control and management of resources. How can our educational systems (SpeculativeEdu is a European project) access and incorporate other histories and bodies of knowledge? How do you plan to pluralise such aspects of the University?

This is both central and difficult. You don’t just do that by being careful, mindful of others, conscious of where you come from – although it is of course a necessary start. As a person, there is no obvious way not to be ethnocentric or anthropocentric. So there are at least two things we’d like to do.

One, to expose everyone to stories, images, metaphors … emerging from wholly different cultures and practices: How does a group of Chinese artists imagine and discuss the futures of work compared to, say, European futurists? What does the fact that several African science-fiction writers imagine that Lagos is the place where aliens choose to set foot (or whatever limbs they have) on Earth tell us about alienness, when we compare it to American novels and movies where aliens are usually greeted by tanks and heroic journalists? Exposure and comparative thinking is critical there.

Second, to consider that everyone should be futurists (not professional futurists, “citizen-futurists”, capable of projecting themselves and their communities towards diverse futures and reflecting on their desirability, on how to get there, on what it tells us about the present, on how to work with uncertainty and controversy, etc.) – and thus, to work proactively with people who, today, do not feel entitled or capable of talking about the future. Which is where imagination—in words, playing, crafting—is essential, because it creates spaces where everyone is equal, because there is no way to know what is true.

Dystopias are easily crafted (just push one characteristic of today’s world to an extreme), while utopias need to rethink a lot of things – meaning that probably, dystopias and utopias are not exact opposites …

What is the potential of a plurality of future imaginaries? We seem to be very good at presenting dystopian futures (for example the majority of science fiction novels and films and many speculative design projects). How can these be better employed to make more substantive change rather than simply being forms of entertainment?

There are at least three questions there!

Utopia/Dystopia. I’m not too fond of this opposition, for a lot of reasons. It sort of implies that we can all know and agree on what is positive or negative; cyberpunk novels are labeled “dystopian”, but in them the (usually American, white, male) hero overcomes all odds to carve out his own destiny, and that has made them hugely inspirational to generations of tech entrepreneurs … Whereas Utopia, the original book, does not describe a place where I’d want to live. Also, dystopias are easily crafted (just push one characteristic of today’s world to an extreme), while utopias need to rethink a lot of things – meaning that probably, dystopias and utopias are not exact opposites …

Plurality. The initial potential is to broaden the set of what I call “thinkable futures” (which may be neither possible nor desirable, at least from everyone’s point of view) and in fact, of thinkable presents. One example: recent research points to how much we humans are entangled with other living beings (from the billions of bacteria in our bellies to bees), and the other way round (Anna Tsing’s matsutake), and that we are clearly not the only intelligent, social, geopolitical, learning beings. This contradicts a lot of foundational beliefs in Western civilisation, both Christian and Enlightened. But what do we do after understanding that human exceptionalism, “selfish genes”, etc., are invalid and toxic ways of thinking? This is where we can draw from other cultures who have never assumed such a position for humans (such as animist cultures), or from fictional thought exercises like Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time, or from artistic endeavours such as Rocio Berenguer’s (fictional) Interspecies Organisation for the Future of Life on Earth, or from Bruno Latour and Frédérique Aït-Touati’s (semi-failed, but no less interesting) Theatre of negotiations …

Substantive change vs. Entertainment. As you know, this is already a discussion within the Speculative Design community: What does it mean that its foundational pieces end up in museums, does it mean it has been successful, or the reverse? Fiction needs autonomy from decision-making, otherwise it is propaganda or mere illustration. But these works intend to produce some kind of effect. So how? I do not pretend we have the answers, in fact, this is one of the areas where we’d really like to get academic researchers from several disciplines interested.

However, there are a number of directions at which we might want to look: fiction helps to broaden the initial set of thinkable futures from which public debate or decision-making will start (imagine if the preparation for COP32 started with a much, much broader set of stories to pick from); it has the potential to “shift expectations” (I took that from an artist whose name I’ve forgotten), creating a different kind of public opinion pressure; it provides spaces for mental simulations of different alternatives, that allow for more complex thinking than, say, “models”, and that take subjectivity into account, allowing people to project themselves into it rather than thinking about it in abstract ways; it provides spaces for discussion where nobody can be said to “know” …

However, this requires particular care, not just in the fictional piece itself, but also in the process to produce it and/or the way it can be discussed: Who, where, when, how? If we’re talking design, then we need to talk about the whole lifecycle, not just about the object or situation being designed. There are many inspirations to be (critically) drawn from areas such as design of public policies, citizen conferences, TAZs and the World Forum, change management in organisations, creative writing workshops, etc.

And in relation to positive futures, how can we make a connection between the ideas described in the imaginary and here and now? (This has been a typical critique of historical utopian novels – that they are so far removed from the world of today that getting there proves unimaginable.)

Well, to me, good stories are most often (a) gray in terms of values and (b) complex because humans – or other autonomous entities – act in them, in not entirely predictable ways. In a way, they are all about the “getting there” (or the “what do you do when there”, but it’s not that different). When you don’t have that, you are usually not reading or watching what I call fiction, which is both subjective (in many ways: the author’s subjectivity and the semi-autonomous subjectivity of characters) and inhabitable (there are as many novels as there are readers). There is nothing morally wrong in writing down one’s political vision in a fictional form, but if you do not let your characters or your world take their autonomy, then the result is roughly the same as if you’d written it in a more classic way. Again, it comes down to the kind of thought exercise you want to carry out and invite your public to do; but to me, the value of fiction is that others can inhabit it in their own way, and discuss it with other inhabitants.

It is not a matter of being pessimistic-realist against over-optimists, but of presenting other thinkable realities, and presenting them in the complex, subjective, messy way that makes them more human and compelling.

Your previous work with digital think tank Fing (http://fing.org/?About-Fing&lang=fr) is extremely pertinent to this project. Considering that the Eurasia Group (the world’s largest political risk consultancy) considered “the rise of technologists” to be one of the “top risks of 2016”, and with a particular focus on the role Silicon Valley has in shaping all of our futures, how can we develop alternative approaches that can compete with their over-optimistic narratives?

I wouldn’t characterize the technologists’ narrative as exclusively over-optimistic. There are a lot of supercritical technologists in, say, maker or hacker groups. Many mainstream technologists are also warning us about the “existential risks” of what they contribute to create. Ironically (or not), “existential risk” is one of the conceptual paths that the smartest transhumanists such as Nick Bostrom have carved in order to become more mainstream themselves: changing humans is the way to survive in the face of climate change and the technological Singularity. But it is also true that technologists have also reoriented their discourse towards “solving humanity’s problems”, drawing upon the too-convenient list of UN Sustainable Development Goals: Humanity’s problems are in fact a set of discrete subproblems that can be tackled one by one until they are solved, which is what engineers do (or rather, pretend to themselves that they do).

IAgotchi, Rocio Berenguer


Both the Singularity and “Tech for good” are narratives. Powerful, inspiring ones, but narratives all the same, and not so different from what they were 30-50 years ago when Philip K. Dick, William Gibson or Neal Stephenson started or finished writing. You compete with them, not just by denouncing them, but by creating (or revealing, because many of them exist) other narratives that are at least as compelling (I’m using “narratives” in a very generic sense, there are many more creative forms than stories): stories of symbiosis such as can be found in African SF (Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti, Lauren Beukes’ Zoo City … or Black American writer Octavia Butler’s Lilith’s Brood), fictional foresight such as Olivier Fournout’s upcoming Candide Candide, Rocio Berenguer’s theatrical show with her impertinent IAgotchi, Donna Haraway’s narrative fabulation, etc. Again, it is not a matter of being pessimistic-realist against over-optimists, but of presenting other thinkable realities, and presenting them in the complex, subjective, messy way that makes them more human and compelling. This is how the techno-narratives will progressively appear for what I think they now are: exhausted.

Can you point us to one or two projects, initiatives or groups that we can be inspired by? Describe why they stand out for you.

I will deliberately choose them from outside of design:

Bright Mirror, Bluenove

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