Paolo Cardini: Cultural determinism as an alternative to technological determinism

November 18, 2020

Sara Božanić talks with Paolo Cardini about the importance of responsible Speculative Design education and practice.

Paolo Cardini is a designer, educator and researcher. He is Professor in Industrial Design at Rhode Island School of Design and his work ranges from product to interaction design with a particular interest in discursive and Speculative Design. His research mostly focuses on the interaction between artifacts, identities and globalization.

You are the founder of the Global Futures Lab, an education center aimed at counteracting the bias and stereotypes of so-called “Western futures” and fostering different futures linked to specific geo-cultural locations. Can you tell us more about it?

Global Futures Lab was born about four years ago within my work as Global Fellow at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) with the intent to add more voices and perspectives to the global discourse around Speculative and Critical Design. The initiatives had an array of objectives aiming to stimulate the conversation on dominant design canons and to foster inclusivity going beyond any stereotypical, western-oriented idea of futures. The project saw the participation of more than 60 students, from different art and design schools across the globe, who proposed their unique and hyper-contextual perspectives through the creation of unusual speculative artifacts. All the objects that came out of the Global Futures Lab workshops, named provocatively “souvenirs from the futures”, are, in fact, physical counter-evidence of the most common biases we all have when we try to imagine what the future would look like; they are not made of shiny plastics or high tech materials, nor have they any see-through touch screens; they include spiritualism and religion, they reinforce traditions and identities, they oppose a strong localism to the diffuse globalism of mainstream utopias and dystopias.

Methodologies run the risk of imposing a specific way of thinking that is usually double-chained with the cultural context in which the method is created.

Can you share with us the methodology you use in order to design future-oriented proposals?

When dealing with hyper-contextual futures, there are a few guidelines that I consider effective, but they could and should vary depending on each specific context. For the latter reason, I wouldn’t frame them under the hat of a proper methodology. Methodologies run the risk of imposing a specific way of thinking that is usually double-chained with the cultural context in which the method is created. To avoid reinforcing any cultural colonialism then, the first advice would be to suggest a reflection on the identity of the place and people who want to design the speculation. It’s very easy, in the present global context, to forget what makes or made us who we are, and is indeed easy for our imagination to pull out from the “suggested-from-Hollywood futures” bucket rather than create our own contextual visions.

The second piece of advice is about the scale of our starting point. Traditionally, in futuring activities, we tend to start from macrosystems and later direct our attention to the consequences and implications of those structures to the micro nodes of our society. I suggest operating in the opposite direction and starting from the individuals and seeing our scenarios as the sum of singular and subjective behaviors. This approach will provide us with more chances to not forget about human beings and to set at the foundation of our speculations the specific traits and characteristics of the people with whom we’re casting our projection. Finally, I firmly believe in the role of the past in future thinking. Considering traditions, heritage and any cultural legacy in our speculative processes should help us avoid the use of stereotypical images and maintain a stronger link with our identities.

Sharing Masks by by Homa Abdoli, Mostafa Parsa, Amir Mohammad Sojudi / Isfahan Art University, Isfahan, Iran

Can you name some projects that in your opinion showcase best what Speculative Design is and should be?

For the future of Speculative Design, I find a couple of approaches very interesting. One is related to the last points of my previous answer, the use of the past as a key element for future-oriented proposals (past-casting?). What is fascinating to me is the concept that the future could be reimagined starting from a different place to see how things could evolve if developed from different roots. You can think of Formafantasma’s past project Botanica to have an idea of what I’m referring to, or some of the work done in linking programming and indigenous artifacts, specifically within the African context (a great resource for this kind of thing is the South African digital art festival Fak’ugesi in which heritage and technology are in constant dialogue).

The other approach is about very short-term reflections on imminent events and their current problems. One good example of this is the Quarantinology project, developed at the Strelka Institute in Moscow. I’m intrigued by the potential for speculative practices in helping people cope with life’s events through alternative realities projections that are set and exist in the present, here and now. In a sort of very close back-casting circle, Speculative Design could get closer to people and provide a more tangible, or less abstract, kind of support.

What is your experience of Speculative Design in formal and informal (workshops, summer schools, conferences) educational processes?

In general, as soon as the speculative language is introduced, it is relatively easy to get people involved and excited about tomorrow’s potential, possibilities, and dangers. Even the ones who are naturally more inclined to focus on short-term challenges seem to be at ease taking a break from the everyday struggle. All in all, the future is a safe place; it allows us to wander through a judgment-free land where we can either be critical and vent our frustrations about the present or dream sweet dreams to boost our optimism. However, while the act of futuring can be enjoyable and led by enthusiasm, there are in my opinion a couple of natural inclinations that we need to keep under control for more convincing results. The first is about the tendency of projecting sensationalistic and shocking images of our future reality. While I understand the value of uncanny scenarios to capture people’s interest, I doubt that the appeal of the weird and disturbing can provide long-lasting engagement and stimulate tangible responses. The second is the proneness to imply a certain grade of universality for our speculations. We often assume, involuntarily, that present realities will converge and homogenize into one omni-comprehensive future, giving the green light to stereotyped and de-contextualized future visions.

One of the key challenges today lies in moving Speculative Design beyond educational environments. What is your advice on this process?

 One of the main impediments in seeing Speculative Design crossing the academic fence lies in funding accessibility. The limit of quantitative data and measurable outcomes makes the “speculation” business not attractive for goal-oriented and scientific-based funding programs. However, I’ve noticed that both the corporate world as well as governments and policymakers are more capable of justifying, and consequently funding, Speculative Design investigation.

Corporations, often structured in a strict hierarchical system, use Speculative Design as a way to delegate the uncomfortable task of the critique. More than traditional future casting activities, they recognize in critical and speculative activities the possibility to have someone, outside their power structure, to state the criticalities and the implications of a specific project. To operate in that environment speculative designers need to properly balance politics and creativity. Rephrasing Loewy’s Most Advanced Yet Acceptable principle, I would say that in the corporate realm, we must aim for the Most Critical Yet Acceptable approach.

Some governments and policymakers, on the contrary, make use of speculations as one of their tools for participatory democracy. In this context, we should think of a co-design process that involves institutions, citizens, and designers who, as often happens in these kinds of situations, operate as mediators and translators between the two groups. Here, speculative design expressions serve as a starting point for a hopefully fruitful debate on preferable future alternatives. Speculative designers should be able to manage a process that can smoothly pass from the abstractness of future thinking to actionable items.

YOG Headset by Aniket Kunte, Shilpa Sivaraman, Vyoma Haldipur, Subhrajit Ghosal / National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, India

Who in your opinion should have agency in the development of the future?

Easy to say that the more people we invite to the futuring table, the more chances we have for a more equitable future. To reach that inclusiveness, I consider it crucial to review or expand the drivers of our speculations. We can observe that the projection of specific technological progress often represents the prologue to many Speculative Design exercises. However, technologies are often the expression of dominant cultures and they require a certain level of education to consciously reflect on the causes and not be limited to comment on implications and consequences. I’m aware that the study of those implications and consequences can allow us to reconsider our present choices but I often perceive the suggested unavoidability of a technological path limiting the agency of people in deciding for themselves.

To open up the Speculative Design arena, we should promote a sort of cultural determinism as a viable alternative to the comfortable passiveness of a glamorous technological determinism.

What does your future look like?

After the complex and unique circumstances we’ve been dealing with in the last months, I guess we have all improved our comfort in future uncertainty and reset our own parameters in the matter of what to expect next. While it is difficult to trust long-term scenarios it is also interesting to me to observe how, at the present moment, future thinking appears to be split into two major schools of thought. The first one is all about speculating on post-covid scenarios, often social nightmares playing on the adaptation skills of our species. Those visions are cold analyses of how our lives have been touched by the pandemic, they accept the changes as status quo and they finally provide projections on the various new ways our society will function. I’m not particularly into this kind of exercise; they put us in a passive position against the unavoidable consequences of our present. The second approach, closer to my interests, is more radical and it tries, as a consequence of the pandemic but partially independent from it, to reframe our condition as human beings, our core values, and the relationship with our planet. I like the way these kinds of speculations can open windows from where to look at a new and fresh reality. About the future of the Global Futures Lab, at the moment I’m focusing on a permanent observatory set in Mexico City, created in collaboration with Centro University, but I’m always happy and available to collaborate with any institution willing to contribute to our alternative futures archive.

Souvenirs from the Futures exhibition, Gallery 1/9unosunove, Rome, Italy

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