Scott Smith: The best way to deal with grim futures is to stare them in the face

December 12, 2019

Julian Hanna talks with Scott Smith, futurist and founder of Changeist.

Scott Smith is a futurist and founder of Changeist, a multidisciplinary research group based in The Hague. Scott heads Changeist’s work for global clients such as Dubai Future Foundation, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, Nesta, Comcast, and the BBC by blending foresight, narrative design, and strategy. He also leads foresight programmes for Dubai Future Academy, and lectures in the Innovation & Future Thinking programme at IED Barcelona, which he created. He has written for Quartz, The Atlantic, and WIRED UK, and is the author of a new book, How to Future, to be published in July 2020 from Kogan Page. With his partner Susan Cox-Smith, he is also developing several fiction and documentary projects about the future in culture.

As a consulting group that helps companies think about and prototype possible futures, Changeist strikes me as an ideal example of how Speculative Design (and related) methods can be used outside the gallery / academy. Is it difficult to convince clients to embrace a speculative view?

First, I would say that we came to the practice of developing material and digital artefacts and proposing other speculative experiences from the direction of design fiction and experiential futures, which is a small but important distinction. The fact that critical futures sit at the core of our work probably made it easier for us to slide toward our neighbors in Speculative Design, but I still see there being a difference. Speaking for our own work, I would say it is much more rooted in a basis of the tools and analytic processes of strategic foresight, and seeks to shed light on strategic possibility. From that basis, it’s easier for us to find traction with clients as we’re trying to address defined problems, frame risks and opportunities more clearly, and so on. The use of artefacts and experiences as a tool to drive engagement with these issues grows out of that grounding in organizations’ or sectors’ problems, rather than beginning from a critique.

Do you have any advice for Speculative Design students hoping to use their skills beyond academia?

Think about where and how you wish to apply those skills—in culture, in business, in art, in governance, etc. Learn about the actual problems people, groups and organizations want to address, and the approaches they take. Speculative Design is an approach, but not a solvent, and one that isn’t recognized as a tool, but as a practice at best. If you’re attempting to apply it in specific ways, in commerce or governance for example, learn what other practices and processes it is trying to complement or extend. If it’s in a cultural setting, dig into other methods of framing and synthesizing problems.

Used well, and thoughtfully, speculative artefacts can be both the container for ideas and provocations, and the gateway to deeper consideration.

In terms of your recent projects, I was particularly interested in your work with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. How has your practice evolved in recent years, and how can a speculative approach help in tackling difficult real-world issues?

The package of artefacts and media we developed for the IFRC has been one of our recent favourites. These were built around a set of trends that grew from strategic planning the IFRC undertook, and arose from scenarios we developed using that material. Given the practice of using artefacts, let alone strategic foresight, was so far from the historical experience of many at senior levels of the IFRC, the presence of these objects and their stories was pretty arresting, and the artefacts provoked broader conversations about important choices among people who have the power to make change at scale. Used well, and thoughtfully, speculative artefacts can be both the container for ideas and provocations, and the gateway to deeper consideration. We have found these and other tools can, when done well, give voice to the more complex issues we work with—whether that’s migration, community resilience, space science or sexual health: all areas we’ve used these tools to explore.

DyNaMo Field Kit, IFRC exhibit The Future is Now (2017) (Photo: Scott Smith)

When we set up in 2007, we intended to balance experimentation with practical, solid research, discovery and communication around futures, and have tried to maintain that balance as we’ve gone on. In recent years, it’s been easier to push the experimentation in large part because we cover the fundamentals, and are experienced in what we do. We feel a bit freer to do the creative work, and that in turn draws more requests.

How do you know when a project has been a success? Please suggest three useful metrics for evaluation.

That’s a tough question as the contexts of projects can differ wildly. Here’s a stab:

  1. Your work has measurably or notably shifted the understanding of the client organization, changing their thinking about possible futures.
  2. You have broadened engagement with future-facing topics among audiences that matter.
  3. You get asked back to tackle more complex challenges. 🙂
Speculative Design has been criticised for glamourising dystopian future imaginaries. Your projects seem to remain reasonably hopeful, or at least agnostic, despite hinting at some rather dire future scenarios. What is the best way to deal with dark futures? And are you hopeful?

We’re hard nuts to crack as a group because I’d say our one common attribute is realism. We take a realistic look at the world as it is, and where signals indicate it might go. This sets aside the utopia/dystopia trap. Who’s to say which is which?

We aren’t first and foremost advocacy futurists, so we’re not trying to push (overtly) in a particular direction, but to build the capacity of others to steer in a positive direction, whatever that might be. Good work can bring people to face possibility. Landing realism is hard enough.

I think we’d all agree that the best way to deal with grim futures is to stare them in the face, and try to be creative about marshaling ways to confront it. Right now we need strategies, hard and soft, and as the cocktail napkin says “hope is not …” etc. etc.

 IBER LiDAR directional manager and forensic collection vials, IFRC exhibit The Future is Now (2017) (Photo: Scott Smith)

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