Future Urban Foragers
Innovation often promises to transform the world for better but, when met with real social needs, can have unintended consequences. What scenarios might arise from a future where democratized genetic engineering technology meets the environmental and social pressures of climate change?
Future Urban Foragers (FUF) is a design-led research project that uses design fiction as world building to probe this space. The aim of the work is to situate emerging biotech within a cultural landscape into which it may be deployed in order to encourage critical reflection around notions of plausible and desirable futures.
View the full project on the Royal College of Art Show 2021 website.
Enter London 2086: a city stretching towards the future by erasing its past.
Here, food insecurity drives wide-spread malnutrition and as prices of nutrient supplements become increasingly unaffordable, citizens are pushed to take wellbeing into their own hands.
Biohackers turn to nature and find hope in lithotrophs, a class of organisms that derive energy and nutrients from rock and other minerals. Advancements in genetic engineering enable citizens to harness these organism to extract the nutrients they need from their surrounding urban environment. As the lithographs eat rock health rates improve, but the city of London slowly dissolves in the process.
This design fiction is rooted in research, revealed through a series of artifacts, and ultimately realized by an immersive, interactive installation. Audiences are invited to explore the project proto-scientifically to better understand the forces and decisions that shaped the genesis of this future.
The project leveraged Strategic Foresight methods, such as weak signal mapping, to build data-rooted future scenarios.
Experience: Claire’s Bio Lab
The world is anchored within the biolab of Claire Taylor, a civil servant and typical Londoner who finds herself in an impossible situation when she loses her job and is no longer able to afford essential nutrient supplements.
Trapped between inflated health costs and the risk of malnutrition, Claire turns to biohacking and begins to destroy the city she once worked so hard to protect.
The installation delivers an interactive, multi-sensory experience that presents Claire’s predicament though a series of objects. Audiences are invited in to explore proto-scientifically to better understand and empathize with Claire’s circumstance.
Entry Points: Diegetic Artifacts
A diegetic artifact is a tool used to present an interior view of a fictional world. Its intention is to aid “the telling of worlds” by suggesting a context as opposed to a linear story into an experience (Sterling, 2005). Each artifact represents an entry point into the designed fiction that, when seen as a whole, builds a scenario which can be explored by individuals in their own way. The goal of a design fiction is to create scenarios that “suspend disbelief about change” and ultimately help inform how we live in the present.
Research: Future Empathy
Design fiction has garnered considerable attention in recent years but, due to its infancy, incongruent perspectives on how to approach the practice remain. In an effort to contribute to the establishment of an evidence-based paradigm, I experimented with performative and embodied approaches to research through design.
I was inspired by practitioners such as Marina Abramović who uses performance, duration, and sacrifice to “reach a point of transformation” where “performance becomes life itself and you really deal with the truth” (Abramović). I was interested in how this approach might open up hyperobjects, such as climate change, and empathy-based design practices, such as HCD. I wondered: 'how do we empathize with the future?' and developed the character Claire Taylor through whom I could navigate my design fiction. I embodied her as I developed the world, and vice versa, and gained a better sense of the forces, frictions, and values at play.
Presented here are snapshots of my development and embodiment of Claire.