..or, could you speak up please, we can’t hear you at the back!

Along with some of my new fellow students, yesterday I attended the launch of Designing Our Futures, a Practice as Research Consortium North West (PARCNorthWest) initiative in which we are being encouraged to become involved over the next year. I think it is something in which I shall become involved, once I’ve worked out quite what it means.

As I listened to the various speakers discussing the theoretical and practical issues raised by our hopes and fears for the future, ironically I broke one of my personal rules and thought instead about my past. While I was at Imperial College in the late 1960s I often used to walk up Queens Gate on my way to the zoology department and pass a large, rounded fibreglass capsule, tucked in behind what I think was the chemistry department. This was, as far as I can remember, an experimental living “pod,” an indication, perhaps, of how and where we imagined we’d be living in the future. I have often wondered what happened to that project. Of course, brought up on The Eagle comic, Meccano Magazine and Scientific American, at that time I assumed that by the year 2012 we’d all be clad in transparent skin-tight all-weather suits that would show off our perfectly-proportioned and disease-free bodies, we would zip around in personal flying machines, work just a few hours a week surrounded by machines that provided us with almost-limitless leisure and live in glass-walled homes served by robots.

But significantly then, even in science fiction, we had no words that defined and described what we now call the Internet, the worldwide web and the knowledge economy. We also naively assumed that human existence would simply continue rapidly to improve. Hmmm. That improvement has been patchy, and not at all inclusive . Instead of a super-efficient capsule I live in a crumbling Victorian building. I drive around in an earth-bound vehicle with a wheel at each corner, based on nineteenth century technologies. The train in which I travelled from Manchester to Nottingham this afternoon would seem familiar to Robert Stephenson and the Wright brothers would easily recognise the form and function of  the “modern” aircraft in which I flew back from Spain last weekend.

So, are we going to design futures that are merely enhancements of past and present technologies? Are we merely going to tinker with economics and politics? Are we going to be manacled to the balls and chains of religious and political fundamentalism? Are we going to continue to be (apparently willingly) dumbed down further  and further? Will the futures designed by us, a privileged few, really include those millions without fresh water and sustainable food supplies to which Professor Hyatt alluded during the debate? Will we do more than just shuffle words we already know,,,

Or, are we going to design ways of living that we cannot yet imagine, for which we have as yet no words, no vocabulary, no language? I wonder! At the launch, people talked optimistically of us reaching a point in time of significant change and opportunity presented by advances in the technologies of the knowledge society. Yet we were sitting in a low-ceiling, gloomy room struggling to hear discussants who were not using microphones.

Well, I guess this means that I’m going to have to do more than just sit here…