(From the publisher) A literal no-place, atopia represents the spatial end-product of a society seemingly flattened by supra-territorial flows of information and material. It expresses both a physical artifact and condition of mass culture, and like the global systems of production and consumption from which it is conceived, atopia is both nowhere and everywhere at once. For the contributors of Perspecta 54, the ephemeral conditions of atopia are also an invitation to an equally unconstrained critical practice. Blurred boundaries—geopolitical, virtual, technical, disciplinary—offer sites for transgressive speculation and critique from beyond the limits of traditional design agency.
What results is a form of design practice that ambiguously straddles impossibility and hyperreality. Atopia rejects both the escapist fantasy of utopia and the nihilism of dystopia, favoring instead a conceptual middle ground from which real-world conditions can be productively engaged and challenged. Architecture’s traditional objectives of critical inquiry—particularly the location of modes of complicity, agency, and resistance within larger structures—are mediated and reframed through nontraditional strategies of speculative design and fiction. For a profession that is routinely asked to navigate extreme complexity with limited tools, this approach suggests an expanded operational domain and possibilities for reinvigorated creative thought. From urban crises and climate emergencies to border disputes and geopolitics, Perspecta 54 examines atopia as both the site of architecture’s critical confrontation with hegemonic systems and the theoretical space in which its own processes can be challenged.
This article explores the role of the future in contemporary technology design, and examines how imagination can influence the present through the mechanism of speculation. Three applications of futures are introduced: extrapolation examines present data and trends to predict possible futures, reflecting on the present imagines possible futures for insights on current practices, while backcasting visualizes a preferred future and plots a trajectory from the present to achieve it. Design speculations for Ocean Wave Energy capture systems are presented that illustrate the shaping of the future with conceptual prototypes, and a future narrative when humanity has averted a climate catastrophe.
What happens when, suddenly, an object in front of us comes to life? How to envision such objects which tend to behave like subjects? Should they be relegated to the rank of parascientific curiosities, paranormal phenomena, surrealistic oddities? Should we consider them as engineering products, appreciate the mimetic feat that brings them to life? Or look at them as works of art, seize the critical openings they bring? Should we take them seriously, like the characters in a moral tale that makes us aware of the need to think about a world inhabited by others? Or, again, should we be afraid of them, like creatures who revolt against their creators, threatening our security, our certainties?
This work brings together a set of texts from different stylistic registers, from narrative to analytical essay, from testimony to dystopia. Constructed as an investigation with several voices, it reveals the potential for fictional and philosophical suggestion of the animation of things, by questioning the persistence of forms of animism within the project of modernity.
In the horizon of a questioning of the anthropocentric foundations of Western culture, these episodes draw another story, which emerges at the border between nature and artifice, between subject and object, between living and non-living, where all these polarities appear suspended by the disturbing strangeness, the dizziness and the doubt that seize us in the face of the behavior of things.
HCI is complicit in the climate crisis, as the systems and services that we design engender unsustainable energy use and waste. HCI has equal potential to find solutions for environmental challenges and script, by design, the behavioral changes needed for sustainable net futures. We explore this dichotomy through the lens of data transmission, examining the energy consumption and environmental impact of web communications. This work begins with a critical revisiting of legacy web design that mines the past for actionable ideas towards sustainable net futures. We query how we can reduce our own net energy consumption, and plot a path to design our low-power website. In addition we speculate on a redesign of the background systems, outlining the practical steps we have taken towards solar, wind, gravity and micro-hydro low-power web hosting solutions.
‘… the common world is what we enter when we are born and what we leave behind when we die. It transcends our life-span into past and future alike; it was there before we came and will outlast our brief sojourn in it. It is what we have in common not only with those who live with us, but also with those who were here before and with those who will come after us. But such a common world can survive the coming and going of the generations only to the extent that it appears in public. It is the publicity of the public realm which can absorb and make shine through the centuries whatever men may want to save from the natural ruin of time.’
- Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition
What has changed since Arendt wrote this? In a sense, everything: today we are no longer dealing only with the familiar ebb and flow of human conflict, but have fundamentally altered the physical environment—turning it to something irreversibly artificial and indelibly marked by our existence. At the same time our perception of the world is rapidly changing too, reflecting this and other facets of our new reality.
What, then, is to be done? How do we design for the ‘common world’ of the future, taking into account the ecological constraints humanity has imposed, intentionally or not, upon itself? How can we set new coordinates in the hope of creating a more balanced world? We approached these questions by first breaking ‘common’ into seven of its component parts; the resulting fragments reflect the increasing complexity of our epoch.
Industrial design, for the most part, is about exploiting the potential of new technologies to create functional, usable and desirable products—design is at the heart of future formation. Unfortunately, this process is mostly devoid of any critical or philosophical foundation. Some myths taught at design school:
Design is good.
Design makes people’s lives better.
Design solves problems.
Of course design can be and do all of these things, but it has become so intrinsically linked to the prevailing demands of consumption and innovation that it has essentially been reduced to a novelty machine. Constraints—the rules, forces or beliefs that direct the process—are at the centre of design education and practice. As Charles Eames noted in his Design Q&A (1972), design depends largely on ‘the ability of the designer to recognize as many of the constraints as possible; his willingness and enthusiasm for working within these constraints. Constraints of price, of size, of strength, of balance, of surface, of time, and so forth.’ But there are grander, more systemic and pervasive constraints at play. Though often invisible or hidden these factors have a significant narrowing impact on the potential of design, resulting in a paucity of original thinking and a chronic neglect of responsibility. Here we explore some of the most problematic constraints and the ways in which they influence and narrow the pathways to all of our possible futures.
The ideas underpinning the Reconstrained Design catalogue represent a radically different philosophy of energy storage and consumption. They indicate a shift away from quick, thoughtless consumption of ancient resources, towards visible, tangible, real-time consumption. Of course, at this stage the Gravity Battery and other prototypes are more interventions than practical solutions—they are not designed to be an instant fix for the world’s energy problems, which are complex and multifaceted.
But before our prototypes and the thinking behind them are dismissed on grounds of impracticality, it is worth noting that our everyday relationship with energy is also a dream, an illusion of through-the-wall magic. It is unsustainable, based on a fantasy of unlimited supply, when in fact it has long been operating on a system of sleight of hand and perpetual deferral. When oil supplies are dwindling, the short-term answer is new technologies of extraction or batteries made from lithium and other non-renewable materials. What Reconstrained Design offers is a new way of thinking about energy—a gesture towards the seismic paradigm shift that is urgently needed to bring about a more responsible future.
Energy, in all its forms, is essential to everyday and future living. Our inseparability from energy is not just a matter of electricity consumption and use, but includes our inseparability from all infrastructures of generation, transmission and storage. Our lives are energy-rich, but our relationship with energy is threadbare; electricity is ethereal and distant, a number on a meter. This paper describes a communityled project that has already begun to change that relationship. It is the design and prototype of an energy generation and storage solution—a gravity battery we call ‘The Newton Machine’—built from what is to hand, what is in the local landscape, with local expertise.
In this paper we document our community-led experiments to build and test a Newton Machine at the edge of Europe, in the northern islands of Orkney, Scotland. As a visualization and proof of concept, the gravity battery will power an electronic keyboard. Our aim is to demonstrate how smarter energy storage infrastructure can be prototyped in communities at the periphery, and then developed into a design method to be exhibited, shared and used elsewhere.
This paper presents the identification and analysis of a set of four ‘oblique constraints’—named as progress dogma, future nudge, means and ends, and infrastraints—which act as pervasive but often unacknowledged constraining influences that shape design practice and by extension limit future Possibilities.
We ask: How and why is power exerted? How might this lead to impoverished or problematic futures? How can this dynamic be changed from a design perspective? Drawing from examples of recent work around renewable energy we show how design can be reconstrained to reveal new pathways and encourage more inclusive, holistic, and environmentally responsible futures.
This manifesto marks the first anniversary of a project, Reconstrained Design, launched explicitly to challenge the state of design: its narrowing pathways, prevailing assumptions, and corporate agendas. Our manifesto takes the form of a preamble which outlines the history of the manifesto genre and its origins in the historical avant-garde of a century ago, followed by a list of 12 tenets that put forward specific design challenges (each based on or challenging a thought-provoking quotation). With this text we aim to pry open new discursive and imaginative spaces, to force new ideas into the public view, to promote engagement with politics, technology and other facets of everyday life, and to upset the status quo of design thinking. It is written in an appropriately polemical style in order to take at its word the call to provocation. We hope this manifesto will establish our project’s aims while encouraging important discussions between conference participants.