If scenario creation was the poster-boy for futurism in the mid-1990s, artifact creation looks to play that role for mid-2000s futurism. Combining strategic foresight with what amounts to concept-car design, efforts such as the Institute for the Future's "Artifacts from the Future" and Management Innovation Group's "Tangible Futures" seek to give clients a sense of what tomorrow might hold through the use of physically (or at least visually) instantiated objects. These objects make up in conceptual weight what they may lack in detailed context; holding a fruit carrying a label showing the various pharmacological products added to its DNA is far more arresting than reading a story about big pharma taking over big farmers, let alone a simple listing of this development as a possibility.
As I've mentioned a couple of times, I'm doing a bit of work with IFTF right now, and I had a chance to handle some of the Artifacts from the Future that Jason Tester and his team devised -- do not underestimate the memetic power of good photo editing skills and a quality color printer.
What makes this method so intriguing is that, often, the objects aren't presented as imaginary possibilities, but as real-world products from a few years hence. The greater the verisimilitude, the greater the sense of dislocation and anxiety. The notion of drug-laced fruit isn't an abstract concept if you can hold what appears to be one in your hand; we're forced to ask what kind of world makes something like this possible -- and just how plausible is it that we could soon find ourselves in that world?
This sort of anticipatory creativity isn't new; product designers have been doing it for decades, as have science fiction writers, game designers, even strategy and innovation consultancies. The game book I wrote a few years ago, Toxic Memes is effectively a big book of future artifacts, albeit mostly social ones (political movements, urban legends and the like). I even managed to come up with something that had a real world manifestation a couple of years later.
The web has opened up a vast arena for just this sort of playful construction, and it's not too hard to stumble across what appear to be corporate websites for products and services that really shouldn't yet exist. Sometimes, the viewer is let in on the gag with subtle jokes, or even small disclaimers; sometimes, the site presents itself with a completely straight face, leaving even the most skeptical visitor wondering if such things might really be possible -- and if not now, how soon?
Many of these future product websites imagine products and services arising from commonplace genetic engineering. There are numerous reasons for this, both practical and emotional. It's easier to make a plausible modification to a living form than to make a non-living object that looks desirable to consumers without looking like a knock-off of a present-day object. At the same time, we're much more prone to fascination and dismay over biomodification than we are to new pieces of consumer electronics. If the goal is to provoke a visitor response, imaginary bioengineering is the way to go.
Human Upgrades -- biomodifications for human bodies (Warning: some pages are extremely unsafe for the workplace, and potentially startling even for the jaded. I'm serious.)
Provocation is precisely the point of linking conceptual design to strategic foresight. Those of us who spend time crafting imaginary products, services or trends from the future aren't trying to come up with marketable ideas (even if that sometimes happens), we're trying to offer a glimpse at what might be possible, with the goal of pushing the viewer to ask questions about the ways in which the world is changing. Is this the kind of world we'd want? How might we do this differently? How could we make it better? What would have to change before I would use something like this? What would something like this mean for my organization, my family, my life?
Many, perhaps most, future artifacts trigger this provocation by offering up products or services that would be taboo (or, at least, very hard to get past the FDA) today. What we need to see more of are anticipatory designs that provoke us into imagining ways in which the world could be better than it is today. We're starting to see that in vehicle design, from the Aptera hypercar getting 330 mpg to the Daimler-Chrysler "bionic" car echoing the streamlining of the boxfish. Bruce Sterling's Viridian Movement, and his more recent work leading design classes in California, also mix of positive provocation with anticipatory artifacts.
I can't imagine doing a major futurist project now without using some kind of tangible element of the future, even if it's just an article from a magazine of a decade or three hence. These artifacts provide an anchor for the recipients, not in the sense of holding them back, but in the sense of giving them a grounding from which to explore.
In Transmetropolitan, by Warren Ellis, Darick Robertson, and Rodney Ramos, the story's future society has built the Farsight Community, tasked with trying out new technologies for extended periods in order to see what the real-world effects might be. This way, society can make educated choices about widespread adoption of new systems, and can better prepare for risks. We don't have the luxury of a Farsight Community; what we do have are foresight tools, the ability to learn from both successes and mistakes, and -- most importantly -- our imaginations.