This is a dense, academic paper written for a class. It's a bit of a slog, but I think it's interesting and worth sharing in the spirit of working in public. I should have the key bits translated into a more accessible format by end of May 2017, so check back then!
Implicitly, practitioners in the field of design are designing the future. Every new product or service can be seen as a claim on the future (more often than not, the framing of these interventions in marketing and corporate communications positions them as such, even if they represent no meaningful advance, technologically). Each iteration of Apple’s iPhone, for example, is a short-term claim on what the world’s technology needs will be for the following year or so. These kinds of implicit claims are visible in other, more nebulous kinds of design as well. Public policy increasingly involves designers in the process (e.g., the MaRS Solution Lab (2016)); when policy is drafted, it is done so in anticipation of near-future conditions. Crucially in both of these cases, these interventions both anticipate a certain future state and actively work to shape the present towards it. There is a second, more explicit kind of design-led futures-making which is growing in use. In these cases, designers are using a diversity of methods and theoretical justifications to explicitly fashion artifacts, experiences, and narratives that are exemplary of one or more possible/probable/desirable futures; these interventions may not be commercially available, viable, or even fully-functional (Dunne and Raby 2013). In its most narrow sense, these futures might attempt to plant the seed of possibility for a future product, like a concept car (Davies 2016); at their most ambitious, they can lay out visions for wholesale social change (Manzini 2015). Examples related to domains such as health (PDD Innovation 2013), sports (Near Future Laboratory 2014), civic and political life (Manzini 2015), and entertainment (Pierce 2016) are plentiful.
This essay will argue that these explicit design futures rarely work quite as planned, in terms of influencing individual thinking about the future; instead, there are complex cognitive limitations (such as notions about the body or biases towards the positive). I will make this argument by leveraging work by Mische (2009) on a concept of agency that is temporally embedded and an associated concept of breadth, which is intended to describe how individuals are able to ‘add’ to their repertoire of considered futures. Within this framework, it will apply theoretical work by Swidler (1986) on cultural toolkits, Bourdieu (1987) on taste and embodiment, Cerulo (2006) on positive asymmetry, and Gilbert (1991) on the Spinozan model of cognition in order to demonstrate possible holes in the rational choice model so often applied to futures thinking. Broadly speaking, it assumes a Swidlerian (1986) cultural paradigm, viewing culture as a set of tools to be used in responding to situations. The guiding research question is as follows: how do cognitive factors impact actors’ ability to broaden their futures toolkits?
In order to achieve this analysis, a number of intervening steps will unfold. Friedland and Alford’s (1991) plan for a new institutionalism will be used to situate the analysis more clearly within the larger field of culture and cognition. Prior to this, I will sketch out the history of design and futures, as well as a clear current state and justification for its analysis from a culture/cognition perspective, highlighting key literature throughout. But first, I will briefly outline some of the sociological literature on design and futures, with the goal of proving a space for this kind of work.
This tentative first analysis will hopefully serve several useful roles in filling the gaps at the intersection of futures, social cognition, and design. First, it will outline new ways that sociologists can analyze design practice as a cultural and organizational field (work that is already underway by scholars like Alex Wilkie (2011)). Second, it will provide some starting points for thinking about how sociologists might articulate possible futures, a project within the sights of some scholars (Levitas (2013), for example). Third, it will hopefully demonstrate using clear examples how future-oriented cognition can be shaped by cultural entities, like design futures; this might be more broadly extrapolated, looking at how cognition in general can be influenced by external cultural products. Finally, it will suggest ways in which design practice might be modified to better achieve its aims, drawing from sociological theory (as an example, designers might take embodiment into greater consideration when planning a new design future artifact or experience).
The first task in building this analysis is briefly articulating the place that sociologists might have in approaching design. Luckily, there are several examples that illustrate room for analysis. Some treat directly with artifacts: Gieryn (2002), for example, has written on the social structuring role of buildings, connecting architecture to the work of Giddens and Bourdieu. Others look to organizational dynamics and process; Molotch’s Where Stuff Comes From (2004), is a prime example, digging into the firms and professionals that design products. Still others seek to draw out lessons for sociology from the design field: Wilkie, Michael, and Plummer-Fernandez poke around the fuzzy sociological edges of design, exploring the ways in which designerly methods can be applied in sociology, looking at bots as tools for exploring sociological ideas (2014). Terrence McDonnell’s work (2010) has looked at the intersection of materiality and urban space in the reinterpretation of AIDS awareness materials in Ghana, focusing on how cultural objects can move around and thereby become reinterpreted. The study of design objects, social processes, and methodological lessons will all play a role in this analysis of design futures.
What of these futures? Beyond Mische’s work, other sociologists have explored the forward-facing; indeed, it seems to be an aspect that is being reclaimed across subdisciplines. Levitas (2013) looks to utopian projects, past and future, as a rich source of both analytical material and methodological inspiration; she argues for a sociology that both evaluates past utopian projects and also makes normative judgments about social arrangements in pursuit of better, future ones, a rare step for a sociologist. Bell (1997), a sociologist and leading futurist, wrote a monumental two-volume history and evaluation of futures studies. While these kinds of scholars are concerned with the content and the methods of futures respectively, others, like Adam and Groves (2007) have focused on temporal dimensions of future-making. Tavory and Eliasoph (2013) go a step further, arguing for three distinct modes of future-making (protensions, trajectories, and temporal landscapes) which operate independently of one another and which individuals must keep in balance as they think about their futures. Jens Beckert (2013) takes things in a different direction, arguing for a sociology of ‘fictional expectations’, wherein individuals deal with uncertainty by constructing imaginary expectations about the future in their minds; Beckert envisions a process of ‘situated rationality’, wherein individuals connect cognition and experience in order to enact goals and form projects.
With this broad sociological space carved out, a deep exploration of the forces at play which have led today’s design-led explicit futures. Advances in two distinct fields, design and futures studies, lend themselves to convergence and might be one particular pathway that can be traced to the current, explicit state being examined here. On the design side of things, Friedman and Stolter in their foreword to Manzini (2015) tidily sum up the developments in the field over the course of the last half century or so. They begin by laying out three central tasks for designers throughout the 20th century. First, acting on the physical world; that is, producing the artifacts which fill our lives for either material or symbolic purposes. Second, addressing human needs; in this way, design is meaningfully differentiated from art. Third, generating the built environment; here, Friedman and Stolter nod towards the long history of architecture. Moving from the 20th century to the 21st, a set of four new challenges is arrayed for the reader. First, “increasingly ambiguous boundaries between artifacts, structure, and process”; by this, the authors perhaps refer to a shift from linear production processes towards design approaches wherein the process can itself be an end (as, for example, in participatory design projects). Second, the authors point towards “increasingly large-scale social, economic, and industrial frames”; here, they refer to the fact that designers are no longer being asked to redesign merely a car, but instead to redesign transportation systems, or even the very idea of transportation itself. Third, they describe “an increasingly complex environment of needs, requirements, and constraints”; to refer back to the example above, there are many more stakeholders with diverse needs in designing a transportation system versus merely designing a car. Finally, Friedman and Stolter list “information content that exceeds the value of physical substance”; any individual who has engaged with the internet can understand how its value vastly exceeds that of any particular vessel (a particularly salient example of this might be the Bloomberg Terminal, which is a relatively simple computer designed to provide access to vast stores of real-time financial information (2016)).
Futures studies has undergone transformations in the past half-century as well. As a discipline, it originates at least in part in the so-called military-industrial complex of the United States; Bell (1997) describes the early role of scenario planning in scoping out how the Cold War and the threat of nuclear apocalypse might unfold while at the same time America’s corporations made use of similar tools in planning business strategy. Later in the second half of the 20th century, futures studies was applied to problems with broader social ramifications, while maintaining a focus on projections; a prime example is Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb (1968). Finally, as the new millennium approached, new threads emerged in the discipline. Slaughter’s (2002) critical futures, for example, aimed to leverage social constructionist approaches and considerations of power in uncovering futures that were less in thrall to elite interests. In another development, Sardar (2010) discusses the importance of plurality in the discipline, moving from the singular future (with an emphasis on projection) towards plural futures (with an emphasis on probabilities and possibilities).
These two disciplinary trajectories have created a context in which the explicit design-led futuring mode has been able to flourish, and it is this mode which will be the analytical focus of this paper. Before going further, I will establish some perhaps-arbitrary assumptions about what will henceforth be referred to as ‘design futures’. First, that these are communal or social futures, not merely projections of a single person’s aspirations about his or her work or relationships. Second, that they have some artifactual dimension; these might be physical, computationally rendered, or otherwise represented in media (in this way, they are distinguished from the kind of future-making that happens in a set of McKinsey slides). Third, they are explicitly intended to expand the range of possible, considerable futures; Dunne and Raby’s (2013) speculative design (a subset of these kinds of approaches) is oriented explicitly towards identifying possible, plausible, probable, and preferable futures from a present-day starting point. Fourth, these kinds of designed futures are not oriented towards commercial viability, but instead are attempting to provide individuals or groups of people with visions of the future to consider and perhaps move towards (or away from, in some cases!).
What kinds of practice can be found in this space? Scholars like Dunne and Raby (2013) outline a radical project of critical, speculative design projects that are oriented towards problem-finding and provocations about future or alternate states, and which seem closer to art than conventional design. Others, like Ehn, Nilsson, and Topgaard (2014), outline future-making as a more situated practice, where “multiple future [are] imagined and made locally, in heterogeneous communities, and with multiple publics”. Even design theorists not treating explicitly with the constructed ‘future’ touch on it; Manzini (2015), in discussing the prerequisites for social innovation, draws on ideas of scenario building in producing shared visions of the future state.
This explicit orientation towards the ‘future’ can be found in everyday design practice, too. Design fiction, for example, is an emerging practice wherein “diegetic prototypes”, or textual/visual narratives, are produced in order to explore possible futures (Bleecker 2009); it explicitly roots itself in traditions of speculative and science fiction. More commercially, Microsoft is famous for cutting-edge ‘houses of the future’ (Yarow 2013) and video prototypes of future workplaces (Microsoft 2015).
While the implicit futuring practice of commercial product design highlighted in the opening sentences of this essay is certainly interesting, the explicit practice has been selected for a reason. At the risk of oversimplifying, practitioners of this explicit discipline take for granted that a vision of the future, presented elegantly enough, will penetrate the minds of these observers and cause them to choose what to do next. This is tidily illustrated by the way Dorst speaks of the future in Frame Innovation (2015):
“In these playful explorations, we creatively envision how things might work. Experts tend to talk about this process of proposing and trying out frame ideas in terms of ‘fruitfulness’: will a frame steer us in a promising direction, allowing us to generate multiple sensible solutions, or not? Experts with years of experience will build up an acute intuition about which frames will be fruitful and lead to results and which will not. Without this kind of experience and gut feeling, the exploration of future scenarios can be very time consuming.” (78)
The passage is quoted in its entirety because of how thoroughly it illustrates a fallacy of future-making: that actors involved in the process exercise a rational choice model (Mische 2009) when considering the futures at hand; Dorst gets close to recognizing that things are more complex with his reference to non-experts, but does not quite hit the mark (somewhat ironically, the subtitle of his book is “Create New Thinking By Design”; a deeper appreciation for cognition might serve him well in his discussion of futures).
Briefly, before laying out the analytical space in which this paper will play, it is worth considering in which ways design is presently wrangling with cognition. Robinson and Pallasmaa’s Mind in Architecture (2015) offers a helpful examination of the ways in which neuroscience can inform architectural thought and practice, while Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things (1988) is a classic in the field of industrial design, laying out for practitioners how certain cognitive processes impact how we use and understand the objects around us. A gap appears to remain, however, for designers applying the tools of cognitive theory to their work on future-making rather than artifact-making, teasing out how we think about futures as we make and consume, how futures act on us, and what thinking processes are implicated in processing the future.
Friedland and Alford (1991) are a useful starting point in framing up this analysis of design futures and clearly delineating its boundaries within the realm of culture and cognition. First, they describe a move away from a conception of society as a marketplace. This parallels a similar shift in Mische’s (2009) framework away from rational choice theory, and stands in contrast with the kind of thinking about futures that is exemplified by Dorst (2015).
Second, they articulate a crystal-clear definition of what an institution is: a persistent set of material practices and symbolic meanings. Furthermore, they argue that institutional transformations are “simultaneously material and symbolic transformations of the world”. This is a crucial link to design futures, which are at once deeply material and highly symbolic. Indeed, Manzini (2015), in the conclusion to his work on collaborative social innovation, indicates the role that design futures will play guiding noncatastrophic transitions to sustainable future states; in the preceding chapters, he discusses how design will play a role in changing specific societal institutions by creating visions for how those institutions might be different in the future. So, design futures are perhaps a place to look for the conscious instigation of long-term institutional change as a precursor to broader social change, precisely because they play so explicitly with both of these levers.
Finally, Friedland and Alford (1991) issue a clarion call for an institutional analysis that takes into accounts three levels of analysis: the individual, the organization, and the institution. While they argue for the necessity of all three in articulating social theory, here we will merely make a clear articulation of where our analysis of design futures using Mische’s framework lies in those three levels.
First, it is somewhat clear that there is a mismatch between analysis at the organizational level and the study of design futures. DiMaggio and Powell (1983) make clear that change at the organizational level may be misaligned with the cultural tools that design futures can supply. In their classic paper on organizational analysis, they articulate that organizations within a field become more isomorphic as the field becomes increasingly structurated. They indicate that this is not because of tendencies towards the most innovative approaches (perhaps a necessary precursor to design futures playing a meaningful role), but because of three mechanisms of isomorphic change: coercive isomorphism (external pressures), mimetic processes (that is, organizations simply mirroring each other), and normative pressures (for example, professionalization). While design futures might impact those other three mechanisms, it seems like too far a stretch for analysis given the available data. Fleck’s (1979) thought collectives might usefully be combined with DiMaggio and Powell’s (1983) organizational analysis here. For example, Her (Renninger 2013), a recent science fiction film, which we might consider to be a design future in its not-unrealistic extrapolation to a near-future Los Angeles, was criticized by some for presenting a future cleansed of people of colour; issues of race may simply have been far off the radar of the organizations or thought collectives involved in its production. Conversely, the Afrofuturist movement arising simultaneously in African-American and African thought collectives (Okoye 2016) might be utterly inaccessible to the average Hollywood organization. The blinders of the thought collective perhaps combine with the tendency towards isomorphism to minimize the role that organizations can play in leveraging design futures for radical change.
Second, we could situate this analysis at the institutional level. This seems somewhat more productive than the organizational level. Mohr and Duquenne (1997), for example, make clear the relationship between material practice and symbolic meaning in the construction of an institution; their study of the duality between these two facets of institutions in relation to poverty and poverty relief in turn-of-the-century New York City might have been usefully supplemented by a consideration of what motivated the change from the earlier model towards the more crystallized and rational/scientific model exhibited decades later; might there have been clear visions of the future? Despite this clear path for studying design futures, however, there is obviously a mismatch with Mische’s (2009) framework here; her work is oriented towards the innermost minds of individual agents and how they impact their actions, not the broader construction of categories and shared practice.
Thus, we are left with a relatively-clear analytical focus: the following sections will flesh out part of Mische’s (2009) framework for how individual actors cognitively process notions of the future, by focusing on explicit design futures.
As a starting point for analyzing how actors process design futures, Emirbayer and Mische’s (1998) work on agency lays helpful groundwork. First, they evaluate critically the (then current) state of social theory on agency. On the one hand, they take issue with practice theorists, like Bourdieu, who overemphasize the routine, embedded nature of agency. On the other, they reject any kind of overly-rational, judgment-oriented model. Instead, they argue for an approach to agency that integrates routine as well as judgment; what they arrive at is a conception of agency as temporally embedded, helping to integrate past habits and future projects into decision-making in the present. The temporal aspect of their work is crucial, here. They argue that agency in social action can only be understood if this aspect is taken into account; furthermore, they argue that fields of social action are relational but also temporal; that is, actors can take up specific agentic positions relative to specific ways of ordering time.
Building from this earlier work, Mische’s (2009) attention to the future is focused more specifically on projectivity, or projects. She draws a clear distinction between objective, external, post hoc examinations of futures and choice, and subjective futures which are polythetic, indeterminate, and from the point of view of the actor; her analytical focus is on the latter. Similar to her earlier work with Emirbayer, while she lauds theorists like Bourdieu for rescuing analysis of the future from an overly voluntaristic conception through, for example, habitus, Mische argues that they fail to adequately account for the agency of actors in forming projects; strategies and expectations are insufficient next to creative human action.
In response to this gap, Mische (2009) builds a framework with nine dimensions for studying future cognitions and social actions. Reach describes the extent to which futures extend along a shorter or longer temporal scale, while breadth is the “range of possibilities considered at different points in time”. Clarity refers to the amount of detail and resolution with which these futures are considered; perhaps in contrast, contingency might be understood as the extent to which the futures are flexible or liable to change. Expandability describes how an actor perceives their set of futures to be expanding or contracting, and volition is the actor’s ability to influence the impending future. The extent to which these projections are ‘peopled’ is sociality. Connectivity describes the ways in which the different parts of the projection fit together, temporally and causally. Finally, genre describes the narrative mode involved in envisioning the future: as drama, comedy, utopia, dystopia, and so on.
This theoretical analysis will focus on the ways in which different perspectives on individual cognition (as it relates to culture) modify the extent to which design futures change the breadth of available futures for an individual. While analyzing the full set of nine dimensions would likely require a great deal more space than what is available, breadth presents itself as a key candidate for analysis due to its close alignment with the kinds of claims that design futures practitioners like Dorst (2015) seem to make about the practice: that they can expand the viewer’s mind and cause them to (usefully, rationally) consider these new futures in making decisions about action.
Mische (2009) describes several possible configurations for how breadth might manifest in future visions: actors might have broad sets of possibilities in the near future, while they hold relatively straight and true to a narrow conception of the longer term future. The inverse is also possible, with actors viewing few possible short-term futures but perceiving the longer-term as somewhat wide open. Mische (2009) offers the example of political activists who have a clear long-term future vision but are relatively flexible in how they envision short-term success.
Design futures might be understood in terms of breadth in a number of ways. First the sharing of a design future with an actor is an act of broadening, demonstrating possible futures that perhaps had gone unconsidered previously. Second, a design future might change the balance of wide and narrow futures along the short-term/long-term axis; an actor whose long-term futures widen might have a different relationship with their short-term futures as well.
Moving on from Mische’s (2009) work towards a broader understanding of breadth, Swidler’s (1986) work is perhaps the most crucial piece of this analytical approach. She argues for a conceptualization of culture as a toolkit, wherein individuals are gathering cultural resources that will allow them to solve problems, navigate situations, and deal with institutions over time. Swidler’s ideas align tidily with Mische’s notion of breadth (2009); indeed, futures might be thought of as another tool for the toolbox, and breadth as a limiter on how futures get added. This might play out in a number of ways. First, futures can be seen as giving individuals new tools for responding to situations; for example, Dunne and Raby (2013) describe a project which explores new ways of interacting with robots, in an interpersonal sense. This might provide an individual with new skills for interacting with the people around them, or new skills for making robots, or even new skills for interacting with the robots in their lives. Second, futures might give actors new schema for understanding and classifying the world; the social futures described by Manzini (2015), for example, usefully help people reframe how their local support networks can fit together in new ways and in response to new challenges. However, Swidler (1986) also problematizes the rosy notion of futures toolkit expansion and breadth. It is important to note that Swidler’s toolkit does not represent some kind of rational choice model, wherein individuals are constantly, consciously calculating which tools to use in which situations. Furthermore, it is important to emphasize that actors are not using all their tools all the time, and indeed, there may be some that never see any use. You may just never think of or interact with any robots, despite having a future vision related to them. An open questions combining Swidler and Mische (2009) might ask whether there is a meaningful difference between a narrow breadth of frequently-used tools or a broader set of less-used cultural tools.
Bourdieu’s habitus (1987) points towards the kinds of cognitive roadblocks which might affect the breadth and ultimately the usage of our futures repertoire; the interlacing concepts of taste and embodiment are in play when the artifactual nature of design futures is taken into consideration. In terms of taste, it is possible to imagine a case where a design future is effectively ‘closed off’ for an actor because they lack the cultural capital to understand it; for example, Dunne and Raby (2013) profile a project wherein the practitioners “use the kind of strategic thinking usually applied to commercial corporate identity projects to critique the political implications of blurring boundaries between consumerism and citizenship” (15). Without even seeing the materials themselves, it is easy to imagine that this kind of project might be inaccessible to someone not familiar with the insider tropes corporate branding or the shifting sands of neoliberal politics. With regard to embodiment, the artifactual nature of design futures (with their focus on objects and experiences) means that actors will be encouraged to place their bodies in that future, even if it is purely in the mind’s eye. For example, certain visions of future work, like those presented by Microsoft (2015), tend to demonstrate knowledge work taken to its most ephemeral extreme; in one particular example, touchscreens are projected onto floor-to-ceiling glass walls, scuba diving marine botanists communicate in real-time with a team in a crisp, white boardroom, and data readouts are omnipresent throughout the short film. The uses of the body throughout are likely very foreign for anyone who does not do knowledge work at a high level, let alone for someone who is a mechanic or a janitor. More extraordinarily, in some cases both taste and embodiment boundaries come together to block access. I Wanna Give Birth To A Shark, another project profiled by Dunne and Raby (2013), concerns a women who quite literally wants to give birth to a shark and works through the science that would make it possible; this project requires both an understanding of conceptual art and design as well as a familiarity with futuristic notions of genetic and biological modification of the body.
Cerulo’s work on positive asymmetry is crucial (2006). Cerulo argues that individuals are typically less good at thinking of possible (and even probable) bad outcomes versus possible good ones. This patterns breadth of futures in a number of ways. First, it might limit the kinds of futures that can be added to an actor’s repertoire. For example, the television series Black Mirror (Dunne and Raby 2013), which focuses on depicting near-future technologically dystopian scenarios, might provide good entertainment but is much less likely to become a regular part of the actor’s futures repertoire. Conversely, Björgvinsson and Severson’s work (2014) on the Creative Class points towards the ways in which policy makers are predisposed towards rosy futures about this particular knowledge economy darling, to the exclusion of understanding how promoting the Creative Class might cause problems in the long run. Beyond how Cerulo’s (2006) positive asymmetry might influence actors themselves, it is worth briefly considering how it might influence what kinds of futures get made. While dystopian films and other cultural works are produced at a tremendous pace, Cerulo might suggest that they perform a role other than the broadening of possible futures to guide action towards or away from that future; one hypothesis to consider is that they are much more useful for generating and playing off of fear and anxiety about the present than for generating futures for future’s sake.
Finally, a curious supporting argument to Cerulo’s (2006) positive asymmetry is Gilbert’s (1991) work on the Spinozan model of comprehension. Gilbert argues that, somewhat counterintuitively, when we seek to understand something (even if we ultimately reject it), we must first take it as true. He further posits that, once an idea has taken some hold on us, it is hard to shake (even when we know logically that it is not a valid idea). One can envision a scenario in which a positive vision of the future obtained earlier in life is hard to shake, even when presented with a more convincing negative one. Gilbert offers us some other useful questions, too, beyond merely shoring up Cerulo’s ideas. For instance, his work forces us to consider how believable or high-fidelity a design future must be in order to embed itself in the consciousness of an individual; if we’re predisposed to believing it in order to comprehending it, is there some risk that even the most outlandish futures might be internalized if we are not careful? Certainly this lays some new responsibility on the shoulders of the designers, and serves as a strong counterpoint to rationalist thinking like Dorst’s (2015).
Briefly, the analysis presented above has hopefully begun to problematize the kinds of rational choice thinking about the future that seem to permeate the work done on design futures. Now it will be useful to discuss why this analysis matters.
First, the stakes for this exercise are somewhat higher than merely skewer the lofty rhetoric about futures and sugar-spun fancies of a few quixotic design practitioners operating on some distant margin of a discipline already somewhat distant from sociology. Instead, it is first worth considering the contexts in which this work is done. Some of it, as indicated by Dunne and Raby (2013), is done in academic contexts, where it might have an impact in determining new directions for research for other, more grounded scholars. In other cases, it exists in a corporate context (Microsoft 2015) where, despite not being oriented towards mass production, this practice still profoundly impacts both long- and short-term strategies of executives in positions of power. At still higher levels of social diffusion, design futures practice exists in the halls of government, where it can influence policy makers to pay attention to some issues while ignoring others (Manzini 2015). In each of these three cases, the context is important in highlighting the possible impacts these efforts might have in effecting the kind of material/symbolic change which ultimately transforms institutions (Friedland and Alford 1991). The closing off of whole wings of future possibility due to inattention to cultural cues on the part of the design practitioner or because of biases on the part of the audience seems like a possibly catastrophic outcome. Manzini (2015) writes in his conclusion that he envisions three non-catastrophic transitions to a new, sustainable culture; each, however, is dependent on at least awareness of what that future might be. This is relevant for both sociologists (who often leave knowledge dissemination and normative claims in the form of an academic paper, the reach or accessibility of which is perhaps limited by factors discussed above) and for design practitioners, who must rethink how exactly they design their futures.
Second, it is worth considering what possibilities an analysis like this opens up for new theories of futures and design futures; in particular, the possibility of hybrid theories seems like it might be of interest. For example, one can envision a hybrid Bourdieusian-Ceruloan (1987, 2006) theory of embodied positive asymmetry, examining the ways in which skewed futures of the body prevent us from accessing possibly-negative outcomes as part of our futures repertoire. Alternatively, a Swidler-Gilbert (1986, 1991) combination might yield interesting results. If we need to believe in a future in order to understand it, but can subsequently disregard it with some effort, how does this call into question a banking model for the futures toolkit (wherein each new cultural experience adds to the toolkit, whether it is used or not)? Are there shadow tools in the cultural/futures toolkit, dusty remnants of futures that we briefly believed before wiping away, like fragments on a computer harddrive? What do might these gaps mean for how we access and rearrange the rest of the toolkit in the long-term?
Third, it may be helpful to discuss what this analysis has helped uncover in terms of culture and cognition. Immediately, it highlighted an artifact oriented towards possible institutional change: with intentionally-crafted dimensions related to both material practice and symbolic meaning and explicitly oriented towards a future state, design futures seem like an interesting avenue for further exploration related to Friedland and Alford’s (1991) work. More broadly, examining design futures is a useful way of understanding how cognitive processes can impact how we interpret cultural products, and how in turn those cultural products can influence our cognition and ultimately our action. More specifically in terms of culture, the study of design futures perhaps opens up a new way of thinking about Swidler’s toolkit (1986) in synthesis with Mische’s framework (2009), in terms of a repertoire of possible futures that can be more or less broad. Specifically in terms of cognition, the study of design futures is perhaps another nail in the coffin of rational choice models.
Moving forward from this work, there are two broad areas that seem important to consider. First, maintaining a focus on design futures, it seems important to attempt an integration with the work of other theorists of the sociological future. How do Beckert’s (2013) fictional expectations, so far applied to the abstract idea of economics, marry with the material nature of design futures? Or looking towards Tavory and Eliasoph (2013), how do design futures rearrange temporal landscapes, those subtle and taken-for-granted gradings of time around us (such as the calendar year or school grades)?
Second, this analysis might usefully be expanded to other parts of Friedland and Alford’s (1991) three-part framework for institutional analysis. Moving away from Mische’s (2009) work, one can envision a study of design futures which focuses specifically on the kinds of institutions they aim to engage with and the material and symbolic levers upon which they lean. Furthermore, while DiMaggio and Powell’s (1983) organizational analysis pushed this paper away from organizations in the short term, it would still be a useful endeavour to explore how organizational factors drive the creation and adoption of some futures and not others. Going even further, it might be useful to look at levels beyond Friedland and Alford’s framework. Foucault’s episteme (1970) seems preliminarily useful here, in terms of how it might place broad limitations on the kinds of futures that can be designed, disseminated, and integrated into our projects. While Foucault’s conception was oriented towards scientific knowledge rather than the imagination of futures, it seems not unreasonable to classify the fashioning and perceiving of futures, with its probabilistic valence, as a kind of semi-rational knowledge evaluation.
Analytically, these next steps would likely need to be more robust than this paper; it is truly an essay in its original French conception, referring to an attempt. The holding up of design futures examples against theoretical frame has hopefully shown the endeavour of analyzing them to be worthwhile, but it has not meaningfully advanced empirical analysis of the same. Detailed discursive analysis would be a helpful next step, uncovering how design futures are constructed in relation to institutions. Alternatively, networks of design futures practitioners might uncover interesting patterns related to their production at the organizational level.
In conclusion, this essay has sketched out some of the problems with an overly voluntaristic, rational choice model in thinking about explicit design futures and the actors who engage with them. It has done so on a foundation of design history and situated in a framework for institutional analysis, relying specifically on Mische’s (2009) notions of temporally embedded agency and breadth as a guiding lens, to which other perspectives on culture and cognition have been added, including Swidler (1986), Bourdieu (1987), Cerulo (2006), and Gilbert (1991). Finally, this paper has laid out some of the meaningful avenues in culture and cognition that might stem from this initial analysis, pointing towards greater potential for design futures as an analytical focus for sociologists as well as highlighting the stakes for designers themselves in addressing the future.