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Primer EU: Futures For All

I spent this week in Madrid, where I attended Primer EU. With my increasing interest in futures and speculative design, I wanted to take a closer look at the community, its methods, and successes.

Note: while drafting this post, I drifted toward an explanation for my curiosity and why I might have something useful to offer the field. This meander soon became a distraction, so I’ve set those thoughts aside for a follow-up.

Primer EU: Futures For All took place at Casa del Lector, a cultural and art space close to the river. The single-track programme was jam-packed: fifteen presentations, a panel (of course), a video interview with a strategic foresight advisor stuck in Brussels, and more besides. It was at times so unabating that I had little time to process the ideas and examples under discussion.

Summarising the themes

I scribbled down pages of notes for most talks (note how each speaker appears to be outdoing the others for the wordiest title) and reduced the most interesting points into a Twitter thread. Here, for posterity, are those tweets:

Britt Wray
How climate change messes with our minds — and what design can do about it

@brittwray highlights the increase in pychological distress (eco anxiety, melancholia, solastalgia) brought about by climate crisis and difficult truths. Three approaches we can take:
  • design for emotional resiliency;
  • design for community building;
  • design for action

Miguel Jiménez
Gentrification of the Futures — Ethics, Technology & Strategy

@migs212 says we experience cycles of violent system change. It happened in the 20s, the 70s, and it’s happening now; we should protest, should question everything. Design must be accountable. It’s difficult to map burgeoning futures disciplines as we race to gentrify.

Aarathi Krishnan
Humanitarian Futures: Perpetuating the Status Quo or Actually Reimagining a New World?

Humanitarian @akrishnan23: what got us here is not what will take us forward; singular narratives limit our questioning. We see global push back, radical social change, new forms of leadership, power shifts. Hope for an inclusive future where everyone can flourish.

Nicolas Arroyo
Democratising Futures: Incorporating Futuring as a core practise for the new generation of organisations

@nicnaar: Our current social crisis is a crisis of our imagination. We must encourage curiosity and demystify the future. Speculation as research. Use futuring to create ripples, develop a mosaic of signals to understand change and find new perspectives.

Isabel de Salas
Anticipatory Innovation: the key to add value into the future

Isabel de Salas (@learnforesight) plots the characteristics of purpose-led innovation along axis of certainty and uncertainty, proactive and reactive. Certainty requires we develop incrementally, or adapt. Uncertainty suggests we anticipate, be resilient.

Panel discussion
The intros were unclear and no names displayed, so I’ve no idea who took part.

Rich opportunity to drive change but design at a crossroads; a time for polymaths across multi-disciplinary purpose-led inclusive practice? Everyone fearful of poorly-framed process — e.g. Design Thinking. Potential for harm and hope. Design will probably eat itself.

Peter Bishop
Preparing Students for the Future by Actually Teaching them about the Future

@teachfutures outlines the need to teach foresight in schools: ways to understand disruption, anticipate change. Futurists populate the world with hypothetical disruptions; provide what-ifs. Expected, alternate, and preferred futures. Who decides what is preferred?

Archie Mani Srinivasan
Transportation Landscape of a Future World

Archie Mani Srinivasan: How do we design for humans to be active players rather than passive participants? Have to understand human experience; ensure humans retain input amid automation, partners with tech. Essential we identify the boundaries.

Dominika Swierad & Lorenzo Lattanzi
Design when everybody (could) design

Dominika & Lorenzo, Still Not Quite: Speculative design facilitates open environments where participants respond and invent objects. People often vent, use sarcasm, expose the community position, local narratives. D&L watch, listen, analyse, then start something new.

Jorge Camacho
Acá nos tocará vivir: Insights from an ethnographic futures project in Mexico City

@j_camachor explores the social anxieties of Mexican families to examine national identity and uncover images of the future. People see life as a challenge, cyclical, that the future is the past. But as things break down we find opportunities for new beginnings.

Jimmy Loizeau
"Not the usual news"

@jimmyl0izeau highlights the shame of UK media and its part-truths; the representation of swarming refugees — “the other”. He responded by mapping the Calais jungle, documenting the material architecture; digitally archiving and broadcasting from these spaces.

I failed to summarise several talks. Occasionally my brain requested a rest, and once or twice I didn't get a clear idea of a speaker’s intention owing to rushed or confused delivery. There were frustrating tech problems throughout the day, and I think some speakers were missing notes due to the apparent theft of several laptops. Credit to the hosts and speakers for their professionalism in the face of these issues.

Clear purpose

The ups far outweighed the downs, and I’ve no doubt that this trip to Madrid will prove significant. I thought the content refreshing, the hosts welcoming, and the crowd relatively diverse. Also, the unlimited coffee (Clifton beans, no less) and cake was most welcome, coincidentally provided by Black Poplar where I’d enjoyed my pre-conf breakfast.

Moving beyond my comfort zone to attend a futures-focused conference rewarded me with encouraging conclusions. The field generally feels less self-serving and more mature, with practitioners eager to learn from real people at every opportunity. Responsible futurists are plotting a more open, ethical and inclusive path into uncertainty, facilitating purpose-led, innovative projects that have every chance of improving lives and minimising harm.

More soon.