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Imagining a future without carbon

With a changing climate, our future is uncertain. Design can help us create the future we want to become reality.

Idil Gaziulusoy

Three months in, and 2019 already looks like it will be a warm year. In February, measurement stations in Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom recorded daily temperatures higher than ever before. According to the latest IPCC report, the average annual temperature on earth has already increased by approximately 1 degree Celsius and will continue to rise. If we continue on our current path of consumption, transportation and agriculture, we are set to experience a future of unsustainability, high-end climate change and crisis.

But what if this future is not the only possible future? Idil Gaziulusoy, assistant professor of sustainable design at Aalto University, is in the process of challenging that scenario; or rather, of working to develop alternative futures to the dismal one we face if we do not act soon.

"There are countless alternative futures being proposed at the moment," she says.  She cites the degrowth movement as one counternarrative to the perpetual growth paradigm we are stuck in, but also 'smart city' or technologically driven green infrastructure-type scenarios being promoted by corporate players. Gaziulusoy stresses that all these scenarios need to be "plausible, but also significantly different from what we are doing now, which requires creativity, imagination and a great deal of knowledge all at once."  

Scenarios for future survival

Gaziulusoy works to facilitate interactions between various stakeholders, helping them to develop future visions for communities and societies during and after the transitions we are facing. Before coming to Aalto University in 2016, she spent three-and-a-half years in Melbourne, Australia, working as a sustainability and design researcher on a long-term project to develop scenarios of low-carbon and resilient futures for Southern Australian cities in 2040.

The four scenarios developed imagined very distinct futures. On one end of the spectrum was an imagined future society with a high rate of privatization, technological development and increased inequality, while on the other end of the spectrum was a society that is self-governing, low-tech and communal in nature. In the middle of the range were one society governed democratically by a benevolent government with high regulatory powers, and a second one with a high level of digitization and entrepreneurial activity.

The process involved bringing together experts in areas such as energy, transportation or water provision. Gaziulusoy explains that deep expertise in various areas is necessary to combat wicked problems such as these, and to understand the emerging technological and social innovations that may play a role in transitioning.  Added to the mix of field-specific experts are what Gaziulusoy refers to as 'niche players', people involved in small-scale initiatives in the present that enact or anticipate potential alternative futures.

"These can be cyclists if we're talking about future mobility systems, or people producing their own energy using renewable resources." She refers to these niche players as 'the seeds of the alternative futures', which creates the lovely metaphor of growing a garden of potential futures we can choose from.

What is the role of the designer in the process? At first, Gaziulusoy deflects the question slightly, saying that she prefers to talk about the role of design rather than the role of designers, as these kind of large, systemic transformations involve a great deal of design work, which may not be done by professionally trained designers. This echoes what Kaisu Savola said about the Everyday Experiments in the Triennale di Milano participation: "Design is being done in important ways by designers and non-designers alike." Gaziulusoy takes it a step further and says: "Design is a fundamental human cognitive ability."

She explains the roles that professionally trained designers such as herself do play in these kinds of transformations, beginning with designers' unique abilities of synthesizing knowledge from different fields and various perspectives from diverse stakeholders.

"In our case in Australia, we had a group of professionally trained designers commissioned to work with participants of visioning and scenario workshops. The designers helped facilitate the conversation and kept it on track by translating concepts between experts, either by explaining them in their own words or by creating sketches and quick visualizations."

This 'translation' work and the objects - or intermediary artifacts, as Gaziulusoy calls them - created by designers help to find common ground among the participants. It enables people from different backgrounds, with different levels of knowledge in specific areas, to communicate about a shared topic in a common language.

Not every alternative future is desirable

Gaziulusoy is quick to point out that although there are many visions for how the future might be, they are not all made equally. Each scenario reflects the hopes, fears, and interests of the person or organization imagining the alternative future. Aware of the stark differences in values that are revealed in the scenario-making, Gaziulusoy is reluctant to reveal too much about her imagined future, although she does have minimum criteria it must meet. From her work in Australia, Gaziulusoy believes that desirable future scenarios must have three characteristics:

Sustainable - An alternative future has to mitigate the damage that has already been done to the environment and ecosystem.

Resilient - Each scenario should include adaptation measures to the damage that has already occurred and will occur in the future.

Just - An alternative future must consider equality and justice for all people, and maintain an ethical responsibility to protect the most vulnerable communities.

Besides these three criteria, Gaziulusoy is intentionally vague about her 'ideal alternative future', although she does indicate that it would be one in which she does not have to grow a vegetable garden in her own backyard for food. Remaining non-committal about the details of these alternative futures is both a strategic and a pragmatic choice. Strategic, because if Gaziulusoy were to commit to a future scenario it could alienate potential partners or collaborators. "There are multiple viable, plausible and even appealing alternatives," she says, each with its own implicit vision and values.

Keeping options open is also a pragmatic decision. We do not yet know which of the alternatives being proposed at the moment -- if any -- is the right future for us. As Gaziulusoy puts it, "we need to keep these futures open even as we walk towards them."

The IPCC report estimates that we have between one and three decades to make the transitions necessary to mitigate the most severe consequences of climate change. No matter which choices are made, humans and societies will face major transitions. With the help of scientists, experts and social innovators - not to mention designers such as Idil Gaziulusoy - it is to be hoped that society will be equipped for these transitions and the future to come.

***

The Everyday Experiments exhibition at this year's Triennale di Milano explores precisely the type of small-scale projects that Idil Gaziulusoy considers to be 'seeds of alternative futures'.

Explore the 12 Everyday Experiments: [everdayexperiments.aalto.fi]

This year, La Triennale di Milano will take place from 1 March to 1 September 2019 and is curated by Paola Antonelli, Senior Curator of Architecture and Design and Director of Research & Development at The Museum of Modern Art. Broken Nature will reflect on the relationship between humans and environments at all scales—from the microbiome to the cosmos—including social, cultural, and natural ecosystems.

The XXII Triennale, Broken Nature: www.brokennature.org

 

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