We cannot decide the future, but we can respond to the possibilities. As a consequence, we are shaping the future. Forecasting design futures is in a way similar to materialising imaginative ideas of science fiction by breaking through strict disciplinary boundaries (Bleecker, 2009). In the forecast about “empathy on nature”, I followed imaginative ideas as science fiction and integrated with multidisciplinary research, because the world is in flux and the lifestyles and contexts are in the future. Empathy is an activity of human and nature is the context and environment. The aim is to empower people with the ability to make responsive decisions on future and be prepared to make a difference in the changing context instead of being thrown into an unfavourable situation. This blog shows the process from proposing a provocation to forecasting global design futures with inspirations from exhibitions, lectures, tutorials, reports, workshops, documentaries, interviews and experiments.
In February, I went to the exhibition Space to Breathe in Somerset House. It shows creative actions in response to air pollution crisis of London. I would like to talk more about the value and power that designer can create by design and artworks. Speakers from local authorities, research group and NGOs expressed the wish to collaborate and integrate, because the problems cannot be solved by a single organisation. The technologies have been developing rapidly and successfully from the Industrial Revolution for hundreds of years. It is very likely that the artificial intelligence can solve technological and scientific problems better than human. It is approaching the time when human creativity and innovation begin to mainly shape the world. Designers and scientists are creating a virtual world and people are trying it, adapting it and enjoying it.
As designers, how can our works bring value to the future world and be powerful enough to change the current lifestyles of people? I am glad to see some artworks are even trying to make a difference in our ideology, instead of personal expression. These artworks are backed up with scientific projects, which is another part of the exhibition. The reflection of these works may provide us with some weak signals about emerging technologies and human desires from scientific and artistic perspectives.
- Everything is integrated, from art to science and across different business sectors.
- People are happy to try virtual reality and enjoy it. The boundary between reality and virtuality is blurring.
- Massive manufacture to personalising.
Good designers vary from artists to scientists. The possibilities are everywhere. Good designs may not make a difference in the current situation. Only powerful designs can change the customs of people. If something is powerful enough to invoke people’s “fear and love”, we call this process “empathy”. I will explain it in detail with my feelings and experiences in the exhibition Fear and Love in Design Museum.
I went to two exhibitions in Design Museum. Fear and Love was close to art and Designs of the year was close to design. I thought of how the two ways respond to future possibilities. Actually, the boundary is blurring between art and design. However, when talking about futures, are we expecting something to happen or prepared about anything may happen? As for me, I prefer the latter. The two things must have an overlap. The designers are definitely expecting their design will change the future in the designed way. Whereas, after seeing Fear and Love, I asked myself: have we considered responding to what is happening now and how will they affect ourselves? Some may answer they have no relationship with me. Others may start responding them in different ways after seeing the works. That is the power of critical artworks.
In the course “Global Design Futures”, I didn’t do product design or service design as I wished things should be in my perspective. A good design will definitely change something as the designers have planned. This time, I tried to do something in a different way. What I would like to create should invoke everyone’s sympathy, so that more people will begin thinking of tackling things that really matter for themselves. No one should lead an inert life in a planned way by others which you may not aware. The audience is expected to aware something related to their futures and responds in their own ways. The world is becoming more and more pluralistic. It is really powerful to tell all the people: it really matters, please be prepared for the future and respond.
After updating reflections and experiences in my blog, I framed the provocation: What if people had more empathy on nature and were able to respond?
This image shows how I would arouse people’s empathy on nature through critical experiment. At first, Weak signals were easily ignored by people before they were aware of responding to the potential future. During my project, critical design experiment would be a good way to arouse and reflect empathy. The aim was to empower people with the ability to respond to potential futures and make a difference. It is common that people lack empathy on some areas about nature. I made a conclusion of these weak signals by STEEP analysis.
STEEP of nature:
- Social: City and Nature, Human and Nonhuman Animals, Culture, Lifestyle
- Technological: Virtual Reality, Artificial Nature, Biology, Medical Science
- Environmental: Loss of habitat and species, Pollution, Green Space, Biodiversity
- Economical: Manufacture, Hunt, Health, Natural Experiences, Sustainability, Energy, Agriculture
- Political: Policy, Threats to the earth
We can see most of them are close and significant to our future life. Through my work, people may not get an answer or solution, but they will think about how to respond to future nature seriously. My work should be critical and experimental, even a bit intentional and uncommon, so it will be more likely to arouse the curiosity and empathy of the audience.
Experiment: Artificial Pigeon – a way of empathy on nature
Nature is important for human. How we think about nature is fundamental to how we understand ourselves and our environment. With the rapid loss of habitat and species, the differences and similarities between human and non-human animals are coming under reconsideration. Artificial technology provides us with the ability to be compatible with nature in the future. It dissolves the current contradiction between city and nature, human and non-human animals. I would like to use an “Artificial Pigeon” in different contexts as a way of empathy to reflect artificial nature and record my emotional feelings and people’s reactions to it. The reactions would be analysed in five senses: sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch. It is an intentional action to catch people’s attention, where people are much more likely to have empathy and give a response. In fact, they would just be shaping the future in this process, because the collective voice significantly affects the innovators and pioneers. As a result, I could make a forecast based on how they would be shaping the future.
At first, let me show you some contradictions. The pigeons are a fascinating view in the city and friendly to people. However, their dropping carries over 50 types of bacteria and erodes the surfaces of architectures. It may also cause a serious slip hazard (Londonpigeonsolutions.co.uk, 2017). The netting on buildings is causing death to pigeons who get trapped in it and suffer a slow and agonising death. This contradiction may be solved by artificial nature to satisfy the senses of people and that is the reason why I use artificial pigeons to reflect. Artificial nature may provide new ways and perspectives to optimise the relationship between human and nature. I would do experiments to seek new perspectives of natural experiences.
Context 1: This photo shows how I treated it as a pet. Stroking the texture of the pigeon was really an enjoyable and natural experience. As a pet, it lived with me, went out with me, attended school with me and ate with me. There were always a lot of opportunities to see my friends and strangers’ attitudes towards it.
Context 2: The pigeon and I were immersed in the fog. It reflected the experiences in the artificial environment and with the artificial animals. My mind remained unmoved and calm. I could see and feel people around me were curious and some were staring at the pigeon. “Did you bring the pigeon from seaside?” “No, it is handmade.”
Context 3: I was feeding the artificial pigeons when more real pigeons were attracted. The real pigeons struck the artificial pigeons to compete for food. The contrast between real and artificial was very interesting and provocative. It reflected the coexistence and interaction between reality and virtuality.
Evaluation and Iteration: A Question to Emmy-winning Director Josh Fox
The experiences and people’s reactions towards the artificial pigeon were not the same as I had ever thought. I expected it should have solved the contradictions people dislike and kept advantages people like. Actually, it did invoke people’s curiosity and empathy to some extent, but it was not an unaffected and natural experience, sometimes contrived and weird. These gaps are important insights that drove me to further research and exploration. How can artificial nature create an unaffected and natural experience to arouse empathy?
I saw an amazing film How To Let Go Of The World And Love The Things Climate Can’t Change in UK Green Film Festival 2017. It provides me with a cultural, emotional and experiential perspective to respond to future nature and society which benefit a lot to my project about the research perspective. This documentary is divided into two parts: the first part shows the threats in an objective way through interviews, conferences, figures and forecast which made the audience desperate and depressed. With the director lying on the snowfield, the turning point comes. After the camera rises up to the sky and comes down slowly, the director asks that what the climate cannot change. Courage, resilience, creativity, all these great characteristics of human beings cannot be changed by any disaster. The director reflects these characteristics by immersing in the context and recording all the true experiences, scenes, emotions and aspirations.
After the documentary, there was a conversation with the director Josh Fox by Skype. I was very lucky to have the opportunity to ask a question: How did you decide to choose the experiential, emotional and human-centred perspective to respond to climate change? BEFORE you make the film or DURING your research? Josh answered: “I can’t know how to respond to a topic without research. Actually, the film is two separate films. I decided these perspectives after the first part. The things that climate cannot change impressed and inspired me during I did my research across continents with different people.”
Having found this answer very useful for my situation, I started iterating my Artificial Pigeon experiment from emotional and experiential perspectives. I invited people to share opinion with pictures or with artificial pigeons. I brought the stuff to focus groups and they described my experiences. In the end, I began to realise that five senses in the experiences have a significant impact on invoking empathy. The artificial pigeons are too lifelike through seeing and touching, but they are still without smell and sound. They can attract people, but cannot engage people in a dynamic and interactive experience. The photography recorded a highlight moment, so it is much more attractive and leaves deep impressions on people. In contrast, the artificial pigeon should have reflected smell and sound, which was the reason why contradictions and weirdness emerged. It is similar to the awkward situation that VR products and services are facing. Having synthesised the gaps and insights through experiments and primary and secondary research, I conclude five global design trends related to the theme and service design. Since people have empathy, they have more awareness and ability to respond and make a difference. In this process, people are shaping the future.
Five global design trends for “empathy on nature”
1. Escapist immersion in artificial nature
According to the four realms of an experience, the escapist realm describes the experience where people immerse actively with two-way interaction (Pine and Gilmore, 1998). With the development of industrial society and urbanisation, people have a strong voice of escaping to nature. The experiences of immersion in artificial nature are emerging and becoming popular, such as luxurious nature hotel, VR products and services, urban theme parks. We cannot completely go back to nature, so we design artificial nature to meet specific desires of nature experiences under the restriction of economy, environment and policy. However, without fantastic active immersion and two-way interaction, current services do not engage people enough to develop a sense of escapist immersion. Like my Artificial Pigeon experiment, the processes are intentional and contrived to some extent. In the future, the ideal experience will be able to take place whenever you want and wherever you are. The space will be built with both original function and artificial nature where people are empowered to switch between the two contexts. It is a dynamic process in a state of flux. It sounds a bit inconceivable about the double space, realistic and virtual. That is to say, space will become an informational and experiential platform.
2. Personalised hierarchy of senses by parametric virtuality
People will be able to enjoy the experience of escapist immersion in artificial nature. Whereas, people’s feeling varies in the five senses of nature. The emotional needs of different people vary in diverse situations. Base on the outcome of Artificial Pigeon experiment, it is important to keep a balance of five senses to make people comfortable with artificial nature. To that end, it is important to build an unaffected and natural experience of escapist immersion. In the perspective of an informational platform, I imagine parametric virtuality would analyse big experiential data to optimise specific user’s experience through personalised parameters. For example, if someone is sensitive to sound, it will automatic form an experience with fascinating sound primarily and other senses supportively. In the long run, the users can have a better understanding of themselves and their relationships with nature.
3. Emotionalised interaction in escapist immersion
As the escaping experience is quite private, people will not affect each other in the space. In the perspective of an experiential platform, it is a communicational experience with inner minds in a relatively private space. The users are aimed to forget trifles, relieve stress and go back to nature as an escape from the reality. In fact, the escaping experience is not a negative attitude towards reality. It is common people sometimes would like to go into solitude for refreshment, like meditation. A great revolution will take place in both commercial spaces and workplaces with the development of technology and human desires. As I have pointed out, the space is more than its original function, but also an informational and experiential platform. In terms of the main stakeholders in virtual experiences, there will be a delicate relationship between human and AI in escapist immersion. From the human perspective, we get emotionalised interaction with a non-emotional machine that we feel safe and relaxed as solitude. From the AI perspective, it inputs informational signals and outputs emotionalised response. As a result, it will lead to a new civilisation where human beings and AI coexist and interact in double space from reality to virtuality.
4. Service design as open platforms
In service design discipline, the users are pursuing to immerse in a virtual world as escapists. So the role of service providers and contexts will change. The service providers are likely to be robots and AI. A lot of contexts will be created by VR technology. Service design will face a much more complicated situation with virtuality and reality, robots and human. In terms of artificial nature, the space should be built with an integration of art, design, technology, science and health across a lot of disciplines. The touchpoints and stakeholders will form a big net. In the future, service design agencies will be replaced by open service design platforms. In the open platform, any user, service designer or service provider can launch projects. Other relevant stakeholders will receive notifications and choose to join or not. Service designers will be registered in the platforms and will be assigned to suitable projects based on knowledge, resources and experience. As an open platform, it fosters the co-design process and every stakeholder is in the same standing. If all the stakeholders can benefit from one project, then it must be viable and sustainable in the market. The efficiency and effectiveness of service design process will be significantly improved in this way to embrace the complicated contexts of service design futures.
5. Empathy in informational and experiential levels
As a service experience designer, the most important professional skill is empathy and ability to respond in the future. It seems that empathy is widely referred to in service design thinking and methods. You may wonder why empathy will become much more challenging and important in the future for service experience designers. On one hand, the escapist trend puts a block on empathy. Escapist immersion is quite private, personalised and emotionalised. The desire of escaping is harder to describe than needs and wants. On the other hand, human emotion is important in service design and service designers use a human-centred methodology. When AI is integrated into service design, it can affect human emotion and human conveys emotional signals to AI as a response. With AI and human affecting each other, how can service designers build up empathy of non-emotional users and emotional users together? That is why the way of empathy in the future is much more different and difficult than what service designers are using now. AI procedure emotional feedback as an input of signals and then make a reaction; human react to everything with emotion, no matter how slightly it is. We can regard the two ways as informational reactions and experiential reactions respectively. So the skill of empathy is built based on informational and experiential levels in the future. The process of empathy is iterative as the designers should consider the responses AI and human make in several rounds to synthesise the overall experience across all the touchpoints. To that end, as for service designers, it is the most important skill to build up empathy in informational and experiential levels flexibly and appropriately in diverse contexts.
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