Imagine a different future

Museum exhibit of the apartment of the future

Imagine it’s the year 2050 and you’re sitting in your apartment. The low hum of fog machines drones in the background as you skim the morning headlines citing worldwide crop failures while munching on your breakfast of mealworms, kale and mushrooms.

This is a new world, a world of empty supermarket shelves where humans have learned to adapt to survive.

This is just one possible future a new hero of mine, futurist Anab Jain challenged us to imagine at the conference I was at last month in Montreal.

Anab works for an organization called Superflux, a UK design studio dedicated to translating future uncertainty into present day choices by imagining and creating different futures. They run experiments, build prototypes and simulate possible versions of the future so companies and governments can make bold decisions today.

Superflux has learned the most powerful way to change human behaviour is to help people directly, tangently and emotionally experience the change.

Anab told us about how the government of the United Arab Emirates commissioned them to shape their energy policy. Superflux created a prototype of a device that emits vapour simulating what the air quality would be like in the year 2050, then invited the UAE delgation to breathe in the air. The next day the government announced they would invest billions of dollars in renewable energy.

One fascinating insight Anab shared is that for every advancement or breakthrough we’ve seen in society, there are always expected and unexpected consequences.

For instance, facial recognition technology is being used by law enforcement agencies, governments, schools and companies under the auspices of keeping our society safe, but for every positive intended consequence, there can be negative, unintended consequences.

A university in China uses facial recognition technology in its classrooms. The technology registers if students are paying attention and assigns an emotional response. Students say they have learned to not register emotion to circumvent the technology.

Anab also shared a scary statistic: 95% of facial recognition software is inaccurate. Not only is big brother here to stay, he is basing his decisions on inaccurate data.

The ethical implications of this are enormous, and exploring both the intended and unintended consequences of possible futures is a key aspect of Superflux’s work.

Another project involved imagining if in the year 2050, we were living in a world of scarcity and there was not enough food to feed the billions of people on the planet. They simulated an urban apartment, which was made into a museum exhibit.

At first glance, the one side of the space looks like a normal kitchen with shelves, a coffee maker, appliances. On closer look, you see signs of the new reality—a newspaper headline that reads, “Worldwide crop failures in 2049”. A book on the bookshelf called “Pets as Protein”.

You notice the other side of the apartment is filled with industrial shelving and fluorescent lighting, where the residents are growing their own food using fog. Oyster mushrooms are being cultivated on the top shelf while smaller plastic containers are full of live mealworms.

Freaked out yet? You should be. The future is looking scary these days. Trump. The resurgence of nationalism and isolationism. Global warming.

We can’t let the future happen to us. We need to imagine and fight for the future we want.

Want to be a futurist? It’s not as far out there as you may think. Google, NASA, even Ikea, have a futures team.

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