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Energizing Futures: Investigating the Infusion of IT and Design into Novel Foresight Practices

Final Report Summary - ENERGIZING FUTURES (Energizing Futures: Investigating the Infusion of IT and Design into Novel Foresight Practices)

This project advances applied and theoretical research into novel foresight methods. Taking the governance of emerging energy technologies as a focal area, this research investigates scenarios mediated through cutting-edge gaming, visualization, simulation and design techniques and theorizes about the nature, import and influence of anticipatory practices. These inquiries build up STS scholarship on anticipation and contribute to understanding best practices of foresight. This final report synthesizes the variety of peer-reviewed research articles, book chapters, conference papers and public presentations over the 18-month long Fellowship.

Future-oriented research and practices, like scenario planning, have the potential to generate more socially robust and resilient solutions in complex, ambiguous and novel situations by sorting out critical uncertainties and path dependencies. While traditional uses of scenarios persist, there is a burgeoning community of practice that infuses art, design and information technology into the development and delivery of scenarios. In efforts to make the future ‘real and tangible’, foresight practitioners are increasing merging science, design and art in an effort to increase the value of scenarios in exploring options, resolving complexity, and motivating action. These novel methods draw on the narrative strength of scenarios but ‘mediate’ the scenarios through new methods.

This research project is centered around two primary questions that seek to understand the ways that ‘mediated scenarios’ mark a new form of foresight practice: (1) What are the cultural values, tools and objectives inscribed in and performed through the practice of mediated scenarios and how can the methods be best characterized? (2) To what extent do the practices work to engage critically with energy futures and aid in decision making under uncertainty? The pursuit of these questions is organized around two objectives, each with their own set of deliverables: Objective 1- to characterize the practices associated with mediated scenarios through interviews with scenario practitioners and extensive document and media study, and Objective 2- to evaluate the efficacy of new foresight practices through the development of case studies that capture and assess the use and effects of mediated scenarios.

Within this constellation of mediated scenarios, there are a number of different methods, using different forms of mediation, with different purposes, deliverables and outcomes. The core descriptive characteristics of mediated scenarios were resolved to be (1) their participatory nature, designed to be inclusive, across disciplines or sectors of society; (2) distributed, or potentially scale-able; (3) focused on local or situated knowledge and intimate experience; (4) drawing in multi-sensorial technologies and interfaces, drawing in the visual, mediated and the tangible, (5) purposeful, or developed with clear intentions of use. To further characterize such practices, this research has unearthed the distinguishing characteristics and efficacy of nine different methodological approaches and sought to dissect, through a collection of peer-reviewed articles in a special issue, the configurations of agency, temporality and impact evident.

Selin also investigated connections between design and scenarios through literature reviews, interviews, exhibition curation and convening a forum among scores of design and scenarios scholars and practitioners. The Oxford Futures Forum brought together leading practitioners and researchers in a collective inquiry based on self-organizing, generative and reflexive making and dialogue. The inquiries conducted at the event threw up similarities and differences between the two fields and produced insights into their relative contributions and proffered a critical review and fostered transdisciplinary cross-fertilization. In our analysis of the event, we present nine themes that capture the links and spaces between design and scenarios, yet suggest that they are not a straightforward overlap or a simple relationship, but rather a range of interactions between the fields, including feeding in, bridging, tension and repulsion. Selin also co-curated an exhibition of future-oriented artefacts. Works for the exhibition Future Things presented a range of analogue and digital materials that capture some of the different ways that futures are materialised in scenarios and design practice.

In an effort to understand the performativity of expectation in innovation, this project collaborated with other STS scholars to unearth the role and function of representations of the future. Selin co-authored a review of Science and Technology Studies (STS) (and closely related) research on the performative role of future-orientation in science and technology, which synthesized research addressing concepts deployed such as expectations, promises, visions, imaginaries, futures, and others. As a contribution to better understanding the role and functionality of future-orientation, our work examined phenomenon at different degrees of resolution and explored the various concepts employed within STS research. In doing so, our work compared and contrasted the perspectives and achievements of STS that focuses on how the future is constructed and performed. This piece will be published in the field-defining Handbook for Science and Technology Studies.

Investigating the character of ‘mediated scenarios’ also involved looking to the politics and ethics of the tools as social technologies. Founding STS have asserted that technologies and by extension material affordances in the technologies of foresight not only have politics, but also particular normative orientations. That is, mediated scenarios do not merely borrow new communication platforms or tools, or simply make futures more aesthetically interesting. Future-oriented methods are not immune to the implications of McLuhan’s legendary expression, ‘the medium is the message’: new media forms are also carriers of values and, as such, it is important to ask questions about the political valences of different forms of mediated scenarios. Thus our concern is with examining the role of power, politics and persuasion in future-oriented inquiry, delving into the varied contexts of use, normativities, configurations of actors, and deployments of new mediums and materialisms. What was discovered is that while the new affordances of mediated scenarios are impactful in practice, there are also cautionary tales, or dilemmas revealing a counter weight. Such affordances and affronts relate to the particular contexts of use, but can be generalized as concerns over (1) the disruption of temporalities and positioning the future not as a blank slate, but a conceptual and material domain populated with existing plans, infrastructures and entrenched habits of mind, noticing that such rich companionability with time co-exists amidst the dominance of probability-based worldviews; (2) disruption of interactions and the risk of over-rendering futures, pointing to the ways in which mediated scenarios break frame to enable new forms of sense-making and engagement, but that a portraiture of the future made especially vivid, real and palatable also may over-determine perspective and thus delimit, rather than open up foresight; and (3) disruption of narrative and the persistence spectra of equity of participation, highlighting that the power of mediated scenarios lies in the production of new cultural narratives, yet the question of whose future is being articulated is relevant but tied to thorny issues of agency and privilege.

These advantages and disadvantages of mediated scenarios, however, should be couched not just over a concern with how foresight feeds directly into decision-making and policy outcomes. A significant theory building deliverable of Energizing Futures relates to delineating the import of capacity building as a worthwhile outcome of foresight. The development and practice of anticipatory capacities are desirable ends of public engagement and foresight, which should vie for prominence alongside of the traditional, though nevertheless elusive, outcomes of policy impact or integration in decision-making. These capacities are important enablers for laypeople and others to contribute productively—in a distributed and diverse fashion—to the democratization of science and technology and in the construction of better futures.