Design for the Future

The Philadelphia Museum of Art has a new exhibition design futures (open through March 8). Design futures is a movement across various sectors of design to develop concepts and prototypes for the future, sometimes referred to as speculative design. Followers of design futures contend that is that designers are uniquely positioned to imagine and address future needs, whether that be through modifying current technologies or envisioning new ones. Ultimately, design futures is less about making market-ready products or predicting where the future will go than imagining possibilities, questioning assumptions, and thinking through the implications of technological development.

Disrupting breast feeding

The emphasis in this exhibit was “design for different futures.” The progressive, activist element was strong, with works that took on breast feeding justice, climate crisis, ableism, food insecurity, and much more. Among my favorite pieces was Heather Dewey-Hagborg’s “Stranger Visions,” on the uses and abuses of biometrics. Dewey-Hagborg used chewing gum found on the sidewalk to extract DNA and develop likenesses of the chewers’ faces. Notes the accompanying curation, “as speculative portraits, they test the current limits of DNA science, the trust we place in it, and the truth we believe it to hold.”

Heather Dewey-Hagborg, “Stranger Visions”

As I watched curious onlookers stroll through the exhibition space, gawking at futuristic sex toys or playing with robots, what struck me most was how deeply normal thinking about the future has become. We are constantly confronted with the way the world will be, with change seemingly on order whether we like it or not. What I liked best was how the exhibit allowed us to engage, think about, and react personally to possible futures. In a particularly empathetic gesture, a Futures Therapy Lab sits near the exit of the space, allowing visitors “a space for reflection, discussion, and art making as you think about your own hopes, fears, questions, and possibilities for the future.”

A robot that could sync its movements to mirror its nearest observer. Is this empathy?

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