We lost our bright future. Did we?

What the reason is, I don’t know, but in a couple of events I visited last weeks the main topic seemed how we see our future, and more in particular, how we lost some of the bright images of the future we used to have. The Club of Amsterdam event was completely dedicated to the future of the future. It was not a positive story. Andrea Wiegman of Second Sight gave an overview of the industry of futurists as first speaker and sketched a new era that already started in 2008 with books like the Black Swan. Arjen Huisman of Gendo went even further, like in this concluding slide. And the last speaker – Anders Sandberg of Oxford University – went through a bunch of biases we have in looking to the future. From probability biases, status quo biases to hindsight biases. “We like to shape the future like unrealistic scenarios because that is why we like the future.”

It was also one of the themes of the conference Playful. Brendan Dawes used a quote from William Gibson to express that feeling: “Upon arriving in the capital-f future, we discover it, invariably, to be the lower case now.” We are living a middle aged future as Marcus Brown put it. All our dreams for the future as we were children are fulfilled, and there are no new futures to dream of, except for more optimized worlds.

Never before I attended Playful, a sweet conference “all about games and play — in all their manifestations, throughout the contemporary media landscape”. The reports on the conference by Kars and Nicolas make a extensive report almost obsolete, I agree at large in their observations. The theme of the lost future also resonates on the evening on Visible Cities of last week. During the first presentation of Lorenzo de Rita focused on our need to keep imagination. The future of today has more to do with preparation than imagination, he said. His complete talk was build around this theme. He connected the movement to ultimate visibility to this lack of imagination; total transparency don’t leave any room for imagination. Literally.

The idea of the lack of new imaginary images of the future seems to be true. That does not mean there is no interesting future ahead. Also just in this week an Interesting new product was introduced: the Nest Thermostate. Made by some designers from the iPod it is the ultimate example of the future products. It is super simple to use, but at the same time super complex under the hood to enhance our experience. And besides the beauty of the smart experience, it is also a product with a story, initiated to stimulate a better use of our house hold energy use, because this is a big spoiler of energy.

The Nest Thermostate fits a category of smart products that is introduced the last month. Also brand new is the Lytro camera that let you take a shot with one push without worrying on focusing the image; the camera captures all different focus points so you can adjust the right focus afterwards. And you can even keep changing that.
And there are the earlier introduced products like the Peel remote control that creates smart guides based on your behavior, and Sifteo and Cubelets that make interactive toys in a robotic way. At Playful Chris O’Shea showed us the post digital world we are entering with what he called the appcessory-concept; how the digital services get tangible accessories to operate them. Everything is going to talk back to us said another.

Are these products the bright new inspirational future or just the preparable future? For me it is inspiring, but at the same time I see the development emerging to the danger of a relevancy paradox as I described this at PICNIC earlier. If we go on with making our life completely adapted to our projected wishes, room for unexpected experiences will disappear. And in the end it will be even hard to have a good profile to make stuff relevant. I think that we will see a lot of deliberate disturbances in the ideal relevant world to let you make choices to improve the profile. Play will in that sense be the tool to create these experiences. And therefor it was so interesting to see how Playful was dealing with this ideal relevant world.

Matthew Ward showed how you can use our imagination to create a great experience with a balloon that is disarmed like a bomb. Green=boom is a great project that shows how we build our own world based on perceived behavior fed with the consumed media context. Media mediate reality in that sense.
The experiment resembles our future world where we get more disconnections between the actions we play and the consequences they have. We need this playful layer to stay in touch with the consequences.

As Loise Downe said; we will have more intimacy with machines. That requires trust that the machines think in the same way as we do. The reliance depends on the way we can predict the complexity. We will make up rules to deal with the new products.

At the Visible Cities event Michiel de Lange announced an interesting conference coming year on the social city. Inspiration is the development of the smart city, and the fear that we will focus on this smartness and create unlivable perfect worlds. The city as a platform for social behavior is however the driver for the technologies.

So, is the future one where everyone has his own shed to fabricate stuff, like Brendan Dawes describes in his story on the invention of his iPhone photo button device. Do we get the shift to a future where we get ultimate personalized products. Where the haves been able to have their own factory at home and the have-nots will use the prefabricated stuff. The concepts of interactive production are numerous this weeks. Like Myrobotnation and the sweet Twitter Snowmaan Frstee.

Our (near) future could be a world with a second layer under our tangible life that steers us, or in a more positive manner, are at service for us. Playfulness will be give us tools to deal with an impulse-less hyper relevant context. Both Playful and Visible cities showed the importance to create an inspiring model of the future to lead us in the developments.

For our work I think that these playful interactions are a key element in creating the user experiences of the future, the smart experiences. A future where smart products and shared services rules are a great inspiration to develop on the coming online ecosystems. Let’s take the statement of Anders Sandberg as an inspiration: “Make the future, do not predict it”.

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I am a design director at Structural. I curate and organize ThingsCon Netherlands and I am chairman of the Cities of Things Foundation. Before I was innovation and strategy director at tech and innovation agency INFO, visiting researcher and lab director at the Delft University of Technology coordinating Cities of Things Delft Design Lab.

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