The fourth post of the Back to the Futurist series is dedicated to Liam Young. Previous in Series: Noah Raford

Who is Liam Young?

Liam currently lives and works in London as an independent urbanist, designer and futurist. He was named by Blueprint magazine as one of 25 people who will change architecture and design in 2010. He is a founder of the futures think tank Tomorrows Thoughts Today, a group whose projects explore the consequences of fantastic, perverse and speculative architectures and urbanisms. Probing the urban and ecological consequences of emerging technologies Liam also curates events and exhibitions including the annual Thrilling Wonder Stories program and runs the nomadic teaching studio the ‘Unknown Fields Division’ at various universities throughout Europe and Asia. Each year the division travels to extraordinary landscapes to explore the Unknown Fields between cultivation and nature and spin cautionary tales of a new kind of wilderness.

Follow Liam on Twitter: @liam_young

Interview

How would you define what you do as a futurist?

I am trained as an architect and I now run the urban futures think tank Tomorrows Thoughts Today. At TTT we are interested in the history of futurology, exploring the fantastic and perverse visions of tomorrow not for the accuracy of their predictions but rather for the critical engagement that they offer with the present. Borrowing from the techniques of these speculative fictions we use narrative and the illustration of fictional scenarios as imaginative tools to explore the implications and consequences of emerging trends, technologies and ecological conditions.

As architects we span the gulf between the cultural and the technological, we are in a unique position to synthesise complex factors – social, technical, cultural, political, environmental – and to pose alternate scenarios. Architecture is typically such a slow medium however and we wanted to develop alternative strategies for how a designer may operate and alternative forms of projects that could play out with much more immediacy. So we have gravitated to the discipline of futures as we explore the idea of a think tank as a legitimate model for an architectural practice – a practice not built on buildings as endpoints but on speculations, research and futures as products in themselves. We are interested in the role of the architect and the futurist to define new questions, not just finding solutions to problems posed to us, but identifying new arenas for operation.

Where the grass is greener - Preflooded Wetlands Postcard. Image courtesy of Liam young

Are futurists catalysts for change in themselves?

Yes, but not in the way that one might typically think. The speculations of a futurist are never really about predicting particular futures, as author Warren Ellis notes, prediction is always just science fictions side effect, Sci-Fi is really about an exaggeration of the present. For example, George Orwell’s 1984 is in reality about 1948. The distancing lens offered by the speculative project to allow us to see the present in new and unexpected ways. We explore the imagination of future worlds as a means to understand our own world in new ways. The future isn’t what happens when a futurist imagines it and writes it down or makes a project. The future happens when someone else responds to it and wants to make a change. The future is a verb not a noun.

Which other recent developments in science, engineering and design do you consider the most significant to the future?

The sun is setting on our idealistic and preservationist views of the natural world. With the unfamiliar landscapes of robotics, bio technology, territorial industry and a changing climate we are beginning to encounter a new form of engineered nature that we are not yet able to categorise.

As well as Tomorrows Thoughts Today I also coordinate the Unknown Fields Division with designer Kate Davies. The Unknown Fields Division is a nomadic design research studio that travels through extreme landscapes to explore our changing relationship with technology and nature. Our annual expedition takes us to the ends of the earth exploring remote wildernesses and vast territories that have been remade through technology. We talk about our research sites as landscapes where we find the future in the present tense. These are the emerging landscapes of the ‘anthropocenic’.

What we have realized is that there is no real nature anymore, at least as we have culturally defined it. We have travelled to the amazon jungle and found it to be not a jungle but a large cultivated garden, to Darwin’s Galapagos islands and seen a fragile ecology now curated and conserved for tourists, and to the Arctic Circle, a contested territory of energy fields and new data infrastructures and to remote Australia where we have seen geology older than time completely reshaped by the machinery of mining. Nature is being redefined through technology and our culture will be shaped by our responses to these questions.

We must not continue to see technology and nature in opposition to one another and we must rethink our default conservationist position. What is required is a cultural shift and a redefinition or even a new word for the idea of nature- new design strategies and new designers for a new kind of wilderness. This is not to underwrite the hard fought battles already won by the conservationist movement, it is just to suggest that we need to be far more radical in our approach. To speculate on how design may play a role in developing new cultural relationships with the inevitable byproducts of industry, a changing climate and the anthropocenic world.

Unknown fields division 1km below the ground in Australia's Wiluna gold mine. Courtesy Liam Young

What are the most challenging aspects of your work as a futurist at the moment?

One of the critical questions we are asking ourselves at the moment is what do we do as architects in a near future where the dominant building material exists outside the physical spectrum. The infrastructure that drove the development of the city was once large permanent networks of roads, plumbing and park spaces but are now nomadic digital networks, orbiting GPS satellites and cloud computing connections. Cities are being planned around the speed of electrons, satellite sight lines and big data. Connection to wifi is more critical than connection to light. The city must be planned around the mobile phone not the automobile. Today we are much closer to our virtual community than we are to our real neighbours. This death of distance has created new forms of city based around ephemeral digital connections rather than physical geography.

These changes mean we must rethink the very core of what our profession is. It is true that there will still be physical objects and spaces that some sort of architect like character will have to engage with but this window of operation is becoming increasing narrow. To continue to define our work within this part of the spectrum will just lead to us becoming more and more marginalized and irrelevant. We think reimagining the architect as futurist and strategist is part of a necessary process of adaptation.

Of the past predictions that never became a reality, which are your favourite and why?

We find any image of yesterday’s tomorrows fascinating and useful. Futures should never be judged by which ones become a reality as they all offer a critical insight into the fears and anxieties of the time in which they were made. My favourite book is the Usborne Book of the Future. This is the book of my childhood. It was published in the year that I was born, 1979. It is a chronicle of the future I was promised. Back then the years 2000 and beyond were to be filled with flying cars, servant robots, space stations and moon beams. The visions from this book however, are more accurately readings of the culture and time in which they were written rather than any prophetic image of tomorrow. This imagined future tells as much about the dreams and anxieties of the 70’s and 80’s as any encyclopedia historical fact.

Usborne Book of the Future. courtesy Liam Young

The same can be said of the 1964 Futurama ride from the World’s Fair. It was an automated conveyor belt that took the audience through a world of future wonders and the marvels of a speculative landscape where technology and nature intertwine. Each visitor received a badge stating “I have seen the future” as a souvenir of this voyage through time.

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This is wonderful to see against visions from 1958 of the future of transport infrastructure in Disney’s ‘magic highway’ film.

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What futurist project is inspiring you at the moment?

As an architect and urbanist I am really interested in the processes of the Occupy movement at the moment. I think it is one of the most interesting things going on in architecture and futures right now. It is exciting and relevant to this conversation on speculative fictions because in a way it is a movement that is also about prototyping new cultural strategies as a form of provocation. There is no distinct agenda or demand but the currency of the process is the instigation of a dialogue and the conversation that is initiated in and around the camp. It is about politicizing a generation that has been systematically neutralised by trying to present a new way of operating, not as an act of anticipation but to shake up the way things are. Futures work is in many ways about prototyping and these camps are a form of prototyping culture, prototyping new rules for a new model of living in relation to resources and capital.

Occupy camp outside St pauls. Photo by the guardian. Courtesy Lia Young

The future – dystopian or utopian?

At Tomorrows Thoughts Today we are interested in the idea of ‘productive dystopias’. Perhaps TTT cofounder Darryl Chen explains that idea in this film:

Of your present and past futurology works, which do you consider the most significant?

We are currently developing the next iteration of our ‘Electronic Countermeasures’ project. For the skies above the city we have built a drone flock that drifts into formation to broadcast a local file sharing network. Part nomadic infrastructure and part robotic swarm they form a pirate internet, an aerial napster, darting between the buildings.

These drones fly off and hover above the city, and create ad hoc connections and networks in a new form of nomadic territorial infrastructure. They are their own place specific, temporary, local, WIFI community- a pirate internet. They swarm into formation, broadcasting their pirate network, and then disperse, escaping detection, only to reform elsewhere. Impromptu augmented communities form around the glowing flock. Their aerial dance and dynamic glowing formations give visual expression to the digital communities of the city.

Electronic Counter Measures. Courtesy Liam young

It is the latest in a series of works that we have developed that explore emerging forms of urban infrastructure. We have also designed a flock of artificial clouds that can be called into position with high frequency signals to create tailored microclimates.

Artificial cloud network. Courtesy Liam Young

And the Specimens of Unnatural history project is a series of speculative biotech robots that perform as a near future infrastructure of biological pest control.

Specimens of Unnatural History. The Electric Aurora. Courtesy Liam Young

Specimens of Unnatural History. The Electric Aurora Flock. Courtesy Liam Young

What would your dream futurology brief look like?

At the moment we are really excited by the potential of moving into concept design for film. Popular media is potentially the most exciting vehicle to widely disseminate ideas about the future. Before the media became the form of self-display that it is now it was actually a platform. As designers and futurists we can co-opt these tools and strategies from film and fiction to instigate debate and discussion about emerging conditions to a wider public audience.

It is something we are developing for an exhibition in the Netherlands at the end of the summer. We are bringing together concept artists and special effects engineers to collaborate with ourselves and other technologists and scientists to collectively develop a critical vision of what the future city could be. Through cinematic techniques the exhibition will develop a miniature model cityscape, the props, miniatures, stories and virtual spaces for an unmade sci fi film.