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

Who is Anab Jain?

Anab is a designer, entrepreneur, TED Fellow and the founder of Superflux, a multidisciplinary design company based in London, UK and Ahmedabad, India. Anab’s passion is creating opportunities and building tools that can lead us towards new and desirable futures. She was educated in India, Vienna and London, and has over seven years experience in interaction and service design, research, filmmaking and speculative design.

Follow Anab on Twitter: @anabjain

Interview

Which futurists past and present inspire you and why?

Growing up India, and specializing in film at a design school started by Ray and Charles Eames, I have been hugely influenced by a number of notable image-makers and storytellers who worked to create radical visions of the future.

Some of the filmmakers who influenced me are Andrei Tarkovsky, whose film Solaris (1972) is a futuristic, fantastical journey into an impossible planet’s orbit – one of the most gripping cinematic narratives of the 1970s.

Still from Solaris

Solaris Poster

Brueghel’s painting ‘Hunters in the Snow’ as seen in Solaris

Another important inspiration is the avant-garde design group ‘Superstudio’, whose radical visions of a world devoid of architecture threw light on an economically wounded Italy in the post-war world. From their ‘Spaceship City’, a rotating wheel space station where sleeping couples are born, made to reproduce, and jettisoned from the craft at the age of 80, to ‘New York of Brains’, an apocalyptic image of the city as a giant cube filled with 10,000,456 human brains. Superstudio’s work brought much-needed critical thinking to design, and their hallucinatory visions could be seen to have prefigured work by Koolhas, Hadid, Schumi, and so on.

Superstudio’s ‘Third City: New York of Brains, 1971.

Jean Nouvel’s Expo 2002 Pavilion, Murtensee Switzerland, believed to be inspired by the Third City

Somewhere in the back of my mind, I draw a link between Superstudio and Austrian journalist Robert Jungk, inventor of the ‘future workshop’, whose 1954 book Tomorrow is Already Here began to take the future – and technology – seriously as an object of study.

From the here-and-now, one personal hero is Donna Haraway, a radical visionary observing the madness of the modern world from her perspective as a cyborg and self-described ‘quintessential technological body.’ From A Cyborg Manifesto (1985) to her work on companion species, Haraway writes about machines in all their forms, where and how they enter our bodies, and how our bodies disperse into networks penetrated by information feeds. In this world of messy hybrid networks that are part-human, part-machine, the difference between ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’ seem increasingly irrelevant. Hers in a body of work that I find really ‘futuristic’. Another influence is literary critic and recovering biologist Katherine Hayles, whose work around ideas of the ‘posthuman’ is really interesting. Her 2005 essay ‘Computing the Human‘ was really inspiring, focusing on the shift from notions of the superman to the posthuman. Hayles and Haraway are both women who completely changed my personal approach to technology, and have continued to impact on the way I work with technology as both material and cultural construct.

Image from Little Brinkland. a project that explored some of the themes I mention above. This image shows a billboard advertising the services of ‘Luka, the wifi dog’. If our pets begin to develop a new kind of intimacy with networked technologies, becoming wanderers of hidden data, who will command and who will be in control?

Also from the present include Stewart Brand and the Long Now Foundation, Bruce Sterling, Anthony Dunne, Jamais Cascio, Noah Raford, Stuart Candy, Andrew Curry, Hugh Knowles, Julian Bleecker, Nicolas Nova and Scott Smith, many of whom I have been lucky enough to work with, as collaborators and co-conspirators.

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

From my own experience, it seems that much of the ‘futures’ work done by large organisations, while necessarily strategic, prioritises the intellectual over the experiential. They’re hot on the facts and trends, but less effective in considering what that might look or feel like ‘on the ground’, so to speak. Additionally, even among those companies are organisations who do want to tackle a 5-20 year time horizon for their activities, but are still conditioned by a certain aversion to risk. It’s very easy for them to commission and produce visions of the future that are glossy and seductive, but which fail to address the messiness, hybridity, and darker sides of our future.

In terms of challenges, then, the biggest task is charting a middle course between the two extremes – balancing criticality, sustainability, and broader social issues, while still funneling the (relatively abstract) trends into actual products and services that will be meaningful to a client and/or community.

At Superflux, we have tried to negotiate this balance through the practice of ‘design futurescaping‘, working with clients to explore their ‘unknown unknowns.’ We are interested in inventing new design methods that enable our clients to embrace risk and volatility and help produce a shared inventory of possibilities for new products, services, experiences, stories, and hybrids of these. Some of our work in this direction includes strategic design for the public sector, product and service invention, as well as system designs’ for start-ups and large organisations, and creating novel tools and practices for futurescaping workshops.

Mapping out the grey spaces between an ‘informal’ and an ‘illegal’ economy, for Pirates of the Danube

 And through our Lab project and teaching activities, we get an opportunity to explore some of these themes more rigourously. For instance, last year we lead a design workshop ‘Pirates of the Danube’ at Kitchen Budapest, in which the participants were challenged to imagine and engage with deviant economies on the River Danube. Rather then the assumed role of a designer who drives economic growth in industrial society, we asked them to re-imagine this role for a world beset by complex challenges and wicked problems. What happens when we move from serving corporate interests to the interests of the community? With the Danube as our anchor, the participants turned their attention to the spaces of informal and illegal economic activities; embracing the ambiguities of the neighbourhood, the street, and the black market. And the outcomes (in two days) were fascinating: from restaurants run by river pirates, energy creating playgrounds and offshore Patent Trading companies.

One of the teams discovered that an algae native to the Danube was high in nutritious value. Further research into foods growing in and under the Danube presented an abundance of possibilities.

Working with river recipes based on locally-sourced and foraged foods, they presented the project with a rather fabulous looking meal.

Lastly, tackling these ideas deeper into our own work, are have two ongoing research projects in India: Lilorann and Design for Elastic Cities, both explore the design of new tools and service models in partnership with local communities to combat and build resilience within the context of desertification and rapid urbanization.

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

In our studio, we try to balance thinking about the future with making in the here-and-now, exploring the possibilities of new technologies while tinkering with laser cutters, 3D printers, and similar – getting stuck into the process of making prototypes for a wide range of projects.

The 5th Dimensional Camera, one of our projects, translates Everett's 'Many Worlds' theory of quantum mechanics into a tangible physical prototype.

So it should be no surprise that, from my perspective, the growth and democratisation of maker culture, and its impact on production and manufacturing, are something I’d be quick to mark as of huge future significance. My interest in this new ‘making’ culture is not restricted to fabbed jewellery, toys and printed electronics, all of which is fascinating in itself, but how this culture becomes a departure point to go into a whole new world of ‘making’: whether its building your own autonomous drones and synthesizing DNA in your bedroom, or even attempting to make your own satellite and create nuclear fission from scratch. This is a wave that’s just now starting to break, and although within our wider context of current economic models of production and consumption, these trends remain peripheral, the potential implications are huge.

Image from Korean artist Hojun Song's book explaining the finer points of building your own satellite.

When weak signals on the boundaries start becoming mainstream, where does that leave the ‘design’ profession? What impact does this have on supply and demand, on our economy? We are no longer going to be able to separate ourselves from these technologies, tools and phenomena, remaining detached – aloof – from the manufacturing and distribution processes. Where will we, as designers, makers, and futurists be best placed to situate ourselves?

One of our current project investigating some of these themes is ‘Mutations’, in which we’re looking at new products and services at the intersection of synthetic biology and deviant globalization – a murky world of illegal, informal and pirate economies, new patent laws, cross-border flows of technology and expertise, and home DNA printing. Both here, and elsewhere, it is important to remember that science and technology do not emerge in a vacuum, but condition, and are conditioned by the social and political context in which they emerge.

Images from a workshop at Science Gallery Dublin for project Mutations. A ‘synthetic biology tarot card reader’ designed by us helped designers, scientists and technologists create scenarios of the wider economic, political and social implications of the technology.

Images from a workshop at Science Gallery Dublin for project Mutations. (see above)

Images from a workshop at Science Gallery Dublin for project Mutations.

Images from a workshop at Science Gallery Dublin for project Mutations.

Are futurists catalysts for change in themselves?

(Just a disclaimer, I call myself a designer not a ‘futurist’ usually. But as is obvious, discipline boundaries are blurring and the overlaps are quite exciting for us as practice.)

Futurists do have the skills and ability to confront us with possibilities beyond of our everyday lived experience. Having worked with a range of communities and different kinds of participants, many individual hopes for the future are optimistic, but quite quotidian – providing good education for one’s children, taking a holiday in a certain location, or building enough savings with which to face tough times.

The role of the futurist is to provoke and disrupt, laying out maps of worlds we may not have otherwise imagined; to collide disparate trends; and to challenge received wisdoms.

Still, it’s easy to overvalue the individual practitioner as an icon or hero, known for a few signature projects or products. It may be a bit naff, but I hope we’re making a dent, however small, in helping people engage with the meaning and challenges of the 2010s – not creating a concrete road map, but widening perspectives.

Many of the most high profile futurists are men. Why are there so few female futurists and do you think it’s likely more women will enter the field?

While it may be more common for men to refer to themselves as ‘futurists’, there are many influential women whose work focuses explicitly on the future – Wendy Schultz, Heather Schlegel, and Danah Boyd, among many others. Then there are those who are exploring the edges of the future field, without necessarily calling themselves ‘futurists’, women like Fiona Raby, Natalie Jeremijenko, Paola Antonelli, and Vandana Shiva.

As the discipline shifts and changes, the kind of ‘futures’ work being undertaken will, I think, come to reflect a much wider range of experiences and skill sets, be that gender or otherwise. I believe that here diversity is a strength, something that helps you see clients’ blind spots and hidden assumptions.

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

Growing up, we were the only ones in the group of eight houses that had a telephone. Our neighbours would come and wait for their inter-city trunk call, and we’d spend long periods waiting and gossiping before the phone rang, leaving them to shout at a remote relative about home ownership, marriage proposals, and recipes for jeera aloo. This might make it sound like I’m really old, but this was the early 80s, and market liberalisation was still to reach India. It took 5-10 years to get a car, and our neighbour’s black-and-white TV gave me a view into a world of controlled government programming.

Within this context, our future was very basic and immediate – five years to get a car, two years to apply for a foreign exchange, and so on. At the same time, our long gossip sessions, comic books, and discussions were full of mythological stories featuring elaborate aircraft, anti-gravitational machines, flying saucers and space ships. My favourite vision of the future comes from this world, drawn from ancient texts which elaborated on the construction and use of airplanes.

Drawing and image flying machines from old comic book.

Drawing and image flying machines from old comic book.

Drawings of flying machines from old Indian scripture.

According to these works, people had once had access to flying machines called ‘Vimanas’ – a double-deck, circular aircraft with portholes and (often) a dome. It flew with the ‘speed of the wind’, giving forth a ‘melodious sound.’ There were at least four different types of Vimanas; some were saucer-shaped, others like long cylinders. The ancient Indians wrote entire flight manuals on ways to control the various types of Vimana, and many of these texts are still in existence today – with stanzas detailing construction, take-off, guidance for normal and forced landings, and possible collisions with birds.

In 1875, the Vaimanika Sastra, a text from the fourth century BC, was rediscovered in a temple in India. Written by Bharadvajy the Wise, it included instruction for the steering of Vimanas, precautions for long flights, protection from storms and lightening, and how to switch the drive to ‘solar energy’ from a free, limitless energy source.

This juxtaposition of the basic hopes of a community with a sense of fantastical so closely woven in the Indian culture, the distant past embedded so seamlessly into the present, and fantasy a part of daily life – this collision of ‘futures’ is the part of my work that excites me most.

Other interesting images for these flying devices from Indian mythology here:

http://fc00.deviantart.net/fs71/f/2011/079/a/a/the_city_of_vimana_by_darkclass1-d3c3a2j.jpg

http://skannd.files.wordpress.com/2011/05/vimana-tripura.jpg

The future – dystopian or utopian?

Neither. Messy, unexpected, and increasingly complex.

In the past few years, we’ve explored a range of possible futures, from the dystopian business model of ARK-Inc to the hopeful, humane crowdsourced futures of the Power of 8.

Positioned as a radical and alternative investment company, ARK-Inc by Jon Ardern was a superfiction, envisaging products and services for a post-crash civilisation. ARK-Inc’s stable of products included a short-wave radio that, in event of a disaster, enabled encrypted transmission and two-way communication between other ARK members, a series of books that help mediate one’s response to disaster, and disaster tourism services that helped users adjust to the idea of a looming collapse.

ARK radio

Disaster Tourism

ARK book covers

When he started receiving emails from survivors of Hurricane Katrina, expressing their desire to join the ARK collective and contribute to the (fictional) investment strategy, the boundaries between fact and fiction began to blur. To move forward, he would have needed to embrace the legal implications of such a service and find ways to translate the ideas into services made in collaboration with the affected communities.

With Power of 8, I was keen to explore the possibility of creating optimistic visions of the future with a group of people who were not designers or futurists. I was hoping that in the face of the credit crunch, the participants might be excited to see how things might change for the better. Instead, our workshops revealed concerns about climate change and nostalgia for a simpler, ‘green’ world. While the participants were eager to think about how “fantastic technological innovations might still … save us from doom”, there was no choice but to reflect the ‘messiness of our present’ in the visions we were creating.

A prototype for the ‘Beamer Bee’ or the ‘synthetic bee’ designed by biotechnologists entirely in their lab.

Beamer Bees installation

Scenario showing how children in Acres Green keep glowing bees as a bedside pets.

 Video of Beamer Bees via Vimeo:

We ended up creating the framework of an alternate future ecosystem called Acres Green, illustrating the ambiguous relationship between the natural and the technological. In this ‘re-engineered ecosystem, prosthetic trees bear multiple fruits, synthetic pollinating creatures called the ‘Beamer Bees’ live amongst the radio waves, and robotic flocking clouds create microclimates, bringing rain to where it’s most needed.

Local communities use ham radios and other hacks to attract autonomous robotic clouds, embedded with ultrasonic sensors, to their gardens.

Working with these kind of projects over the last couple of years, we’ve sidled into an increasingly messy space – a world that combines the mundane lived reality of the present day with more curious and provocative elements, inspired by things like the Occupy movement, Bitcoin, unmanned drones, quantum physics, pirates, and biological mutations.

As science fiction author Charles Stross has commented, ’90% of [the future] is just like today, 9% is stuff that is on the drawing boards, and 1% is unutterably strange and alien and unexpected.’

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

The most significant parts of our work are those that have seen us getting ‘under the hood’ of the processes of invention and innovation; helping shape technology before it becomes a finished ‘product’. Working with scientific collaborators at Newcastle University, we’ve been helping shift their optogenetic research from the speculative to the much more tangible. From making ‘Song of the Machine‘, a short concept film, last year, we’ve begun working with visually impaired people, the RNIB and the scientists to design possible use case scenarios and soft applications, whilst building experience prototypes.

Three images showing how the virus is implanted in the patient’s eye, how the virus lights up dysfunctional nerve cells, and tests post-operations.

We explored the possibilities of this new prosthetic vision in a short film. This still from the film shows how the person with this technology might be able to see in the extended electromagnetic spectrum. For instance, he might able to see a white orchid very differently, with beautiful bright colours, as captured in the ultraviolet spectrum.

One might also be able to see in the far infra-red – for instance this car shows heat patterns that are not visible to the ‘normally sighted’.

This new vision might have ‘augmented reality’ more closely integrated into the prosthetic.

What is particularly interesting about this project is the unique combination of the biological / genetic insertion and optoelectronic technology – ultimately, it’s akin to plugging a scart lead directly into a person’s brain. When these new neural prostheses become part of our everyday lives, how will we communicate? What happens when our bodies are modified to better interface with machines? Difficult though it may be, we’re keen to explore these edge boundaries, lending a ‘human’ dimension to the new spaces carved out by new technologies and scientific development.

‘Song of the Machine’ Video via vimeo:

 

And a project at Microsoft Research, around new notions of Machine Intelligence, ‘which has played a key role in shaping our current work around ‘smart devices’, robotics and ‘internet-of-things’, might be worth mentioning. (I’ll point to our essay New Companions with Alex Taylor and Laurel Swan, in this context.)

Prop for the ‘Living Radio’. an energy-autonomous radio designed to run on microbial fuel cells that can last indefinitely, providing they are fed with organic material.

What would your dream futurology brief look like? 

One of Superflux’s ongoing research interests is the confluence of deviant globalisation, critical design, emerging technologies, and (social) notions of risk. We have a particular fondness for film as a medium, placing a great emphasis on the powers of narrative and storytelling.

Combining these ingredients, as it were, perhaps our dream brief would be the conception and direction of science fiction film, or multi-part TV series. Something like … 3D printers and flying saucers in Dubai; a geoengineering experiment gone wrong in Mumbai; or the lives and loves of pirate biohackers on the river Danube.

If there are any creatively-minded millionaires reading, please, drop us a line! :)