Designer Pupul Bisht entered her graduate program at OCAD in Toronto to obtain a masters in design and left with a mission. Since finishing her thesis on decolonizing futures using design (in which she developed one of the first and only non-western foresight, or future studies, methods), Bisht has taken what she learned in her extensive research using storytelling as a means to reframing future scenarios and has traveled the world to help others learn from her findings.
During her recent talk at PRIMER Conference in New York City in June, she discussed how she laid the groundwork for the Decolonizing Futures Initiative she founded, the research that is still ongoing, and why storytelling is such an excellent vehicle for changing the way the future will operate using design.
Core77: Could you briefly explain the concept of Foresight?
Pupul Bisht: I think Foresight is a domain that is still finding its feet in the mainstream. What I mean is that there are a lot of floating names for a very similar kind of practice. There’s speculative design, which comes from a more particular design practice. Then there is future studies, which I think is mostly used as an umbrella term. What I studied, Strategic Foresight, is actually a post World War discipline, which was really designed to systemically study historical trends in whatever is happening in the present and gain insight on weak signals of change.
It’s a study of change so that you can you understand what are the many possibilities of what might be coming in the future. It’s a way of identifying risks but also opportunities that can be leveraged to the person—whoever is commissioning the study—to their advantage. Traditionally, it’s been used mostly by big corporations and governments. But what we’re seeing right now is that with the onset of more creative disciplines like art and design coming into the speculative space, this practice is really moving outside of its organizational confines and it’s engaging more and more people about what are our collective futures and how can we build them. That’s exactly the space where my practice is situated.
What kind of research initially fueled your drive to delve into this topic and can you give a summary as to what it is that you have been researching?
I call my project “The Decolonizing Futures Initiative”. It really began during my time when I was doing my masters. I did a masters in design in Strategic Foresight and Innovation at OCAD University in Toronto. I left India to study for the first time and I think as a student in a foreign culture, my experience was perhaps a very interesting one. I think what happens when you come from previously colonized cultures is that you tend to have two sides of your identity. There’s one part of you that’s trained in the western part, that comes from the more institutionalized education that you receive growing up, but then there’s this other part of you that’s shaped from a social and cultural upbringing that has a very different way of thinking.
I think my personal experience with studying Foresight was that the part of me that was conditioned in the more technocratic, western way of thinking was thriving in studying Foresight. But then I always felt like there was a part of my identity, a part of my world view that I was having to check at the door to meaningfully participate in most of the conversations in class. Even my reading list, for example, did not have anybody who looked like me or came from the same part of the world as me.
I think my research really began with those personal experiences of, how do people who come from the same culture as me think about the future? Because I knew that they wouldn’t think organically in many ways that are prevalent in future thinking. That’s where it all began. For me, storytelling has always been something that I’m deeply passionate and curious about. Storytelling is extensively used in future studies because the future doesn’t exist yet so you build stories about those possibilities to engage people to think about it.
“If we want to change the future and how we act towards the future, we have to change how we talk about the future.”
What my research looks at it is, how do different cultures tell stories about the future differently and how can we bring out some of those marginalized expressions as a way of both balancing as well as challenging some of the hegemonic ideas that colonize our understanding of what the future might look like?
Why do you feel that storytelling is such an effective approach here in tackling this issue of decolonizing futures?
Stories that we hear and we tell matter a lot because they ultimately shape our sense of reality, our world view. If we talk about something with a sense of urgency and fear, then our attitude towards that thing is going to be shaped by those emotions versus if we talk about something with a sense of hope and believe that we have urgency in this; it will shape our attitudes. If we want to change the future and how we act towards the future, we have to change how we talk about the future. One way of changing how we talk about the future is through stories because that’s the format in which traditionally the humans civilization has made sense of this world.
Because I was looking at more Western cultures for my research, the mode of knowledge sharing and instruction tends to be storytelling-based in most of those cultures. That was another reason why this was an organic choice for me because that’s the kind of intervention that I was trying to make. If I want to make room for indigenous knowledge, for non-Western knowledge, then I have to give importance to storytelling because that is the way that those cultures understand the world, share that knowledge and have an inter-generational dialogue. Those were some of the reasons why storytelling was just so important.
I’m curious what elements of design or the design process at present feel particularly Western to you and maybe negligent of non-Western perspectives.
For me, it all really began with time, the shape of time and how it’s visualized. I think this is one of the most invisible epistemologies in futures work is that a lot of times when I would talk to people about how this might be culturally non-intrusive the way we’re practicing Foresight, I was always met with the question of, “What do you mean? Is that something that is solvable by just involving more non-Western participants?” But I think what inclusion looks like when we’re talking about decolonization, it goes beyond who is invited into the group because if the methods are limited in seeing reality and seeing time, if they’re defined in a certain way that are in accordance to a particularly historically dominant world view, then any other definition that’s brought into the room is going to be rejected.
For example, a lot of frameworks in Foresight visualize time as a linear entity and establish a very uni-directional, sequential relationship between past, present and future. But a lot of storytelling that happens in India, for example, tends to be shaped more to a cyclical understanding of time where at any given point, past and future, are almost expressed as two sides of the same coin. If we hold the more linear understanding of time, then we won’t even be able to engage in the material and the content of a lot of these stories because it won’t fit our scaffolding of making sense of those conversations.
I think another thing that’s really key over [in the West] is that because Foresight comes from an industrial, militaristic, historical background, even today, the future is really treated as something that is unknown and something meant to be studied and understood so that we can then then “conquer” it. Well, “conquering” is very, very colonizing language as well as a lot of the ways in which Foresight or futures projects are structured; they talk a lot about preparing for a future, they talk a lot about preventing a certain future that is not desirable.
But I think something that I found that is not given enough importance is this focus on opportunity and the focus on building the futures that we want rather than thinking too much about what we want to prevent, what is so constructive, what is disruptive, narratives about the future.
The workshops that you do in conjunction with your research are quite personal; they help facilitate this opportunity for people to share their stories and, in that, help other people understand those perspectives and maybe visualize how that perspective is different. But I’m curious how you envision what you’re researching being applied on a grander scale.
That’s a very interesting question because that’s exactly where I’m at with my project right now. With incubating it for the past year, I’m past that stage of ideas and prototyping and really at the place where I’m testing application now. What I mean by that is, I’m testing application of how this radical, critical, self-reflective process of dialogue and story creation can actually be used to inform and inspire inclusive decision making and innovation efforts. Because ultimately the decisions are being made in certain places in our system and that’s what ends up shaping the future for the majority on this planet.
For me, as a designer and as a facilitator, the role that I see for myself is as that bridge, as somebody as who can help translate visions that belong to the communities into insights that can then plug into actual efforts that shape the futures of those very communities. That’s exactly where I’m at and I think with any process like this, scale in terms of numbers is always a challenge. I think that is something that human-centered design and qualitative research, even in the more traditional senses, struggles with.
“My ultimate objective is in making people think about the futures that they want to have them see themselves as active shapers of that future rather than passive spectators of someone else’s vision.”
I don’t know if we’re there yet as a discipline to immediately scale this. For me, it’s always an integrative process. If I get all this right now in a real world scenario with a complex stakeholder environment of a hundred actors on-ground and communicate that to another five hundred actors who are sitting at higher level positions, then to me that is scaling of this process. At this point I’m really working at micro levels with villages as well as local urban communities. I think once you understand what are the processes that are required for translating narratives into decision making patterns, then I think that understanding can help us scale something like this. But I’m not there yet so maybe in a few months I will have made that discovery.
You’re working over the next few months on this research back in India. I’d love to hear more about what you’re up to.
Absolutely. It’s not finalized to the extent where I can give you names, but I’m basically in close dialogue with the government at both the national and sub-national levels. When I say sub-national that means state level. And really trying to understand what are some of their ongoing efforts, especially when it comes to marginalized communities. In India there is a program called “Aspirational Districts“. These districts were traditionally called the most backward zones in the country, but recently, I think about a year ago, the government decided to flip the narrative and flip the language on that. They said that because we want to focus more on the hope and the opportunity rather than the problems and the challenges, instead of talking about these places as the most backward places, we want to talk about them as the most aspirational places.
For me, that is a project that I’m trying to work in because that’s exactly what my method does is it helps to reframe the narrative around how we talk about the future and bring back that sense of hope and agency into the community members. Through most of the work that I’m doing, really my ultimate objective is in making people think about the futures that they want to have them see themselves as active shapers of that future rather than passive spectators of someone else’s vision, because a lot of times that’s what happens in a developing world context is that the future of what is desirable is imagined somewhere else and then it’s just shipped over and copy/pasted without any regard of context.
The aspirational districts are one place that I’m working. I’m also going to be working with high school students that come from economically challenging backgrounds in my city, which is New Delhi. Those are some of the threads that I’m pursuing and I’m also really, really interested in looking at futures of India through the eyes of women and girls because I have grown up as a woman in India and it can be something that… I don’t know if a lot of women have a voice and feel like they participate in envisioning what the future of their community, their family, their city, their village, should look like.
“I think a big component of this work is that in envisioning visions of their preferred futures, the communities too can identify how to translate their own narratives into change-making initiatives and actionable insights that they can do at their own level.”
But there’s a lot of wisdom there, especially when we talk of sustainable development. Women traditionally are the ones who have worked with land, who have worked with resources. They have so much knowledge and we really need that knowledge right now and we really need to learn how to listen and respect that knowledge right now.
If you boiled it down, is your work about this idea of making more marginalized voices understand that they have the power to bring these new perspectives into the world, or is it about convincing organizations that they need to have more voices involved?
I think I’m a very ambitious person so I’m trying to do both. But if the process can legitimize marginalized definitions of what is desirable in the future and what counts as progress and what counts as growth, for me that is a very important piece in doing all of this is that a lot of communities might not have a desire for a certain development model, but a lot of times it just gets handed down to them and disrupts their entire life and living systems, destroys their knowledge and destroys their way of life. I think that is a really unsustainable way of doing this and of building futures because there is all this talk around leaving no one behind and inclusive, sustainable development that we’re all engaging at a mass global level. But if you’re really serious about leaving no one behind, we have to then include people even at an envisioning level. Futures growth cannot be imagined by a few and so the people whose lives we seek to improve through any work, we need to listen to them because they are exports of their conditions and we need to respect that.
What are some ways that any designer can take elements of your research and start contributing to the conversation of decolonizing design and what steps can they do to enact change within their own circles and organizations?
I started in a very traditional design space. I’m trained in visual communication, my background is in graphic design. I think a lot of these questions that I’m now exploring through my research actually began during my undergrad days in design school. I think for anybody to contribute meaningfully to a conversation towards decolonization, for me that that starts with exploring cultural duality in contemporary practices.
Designers, specifically those that come from non-Western cultures, for them to really embark on a journey of exploring their identities through their practice, I think becomes the first step. Most of the people that I know who are doing good work, really for all of them this comes from a very personal space because this isn’t an easy domain or easy journey to be on because there is no precedence. A lot of what you’re doing, there aren’t preexisting examples for that, so your reason of why you started doing it has to be solid and you need to remind yourself of why you’re doing what you’re doing, because a lot of this is just going to be so much self-learning. When I started doing this work I didn’t even have most of the language around everything that I’m seeing right now, it really began at an integrative level. The more I read the more I learned, and the more I learned how to talk about it as well.
“When it comes to research methods, when it comes to design methods and when it comes to design expression, one size fits all is the thinking that colonizes our work and that’s exactly what we need to challenge.”
In terms of the particular work that I’m doing and how people can start talking about it, I think for me it really all boils down to the seven principles of inclusive storytelling, that is the foundation of my work. I think it isn’t so much about someone just taking the methodology that I’m using and then trying to apply that, because I think the reason why this methodology makes sense for me or the people I’m working with this because it’s contextually relevant.
Wherever I travel to [share] my work, afterward people are like, “We want to do this exact thing.” I don’t encourage that because I think that that’s a noncritical adaptation of something and that’s exactly what I’m advocating against. What I’m seeing is that when it comes to research methods, when it comes to design methods and when it comes to design expression, one size fits all is the thinking that colonizes our work and that’s exactly what we need to challenge. I think for me, value sharing is then a more meaningful way of ally sharing. If you agree with the same values, if you understand inclusion in the way I understand inclusion and if you understand inclusive storytelling in the way that I understand inclusive storytelling, then I see you as a collaborator. But the manifestation of that could be very different for me than it is for you.
From what you’ve experienced so far in the professional design world, what do you feel like is the reality in terms of the progress that that can be made in the near future?
I think this is very, very subjective depending on geography and also industries are fast-evolving in different countries in different ways. But given my personal experience, I would say that definitely I feel that this is the right time to be doing this kind of work because there is a lot of interest, there is a lot of reception and there is a lot of openness everywhere that I’ve had an opportunity to speak. So far everywhere that I’ve been invited to speak are contacts where I would never in a million years imagine that that’s the kind of audience that wants to hear me speak about it because in all of those cases, I’m actually challenging the very foundation of their practice.
But the fact that those audiences are interested in engaging in this dialogue with me or seeing a different approach to things through my work is definitely a very positive sign. But I don’t know if we’re at a point where that interest also translates to work opportunities for designers. I think everybody likes to hear these radical ideas and thoughts, but from a distance, and I don’t know how many organizations are actually willing to open the doors to those thinkers and let them come and change their practice from inside.
What would your advice be to anyone who wants to take an idea like you did of tackling a system and not just turning it into an academic query or fascination, but also action into the world and potential to bring an idea like this to larger audiences?
I’m interested in creating things and so, not that I’m aggregating reinventing the wheel, but I think for me it actually depends on why you started doing something. For me, this research really began with an India practitioner of Foresight, I identified a problem and then I wanted to practice differently and there weren’t enough methods or tools that I felt allowed me to practice differently. For me, that [operated as] the North Star of everything that I was doing is that I want to critique and I want to bring attention to the gaps, but a lot of people before me had done that. For me I was like, “okay how can I take it one step further so that whoever is doing this after me has at least that one option of doing things differently?”
For me that’s why I always find the double diamond of divergence, convergence, divergence, convergence, to be very, very helpful—this idea of building something and then prototyping it and putting it out, then having the humility to learn from whatever didn’t work and going back into that cycle of working again on your design. I think research questions are also valuable. Second point research questions are very important because I think, for me, I consciously built a methodological bias into my research question because when you undertake such a vast study, scope creep is a real thing, mission creep is a real thing and you can get lost in in the narrative and the talk and the critique. If, instead, you have a question to hold you accountable to your initial intent, then I think it becomes easier to keep sight of that.
What I found really helpful, and this is something that I completely owe to the experts that I interviewed during my work, is that if you want to build something, don’t be afraid of looking at ways in which it has been done before, maybe in a completely different context. Even though I was building a Foresight tool, ultimately I found inspiration in an indigenous storytelling method that’s practiced in a very, very small community in one part of my country. Do not discount that wisdom and look at stuff that’s been done before you and acknowledge the greatness of that work and and then see how you can learn from it and what you can learn from it without, of course, appropriating.