Trap of Utopia: Capturing People's Anxieties in a Discursive Design Project

This is the second article of a three-part series following the Balcony project, a discursive design initiative conducted in collaboration between Takram and Hitachi Design – London. Articles will be shared as the project progresses—an effort to make speculative design projects less detached and more engaged in dialogue with the community. We welcome your thoughts and opinions.

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Previous article: Starting a Discursive Design Project Amidst Anthropocene and Pandemic
Hitachi’s Vision Design
Hitachi’s other Post-COVID Society Visions

What we set out for

The rising awareness of the climate crisis and the arrival of pandemic have powerfully altered our understanding of our interactions with one another and our environments. It is a time of blurred lines—between work and leisure, urban and rural, global and local. These trends are nothing new. The crises have, if anything, accelerated developments which have been ongoing for some time. Another question that is important to explore within this topic is, how exactly is the blurring of lines affecting our wellbeing overall?

Conducted in collaboration between Hitachi Design team in London and Takram, this project aims to examine how we might anticipate and respond to a world with many blurred lines, and in turn, respond to the anxiety these conditions may induce.

Please read the previous article to find out more about our motivation and sensitivity towards multiplicities.

Our locales

One approach we took to selecting the project’s sites was to work with locales which, in their history and current existence, vividly embody the blurring of lines. We imagined three locales that typify distinct characteristics in European cities. This allowed us to explore how the pandemic might further alter their particular cultures.

The Suburban Town

Original photo by Tom Walker (License Information)

The first locale is the suburban new town that embodies modern city dreams of both the past and present such as Peterborough and Milton Keynes in the UK. This locale, with a built environment meant to separate tasks geographically, elucidates frictions arising from the blurring of work and leisure.

The Seasonal Tourism City

Original photo by Michielverbeek (License Information)

The second site is a nature-rich resort with high seasonal variation such as Innsbruck in Austria or Tampere in Finland. This locale, being located on an important transportation corridor and experiencing seasonal variations in the intensity of use of infrastructure, allows exploration of mobility at different scales.

The Energy City

Original photo by Fxp42 (License Information)

Lastly, we will engage with an energy city which is thoroughly embedded in the global energy system such as West Midlands in the UK or Stavanger in Norway. This locale provides ripe ground for interrogating frictions between the local and the global by considering how local sustainability exists alongside intimate relationships with the global carbon economy.

The initial research structure

The following diagram shows a very simplified structure of our research. The goal of the project is to create a series of visualisations from multiple futures where the blurring of lines in each locale is addressed for the community’s needs. To achieve the goal, we started by deeply understanding the locales and preparing tools for exploring future scenes, which we call frameworks.

Understanding our locales

The first thing we did was to gain a deeper understanding of each locale from a variety of perspectives. What culture and history does each of the model cities carry? How has Covid impacted them? And what kind of transitions can we envision? We gathered insights into these questions through a range of research activities.

Our desk research was to understand local trends that have persisted before Covid and the impact that Covid had on them. We looked for relevant information in web articles, local newspapers, announcements from urban development initiatives and civic organisations and so on.

We then corroborated our insights and hypotheses through interviews with experts familiar with the model city and its neighbourhoods. For The Suburban City, we interviewed a mobility expert who has worked on many transport projects in new towns. For The Seasonal Tourism City, we found a travel Instagrammer who has visited the model city multiple times before and during Covid. And for The Energy City, we had a conversation with a researcher ethnographically studying the impact of the oil industry on the city’s culture.

From the insights gained through these activities, we drafted several transition directions in each locale. In The Suburban City, for example, we noticed a desire for the shift from a pre-determined transport system to a demand- responsive transport service. Its road system was designed primarily for private car usage, and the public transport has been recognised as secondary, struggling to deliver value to the residents. Then Covid disrupted residents’ working and commuting patterns and created different rhythms of mobility and transport demand.

We also conducted interviews with several residents in each locale. The main focus was to hear the first-hand experiences of living in the area and going through the changed caused by the pandemic. We also took the insights and transition direction ideas from other research activities to the interviews and discussed with the residents.

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One thing in our research process that Covid changed positively was the way we recorded and processed the interview data. Of course, the fact that we couldn’t travel to locales and immerse ourselves in the environments made it harder to understand and empathise with the people we focused on. However, we could instead interview people who are geographically far from our base in London. Moreover, thanks to tools like Zoom and Otter, we could record and transcribe these interviews in realtime. This enabled us to generate insights and link them to the original quotes from an interview, immediately after we ended the call. All of these insights were then gathered on a Miro board where all of us meet, talk, provide feedback and discuss ideas—a co-creation space with all the team members.

Thinking Through Frameworks

Many discussions on the Miro board led to the creation of the framework. A framework is, according to Jan Chipchase in The Field Study Handbook, “a way of organising information that supports comprehension and recall”. In our projects, a framework often consists of a catchy title and a simple diagram or chart. While the traditional design research process emphasises its ability to support comprehension, our frameworks not only describe a specific trend but also allow us to imagine what might be on the other side of the curve. In other words, our frameworks are explanatory and evocative at the same time. By extrapolating the desires they capture, we could start imagining what our locales would look like during and after the transitions caused or accelerated by Covid.

Small samples of the frameworks we produced

We produced about thirty frameworks in total. For example, we came up with a framework titled “Big tours broken down into smaller tours” for The Seasonal Tourism City (upper middle in the image). It captures a recent trend where, while the number of large international group tours that had been pouring into the city before Covid has plummeted, it has now become the destination for smaller groups of family and friends for their domestic travels. But not only that, it points to scenarios such as different mobility and destination options that these smaller groups can take, new types of people becoming a tour guide, and so on. Using these frameworks, we started generating ideas for the scenes we illustrate—the locales’ desirable future visions.

The need to better capture people’s anxieties

However, after having several rounds of idea generation sessions, we started to feel a discomfort in the quality of the ideas so far. Temporary remote work cubes spaced among empty parking lots, autonomous delivery pods providing entertainment as well as grocery items, a virtual tour guide from home using VR goggles, historical sites as co-working space for locals, community energy management manuals… Although these ideas were all based on specific research data, including resident interviews, they somehow seemed superficial and utopian. The directions of the transition were undoubtedly desirable, and some of the ideas were interesting. But in these ideas, we couldn’t see the faces of residents who are isolated, struggling and feeling anxious in the pandemic.

We realised that we have fallen into the trap of utopia. Just extrapolating a trend into a desirable direction creates rosey but uncompelling future visions that lack tangibility to the real stakeholders. Looking back at our experiences, this too often happens in future-focused innovation projects, mainly when the designers cannot properly engage with the audience of focus. Designers, with all good intentions, try their best to empathise with their audience. Still, without an explicit acknowledgement and depiction of anxiety that the audience is feeling, there is always a room for presumptions about their lived experiences, and it often results in a vision that lacks the emotional touchpoint for them. Beatriz Colomina and Mark Wigley, in “are we human? notes on an archaeology of design”, brilliantly articulated design’s lack of sensibility to anxiety and friction.

Good design is an anesthetic. The smooth surfaces of modern design eliminate friction, removing bodily and psychological sensation.
— Beatriz Colomina & Mark Wigley

Being aware of this trap of utopia is even more critical during a global pandemic where so many people are feeling pain, grief and anxiety at incredibly diverse levels and forms. Covid also exposed the fact that a designed solution for one problem creates another problem somewhere else, rendering the simple dichotomy between problem and solution invalid. Perhaps this high stake made us realise our mistake.

The final research structure

Acknowledging the diverse range of anxieties felt during the pandemic meant that we needed to capture not only desirable futures, but also people’s concerns and frictions in systems. We went back to our raw research data to look for insights into residents’ frustration and anxieties. We also had another round of resident interviews and generated another batch of frameworks. In the end, we split all frameworks into two; Forecasted Anxiety Frameworks that capture the residents’ emotional responses towards the pandemic and the flaws in the city exposed by it, and Desirable Future Frameworks that allow us to imagine approaches to address the anxiety and mitigate the risk.

The scenes we illustrated are what instances of these anxieties or desirable futures could look like. These scenes make the potential transitions feel more tangible.

The following diagram shows how the two types of frameworks interacted with each other. Using the Forecasted Anxiety Framework titled Community pushed out of the space, we could ask ourselves questions specifically about the potential negativities such as “What value can big corporations provide to citizens that independent businesses cannot, and vice versa?” and “How difficult is the process for local citizens to engage in local entrepreneurial activity?”. The Desirable Futures Frameworks, on the other hand, present different approaches we might be able to take to address the anxiety, informing the final visualisation of the desirable future scene.

In the next and final article, we’ll introduce some of the scenes we produced in-depth to discuss further the importance of localities and the tangibility of visions we create.

Source: core77

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