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The Spark Blog

An occasional series of thoughts and reflections on the role of narrative in organizational change, branding and knowledge work

Five Horizon-Scanning Lessons from The Apocalypse Project

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Photo by Laura Humphrey | Models wearing climate change couture wait their turn on the catwalk

A few weeks ago it rained all day in San Francisco’s East Bay. Walking through Berkeley campus, I saw a group of professors – not students, professors – doing a rain dance for joy.

That’s how unusual rain is here.

Wildfires have recently destroyed over 1,000 homes north of San Francisco. Silicon Valley to the south is the birthplace of the Tesla, a start-up car manufacturer that sells a $100,000 electric sports car, combining ‘eco-mindedness’ with good old consumerism. There is daily speculation about whether El Niño is coming to relieve the four-year drought so that, in the words of one journalist, “we can all go back to taking unreasonably long showers”.

If California is an organization, we, it’s employees are fearful of possible futures, resistant to change and deeply suspicious of messages from the top. It’s a good time and place to do horizon-scanning on climate change.

Based at the Institute for the Future’s ‘Future Gallery’, Catherine Young, self-described as “an artist-scientist-designer-writer-explorer working on human perception and the environment” is doing just that. The Apocalypse project: House of Futures explores our environmental futures under climate change through the lens of high fashion.

I spent a day with the project and will share some things that struck me from Young’s talk. I offer five lessons learned about big data, multidisciplinary approaches, and the importance of hope in successful futures work. Quotation headings are from Young’s talk.

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Photo by Laura Humphrey | A range of fragrances offers an olfactory experience of things we could lose to climate change

“Nothing beats the power of experience”

Before the idea of fashion as a lens for this project was in place, Young did some research with children and young people.

She asked different questions and got them to draw their responses: What does your favourite place look like in 50 years time? What superpowers would you want for the end of the world? And so on. Then Catherine asked them what they might wear in this new world.

“And that’s when everyone who couldn’t draw started to draw”, Young says. Like it or not, fashion is something we can all relate to. We all wear clothes, experiencing them every day in our lives and they are all some kind of response to the weather.

Young is passionate about “getting people to inhabit the story” so that even now the clothes are available for anyone visiting the exhibit to try on.

Lesson one | Take the time to ask different questions. When we wait for the one that unlocks the imagination we are able not just to imagine a possible future but to inhabit that future.

photo | Laura Humphrey | Visitors co-working with Young’s line of hats in the foreground

“Showing how it’s possible to have a drought in San Francisco and a polar vortex in New York”

The Apocalypse Project has been rigorously researched in close consultation with scientists the world over, working with big concepts and vast data systems. Making abstract theories tangible is a common challenge with futures work. Young designed a range of hats and fragrances that illustrated how climate change might spark very different phenomena on different sides of the same country. She distilled some of that environmental complexity into everyday objects.

Lesson two | When we visually represent complex and large amounts of data with clarity and creativity, we make the complex comprehensible.

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Photo by Laura Humphrey | Skype stills of some of the scientists who collaborated on the project

“Art is not supposed to replace science”

Young has a refreshingly clear view on multidisciplinary work that I’ll paraphrase: Art is not supposed to replace science in terms of telling people what’s going on in the world. But art can engage people’s emotions, imaginations and ability to envisage possible futures.

On the other end of the spectrum from her research with children, Catherine also asked some of the scientists she had interviewed to model her outfits and pose for her. This pushed many of them out of their comfort zones. Even though they deal with the ‘hard evidence’ of climate change daily, it was challenging for them to come at it from an experiential direction. The intersecting of art with science unlocked not only the imaginations of those who only have personal experience to go on (children), but also those who deal almost entirely in data (scientists).

Lesson three | Embrace the intersect. Combine disciplines to illuminate and enhance one another, not to make them do each other’s jobs. In this way, multidisciplinary approaches can bring people from opposite ends of the spectrum together, challenging them in different ways to explore possible futures effectively.

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Photo by Laura Humphrey | A dissected mannequin models accessories for climate change

The Squat-Mannequin Principle

Some of the other artists collaborating with Young also spoke about their line of climate-change appropriate accessories they had designed alongside her couture. They had an entire slide in their presentation devoted to talking about the standard shopfloor mannequin pieces being used to model their designs in the gallery.

They had given him a name (something German I wish I could remember what) after finding him in an artists’ squat (obviously). They then dissected him and used the various body parts as mannequin pieces in the final exhibit.  As I listened to this I was eating a taco of salted crickets.

Lesson four | Futures work should happen from a place of integrity, offering a cohesive experience. There’s no point talking sustainability and serving everyone McDonalds. If you’re going to talk the talk…

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Photo by Laura Humphrey | A selection of very crunchy bar snacks on offer

“Lifting the veil”

I was once talking to a friend about climate change and she cut me off, “I just don’t think about it and pretend it isn’t happening.” Horizon-scanning is potentially scary and depressing – particularly when people are already feeling under pressure, besieged, or wronged.

The Apocalypse Project throws ‘future feasts’, working with left-field chefs to create burgers from worms and beer snacks from crickets (which taste somewhat disturbingly of Wotsits). The clothes in the exhibition subvert traditional garments, celebrating individual cultures around the world as well as responding to geographically-specific climate change phenomena. The word ‘apocalypse’ has almost entirely negative connotations in our collective conscious. But Young pointed its origins in the Greek word ‘apokalupsis’, meaning a ‘disclosure of knowledge’ or ‘lifting of the veil’, which may be challenging, but is not hopeless.

Lesson five | Hope is crucial and it must ring true. When it does, the mind that was previously fearful, besieged, angry etc. is given some breathing space to accept the challenge. We are free to imagine and to explore, becoming more effective horizon-scanners and future workers.

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