When people attempt to make projections about the future, they typically come in two varieties. First is the perfect world in which software upgrades work and clean water is available at the touch of a button. Call that the advertising fantasy future. The second is the crumbling ruined apocalyptic bust. Call that the Hollywood blockbuster sci-fi future. We’ve been stuck with this dichotomy at least since George R. Stewart gave us the prototype for the sci-fi post-apocalypse with Earth Abides.
But what about the near future that’s as normal, ordinary, and everyday as, say, today? A near future where hope and intellect have overcome some challenges but in which we accept that the technology-solutionist approach will never solve everything. This would be an image of a near future in which people still live their lives with a spirit of adventure, curiosity, fun, ambition—some fear perhaps, but always with hope. It’s neither the impossible fantasy future of beneficent cloud-based artificial intelligences, nor the crumbling vaporized future of biohazards and zombies. A near future that’s attainable and reasonable, yet still audacious.
This is what a group of us created with the “TBD Catalog.” It’s a representation of a near future through the lens of a catalog. The Near Future Laboratory—a thinking, making, design, development, and research studio—called upon our network of designers, technologists, writers, and curators to ponder the question: What would a product catalog from the normal, ordinary, everyday future look like? When Chinese geneticists clone the Panda, will they unexpectedly reproduce prodigiously and begin to overrun urban sprawls requiring annual cullings and a boom market for Cactus-Wool™ Panda Jerky? How long before Luggage Without Wheels™ becomes the derigour brand of stylish, hip suitcases? Would you consider using MeWee Monitor—the IoT connected toilet accessory, for the discerning self-monitoring enthusiast? In a world where calories are scarce, might you chose Bacigalupi brand High Caloric Hot Sauce to add flavor and energy to your otherwise bland rations?
The TBD Catalog team met for three days to discuss, design, sketch, agree, and agree to disagree on the archetype and contents of such a product catalog. After visiting the remarkable archives of the Henry Ford Museum and the Detroit downtown facilities of the University of Michigan, we had a prototype of the catalog that represented the editorial flavor and the trends and themes that dictated the sort of products we might see.
We did this because we’re passionate about the marvels that an innovation-rich society can create, but we’re concerned that those innovative, disruptive changes may proceed without a clear, tangible vision that one can iterate, reflect upon and design-to.
Let’s take something right on the precipice of the infamous Gartner Hype Curve: the Internet of Things. I’m told—and I’m an engineer by training, so I get the tech—IoT will be a $40 trillion industry. But I haven’t heard many satisfying and compelling representations about what it might be like to live in an Internet of Things world, where everything is connected to everything else.
What does a world look like when my desk can connect to the lamp in my studio? What’s the desk called? Does it have to be plugged in? What happens when the network goes down, or I spill my coffee? What about an IoT bathroom, where my scale, toilet, and toothbrush are all connected? Can I have it run Fiji water rather than normal city water, and have it billed direct to my bitcoin account?
We conjured up some normal, ordinary everyday objects. We then imagined them in a future where algorithms, the Internet of Things, Big Data analytics, and other of today’s hot trends have normalized out to become things that are taken for granted. Think of our design template as similar to taking the laser—a Nobel Prize-winning invention—and imagining it as a toy to entertain your cat.
We call this approach design fiction. It’s a particular kind of design prototyping, a way of breathing life into a hunch by making it feel tangible and real. Our design fiction in TBD Catalog resulted in 166 products and 62 classifieds that represent a world in which today’s emerging trends and tendencies become part of your normal, ordinary everyday life. Check out some of the sample products below and get to know your near future.