(Unedited) Podcast Transcript 414: Speculative Futures for Cities
This week we’re joined by Johanna Hoffman to talk about her book Speculative Futures: Design Approaches to Navigate Change, Foster Resilience, and Co-Create the Cities We Need. We chat about thinking longer term about planning problems, people’s emotional reactions to the future, and ways to imagine a different way of interacting in cities.
For a full unedited transcript, follow on below.
Jeff Wood (1m 23s):
Well, Johanna Hoffman, welcome to the Talking Headways podcast.
Johanna Hoffman (1m 28s):
Thank you so much for having me.
Jeff Wood (1m 30s):
Thanks for being here. Before we get started, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Johanna Hoffman (1m 34s):
Yes, I am an urbanist. I work primarily in the intersection between design, planning, fiction and futures, and that takes a couple different forms. I’m the founder and co-director of planning at a firm called Design for Adaptation, and we mix speculative design and strategic planning to survey the impacts of potential trajectories of change and help clients, communities, cities, organizations proactively respond. So I do consulting work, I also write and do research and I just came out with a book last month called Speculative Futures Design Approaches for Navigating Change, fostering Resilience and Co-Creating the Cities We Need. So I do a lot of, yeah, assessment of how we can really become more responsive in the ways that we proactively engage with a lot of the changes that are rapidly accelerating in our urban environments primarily.
Johanna Hoffman (2m 27s):
And then looking at different polishing initiatives or other kinds of interventions that we can make to create a little bit more adaptive response and resilience in how we live in our cities and live lives.
Jeff Wood (2m 39s):
And going back even further, how did you get into architecture and urban design? What was the thing that sparked your interest in the subject?
Johanna Hoffman (2m 47s):
I came to architecture and urban design in a slightly circuitous way. I first was really gripped by issues of climate change and marine management. So after I graduated from high school, I didn’t directly go to college. I worked for a year on a boat that was doing primarily coral reef research and spent a while mostly in Polynesia doing transects that basically documented how coral reefs were doing, which at the time was not as bad as they’re doing now, but it still wasn’t great and also spent some time with different communities and Lowlying islands in different parts of Polynesia. So kind of the outlying islands outside of Samoa, different parts of Kiribati Tuvalu, which some people have heard of kind of out of the way places.
Johanna Hoffman (3m 33s):
And people who were living on those islands were already starting in this background, 2004 to proactively leave. They were coming up with plans to immigrate to other countries that would be less vulnerable to sea level rise. So after that experience I focused a lot on different ways of helping, assisting, researching, trying to understand what was going on with coastal management basically and different climate change responses. And I found in doing that work that it’s both necessary and so critical and also quite depressing because things particularly then definitely still now are not going that great. So the documentation of those difficulties for me emotionally got to be kind of tough and I wanted to find a way to more proactively engage with some of these issues rather than again, documenting this decline in a lot of these difficulties.
Johanna Hoffman (4m 24s):
I wanted to see what kind of skills I could build and offer to see what could happen from a more proactive stance. So that really led me to planning and landscape architecture. I went back for a graduate degree in those disciplines and through that started to get more into the professional world.
Jeff Wood (4m 43s):
And then you came to speculative Futures. I’m curious what speculative future brought you to write this book specifically?
Johanna Hoffman (4m 50s):
There are a couple ones that I’ve been lucky enough to make and also just experience in getting to know people who are part of this field and who are amazing practitioners. But I kind of fell into it honestly by accident. After I graduated from landscape architecture and planning school, I went to work in different firms and learned from some amazing people. And I also found that in the way that the discipline is practiced in day-to-day life can also just often be as much as they’re also people who are pushing for really great projects that are all about supporting different community members who are going to be affected by interventions made. Not all projects do that.
Johanna Hoffman (5m 30s):
And I was on a number of projects that you know, were interesting to work on and they also exacerbated inequality in different ways that I thought, you know, it wasn’t the way that I wanted to use my time all the time. So I started looking basically for other mechanisms to essentially make the design process more collaborative, less about me as somebody who was trained or a developer who had the money or the principles that I was working for saying we know best because we’ve done this for a long time. Which is not to say that expertise is not valuable, I think it has a really important part to play. But in the ways that I was learning how to do this work, oftentimes community engagement was really approached as more of a box to tick off and something to be, you know, pushed through quite quickly rather than an opportunity for development to be identified that would really support the people who would be affected by or living around it.
Johanna Hoffman (6m 29s):
So I kind of in my off hours started to make different design interventions, which were oftentimes kinda like art installations basically to say, Hey, these are issues that are affecting all of us. Again, I was primarily focused on issues, often of climate change and wanting to cultivate conversations about what people thought about some of these issues. So there was one project that I talk about in my book that kind of made me aware of the fact that I was maybe doing something that was part of a bigger field. It was a living room set in the year 2200 and it was set on a street in San Francisco, which is, you know, bigger city in the region where I live in the Bay area. And just kind of made this living room that people who came by would basically be invited to enter as if they were using some sort of version of Airbnb that exists in 200 years from now.
Johanna Hoffman (7m 20s):
So they came into this living room, they were renting it from a person who owned the apartment and they found these different objects that you would need in order to navigate the world as it might exist 200 years from now, San Francisco is flooded In this scenario, sea levels have risen because all the glaciers in the world have melted. And so in order to get outside of this downtown area, you’ve gotta, you know, use your canoe paddle and get in a boat and there are waiters that you can wear so that when you walk outside your clothes won’t get wet. And there were different air filtration masks because air quality is a lot more filled with particulate matter. So there were these interactive objects, there was information about how this world, you know, you needed to basically just move through it.
Johanna Hoffman (8m 1s):
There were opportunities to go on tequila tastings because instead of wine country, agave is the plant that’s a lot more viable in this changed climate. So it was just this more experiential way of investigating what life in 200 years could be. And then there were at the kind of end of people exploring this living room questions that they could answer that basically were my way of inviting conversation about like, okay, so what does a long-term trajectory like this again, it’s 200 years from now, it’s about seven generations from where we are at the current moment. What kind of feelings does it bring up? And that was a way of trying to start these different conversations about the words that people use about climate change, fears, concerns and hopes, and then using those to inform different planning interventions to start to articulate different trajectories moving forward from the present moment.
Johanna Hoffman (8m 52s):
I did that installation in 2016, so there were a lot of responses that I got from this installation and some strong feelings, there were some tears, it just evoked a lot more of an emotional response than I was expecting because I just thought it was like a weird cool thing that I was doing. And for sure people responded to it as a weird cool thing, but a lot of people also had these very emotional responses to it. And after the installation ended and I started to just reflect on what I had just made, I started to look around at okay, is anyone else doing this stuff? This is something that maybe does this exist anywhere? And I discovered that this is a whole field that people have been building on for a long time.
Johanna Hoffman (9m 37s):
And it also ties into different forms of architectural and planning practice for, you know, really since ever people have been doing architectural practice throughout human history, we just don’t call it speculative futures. So in doing that project by accident, I kept on, you know, exploring and doing other projects and different sorts of forms and doing more research on other people who were doing this sort of work as well. And over the years it turned into this book that just came out
Jeff Wood (10m 4s):
And you mentioned it briefly, but what was the response, you know, how did that affect you for that audience solution? I mean people crying and being visibly upset or frustrated by the way that the world is going these days. And you mentioned earlier about kind of the bummer of the coral reefs. What did you take away from all the responses to your
Johanna Hoffman (10m 21s):
Work? It was really moving, it was exciting, it was confusing. There was one woman in particular who was sobbing really hard and I wanted to go comfort her and when I approached her, she was a stranger. She had come up on the street, she didn’t wanna be comforted, she was very much in her own experience. And so, you know, I walked away and I gave her space and somebody that she had come with ended up comforting her and then someone else actually approached her and wanted to have a conversation and she also like pushed him away. And I think what that really brought up for me was both, again surprise excitement. What is this? What does ha oh my god. But also really appreciating and this is something that I’ve reflected on in the years since, that facilitation of spaces for us to have an emotional response in public to the change that’s happening is something that is really valuable and also very complex to do.
Johanna Hoffman (11m 18s):
One of the things that I think would be so amazing, and sometimes this is how I think of different interventions that I’ve done in different versions on this living room from the year 2200, but in, you know, other slightly different forms is what does it mean to have collective grieving spaces about some of the changes that we are facing that could also be facing in the future? And what does it mean to have spaces to just be sad around, just to have our feelings around each other. And so I think of sometimes these interventions that I do as spaces for that kind of grieving that when you cross a threshold there’s a certain kind of way of experiencing and then also having the emotion. Sometimes that also translates into what we can do with that emotion.
Johanna Hoffman (11m 60s):
So direct actions that could maybe be taken in the present moment, but sometimes it’s just about having the feeling around other people and sometimes people feel really comfortable having those feelings around other people and sometimes I don’t. And I think that’s completely legitimate. I know that I wish that I had more spaces where I felt invited to do that as I move throughout my life in different cities. I think throughout a lot of human history religious spaces have invited us to have that kind of experience with others. But I think for a lot of us who aren’t necessarily religious or maybe we want to have those experiences around people who come from different backgrounds from us, maybe they don’t practice the same religion or they don’t practice religion at all.
Johanna Hoffman (12m 42s):
When we talk about the people who we share our cities with, who we live around, they oftentimes aren’t the same as us at all. So how can we have opportunities to share just again, the feelings that we have about the changes that are happening really fast and how to have those together when those are unlit, it’s not as if they always go well. I think we obviously see that in the digital world in a really extreme degree, but I think still having those opportunities and those openings to see what might come up are still really valuable.
Jeff Wood (13m 15s):
You talk a little bit in the book about collective experiences like say you talk about Black Panther a lot in the book and you know, the collective experience that a lot of people having go into the movie theaters and seeing people that look like them on screen and being in that space with other people who were experiencing that same thing. I feel like that would be something along those lines where it’s like a collective experience that you have. And even on Twitter, when you mentioned the orange day, right, that we all had here in San Francisco, the orange day was something where folks went online and they might’ve joked about it, the apocalypse is coming, others might have grieved on it, folks might have had different experiences, but they had a place where they could kind of go and share it. It’s almost the same as earthquake Twitter, which is really weird too, where an earthquake
Johanna Hoffman (13m 54s):
Jeff Wood (13m 55s):
Happens in the Bay Area and everybody goes on Twitter to check to make sure they’re not crazy, right?
Johanna Hoffman (13m 59s):
Or at least we do Now who knows what’s gonna happen with Twitter, there’ll be some other forum that comes up. Can we just have a moment to reflect on how crazy the Orange Day was like? Yeah, it’s two years ago now and it’s still, it’s so deeply ingrained in my memory and my like physical bo like I’m even you just saying the orange day. I’m like, oh God, I have this like physical reaction.
Jeff Wood (14m 22s):
But it’s interesting that I just made that up on the spot. I mean September 9th I guess it was or so, 2020 where the sky’s turned red orange in San Francisco. But I just call it the orange day and you know exactly what I was talking about, which is really fascinating
Johanna Hoffman (14m 36s):
For anybody who wasn’t who’s listening in the San Francisco Bay area. Literally our skies turned orange because there were so many fires going on in the region that all the particulate matter in the sky blocked the rays of the sun out. So the whole place just looked like a sci-fi Armageddon movie come to life. But it was real
Jeff Wood (14m 53s):
Lots of comparisons to Blade Runner in 2049,
Johanna Hoffman (14m 56s):
Jeff Wood (14m 58s):
You know, in reading the book. And I went back into my phone camera and I looked for the pictures from that day just because I was like, okay, well I remember I took the pictures from, you know, inside my house or actually I walked onto the street cause the air was actually pretty clean that day. I know. Which was kind of weird, right? Yeah. Because you’d expect it to be really dirty because of the way that the sky looked. But it was actually clean because all of that stuff was up in the higher atmosphere and the fog and the cooler air was in the bottom. But I looked at that and then I looked a couple days later and I took a picture from the same exact spot and it was a foggy day so it was a gray but it had all the color in it, which was interesting. I took that picture in orange and then I took the picture in in white to kind of give myself some sort of a comparison. And I don’t know exactly why I did that, but it was an interesting experience looking back on it and seeing those two pictures that I took from the exact same spot.
Johanna Hoffman (15m 41s):
Yeah, it’s our life that keeps on changing really rapidly and and one of the things that’s occurred for me in the last two years, please tell me if this is true for you as well, is that when I think about the orange day, I can very much still like access how freaky it was and yet I don’t think about it all the time, right? Like I’m still just living my life. And I think that’s what happens a lot of times when people go through these collective experiences of disaster. Obviously like you know, the orange day was not one in which a lot of people necessarily died. Some people like really had their lives devastated by the fires that caused the orange day, but the orange day itself was much more of this freaky vision into something that might be a reality moving forward.
Johanna Hoffman (16m 22s):
And yet it didn’t result in a lot of like direct loss of life specifically from that day. But when we talk about other disasters that are kind of these really powerful collective experiences that shift our mind frames and when we’re talking about stuff like Black Panther a film, right? That people have a collective experience of seeing in a theater or talking about it’s a shared story, these disasters, these really intense events, they do become our shared stories and our shared understanding of the magnitude of the changes that we’re facing. So when I think back to my time working in coral reef research in Polynesia, people in those islands had really powerful collective stories about how they were already seeing sea level rise affect their homes, their crops, they couldn’t grow things because saltwater inundation was already really big.
Johanna Hoffman (17m 9s):
Hurricanes were already getting measurably more intense there. Like they had a personal connection to all of this change. And so with the orange day, that was my personal connection, it sounds like yours and really anybody else who was there that day to say this is on another level that I just have never experienced before. And it’s scary. So this personal collective story that’s very viscerally, physically affecting, it’s something that we share now for people who were there that died. So even if we don’t think about it all the time, it’s part of our collective narrative and understanding about the impacts of climate change and about the stuff that’s happening right here right now. And on a certain level this is not true for for all of us and I think we’re still trying to figure out what to do with it.
Johanna Hoffman (17m 52s):
Like we know that these changes are happening and so the question becomes what are the actions that we want to take? So I think making those actions from that fear-based place, which I am super guilty of all the time, I am the most motivated to do stuff when I’m freaked out about what’s happening in my life. Having the orange day was like, ah, fire. And all of its many impacts that I had never anticipated were so visceral. What I’m really interested in with speculative futures and where I think a lot of its power lives, these tool sets is that it can also encourage us to make moves, identify decisions and actions from not just a fear-based place but from a place of hope or motivation or positive goals.
Jeff Wood (18m 39s):
Yeah, and you talk about that a number of times and I think it was brought home to me when you had a discussion about a lot of the imagination of future places takes place in movies and pop culture books, et cetera, the Hunger Games and all that stuff. But it’s comes from a dystopian place, right? It comes from a place that’s a a negative space almost rather than a a positive future. And so I’m wondering if you can kinda expand on that a little bit because I feel like a lot of folks visions of the future come from that fear-based place that’s created in the movies, whereas there’s so many other ways it could be more positive and also maybe the positive is a better way to go.
Johanna Hoffman (19m 13s):
Yeah, we again are super motivated to do stuff when we are freaked out by the potential impacts or repercussions that an intervention or trajectory or an event could have. So it kind of makes sense why a lot of sci-fi is dystopian on a certain level because you know, writing a story in order to critique what’s going on is a longstanding trait in human history. We’re commenting on the things that we see around us when we tell a story, definitely when we write a story, when we make a film. And so if someone’s trying to highlight an issue and to really say, Hey guys pay attention, they oftentimes can take a negative bent. That’s said, so many of the stories that come out that are about potential trajectories of the future are heavily dystopian.
Johanna Hoffman (19m 57s):
And there’s lots of theories about why that’s true. And I’m not gonna say specifically, you know, why that seems to be our orientation, but I think part of it at least comes from, I think this aspect is worth highlighting that the majority of people who are in the place to tell stories about the future are often coming from very particular populations. People who make films for the most part are men. People who write SCIway often for the most part are white. And so when we’re thinking about the changes that are happening in society, they’re different than they were and the 1950s, right? And I think for a lot of people those changes are quite scary and they don’t necessarily create a continuity with the way that things have been before.
Johanna Hoffman (20m 40s):
And so when we’re talking about our trying to identify a positive trajectory of the future, that can be really difficult for people who have been in positions of power previously, but they’re not necessarily having faith that they are going to be on top moving forward. That said, there are people who have amazing sci-fi stories who are not white men and some of them do air dystopian. So it’s not to say that like if you’re not a white man, you’re definitely gonna have like positive sci-fi fiction. That’s not what I’m trying to say at all. I think it’s much more that just as humans on a base level, we’re entering into super scary times and those changes can be frightening. And so it’s a harder thing to identify a positive trajectory forward when we’re in such a state of confusion, fear freaking out.
Johanna Hoffman (21m 27s):
So it’s not the only way in order to look at where we might move from this present moment, that fear-based state. And what I think can be really powerful about the speculative process is that it’s also an invitation to write stories in a slightly more collective way when we’re writing stories, telling stories, articulating potential trajectories of the future that are coming from a single viewpoint, which is often how stories are created. Sometimes in writer’s rooms in Hollywood you’ll have multiple people writing a story, but it’s not all the time. And that’s usually coming from a relatively small group. And when we look back at urban developments history, that’s also been the way that a lot of development projects have been made. You know, that whole mythology of the planner or architect as God having like a beautiful vision that they basically implement on a tabula raa, that’s a longstanding idea in architectural practice and that’s how a lot of people still train people who are coming up through the disciplines.
Johanna Hoffman (22m 24s):
That also has resulted in a lot of problems over the generations, the consequences of which we’re still seeing today. So I think one of the valuable moves moving forward period, whether people use speculative futures tools or not to do this, is how to make planning urban development collaborative. It needs to have the voices of people who will be affected by different interventions formulating and designing what those interventions are going to be. Telling collective stories about where we want to head is a really powerful way of articulating and shaping all those plans can and should look how they can be developed. So with the speculative futures tool sets and approaches, they start to harness against some of those tactics that people have used in science fiction that they’ve used in filmmaking to articulate or offer or present forums for collective storytelling.
Johanna Hoffman (23m 19s):
And that’s actually how when we look back at human history, we’ve done a lot of our storytelling historically, if we’re looking back at different forms of world building, which is a particular speculative futures process. And it basically is on a very simple form, a way of creating a cohesive vision of an alternative world that has all of the political context and cultural attitudes and ecological systems articulated. So it’s just looking to articulate a world in its cohesive form that is not necessarily exactly the same as the one that we see when we look around us. And that’s been done to formulate mythologies and shared folklore in cultures all throughout the world.
Johanna Hoffman (24m 2s):
If we’re talking about, you know, the Norse gods of Scandinavia, that was a massive collective storytelling exercise that took place between many different people over generations and they created a whole worldview that formulated and inspired and guided different kinds of collective action over the generations. When we’re talking about Greek mythology, same deal when we’re talking about the Aztecs of Latin America, same situation when we’re talking about Homer, if we’re like in the West, that’s such a, you know, text that people talk about all the time. The Odyssey, we still tell these stories that come from thousands of years ago that were actually the work we think like Homer, the guy who wrote The Odyssey, we don’t think it’s just one person.
Johanna Hoffman (24m 43s):
Oftentimes scholars like actually that was probably many different people adding to this story over time. So as humans we’ve got a long history of doing collective storytelling. And so what I think can be really powerful about re harnessing these fundamental tools that we have been using since forever to articulate the trajectories that we want to use moving forward. That’s something that we know how to do. How can we start to dive back into some of these tools and do this work more intentionally about how we build our cities and the places where we live
Jeff Wood (25m 17s):
World building as a storytelling exercise. I’m, I’m really drawn to this specifically and not just because I’m a huge Star Wars fan, all listeners know that I talk about that all the time and because of tip of the iceberg storytelling that happens there. And I think that that’s a valuable and underutilized tool, but the world building that happens in real life and, and you give an example in the book of the Republic of Columbus Pine where there’s a neighborhood which has a number of different folks in it who might not get along necessarily, and you come in and you create a new kind of republic or a new place and you have the folks there tell a story that comes together and you do an Olympics and you do all these things, you create a state bird, whatever it is.
Jeff Wood (25m 58s):
I think that’s really fascinating because you’re making people step away from their existing environment and creating a new one together that represents a whole.
Johanna Hoffman (26m 6s):
Yeah, it was such a cool project to discover and I definitely happened upon it by accident. And the artist who kind of led that project, a guy named Jorge Monte Rubio, really remarkable practitioner, he also kind of happened to that by accident. He wasn’t going into that project saying, Hey, I’m gonna do world building and I’m gonna do experiential futures. He was going into that project and saying, what is a creative way that we can start to address some of the longstanding tensions that have been in this neighborhood? For those listening who haven’t read the book, this is an area in web Amsterdam and a lot of different residents who live in that area come from a lot of different countries and backgrounds and some of the cultural differences that stemmed from that had contributed to different tensions in the area over time.
Johanna Hoffman (26m 51s):
There also had been some violence in the neighborhood, some drug dealing, just other things that were problematic and the local government had tried to deal with some of these intervention or these issues with more traditional kinds of planning interventions that kind of worked, that kind of hadn’t. So they were trying to use some more experimental methods. So they did this in a couple different parts of the city and one of those parts of the city was West Amsterdam. They got this guy Jorge Montes Rubios to kind of set up shop there for sector of the year 2014. And he came up with this idea for basically creating a Micronesian, an alternative reality for this neighborhood.
Johanna Hoffman (27m 33s):
So it wasn’t creating a future that was set, you know, in a far off galaxy, you know, far, far away. But he was talking about world that was not the one that existed. And they used different kinds of speculative futures tools to flesh out the details of what that actually meant. They used design fictions, they made different objects that were part of this different world, which were stamps, they made a passport, they created, like you said, a national flag. They came up with different experiential activities that were ways to help people engage with again this alternative present reality. And because, you know, this project wasn’t developed in a way where it was going to last over time.
Johanna Hoffman (28m 15s):
This was really a test, it was an exploration of a different sort of collaborative city making. So once there was about three months that this project had funding for once those three months were up, you know, it kind of kept going a little bit, but not really. And so it’s not as if the Republic of Columbus being exists today, but what I think is really valuable in what it offers the kind of lessons and reflection are really just like you say, it’s possible to inhabit an alternative reality of our current situations right here, right now. And what does that look like? How can we start to envision and then inhabit those alternative realities and then if we can be smart about how we do so, where does that lead us moving forward and how can we invest in those changes over time?
Johanna Hoffman (29m 1s):
And that’s not easy to do. This is, you know, planning and development work. It’s tough. It takes time. It can be really frustrating because things oftentimes do not go forward at the pace that you would like them to. It requires funding, right? Like you, you lead this podcast, you know about urban development, people listening, you probably have your own issues in your own city. It’s not like just getting involved is going to simply fix everything easily. That’s not the case sadly. But I think by also injecting some fun and some play and different kinds of creative exploration can also give us the energy that we need to keep doing it. I was just looking online before you and I, I hopped on this call and apparently in Ukraine they’re starting to rebuild certain bombed out sectors of the city while raving like they’re combining the rebuilding with parties and that’s pretty powerful.
Johanna Hoffman (29m 56s):
Like how can we have some joy on this death ship that we are on? You know, things are not good, they are difficult, they will probably be getting more challenging and how can we energize ourselves to meet and also be curious about whether or not we can identify a trajectory that we might actually want. Right? So the whole dystopian fixation that I think exists in popular media is really a failure of collective imagination to ask ourselves what else is possible For sure this is all pretty bad and we owe it to ourselves to ask what if there is also a wave forward that might be maybe even preferable.
Johanna Hoffman (30m 39s):
It is possible. So I think motivating ourselves, energizing ourselves to ask is a big part of that. So that play aspect, that speculative futures can invite the creativity that happens in storytelling, that can be a really helpful and powerful tool.
Jeff Wood (30m 55s):
I think one of the lessons from the play chapter that I took is that our focus is too short. You know, a meeting that lasts today won’t build trust and an experiment like Columbus plan, if not supported over time it’ll fade away. It seems like time and effort are in short supply.
Johanna Hoffman (31m 7s):
Yeah, totally. We don’t have very much patience and I am a very impatient person, so I sympathize with this aspect that I know that other people have as well. It’s tough to get involved in local politics or to try and push a project forward. Like it’s very difficult. So how can we make it something that we actually might even look forward to? You know, these are questions that people have been asking in different parts of the world over time and there’s no one answer to it. But again, these are particular approaches that I think really harness the fundamental capacities to imagine that we all have and the different aspects for play and exploration that as children just come to us so naturally and as we age, you know, we’re just less encouraged to do that.
Johanna Hoffman (31m 50s):
So how can we invite ourselves to really just use the ways of being and relating that we all have access to on a much more tactical and applied basis. Like we need to be creative in the ways that we rebuild and make our cities more adaptable. We have capacities for creativity and you know, imaginative play. Some people call this the pragmatic imagination. And I think that phrase can be very helpful because again, we all have the abilities to imagine how can we make that imaginative capacity really pragmatic and practical. Let’s be creative and then let’s take it back to the present moment so that we can identify different strategic moves that we can make to move towards that preferred directory and then keep on iterating so that that work that can be so frustrating sometimes.
Johanna Hoffman (32m 41s):
And also take a while and try our patients. We can inject enough of, again, that creativity, playful attitude so that we can keep committed to moving it forward.
Jeff Wood (32m 51s):
What’s the difference between a speculative future and a crazy idea?
Johanna Hoffman (32m 57s):
It’s a good question. I would say that they’re on a spectrum. What I do think is a fundamental thing to highlight is that a speculative future is grounded in research. A crazy idea is something that you know, maybe pops into your brain, you’re like, that would be so cool. Yes, I want to see that a speculative future is one that might also pop into your brain. That’s so cool. How to ground it in an understanding of how things might actually change over time. So I would say yeah, really digging into what are the different technological changes that might be happening in coming decades? What are the ecological contexts that might be shifting?
Johanna Hoffman (33m 38s):
What are some of the economic trajectories that people are anticipating? And that’s where people like me who do this work on an ongoing basis can sometimes be helpful because we do try and pay attention to some of these drivers of change and can identify what some of these different trajectories and shifts could be when it comes to world building and the ways that they use it in different Hollywood narratives. A lot of it is based again on very detailed research. So even though some of those ideas are super far out there, if we’re talking about, you know, the city that was depicted in Black Panther, the capital city of Wakanda, it’s a far out idea. It looks, you know, awesome, I would definitely want to live there.
Johanna Hoffman (34m 19s):
And it’s also based on very detailed research that was not production design that the production designer Hannah Beaker came up with on the fly. She did detailed research, not just onto the historical context of different African cities. They based that particular city on the capital of a particular empire that existed in the 15th century. She dug into so much of the history of that particular region, she dug into different technological interventions and she also was just really trying to understand the context of the humans who might live there. So again, doing all of this research is a way of making these potential futures, these speculative futures really grounded so that we can understand what the effects might be on us as people who might live there or if it’s in a far off future, who those people might be who might be existing in that timeframe.
Johanna Hoffman (35m 12s):
So crazy idea I would say is again on that other side of the spectrum of using our imaginations just to think through what might happen. Those are ideas that are not grounded in what might actually be able to occur or it’s not grounded in the ways that humans have been using a particular kind of space over time, or it’s not grounded in an understanding of what it means to create a really detailed world and then explore what the ramifications might be for actually living in it. It’s not something that feels like there’s an opportunity for me as a potential inhabitant of that idea to have it like a real fleshed out experience. All worlds, regardless of how fictional they are, they have rules.
Johanna Hoffman (35m 55s):
You can’t, you know, if you’re walking in say Lord of the Rings, right middle earth, fictional world, it doesn’t exist. Tolkien did a lot of really intense world building to build that. That’s not a world where people don’t experience gravity. You can’t just like pop in that world and say, hey, like I’m gonna be an orrc and I’m gonna go floating around. That’s not how that world operates. So again, that would be a far out idea to just pop into middle earth and be an or who gets to float around and do whatever you want. That sounds great, but it’s not a speculative reality because it’s not adhering to the rules that dictate that world. So with a speculative future, again, it’s really doing as much due diligence as you can to try and understand what a trajectory of change might look like.
Johanna Hoffman (36m 40s):
And again, when we’re talking about further off timeframes, that living room from the year 2200 for example is 200 years from now. Like there’s no way to know for sure what’s going to happen in 200 years. So the research that I did kind of extrapolated as far as a lot of scientists can go, which is usually not farther than 2040. Some of them I found in different published papers when as far as 2080, but then I had to move off from there. So I had to make a certain series of decisions that I tried to make as transparent as possible and then adhered to the rules that extended from those decisions. So again, I think speculative reality is the whole point of them is really that their provocations.
Johanna Hoffman (37m 20s):
So putting it out there in a way to provoke discussion, I think is most helpful when the people, the groups who have identified those speculative realities are being really transparent about the kind of research that went into them so that the discussions that can happen as a result are grounded again in certain trajectories that might actually happen rather than things that, who knows? I just put this idea out there.
Jeff Wood (37m 44s):
The thing that made me ask that question was aropa, right? That example of a different Europe where they had places that were specifically created for solar power and places that were specifically created for wind power and you know, it was based on the actual geography of places rather than just taking Germany and putting a bunch of stuff in there. Yeah, which is really fascinating. And the way that it actually came around and people actually started not taking it seriously but just kind of like interacting with it more realistically than just like saying, oh well that’s a dumb idea or that’s a crazy idea, let’s just throw it away. I thought that was fascinating and And that’s the reason why I asked you about, about the crazy idea versus a speculative future.
Johanna Hoffman (38m 23s):
Yeah, yeah. For people who, again, haven’t read the book or don’t know this particular project, it was a project that reenvisioned Europe with all of its current boundaries dissolved and it was reorganized according to the kind of renewable energy that each region could generate. So Spain and Italy and Portugal don’t exist. They’re now part of Solaria cause that’s where all the solar power comes from. And it was based on really detailed research before the whole speculative design process, which again is a subset of speculative futures, which is an umbrella term for a lot of different ways of exploring what potential futures could be in high resolution ways. Before the team went in with their speculative design process, they had a lot of different research from people who had done the first phase of assessment, which were, you know, different consulting companies and economic experts.
Johanna Hoffman (39m 12s):
And they found, oh right Europe, which at the time this was 20 10, 1 of the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitters. And it also pursues renewable energy in this really weird way. Solar plants in Germany where there’s very little sun, like why would you do that? So this whole reconfiguration, which was totally designed to be outlandish, nobody’s actually gonna do that, right? And that was the whole point. It was saying, all right, let’s just like take off the board for a little while the idea that anyone’s gonna do this and let’s just like explore what it would actually take to make Europe completely energy independent and in the vision that they developed. Because again, it was based on robust degrees of research.
Johanna Hoffman (39m 53s):
It’s actually not possible from what they discovered. Things might be different now because battery capacity has gotten a lot better and solar cells are also more effective. But in 2010 when they put this project together, they found that it wasn’t possible for Europe to be entirely energy independent. So they had a strategy aspect where they got solar power from parts of North Africa as well. So this project was, you know, not perfect by any means, but it was really, I think a powerful example looking at the power crisis that’s going on in Europe right now. It’s like if only people had taken this proposal a lot more seriously because unfortunately they didn’t. But it’s a really powerful way of saying, hey, let’s just do this very detailed research and presented in this very provocative way, this humorous way.
Johanna Hoffman (40m 37s):
The idea that we would have states called biomass is it’s silly. And that was the point, this design firm who came up with this project, a place called it’s amo, which is the research arm of rem coolhouse om a, it’s a way of making a provocative statement that again, because it was based on research that was so detailed, the discussions that ended up being sparked because of it were very grounded in a way of saying, okay, that’s outlandish, but if we actually were going to take some of it seriously, like what could we do? So putting something with a provocative and humorous package when it’s based on very detailed and grounded research is a powerful way of cultivating conversation.
Johanna Hoffman (41m 18s):
And I think that is the inherent difference between the speculative futures world and the way that I was trained to use speculation and architecture and design is that oftentimes, and this is not true for all architectural practitioners, but oftentimes when we, we use the speculative process because all proposals, all plans before they’re built are speculative futures. They don’t exist yet. They’re presented oftentimes as either predictions of what will definitely occur cuz you need to convince people to trust you. And they’re also presented really about persuasion. They’re designed to persuade rather than to provoke discussion. So that I think is the fundamental difference.
Johanna Hoffman (41m 59s):
You know, you asked previously what’s the difference between a crazy idea and a speculative future? And I think that research factor is a really big part of it. And I think the fundamental difference between a speculative futures project and a more traditional urban development project, they’re in a Venn diagram. There’s definitely plenty of crossover, but the way that I distinguish those two subsets is that speculative futures are really focused on provocation and more traditional urban development is using the speculative process for more prediction and persuasion focus purposes.
Jeff Wood (42m 30s):
That makes me think of like scenario planning and those types of things. We had actually Robert, good speed on to talk about some of his work on that specific subject, but it makes me think of that a little bit as well. In terms of scenario planning. You put together three different scenarios that could be possible in the next 30 years and then you, you kind of pick one and then you, you try to go forward. And I don’t know if that actually, I think it works in some instances, but maybe not in others. I’m wondering if there’s a way to kind of refine that using a speculative future in a way that actually gets people kind of on the same page.
Johanna Hoffman (42m 59s):
I think there can be scenario planning is super powerful and you know, practitioners like Robert Goodspeed, I think he does amazing work. So none of this is to belittle any of that approach at all. It’s much more to say that I think the power that speculative futures can bring to that scenario planning assessment process is that it’s a way of inviting us to feel into what those futures can be. So another practitioner who’s, you know, really remarkable, definitely worth checking out if people don’t know him, but he’s much more on the futurist side of things. A guy named Stewart Candy, he’s really all about experiential futures in part because, and I agree with him on this front, when we feel into what a future could be, it becomes inherently more personal and through that personal connection we’re able to reflect on what does this mean for me?
Johanna Hoffman (43m 46s):
Or if it’s in a longer timeframe when I might be dead, what might that actually mean for, you know, a grandchild or a grand niece or whatever, just another human that I can feel into and have a bit more compassion for their experience. And so making decisions from that personal place I think can make us really consider repercussions and alternative impacts that we don’t always take into account when we do scenario planning from a more objective perspective. And that’s really the origins of scenario planning. The earliest uses of it in a more formalized way all came from the Rand Corporation during the Cold War. And a lot of it was an order as one of its originators.
Johanna Hoffman (44m 28s):
This guy Herman Khan who really was just a fan of sci-fi, I say just a fan to say that like what he really wanted to do when he was coming up with scenarios as a term was to write short science fiction. But he knew that he couldn’t say that he was writing short science fiction if he was gonna convince a lot of the different, you know, military officials that he was working for to take his stuff seriously. So he came up with a slightly more official sounding word. It’s a scenario, it’s not a science fiction story, it’s a scenario so that they would take him more seriously and they did. And I think that particular approach towards what Khan called thinking about the unthinkable, which was the reason to use scenarios.
Johanna Hoffman (45m 8s):
We don’t wanna talk about nuclear war cuz that was the big existential crisis at the time, still is these days. But I think we’re less freaked out about it than we were then. The way to think about this scary scenario was to be more objective. You took a more objective perspective. We’re not really thinking through what it means to be a person on the ground who’s being devastated by a nuclear attack. We’re thinking about, you know, the tens of millions of people we’re looking at people as like these massive numbers we’re looking at it from more of a bird side lens. And the idea there was that we could make decisions that were more objective, more based on data, more rational and therefore would be better decisions. This is not to poo poo rational or objective sorts of decision making, but I think we have seen in the decades since for sure, that really claiming rationality and objectivity that we are unbiased when we’re making really complex decisions is often a fallacy.
Johanna Hoffman (46m 2s):
We come with our own positionalities and preferences that oftentimes affect the ways that we interpret information and data. So bringing in with speculative futures process, a way of experiencing one of those scenarios in a much more tactile and personal way, I think is a powerful opportunity to really marry the objective with the personal. We can’t, I think, aim for one or the other to say that one is better than the other. We have to be able to really think through the human ramifications of our choices. And I think doing that through a more personal avenue, what might this mean for me? What does this mean for, you know, someone who’s maybe related to me? What does this mean for if I envision myself as a person in seven or eight generations, what would that mean for me as an individual?
Johanna Hoffman (46m 48s):
That’s a way of complimenting the objective thinking that we still have the capacity to do. But when we strictly focus on the objective perspectives that scenario planning can often encourage. We don’t think through the human ramifications and we can make decisions that truly can be harmful.
Jeff Wood (47m 5s):
Well that’s another question I had is like how do we stay away from kind of harmful inertia that already exists? So you know, folks, I think a lot of folks will listen to this podcast specifically, would like to see a world with less cars in central cities, less driving overall and see a different space. And we’ve seen that space in places in Europe and in Asia, places around the world. But in the United States we’re tied to our cars and I feel like sometimes there’s this inertia and thinking about the future. So for example, like autonomous vehicles are just preordained, it’s gonna happen. The way that we look at things is based on a a path that exists, but it’s also a sold future as well from many of the companies that are trying to make money off of it too.
Jeff Wood (47m 45s):
So you know that inertia I feel like sometimes is a real kind of obstacle to maybe thinking outside of the box.
Johanna Hoffman (47m 52s):
Yeah. How do we get outside of that inertia? One way that we can do it is by remixing the part of our brains, which is the part of our brain stores, our memory that is also connected to how we envision potential futures. So that’s another reason why we base a lot of our ideas about where we could head on our ideas of the past because those parts of our brain are intrinsically in a relationship with each other. So one of the ways that we can invite more creative thinking about what happens or what could occur in years to come is by experiencing in these different forms, whether it’s through different stories that we don’t absorb from corporate sponsors, which is tough cuz they’re the guys who have a lot of money and can hire a lot of really good storytellers to create a lot of very intriguing and exciting stories.
Johanna Hoffman (48m 42s):
That said, they’re not the only people who can do that. And again, as humans, we have pretty awesome capacities for storytelling ourselves. So how can we explore and experience in these different ways that speculative futures tools offer us? Again, they’re not the only ways, but they do offer some intriguing, playful, creative ways of experiencing what has not yet occurred. And once we formulate those memories of futures that haven’t yet taken place, we have a larger store of material with which to remix our ideas about what could be headed down the pike. So I think it’s about getting a lot more curious about what could happen, about really questioning where we get our media from and really taking the time to explore and maybe write our own stories ourselves.
Jeff Wood (49m 30s):
Last question, if you could go in a time machine and go back in time and talk to yourself before you wrote the book, was there anything that you would change or was there anything that you would tell yourself?
Johanna Hoffman (49m 40s):
Hmm. I definitely thought you were gonna ask me what timeframe I would wanna travel just in the past period, but
Jeff Wood (49m 45s):
I mean, you can tell me that too.
Johanna Hoffman (49m 47s):
So many, it’s tough to choose. That’ll be for a different conversation specifically to that part of me before I wrote the book, I think have patience, which again, I’m not the most patient person because what I wrote I hope is helpful to other people. And it really took me going through this particular journey of questioning why I design and what design is really for and what the vulnerabilities are that we are facing, and how design can meet those challenges in a different way than it has done in decades past. How can design be a process that everyone can do so that we can advocate for the changes that we really need to make for ourselves?
Johanna Hoffman (50m 34s):
So how can design basically be a collaborative process? That’s what I realized I found in Speculative Futures as a field, it’s not perfect. These are tool sets. The ways that they’re used are, or the impacts that they have are very much dictated by how they are implemented. And yet like any tool, they can also be used for positive impact as well. So I’ve seen in the projects that I’ve done, and I have learned from the other projects that I have been able to dive into and the practitioners who have so generously shared with me that there are ways to use these for real positive impact in ways that are inspiring. And I think also a necessary shift in how we build our cities, which is again, from a much more top down people with influence and money dictating how things should occur to what I hope we can move towards.
Johanna Hoffman (51m 25s):
And what I truly believe are necessary to create the resilient and adaptive spaces that we really need, which is for places to be co-designed and co-produced by all of those who are affected by life in those places.
Jeff Wood (51m 37s):
Well the book is Speculative Futures Design Approaches to Navigate, change, foster Resilience, and co-create the Cities we need. Where can folks find the book if they wanna get a copy?
Johanna Hoffman (51m 45s):
It’s everywhere really online. If you are an Amazon person, it’s on there. If you are an Indie Bookshop person, it’s on Bookshop, it’s distributed by Penguin Random House. You can buy it from them directly, and if it’s not in your local bookstore, they can definitely find it and get it for you.
Jeff Wood (52m 1s):
Awesome. Well, Johanna, thanks so much for joining us. We really appreciate your time. Thanks
Johanna Hoffman (52m 5s):
So much for having me. Such a pleasure.