"Stop shouting 'future' - start doing it". Anab Jain of Superflux in praise of "alternative trajectories"


Superflux have long been one of the most exciting design companies in the UK, because they have always been committed to a rare thing: the building of plausible, desirable and cautionary futures, ones that a human being could lay their hands on, walk into or point to. Their clientele is mostly big business or government, but they always try to challenge assumptions and bring power and politics to any of their “design fictions”.

It’s worth visiting their site, just to raid them for ideas about how to get your community thinking tangibly about future possibilities and crises. (See for example, their Instant Archetypes: a New Tarot for the New Normal, which uses the old divination technique as a framework for a game to help you think of viable coming futures. Or as they put it:

A toolkit for anyone looking to open up possibilities, surface questions and untangle stubborn challenges. A reimagining of the timeless tropes of the Major Arcana for the 21st Century where the Fool is now the Consumer, the Chariot is a Drone, and the Moon is a Meme.

Anab Jain is Superflux’s founder and director, and here writes a blog about her frustration with organisations who engage them to evoke possible futures:

While the appetite for innovative ideas abounds, there is less gumption when it comes to following alternative trajectories. This is where it gets tricky. So many visionary initiatives launched with the desire to be “radical”, “experimental” and “imaginative” end up as incubator programs that seek to accelerate growth….

Where there is the capacity (cognitive, intellectual and emotional) to forfeit fear for uncertainty, to let go the clutches of deeply ingrained structures, and give way to the unknown, the results have been astonishing.

In his book ‘Being Mortal’ Atul Gwande writes about this incredible young doctor, Bill Thomas, who was put in charge of a care home.

Bill was so taken aback by the despair he sensed there, that acting on little more than instinct, he decided to literally put some life into the nursing home. He spent hours, days, and weeks convincing management, regulatory and medical authorities.

He even sourced an “innovation grant” to carry out his plan. This plan was to welcome two dogs, four cats, one hundred parakeets and an abundance of bona fide living plants (rather than miserable fake ones) into the care home — all in one day.

And so, that’s what happened, and yes, there was total pandemonium. But then, over the course of three months, the results were astonishing. Medical costs plummeted. Patients reported feeling much healthier. In many cases, looking after the animals, birds and plants literally saved lives, and most importantly, it gave the residents a raison d’être. 

What Dr. Thomas managed to pursue despite all odds, was an alternative, radical vision. He had the courage, and support, to follow through on something that felt totally impossible. What this proves is that it takes instinct, guts, imagination, and commitment to challenge the status quo and then, critically, follow that through with integrity. But the outcome can be spectacular.

We’d only add to this that perhaps the scale of Dr. Thomas’s intervention was important - a local care home, a specific community facing a crisis or stasis. And that perhaps the appetite for change was more acute, and thus more likely to embraced and embedded, than in a commercial context where - possibility - new ideas are surfaced, in order to be quashed, or simply to illuminate better “business as usual”.

Come with us into the local and the civic, Anab! Plenty of desire for “alternative trajectories” there.