Our Fall series Trusting Invisibility examines the role of designers in deepening trust in our future society. Andrew Merrie, a sustainability scientist at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, develops future environmental scenarios by creating sci-fi narratives grounded in science in order to anticipate and try to address problems before they become unsolvable. To trust in our future, we must see what we’re up against, understand the consequences, and take control now.
Tell us about your radical oceans project.
It’s a way of prototyping the future ocean through the application of imagination. In the project, we develop science fiction narratives that are grounded in scientific evidence to see how, for example, climate change and shifts in marine ecosystems might affect our oceans and fisheries — and how human societies might respond to those changes.
How did the idea take hold?
During my PhD, I was part of an international research program called Nereus that was tasked with “predicting the future ocean.” Other scientists in the program were running climate models and doing analyses of how different marine species might respond to a wide range of climate change impacts.
Our role, here at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, was to focus on understanding future governance of changing oceans. This was extremely difficult to model, so I started wondering what it means to live, to thrive, and to survive in our future oceans. We have really strong analytical models on how increasing acid as a result of climate change affects the ocean, but no idea what that means for human civilization. I gathered ten years of marine science to study, and realized that even with strong scientific evidence, making predictions is extremely challenging. There’s a chasm between what we know in science and how we think about the future.
So I started experimenting with sci-fi prototyping, a Silicon Valley concept developed by Brian David Johnson, Intel’s first futurist; he helped engineers at the firm consider the implications that the technologies they were tasked with creating might have on humans. As a way to process the questions I was asking, I started a small side project: I wrote a short story about a Norwegian seafood CEO who ‘farms the global oceans’ in the form of a 2070 obituary and tried to pull in one possible future scenario. That led to the development of three other science-based sci-fi narratives of the future oceans, each focusing on addressing a core idea and bringing together changes in ecosystems, technology, and human society — some fairly predictable, others radically uncertain.
How do oceans play into global environmental policies?
That’s a big question. Oceans play into global environmental politics in a number of ways, but I will focus on one example. I was studying the “high seas,” officially known as “areas beyond national jurisdiction.” These are areas of the oceans that are not under the control of any one state. There is very little governance of these areas; what there is has focused on a few species of fish. But things are changing in the oceans extremely fast. For example, companies are developing autonomous submersible robots to mine deposits of rare minerals from the ocean floor. These technologies are moving faster than humans are able to respond to the developments, so often we end up trying to govern what existed in the past, or at best the present, but we are unable to anticipate what is likely to happen in the future.
How should we respond?
Most people assume that change will be linear but here, complexity is at the core of how we see things. We’re trying to bring in the radical shifts in technology, society, and ecosystems, and then ask: What will that mean for someone in 2070? In one of our narratives, we’re questioning the notion of farming the oceans and creating a blue economy, a concept that hinges on being good stewards of our oceans. So if you take that blue economy to its logical extreme, what would it look like? As I developed scenarios that theorized about alternate futures, I found it useful to put these radical shifts in the context of future oceans. Eventually, I commissioned the conceptual artist Simon Stålenhag to illustrate the four futures which mix elements of utopia and dystopia so we could draw attention to the science of the rapidly changing oceans.
What is your process?
We start with a strong evidence base, which entails reading a lot of scientific papers before getting into storytelling mode. Then we bring in what we know is fairly certain from the science while accounting for surprise and more radical uncertainty, and then we mix them together. For example, each of the scenarios has impacts of climate change in it to one degree or another. Through iteration, lots of rewriting, and sharing with colleagues for feedback (and eliciting feedback from a sci-fi author), we do our best to account for assumptions and biases.
During the writing phase, we try to categorize what we know into elements of the science that are relatively well-known or stable while also trying to account for the things that are plausible but unstable and characterized by uncertainty. This allows us to incorporate tipping point situations that might surprise us — say ocean circulation rapidly slows down or we get massive melting in the Arctic. The goal is to use these narratives to compel better decision-making and find effective ways of dealing with what’s happening now by allowing policymakers to use the scenarios as “narrative simulations” for unlikely but possible futures and to take action in the present.
How can this help designers?
It’s another tool for dealing with complexity. It’s similar in approach to the way designers play with ideas and prototypes in order to better digest complexity — you’re opening the process up so people can be part of it. From a strategic perspective, it’s equivalent to thinking about how the product or service you create will fit in the market. Maybe it creates a negative impact or, under certain conditions, it doesn’t work or you can’t optimize it. Ideally you prototype around making a positive impact, and the process lets you see the pathways that a product or service might take.
What lessons does it teach us for coping with a future that we can’t see?
Being accurate is not the point. It is about cognitive training. Imagining future scenarios helps bring what was previously invisible to light, so you can reflect on, and deal with, issues in society in ways that you otherwise might not.
Why is it useful to engage in storytelling rather than simply laying out the facts?
Sometimes it’s easier to get at a design story using science fiction because it’s difficult to predict things but easy to tell stories. Scientists need to learn to tell stories. Narrative and meta-narrative are really important because we live in a world in which facts are increasingly disputed. Having control of your narrative, while also understanding how narratives are constructed, is key to creating a persuasive scenario. You have to get people to buy into it. We learn through stories. It doesn’t mean facts aren’t important and won’t remain central to doing good science, it just gives us another tool for expressing and exploring those facts in relatable ways.
You’re trying to get at the gaps between facts.
We already have tools to predict certainties. Everybody realizes that there is more and more uncertainty. That uncertainty is going to become much more of a reality in the future as things start getting more volatile. You can’t just put uncertainty in a black box and put it to the side. You have to find ways to address it.
How does understanding uncertainty down the road put us on solid ground now?
It’s about being able to see signals so you can make connections between things. If you never face uncertainty or experiment with possible scenarios, you won’t notice when important things pop up. If you have a language for interpreting signals, you’re in a good place for future thinking, because it’s all about continuously engaging with different approaches and conducting experiments. As your observations pile up and things happen, you can connect the dots and incorporate changes accordingly in your work. Note that radical thinking doesn’t just magically transform things. It allows you to iterate and adapt to changes as you see things happening that you might otherwise have missed.
Are you positive or skeptical about the future?
I oscillate, but I am more positive than skeptical, most of the time. One reason I’m optimistic is because of scenarios that relate to regenerative or restorative change. We can combine technologies such as gene editing, a combination of social technologies and actual technologies, and actually re-generate. We can create space for natural eco-systems and all their complexity to re-build. This push for regenerative and restorative thinking when dealing with the future and sustainability is pretty hopeful.
Are you equally optimistic about the world today?
It’s a dangerous road to go down if you rely too much on how things are going. If you look at history and technological development, things have unintended consequences. And while new technology promises to transform this or that problem, it’s unclear what its real implications will be. A few years ago, some Silicon Valley legend came up with a water filter that would “revolutionize” water. Every single person in the world was going to have access to clean water! It didn’t happen. There’s always a promise and a peril as you develop. So while I’m generally optimistic, the scale and sheer messiness of the challenges we face makes it daunting. How will we find our way? I feel a real sense of urgency.
Where do we stand in terms of public support for stronger policies?
The good news is that more people from underrepresented groups — in terms of gender identity, ethnic groupings, socioeconomic status, and more — are getting involved in policymaking. We need that diversity of voices in the conversation. The continent of Africa alone will account for half of our global population growth; Nigeria will be the third largest country by 2050, so a whole new group of people will start dealing with these tricky questions. Different groups could engage in sci-fi prototyping and create a variety of possible futures to see how those futures match up or ricochet off one another.
How can design play an active role in understanding and shaping our future environment?
One thing that comes up a lot is behavioral economics and nudge theory, which is all about indirect ways of influencing people. But too often we either overstate specific things or radically understate the influence that designers have on the world. That’s why Roman Mars’ indie podcast 99% Invisible is so great — it sheds the light on the invisible ways in which designers help shape the world and change our lives. Having that awareness become more mainstream is important to our future. It will help us be more clear about the specific directions that design could and perhaps should take, and what kind of future societies we want to create.
What could we do better?
We could approach design in terms of social-ecological systems. If you’re designing for parks, you are also designing for people, and when you are designing for people, you have an effect on the environment. We must always keep that integrated perspective in mind. In every design process, this should be fundamental. We cannot keep failing to recognize that we’re part of a feedback loop. We’re on the top of the food chain and are massively influential on a planetary scale. Humans and the planet we live on are inextricably intertwined. How do we take that seriously and change our behavior?
See the full project: https://radicaloceanfutures.earth/For more on Images by: Simon Stålenhag/Radical Ocean Futures