Developing the next generation of designerly activists

My name is Robert O’Toole. I am a Director of Student Experience for the Arts Faculty at Warwick, and an Associate Professor in arts education. My goal is to create educational opportunities for our students that will develop their collective capabilities for saving the planet and improving our lives.

The Cone of Plausibility is one of our favourite methods. In this we project our thinking imaginatively into the future to consider what the world is most likely to be like, for example, 25 years ahead. When we do this with our students, that’s an interesting horizon to consider. They will be approaching or into their fifties by then, looking back on their lives and wondering how the world came to be as it is – hopefully as a result of their actions, changed for the better. However, this initial step in the exercise tends to produce dystopian results. We recently did it as the core activity for a whole day event with Warwick Data and the Alan Turing Institute, focussing on how Virtual and Augmented reality will change the world, especially as they converge with Artificial Intelligence – some of the imagined scenarios were alarming. Imagine being in a virtual social space and not being able to distinguish the AI generated people from the “real” people. Will we even have a sense of the real anymore?

We did that exercise with some very interesting experts in these fields, an interdisciplinary collaboration. This included Catherine Allen of the VR research consultancy Limina Immersive. They are already leading emerging VR industry in applying Cone of Plausibility style thinking. Catherine is a Warwick Arts Faculty alumnus, having studied Theatre Studies. She has the imaginative thinking grounded in a detailed knowledge of people and situations necessary for this work – a perfect example of how Arts and Humanities combine with technology and science into a vital combination.

Our Turing exercise wasn’t just doom and gloom. We used this imaginative thinking to envisage how these new technologies might result in better alternative worlds. This is also at the core of what Limina have been doing. For example, they ran a successful VR theatre at the Watershed Arts Centre in Bristol for a year, with two daily performances showcasing VR experiences for well-being and to stimulate thinking about society and the environment. They had imagined a better world, and created a beautifully designed and implemented place in which they could at the same time: 1. make it happen with real people and have a massive impact; 2. continuously learn from the experience so as to enhance their approach; 3. take an iterative series of actions that might divert the pathway on which the world is set away from the most-likely dystopian outcome towards the better worlds we hope for. In terms of the Cone of Plausibility they were creating staging posts on the cone, closer to the present time, to grow the possibility of better outcomes in the future, deflecting us from the seemingly inevitable towards the more desirable, step-by-step. They do this without a solid long term plan. Each of these stepping stones opens up new possibilities. They take action, reflect, plan the next step. It’s not straightforward. Over time wild cards will emerge – for example Musk’s hyped-up ill-defined idea of the metaverse, and the medias over-the-top reaction to it. But the key thing is to iteratively do good things, well designed, that lay the foundations for learning and development towards even bigger good things. Designing things that fit, stick, spread, and grow.

This term in the Arts Faculty at Warwick, every Monday evening, we have been running an open-to-anyone VR club, at which we try out VR experiences. We’ve been swimming with dolphins as a gentle introduction. We collaboratively created a landscape of 3D artworks. And in our latest session, protopyped an Augmented Reality exhibition about the history of Coventry, with virtual video screens playing footage, and virtual 3D models on the real tables. We are doing this to experiment with enabling people to more easily curate, implement and visit sophisticated mixed-media exhibitions – imagining a world in which communities are able to create their own virtual museums as part of their collective thinking about themsleves and their world.

We call this designerly activism. At Warwick we have been working on the question: how do we develop and support the generation of designerly activists who will be able over time to change the direction of the world for the better? This has been an interdisciplinary effort – me (Robert O’Toole) from the Arts Faculty, Bo Kelestyn from WBS, colleagues and students from many different disciplines. Working with a brilliant Design Thinking facilitator (Ed Watson), we have created and iteratively refined a set of interdisciplinary modules, based in the Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning. A new division of Cross-Faculty Studies will be established to host modules, degree courses, and projects.

Our apporach has been interative and imaginative, with the Arts Faculty at the core, but well connected with all other disciplines. We have students from every field. Collaborations with practitioners from many fields are also vital to this. For example, Highly Sprung lead superb workshops with our students to explore physical movement, relationships, and managed risk taking. This helps to build foundational skills for what we call “enhanced situational awareness” – being able to notice and describe salient features of situations; as well as creative confidence – being able to respond to situations to see how they may be transformed positively.

The better future we imagine is one in which communities have their own capabilities for working out how they want to live, for collaborating to design transport, housing, services, lifestyles that can fairly balance the competing needs and interests of diverse people. Let’s be optimistic. In 2050 communities will lead the world with better decision making, broad and balanced participation, effective use of diverse expertise. There will be optimised use of shared resources, recycling, upcycling, a circular economy. Well developed empathy will lead to greater tollerance and flourishing of diverse ways of being.

One of the key points there is the effective combination of expertise applied to challenges. That’s one of the things we focus on: how to build and use extensive teams with diverse expertise (including the expertise people have about themeselves and their own needs and capabilities). We call these diverse teams “platypus” teams – combining an unusual but complementary set of very different features (the platypus is a mammal that lays eggs, has a duck bill, a beavers tail, webbed and clawed feed, and a venomous barb – it’s an unusual but perfectly adapted combination). The University is the perfect place to breed these platypus combinations. But we need to release them out into the wild to make connections beyond the campus – that’s our next step, to develop this approach in a way that interweaves our interdisciplinary collaborations with the wider world so as to make that better future possible.

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