Cultivating transdisciplinary futures ⊗ Build a healthy relationship with the future ⊗ A 600-year-old blueprint for climate change

No.305 — AI has an Uber problem ⊗ Out-random the AI ⊗ 1967 scientists predict the 21st century ⊗ Around the future in eighty worlds

Cultivating transdisciplinary futures ⊗ Build a healthy relationship with the future ⊗ A 600-year-old blueprint for climate change
Layering and glitching of two images using Midjourney.

FoAM’s founders on cultivating transdisciplinary futures

Eminently quotable interview with Maja Kuzmanović and Nik Gaffney who founded FoAM, a network of transdisciplinary workshops focusing on art, science, nature, and everyday life. They prototype possible futures and conduct speculative culture experiments, emphasizing collaboration and exploration across disciplines. Their work involves developing tools and experiences to enable others to create their own worlds through futuring, facilitation, and residencies.

I love it when organisations have their own language for things and this is a great example. Not only are there a lot of links to excellent work in there, but it’s fun to dip a toe in their world through the words, phrases, and framings they use to talk about their philosophy, collaborations, and views on the word.

We see art and design as starting points for developing transdisciplinary experiments, where we can seed ideas and alternatives, prototype them, experiment with them, discuss them, and create experiences using the whole human sensorium. […]

The verb ‘futuring’ is a way to express this responsive and pro-active attitude. A verb flows, a noun fixes. We don’t believe that futures can spring into existence fully formed, rather that they are woven together from the present, from every individual action, every collective engagement, however obvious or insignificant, they grow from deep, interconnected roots of past actions, inaction and absence. […]

Technology itself does not cause these problems, as a species developing technologies (extensions to the organism) is part of who we are. Language, shelter, electricity or satellites. Any technologies bear the imprint of their design, their social context, and the purpose to which they are put. It’s the people with power to create and wield contemporary technologies that we’re weary of. Who is holding the knife, what are their intentions? Are we creating technologies for liberation and solidarity, or exploitation, fear and repression?

Why it’s crucial to build a healthy relationship with the future

Jessica Clark served as the futurist in residence at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) in 2022-2023, here she shares some of the key lessons learned, arguing for the importance of building a healthy relationship with the future. Clark explains why practitioners need to widen the circle by including diverse perspectives; put up guardrails by “actively thinking about the values and implications of your futures thinking”; and expand their methods by reading and writing speculative fiction, or using games “to involve others in co-creating better futures.”

The piece also includes a number of useful links, especially a few padlet boards with collections of links to organisations and initiatives, futuring tools and kits (in the piece above, see why FoAM prefers “futuring” to “futures”), and futuring games and interactives.

We’re drowning in futures: weather and election forecasts, fears and fantasies about automation, the harmful conspiracy theories clogging up our social media channels. But most of us lack the time or tools to sift the more relevant prognostications from those that are noxious or designed to maintain the grip of those already in power. […]

Learning to imagine futures in which we can all thrive goes hand-in-hand with reframing humanity’s prospects for survival and the role philanthropy plays in it. What about elevating futures, for example, that prioritize slowness and mending over the “move fast and break things” startup ethos? […]

Instead of using the past and present to visualize the future, how can existing power structures be disrupted? What needs to be restored, reimagined, abolished, transformed?

A 600-year-old blueprint for weathering climate change

Kathleen DuVal is a professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who specializes in early American history so I’m going to trust her short history lesson here, although I might have preferred a bit more ‘we think they’ instead of some of the ‘this is the truth’ statements. Her piece at The Atlantic (gift link) is an adaptation of her upcoming book Native Nations: A Millennium in North America.

During the Little Ice Age, Native North Americans adapted to climate change by creating new social and economic structures. They decentralized governance, prioritized sharing and balance, and developed more inclusive societies to navigate the changing climate. In contrast, Western Europeans centralized power under monarchies and militarized their societies in response to the same environmental challenges.

The European part is glanced on, it could have been a more detailed comparison, but I like the conclusion, which does not ask for us to go back to the 1300 but to “develop more balanced and inclusive economic, social, and political systems to fit our changing climate.” Asking, “what if we put our highest priority on spreading prosperity and distributing decision making more broadly?”

But then the climate reversed itself. In response, Native North American societies developed a deep distrust of the centralization, hierarchy, and inequality of the previous era, which they blamed for the famines and disruptions that had hit cities hard. They turned away from omnipotent leaders and the cities they ruled, and built new, smaller-scale ways of living, probably based in part on how their distant ancestors lived. […]

Determined not to depend on one source of sustenance, people supplemented their farming with increased hunting, fishing, and gathering. They expanded existing networks of trade, carrying large amounts of goods all across the continent in dugout canoes and on trading roads; these routes provided a variety of products in good times and a safety net when drought or other disasters stressed supplies. They developed societies that encouraged balance and consensus, in part to mitigate the problems caused by their changing climate.

AI has an Uber problem

Tim O’Reilly on Silicon Valley, where “venture capitalists and many entrepreneurs espouse libertarian values. [Yet] in practice, they subscribe to central planning: Rather than competing to win in the marketplace, entrepreneurs compete for funding from the Silicon Valley equivalent of the Central Committee.”

He might be overstating the case a bit there but his argument saying that smaller investments from 20 years ago were more productive than today’s crowned winners using blitzscalling is definitely on point and yes, current AI firms are doing the same. He doesn’t mention, but implies, that prices will rise as soon as some of those companies run out of money or believe they’ve reached the required scale.

It is a dark pattern, a map to suboptimal outcomes rather than the true path to competition, innovation and the creation of robust companies and markets. As Bill Janeway noted in his critique of the capital-fueled bubbles that resulted from the ultra-low interest rates of the decade following the 2007–2009 financial crisis, “capital is not a strategy.” […]

Innovators are already finding that much can be done at lower cost with smaller, more targeted open-source models. They can fine-tune these smaller models for specific problem domains, allowing trusted content providers (like my own company’s O’Reilly Answers and related AI-generated services) to profit from our own expertise.

§ Out-random the AI “It is human nature to create. This can define us without differentiating us. Someday we may discover that every creature of every kind creates art. That won’t make it any less meaningful that we do. If we make a machine that can do the same thing, that does nothing more than confirm what we already know about ourselves. Why? Because we made it. And we’re letting this moment in that story convince us that our making is over? Do not be deceived. Make what you will make; be fully human; out-random the AI.

§ The Futurists (1967), scientists predict the 21st century. “We face a number of common dangers, we can defeat those dangers only by common action and we must learn how to take that common action. We have the physical capacity to do so, we need the heart to do so, how one can tame the human heart is beyond me, except that I think that we have two alternatives. By a century from now the human heart will be tamed to the extent of facing the problems of the world sufficiently together so as not to kick other while doing so. Or else, we will have destroyed ourselves sufficiently so that this entire discussion here means nothing.” That’s from Isaac Asimov, but there are a number of other great quotes in there, including Harrison Brown right after.

Futures, Fictions & Fabulations

Around the future in eighty worlds
“Throughout history, people have tried to give shape to the future. This piece offers no comprehensive tour of this history. Yet it does share some glimpses of how we might see the future in different ways, or rather different worlds. Here we begin our journey around the future in eighty worlds, even if we visit just a few for now…”

Deeper visions of food futures
“While this type of image is shiny and easy to create, the ease with which anyone can create such images runs the risk of flooding our collective imagination with these convergent, uninspiring, techno-centric imaginations of the future. So how do you, as a food-minded futurist, break away from the trap of techno-centrism?”

Foresight Africa, top priorities for the continent in 2024
“In this edition, you will find essays and viewpoints from Africans in positions of trust and responsibility in multilateral and regional organizations, policymakers, finance ministers, central bank governors, private sector leaders, heads of foundations and civil society organizations, youths, and scholars from think tanks and academia, among others.”

Algorithms, Automation, Augmentation

The deodorant AI spokesmodel is a real person, sort of
🤖 Summary: A content creator was asked to participate in an AI campaign where her videos were used to create an AI clone for brand promotions. The AI-generated video sparked a debate about the future of AI and deep fakes, showing the impact of technology on media authenticity. Despite concerns, the creator sees opportunities and increased business from the viral video.

Google DeepMind unveils ‘superhuman’ AI system that excels in fact-checking
“The researchers pitted SAFE against human annotators on a dataset of roughly 16,000 facts, finding that SAFE’s assessments matched the human ratings 72% of the time. Even more notably, in a sample of 100 disagreements between SAFE and the human raters, SAFE’s judgment was found to be correct in 76% of cases.”

New York City welcomes robotaxis — but only with safety drivers
“New York City announced a new permitting system for companies interested in testing autonomous vehicles on its roads, including a requirement that a human safety driver sit behind the steering wheel at all times.”


  • 🤩 📚 🗜️ 🛠️ 🎥 If you like books/tools/workshops, watch this! This Woman Deconstructs 100-Year-Old Books To Restore Them. “Sophia Bogle is an expert at restoring old books and I was riveted by this video of her taking viewers through the deconstruction and restoration process, including a tour of her workshop and some of the tools she uses (e.g. a repair knife she designed herself to resemble a fingertip).”
  • 😍 😨 🇧🇹 🎥 The only man permitted in Bhutan’s sacred mountains chronicles humanity’s impact. “According to local tradition, Bhutan’s highest terrain is considered the sacred domain of gods and spirits. Due to this belief, mountaineering is illegal in Bhutan, making the country’s Himalayan highlands one of the most unspoiled places on Earth. However, this doesn’t mean our impact isn’t felt at all. Indeed, as a result of climate change, the glaciers on these mountaintops are melting, threatening the lives of those below.”
  • 🤯 🧫 🇺🇸 This Bag of Cells Could Grow New Livers Inside of People. “Donor livers are in short supply for transplants. A startup is attempting to grow new ones in people instead. … These patients usually require a liver transplant, but donor organs are in short supply. LyGenesis is hoping to spur the growth of enough healthy liver tissue that patients don’t need a transplant. ‘We’re using the lymph node as a living bioreactor.’”
  • 📉 🌳 💥 💬 Who Is Afraid of Degrowth? Céline Keller collected quote from people—many of whom don’t identify as degrowthers—in books, news articles, academic papers, and social media posts, and turned all of that into a 158 page “different kind of graphic novel.” Free dowload or buy a print version.
  • 👏🏼 🇪🇺 🚲 Landmark moment as EU Declaration on Cycling signed. “A written commitment from the EU signed by all EU Transport Ministers to step up cycling policies means that cycling policies enacted at all levels, whether European, national, regional or local, have an EU-level ‘anchor’.”
  • 🤔 🖥️ 🧊 Microsoft and Quantinuum say they’ve ushered in the next era of quantum computing. “Using Quantinuum’s ion-trap hardware and Microsoft’s new qubit-virtualization system, the team was able to run more than 14,000 experiments without a single error. This new system also allowed the team to check the logical qubits and correct any errors it encountered without destroying the logical qubits.”

Your Futures Thinking Observatory