How can art imagine better possible futures? By Greg Van Alstyne

At the recent Creative Catalyst symposium, held at Ryerson X University in Toronto, the following piece was written and delivered by sLab Director, Greg Van Alstyne, in the panel, "Creative Futures: How can art imagine better possible futures?"

The panel comprised:

  • Vanessa Timmer, Executive Director and Co-Founder, One Earth
  • Annie Wong, Director, Young Mammals, Mammalian Diving Reflex
  • Linh Nguyen, Founder, the Bodhi Collective
  • Greg Van Alstyne, Associate Professor, OCAD University
  • Laurie Petrou, Associate Professor, Ryerson University (Moderator)

How do we look at and understand the future? How can artists help people better imagine it?

Laurie's first question for Greg was: "As a futurist and designer, do you think there is a role for artists in coming up with ‘disruptive imaginings’ for the future?”
My thanks to Cheryl, Nicole, Wendy & all the organizers of Creative Catalyst for inviting me to contribute from the perspective of design thinking and futures thinking. My aim is to speak frankly and constructively, and to learn if these ideas resonate with, or challenge the discussion here. So, these views are my own -- and may well not represent those of my employer, OCAD University.

I'm here as a designer & futurist. My work centres on research, teaching, and professional practice in these fields. The panel asks: How might we look at and understand the future? I'm pleased to share some of the ways that I work to answer this question, every day, in the lab, in the classroom, in the field, together with partners, users, participants, colleagues, students. I co-founded, about eight years ago, Strategic Innovation Lab. sLab, as we call it, is a platform for creating opportunities to envision possible futures. And together with Lenore Richards at OCAD U a number of us helped to found a graduate program, the Masters of Design in Strategic Foresight & Innovation (SFI). We employ techniques for that very purpose -- looking at and understanding the futures, to make better decisions today. We futurists have colorful methods for doing this:

Horizon Scanning, Emerging Issues, Scenarios, Wild cards, Black Swans, Wind-tunneling

Together with stakeholders, often gathered with an goal to maximize diversity, we work creatively & analytically, with imagination & rigour. We identify, cluster, infer, synthesize and tag patterns of change. We create what Institute for the Future calls "materials of the future":

Signals, Trends, Assumptions, Drivers, Uncertainties, Scenarios, Risks, Implications, Strategies

Here's a definition of this practice from veteran, Richard Slaughter:

Strategic foresight is the ability to create and sustain a variety of high quality forward views and to apply the emerging insights in organizationally useful ways.
(Slaughter, 1999)

Now lets talk about art & design. My community is based in the largest art & design school in Canada, OCAD University. This home is of great value to us — the future requires creativity — because the future doesn't exist!! In order to think about it, examine, it, plan for andbring about the future, we must, in a literal sense, create it.


The panel asks: Can art & artists help people better imagine the future? I say yes, absolutely. Artists characteristically are very good at parts of this process. Do artists have a special, privileged role in this capacity? In my view, no -- not at all. Art is necessary but not sufficient to foresight work. In other words, art alone will not produce a variety of high quality forward views that are organizationally useful. If this does not match prevailing views, I’d like to dismantle some of these inherited ideas. I am arguing that, if we want to see art as useful to social innovation, we should view art in a particular way:

  • Art is not a product – That is too materialistic & static.
  • Art is not an activity – Too ephemeral.
  • Art is not an industry – Too institutional economic.

What view do I sense from the event? As Ezra Pound said, later quoted by Marshal McLuhan: “Artists are the antennae of the race.” But I want to counter this and say,

  • Art is not a mutation and artists are not a DSM category.

Another view I learned from McLuhan: He recounts the story that people from Bali, Indonesia, have a saying: “We have no art. We do everything as well as we can.” Let's call this is

  • Art as measure

A kind of commitment to excellence, as in “the state of the art”. Here too I'm saying, that is not it. My intuition is that these inherited ideas - art as excellence, art as product of uncommon sensitivity, only gifted individuals produce it — do more harm than good. To tie art and social innovation, a more productive lens we can use is:

  • Art is a Method

I believe everyone can and should practice art. I feel the same about design thinking, business thinking and futures thinking. Creativity is innate. Like Sir Ken Robinson, I believe that creativity is taught out of us. Like Edward de Bono, who coined the term Lateral Thinking, I hold that creative thinking is teachable. Others, like Daniel Pink, Richard Florida, and Roger Martin, point out new demand for creative skills & the rise of a new class to fill that demand

The panel asks, Is there is a role for artists in coming up with “disruptive imaginings”? Artists are great at risk taking. But foresight requires more responsibility: foresight, like design, requires risk management. It is true that creativity, imagination & poetry are critical to futures thinking. Veteran futurist Jim Dator’s Second Law states:

“Any truly useful idea about the future should at first appear to be ridiculous”

But why would we want to outsource, or specialize, imagination & creativity? What is more, foresight is not dominated by unbridled imagination; but something more difficult: A balance of imagination and rigour  --- more precisely:  provocation + plausibility. The reason is simple: foresight is concerned with the futures of, well, everything. I'm a proponent of design thinking & foresight, as the most radically inclusive, horizontal, transdisciplinary practices that I know.

On this note: inclusion and integration, I'll offer one more idea:

  • Design excels at sensemaking
  • Art excels at strangemaking

Foresight integrates both, enabling us to make the strange familiar, and to make the familiar strange.