Imajine scenarios response – Oskar Stokholm Østergaard, Danish Design Center

scenarios response Danish Design Center featured image

As part of the IMAJINE project’s scenarios for the future of European regional inequality in 2048, we are interviewing experts from a range of institutions, industries, and sector to explore what the four scenarios mean for them.

Today, we’re joined by the Danish Design Center’s Design & Futures Lead, Oskar Stokholm Østergaard.

Oskar is exploring how new narratives can guide systems change for the Danish Design Center. He works to build worlds, tell stories, and design scenarios — be it for alternative futures or Dungeons & Dragons.

Oskar Stokholm Østergaard
Oskar Stokholm Østergaard

We started by asking Oskar about the Danish Design Center and its work.

For the past century, the field of design has been one of the strongest drivers and methodologies of transformation and change, across businesses, governments and institutions. At the core of the design approach lies a deep empathy and understanding of the human factor in how we build products, services, strategies, business, organizations, cities and policies.

The Danish Design Center’s (DDC) commitment is to activate design to build capacity for change. We apply design to solve complex societal challenges in a mission-driven way. We enable people and organizations to focus their innovation efforts by building capacity to expand their perspectives and understand the needs of humans, societies, and our planet in an intertwined and connected way.

At DDC, we use design, storytelling, and alternative futures to highlight complex issues from new perspectives – together with our partners and collaborators. We live in complex and unpredictable times. Through scenario-based design, we can discover new ways to take action. It gives us the tools we need to build organizations that are flexible and ready for change and work proactively, consciously and systematically with alternative futures and thus open new spaces for increased innovation and more strategic dialogues both internally in organizations, but also externally with citizens and stakeholders and the ecosystem. And it allows us to make better decisions, right here and now.

With futures, design, and hands-on tools, DDC seek to empower businesses, foundations and organizations to innovate with greater impact. We are always focused on giving the people we work with the tools and methods to pursue and realize new opportunities for sustainable growth. To the benefit of organizations, society, and the planet.

IMAJINE explores four scenarios for the future of European regional inequality in 2048, each characterised by differing levels of solidarity in policymaking and whether society’s focus is on economic prosperity as its overriding goal, or other measures of wellbeing.

What does design look like in the Silver Citadel scenario, characterised by high solidarity in policymaking across the EU and an overriding focus on economic prosperity?

It’s a world where, as I see it, there’s a lot of designing with AI; there is a very computational and in some ways automated approach to solving problems. This would require changes to how we see design, in terms of technical expertise, even if we are still within the old growth paradigm and an incremental approach to change. Silver Citadel is a future which is about improvement rather than revolution, to my mind.

Silver Citadel also conjures images of Fortress Europa: there is a very clear distinction between “us” and “them” at the edges of this future Europe. Designers would have to accept the premise that, even if problems did not care for borders, they would have to.

Design would have to reinvent itself to be able to live with this; contemporary design is very much engaged with accepting that it has played a part in some of the problems we face today, and that it has a role in remedying them. In this scenario, as I see it, design might have to let go of the idea it could redeem itself on a global and multi-species level; the focus is very much on bettering the lives of European humans. That’s tough when you see, in 2021, a great deal of focus on going beyond human-centred design to planet-centred or life-centred design, seeing things on a more systemic level in terms of issues like sustainability.

Of course, there would still be big challenges within Europe for design to address, but we would also feel the force of the boundaries being imposed, which we would have to work within.

The role of AI is really interesting. As you see things today, how do design & AI relate to one another?

It’s multifaceted, as you can imagine: it’s such a huge field. It includes designers who embrace AI and look to the aspects of design that can be automated; or asking “How can we design with AI, and use it in a positive way to supercharge the things we want to do, working smarter?”

We contribute to this work through our Digital Ethics Compass, a toolkit we’ve developed with many designers, companies, and other stakeholders to be mindful of the ethical aspects of working with AI. That would be central to the work of design in this scenario –

– Potentially it would even be integrated into AI governance & regulations –

– among all the ethical dilemmas of AI, we also see designers who are critical of AI and how it encroaches on design tasks that have traditionally been performed by human designers. Again, with multiple dimensions from questions of transparency to equity and power to aesthetics. There are different paradigms of design — as in, is design a craft, a practice, a mindset, or something else entirely — and especially from a more craft-oriented perspective it can appear problematic that some forms of design are getting automated. Is AI taking the jobs of designers, if you have a digital tool where, say, you can drop in your name and the software designs a logo, is it simply a new way of designing — or is it both?

I guess one of the interesting things about scenarios is they can help us see what happens if a given discourse prevails, or evolves into a new dominant paradigm.

I feel that one of the challenging uncertainties with AI is which cognitive tasks it will prove capable of replacing. Can AI plausibly replace an accountant? A lawyer? A therapist? A designer? And perhaps SILVER CITADEL is a world in which AI is assisting designers with, say, systems design within the new Europe.

We expect design to be relevant to its times, though how it is practised might change. The scenarios offer us those differing future contexts that let us explore these questions of relevance. I would have a hard time seeing a future in which design had no part to play in society, but design might look very different depending on what kind of direction we go in.

Maybe there are futures where designers are not necessarily designing themselves, directly.

Perhaps the Oskar of 2048 is training a little autonomous digital design agent so that it can go off and assist an organisation or community independently.

I just wanted to ask also about this question of borders in Silver Citadel. I know the OECD’s work on cross-border innovation highlighted that cross-border work often happens precisely because problems arise which don’t respect borders.

IMAJINE scenarios

What kind of jurisdictional issues do you see in design today?

Issues arise precisely when you get to borders, and this can be as much in implementing solutions as at any other stage of the process. Designers typically try to work across a broader landscape, to see beyond the limits and constraints; while we all have times where we are focussed on, say, a given city or municipality, usually we adopt a more holistic perspective, recognising that the problems we address are part of wider systems.

We encounter a lot of problems at the intersections of systems. At the Center, we’ve been looking at mental health care: For example, a citizen might be discharged on a Friday afternoon because the hospital has to prioritize and doesn’t have the capacity to keep everyone over the weekend, yet it is still very possible that the person needs some form of support. That support and care, however, is managed by an entirely different system — the municipality — and guess what, many people at the town hall go home early on Fridays so no one is there to pick up the phone. That person can either try to make it through the weekend without any help or get admitted acutely. Which, beyond the great human costs, might ultimately be more resource intensive for all parties in the long run. From how I see it, issues arise when people move between those two systems.

Systems may work with different logics and have different goals; they may be short-sighted in terms of acting to minimise costs on their own system, not seeing that those actions will in fact create greater challenges at that holistic level, including consequences for themselves down the line.

There’s a lot of issues when systems collide! As designers, we often want to follow the problem rather than be limited by an artificial and arbitrary boundary. Climate change, loss of biodiversity, migration: these issues don’t sit within clearly defined jurisdictions, to the point that it doesn’t make sense to look at them purely within borders.

In this scenario, it’s probably easier to work across the internal jurisdictions of the EU – say, between France and Spain, for example – but much harder to go beyond the limits of the European bloc.

It also makes me want to ask: why has design, as a profession, as a community, tended to have this global identity? Design has risen hand-in-hand with globalization and consumerism – as you said, sometimes design has recognised itself as having contributed to historic problems which we now face – and I wonder if this is also why design sees itself as being capable of transcending borders.

Definitely — another aspect is maybe the idealistic tendencies of many designers. I don’t believe all designers strike a good balance between being able to provide a new perspective and being almost ahistorical and naïve to the history, intricacies, power structures, and experiences of a field.

It might be valuable as a designer to take on the role of the outsider looking in, but design has to get rid of the idea that one can simply venture into a field, observe, set things right, and then leave it for everyone involved to pick it up afterwards.

It’s not that you don’t sometimes need an outsider to come in and point out, even quite directly, that a particular system is nonsensical, but that designers — as well as all other experts, by the way — need to be humble to the fact that the system might already know what to do, they might just lack the resources to act.

That tension between applying principles and being grounded in a specific history and context.

Designers have done a lot in terms of looking to other fields and cultivating its multidisciplinarity, but there are still plenty of opportunities to grow, learn from, and integrate with other disciplines.

You spoke about moving from human-centred design to the planet level, and design trying to put right some of the things which it might have contributed to in the past. What was your perspective on the GREEN GUARDIAN future, where sustainability has become the driving force and Europe, while still making policy as a bloc, focusses on wellbeing rather than economic prosperity?

This future had some very big design challenges — it was very clear that design would be needed by the Europeans of this scenario, and it was resonant with work today on transition design and the management of a society moving from one state to another. It felt much more in line with current movements within the design space, and the role that design, as I see it, wants to play in the world.

GREEN GUARDIAN shows a lot of potential for designers and for design as a practice. It’s also tackling issues at a higher level, a grander scale, which would also require new modes of working. Design has to help, not just in making things a reality, but understanding what we want and re-interpreting some of the basic assumptions which guide how we see the world.

GREEN GUARDIAN would require us to rethink fundamental questions of how we understand collaboration, fairness, agency, involving others — what is autonomy, even. We would have to come up with new ways of being part of a larger organism; some of the systems and ideas we have today would not be enough, in such a scenario.

Where do you see the exciting experiments in contemporary design around co-creation, working with communities?

There’s a lot of interesting things happening on a city level. That seems a good scale, where things are grounded in reality and relatable on a day-to-day level, but the systemic issues and questions are also recognisable.

I see that in the UK, especially, around citizen involvement and stakeholder-led initiatives – getting away from the idea that experts have to come in and fix the problem, instead empowering people to solve the problems they encounter. In this paradigm, the designer is in service of the system, rather than an outsider coming in to change it.

Probably in GREEN GUARDIAN, everyone leaves high school with a working knowledge of design, so they can contribute to such projects in the world of 2048.

In GREEN GUARDIAN, people have left the cities because of ongoing pandemics, and this notion of the bioregion has come up. Regions are defined in terms of natural resources rather than purely historic jurisdictions and identities.

So if you are a designer, it is very clear to you what community you are working with, and what resources you have, and you’re closely connected to the environment which you work will have impact on.

I get all excited just thinking about it! It would be a really interesting design challenge; scale and complexity are really some of the biggest challenges we face now, and GREEN GUARDIAN has a framework for addressing those aspects.

Thinking in terms of bioregions would focus us in terms of tangibility and immediacy, even while recognising that no bioregion would be completely isolated from the rest of the world. It would give us that connection to basic resources and how they are used, and the impacts.

If you were working in the Danish Design Centre of GREEN GUARDIAN in 2048, what project would you like to be working on?

I love the work that I’m doing today, and I’d expect it to still be relevant then: helping people to reflect on where they want to go, imagine a wider spectrum of opportunities, showing them what is possible and widening the field of what we see we can achieve.

Right now, the Centre has three main business areas: the green transition, the digital transition, and social innovation. Each of these apply in this scenario.

In this scenario, we’ve achieved and gone beyond the circular economy. GREEN GUARDIAN challenges us to ask: what is on the far side of circularity? What regenerative practices might design be exploring, ways to recover or revive what was destroyed?

In terms of digital transition, in 2048 we would consider how humans, technology, and other species can meet in a good and mutually beneficial way, designing the systems in such a way that all of these participants thrive.

And looking at social innovation, how do we build up cohesion and build community? New challenges would arise in GREEN GUARDIAN’s future society, and we would be exploring how to address them. The systems-level design work we do today would have grown and developed, exploring what design can bring to thinking at that scale; almost thirty years from now, we could expect that to have evolved dramatically beyond how we do things today.

I could see our Centre in this scenario being part of a broader network of design centres and labs which would help disseminate and expand what design can do for all those practitioners working in those bioregions, trying to contribute to an ever larger ecosystem of actors and institutions with common values.

In the SILICON SCAFFOLD scenario, policymaking is more autonomous, to the point of fragmentation, and economic prosperity is the great driver of European society. Corporations occupy more of the role of governments, and the city-state or region is a significant player in this future Europe. What does all that mean for design?

In this hypercommercial future, Europe has doubled down on the growth paradigm. Design becomes a competitive advantage, something that you use to outdo your rivals, other players in the market; design as a weapon!

Practices that design is trying to reckon with today have become central, whether that’s manipulative dark design or traditional work seeking to make something more attractive to a consumer.

Even citizenship is like a Netflix subscription in this future, so potentially even digital citizenship is being designed in a way to attract the desired new citizens…and lock them in.

It’s not all dystopian from a design perspective, I suppose: this is a future where much of society is virtual, and that means wholly new spaces to design, new media to work with, the design challenges of integrating things within different systems — but it does seem to sit well within what I would consider — at best — a very morally grey zone!

It’s not design for the benefit of the community but for the increase of private profit and for the big corporations that provide the frames for this digitalized society. Sometimes those interests might overlap with the interests of citizens and communities — more often, however, I would expect, they won’t.

This challenge of dark design is interesting: recognising that this is something that the design community might not want to celebrate, but which is nonetheless done and is a fairly widespread practice. Perhaps in this scenario, design is framed differently: design as competitive advantage is celebrated?

Design is very powerful; it can change behaviours, it can make us think and act differently. In a scenario like this one, where commercial interests have overriding authority, I have a hard time seeing how ethics play a part. Would this be the Wild West, where there are no rules beyond finding the most efficient solution to achieve a desired goal?

Design has the power to make things more attractive, and in this future it would certainly be deployed to capture resources from your competitors, from rival networks. It would also be used to shape people’s behaviour so that it is most cost-efficient for the designing system. You would need to make your system attractive, but also hard to leave, and as cost-effective as possible; doing this within the context of advanced virtual spaces would be an enormous design challenge.

Virtual spaces of this kind generally, even beyond this scenario, are fascinating for designers; on one hand, it gives you the opportunity to start with an effective blank canvas, but that also means you might lack some of the useful real-world context and friction which generates great ideas. Is the tabula rasa the best place to start?

And what forces are in place to make the blank slate of a virtual space look politically and ethically blank before the designer begins work…it’s almost a colonial attitude of erasing existing history and context to create the terra nullius.

To what extent does competition drive design now? We’ve certainly been through eras where, say, you’d seek to make the most attractive and efficient coffee maker to outsell your rival manufacturer, but how do you see the competition-design relationship today?

I think we are moving, hopefully, towards a greater focus on collaboration over competition as the next evolutionary state of design. I think we might be at a tipping point from these super-commercial interests fighting it out with design as a key tool, towards a design attitude which is about breaking up boundaries, getting people working together, and finding that we can actually do much more if we work together than if we squander time and energy in competition. It doesn’t have to be a zero sum game.

Danish Design Centre, Copenhagen

Perhaps design is diplomacy in SILICON SCAFFOLD; designers work at the place where these rival corporations meet, figuring out ways to integrate and interface these systems.

A very corporate-driven future will reduce friction in some ways, making it easy for people to fulfil their functions within that scenario. Yet friction is sometimes what helps us to stop and think, to ask questions, to identify and resolve problems, thinking critically about the practices around us.

I hope that the discourse around sustainability is already resonating enough with people today that they won’t have totally surrendered it even in the SILICON SCAFFOLD scenario, that people in 2048 will still push for sustainable and even regenerative environmental practices. But there is not a lot of solidarity in this future, and competing systems which would rather succeed on their own, or at the expense of others, are unlikely to be good for the planet’s health.

It occurs to me that activism has evolved with society. People block key items of infrastructure such as roads, they chain themselves to industrial machines; people hack digital systems, they use social media in ingenious ways to achieve their goals; maybe in this world, every activist group has design skills, because systems thinking is key to making an impact.

Exactly, but what happens when the system itself is capable of shutting off such activists, completely cutting them off from the rest of society, saying: “We don’t want that noise, your account has been blocked and we will not provide our services to you.” How much capacity will there be to censor criticism of the system? You’d have to rapidly scale your activism to a level where it’s not possible to shut you off because you’ve reached a critical mass of people that can’t be ignored without losing profit.

In PATCHWORK RAINBOW there is so much friction and divergence in values that Europeans can barely agree on basic truths. What did you see in this scenario?

There are evident challenges in this future, too – and yet there’s also a lot of potential; a lot of things described in this scenario are very innovative, it’s just not innovation as we understand it today. Changing values and practices in such a dramatic fashion is also an innovation of sorts, and this scenario very much depends on the lenses you look at this through.

There are problematic aspects here, especially with those regions that choose to go their own way and stop caring what happens to the rest of the world, focussing on how to prosper on their own; on the other hand, there are interesting examples of societies that might not necessarily be an improvement from our perspective in 2021, but would probably within their own logic be seen as a great advancement on the way we live today.

One of the big design challenges here is the sense that we would find it harder to collaborate, and achieve scale or reach for an idea or a movement. The conversations would be much smaller – that’s a problem if the issues we face are global and we don’t find a way to get people on board with them.

That’s the dealbreaker for in that scenario: even if some societies find ways to live in a much more sustainable fashion, it won’t necessarily have enough of an impact for them to be able to continue living in that way, because their neighbours’ problems will carry over to them and everyone will be worse off.

This scenario is fascinating because it captures a lot of the greatest challenges we face today, putting them at the forefront, and yet it also contains the ideas which we need to address and overcome those challenges. I found it both extremely positive and extremely negative.

As you said earlier, often the problem provides the fruits of the design solution. It’s interesting that you talk about judging these things within their own logic, or the logic of their society — the scenarios, of course, enable us to judge the present from the vantage point of these different futures with their very different values and logics.

Your comments about PATCHWORK RAINBOW make me think of how resourceful mechanics have to be in the developing world, where resources are scarce; I wonder whether the designers of PATCHWORK RAINBOW’s Europe are immensely resourceful and creative, because of the additional constraints placed upon them.

It comes back to this question of whether the blank canvas is the best starting point for creativity, or whether people are more creative when some limitations are in place.

Just as we discussed in GREEN GUARDIAN, the idea of designing new assumptions about the world is also an innovation in itself. Both of the scenarios which focus on new measures wellbeing as an alternative to economic prosperity, PATCHWORK RAINBOW and GREEN GUARDIAN, would require us to design wholly new perspectives on the world and seeing the world in a new way. That’s a great advancement as well, the thought that our society would see value in new ways, and defined more broadly – potentially creating more value without needing additional resources, because new practices, new relationships, new narratives and non-tangible factors are available to enrich our lives.

What was your overall response to the IMAJINE scenarios?

I found them very thought-provoking in the way they pointed to different movements or issues within design. Design very much evolves with the world that it’s applied in, and these scenarios offered distinct and interesting perspectives on what design might look like in Europe’s future.

In DDC’s own futures work, we see a great deal of potential in using futures combined with design to develop new guiding narratives for our society, using those tools to explore what might come to pass and create tangible expressions of the future states which we could imagine working towards.

We seek the transition pathways which will help us move into a better future, and for DDC that also means moving to a more mission-oriented practice. We recognise that we need to be thinking more long term, that design is not just about the life cycle of a product or service, but it’s about avoiding myopia, recognising a longer pathway, and seeing how we could imagine an entire transition, lasting several decades and evolving into the future.

When you look around you at what’s going on right now in design, what’s most exciting to you personally?

I’m super interested in concepts like “imagination infrastructure”: how can we provide the infrastructure for people’s dreams to emerge and change the world? How can we be in service of the systems which will enable people to dream together and imagine better futures?

That’s very exciting, and it’s already happening, in its early phases — and I’m very interested in it: using design to give communities power to change thing systemically, and imagining better states for themselves.

Hopefully this conversation is a contribution to that imagination infrastructure! Thank you so much.