GUEST INFORMANT: Rachel Armstrong, on Where The Future Went

March 7th, 2013 | guest informant

Where did the future go?

(Image: Christian Kerrigan)

Dr Rachel Armstrong specialises in the confluence between synthetic biology and architecture.  She is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Greenwich, a researcher, an author and a Senior TED Fellow.  She’s also one of the nicest and most fascinating people I met last year.  I’m delighted that she somehow found the time to write this for me and you.

We have been promised flying cars and ray guns for more than a century and it seems that somewhere along the line humanity has failed to deliver on its promises. But is it possible to ‘reboot’ the future, which Tim Leberecht notes, appears to have been stuck in a permanent ‘beta’ phase of development.

Yet, will jet pack boosters lead us towards fertile new pathways of imagining and exploring the world? Or have our hopes for sustainable prosperity been irretrievably betrayed by malignant cultural cynicism and free market capitalism, which have stripped the future of its assets?

But is our idea of ‘the future’ still relevant to the 21st century in terms of what we actually expect it to ‘deliver’? At LIFT13, I launched ‘The Age of the Inpossible,’ which is a different kind of future to that which we have become familiar with over the course of the 20th century. An inpossible idea, or event, is not goal based on a deterministic worldview but describes a creative process that explores unchartered territories. The point being that when we set a fixed goal in embarking on a journey of discovery, we end up chasing our preconceptions, rather than being open to new possibilities, which may result in radical ideation.

(Image: Balazs Gardi)

The ‘future’ we recognise today is a deterministic view of the future. It extrapolates from things we already know, to calculate an end point. In other words, it’s an extreme version of ‘now’ – not, something new. So, based on the existence of aeroplanes and cars, a deterministic view of the future proposes the advent of flying cars.

But, with computer power accelerating at the speed of Moore’s Law and cross-fertilization between new technologies, described as NBIC (Nano, Bio, Info, Cogno) convergence, emerging technologies may not be deducible by an understanding their different part. Indeed, such experimental juxtapositions and fusions are likely to produce technologies that are entirely new. For example, the convergence of nanotechnology, biology and information technology has produced strange projects such as cyberplasm, a semi-living robot.

To respond to the greater complexity and uncertainty of our world, the Age of the Inpossible proposes a different framework for thinking based on ‘21st century science’. It takes a probabilistic perspective where events need to be co-authored, rather than controlled through top-down design blueprints. It is exploratory rather than didactic in its methods, being grounded in the theory of networks, relationships and flows. These qualities are never really ‘fixed’ and are always under construction. The Age of the Inpossible proposes that ‘the future’ does not actually exist as a deterministic point in time. Rather, the visionary ideas proposed in aspiring to ‘future’ events serve as avatars, rather than goals. These are flexible proposals that can continue to evolve and respond to changing circumstances and ideas.

So, the ‘future’ – as we have previously imagined it – does not exist as a ‘thing’ but can be a ‘tool’ for dealing with the unknown. In other words a ‘flying car’ is not a product with a sell-by date, but a conversation that we need to hold – and continue to need to have – about our transport systems. In other words, it is entirely appropriate that we may not yet have flying cars or ray guns because we’ve had conversations about transport and how to deal with emerging technologies for over a century, which have contributed to their considered evolution.

For example, the Future Venice project that I am working on proposes to grow an artificial limestone reef under the city using a giant natural computer using ‘smart’ droplets. These are real technologies with life like properties, which would be engineered to move away from the light and to produce a solid substance from dissolved minerals and carbon dioxide at rest to produce a kind of ‘biocrete’. They can be thought of as a ‘natural computer’, a term inspired by Alan Turing’s interest in the computational powers of nature. The reef would be constructed by titrating droplets to need, into the light soaked waterways of the city where they would move to the darkened foundations that stand of narrow wood piles. This is a bit like the city standing in stiletto heels on the soft delta soil on which it’s been founded. Here they would produce a biocrete accretion technology that would spread the weight of the city over a much broader base – and put platform boots on Venice. Interestingly, the marine organisms in the waterways already produce a kind of biocrete and it is hoped that the natural computer will work with the marine animals to co construct an architecture that is meaningful to both the creatures of the lagoon as well as the city inhabitants. Notably, if the environmental conditions of Venice change and the city dry out rather than drowns as currently predicted then the computer could change the range of its outputs. So rather than growing sideways to spread the minerals over a broad base, it deposits them closely on the woodpiles, sealing them from the air and stopping them from rotting.

Future Venice has many resonances with Bruce Sterling’s idea of Design Fiction, which proposes that the production of ‘diegetic’ objects (which are loaded with interior meaning that speaks of another way of living) can prepare us for change. In the case of Future Venice, the reef is a ‘diegetic’ object and a tool for imagining alternative futures for the historic city. Design Fiction has audiences rather than consumers and acts as a kind of entertainment. The Age of the Inpossible considers Design Fiction’s as being relevant – not only to designers but also to many kinds of ‘futurologists’. These groups, whose popularity has been surging with the turn of the new millennium, play a valuable role in acting as cultural catalysts, which help us hold critical conversations about our current paradigms of practice.

Yet, the Age of the Inpossible also proposes that Design Fictions are more than entertainment – they are tools that can bring about change by reflecting the ideas found in ‘diegetic’ objects, scenarios and architectures – back on to our current practices. This provides the opportunity for the re-assimilation of ideas, which may be midwifed by convergent technologies into new ideas pathways and practices. For example, the reef-like structure proposed in Future Venice was developed as a prototype and installation for the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale, where I designed tiny ‘reefs’ to be suspended with a jungle-like cybernetic installation by Philip Beesley, where they changed colour in the presence of carbon dioxide exhaled by the gallery visitors – like a giant taste, or smell system!

Yet, right now, ‘the future’ is not lyrical or poetic and so, does not cater for self-expression. Indeed, it has been productized and homogenized by corporate giants. Think of IBM’s ‘Smarter Planet’, or Hewlett Packard’s ‘Internet of Things’, who have vested interests in ensuring a particular kind of reality and lifestyle to ensure our continued custom and dependence on their products. Governments, appear to be more than happy to delegate the responsibility for our ‘future’ to global businesses for the short-term gain of reducing national deficits, which are already being heavily subsidized to shape our ‘smart’ future cities.

The Age of the Inpossible offers an alternative lyrical as well as practical approach towards imagining our shared ‘future’. Yet, without predetermined outcomes, there are many big questions still to be addressed such as, viable economic models and the redistribution of power. Groups such as Tomorrow’s Company and Bruce Cahan are looking at different kinds of economic principles that are founded on different value systems to our current practices. Yet, these approaches are as much as development as Future Venice is. The Age of the Inpossible offers a fresh context for vital conversations, experiments, pioneering projects to help us develop ways of dealing with uncertainty and change, as we face the significant challenges of this 21st century. Even if Sterling’s cautionary view – that the visionary ideas embodied in Design Fictions are simply destined to be a form of ‘entertainment’ – they nonetheless provide important cultural counterpoints to the prevalent top down corporate narratives and an opportunity for us to challenge the status quo. I believe we should seize these new spaces and opportunities to ‘Occupy’ the future – which has not ‘gone’ anywhere.

It has evolved.

You can find Rachel at inpossible.me and @livingarchitect.


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  1. You can find Warren on Twitter: @warrenellis