Images of the future are images of the totally other, and they are revolutionary and radical in nature, or they are nothing at all.
—Fred L. Polak, The Image of the Future, 1961
In the last years, the scale of global challenges that we urge to challenge has become urgent and apparent. Visionaries and scientists, artists and city makers have regularly theorized on the transformative shifts of society, changes of ideologies, or systems claiming the need for a wider rethink of humanity’s impacts on the earth as a whole. Underneath these thoughts and calls to action made by the many, there is a thin thread that has always been part of human thinking: the concern for the (possible) future(s) to come. For humans, it is nothing new to be concerned about the future, and to develop tools and strategies to be aware (or predict) what the future might hold. The role that used to be played by tarot cards or haruspex in ancient times has now been taken by algorithms, intelligent machines, and AI tools.
However, the path towards these changes has to do with many interrelated fields of our everyday life that need to be tackled synergically and holistically: not only we refer to lifestyle, but also productive tools, political systems, societal organizations, etc. Every act of design is in itself a small step towards the idea of future-making. In the process of illustrating ideas, fabricating models, drafting plans, or prototyping solutions, designers shape what does not yet exist. Tirana Design Week 2023 aims to argue that creative practice in art and design has a critical role to play in these processes of shaping new future(s) for yet unseen but possible new worlds and how designers can also play a pivotal role in bringing us towards more positive, sustainable futures.
In this frame, TDW 2023 is aiming at housing a scholar and professional discourse on the following questions:
Such questions become relevant while society is imposed with a lack of coherent vision of Western Civilization and on how creative practice in art and design can help us achieve transformative change, by bringing an experiential quality to sustainability projects and stimulating collective reflections and imaginaries of preferable futures. As stated by Susan Yelavich, “Design is always future-making.”, and Design aims to script the future by projecting its desires (and those of others) forward in time.
Our need to invent the future, or to design it, is of relatively recent origin. The Italian Philosopher Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi began his book “After the Future” by claiming that the XX century was unique because it was a century that trysted the Future. During the Victorian period, we saw the rise of the grandest gatherings of designed artefacts and more than a billion people attended the major world fairs and expos that occurred between 1851 and 2005. According to Berardi the utopian forward-looking imagery that accompanied the spectacular technological and political progress of the 20th century is no longer with us. Instead of imagining utopia, we are now only capable of imagining hypes corporatist new feudalist biopolitical dystopias. This is to say, industrial capitalism with all its wars and destruction still allowed people to experience viscerally the speed and intensity of technological progress. People were in awe at the site of machinery that promised to make life and the destruction of life much more efficient but then suddenly we hit a brick wall and the first hint of a cancelled utopian future came with the failed 1968 uprisings during which, people went to the streets to protest against military power, authoritarianism and poor work conditions. The problem with these protests was that they were largely a political failure or, as Berardi writes, the 1968 movement failed because it did not have the political ability to break the capitalist dominion over technology. This dominion became even more evident in the 90s, as the enthusiasm about the new utopia, the utopia of cyberculture came and went. Frederik Lodewijk Polak, in his groundbreaking two-volume treatise The Image of the Future saw in the twentieth century a marked rise in negative utopia and, uniquely, a dearth of images of the future compelling enough to instigate its realization. Instead of creating a hyper-connected and infinitely powerful global mind, capitalism marched into the 2000s on the path of commercialization of the internet where political expressions and effects were collected algorithmically altered and then sold to advertisers. If the future is a cultural construction, a projection that changes as economic and political systems continue to develop, we seem to have no future because the present is simply too volatile. The future, Bifo argues, has failed us. Our responsibility now is to decide what comes next.
Technological progress is commonly seen as an exclusive form of futurity, and such advances are often given as synonymous with future-making. Futurama, a futuristic experience in the form of a display pavilion created for the 1939 New York World’s Fair—designed by Norman Bel Geddes and under the aegis of General Motors – was a large-scale model representing almost every type of terrain in America and illustrating how a motorway system may be laid down over the entire country. Seated visitors were mechanically conveyed past a model American city circa 1960 depicting a vast suburban landscape replete with a simulated automated highway system and farms growing artificial crops. It was a huge success and marked unequivocally the rise of specific future visions for the 100 years to come.
Unlike those times, today living and designing in uncertain times requires us to work with the resistance to existing structures and offer hope by proposing new ones. We need to foster transformations towards effective forms of social autonomy. To achieve these transformations, we need to reconnect to Nature in order to find innovative strategies that relate to human beings, buildings and the environment. The connection with nature is a predictor of human well-being and behaviour and provides an attitude of defence and care for the environment and the territory. Therefore, new approaches aim to identify the so-called Empathetic Design that, in the near future, may be able to create products that self-sustain, significantly reduce energy consumption, and are more inclusive and resilient. Design has to become responsible, reliable and sensitive to the needs of human beings and the planet that hosts them, where aesthetics are combined with functionality for better living: from the skin of the building envelope that breathes, from the design for self-healing, from the equipment from the health service, from the food conservation or preparation items, from the adaptive and bio-inspired forms.
Bio-inspired design in the architectural sector aims to create more high-performing materials, to guarantee the maintenance of comfort conditions through tools for the control and regulation of air quality, temperature, humidity, natural lighting and acoustics, saving energy and limiting the use of systems that involve consumption from traditional plants. There exists a desperate and urgent need to jump into active thinking and projections towards a future of new/alternative models of living and to demonstrate how Design can improve the quality of living, providing a range of environmental, energy, social and economic benefits for cities and increasing their resilience to climate change.
An important contribution is given by the development of integral design processes at the intersection of morphogenetic design computation, biomimetic engineering and computer-aided manufacturing that enables a highly articulated, performative built environment.
In 1999, Tony Fry published one of its more well-known books Defuturing: A New Design Philosophy, in which he sets the debate around a new foundation of thought and practice’, concerning design and the world, the basis of ‘another agenda of thinking, making and living’. (p. xxix). According to him Design’s propensity to defuture is rooted in its capacity to fulfil present wants with little attention to future needs. This is even more serious when it comes to the West-centered design culture that we have seen at its highest peak during the last two centuries. During the already mentioned World Fairs, various indigenous peoples, often from colonies of the host countries, were brought in to reenact daily rituals in simulated natural habitats. Those other cultures were presented as unchanging and the visitors were emotionally detached from them and their supposed backwardness by the simulations of their future lives contained in the different pavilions and objects showcased there. It was thus not only other lands and lives that were colonized but the future itself. Their future was ‘defuturized’ by the imposition of another culture over them through a Rieglian value scale fictitious and contained in itself a sense of active suppression. As questioned by Mark Dery, who coined the term Afrofuturism,
Can a community whose past has been deliberately rubbed out, and whose energies have subsequently been consumed by the search for legible traces of its history, imagine possible futures? Furthermore, isn’t the unreal estate of the future already owned by the technocrats, futurologists, streamliners, and set designers—white to a man—who have engineered our collective fantasies?
If then Time shapes our landscapes, social development and technological development have shown that society had always the tendency to abandon its organic dimension composed of traditional values (inherited through generations) to experience in urbanized centres the speed of progress, as an element which is generated by the utopian sensations of the future. Thinkers and philosophers define every big progressive step (such as the industrial or technological revolution) as a failure. Underlining vernacular production in the steps of current development can be considered as an attempt to celebrate the production of isolated communities and therefore not indoctrinated by the utopian trajectories which centralized societies have already experienced. Objects that come from the suburb’s reality contain authenticity, exploration, experimentation and solidarity as components lost during the depersonalization that modernity generated. Other very important elements that these objects manifest are puritanism and Genuity, but above all they manifest humility. This is a factor, ignored in the contemporary hyper-ambitious world where Western society operated as an increasingly technocratic operation governed by scientific pragmatism and bureaucratic management technique.
We live in a world witnessing a rise in extremism and hate crimes, with COVID-19 having exacerbated the already pressing issues of racism, xenophobia, and also sexism and gender-based violence. Democracies are being challenged, reproductive rights are being reversed, and cyberbullying and online sexual abuse are shaping the lives of youth. Having high moral values and aspiring for a FUTURE world based on fair opportunities, equality possible solidarity among the oppressed is not enought. We need civil courage to tackle structural injustices and challenge the power imbalances which are defining today’s socio-political landscape. All the efforts of the future, seen from a historical perspective, have been inherited in a world where inequality is evident. In many ways imperialism didn’t stop with decolonization, it just moved up to the infrastructure level (using the contemporary assets of technological progress) and yet the world seems mostly characterized by inequality, division, and fundamentalism, by competing for toxic opinions. Design cannot be separated from its pragmatic notion and economy is one of the most fundamental forces that shape human relationships. In the contemporary world, a new generation of activists is looking for an ethical report by digging into the past as archival content that predicted the future for previous generations. As, Jean-Paul Sartre said in his Existentialism Is a Humanism (1946/1948) “Man is nothing other than his project”, emphasizing that what matters is not the abstract idea of power but the act itself. Through designing and imagining, we project a vision of the world, which allows us to be and to exist, considering new concepts of fragmentation, abstraction and explosions in order to deconstruct ideas of repetitiveness and mass production. The need for a “transdisciplinary approach and inclusive” becomes prevalent. However, the “transdisciplinary effort” has its roots in the education system and approach. The understanding of disciplines and methods to exchange between them stems from the way we generate and apply the knowledge in practice for future generations in colleges, institutes and universities. Current issues such as the Covid19 pandemic, the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the fight against climate change have had effects that have profoundly influenced the global distribution of resources, the ways of producing and doing business, the social structure, and individual and collective lifestyles. The environments in which we live are a process of continuous adaptation to conditions of permanent instability (A. Melis). The existing situation and its effects on the city and society seem to encourage further a rise of scientific trends that are built on transdisciplinary approaches where Designers can produce knowledge that goes beyond rational and physical phenomena to uncover emotional, subjective and experiential insights that lead to a greater understanding of barriers to social change. 
In the late 60s, the so-called “Arte Povera” (“Poor Art” or “Impoverished Art”) was one of the most significant and influential innovative avant-garde movements to emerge in Mediterranean Europe. The name was invented by the Italian art critic Germano Celant in 1967, who led to organize many revolutionary Arte Povera exhibitions. Celant’s efforts helped to create a social identity for the artists who made use of “poor” materials in their conceptually rich artworks. The movement aimed to further dismiss any ideals that seemed to display enthusiasm about technology’s growing influence over the art world and to refuse a capitalistic ideology behind the word of art and design. Nowadays, although common design investigations tend to be carried out in the context of developed countries or relatively affluent markets, there is a growing interest in the context of marginalized and resource-limited societies to understand the effectiveness of using design to improve the life circumstances of poor people in developing countries. In his book ‘Design for the Real World’, Papanek, an industrial designer, urged designers to address problems faced by the people in the Third World who, in most cases, were engaged and employed in designing products for high-income societies and serving for-profit industries.
Designs for Different Futures, is an exhibition organized by Walker Art Center, Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Art Institute of Chicago that questioned the challenges and opportunities that humans may encounter in the years, decades, and centuries ahead. One of the most interesting ideas and possible directions has been found in the work by Stewart Brand The Clock of the Long Now, where the “pace layering” guarantees the interactions among faster and slower segments of civilization as they shape our understanding of change over time. We should then not ‘future’ and ‘defuture’ populations and human beings but, instead, work together on a common axis putting different realities together and guaranteeing the endurance of civilization through different – and possible – interlinked directions.
Indeed, through the topics and questions raised above, we see the need for future design practices where contemporary crises such as war scenarios, political instabilities, unpredicted pandemics and the climate emergency have amplified the observations of new DESIGN concepts that adapt to the contemporary scenario. And how can art and design vitalize long-existing structures of solidarity in this reality characterized by growing impoverishment of social life and the devastation of the mind and body of society in the age of hyper-connectivity?
Crucial contemporary issues are addressed on different levels, with the contribution of various disciplines to the continuous and shared research of the integration between nature and artifice, tradition and innovation, between design, technology, biomimicry and anthropology, in order to achieve specific objectives of sustainability and efficiency, resilience and inclusivity, interpreting the needs of human beings and the need to protect the environment and society in which we live.
We are experiencing a sort of New Humanism: The way to live, relate, to feed ourselves are changing and DESIGN can help to give a real contribution in a context where to live, work and spend free time in more safety.
U-POLIS, with its research and teaching activities, Co-PLAN with its applied projects and policy influencing efforts and Metro_POLIS with its architectural contribution are currently utilising these ideas and approaches, embedded in a new knowledge philosophy for our cities. These three institutions would like to join efforts with other scholars, researchers and organisation, under the TDW 2023 platform to delve into the “new normal” discourse, taking a critical design approach, exploring ethics, morality, values, and alternative practices and solutions for the world to come (Bardzell and Bardzell, 2013).
We aim for this Tirana Design Week 2021 to be playfully ‘disruptive’ (Sicart, 2012), with projects and ideas that investigate the essence of society’s present condition, while developing mental tools that trigger positive change, by mining through problems and employing a large array of research approaches.
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