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Sculpting Futures

posted Jul 28, 2015, 4:15 AM by Kevin Esvelt   [ updated Oct 25, 2016, 9:29 AM ]

I was fortunate to attend the MIT Media Lab's Knotty Objects celebration, which brought scientists and engineers together with artists and designers to spark creativity and new approaches. For this particular event, much of the focus was on design. As someone who knew very little about the field and culture thereof, it was intriguing to hear the ways in which designers conceptualize problem-solving and imagination. The final event was a debate pitting critical design, which emphasizes imagination and possibility, against practical design, which aims to solve real-world problems. It was clearly a bit scripted to emphasize the contrast, but the sound and fury helped define the deeper relationship.

Our task is to build a better world. We must imagine possible futures, create technologies and conceptual interventions designed to realize those futures, model the likely outcomes, and use those projections to decide upon courses of action based on people's values.

With respect to the Creativity Compass often cited by Joi Ito, imagination (most emphasized by art and science) must discover alternative states, while practicality (highlighted by engineering and design) must realize them. Imagination is enlightening, yet powerless alone; practicality is efficient, but shortsighted. Achieving the best of worlds requires both.

Yet this clarity came with an unsettling and unwelcome counterpoint from a less-admired field. While actions must be informed by projected outcomes, decisions will ultimately be determined according to people's values. How we balance opposed value systems to determine which possible world to realize can pose a coordination problem dwarfing the technical requirements. As our technologies increase in power and complexity, the area in which we most urgently need breakthroughs may be in politics and governance.

Tags: creativity, compass, imagination, practicality, insight, politics, governance, coordination, technology