Near Future Laboratory Podcast Episode 083 with Ruth GuerraNear Future Laboratory Podcast Episode 083 with Ruth Guerra
Near Future Laboratory Podcast Episode 083 with Ruth Guerra

We talked with emerging practitioner, futures designer, and design researcher Ruth Guerra

Contributed By: Julian Bleecker

Published On: Tuesday, February 6, 2024 at 20:45:26 PST


In Episode 083 of the Near Future Laboratory Podcast, I chat with the fun, creative, thoughtful Ruth Guerra, a design researcher with a knack for amplifying the questions about design, creativity, research and futures through a wonderful social media presence.

We dive into her journey from a theater undergrad to mastering future design, where she champions participatory design with a twist. Ruth shares her passion for storytelling, not just any storytelling, but the kind that shapes our future. She’s also getting busy hosting innovative workshops to help people get a sense of how design research and design fiction legible to normal humans.

So buckle up, we’re exploring how design, values, and a sprinkle of theater can make the world a more engaging place. Spoiler alert: there are no spoilers in here even though we talk for a moment about ‘Leave the World Behind.’ This is a fun one that just might have you thinking about joining the Near Future Laboratory Discord and supporting this podcast over on ⁠⁠

Check out Ruth’s Linktree And definitely her Instagram⁠⁠

Check out the episode’s sponsored book, Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the book that came from an adjacent future in which the Sony Walkman failed: ⁠⁠

Please rate and write a review over on Apple Podcasts — it really does help — and become a Patron. It helps me to continue producing the podcats, newsletter and gives you access to our member’s only Discord!

TRANSCRIPT of EPISODE 083 of the Near Future Laboratory Podcast



RUTH: Hey, Julian,

Julian: Hello. Hi,

RUTH: how’s it going?

Julian: it’s good. How are you? I’m

RUTH: I’m doing well. Yeah, same.

Julian: I’m just digging what you’re doing on social.

I think that’s why I reached out. Cause it was kind of like, oh man, I just want Ruth to know that I’m enjoying what’s going on, what she’s doing but the, there was, one post you did. Um, the holidays times is a little bit of blur, but you were, Oh, darn it. What was the film? I’m totally spacing it. Cause I watched it over the break.

RUTH: Um, oh my gosh, the name of it escapes me as well.

Julian: It had a weird name. It’s like, everything’s going to end or something like

RUTH: Yeah, something like that.

It’s a very generic name.

Julian: too generic. What was it called?

RUTH: Okay, I’m gonna have to Google this

Julian: Yeah. We’re going to have to look it up. Um, yeah.

RUTH: Uh, Leave the World Behind.

Julian: Leave the world behind. Okay.

RUTH: But it’s based on a book that I’ve learned. I haven’t read the book, um, and I would be curious to read it.

Julian: Okay. What’s the book.

RUTH: uh, Leave the World Behind. It’s the same title. Yeah, but some of the plot I hear is different, but for the most part, I hear it stays pretty true to the source material.

Julian: Okay. So, so tell me who you are and what you do and why you’re doing it.

RUTH: sure, um, well, first of all, thanks, thanks for having me and for all the nice things that you’ve said. I’m a huge fan, so this is, this is an honor in itself. Um, so, uh, my name is Ruth, uh, I would describe myself as a design researcher who’s obsessed with the future. Um, I recently completed a master’s program in future design, um, and that program was quite, uh, broad.

So it was a mix of, like, traditional human centered design thinking, but also, like, futures thinking. Um, and I spent a lot of time, like, Exploring and experimenting and, and I ended up landing on, um, participatory design as my like specialty. Uh, so I design a lot of methods and tools. To facilitate participatory future building.

Um, so I spent a lot of time thinking about how do we engage with different types of people in the design process? Um, and what are the tools, especially creative and alternative tools that we can use to. Uh, facilitate that process. Um, and I’ve been fortunate enough to, like, be able to run workshops on this.

Um, and I also come from, like, as an undergraduate, I majored in theater, actually, um, in college, uh,

Julian: nice, nice, uh, basis for this stuff for sure.

RUTH: yeah, and, and honestly, when I majored in it, I didn’t know what I would do with a theater major because, you know, I didn’t want to be an actor or anything, I was just really interested in, like, storytelling.

So I also, like, studied film, um, was really interested in creative writing. And then, um, with design, you know, I, I really wanted to be able to apply my creative background in a more practical way. Uh, but I tend to approach design quite like alternatively. Um, you know, I’m really interested in like creative ways for us to design and, you know, engaging people in that process.

When I think of design too, because , my master’s is in future design, like I often see the traditional design process as quite like analytical and like rigid as well. . There are steps to the design process, right? And , as a designer, oftentimes, you’re designing because there’s a problem and then you’re trying to find a solution to it.

And this is the process to find a solution. , but I don’t think it’s like in the same way as futures thinking is quite analytical, it’s not really welcoming to the general public. Prior to my master’s program, I honestly didn’t think futures thinking, the design world, I could ever really have a career in mixing those things together.

Um, nor did I think that I could be as creative as I want to be in those spaces. And I, and I think that storytelling is a huge, , key to it all because It’s to me like the great equalizer, like, we love telling stories and we love hearing stories. I think it’s the basis of society and humanity is like telling stories and it dates back to generations and generations like this is how we connect.

And this is how we like create is to tell stories. And so I think it’s such a. Like really important component, particularly when you’re trying to design with different types of people or trying to work with different types of people is allowing them to tell their own stories and finding ways to, um, incorporate that into the process because. I think like design should also be about feeling, you know, like we think of design as it just needs to be an objective solution to a problem. But part of it too, is like, how do you feel about it? How does it affect certain people? Like these are all stories that need to be incorporated in the process. So yeah, I think storytelling is a huge component, um, to it all.

Julian: Yeah. How well does that play? I guess, you know, with, with people that you’re working with and those kinds of things. Cause sometimes there seems to be a challenge because there is, um, particularly for like commercial client, uh, commercial work. It’ll be like, well, we just need a solution to the problem.

We don’t need a story.

RUTH: Yeah, I think it’s like, how do you then translate that to actionable items? Um, if we want to talk business about it, I think it’s the same way as when you’re brainstorming in a company, an organization, you know, you’re trying to come up with some solution to a problem, or you’re trying to come up with a new idea.

We’re brainstorming it. And to me, that’s storytelling, right? So I think at the end of it, if you are able to kind of like, synthesize or like analyze what these stories mean and how it affects what the organization is trying to do and then create like action items of how to actually address that. Um, it could very much fit into the process, but I will say it’s quite difficult to get buy in from, you know, uh, Uh, more corporate organizations of how to fit storytelling in and I think for me since, you know, in some ways I’m still relatively new to the design world, um, and the futures thinking that I’m still kind of figuring that out too, but I think there’s definitely ways to like what I was saying with like synthesizing all of that information and, and just having like action actionable items of how.

It could fit into the organization’s like mission or, or directives. I don’t know, like, what are your thoughts on that, actually? I’m curious.

Julian: Yeah. Yeah. Um, I. Because the practice. It’s still, it’s still gaining a certain legibility within the strata of people you might talk to if you’re talking about a commercial engagement or even, even, you know, any kind of engagement where it’s um, finding, A process or an approach or methodology that is yet it’s slowly yet like on the lips and on the lips of someone who just got an MBA or it’s not taught to the degree where people like, Oh, yeah, we need to do this.

Like, I mean, don’t even talk about doing this program without that. That’s part of it. That’s step 3. Didn’t you learn about that? You know, when you when you when you study to become the person that you are now in this professional practice professional role. So I think there’s, um, it’s becoming more legible.

And more, you know, just kind of like it’s hygiene, you got to do it. So there’s that. And one of the, uh, I guess maybe also related to one of the reasons why like I was just so enthralled by seeing your social media posts. You know, it seems like a little thing is like, yeah, more, more.

We need more, of this language literally in the world. Like, people talking about it so people hear it. And that’s maybe why I was professionally jealous. It’s like, man, if I could nail these things out of the cadence that Ruth does, like, we’re, like, that, that’s the work. That’s what we need to do.

We need to be essentially saying it over. It’s like, we need more radio play is basically what I’m saying.

RUTH: Yeah, I’m so glad you said that because honestly, that’s the reason why I started making this because I was finding Having even come out of my master’s program, like all of the things I was seeing was done under like an academic or like corporate context. There wasn’t, I think it’s like so important for regular people to be thinking about the future, like, like you’re saying it to be for this to be part of everyday language.

You know, thinking about the future. Um, and so I was like, okay, there seems to be like a gap in stuff out there and people are interested. I think, I, I think particularly because of COVID, like people are, um, more keen to think about. Like sustainability to think about things in the long term, um, and are more aware of like external threats that maybe we didn’t think about before, like anything can happen kind of, um, thinking.

Um, and so I think with. I think there’s a growing appetite to futures thinking, but people don’t have the language for that, you know, and people might think, oh, these are just for like academics to think about, you know, practitioners to think about, but I think in order for us to, again, going back to that systems, right, for us to really shift these systems.

every, every day people need to be thinking and talking about it. Um, so that’s part of the reason why I was like making content on social media as well is how do I make this palatable and like Accessible for people and part of is like relating to their films out there. There’s like all this pop culture, social media, sci fi, like all of these things that are out there for mass consumption.

Like, let’s talk about it maybe in a different lens or under like a different type of dialogue. Um, so that’s some of the things I’m, I’m thinking about when I’m, I’m making this social media post.

Julian: Yeah. So yes, keep doing it is one of the things that I would say.

RUTH: I will say like I get messages sometimes with my content of. people who are interested in studying this and didn’t realize you could study this, didn’t realize it was a thing. And to me, like, even, I did a master’s program, but a lot of it was independent research.

And I spent years, like, trolling the internet to find people to, like, you know, look into their projects. Like, I had to, Piece all of this together myself and it took a lot of work and it’s a lot of yeah it’s a lot of work to like research these things so it would be so great to have something like that where, you know, it would be easier to find resources and kind of like connect all these dots together because that’s why I’m part of, like, I am in a few slack groups for futures thinking because I’m like, I don’t know where else to like, you Meet people who do this stuff, you know, I feel like there’s not as much visibility as other maybe like design, um, other areas of design, um, with futures.

So, yeah, I think that would be amazing for students, especially.

Julian: yeah. Yeah. How do you, how do you decide what you’re going to? Where do your ideas come from for something to post to social?

RUTH: You know, I kind of go by feeling and what excites me. And that’s something that’s important for me too, as a creator is like, I want, I want to be inspired by the stuff that I make too, like I want to be excited when I do this, um, so it’s really just keeping my eyes open and trying to learn as much as I can to just individually and then if I find some like gold nugget of inspiration and, and what I’m reading or watching.

Then I go down a rabbit hole, like researching some things and then trying to like connect the dots. And I, you know, and I think about would this be interesting to somebody else? Or if I found a video about this that somebody else made, would I be interested in it? And so that’s kind of like my approach.

Um, is really, it’s, it’s the things that I love and I’m interested in myself.

Yeah, which also I, I made a video, uh, about, uh, the near future laboratory and the work that you do because actually for my master’s program, I just want to say a lot of, um, the inspiration and research that I was doing with like speculative design came from, The near future laboratory and actually, um, some stuff in like my master’s thesis, I was like really inspired by your work.

So, um, yeah, I just want to give a shout out to that because you’re a part of my inspiration as well.

Julian: Thank you. That’s very, uh, that’s very generous of you. I appreciate that a lot. Um, what are you doing now? What’s 2024 look like?

RUTH: Yeah. So I, I just want to continue all of the projects that I started with in my program. Um, I was running a lot of workshops. Um, with some of the research that I was doing, and I’m trying to continue that. Um, so actually today I, I posted that I was doing, um, a series of new workshops just for like anyone to join in the world online.

Um, and I hope to be running more of those just like. Futures thinking and storytelling, um, that’s open to anyone. Um, I also freelance and design research and like design strategies. So working with organizations, um, on things like, you know, even something smaller scale, like designing, uh, online communications.

In an organization, how do you sustain that, um, anywhere to like working for bigger international organizations on like social innovations, you know, like researching the social innovations ecosystem and like, how can we create programs, um, to support. Um, social innovation. Um, so really a combination of like running workshops and I hope to be able to continue doing that and and just like freelancing and and hopefully, uh, working with more clients this year.

Julian: Yeah. What, what does a workshop look like for you? What does that, how does that run?

RUTH: Yeah, so I’m trying to, uh. Uh, kind of diversify, uh, the approach to my workshops. So one of the big workshops that I was running last year, um, is this method that I’m still kind of developing. I, I, uh, call it like the phenomena method. Um, and it’s this idea of, again, like I’m still kind of testing this and developing it.

I think it will change. Um, but the basic premise of it is it’s, it’s values driven. Co design. So like I mentioned before, with like traditional design thinking, it’s really, it’s, you have a problem and you’re, and you’re trying to find a solution. And what I’m kind of exploring is rather than designing from that solutions driven point of view, can we design from values?

driven point of view. So human values like joy, play, balance, community, you know, we all have lived experiences with these things and we all have stories to tell of examples in the world where we have experienced these things. How can then we translate those stories of lived experiences and the values that we care about as a society into designs that can sustain The future, basically, and my kind of hypothesis of this is, is that, you know, for always designing from, like, a problems point of view, trying to solve a problem, one, are we then, like, Approaching the things that we create from a place of positive futures, or are we just trying to mitigate a huge catastrophe?

You know, how do we really ensure that things that we create reflect the values that we care about? Because they already exist. These values are around us every day. We just need to, like, um, you know, acknowledge them and, and, and share them. And then two, like, problems are always changing. And there’s all these, like, external things that, We may or may not be able to anticipate if we’re always designing from problems is are the things that we create sustainable, or are they just going to be affected by other problems.

But if we didn’t design from a values perspective, could that be more sustainable in the long term in terms of the things that we create? Um, so, yeah, a lot of it is like. You know, the phenomena workshops that I was running, I basically created this like kind of card game thing where you have these cards that have prompts on them that ask you to both reflect on your present and then imagine the future.

And you have these pieces where you kind of connect to ideas, and then together you’re designing using elements from these ideas. Um, and I also like tap into like my theater background in this. So there’s things like walk around the room and like, imagine, you know, like physically, is there a way we can use physicality to design and not just talk about it?

Like I’m also interested in like nonverbal ways of designing. Um, and I think it also gets people, it like taps a different part of your brain, you know, .

get up from your seat and walk around, like it’s totally different from just talking. Um, and I find that. People are like a little bit, uh, maybe like scared to do this at first, but I think that if everyone in the group, and this is like one of the things that I establish is that everyone in the group has to kind of commit to allowing themselves to play and explore, you know, and tap into those kind of like childlike imagination that you have, um, people are actually by the end of it, I think really kind of jazzed to do it, you know, because it’s like, You’re sitting, you’re doing a workshop for like 60, 60 minutes, sometimes, I’ve done workshops for three hours, right?

But like, it doesn’t feel that long if you get up from the table and do other things, um, rather than just be sitting around talking about it. So, yeah, I am, and so I’m trying to find ways to, like, adapt that to, like, online workshops. I want to be able to actually, I was been talking to my, cause of my, my background is in theater.

I was talking to, um, former classmates of mine who still aren’t very much in the theater world, like would love to collaborate with them. Is there a way we can run an online workshop where we’re telling stories with our body rather than talking, you know, and what could that look like? So I’m also experimenting with like the format of my workshops as well.

Julian: so, um, yeah, so, okay, so we’re going to do something together, I think, I don’t know what

RUTH: Yeah, I would love that. And I, I know, I want to be a part of this Discord channel. I just, like, haven’t gotten to it, um, when I was finishing my master’s, but I, yeah, I, I want to be more involved as well.

Julian: Cool. I’ll send you a, I’ll send you a thing. Um, okay.

RUTH: It was great talking to you. I, yeah, again, this was like such an honor and it’s really great to meet you. Um, and I’m, I’m happy you like my stuff.

Julian: Super fun talking to you.

RUTH: Have a good one.