The Future MundaneThe Future Mundane
The Future Mundane

Imagination Lancaster explores The Future Mundane, a design philosophy focusing on the practical, everyday aspects of future technologies rather than speculative, heroic, or overly idealized visions.

Contributed By: Julian Bleecker

Published On: Thursday, November 23, 2023 at 07:14:49 PST

The economic and societal benefits that are projected to result from emerging and future technologies stand on the premise that they will be readily accepted and adopted by potential users. However, acceptability and adoption is rarely addressed in research. This project will merge Design Fiction and Breaching Experiments to create a novel methodology for apprehending acceptability and adoption challenges early in the design life cycle. The proposed methodological merger seeks to situate ‘proximate futures’ in familiar settings, scenes and events through a ‘world building’ approach to surface the taken for granted background expectancies that impact acceptability and adoption in everyday life.

Professor Paul Coulton presents: Imagination Lancaster: Future Mundane


What is ‘Future Mundane’?

I want to talk about the future mundane.

Uh, but before we go, a hero of mine, Russell Davis, once said that a good, well once said, this year said, that a good talk should consist of three things. Boasting, philosophical meandering, and something actually useful, so I’ll try and do the first one first. Um, I’m the most qualified person here today to talk about designing the future.

In spite of the 2003 Hutton Inquiry, the BBC remains, in all studies, the most trusted broadcaster in the world. And, uh, on that most trusted broadcaster, the longest running regular show is Blue Peter. And in 1989, Blue Peter published their seminal work, the Action Annual

so I was awarded the title, uh, Best Young Engineer in Britain. Uh, twice. And with the prize money, I bought a drawing board. Uh, which might date me a bit. And from there, I’ve become uh, an industrial designer. And I have worked for some lovely companies. I’ve worked for Dyson, Sony, uh, Nokia, and currently Google.

And I’m on brand with that logo. Uh, so I care about the things of the internet. There’s a lot of talk about Internet of Things. I’m a Things of the Internet guy. I’m also a partner at the Near Future Laboratory, which some of you hopefully know about. Um, and we’ll talk a little bit about Near Future Lab later on.

Um, so I’m not an academic. I’m not an artist. I’m definitely not a maker. I’m a designer, and I’m a devout pragmatist. And I want to talk about the process of actually designing the future, because it’s my job. So I categorize design projects into three buckets. It’s quite a useful thing to do. Now is the stuff that we’re doing.

The stuff that we’re flying to China a lot to sort out and get things out. Next is stuff that’s in the pipeline. Stuff that’s coming soon. But then there’s the future. And I think when people try and talk about designing for the future, They get a bit lost. We’ve got really good processes for now and next.

They’re kind of tested out and we know how they work because we can see the efficacy of them. But when it comes to designing for the future, people sort of wander aimlessly between tech digests and science fiction cinema and all sorts of places. And I want to talk a little bit about the aesthetic language of designing objects for the future.

And Chris this morning talked a lot about science fiction, cinema, influencing interaction design and user experience. But it’s clear that it’s also a big impact on some designers who are industrial designers. And I think there’s definitely evidence for that and there’s lots of people I work with who take a lot of good input from this kind of field.


But I think something in that relationship is not really working. Because we get stuff like this. You go on Tumblr, you type in, you know, future concept, and they just seem like folly. They seem like indulgent fantasies. They don’t really come with any plot or any narrative, and they just reflect this kind of isolated aesthetic.

They’re a landscape that’s kind of devoid of relevance and any kind of association to anything else. Don’t think they’re conversations, they’re just statements. And they’re kind of almost masturbatory. They’re like pornographic. They’re just like porn, they’re fantasies that are decoupled from reality.

And they’re designed to trigger some sort of purely aesthetic response. And the apogee of that is the vision video. And just as an aside, I’d like to encourage people to stop using the term vision, if we want to be taken seriously as an industry. Um, it’s kind of what people who use crystal balls talk about.

But there’s this guy here, he’s kind of vice president of graphs somewhere. And he works in a sort of white box. Um, and you know, he does these sorts of things with these sorts of things. And I feel like, for me personally, it’s mostly kind of useless. Um, this is Microsoft, but I could have picked on any number of these kind of videos.

His graphs marketing manager has just arrived. They’re going to talk about some graphs some more. With a thing that does graphs. Anyway. So, there’s definitely a relationship between industrial design futurism and science fiction cinema. I don’t think we understand what it is. And it might be true that without something like this, we wouldn’t have had the collective will to develop the smartphone.

When we look at something like a smartphone, this is mine. And we really, really look at how we use it. It’s incredibly banal. These are some real texts I sent to my wife this year. Um, there’s not a lot of beaming up. There’s not a lot of stopping bombs. It’s mostly gravy and whole foods. So this really gets me interested and has over the years got me interested in, um, how we design the future.

And how we can address this mundanity in products that we’ve sort of grown up with. And I’m not the only person who’s interested in mundanity. There’s this guy. He’s a really interesting sociologist. He’s got Robert De Niro’s mouth, it would appear. But um, he said that the focus on Extraordinary in his, his industry kind of pulls people away from the here and now and the stuff that actually, you know, by studying something way, way out in the, in the outskirts, we miss all the stuff that happens to most of us most of the time.

And there’s no journal in his industry to explicitly analyse conformity. So he made one. This is the Journal of Mundane Behaviour, and it ran for three years, and it covered topics in this issue, how people get in and out of lifts in Japan, how people arrange their books on bookshelves, and also what your facial hair says about you.

Really interesting stuff, and actually if you get a chance to read any of them, it’s kind of a shame it doesn’t exist anymore, because I think it tells us quite a lot about us as a populace. The more sci fi literate of you might well have sort of referenced Jeff Reimann by now. And he called for a new branch of science fiction writing called mundane science fiction, which was a sort of reaction against what he called stupidities.

Things like flying saucers. Things like faster than light travel, automatic translation devices, all those kinds of things. And he said, what we really need to do is stop doing all of those stupidities and focus on more tangible, pressing concerns. And that’s where my heart starts to race, because I think that’s the same sort of thing.

And in writing his manifesto, he said that mundane also denotes of the world. We’d sort of take it to mean banal, but it means things that are here. And I think that’s really important, because that’s what I think most of us as designers should be doing. So this is, I guess, a more terrestrial approach to designing the future.

And I call it the future mundane. Dramatic pause. Um, I don’t want to call it a process. Uh, it’s not really even an approach. It’s just something that I do increasingly, uh, day to day when I try and You know, get involved in these kind of conversations and it helps me get in the right kind of mindset. And it has three tenets, and I’m going to outline them one by one.

So the first is, the future mundane is filled with background talent. Incidentally, have you seen the crazy nun? And the lady with the eyes there. Anyway. What do I mean by that? So, heroes. Everyone loves a hero, and people have talked about them today already. Um, first thing you’ll notice is they’re nearly always dudes.

But, from ancient Greece, through the Norse gods, through Romans, through pop culture in the 1890s, through to today. Um, we love a hero. We use heroes to tell stories. And they’re in a lot of cinema and Hollywood in general, but more pointedly in science fiction cinema. When we draw a bell curve, any bell curve of anything, be it physical ability, their job, their lifestyle, their behavior, their daily experiences, this is what we find.

Every single leading character, they could be at the other end as well, they could be an antagonist, but every character in every sort of major film falls right at the end. There’s fights on trains, there’s gunfights, there have to be things that happen to them by definition that are extraordinary. So, Tom Cruise is a hero in most films.

These are the last 13 of Tom Cruise’s films. And there’s no film where Tom Cruise needs to buy a lawnmower. There’s no film where he gets a sunburn. These are not things that happens in Tom Cruise films. And I’m picking on Tom Cruise because it’s a really mainstream, uh, character. And I know there’s lots and lots of science fiction out there.

But just, we have to be careful about creating Tom Cruise user experiences. Because, these are your users, or people like them, and actually so are you. You’re these guys, as much as you want to be that guy, as much as, you know, reality TV has taught you that you’re going to be something special, something extraordinary, you’re not.

You’re going to be these kind of people for the whole of your life. And so we should start designing for ourselves. There’s no fights on spaceships, no lasers, no life or death decisions for most of us. So when we watch science fiction cinema, although it’s quite tempting to follow the narrative of the star and then design for them, It’s actually just as interesting to pick the woman that lives here.

She’s got a nice waterfront property. You know, she, she’s struggling to keep up with rent. She really struggles to get a cab because there’s loads of tourists here. Like, we can talk forever about her. It’s not just people that we treat like heroes. Products too, you know. You give an industrial designer a big enough brief and say, design something for the future.

You get hero products. Products like cars. Products like transportation devices. Products like this, communicators with flexible screens. And it just feels like, oh, another one of those. It doesn’t feel like it takes us anywhere. And actually, when we look at the design that we really cherish today, it’s things like this, it’s things like saws and tea makers and hair dryers.

And all of these run one, a red dot design award this year. And we have to sort of embrace this term ubiquitous computing in its true term. It’s going to be ubiquitous. It’s going to be everywhere at every price point for everybody to use. And actually, when we talk about ubiquitous computing, we should mention.

What Berg called MujiComp, which is kind of a democratized version of computing. And even more than that, let’s be really honest about the stuff that’s in the middle of the bell curve. And it’s what Russell Davis, who I mentioned at the beginning, called RodneyComp. And that’s just the stuff that we see everywhere.

The kind of Shenzhen facsimile of the Cupertino dream. So stuff that’s kind of made out in the middle of China that we see a lot of. And things like the Xira Sword of Protection and Weather Station. These are products that exist in the real world. And we have to sort of Understand that that’s the majority of everything we’re ever going to interact with.

So at this point, some of you might be thinking, ah, what about the trickle down? And the trickle down is a term which sort of sets around this world, which is if we design outlier products or extreme products like concept cars, they give companies something to aim towards or something to follow. Or if we design for heroic folk, then it gives something for the rest of us to aspire to.

I don’t really have a smart answer to that. Um, other than I think it’s bullshit. I think it’s lazy. I think it comes from a marketing place. And it leads to rubbish like this.

I think it’s mean spirited. I don’t think it’s good. I don’t think we should design to make people feel inferior or less than they can be. It’s not empowering. I don’t think it’s a productive route to a better society.

So at this point, Future Mundane, oh, it’s just about designing boring stuff. It’s not at all. So Elon Musk, our own Tony Stark, uh, revealed this a couple years ago now, the Hyperloop. And this was the image that was shared everywhere. And it’s designed to squirt people from San Francisco to L. A. in 20 minutes.

And I found it really compelling, but not because of this. Not because of the hero, but because of the supporting cast. There was a 57 page PDF that was released at the same time, that some people read, but not many. And it’s actually really compelling. It’s all about how people’s, uh, inner ear might handle the, you know, the acceleration, and how people might buy tickets, and how it might survive earthquakes.

All these real world, sort of, supporting, you know, cast and crew that help the hero be the hero. And I think it’s really fine to dream big, but let’s just also design all of the other people that make Tom Cruise or whoever else the hero in the story. So just by, by means of an example there, I want to talk a little bit about self driving cars.

Um, and as the Near Future Laboratory, we were involved in a workshop earlier this year at the IXDA conference, Interaction 15. And what we wanted to do was to have a good, hearty conversation about self driving cars. Because they’re kind of right at the top of the hype cycle, and everyone’s really excited about them.

But we feel like some of the really good pressing conversations are kind of behind waving hands. And we see things like this from somebody like Chevrolet, which is their concept for self driving cars. And there’s a million other more pressing questions than what’s it gonna look like. There’s stuff about all the extra spare time we have, all the stuff about when it becomes a code space, when we have time to either play dominoes or look at our phone.

All the stuff about shared ownership, and maybe it becomes a taxi when you’re not using it, and All the stuff about licensing and branding, you know. What happens when Amazon get involved in self driving cars? What does that mean? So we did a workshop. And you see Chris, look. Uh, we did a workshop really quick, one day.

Uh, stuff went on walls. Um, and at the end of it, a little bit of extra little design work. We produced a quick start guide. Which was a really nice supporting member of the cast. Which helped you sort of understand the bigger conversation about the hero. And it’s a really good example of a diegetic prototype.

A prototype that helps tell a story. You know, we printed a few, and in it had pieces about, um, you know, real concerns about if you’re not in control, what happens if you need to stop, or if it’s going the wrong way? Um, if you are going to put it into Uber mode, how do you actually do that? What are the processes?

What are the steps that you have to do? Rather than just going, oh, you won’t need to drive your car everywhere. Um, and FAQ. And including things like if I left somewhere, left somebody or something in the car where I sent it off. It’s a really, really useful tool for us to understand the hero conversation, by designing extras, supernumeraries, background things, ephemera.

Part one, that was. Pause. Part two.

Um, the future mundane is an accretive space. It’s a fancy way of saying, when you look at science fiction cinema, you often look at things like this. And it’s really easy to say, Where did all the old stuff go? Did we just have some collective sweep and just get rid of things and then launch a new thing like out of an egg?

The truth is, the world looks like this and it’s like, shit piles on top of shit on top of shit. And you end up with like, favela like spaces and maybe not to this extent, but I have a 1960s table with a PlayStation underneath it. Because humans are kind of covetous, sentimental, resourceful and we like to reuse and re appropriate things.

And things actually last longer than each other. And we have to remember that the thing that you’re designing is going to exist as part of a system. It’s going to exist in another world that already is there. Yet again, we see renderings and things like this. There’s no tax disc, there’s no number plate, there’s no parking permit, there’s no people, there’s no roads.

There’s nothing there to give it a contextual place. Is this a rendering for something in 1 year, 100 years, 50 years? We have no way of knowing. And it might not be our fault as industrial designers, because this is the kind of software we’re given. So this is Keyshot, and this is what happens when you open it up.

You get a selection of studio spaces. As if sort of a gallery, you know, you’re going to design your thing and it’s going to appear in a gallery and you drop your thing in and then we’re done. Actually, science fiction cinema can sometimes be quite good at this. So, in Duncan Jones brilliant film Moon, the addition of kind of an old Chesterfield chair and some slippers really helps me feel a little bit more for this character because he has some of the stuff that I’m familiar with.

It’s not this entirely new aesthetic, this entirely new environment. Same with children and children of men, you know, there’s a huge projection screen, lots of technology, but there’s also a tie rack. These brands will persist over time. And another hero of mine, Charlie Brooker, um, he’s really good at putting new pieces of technology and interaction in really, really existing spaces, places that you kind of know and can relate to.

And he calls them, which I love, is attainable dystopias. So let’s get some graphs out, because everyone likes a graph. Uh, the Gartner Height Cycle, as we hopefully should know, is a way to chart technology over time. And it starts with a trigger, and you get excited, and then you get a bit disillusioned, and we sort of see the light, and then things start to get made.

So things like 3D printing sit in this space and, um, at the moment for me 3D printing is well down in the trough, but as a collective group we’re sort of starting to ask real questions about it and it sits there. But I think the problem with a graph like this is it encourages us as a designer to, um, look at the technology in isolation.

And actually these persistencies just come blasting through your idea. They could be anything. Things are going to have an effect, and they’ll push and pull like Brownian motion on your idea, and take it somewhere that you have no way of controlling. And the more of those that you can render in your idea, the better your idea will become.

And it’s already been up today, so I won’t talk about it too much, but, this also goes back to pace layers, and, you know, Stuart Brand, and John mentioned it earlier, thank you John, um, basically saying we’re on insanely quick and unfathomably slow. Journeys at the same time concurrently and we need to make sure that we render those Concurrences as best we can so it’s all been a bit graphy.

So 40 days away from that a very important day in my life

not overstating that it’s a very very important movie for me back to the future to and probably led to my early fascination with America, and that’s why I live there now, but in watching it again as an adult and a kind of more sort of academically aware adult, I think the reason why I liked it so much and the reason why the technology’s hooked me in so much is because the movie really understood pace layers, and it really understood these persistencies.

So we remember the DeLorean, we remember the hoverboard, but it was because they were put into a world of, of brands and Things that I could already, already relate to, things like Black Decker, things like Texaco, things like Pepsi. Instead of just saying, there’s a future world where there are hoverboards and flying cars, it let you sort of develop that idea yourself and say, hmm, that’s, who makes that?

And it was Mattel as we see. So I think it’s really interesting that it’s, it’s a useful, helpful hook to bring people into the world you want to tell them by showing them things that they already know. And there’s just a fun way to finish this. There’s a, there’s a Tumblr that I’m kind of obsessing over at the moment, um, and it’s called High Street Stores in Sci Fi Films.

And it’s just a guy who photoshops background high street stores into movies. And it’s, it’s obviously meant as a joke, but I think actually seeing Judge Dredd in front of a Dixon’s rather than Mega City One makes me feel a bit more questioning about that situation. Because I know what Dixon’s is like and actually how might that feel, so, yeah.

It’s an accretive space. Third part, future mundane is a bit broken and a bit is really important there. So we look at science fiction cinema again, and it likes to put its environments at the end of the bell curve, too. It either makes heroes out of its environments or it makes villains out of them. So this is Elysium.

It’ll be totally solved or totally fucked. Those are the two options in the future. And then when things in those worlds go wrong, they do so critically. You know, spaceships fall from the sky, and Chris was talking about this earlier. Buildings explode, people die. And I don’t think science fiction cinema has any idea about breakage.

It doesn’t understand how it fits into our world. Because breakage happens all the time. You can’t find a Wi Fi password. Things like this happen. We really need to be more comfortable with the idea that whatever we make, whatever we design, is not gonna work. 100 percent of the time, it’s not gonna work.

You won’t understand your customers if you think it does. And we see this quote a lot, and it’s a really cool quote to trot out. We need to predict not the automobile, but the traffic jam. But I don’t really see many designers doing that. I don’t see many designers having a good three week conversation about how the thing that they love and the thing they’re designing is going to be terrible.

So, we’ve reached this bit. Um, and hopefully it’s not the bit you’re thinking of. Uh, and it’s actually for me one of the nicest bits of interaction design in the whole movie. Um, and it has nothing to do with gestural interfaces. It has nothing to do with see through screens. It has to do with a cereal box.

So you can keep all of your I think that’s one of the nicest bits of interaction design in modern cinema. And it’s basically saying, you know, this technology that we know is coming, but actually how might it feel after three times of putting it down, or trying to reset it, or trying to get it to stop, how might that feel?

And they’ve rendered it really nicely there. One of my partners at the Near Future Laboratory, Nicholas Nova, who I hope some of you know, also made a really lovely film that I’ve got a tiny snippet of, and it probably doesn’t give it justice, but um, a project called Curious Rituals, which looks at the kind of gestures that we do in daily life and how, They kind of are all a little bit broken.

I’ll just let this play very briefly. It’s about a minute

Name unknown. Call Gerardo. Name unknown. Call Gerardo. Calling Gerardo. Hello? Hey Gerardo, did you call? Yeah, uh, are we still on for coffee? Yeah, I will, um, be there. I’m running a little late. But we’ll be there by noon. Okay. Robbie? Oh. Call landed. Call Gerardew. Call Gerardew. Hello? Hey, Gerardo. Sorry, I accidentally hung up.

That’s fine. So are we meeting at, uh, what? Yeah, let’s meet in like, half an hour? Okay. See you there. Bye. Call landed. So there’s kind of a comedy skit in the middle of the piece, but I think it’s quite interesting to sort of make that note of, you know, the things that we live with are always broken and we find ourselves molding to them and I think understanding breakages and understanding that this is actually a gesture that already exists in the world for people to pass in front of you.

If somebody designed that into a system that was hang up, it might seem like a really good idea. And I think that gets to the idea that we need to choose the tone of our failures as well. And a wonderful Mitch Hedberg, who died way too young, said, Escalator is temporarily stairs. Sorry for the convenience.

Which I think is a really nice way of understanding that breakage should be a big part of our conversation. It should be a part of the conversation that we embrace a lot more than we do. It’s really lovely to be positive, and design is a very kind of Naturally positive or optimistic endeavor. Because we’re trying to make the world better.

But I don’t think we’ll be better if we just ignore that things aren’t going to be perfect. And then we need to also look at the entire lifespan of the products that we’re designing. We often look at the, you know, the way they’re going to be launched or how they’re going to land. But it’s really important to look at the length of time.

So I’m going to talk a little bit about how products die and how products transition through their life. Back to Back to the Future 2 again. A really lovely little scene. Just saying. You know, over time, things fall out of popularity. What happens to them at that point? And it’s really nice, if any of you are working on something for the future, to think, okay, someone has it for a few years, they give it to their sister, their sister doesn’t want it anymore, does it end up in one of these?

And how, how then do we clear the preferences? How do we handle users? All that kind of stuff. Really important little rendering to do. And as, by way of case study, I was working at Sony, um, between, uh, the UK and Japan in 2006, when AIBO, the robot dog, was discontinued. And I think this is a really good example of what we can do to help embrace products dying in their process.

And during launch, Sony said, from the first day you interact with AIBO, it will become your new companion. And that was straight out of the marketing department. Because I don’t think they really understood what they meant when they said that. And if they did, then they were very irresponsible. So, when AIBO was launched, people really did become attached to them in more ways than you can believe.

And they gave them names, and they gave them little Chan suffixes, which means and a member of my family. The discontinuation happened, and we saw this weird Frankensteinian sort of body parts market spring up. And the phrase, front left leg, poor, gold, very good condition, kind of breaks my heart, the fact that it says poor.

Um, it’s a really weird thing that happened, and gradually these became scarcer and scarcer and scarcer. And so we saw the springing of people who were AIBO vets, and this guy, Hiroshi Funabashi, uh, said that he had a woman turn up to his door with a dog carrier. with the AIBO inside, in tears, saying he’s not very well, can you examine him?

And then the ultimate point, which some of you may know about, was when they became terminally broken, uh, people held funerals and services in memory of their robot dogs. And it’s sort of one of the more odd parts of our collective history, but something really interesting. And around the necks of these AIBO were little name tags and messages, and the name of the owners and their address where they lived.

And I feel like, as designers, if we could have designed one of these blue tags, at the very first day of designing AIBO the Robot Dog, we would have designed a better AIBO the Robot Dog, because we’d understand the kind of role that it would have in their life. So it’s not just the things that break, it’s also ideas break.

And we’re all very good creative people, and we need to be comfortable with the idea that no matter how well crafted your message, no matter how well crafted your story, or your intended use of the product. People will use a bucket for a crash helmet. And we need to, again, to become more comfortable that the thing that we’re designing will be misinterpreted, misunderstood, uh, misused, it will be broken, it will be rejigged.

And actually that’s a good thing. We hold onto ideas way too tightly as designers, and it’s not productive. So, in summary, um, my role in all of this is not to be a downer, not to say, you know, the future is going to be dull and boring. The reason I’m saying that is because I want to be real about the future.

I don’t want the future to still be this place where fantasies happen and unrealistic dreams are laid out. Um, I want to drive things forward. It’s my job, that’s what I want to do. I want to try and create as vivid a picture of the future as physically possible. And science fiction cinema is a really good place to start.

But it is just a place to start. We need to be aware that, um, production designers are just other designers. And they’re prone to the same lazy cliches as you and me. And the stuff that Chris has talked about, about this, everybody uses blue in interfaces because that’s kind of cool, it looks good on film.

And it, science fiction is a really good place to start your inquiry, but after that you have to make a proposal. And a proposal has to have a lot more rigor to it. So just to reiterate, take three things away today. The future mundane is filled with background talent. So don’t automatically design for heroes.

Don’t automatically design hero products. And if you do want to design hero products, make sure you’ve got a really strong supporting cast. The second is the future mundane is an accretive space. Things build up over time. We need to understand our pace layers and where our product sits in those clock speeds.

We need to give people contemporary hooks into our idea so that they can come along with us. And the final part is the future mundane is a little bit broken. We need to embrace breakage in our ideas and our concepting. We need to bring misuse and error into all of our processes and our discussions. And we need to also try and nurse a product from cradle through to grave, through to misuse, through to re appropriation.

And that’s all I have for you today. Thank you.