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  • Writer's picturesarah krier

Diary from a Climate Refugee: An invitation to speculate on the future of Milwaukee

Updated: Sep 11, 2023

In partnership with Coe Douglas, pataphysician, lecturer, and writer, "the Futures Studio" explored design fiction as a vehicle to inspire and influence new visions of the future.

The Challenge: Empowering New Speculations About the Climate Crisis in Southern Wisconsin

Our charter for this capstone experience was to amplify a local designer's work around a single, core issue: supporting well-being in Milwaukee.

The prompt itself was vague, but our collaborator, Coe Douglas', passions in this area are lazer focused on the specifically nonspecific world of speculative design.

Design fictuion is a vehicle that supports wellbeing because it helps illustrate possible futures to spark conversation and action amongst decision makers. In this case, Coe's focus was on the climate crisis, and how that may shift the very foundation of what it means to live in Milwaukee.

As we assessed the needs of our collaborator, a few key principles emerged that grounded our approach:

  1. Design fiction democratization and accessibility. Relying on the visions and ideations of a handful of students, biased by our collective experience as design students would create a limited, biased vision of the future. We needed to bring together many voices, mediums, and perspectives to represent “what could be.”

  2. Design fiction advocacy and proof of concept. Although speculation as a practice isn't a new concept and underlies most forecasting, ideation, and strategy across industires, the term "fiction" evokes a certain connotation. This was an opportunity to illustrate how fiction can be used as a reliable research tactic.

  3. Design fiction and speculation as action. Fiction and storytelling for the sake of it has its place, but this project needed to pave a way for key decision makers across Coe's network to see the value in using speculation to incite tangible action to push narratives into the realm of true innovation.

The Solution: Embodying the Human Experience of Life in Milwaukee as a Climate Oasis.

To harness these ideas, our medium needed to be flexible, inclusive, and anchored around a theme. We toyed with a myriad of artefacts to help embody and convey a far off future where millions of climate refugees had migrated to Southeast Wisconsin. From Chamber of Commerce brochures, to a web experience, video games, and beyond, we settled on a highly familiar medium that left room for interpretation and self expression - regardless of background or competency.

This manifested as a renegade journal from the future. An underground, word-of-mouth accounting of daily life handed from community member to friend, to neighbor. This created a space where everyday people could step into the world of speculation to document lived experiences in a future that has implications as unique as each of the authors that participated. The guidelines we provided to solicit entries were few and opened the door for a wide array of contributions. Journal entries arose from artists, writers, community organizers, business professionals, lawyers, engineers, and beyond.

The result was a patchwork of submissions that painted a very different picture of Milwaukee—one where inhabitants lived on decommissioned oil rigs in Lake Michigan; where the elites participated in indigenous medicine therapies; and where art and connection rose from the ashes of desolated communities.

The Impact: Why Does an Unseen Future Matter in a Highly Known Present?

The goal of design fiction is to spark conversations, questions, counterpoints, and future speculations. The goal is not to accurately predict what will be. This provides a venue for stakeholders at every level, from every background, to contribute to a vision of what Milwaukee could—and should—look like.

Whether you believe that decommissioned oil rigs as residences are possible, or not, the point is for you to ask yourself what that idea evokes for you—as a business person, a creative, and as a human. Is this the world we want to live in? If not, why? How might we shift that narrative and build solutions that change the trajectory of this future?

The journal was a first step in introducing a design fiction narrative to Coe's audience, and has laid the groundwork for continued speculation, iteration, and development.

Images from an art installation, where the pages of the journal were displayed alongside personal copies that included provocations and questions to guide attendees. This live experience provided opportunities to discuss our outcomes with community members and advocate for speculative design as a vehicle for change.

Looking Ahead: Our Vision for the Futures Studio

Speculation is not a one-and-done practice. It should be revisited early and often and has the opportunity to grow and evolve over time. Although the journal itself is an artefact that can be taken into the future, what most prominently manifested from this project was a clearer vision for how to approach design fiction and speculative design in these venues.

Our vision is clear, and the groundwork has been laid for our continued collaboration to reimagine a future we can all thrive in.

"Our good future is an empowered one, inspired by a democratized community of designers, futurists, and dreamers that are not bound or limited by their credentials, background, or talents.
We see the future as multi-disciplinary, where radically challenging our preconceived notions about the art of possible is not only central, but necessary to our collective wellbeing.
Without this work, we miss an opportunity to provide a safe space where thinkers of the future can incubate and orient us toward 'what could be.'"

Pictured left-to-right: Fellow collaborators Faraz Ali, Samvida Chennuri, Melissa Austin, myself, Coe Douglas

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