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The Future (According to Corporations)

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"Branded Visions of the Future" are the most mainstream sort of design fiction. You know the genre; Short viral videos promising worlds made of screens and sensors, recognizing our every gesture; ease-of-life at the swipe of a finger. I love them, at least, in theory. I love the idea of them. Some of them are mind-numbingly difficult to sit through.

I recently spoke to Scott Smith at Changeist, who describes himself as a "critical futurist." In his talk at Media Future Week last May, he dubbed such dramatizations, "Flatpack Futures," comparing them to ready-to-assemble furniture. His conceit suggests that like Ikea's housewares, these future visions require no additional tools or equipment. No critical faculties, no imagination, no contemplation, and no agency. "They can have a sedating effect," he says. They relieve you of your responsibility to think about how the new technologies should be used.

Scott Smith (Changeist) @ MFW13 from iMMovator on Vimeo.

Scott argues that these corporate future-visions are watered down for the same reasons that corporate everythings are watered down: Though they may start with the noble intentions of a user-centric product designer, "they go through an MBA and marketing guy before they get to you." They become more about advertising than foresight research. The result tends to be unrealistically polished and clinically hygienic. What's more dangerous is that they show just one possible plot and package it as a future-truth, whose pleasantness is to be taken for granted.

The videos seem to say: 'Here is the future, in all its glory, exactly as it should be. It's coming and it's seamless, so don't worry about anything,' when we should really be reading them as: 'Here is one future. What do you think? How would this work for you, your business, your family, and your community? Let's deconstruct this, and think about some alternatives, and iterate on them.'

Future scenarios should be thought of as being in perpetual draft form; they should be rewritten constantly and thought about critically -- always in the condition of workshopping. Questions about how things like new technologies ought to exist are matters of vital social consequence. They are political decisions; questions that we should all be engaging.

That's one of the reasons why these visions of the future need to exist in the first place. Because new technologies, even when they are already proven to be possible, are still merely conceptual; we hear about them, we read about them, but they exist purely cerebrally to most of us, until we've seen them dramatized. When we begin to imagine and visualize applications, the nascent technologies become experiential and operative.

When I spoke to Scott Smith about the good and the bad of brand visions of the future, he suggested that if socializing the new ideas is these videos' raison d' ĂȘtre, then they play a role oddly similar to that of ancient mythologies: "They're simultaneously calming you, introducing you to something new, showing you what the norms of behaviour are and should be, and also reassuring you that everything will work out well because they'll improve your lives." In these ways, they're much like the magical narratives of religious texts that convey the moral frameworks that tell us how to behave. Like those religious writings with their moral codes, brand visions of the future should be read with a discerningly critical eye.

How would you reconstruct the following future scenarios? What would you keep? What would you cut? What would you add? How would you make them more interesting, challenging, favourable, or fun?

The Future According to 13 Brands

Samsung
Smart closets, digital wallets, hologram lamps.

Microsoft

Microsoft's Future Vision project comprises a series of videos that since 2009 have imagined futures of productivity, manufacturing, health, banking and retail. The latest was shot at the new Microsoft Envisioning Center, where conceptual prototypes are brought to life in scenarios set 5-10 years in the future.

John Deere
The heavy equipment manufacturer goes "Farm Forward" in its seamless vision of the future.

IBM

IBM's 5 in 5 series annually presents five new technologies that will change our lives in the next five years. Visions have included a totally cashless society and smartphones that enhance our sensual capacities to superhuman levels.

Intel

Intel's Tomorrow Project aims to "explore our possible futures through fact-based, science-based fiction." Dialogue with noted authors, experts, and enthusiasts of the genre are documented through various forms of media, including books, videos, and podcasts; culminating in an ongoing and evolving conversation between society's visionaries and leaders.

Toyota

In retooling traffic systems and transport models for a safer and more sustainable future, Toyota's Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS) department unveiled the company's "Future Mobility" project. Working towards eliminating CO2 emissions, vehicular collisions, and road congestion, ITS illustrates a future where the automobile, home, and individual are reconciled.

Siemens

Siemens' Picture of the Future publication ensures the consideration of major trends in technology in the company's objectives. One resulting initiative, Smart Buildings, has Siemens evolving residential and commercial buildings into "living organisms" that are receptive to society's growing technological demands.

Nokia

The Nokia Research Center explores technology frontiers, "solving scientific challenges today, for Nokia to deliver irresistible personal experiences tomorrow." Nokia renders the laptop, smartphone, and television obsolete in favor of a "Mixed Reality" future that unites physical and digital environments.

Corning

Specialty glass manufacturer Corning envisions a better-connected world in 'Day Made of Glass'. Featuring touch-interactive glass as the material of the future, no surface is exempt.

Blackberry

Blackberry's Mobile Device Management (MDM) is a mobile control system that provides multi-platform control across a range of devices, making the need for separate personal and professional devices no longer necessary.

Airbus

Airbus's imagines the future of air transport with this seamlessly customizable flight experience.

PayPal

Paypal's near-future vision for an optimized shopping app to replace wallets and cards.

BMW

BMW's vision for a "ConnectedDrive" vehicle shows how cars of the future may sync with mobile phones, interact with the surrounding environment and share relevant information with drivers.

Ericsson

Ericsson predicts an "Internet of Things" future where everything is connected - interacting and collaborating to perform tasks and conserve energy.