Between Reality and the Impossible

The Design of the Future or the Future of Design.

The countries in the Arab world are shaking. Australia is inundated with disasters, and North Korea is threatening with its own nuclear weapons. The enigmatic 2012 is fast approaching and the world again demonstrates a fluctuating attitude to the concept of “future”. Can we outline a picture of what awaits us through contemporary, conceptual design? Exactly this question is asked by the British studio Dunne & Raby in their latest exhibition for St Etienne Design Biennale in France.

Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby use design as a medium to stimulate discussion and debate amongst designers, industry and the public about the social, cultural and ethical implications of existing and emerging technologies.

Anthony is a professor and head of the Design Interactions department at the Royal College of Art in London. He studied Industrial Design there before working at Sony Design in Tokyo. On returning to London he completed a Ph.D. in Computer Related Design. He was a founding member of the CRD Research Studio, where he worked as a Senior Research Fellow leading EU and industry-funded research projects. Anthony was awarded the Sir Misha Black Award for Innovation in Design Education in 2009.

Fiona Raby also studied Architecture at the Royal College of Art before working for Kei’ichi Irie Architects in Tokyo. She also holds an M.Phil. in Computer Related Design from the RCA. She was a founding member of the CRD Research Studio where she worked as a Senior Research Fellow leading externally-funded research projects.

Dunne and Raby’s work has been exhibited internationally and is in the permanent collections of MoMA, New York; the Victoria & Albert Museu, London; Frac Ile-de-France; as well as in several private collections.

The exhibition for St Etienne Design Biennale is based on the project Between Reality and the Impossible” – a collaborative project between Fiona, Anthony and writer Alex Burrett and photographer Jason Evans. It consists of a number of design proposals presented through models, photographic scenarios, videos and 3D texts. It is an experiment in how to exhibit conceptual design proposals in which the narrative and ideas are as important as the designs. What happens when you decouple design from the marketplace, when, rather than making technology sexy, easy to use and more consumable, designers use the language of design to pose questions, entertain, and provoke – to transport our imaginations into parallel but possible worlds?
Everything is treated as an object, including texts and images. It is absolutely not about prediction, but asking “what if?”... Speculating, imagining, and even dreaming, to create and facilitate reflection on the kind of technologically mediated world we wish to live in. Ideally, one that reflects the complex, troubled people we are, rather than the easily satisfied consumers and users we are supposed to be.


The world is running out of food – we need to produce 70% more food in the next forty years according to the UN. Yet we continue to overpopulate the planet, use up resources and ignore all the warning signs. The current situation is completely unsustainable. In 2050 the UN predicts that the world population will be 9 billion people.

For this project Dunne and Raby are looking at evolutionary processes and molecular technologies and how we can take control. The assumption is that governments and industry together will not solve the problem and that groups of people will need to use available knowledge to build their own solutions, bottom-up. So far we have not really embraced the power to modify ourselves. What if we could extract nutritional value from non-human food using a combination of synthetic biology and new digestive devices inspired by the digestive systems of other mammals, birds, fish and insects? Fired with this idea, a group of people take their fates into their own hands and start building DIY devices. They use synthetic biology to create “microbial stomach bacteria”, along with electronic and mechanical devices to maximize the nutritional value of the urban environment, making up for any shortcomings in the increasingly limited diet which is commercially available. These people are the new urban foragers.

Foragers is about the contrast between bottom-up and top-down responses to a massive problem and the role played by technical and scientific knowledge. By adapting and expanding these strategies, models are developed to help us speculate on what might happen in the future.

Public Mind

We live in a surveillance-obsessed society – from cameras to “Big Brother”, we just love it. But all this security, convenience and entertainment comes at a price – we are becoming acclimatized to social transparency, we’re easing the way for total surveillance and the end of privacy. Our minds are the last private space we have. For the time being, unless we say something out loud or write it down, nobody knows what we are thinking… but this could all change soon.

Scientists are working on a number of technologies that attempt to decode what we are thinking. They would like to be able not only to read our thoughts but to affect them too. This, however, is still a long way off. For now, they are mapping brain activity – which bits of our brain are activated when we do, think or feel particular things. It’s a sort of high-tech phrenology. Imagine the implications once it becomes possible to interpret people’s mental activities in the way we can currently interpret facial expressions.

Stop and Scan

In this scenario the mind becomes a new site of interest for the state, requiring new protocols of ownership, access, protection and transparency.
After public funding has been massively cut and public institutions are forced to turn to the marketplace, the police decide to set up a research and development lab to provide new security technologies.
Police carry out random stop and search scans near crime scenes. Using a special scanner, people are shown images that only the criminal could know about. The device is based on brain fingerprinting technology where a scanner detects a characteristic electrical brainwave response known as a “P 300” and a “MERMER” (Memory and Encoding-Related Multifaceted Electroencephalographic Response) whenever a person responds to a known stimulus. If the person being scanned appears to recognize an image, a light glows and they are taken away for further processing. Domestic versions are used by parents on their children. Employers use them on employees.

Em-Listeners – High Visibility Spectrum Policing

Em-listeners move through public spaces, they scan telephone calls, emails and anything else sent over the spectrum. Their highly visible antennae are intended to deter any subversive activities. Their presence is accepted because it means less risk from terrorists.

After life – See You Soon

This project was originally conceived for an exhibition organized by designers Auger-Loizeau to explore different uses for their Afterlife battery project. Dunne & Raby decided to use their battery for a euthanasia machine. With couples, when one person goes, we’re never sure how long the other is going to hang on afterwards. If it all proves too much for them, we could use the energy created by the first person to go and help the second on their way. We’re not sure if it would be a form of conceptual murder or not, but it would definitely be a kind of “assisted” suicide.
You would set the device up on a small table by your bed or favorite comfortable chair, insert the battery, put the mask on, then, after a few minutes, insert the tube into the device, so causing a green light to come on and let you know it is working and ready. You can lie back in your bed or armchair, close your eyes, and thirty seconds later the carbon dioxide will begin to flow. It’s intended for a time when euthanasia is far more common than it is today. Medical technologies may have extended life spans but they have not increased quality of life. It’s not too difficult to imagine a time when people opt to take their own lives at the appropriate moment. All sorts of variations on suicide machines may evolve to cater for a huge range of emotional, psychological and metaphysical circumstances. Who would have thought that doctors would eventually work with technologists to develop new and humane ways of dying?