Designing the Future

Walking along the white-tiled pavements under a blue October sky from my Lisbon Airbnb apartment to the WWNA 18 conference, I reflected how I was using the smartphone in my hand.

Ignoring its insistent buzzing — which told me I wasn't following Apple Maps' prescribed route (I'd deemed it circuitous and likely unpleasant) — I made my way towards the Museu do Oriente, delighting in unexpected discoveries like the ornate, tiled house on Av. das Forças Armadas, next to the American embassy.

Apple Maps does not re-route if I'm walking (but does when I'm driving) so I was using my phone as a tracking device, as reassurance that I was heading in the right direction while allowing myself the pleasure of discovery, of finding my own path through the unfamiliar streets on a beautiful, warm autumn day.

In a small way, I was not using the technology as designed. Much like the woman in design anthropologist Sarah Pink's talk. Pink showed us a short clip from one of her fieldwork studies in which two women explained how they laundered coloured clothes to make them last longer (by washing them by hand and 'drying' them using the spin cycle). Anthropologists, precisely because they spend time with real people in their natural settings, often observe people using technology in ways in which the designer had not intended. 

Designing the future, the topic of the conference, is about exploring "the power of design in shaping the world of tomorrow" (Hyde et al, 2018:5). The conference brought together anthropologists and designers (including one who'd decided to do her MA in anthropology) as well as design anthropologists  anthropologists who work at the intersection of design and anthropology. It is an exciting interdisciplinary space for anthropologists who are interested in design, which is, of course, a key site of cultural production and change. 

It's clear from the complex questions that emerging technologies pose that the world needs anthropologists. Questions such as 'are robots going to take over', or 'will your boss be an algorithm' (on a brochure advertising The Future Starts Here exhibition at the V&A), or 'will my self-driving car kill me' (the title of Pink's talk). Anthropologists, as Sarah Pink stated, approach the problem rather differently and ask instead: "How can emerging technologies be designed for human futures? What should those human futures look like?".

Technologists cannot decide this — our collective future — on their own. Technology alone cannot solve societal problems (despite the prevailing belief that it can). And with every technical solution comes a whole set of new problems. Rather, the "messier materials that shape the technological landscape: those economic, social, anthropological, political and cultural dimensions that exert an unseen influence" (Strange Telemetry) need to be better understood.

Revealing, unpacking, exploring, and explaining the social and cultural dimensions of the technological landscape is the work of anthropology. Anthropology is a critical discipline  we ask the seemingly obvious questions that often get overlooked, we can identify the problems on a larger scale whilst working "in specific context where we can collaborate to help change thinking towards bringing people into focus" (Pink, WWNA18). As Miller (2010: 9) said, "good anthropological work reveals the particular as a manifestation of the universal".

However, if we are to fulfil anthropology's promise of "changing the world" and make our discipline visible "in the public sphere outside the academy" (Hylland Eriksen, 2006:1), then anthropologists need to work collaboratively "with our colleagues from other disciplines who have the same interests but different methods" (Pink, WWNA18). As design anthropologist Anna Kirah said, often we "are talking about the same thing from different perspectives". She added, "When you see that, that's where the magic happens". We need to work together to solve wicked problems, to "break down the walls between the different disciplines" and understand the "power of trans-disciplinary work" which is "grossly underrated" (Kirah, WWNA18). And Pink, who successfully straddles both academic and applied anthropology, said that anthropologists should work outside the department, which is "the best place for an anthropologist", adding that "we also need to be in other places — that's where we do our best work".

We must also identify as anthropologists. As Alisse Waterston, Presidential Scholar at CUNY, stated in her plenary talk, "Practising anthropologists must persist in retaining their identity…they show the value of the discipline to the world and show the why the world needs anthropologists. We have an opportunity to design a world where anthropology is better understood”. If our academic colleagues are largely reluctant to engage with industry, then it's up to us applied anthropologists to explain what anthropology has to offer and demonstrate this in meaningful ways, and help design a better future, for all, collaboratively.


Hyde, R., Pestana, M. (eds). 2018. The Future Starts Here. 

Hylland Eriksen, Thomas. 2006. Engaging Anthropology.

Miller, Daniel. 2010. Stuff. 

All photos by Dawn Walter. Top to bottom: Ornate azulejo house owned by a tile manufacturer on Av. das Forças Armadas, Lisbon; Street art, Upfest, Bristol 2018; V&A The Future Starts Here exhibition brochure.