New Media Generation(s)

Trevor Haldenby is a producer and photographer living in Toronto. He has attended Wilfrid Laurier University, Rhode Island School of Design, CFC Media Lab, and is presently completing a Master’s of Design in Strategic Foresight & Innovation at OCAD University.

I would like to use my time as Guest Editor of to explore an idea that has stuck with me over the last ten years: designing something new often requires new tools.

The Strategic Foresight Group defines foresight as the merger of forecasting and insight. While I’ve long been a fan of clever enjambments in terminology, there really is some value to this one. Forecasting is an interesting tool, whether it’s being employed at the offices of brokers on Bay Street, at CTV’s meteorology desk, or on Yonge Street in the parlour of a psychic. All of these forecasters use specific models, methodologies, maths, and mantras in their process; and they each have unique sets of insights that provide the foundations for them.

Design is one of the areas where strategic foresight is really gaining traction, and in looking at the challenges presented by the evolution of digital media, you can see why.

While the weatherperson makes predictions that are influenced by climate change, his or her general assumption is that a new type of cloud will not suddenly emerge and wreak havoc upon Southern Ontario. Similarly, many of the traders on the TSE’s floor are thinking about change in terms of corporations and currencies, not sweeping economic models. When it comes to the design of new media and underlying technologies, you really do have to assume that what you’ll be working with in five or ten years’ time will be conceptually connectable to where you started, but changed almost completely in many other ways. When Tim Berners-Lee was developing HyperText Transfer Protocol and Universal Resource Locators, he probably didn’t think his technological darlings would even survive to become adolescent acronyms… let alone act as the foundation for petabyte-pushing video servers and social networks. Media (and media decisions, such as the CRTC’s regulations on bandwidth caps) may live long and tumultuous lives, or they may be swept away by the next disruptive technology on the block within just a few years. As people adapt their habits to match emerging media, they wind up inventing new behaviours and expectations that could generate boom or doom for existing media, and shape the subsequent generation profoundly.

Although change is a constant fact of life, big-picture change can be another beast entirely – it often involves a rewrite of so many of a system’s functions and processes that the result can be almost unrecognizable. This is what is happening in media at an ever-accelerating pace, making the ability to design for an ever-increasing pace of change more and more valuable… whether you work in climatology, or interface design.

Richard Dawkins made his name as a popular scientist in the mid-1970’s talking about the Selfish Gene, but his self-professed favourite work (and mine) is one that followed shortly after, titled The Extended Phenotype. The term phenotype refers in biological circles to the expression of genes in an organism that make it what it appears to be. You, me, and a fruit fly all have big complicated genes with surprising amounts of overlap. But the attributes that make us recognizable as humans and not as fruit flies largely result from what’s switched on in what order, not what’s scattered all over, genetically speaking. Dawkins argues in The Extended Phenotype that the ecosystems encompassing an organism and its behaviour are just as much a part of its phenotype as the colour of its eyes, or length of its fur. The beaver’s dam, for example, alters the entire surrounding landscape, and that dam is a direct result of the beaver’s more conventionally considered phenotype. You’re following along nicely if this idea of a single organism (think system) radically remaking the world around it (other interconnected systems) seems familiar – it sounds an awful lot like a certain Hominid and its relationship with technology, doesn’t it? The media phenotype, if you will, really can fundamentally shift every 10-25 years; and even if countless historical fads and meaningful innovations – like radio and television – remain present either conceptually or practically, the essence of the broader ecosystem may be fundamentally altered.

All analogies and biologies aside, there is a big question here: if the design of our media really can change the surrounding world within a generation, what are the best practices associated with making sure those media are the best they can be?

Fields of study dedicated to phenomena that are very big, very impactful, very interconnected, or all of the above are unfortunately few and far between. Economics and politics seem to fit the bill (occasionally), along with a handful of the arts and sciences. But at this point in time, it seems to me that strategic foresight exists natively at the intersection of the very big in time and space, and the very impactful. More succinctly, the field could be seen as being concerned with the creation of tools and best practices for dealing with the very important, in the medium and long term.

Through talking with Suzanne Stein, an expert in the world of strategic foresight, I’ve developed an appreciation of how diverse work in the field can be. Some proponents are interested in making sure that the verifiability of foreseen scenarios is what we focus on… others are more intrigued by using scenario generation techniques to understand group creative process. The CFC Media Lab uses scenario generation workshops to explore group dynamics and collaborative creation, and the focus of its resident-populated programs is iterative prototyping activity that might be familiar to fans of high-end design shops like IDEO, or firms like Changeist founded by Scott Smith.

When I was a resident at the CFC Media Lab in 2004, I set out to create a new kind of hands-on educational experience for museums and art galleries. The resulting prototype was called Painting The Myth: The Mystery of Tom Thomson. While I was learning about a huge diversity of prototyping processes and new tools during its creation, what really struck me was how my understanding of what to do next felt like it was coming to me intuitively.

As interesting as this field of strategic foresight is, it’s really only one way to think about identifying and shaping new possibilities. It’s only one way to look at the design of things that no-one has seen, or even thought of before. The new media landscape is full of people who have been innovating in a myriad of ways, sometimes through regimented process, and sometimes on intuition alone. What are their stories?

During Steve Jobs’ announcement of the iPad 2 last week, he reiterated how Apple’s existence has always been at the intersection of technology and the liberal arts. This reminded me of how unique the space I work within really is. The work to be done in designing and cultivating new media happens at the intersection of business, technology, and art. What can we learn from those who are only beginning to articulate their own way of working in the field? What can we learn about best practices for designing new media from products, people, and organizations that have conventionally been considered outside of its realm of influence – teachers, artists, venture capitalists, ecologists, primary school students?

My plan is to spend the guest editorship I’ve been offered exploring the new media growing up around us, and sharing observations about the creation and adaptation of new tools, the formalization of process that has heretofore only existed as intuition, and innovation that is taking place in strange and exciting new ways.