Anab Jain: Can A Glimpse Of Tomorrow, Change Our Decisions Today?

Sep 15, 2017

Part 1 of the TED Radio Hour episode Future Consequences.

About Anab Jain's TED Talk

It's hard to imagine how the future might look and feel. Anab Jain wants to change that. She designs prototypes of potentially grim futures to raise awareness of our choices in the present.

About Anab Jain

Designer Anab Jain co-founded Superflux, a design and film studio that explores potential future scenarios associated with climate change, income inequality, and artificial intelligence, among other topics.

Jain is also a TED Fellow and head of industrial design at the University of Applied Arts Vienna. Her work has won awards at UNESCO, Apple, and the Geneva Human Rights Film Festival.

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz.

So imagine being able to go into the future just to, you know, get a glimpse of what things might be like. And say you walk into a home.

ANAB JAIN: It's a small apartment, really small.

RAZ: And at first, things feel pretty familiar.

JAIN: There's a radio show going on.

(SOUNDBITE OF FAINT, UNINTELLIGIBLE AUDIO)

JAIN: There are newspapers. There's a sofa. There are some lights. And then you start listening to the radio show, and you start hearing about, you know, shipping lanes being closed because of Arctic icebergs melting. You know, you start to understand that this is sounding slightly unfamiliar.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JAIN: And then you walk through what feels like a sort of a maze corridor. But this is basically got the sound of a drone, like (imitating drone buzzing) buzzing sound - and, like, musical sound of water drops. And this is basically an elaborate contraption of fogponic machines, which are basically metal stacks, and they use fog - so not even soil or water - to grow food.

And you walk out. You see the cityscape outside. You see a bit of unrest. You see some protests. And the idea that we want to give people is that you walk in feeling like everything's fine, then you go through a moment of feeling real fear and anxiety as you begin to see the evidences that suggest that the world has gone completely crazy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: But actually, it hasn't - at least not yet anyway - because that whole thing - it's a simulation of the future in the present, and it's run by Anab Jain.

JAIN: So my name is Anab Jain. And I am a designer and co-founder of a London-based design studio, Superflux.

RAZ: So her job is basically to scare you, to game out what the future might look like, a future with climate change and social inequality, government surveillance and even food scarcity. And Anab thinks that experiencing those futures can shake us out of our complacency.

JAIN: So we create concrete prototypes - films, media pieces, artifacts - that actually give people a very emotional, concrete experiential perspective of that future so you could actually touch a part of that future.

It means to think about possibilities. It means to be able to think about how and in what way might different potential futures unfold and what might it mean to make journeys into those futures. What might we see? What might we hear? What might we breathe even? And the idea being that embracing that sort of uncertainty that comes with going into different futures knowing that you might come across things you don't like or completely disagree with, means that you come back more aware of your present and more determined to make a difference.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: The stuff we've mostly thought of as science fiction is increasingly becoming a reality, equal parts inspiring and despairing. From data collection to gene editing to artificial intelligence, all these things are getting better and faster and cheaper. And there's no going back. But if we wanted to, could we change the trajectory? Well, on the show today, Future Consequences, ideas about the actions we take right now and the impact they'll have tomorrow and beyond.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: For Anab Jain the story we're writing for ourselves today, unless we're careful, might not have a happy ending.

JAIN: I kind of recently have been seeing a lot more messy, darker futures. But we are doing a lot of work around climate change. We're looking at food insecurities and what it would mean to live in a Western world where we are no longer having food on the go, buy one get one free from supermarkets - where we have moved into society which is opposed to abundance society. And in that particular future, what we are trying to do is figure out what it would mean to find the tools and the techniques to be able to not just combat that but to kind of live quite happily in that future. And so what we want to do now is we're thinking about visiting futures that can bring back hope or that can bring back tools to cope with that dystopia.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: Here's Anab Jain on the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

JAIN: Earlier this year, the government of the United Arab Emirates invited us to help them shape their country's energy strategy all the way up to 2050. Based on the government's econometric data, we created this large city model and visualized many possible futures on it.

So as I was excitably taking a group of government officials and members of energy companies through one sustainable future on our model, one of the participants told me, I cannot imagine that in the future, people will stop driving cars and start using public transport. And then he said, there's no way I can tell my own son to stop driving his car.

But we were prepared for this reaction. Working with scientists in a chemistry lab in my home city in India, we had created approximate samples of what the air would be like in 2030 if our behavior stays the same. And so I walked the group over to this object that emits vapor from those air samples. Just one whiff of the noxious polluted air from 2030 brought home the point that no amount of data can. This is not the future you would want your children to inherit. The next day, the government made a big announcement. They would be investing billions of dollars in renewables.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: Wait - they actually could breathe in what the air would...

JAIN: Yeah.

RAZ: ...Be like if they did this thing?

JAIN: Yeah, yeah.

RAZ: Wow. And so that was pretty dirty air, presumably.

JAIN: To be honest, it was almost too dangerous.

RAZ: Wow. And so you have these people breathing in this air. And they're saying, we do not want this.

JAIN: I think it played a part. I think there are many factors. Of course, there's a lot of data to suggest that we should not be polluting our planet. But quite often - well, most of the times, we don't seem to be doing anything about it.

RAZ: Yeah - because there's this disconnect - right? - between the things we know we have to do. Like why many people don't exercise, they don't eat well and the fact that we don't do them.

JAIN: Yeah. I think there are a few things at play. One is the idea that - the more data we have around us, I think we have cultivated a kind of a practice of data spectatorship. So we look at that data, and we look at beautiful visualizations. And we look at graphs, and we look at metrics. If we just become spectators, we don't kind of understand the deeper stories that need to be told around that data that actually connect directly to our lives. So there's a disconnect there.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

JAIN: For a recent project called Drone Aviary, we were interested in exploring what it would mean to live with drones in our cities. Let's imagine we are living in a city with drones like the Nightwatchman. It patrols the streets, often spotted in the evenings and at nights. Now, what if you could see the world through its eyes? See how it constantly logs every resident of our neighborhood, logging the kids who play football in the no-ballgame area and marking them as statutory nuisances. Its glaring presence is so overpowering, I can't help but stare at it. But it feels like each time I look at it, it knows a little more about me, like it keeps touching on these Ryanair adverts at me, as if it knows about the holiday I'm planning. I'm not sure if I find this mildly entertaining or just entirely invasive.

Whilst drones like Nightwatchman, in these particular forms, are not real yet, most elements of our drone future are in fact very real today. For instance, facial recognition systems are everywhere - in our phones, even in our thermostats and in cameras around our cities - keeping a record of everything we do, whether it's an advertisement we glanced at or a protest we attended. These things are here, and we often don't understand how they work and what their consequences could be.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JAIN: So just a quick, like, a disclaimer before I go further is that this is a potential...

RAZ: Right, a scenario. Right.

JAIN: ...Future. This is not a prediction. We are exploring one possibility. I imagine that alongside this kind of breadth of technological acceleration, we have big challenges around climate change and social inequality. So if you sort of put these kind of big challenges together, which they will collide and intersect with each other, you'll probably find that, actually, you have a lot more weather uncertainty, you have food shortages. So you might be walking with your smartphone, but I don't know how much connectivity you'll have. People would be stealing food off each other. You know, there'd be those kind of challenges.

RAZ: Yeah, I mean - so let's talk about something that's very real now, especially in Western countries, which is income inequality. They're just huge and growing gaps between wealthy people and people who are struggling just to feed their families. I mean, how do you gain that out in the future? What does that future look like?

JAIN: Terrifying. I think that is actually one of the biggest challenges, I think, social inequality. And in fact, I hate to use that term as well because I don't think it's the right way of describing the situation we've found ourselves in. Because of climate change, I think those who have the least power to affect the future are going to be the worst affected. And you're seeing that. You're seeing some of the biggest swaths of people are being forced to emigrate and migrate in war-torn regions. A lot of the background around those conflicts is climate change related. So if you're going to find that those who have the power and those who have the capacity to stay out of these conflicts will be the most powerful. But increasingly, majority of the people will be swept into this conflict around social inequality.

RAZ: You know, I think about all these consequences and of the decisions and actions that we take today. And - I have to admit, I feel somewhat disempowered, and I have a platform. I mean, I have this show...

JAIN: Yeah.

RAZ: ...And you have a platform. And...

JAIN: Yeah.

RAZ: ...Yet, I feel powerless. Do you know what I mean? It's almost like - there's almost a paralysis. Like, you think about it. You know these things are happening. And you think, I don't know what to do.

JAIN: This is a - you know when I was saying this is totally - I feel that all the time. And I think, you know, the real challenge here is to understand where power lies - because once we begin to understand that, we can understand it in relation to our powerlessness and that actually every individual does have some power. We do have the power of our voice, of our work, of the decisions we make, of the things we choose not to buy. I think it's just because those small actions have not been quantified to mean anything. But they do.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: Anab Jain is a designer and co-founder of the London-based design studio Superflux. You can see her full talk at ted.com.

In a moment, don't freak out just yet because we'll hear how leaps in technology could mean a better life for all of us. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.