Introduction to Assemblage Space

I wanted to expand on a new idea I’ve been working on, Assemblage Space. I was invited by Steve Simmance to give a short talk as part of a Future of Work Forum he was setting up for some clients. They were looking to take part in a conversation with other likeminded leaders about the Future of Work given all that’s been happening in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It was a short, punchy, useful intervention it seemed, so I’ve recorded an audio track for it, and uploaded it below.

A short talk about futures from Smithery on Vimeo.

Most pertinently for me, the talk was delivered on the last Friday of July, which is typically when the Innovation and Future Thinking course I now lead at IED in Barcelona finishes. And the last day is presentation day, when the students in their groups come back and show what they’ve been working on – presentations, prototypes, experiences and the like – which point to a type of future they foresee in Barcelona.

The course was originally set up by Scott Smith of Changeist, of course – he led it, I came to teach on it for a couple of days, then we swapped over four years ago. We’re both missing spending time in Barcelona this year, with the students, our friends who come in to teach on the course (Christina Bifano, Natalie Kane, and Elisabet Roselló all joined us last year), and the brilliant staff at IED.

Somewhat tellingly, Scott and I seem to be trying to replicate some of the experience by making Spanish foods through this summer too, and sharing pictures as we go, as if it’s some niche, alternative universe Instagram…

Short PSA: If you want one book to read this Autumn, it’s Scott’s How To Future, which expands on everything which went into setting up the course in the first place and a whole lot more.

Anyway, what I’ve been doing in the absence of the course is reimagining some of the tools, methods and approaches we’ve used over the last five years.

With a title as broad as ‘Innovation and Future Thinking‘, the course covers a fair bit of ground, and the balance each day across the two weeks is to give students something to learn and take away, but also practice in applying it a practical sense. Each year, there are always thing that get dropped out in favour of other tools, or included because of the context of the class.

At first I was doing this with a mind to having an alternative ‘online’ version to offer in replacement of being there; how to teach in shifting pockets of time with global audiences and small groups, recording the presentation parts, breaking up into small tutorials throughout the day, making sure there were clear threads running through everything so that people could follow along from wherever they were.

Whilst the possibility of running an online version quickly faded (so much of the course, and our research material, is about bringing a wide selection of people together who often have little in common apart from the city itself), my own work continued.

It expanded into a full revision of basically everything in the Smithery kit-bag, with a permeating theme running through everything – the talk I did earlier this year, The Blacksmith Makes Their Own Tools, really helped me see that all of the work I’ve done in the last twenty years is around information as illumination, and suddenly a lots of things came together in a way they hadn’t before.

I’ll no doubt be talking about this a lot in the months to come as it evolves, but in short each section is an idea to hold onto, either in isolation or combination with some/all of the others, and is comprised of an essay and a model to help Identify & Illuminate, or Focus & Frame.

I just want to touch briefly on the last one, Assemblage Space.

It has it roots in the adaptation we made for the course of The Futures Cone, best explained here by Dr Joseph Voros (its most famous exponent).

Over the years, working with both students and clients in practical ways with the Futures Cone, two things have become apparent to me.

The first is that the boundaries should look as impermanent and uncertain as possible. People can and will get fixated about getting ‘the answer right’, and fitting their groups of signals, or whole scenarios, in a certain place.

Is this a Plausible Future?

The more solid the cone becomes, the more rarefied, the less useful it is.

You should fight against the trend of making lovely, designed versions of the Futures Cone with gradients, different coloured cones and so on; though they are perhaps logical in the act of making a nice presentation, they are not helpful for you in the practical application for the method.

Hence the point in the talk at the top; there is no cone. It is a container that help sets an enquiry off at the beginning, that sets some rules for participants about how they might start thinking of the research they do and the ideas they pull in, but you should work hard to make the cone disappear through the process.

The second thing that’s become apparent is that it’s useful to identify ‘other spaces’ to sort information in, rather than just the forward looking boundaries of the cone itself.

Assemblage space, or A-Space, is my way of making people think about the research and ideas they gather in a wider way. Assemblage Space is no more real than the Futures Cone, it’s just a device to help tease out information and connect it in different ways.

Assemblage is a term I’m pulling in from the philosophical definition“Assemblage theory provides a bottom-up framework for analyzing social complexity by emphasizing fluidity, exchangeability, and multiple functionalities through entities and their connectivity.” – without trying to get pulled too far into that particular rabbit hole.

There are six spaces on the map; I’ll talk about the four Over/Under spaces another day, but for now the point about going backwards to look forwards is what I want to concentrate on.

As people begin to populate the cone with information, we need to recognise that they have not made this stuff up. Even if the idea they pull in is seemingly from their own head, not based on research at all, the world around them, and their experience so far, has led them to that point.

So the key question becomes – “where does that come from?”

Reflecting the areas of the Futures Cone (Probable, Plausible etc etc), I found it helpful to think about the lived experience of the past, and what evidence we have.

Firstly, there’s tangible things, the things we can point to in the world. A bus stop, or a can of tuna.

Then there are intangible things; we know they exist, and they are part of our lives, and we can prove it by chasing down the visible aspects if we tried. A corporation, a press release, or a Pikachu in Pokemon Go.

Then there are things which are remembered collectively by people, but no longer exist. A long-defunct tram system in a city, or (the infamous) white dog poo.

Finally, there are things we’ve forgotten; sometimes they are waiting to be rediscovered, oftentimes not, and can only be summoned by inference.

These four things (Tangible/Intangible/Remembered/Forgotten) seem so far to be a useful way to start unpicking the “where did that come from?” question, and naturally help people focus even the most flippant futuristic notion in some vestiges of evidence from the past. It helps test the assemblages you bring together by grounding them in evidence.

Thinking back to last week, from the Future of Work perspective it helps you think about not just a continuation of the near-past, but makes you examine further ideas which may have been lost to time with different technologies.

One of the topics that came up in the forum was trust, and how leaders need to trust people working at home more to get on and do their jobs.

Thinking back to a pre-email work life though, how were people trusted then? When leaders didn’t have the chance to have an electronic record of conversations, decisions and actions? Where did trust live in companies, and what can we learn from that for now?

To finish then, this is a partial view of the practice, of course, but I hope a useful one in that it makes an abstract thing more practical. Practicality has been a theme running through the course at IED since the beginning.

Indeed, one year, at the final presentation, I decided it would be a good idea to draw parallels to the Susanna Clarke book Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, about the emergence in 19th century England of two ‘practical magicians’, much to the initial scoffing and disdain of the ‘theoretical magicians’, groups of learned men who would gather in taverns to discuss magic but not ever actually do any.

It was, to be honest, a little lost on the audience at the time (the strange Scottish man is saying strange things again…), but perhaps the point is more pertinent now; in these strange times, we need more practical futuring.

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