Future Forward

ASU’s Emerge initiative champions power of imagination to enact change

Something unusual is happening at ASU. Computerized monkey telepathy. Microbes that eat pollution. Empathetic robots. 

Even Bruce Sterling (left), a noted science fiction author, cyberpunk pioneer and visionary-in-residence at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., has noticed the unorthodox, boundary-pushing projects the university is producing. When Sterling visited the Tempe campus in March for ASU’s Emerge conference, which brought together artists and scientists to examine emerging technology, he beamed with wonder in his closing keynote address.

“I was optimistic when this conference opened with the weirdest set of scientific presentations I had ever seen at any university,” he said. So what’s the point of all this imaginative, futuristic, and yes, slightly unusual activity?

As ASU President Michael M. Crow is fond of saying, you can’t have a better future without better dreams. And better dreams often start with embracing the unusual.

Busting silos with the imagination

Joel Garreau (left) isn’t an academic – he’s an instigator, a connector. At least that’s how he says he views his role at the university. Officially he’s the Lincoln Professor of Law, Culture and Values at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, but that title doesn’t quite capture what he does.

Garreau co-created Emerge as a way to bring groups together at ASU to answer life’s grand questions: What will the future look like? How does technology shape who we are? And the big one: What does it mean to be human?

Garreau and his co-conspirators (to use his term) Cynthia Selin (left), with the School of Sustainability and the Center for Nanotechnology in Society, and Thanassis Rikakis, former director of the School of Art, Media and Engineering (who recently accepted a position at Carnegie Mellon University), set out to create an event that would represent ASU’s “silo-busting” culture. What resulted was three days of thinkers and dreamers of all stripes—including filmmakers, engineers, science fiction authors, musicians, bioscientists, historians, game designers, computer scientists and students working together to let their imaginations run wild and reflect on the future.

In one workshop, participants discussed how Arizonans might produce and consume energy in the year 2050. The exercise — known as scenario planning — created four plausible energy futures based on various social, political, technological, environmental and economic variables. The idea was to examine current decisions, investments and policies based on those potential scenarios. “All decisions we make are predicated on an idea of the future,” Selin says. “Such visions are often implicit. Foresight methods like this provide a way to articulate things and lay them on the table.”

In a nod to our material culture, another workshop used a process known as design fiction to imagine which technologically advanced products might become so mundane as to populate convenience store aisles in 2016. The group then produced a narrative video with props like lottery tickets that can win the buyer Twitter followers, augmented reality eyeglasses and cards the size of your driver’s license that can store and play dozens of movies — the entire collected works of Bruce Willis, for example. “The artifacts that make up our world shape who we are,” Selin explains.

After nine workshops and six keynotes, Emerge transformed itself into Immerge, an interactive musical and multimedia carnival of sorts (image above). Nearly 1,000 spectators gathered at ASU’s Nelson Fine Arts Plaza for a performance that included a laptop orchestra, improvising actors and wide-scale video projections, along with graphics and sound machines that reacted to audience responses. It was a fitting – and thrilling – conclusion to an event with a goal of bringing artists and scientists together.

“The core element of this was getting both sides of the brain to work together,” Garreau says. “There is no one path to truth. It’s not like the astrophysicists have a lock on wisdom, any more than the poets do.”

Becoming smarter than the cynics

All this talk of design fiction, futurism and scenario planning isn’t exclusively the domain of sci-fi geeks and theory-loving academics. Intel employs Emerge workshop leader Brian David Johnson as its chief futurist. Microsoft has an anthropologist on its executive team. Even organizations like the CIA and Fortune 500 firms have used scenario planning for decades to inform their strategies.

As noted computer scientist Alan Kay famously said, “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”

That’s a notion faculty and students at ASU are taking very seriously, as evidenced by the huge number of units, centers and departments that contributed to Emerge and the experimental new methods of future planning the event adopted.

“ASU is taking upon itself to ask, ‘Is there a better way?’” says Kwang-Wu Kim(left), dean of the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, an Emerge co-sponsor. He uses words like “obligation,” “imperative,” and “responsibility” when talking about the university’s role in shaping a better future. “Emerge was a showcase, a ripple effect,” Kim says. “These events help move people forward.”

For the Herberger Institute, moving forward includes a new bachelor’s degree in digital culture that encompasses many of the values on display at Emerge. The degree is the first of its kind in the country, and is intended to prepare students for a career in media. The curriculum includes courses from 18 units across the university, from anthropology to architecture, dance to electrical engineering.

It already has proven to be a popular degree, with roughly 170 students choosing the major in its first semester.

“We honor our past, but we’re really excited about the future,” Kim says. “And it’s where we’re sending our students.”

Coming alongside the Herberger Institute in its interdisciplinary, forward-thinking efforts is the university’s new Center for Science and the Imagination, which was founded in part due to an audacious challenge issued by Crow.

After hearing science fiction author Neal Stephenson complain about his genre’s tendency to emphasize dystopian scenarios in popular novels, Crow asked Stephenson what he and other authors were going to do to change that situation. That remark struck a chord with Stephenson, who is now partnering with ASU on Hieroglyph, a book project and website that will publish fiction and non-fiction stories intended to inspire young engineers and scientists to push for world-changing technological innovation.

Not content with confining this sort of collaboration to a publishing project, ASU created the Center for Science and the Imagination as a hub for Hieroglyph and other similar efforts. Ed Finn is the center’s director and says its goal is to be an institutional “connective tissue” to unite collaborators and encourage students, faculty and the public to think more imaginatively about the future.

“Thinking about the future is not just wondering, ‘When will the new iPhone arrive?’” says Finn, also an assistant professor in the School of Arts, Media and Engineering and the Department of English. “It’s about a spectrum of possibility, a set of visions that we’re working towards and that we have a lot of responsibility and influence in changing.”

In addition to Hieroglyph, the center is collaborating with Intel’s Tomorrow Project to produce anthologies focused on challenges like sustainability and education; ASU’s Center for Games and Impact to create interactive games that attempt to solve real-world problems; and the Future Cities design think tank, which imagines how urban centers of the future might function.

Finn acknowledges that dystopianism plays an important role in warning against the future that we don’t want, but he thinks the Center for Science and the Imagination can offer a different perspective. “I hope the center’s call for optimism is seen as constructive criticism,” Finn says. “If we think hard about the future, we can make the future better. I think that sometimes cynicism seems smarter. But you have to be much braver to advance a positive vision of what the future should be like. And that’s exactly the kind of thinking we need to have.”

But despite the speculation about wild inventions that don’t yet exist and futures 40 years from now, all of these discussions and initiatives are very much rooted in the here and now.

“We’re at this inflection point in history,” says Emerge co-founder Garreau. “For the first time in hundreds of thousands of years, our technologies are not so much aimed outward at modifying our environment in the fashion of fire, clothes, cities, agriculture and space travel. Increasingly now they’re aimed inward at modifying our minds, memories, metabolisms, personalities and kids.

“And when you can do all that, you’re in the stunning position of being the first species to take control of your own evolution,” he continues. “Not in some distant science fiction future, but right now on our watch.”


Tracy Mueller, a freelance writer based in Monterey, Calif.