An interview with Anab Jain
Anab Jain along with Jon Ardern set up Superflux in 2009, and the Anglo-Indian studio’s innovative and exciting work has brought speculative design approaches to new audiences
Anab is very in-demand as is Superflux. Though she does not describe herself as a futurist because she says she is not technically trained as such, most other people do consider her a futurist and one who is expert at exploring alternative futures at that. Her eclectic influences and her design vision and craft skills mean that she is able to bring to life the kind of futures other futurists can only describe in words.
As with many of the female futurists we have interviewed to date, Anab did not start out intending to work in futures. She studied design in India, majored in film-making and then ended up making fiction alongside non-fiction documentary films. She went into her Masters at the Royal College of Art choosing Interaction Design. Part of the appeal was that the course encouraged different disciplines to join.
So with a film background, a design background and also having learnt prototyping it is perhaps not surprising that Anab can easily turn her understanding of emergent technologies towards the implications for society. As she says, "Already that programme had influenced my thinking, combined with my interest in people and communities, and I ended up working for Microsoft Research, and then Nokia".
Many of the briefs she was receiving through those early days at Microsoft were research orientated, investigating and explaining the future of machine intelligence. her partner Jon was thinking about similar things, considering futures in new and different ways, and they decided to work together on their first project called Power of 8, which explored how different people thought about their collective optimistic futures.
That was over ten years ago, and Superflux has gone from strength to strength, working with clients such as Government of UAE, Innovate UK, Cabinet Office UK, UNDP, Future Cities Catapult, and Forum for the Future. Though the first time I knowingly encountered their work was at the V&A exhibition, The Future Starts Here, a stimulating and challenging exhibition which presented mainstream audiences with questions about self driving cars or population growth and asked whether trees would transmit the internet?
One of the things that exhibition started to introduce to people was the idea that there are alternative futures, that the future is not yet writ. And it is an idea that runs like a thread through everything Superflux do (as the name suggests) and everything Anab says.
"Even though people talk about possible and plausible and probable futures, when somebody stands up and gives a presentation, or tries to express or explore something, it ends up being some sort of probable future that feels quite deterministic. And we have a model that means we can avoid that linear way of thinking and be more pluralistic looking at the future."
'What is preferable, and what is plausible or probable? These things keep moving, probable is something we can understand and is often a near future that can be extrapolated from evidence. But when it comes to preferable, it starts getting complicated....like whose preferred future and how do you decide? Who decides? And I think there is a lot of hubris that is sometimes embodied in the profession."
She is once again questioning the deterministic tendencies of some futuring in the mainstream arena, noting that even when we have alternatives open to us, we can choose to acknowledge privilege or take responsibility for it and admit that it is just one person's viewpoint based on certain knowledge and evidence...it does not necessarily dictate.
Of course this is more difficult when you may be faced with a client who wants 'the answer.' But the fact that Anab and her interdisciplinary team sit at the intersection of other disciplines including futures, somehow allows them to seek to ask and understand rather than inform. It makes me think that Superflux itself is more future-proofed than most companies, and is more fit than most to take on and tackle complexity and uncertainty..
Anab with customary humility, agreeds, "there is real gravity to what we are doing right now, and that's partly because people are realising that everything we were told, didn't happen. And there is an acknowledgement with people who would not have previously acknowledged that, that yes we have no idea, the future truly is uncertain, and we are going to have to find creative ways to deal with that."
What is great about what Anab and team do is that they don't just work in theory, they really bring home to people future consequences or actual implications of alternative choices. They work with theory but also materiality.
"You know you can just say drones will be a $40 million industry. But what does that mean, does it mean there are drones everywhere? What does it mean to live with drones? What would it feel like to have them flying above our heads? And then that means building a render or a fictional video which requires building the drones and simulating the challenges. The design feeds into the thinking, and the thinking feeds into the design."
Turning to today, we start to discuss the climate crisis activism and Anab points out, 'it's a big challenge, how do you inspire people into action but in getting them to understand the challenges not leave them feeling completely hopeless?" It's obviously something on her mind, as she admits she is expecting the public protests to lead to real political impact, where within the next year, the Greta effect will have created a mainstream conversation about the future.
Once again the conversation has turned to feelings, specifically how you make people feel responsible for their decisions about the future but not hopeless in the face of the task, and it strikes me that that is what Anab and Superflux do so well, they allow us to explore how we feel about - or within - alternate futures. They allow us to explore our feelings about the future, and even explore our future feelings. How do we want our community, our society, our world, to feel if this is what the future will be like. And if we aren't feeling that future, how do we take steps to redesign it so it ones that does feel good to us.
It's a new dimension to futures work that we can all, surely, feel excited about.
Superflux create worlds, stories, and tools that provoke and inspire us to engage with the precarity of our rapidly changing world. The Superflux team includes its Directors and a core group of designers, researchers and technologists, alongside a growing network of multidisciplinary collaborators.