In conversation with Anab Jain - RSA Journal - RSA

In conversation with Anab Jain


  • Arts and culture
  • Design
  • Education and learning

Futurist Anab Jain speaks to Andy Haldane about using art and storytelling to build better tomorrows — and how the RSA might play a pivotal role.

The RSA could pursue the rewilding of the spirit, of minds and souls and hearts.

Anab Jain

Andy Haldane: You’re a designer, futurist, filmmaker, educator and much more besides. How do you describe yourself at parties?

Anab Jain: I generally try to not give a one-line description, but I would say something like “I help people imagine better futures”. That’s a much nicer way of describing it, because it encourages a conversation, and I am not labelled.

Haldane: Let’s start at the very beginning. Tell us about your background and the pathways that led to the creation of Superflux.

Jain: I was born and brought up in Ahmedabad, India. I went to school and college at the National Institute of Design and studied filmmaking, then came to the Royal College of Art (RCA) to study ‘Interaction Design’. I worked at Nokia and Microsoft, and then ended up starting Superflux with my partner, Jon Ardern. That’s the condensed version!

Superflux began with a napkin sketch, and I still have it! It was during the credit crisis in 2008 when Jon was working on his own start-up, and I was at Nokia. We had graduated from the RCA with all these ambitious and metaphysical hopes and aspirations to change the world and do better, and it was really disheartening to watch the world as we knew it collapse to such an extent. We wanted to find a way to use our skills — as designers, artists, critical thinkers — to show people in that moment (when the old system was shown to be frankly corrupt) what else could be possible.

It started as a way to explore the edges of what’s deemed ‘the norm’. The idea was then to explore what possibilities lie ahead that do not necessarily conform to just one way of knowing and being in this world. First and foremost, Superflux has always been a project of active hope. We are interested in how we navigate complex interconnected challenges while still showing possibility. For example, right now we are asking: how do we navigate the urgent predicament of climate change, or understand where advancements in AI will lead us? During this process, we end up creating cautionary tales, but also hopeful visions of what else could be.

We also want to enable the navigation of more hopeful visions. It doesn’t really matter whether I am coming from the lens of graphic design or product design or speculative design, what matters is how we can facilitate a transition from where we are today towards a collectively hopeful future.

Haldane: Could you give practical examples of how you brought this very different lens, indeed a hopeful, optimistic lens, to tackling societal challenges?

Jain: Our consulting model works with businesses that have specific challenges. For example, we worked on a project in collaboration with an insurance company on what people might want to insure in the future. Eventually, it became our own research project exploring climate change, which, as [philosopher] Timothy Morton says, is a hyper-object — it’s so vast and amorphous that we really don’t understand it. You see a graph of a temperature index going up and think, where am I in this? Most mornings, I can’t even find my coffee grinder, so how can people compute their personal position in something so vast and complex?

We wanted to make climate change tangible, relatable, and so we built a London apartment, set in 2050 when Jon’s and my son would be around the age we are now, which gave us an emotional lens to the future. Data, predictions, probability models remain alienating; we do not and cannot put ourselves into those projected futures. So, instead, we tell stories.

Then we started building ‘food computers’ from scratch. All that drew upon our skills of product design, prototyping, modelling, testing and experimenting. Once we had these food computers, there was a question of art direction. We didn’t want the apartment to look like a set, or like an inflexible or generic prediction. It should look lived in, like something that people have literally just stepped out of, a place that doesn’t just confirm their fears, but also shows them that our worst fears could be tackled with ingenuity, craft, design and storytelling.

People were able to literally enter into this future, spend time in this apartment, and understand that the family who lived there had created mechanisms with their community to live in a very different way. And nowhere in that apartment did we say, ‘food insecurity’ or ‘climate change’. It was a one-on-one, human confrontation with a completely different future that could be possible.

Anab Jain and partner Jon Ardern at work in the Superflux studio in Central London

Revolutions may be slow, dark and murky, but they are also full of hope.

Anab Jain

Haldane: I find this fascinating. You are using full sensory immersion in an issue, rather than words on a page, a graph or some arid hypothesis, to show what it means for your lived experience.

Jain: That’s absolutely right. Imagine you are going from one meeting to the next. You have very little time, and you are being presented with reports and PowerPoints and predictions. Then you go home, and start all over again the next day — how much of that has sunk in?

The anthropologist Genevieve Bell has said of our modern notion “that more data equals more truth. But the reality is that more data just equals more data. We need the ability to ask better questions.” Data is the collection of ‘what has been’ to anticipate ‘what could be’; a radically different trajectory from the norm is never pursued, that would simply be an outlier, a fluke. You can think of the work we are doing as ‘speculative evidence’. We go beyond the rationalist tendencies of analysing experience as a thing to be quantified, to instead engage with the experience of experience. That embodied feeling of being in the world and what that means for how we live our lives.

Haldane: In your 2017 TED Talk, you said this is about making the future “less of a foreign land”. When people have been immersed into how the world could be in 2050, does that give them agency to do something about it or does it depress or scare them?

Jain: That’s something we are battling all the time. One CEO that we worked with took all her leaders to India to confront a very different reality, and they went back and made some momentous decisions because of what they experienced. Sometimes injecting shock and discomfort can be powerful, but it already feels like we are rattling through a dystopian science fiction novel, just shock after shock to the point of saturation. Okay, so we need to stop all use of fossil fuels right now, that’s for certain, but there is a lack of real urgency dedicated to making that a reality. I wish there was a way to shake people out of individualism and really focus on a collective sense of solidarity.

When we tell counterfactual stories, when we show alternatives, people gain a sense of agency. That can be done by experimenting, by prototyping. Ultimately, stories are the way we make the world. We need to be able to tell different stories that percolate in people’s minds. I believe that can renew their agency to make change.

Haldane: In terms of that agency, given that the problems we face are global and collective, how do you bring people together and give them a sense of this being a team sport?

Jain: It totally depends. For instance, a few months ago, we did an immersive experience for New York Climate Week and the main audience was business leaders. The idea was — and it was a brief from a client — that CEOs need to experience FOMO [fear of missing out — Ed]. We wanted to showcase all the great climate action that is already happening across all major sectors, from industry to transport. We built something that would make them ask themselves, why are we not creating business models and product ideas that are more sustainable, that have negative carbon impact, that are not just focused on endless growth and extracting from the earth?

And it worked. We showed global, businessled solutions to changing the world. Everything from community projects to indigenous projects, to local product developments, to large-scale infrastructure projects. Many of the CEOs did experience FOMO, and decided, yes, I’m ready to try and tackle this.

Haldane: What do you think they were fearful of missing out on?

Jain: I suppose it’s fear of missing out on change, of acknowledging change and being part of the change. It is also fear of falling behind. The examples we used showed other ways of living, alternate business models and ideas of growth. Currently, some business leaders are so attached to quarterly returns and shareholder profit that they cannot decouple their visions from this cycle. Our focus is to inspire people to think in far more radical and visionary ways. Think of the legacy you are going to leave as an ancestor. Think of your children, grandchildren, and the worlds you are leaving behind for them.

Haldane: As you know, we are the Royal Society for Arts, Manufactures and Commerce. I want to ask you about the arts part of it: what role can art and art installations play in changing minds, and reshaping business and civil society?

Jain: The arts have a crucial role to play but are often considered whimsical or not significant to business decisions. We need to suspend that suspicion. Art allows you to be eccentric, courageous and bold, and that is what our artistic installations aim to do.

When you walk into the apartment we created — which was an art installation — you are not going to say “Oh, this beautiful world, everything is solved.” No. There was friction. There were recipes for ‘fox creole’, which points to what urban dwellers might have to eat in the future. There was a cookbook titled Pets as Protein. There was discomfort and messiness, but that’s the risk that art can take, that’s the experimental approach art can bring, which businesses have so much to learn from.

It’s unfortunate that we tend to compartmentalise these things, when some of the most powerful businesses are those that have been inspired by art and continue to be. For me, these boundaries between art and design and science and business and economics and systems change; they all blur quite easily.

Recommended reading

“While it’s very hard to pick just one, I would suggest The One-Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka. First published in 1975, this book is an inspiring story of social impact, a quiet refusal of the status quo that radically reimagined our relationship to food, to ourselves and to time.” Anab Jain

Haldane: How do you maintain your optimism, given the challenges that we know the world, nation states and organisations face, whether commercial or non-commercial?

Jain: It’s difficult. Working with futures or alternatives, you start to see, not just the first-level consequences, but the second- and third-level consequences. It can be demoralising and anxiety-inducing. But, I come from India, where the revolt against British colonial rule started in 1857. It was not until 90 years later, in 1947, that India became independent. Revolutions may be slow, dark and murky, but they are also full of hope.

I know we can effect change. That’s why I am happy to work with governments, businesses, cultural institutions and research labs, whoever wants to be making this change. I will enable that change in whatever way I can. That is what gives me hope.

Haldane: This is the Journal issue celebrating our 270th anniversary. To ask you, even as a futurist, to peer 270 years into the future, might be stretching it a bit. But how about the next 25, 50 years... can you tell a story about how much better it could be?

Jain: You could imagine it’s 2071 and a lot has happened. The period 2023 to 2035 was horrific, because we had to take so many bold decisions. We hear a lot about reaching net zero by 2050, but that is just a number, what does it mean? Well, we got to feel what that meant. It meant we were all experiencing hefty carbon taxes and a complete phase-out of fossil fuels. Travel was restricted. But there was so much ingenious innovation!

Interestingly, when we did surveys, we found out that people were happier with 60% less electricity and power than they were using. So, in 2050 what started to happen is that, with limited energy from the renewable sources that were available to us, people spent a lot of time resting. Resting doesn’t mean being lazy and sleeping, but rather nurturing our land, food and young people, being educated differently, learning to share and cooperate instead of following a very competitive trajectory, learning to have a reciprocal relationship with the earth, not an extractive one.

We see that a different way of life — one not full of the comforts the western world has become so used to — has made people happier and thriving, but there were a lot of sacrifices that needed to happen. I think we will have managed it pretty well by 2071.

First and foremost, Superflux has always been a project of active hope.

Anab Jain

Haldane: That is optimistic. Do you think happiness is the way we should be keeping score, societally, ultimately? Is that where we should be directing our attention?

Jain: Absolutely. I went to Bhutan last summer, and Bhutan is not only beautiful, but also the country that came up with the idea of a Gross National Happiness Index. They have given up 70% of their country to forests and nature reserves. Every person there is supported by the government and gets a little piece of land and a house. You cannot go and do whatever you want
with the land or just buy any land you feel like; even the king’s land is very limited.

It’s a challenging but very beautiful plan of deeply visionary thinking. I just didn’t want to come back! It was beautiful, that reckoning, combining the personal, the ecological, the spiritual, the cultural, the social. It was all interwoven in the same fabric. I think that is the aspiration.

Haldane: On our big anniversary year, could you give us here at the RSA the gift of your imaginings of how we could contribute to this more optimistic future that you have painted for us so beautifully? What contribution can we make in bringing that about as a reality?

Jain: I would say there are two pathways. The first is to lobby the government to bring back the creative sector and support for creativity and the arts. The House of Lords recently submitted a report that showed the importance of creativity and artistic thinking, and how in our secondary education it becomes so narrow. The RSA is best positioned to support and lobby for more interconnected, critical, creative, multidisciplinary education, right from childhood.

The second is inspired by work Superflux has created recently called ‘The Quiet Enchanting’ which is an installation of digitally generated artworks that was displayed on the Strand in London. There is so much talk about rewilding the world around us, rewilding our landscapes. I think the RSA could pursue the rewilding of the spirit, the rewilding of minds and souls and hearts. That notion goes hand in hand with nurturing creative education.

Haldane: “The rewilding of minds and souls and hearts.” That is a wonderful way of setting out our challenge, and it fits very well with some of the work that we are doing.

Jain: Yes, you are already doing that through your regenerative design programmes. I think there just needs to be more emphasis on emergent thinking, on less prescriptive, but more open storytelling and creative approaches that nurture that deep sense of rewilding.

Anab Jain is a co-founder and Director of experiential futures studio Superflux and a 2022 Royal Designers for Industry (RDI) Fellow.

Andy Haldane is Chief Executive Officer at the RSA.

Photos by Kensington Leverne.

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