THE ROYAL EXCHANGE: What does the role of a futurist involve?
GERALDINE WHARRY: As a futurist I look at long-term scenarios. I work with a focus on the style industry but my research takes me far beyond fashion. I also look at science, tech, policy, politics, socio-economic culture and philosophy because all these other industries also show where society is going and, ultimately, that’s what I’m trying to assess all the time.
To truly have a creative outlook on the world, you can’t just segregate yourself within your echo chamber, you need to look at everything and at different points of view. On a daily basis I’ll look at a diverse range of media, at both the high and low ends of culture. In terms of secondary research I follow people on Instagram, I read from a variety of news sources and blogs, I look a lot at sub-cultures and work with artists who are plugged into these sub-cultures. I set up notifications and track things, and I go deeper than the surface. If I see people mentioned and referred to, I’ll then look at them as well, so I trace this huge web of references. And I go to panel talks, conferences and exhibitions a lot as well (well, digital ones at the moment) as I like to hear things straight from the source’s mouth.
There’s an element of what trend forecasting agencies do that is somewhat prescriptive, in terms of giving design direction – which is understandable because brands like to be reassured about the decisions they are making – but that’s what I try to stay away from. I feel my job is more about instigating, provoking and initiating ideas, to unlock creativity for my clients. I do this by showing them where things are going and what the most exciting developments are. And I always encourage them not to copy but to carve out their own path.
Clockwise from top left: artificially designed, 4D printed ‘Neo Fruit’ by industrial designer Meydan Levy; The Green Gallery Green Screen flower art banner ads blocker, GreenGALLERY x Geraldine Wharry collaboration; Personification device future clothing concept by digital artist Uv-Zhu
TRE: What methodologies do you use to assess what the future holds?
GW: The methodology I use is three pronged, which I call Hunt, Identify and Gather. The hunt involves going through an intense time of research – and there’s a specific way of doing that research, and that research time can be repeated and repeated. Then there’s a time of identifying, cross triangulating and really extracting the meanings out of the research that I’ve found and, again, that research can be pulled from across many industries. I do research on a daily basis so I will look at the information I’ve been tracking continuously, then, depending on the client requirements, I might put more pressure on a certain area or a certain focus and go deeper into that.
I focus mostly on macro trends and long-term trends, so the soonest I look at is usually two years ahead, and because of that I employ more speculative thinking, or scenario planning or visioning. The farther out you go – and sometimes for clients I might be looking ahead to 10, 50, even 100 years in the future – the more you have to put your science fiction hat on. First I’ll take stock of all the things that I know are happening now, and look at some plausible scenarios based on current innovations and emerging technologies, people and brands that haven’t yet reached the mainstream but are innovating and pointing in a direction that is potentially gaining traction and will eventually be in the mainstream.
I’ll then focus on what I call the wild cards of the future – a future that maybe we’re not thinking about, but with all the things that we’re doing is what could happen. For this, I have to set aside my preconceived ideas and think about what the domino effects of our current decisions and actions might be. This involves speculating and getting creative, and I’ll also think about ways to create a preferable future. So, I do a huge amount of research and I gather a huge amount of data but, what I love about my job is that it taps into my creativity and my intuition for things because, ultimately, I’m also trying to offer a vision and a point of view.
TRE: That sounds really fun…
GW: It can be, but sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes those wildcards are basically the tough conversations that no one wants to have. For example, some of the wildcards that I have presented in the past were around supply scarcity, which I talked about years ago, and that’s kind of what we’re going through now. I like to challenge people to take long-term responsibility for the decisions they are making now. I talk sometimes about seven generation thinking, which is actually an ancient philosophy that is known to have come from the Iroquois tribe in America.
Seven generation thinking is when you consider how everything you put out into the world will affect your descendants seven generations – or roughly 140 years – ahead. I really think that it’s important now, more than ever, to think that way. Every decision we make has an implication. It’s the butterfly effect. But I don’t think this should be something that is paralysing. On the contrary, it’s empowering. Because it shows us how powerful we are in everything that we do. That type of thinking is good because it has started to happen in line with the fashion industry becoming more and more purpose led. Part of my job as a futurist involves challenging people and sparking conversation.
Clockwise from top: A 3D printed ‘scan’ of a human brain designed by Professor Neri Oxman and her team at the MIT Media Lab, Mediated Matter Group, credit: Mediated Matter Group/MIT Media Lab; Instagram avatar, credit: @dadeko_; Everybody Owns The Future banner at Somerset House, credit: Geraldine Wharry
TRE: Are there any innovations on the near horizon that you are particularly excited about right now?
GW: At the moment, I feel emboldened by my belief in the circular economy, circular systems and new economic models such as the bioeconomy, degrowth and the wellbeing economy. This is something I’ve been talking about for years and, as an activist, I sometimes worried it might seem biased, but now all the experts agree that this is imperative so I feel encouraged to continue pushing that agenda, and I have no shame in it. As a species we profoundly desire the new, it’s embedded in our brain and the way we function in our DNA, but how do we reconcile that with the fact that we’ve exhausted our planetary resources? This comes as an amazing creative challenge now. We have an opportunity to rewrite a lot of things and that can be scary, but it’s also a really interesting time.
I’m really excited about biotech and biodegradable materials, and about the possibility of designers prototyping more in 3D, rather than using a lot of materials to prototype a collection. But for me, at this stage, the biggest innovation would not be technological, it would be a new philosophy, a new system, a new way of approaching the world. And in that sense I’m really interested in biomimicry. Biomimicry looks to emulate the intelligence of nature, and the systems that we find in nature, because nature has zero waste. Everything in nature has a purpose and a reason to be and works in unison within an ecosystem. Nature is the most innovative system we have.
TRE: Is it difficult to make predictions during such turbulent and uncertain times?
GW: I often start my presentations by saying ‘the future is unpredictable’ and people think that’s a paradox coming from a futurist. However, I’m presenting scenarios and what I’m saying is that the future is not some kind of passive action – the future doesn’t happen to you, you look at what’s happening, you make your choices and you have the opportunity to be a part of the future that you want to create.
At the moment, many people are asking me what I think is going to happen, and what my predictions are for the fashion industry. My answer is that we must not rush to conclusions at the moment. We can see signs of what may happen, but I don’t think this is a time for rushing and being reactive. We can’t just sit passively but – in terms of making huge changes in the industry – let’s rush to re-examine, not rush to produce in a completely different way too quickly. We need to re-evaluate the system itself, not just the symptoms of it, otherwise we risk keeping the same model alive by only changing certain tools or technologies, and that’s too much of a cosmetic change. We should think about the long-term implications of how new technologies may impact craft, authorship and traditions. It’s a time for considered action, not knee-jerk reactions.
TRE: How do you digest, and start to make sense of, all the information you are constantly absorbing?
GW: In that sense, my job is a bit mentally intensive but I space it out with other things that I feel passionate about. I’m lucky that I am passionate about devouring information but it is a lot of time and effort and so I have different times of the day that are better for research. The way that I manage it is I do it a little bit every day and I bounce back to it incrementally throughout the day.
Ideas just come, and it’s true that they don’t necessarily come while you’re doing the research, they often come when you step away for a bit. I go for walks and I escape through watching a lot of movies, that’s my go-to thing. I find it hard to read at night, because I’ve already read so much during the day and I spend so much time on a screen when I’m collecting information, so I listen to audio books and I like podcasts. I really, really enjoy going to events, conferences and panel talks, and I miss that a lot at the moment with physical distancing.
TRE: Does creativity matter even more in times of crisis?
GW: Absolutely, yes. More than ever. It’s not a good time to give up, it’s a good time to be resilient and just go for creative solutions – what’s the worst that can happen? I know a lot of people who are taking this time to review and question things a lot. That in itself is part of a creative process, because creativity is about questioning things. Being creative might not mean having a creative output, like drawing or designing something, it might just be in the way that you’re looking at things. And so, I do think this is a time to not give up.
I used to work in the surf industry and surfers get slammed, but they always pick themselves up again and they surf that wave. They know at some point they’re going to fall, but they still go for it. We’re on a wave right now and we need to somehow find a way to surf it and stay on it. There’s going to be some damage, to some extent, but hopefully we can come out of it stronger.
Geraldine Wharry is a fashion futurist, educator and designer, with a focus on the style industry. She works as a consultant with global brands, agencies and institutions to explore and implement preferable futures, philosophy, sustainability and systemic change; geraldinewharry.com
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Photo credit for lead image of Geraldine Wharry pictured in her studio: Annie Harmeston