In the Dubai of 2050, the world looks both instantly familiar and utterly strange. Here, urban planning is driven by an omniscient AI installed at the top of a skyscraper; your smart bathroom mirror tracks your physical health; and you interface with the government through a personalized “genie,” a hologram in the form of a virtual Emirati gentleman in traditional garb. All of these future products are skinned in a particular visual aesthetic of friendly white-on-black animated icons like a minimalist, sentient version of Apple’s iOS.
This uncanny scene was on display at the United Arab Emirates’ second annual Government Summit, hosted in Dubai in February 2014. A three-day event comprised of dozens of speakers — including Sir Richard Branson — and over 4,000 participants, it bills itself as the “largest annual government gathering in the world.” The gathering was meant to “build hope, build life and future, and make people happy,” said Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, prime minister of the UAE and royal ruler of Dubai, during the event. The urban AI, hologram genie, and smart bathroom were part of the Museum of Future Government Services, a series of seamless interactive installations that demonstrated to attendees — Emirati politicians and civil servants, as well as foreign dignitaries and business leaders — how the UAE would serve its citizens several decades hence.
The Museum of Future Government Services was created by Tellart, a technology-focused design agency, headquartered thousands of miles away in Rhode Island. Launched in 2000, Tellart now employs 38 individuals spread across offices in Providence, New York, San Francisco, Amsterdam, and Dubai. The UAE government is one of the company’s largest clients; the two entities collaborate on the Government Summit events and are developing a permanent Museum of the Future in Dubai.
Of course, none of the products demonstrated at the 2014 summit actually existed. Rather, Tellart’s job is to create believable, immersive visions of the future based on the needs of its clients, which range from the UAE to Google, Purina, and the California Academy of Sciences — anyone who needs a little bit of tomorrow today. As the company’s co-founder Nick Scappaticci says, “We are the industrial designers of the 21st century.”
Tellart is at the forefront of an industry that doesn’t really have a name. What it does is sometimes labeled “design fiction,” a genre that might be defined as “prototypes that allow you to suspend your disbelief about the ways the world is changing around you,” says Alexander Porter, the co-founder of Scatter, a virtual reality storytelling studio in Brooklyn.
Design fiction is created by a loose confederation of agencies, artists, engineers, and designers who are shaping our expectations of technology and society in decades to come by showing us what that incipient world might look like, down to its cliche brand logos. It’s science fiction made real in the form of interactive exhibitions, product demonstrations, and behind-the-scenes consulting work. And it tends to pop up at any event Davos-ish enough to include the word “influencers.”
Alongside Tellart, the industry is made up of organizations like Barbarian Group, the now-defunct BERG London, Fake Love (acquired by The New York Times Company in August 2016), and Google’s Creative Lab. Even if you’re unfamiliar with these names, it’s likely you’ve seen their handiwork in high-tech viral videos, like this rendering of a mundane living room turning into an immersive intergalactic VR video game, created by the studio Marshmallow Laser Feast for Sony; Superflux’s 2011 “Song of the Machine,” a prophetic rendering of VR technology as seen through a walk in London; or the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology’s miniature quadcopters caught assembling a rope bridge in midair.
Lesser future design fiction projects resemble mediocre advertising, the detritus of CES or the fever dreams of a self-styled futurist like AOL’s Shingy. It can be as basic as a drone that takes selfies or a 3D burrito printer. “There’s a lot of stuff that almost exists to chase the Fast Company headline,” says Colin James Nagy, Barbarian Group’s former chief of media and strategy. Yet however reductive, these design miniatures still help form our idea of what the future can be.
“It's really easy to freak people out with science fiction. It's a heavy responsibility,” says Tellart co-founder Matt Cottam when I first meet him and Scappaticci at the company’s New York outpost, located in the corner of a Chelsea loft. He cites a maxim from the author and New School sociology instructor Barbara Adams: “Every act of future making is an act of future taking." Cottam continues, “While creating a high fidelity image of the future may broaden people's imagination for what's possible, it can also really narrow their perception of what's possible or what their options are.”
He cites a potent example: one Museum of Future Government Services installation involved handing guests warm towels in the way an upscale hotel might. After the guests gave the towels back to attendants, they were scanned for biometric data to determine visitors’ identities and backgrounds. A screen displayed a visualization of their bodies and whether or not any dangerous communicable diseases were found.
After passing through, one pregnant Emirati woman came to Cottam worried that the scan might have impacted her baby. “I was like, ‘That scanner was a Microsoft Kinect and a projector,’” Cottam says, no more harmful than playing a video game. Although no actual biometric data scan happened, the experience left the attendee feeling that the technology was invasive and dystopian.
While predicting the future is an eternal pursuit, rendering it experiential is a more modern innovation. The 1939 World’s Fair, with its theme of “The World of Tomorrow,” included Futurama, an exhibit sponsored by the General Motors Corporation and designed by the industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes. Its major forecast was a highway system connecting the entire country, and its rendering of a city block, with clean glass-and-steel buildings rising above a street crowded with cars, has been borne out by history, though not always in a positive sense; the installation’s “super highway of tomorrow” looks like the worst parts of the New Jersey Turnpike today.
Data-driven future prediction emerged around 1948 with the launch of RAND Corporation. The nonprofit think tank’s “scenario analysis” practice connected military planning with private technology development. RAND’s tactics were adopted by Shell in the 1970s, creating a precedent for the corporate future-consulting we see today.
In the 1960s, media, art, technology, and advertising seemed to resonate at the same countercultural pitch: television, Mad Men firms, Andy Warhol, LSD. “At the edges of those things they started to blend together,” says Samantha Culp, the co-founder of Paloma Powers, a small agency that works with visual artists, often incorporating technology. The blending was furthered with initiatives like Experiments in Art and Technology and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Art and Technology Program, which launched in 1966 and ‘67, bringing visual artists like Robert Rauschenberg into contact with engineers from Bell Labs.
While the nexus of art and technology was already established, future design agencies didn’t emerge in earnest until the 1990s, when once again the aesthetics of one avant-garde field could be conveniently applied to another. With the advent of multimedia-capable computers, it became easier for artists and designers to work with digital technology and demand for their services grew from companies who wanted to look progressive in the internet era.
1991 saw the launch of IDEO, known for helping companies develop new products; the Dutch conceptual design group Droog was founded in 1993; digital-savvy ad makers Blast Radius and Mother in 1996; Tellart in 2000; and Barbarian Group in 2001. Younger competitors like Superflux, Red Paper Heart, Midnight Commercial, and Marshmallow Laser Feast arose in the 2010s.
The agencies are paid to adapt unstable emerging technologies to marketing and branding efforts, and in the process normalize and commodify them for a mainstream audience. If you see facial recognition technology at the Museum of Future Government Services, for example, then you might not be so shocked when it actually shows up in airport security. The experiential fiction acclimatizes you to the future in advance.
Today, artists and designers do residencies at Google or Microsoft as easily as a museum. This year, Nokia Bell Labs is partnering with the New Museum to fund a new art-technology residency program. “There’s an ongoing relationship between creative and industrial complexes,” says Kyle McDonald, a Los Angeles-based artist whose work both critiques and participates in the tech world (McDonald has collaborated with Microsoft Research and Google Creative Lab).
The conjunction of art, technological innovation, and marketing presents a quandary for tech-fluent creatives: do you soldier on with your own independent work or do you manufacture varying degrees of future propaganda for corporations and governments? The latter often subsidizes the former as artists and corporations work, together and apart, to establish a mainstream futuristic aesthetic.
I arrive at Tellart’s Providence office, an airy exposed-brick loft in an old warehouse on the outskirts of downtown, on the morning of November 9th. Much of the staff appears to be in a deep post-election hangover. Even a group of committed futurists struggle when the supposedly inevitable immediate future seems to have collapsed.
Once a week, the company holds an all-hands meeting over Google Hangouts with the offices videoconferencing in from their various time zones: morning in the US, happy hour in Amsterdam, night in Dubai. “We’re all going to be fine here at Tellart,” co-founder Nick Scappaticci reassures after a brief discussion, sitting with the Providence team on sleek armchairs and a couch arranged around a TV. The nationalism embodied by a Trump win seems anathema to such a post-national crowd.
Matt Cottam, who is based in Amsterdam with his Italian wife, was absent from the virtual meeting. The 43-year-old Cottam’s predilection for well-cut shirts and the tendency to extend an “s” into a “z” in an unplaceable internationalist accent marks him as an American Europhile. Scappaticci, 38, who lives in Providence and runs the office there, is softer-spoken, a fatherly figure dressed in plaid and a pair of circular glasses: a sort of techno-lumberjack.
Cottam and Scappaticci met as industrial design students at the Rhode Island School of Design where they formed a group studio with friends working in furniture, graphic design, and filmmaking. “We were at the start of how computers could really be a part of the design process as a tool,” Cottam recalls. Their industry was changing. This was the original dot-com era, and designers were taking highly respected jobs in Silicon Valley for big paychecks. Then the bubble popped.
“In some ways that was a real blessing because any temptation to go off and just take a really high-paying job was gone,” Cottam says. “We decided to create a studio that would natively combine the physical and the digital.”
At the meeting, employees discuss their projects, ranging from an interactive installation for Purina to building out a digital app for an architecture institution, to testing projection-mapping software on plants. A project called Deep Future, composed of star charts projected out at 10,000-year intervals printed in beeswax by a robot on dyed cotton, has to be installed at the Museum of Tomorrow in Rio de Janeiro.
Tellart works on fewer than a dozen projects at any one time, though that number has been steadily rising. Most of the company’s billing is experiential exhibitions, then product development and advertising campaigns, in which they often lend technical expertise to larger agencies. Budgets range from $100,000 for smaller installations to $3 million for the likes of the UAE projects; the vast majority are completed in less than a year. The company says their annual revenue is around $6 to $8 million.
What sets Tellart apart from bigger, more traditional creative agencies is that it functions more like a Renaissance artist studio or starchitecture firm — a collective of individual artists and engineers cooperating to create a body of work under a single label. The company takes on commissions, but each project is of a piece with the rest, united by a particular style and approach driven by its founders.
Cottam and Scappaticci refer to human-centered design, a conceptual framework popular with IDEO and other studios. But unlike designing a better toilet plunger by focusing on its user, Tellart first envisions a future to design for. “Is this is a world where collapse happened, or a world where transformation happened, or growth?” Cottam asks. Clients might pose a product or a problem, but Tellart brings in teams of outside consultants, from architects to futurists and sci-fi novelists, for world-building and selecting a relevant situation to simulate. You’re dealing with a robo-nurse at the emergency room of an automated hospital, say, or your self-driving car is running late to work and has to dodge traffic. Finally there’s the physical stuff, the kitsch and junk of the future that make the theoretical world realistic and give visitors cues on how to behave in it. Every detail must be considered.
Each Tellart project comes with a holistic narrative — the company’s name is shortened from “the art of storytelling” — and the story is a vital part of getting participants to believe in the vision. Design fiction often “takes this somewhat easy path of creating these ironic, dystopian situations where technology is buggy and glitchy. The worst is this kind of hipster mundane future,” Cottam says. “I get into my car and it's supposed to use face recognition on me to know who I am. But I didn't put on my makeup so it doesn't know who I am.” The everyday malfunction makes the future seem realistic — just as haphazard as the present — but the proposition isn’t particularly meaningful.
Tellart’s early work falls into the “hipster mundane future” category. “The Real Good Experiment” for Blu Dot in 2009 imagined a high-end chair tracking you with mobile GPS (netting over 200 million media impressions). In 2011, the Love Song Machine let users whack brightly colored bells installed in the Tellart office live over the internet (more than 5,000 tunes were played, including one troll who hit a single note incessantly).
The Google Web Lab in 2012 proved a turning point. Tellart created a series of interactive technological follies set in geometric white boxes, a kind of friendly robot zoo that was installed at the London Science Museum. The project showcased the internet’s new capability for real-time multimedia interaction through the lens of Google Chrome. Via the website, users could play a live mechanical orchestra installed in the museum. Visitors to the space had their portraits drawn in sand by robot arms, gazed into 360-degree cameras live-streaming from exotic locales like an undersea kelp forest, and watched data server routes visualized on a projection-mapped sculpture of the continents.
Produced with Google’s in-house Creative Lab as well as partners including Universal Design Studio, B-Reel, and MAP Project Office, the Web Lab was more like a pop-up techno-carnival than an actual product ecosystem. But it burnished the reputations of everyone involved, winning design awards and bringing half a million visitors to the museum.
More clients came knocking, including the UAE. Noah Raford, an MIT PhD who is now the chief operating officer of the government’s Dubai Future Foundation — the Shingy of the Emirates — was tipped off to Tellart by a mutual friend of his and Matt Cottam’s who was stationed at Fabrica, Benetton Group’s internal research center and another node in the future design industry. Raford brought Tellart to the 2014 Government Summit, and the firm has taken on a larger role each successive year, he says. They translate policy proposals into digestible future-theater.
Working in the UAE means that certain cultural specificities must be designed around. VR goggles have to avoid mussing headscarves and hallways need to be wide enough for men and women to pass each other by easily. The future looks different in different parts of the world. In Western countries, “we currently have super minimalistic aesthetics,” says Zaza Zuilhof, Tellart’s lead designer. In the Middle East, “they are generally a bit more decorative. They care about things feeling and looking luxurious.” Having no nostalgia for Industrial Revolution chic, the usual hipster-mundane-future palette of concrete, wood, and rusty metal “just feels like a building site,” Zuilhof adds.
The 2015 Museum of the Future theme was Smart Cities. It included Fitzania, a fitness game that equipped the player with a heavy metal sphere and plunged them into a psychedelic dot-matrix environment controlled by face recognition; the PharmaCafe, with (fake) custom medical therapies turned into misted cocktails; and the Learning Lab, an interactive immersive projection of a Mars colony staffed by employees from UAE’s actual space program. “Machinic Life” in 2016 featured cartoon AI home caretakers, a “UAE HyperMind” superintelligence that manages society, and an exhibition of body augmentation devices. The visual language that Tellart has invented for future-Dubai has stayed consistent across the years: a certain plush, high-gloss transparency that forbids hard edges and harsh colors. The result is a soothing environment in which technology is almost always your friend.
The future-facing partnership with Tellart is a strategic one for UAE, a country that since the 1970s has based its economy on oil proceeds. It needs a new national industry, and technology is one marketable option. The Dubai Future Foundation also includes the Dubai Future Accelerator, an international startup lab with a tagline that might provide a manifesto: “Pulling the future forward faster.” In this context, the services of a company like Tellart are vital in helping the country brand itself as, well, futuristic. So vital, in fact, that plans have been in the works to start a joint agency company between the UAE and Tellart that will be based in Dubai, serving the national government as well as clients in the rest of the region as they, too, fashion their own futures.
UAE’s self-conscious utopianism has been labeled “Gulf Futurism.” It can be seen as the deployment of technology in “the proto-fascism of a society that privileges success and speed over human life,” as the Dubai and Brooklyn-based writer Rahel Aima put it in a 2013 interview. Working with a client that pays its royal families annual allowances while abusing the migrant workers who build its infrastructure, as Human Rights Watch reports allege, is a fraught decision. Making work under the specifications of such governments, Cottam says, is inherently political, “whether we like it or not.”
Working in the future industry thus “becomes self-selecting. Who is willing to be ideologically neutral?” says Samantha Culp. It’s a reminder that the international artists and technologists creating our popular ideas of the future do so in contexts shaped by the pursuit of profit or power. If you can render the future in advance, after all, maybe you can also control it.
The 2017 World Government Summit ran from February 12th–14th. Speakers included the research director of Y Combinator, the president of the World Bank, the prime minister of Slovenia, and LinkedIn’s Reid Hoffman. In his WGS presentation, Elon Musk argued that in order to survive the mounting tide of artificial intelligence, humanity must merge with technology: “There will be fewer and fewer jobs that a robot can’t do better.”
This year, Tellart’s Museum of the Future took on the pressing issue of the environment, casting it in the techno-utopian light that future fiction is known for. “The goal was to reimagine climate change and look at it as one of the biggest and most exciting opportunities of our generation,” Scappaticci told me after the event had ended. The installations followed three concerns: food, water, and the urban environment. How will cities of the future react to agricultural scarcity, access to clean water, and rampant flooding?
In Tellart’s imagined future, the UAE of 2050 has it covered. In the projection, Emirati scientists combine the genes of jellyfish with mangrove roots, one of nature’s best desalinators, to create an “organic filtration plant that allows you to produce drinkable water out of the ocean,” Scappaticci explains. Visitors experienced the plant, a biomorphic alien structure fit for the new Star Wars, on a 360-degree video screen with immersive sound and temperature changes.
Presented in a room flush with greenery, future food comes from AI-driven farms that occupy the garages and parking lots left empty by self-driving cars. Seeds are bioengineered and “printed” to optimize for nutritional value. Dubai visitors taste-tested the results with edible cubes made of sustainable foodstuffs like beetroot and crickets, delivered by conveyor belt. Elsewhere in the 2017 Museum of the Future, “self-sufficient” dynamic cities could be “deployed” and “grown” using City Kits, simulated on-screen by interactive virtual robots in digital landscapes.
The idealized narrative that Tellart created is meant to comfort one of the wealthiest and yet most ecologically imperiled regions in the world. In this future, the money from oil has solved all the problems that oil dependency creates — thanks to technology, the desert becomes a permanent oasis. Tellart’s work reassures its viewers that the environment is an issue that will simply be fixed one day, through no effort on their part, save perhaps cultivating a taste for bugs. Yet there is no guarantee this future will come to pass, and no vision for it spreading to less prosperous parts of the world.
Having set expectations, this future fiction is meant to eventually blur into reality. UAE is “using applied futures as a way to drive their government’s vision,” Scappaticci says, not just through the Dubai Future Foundation but across levels and departments. At the end of the exhibition, Tellart included a survey that asked the attendants which environmental challenge was most pressing and what technology should be used to confront it, in an attempt to gauge the anxieties of a nation.
The 2017 exhibition was a “reframing of climate change so it’s not seen as something that we can’t get control of, that’s beyond our capabilities,” Scappaticci says. “Here’s a version of our future in which we’ve come together, we’ve solved these problems, and we’re more in harmony with the world,” presenting the possibility of a solution so we don’t have to, say, give up and move to Mars. Tellart’s boutique futurism is ultimately an optimistic one, motivated by a belief that, with funding from its clients, we can tweak the incipient future simply by envisioning it.