“Design A Virtual Reality Helps Your Future”

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Hello and welcome back to the foresight strategy show with your host, Dr. Nilda Perez and cohost Rachel Calderon. Hello Rachel… So today we have a very awesome guests Prateeska Singh is a CPA turned designer who works at the intersection of design thinking, foresight, ethnography and systems change. Prateeska freelances under her own creative consultancy, called Empathy, where she is in relation to futures work and developing a design fiction based community engagement practice. She is also completing her MDS in strategic foresight and innovation at OCAD university in Toronto. As of January 2018, she was appointed to the board of directors for the Association of professional futurists. Welcome Prateeska, how are you?

Really Great. Thank you so much.

Awesome. So I want you to tell me a little bit about yourself. I know you come from a CPA background and yet right now you’re involved in futures, but not just futures, the design, futures design. So tell me a little bit about that, how you came to that and how you put it all together.

I think it’s a very circuitous path as you can imagine from going to auditor to design and futures. I think it started with this question of what are my values and I have this question that I look at everyday which is what do I work for? Not who do I work for, but what do I work for? And I think that question has driven my career into unchartered paths that I couldn’t have even fathom for myself. And so I was an auditor for many years and then I immigrated to Canada actually and started working with startups and a nonprofit that worked with social entrepreneurs and that got me into understanding systems change theory and just being introduced to systems change theory just opened this world to me that spoke much more to I was as a person and then I found out about a graduate program here in Toronto at OCAD University, which is Canada’s largest design university having a graduate program in strategic foresight and innovation and that program is the culmination of systems change theory with foresight when design thinking and ethnography. And so that’s sort of been the segue into my past, the present and really the audit part being so process conscious is so relevant to the work that we do when we’re working with clients or initiatives that have to do with foresight. So it’s actually melded itself quite well. I’m just in unexpected ways, but that’s life I think.

Yeah. And that’s how it is.  Well my background is social work. How does the social worker get involved in business and then enforce it like, how does this all come together? And yet it all melds together quite seamlessly. It’s almost like this is the way we’re supposed to be. When you look at your trajectory of your life and,  you will always on that path to where you are today. And I think it’s very exciting.

Yeah. And I actually, I think maybe both of you can speak to this, but I think our own careers having transitioned, so surprisingly emphasizes why multidisciplinary work and multidisciplinary collaborations are so critical because I see where my accounting place so deeply with design, I wouldn’t have thought of that maybe if I hadn’t gone to accounting school or like, sorry had, been trained as an accountant and gone to business school, but my own experiences make me really value and look for really different sort of collaborative environments.

Right. And yet most people don’t do that because they kind of feel like they go to school, this is your degree and this is what you have to do for the rest of your life. It’s almost like they don’t know how to crossover.

Or not even crossover I think add to it because that’s what I’ve done it.  It’s been like this. It’s almost like a feel like in a kitchen, and I can’t cook a lick, but I understand the concept.  And I’m always adding new ingredients and so that makes me better at everything that I do because I A, break in this added component to let’s say to futures, but also when I do therapy, when I do my counseling, I also bring that in so it just kind of braids together and that’s what I have found. I think that’s the beauty of education and training and being around people. You were around people that actually guided you this way, but this was always supposed to be. That’s the way it’s supposed to be and yet it wasn’t something you think about on your own. Does that make sense?

Yeah. I wouldn’t have thought six years ago that I’d be working in design and foresight. I don’t think those words were really even part of my vocabulary and I think what you’re also talking about cooking is such a great metaphor and an analogy and you have to follow your gut as well and your instincts and what feels right to you may not feel right to someone else, but if you’re cooking for yourself you have to sort of see what works for you and add and subtract and mix and match based on that. And I think that’s what careers are about and that’s what, foresight is about as well.

Okay. So what is design fiction based community engagement work, what is that in? How did you get into that?

So I think when I started working at the, at the nonprofit, which is also a social enterprise and they work with social entrepreneurs, again, like I said, it was about systems change and who’s doing amazing work in their community. And the Zinger to that is these are entrepreneurs that don’t necessarily from a meritocracy standpoint defined themselves as your traditional entrepreneurs. Right. And so I’m working in this like amazing organization that supports all forms of backgrounds and all forms of education and all forms of life experiences to do great work. And that experience really triggered something in me which was like, this is a sort of work I want to do. I want to work with a broader cross section of our society. A broader cross section of who we engage in live with it.  And that’s what community development work is. The great thing about coming to this graduate program and starting to do work in design fiction and the foresight work was finding creative mediums to talk about complex social issues in a way that doesn’t detract from complexity but makes it digestible and makes it able to engage with lots of different age groups, and lots of different backgrounds. And so design fiction based community engagement work is that it’s using the principles of foresight using the principles of design to talk about really complex social issues that impact all of us with a much broader group of people as opposed to just those that can afford my work from an institutional stand point.

Okay. Fantastic. So explain it to me a little bit about what exactly does your work tackle? Like when you go into an organization to award to accompany what exactly do tackle?  

I work on a wide spectrum of issues, but the three or four that I focused most on our climate reality because that’s human reality. I work on gender and feminist praxis, so the process and the inherited principles around feminist thinking and how that’s across a wide spectrum of, of institutional ways of being and working and collaborating. I work on food and health care a lot and those are both tied as well as separate. So those three or four issues I tend to focus a lot on and those get us into wellbeing and social cohesion and they’re relevant to all of us.

Right, right.  So why do you think immersive design and fiction theater is so powerful. So this is something that you bring in while you’re teaching it though, right? While you’re, working with them, you bring this in. So how is this powerful and how were they able to see things differently? Because I am assuming that the companies that you go into a novice to the whole foresight because this is what I have found. Many of the companies that I worked there, basically they trust me, but they don’t fully grasp what I’m bringing.

I agree and I think there’s a difference between using foresight to develop R&D or to develop strategy. A lot of my work is about what organizations want to have a broader conversation about, so it’s almost looking at what are the values of an organization, what do they stand for, what are they willing to have a conversation about that may not necessarily be about just purely driving sales and dollars from selling products and services standpoint? It’s about what do we stand for and what do we want to have a broader conversation about in our community and the immersive design fiction is one element of design fiction, so immersive theater for example, is a practice that I do in a collaborative environment with three of four other designers and we put together an immersive theater installation. It’s a interactive installation. We’ve done it in a trade shows which have a specific audience to doing it in a public all night long art event show for the city of Toronto last year called <inaudible>  We had about a thousand people come from the public,  as you can imagine, it’s a thousand people that probably are very, very different from each other.  And that immersive theater is so powerful because when you walk into it, they know they’re coming into an installation. What people don’t realize is as soon as they walk through the doors to becoming a participant and they’re purely guided by how they interact with us as actors who are staged. Our script to our artifacts those could be visual or physical and you walk in and your guidance and you slowly figure out step by step that, I’m a patient in a clinic  and see a doctor. It’s theatrical but it’s also really nuanced. It’s really nerdy and really researched. Every element of this installation is an extrapolation of a trend or signal or driver overseeing.  And inherently it’s also an extrapolation of the values that were seeing it makes you want to question, are these the values and principles by which we want to live our lives as a society? And to give you an example, the most recent installation. It’s nature deficit disorder clinic in the year 2067, so 50 years from today a nature deficit disorder clinic.  And this clinic treats you for nature deficit disorder and that’s basically as our cities become more concrete and greenspace becomes less accessible as our socioeconomic inequity and disparity becomes larger so the wealthier becoming wealthier and those on the lower spectrum are becoming poorer. And combining that with austerity. So the government maybe can’t keep public parks anymore as a free thing. You have to pay to access public spaces if those things start to happen.

And greenspace doesn’t become as accessible for a large subsection of society. What does that mean for our mental health? What does that mean for equality and equity. And so this clinic says, if you couldn’t afford it, that’s okay we will provide the service for you it’s virtual, it’s a virtual access to nature. And so it’s playing on these things that actually are happening, but we’re extrapolating it to 50 years from today and we tie everything in from a mental health to healthcare. What is healthcare delivery looked like 50 years from today? How would you feel if it was delivered to you that way to not take things for granted the way they are is it’s that tweak. It’s that question. It’s that push and pull that we try to explore. And theater is great because it respects all of you. You can walk in as Rachel, you can walk in as Nilda and your lived experiences, your personal truths, stay with you. And then that facilitated discussion at the end. We allow us to all have a conversation that says why did that impact you a certain way but not that person. And then we can get deeper into the systemic issues that differentiate our own experiences of our cities, of our services, of our products. And so it’s another way to have a much deeper conversation without excluding who you are as a person and your experiences and your assumptions about the future.

Fantastic. So, with that said, here’s my next question is. So the intention of the theater is to have the, and again, nothing beats experience I don’t care how smart you are, you can know something in your mind, you can be book smart but yet nothing beats experience. So is the intention of the experience to have these people begin to think of how they can make things better, how they can make change or is it experience so that they can again.. what is the attention of, the theater and what is the intention of the installation?

Sure. So again, the installation or the immersive theater is just like a one type of way that we can do design fiction, but the theater and the experiential component of it is powerful because, And it’s a group experience with people you don’t know, so it acts both as an opportunity for social cohesion. It also triggers us to think about, okay, if this is a possible future, what do I feel about it intellectually and emotionally. So it’s an embodied experience, right? We always are incorporating multiple senses, sight, sound, hearing, touch. So all of you is part of this so it is to have you think very critically about a possible future from not just an intellectual standpoint but also an effective standpoint, a and say, okay, what do I really think about this? What am I triggered and if I’m not triggered, why am I like, why that too? And if critically then thinking about what can I do to make myself go towards this future or what must do individually or as a society or collectively to bring a different possible future to life? It’s a social activist framework.

So this is like a place where they can actually begin to think critically and creatively and helping them through that exercise.

Yeah. Because I think most people don’t think about 50 years from today. Like we think about it, we read about Ai. If we’re nervous we maybe ignore all that, talk about Ai, but if we do an immersive theater and maybe you don’t know or maybe you do know it’s theater and you walk in, you’re going to have thoughts and you’re going to have perspectives. And our hope is that its will trigger you to act or to at least be informed by something. Our job also is to inform people and to share what we get to do in our works and our research with a lot of people who maybe don’t think about it or don’t have the opportunity to think about it.

So Prateeshka who commissions your work and why should they commission your work?

So before I answer that, this notion of like design fiction based community engagement work incorporates like theater and incorporates workshops I designed individually or collaboratively with the other designers or working across different sort of art based practices as well. Theater being just one of them. But I’ve worked collaboratively and individually with a theater company with higher education institution with a private company and at the next work that’s going to be publicly installed with Canada’s national ceramic museum called the Gardner Museum. And I also do work with conferences different kinds of conferences that are interested in intersectionality and how design can be used to talk about complex issues. And as well as the government actually the government in Canada is federally and provincially and municipally is really interested in using design principles to engage, with people differently.  And so I’m very fortunate to be getting those different opportunities in the government setting as well who are interested in the work that I do. And anybody can hire me to do this. I think anybody who cares strongly about a social issue and wants to engage differently with people but doesn’t necessarily know themselves how to, we work collaboratively to create something that speaks true to them, but also engages people. And it’s not technology only, right? This is like public. This is people talking to each other. People running against each other, this is people walking next to each other in some sort of lived, embodied experience.

These are not script so they’re not given a script to do, they’re being themselves in this live theater.

In the theater, if they don’t even know they’re walking into an immersive theater, maybe they do, maybe they don’t. In other workshops it’s about drawing something. It’s about using personification. It’s about speaking, writing a story from a third person perspective that allows people to no longer be so self critical. It allows them to talk about is from the perspective of a clay pot in their kitchen, they talked about their relationship with food in a way that’s really like honest. But if it was, I maybe you want to be more guarded and postured. And so I play with different ways to talk about things that are really personal as well that don’t necessarily make you uncomfortable. It’s not about uncomfortable.

Fantastic. So what does it take to put something like this together? Like this is huge. I mean, you go into a small company, that’s what thing but you’re even doing this in trade shows where there are thousands of people.  How do you put it together?

It’s always collaborative. Most of these really large public interventions. The immersive theater piece has always, in my experience, been done with the collaboration with other designers. I have worked with three other designers most frequently up till now it’s Burger Ebi, he’s in Iceland now, Norton Ngozi, she’s in Ottawa, Canada, and Jennifer McDougall, the four of us have worked on four installations together and it takes us a course of three months, at least minim three to four months minim of like research, creating, working with the client to pitch ideas and concepts of what the theatrical like framework will be. What’s the scaffolding. Then going into script to artifact creation, like retreat, physical things for the future. We also create visual imagery and posters that trigger people to know, oh, okay, we’re not in 2017. And so their script writing, there’s actors, there’s training people, there’s practicing, there’s like what do we need to make this space that we are going to recreate to be 50 years from today, what needs to go in here that lets people know just by cues and by looking at something like, oh, that’s not normal. So all of that takes a few months of time. It’s not like an instantaneous thing, especially because everything is so nuanced. If someone asks us anything we can point to research, we can point to what extrapolation we’ve made from this thing to this thing to come to this thing.   So the theater piece is one and I work with other designers on what I was telling you about the Gardner Museum. We’re creating a fictional civilization that’s going to be exhibited at a national museum and we’re going to be working with youth to help create the artifacts of this fictional civilization. So we do the foresight research about what are the constraints that society may face in the forward, in the future, but then we actually make it. We make these constraints be part of a fictional civilization that’s being unearthed as part of a development project. And so we’re reframing our constraints and I think one of the things that all of us do as foresight and especially when we’re working, with complex issues is how do we reframe things so that people aren’t intimidated by something. And so you can position our future constraints in such a way that people see it as a past civilizations problems and suddenly you’re able to come up with solutions or ideas or creative ways to navigate them because you can distance yourself from them. That’s what they suffered. If they could have done this or that’s a possibility. But sometimes when it’s yourself, you’re so overwhelmed or intimidated or nervous that you may not be able to engage in those concepts the same way. So part of our work is how do we reframe things in such a way that people are willing to engage in them.

So being a CPA and you’re still licensed, you’re still an active CPA, how does that come to play? How do you merge that into this?  Fascinating, fascinating work.

My license, I still have my license, 10 years on. I actually did switch to active license but exempt from CPE. So my 40 hours a year of CPE I don’t have to do at the moment. But I actually have, for example, if I’m on the board with the Association of Professional Futurists, I just joined and I’m on the finance committee, so there’s this element of keeping that alive, contributing it in a different way to different initiatives that I work on. I was just on a board that worked on environmental education here in Toronto and I was the finance chair. So I think I try to keep the finance piece more structurally alive with all the things outside and in the projects, you know, being an auditor is so much about process. It’s about does this make sense? The logic checks and so as you both know, when you talk about the future, it’s so easy for people to feel lost or to not be able to connect to it. And my role oftentimes in my teamwork is to be able to find those things that will just a small shift that makes something from implausible to possible. Or that logic connection is I think something I do naturally as a result of being a trained auditor.

And then look at things from  the human behavior of standpoint and that’s how I’m able to bring it all together because when I’m working with an organization and I know that change is difficult. So what are the things that we can put in place? Understanding human behavior, understanding what’s difficult. So you’re right. Everything we have in life it does play a role. So I think that’s fascinating. I love that. So again, right now, the people that come into your work or you’re working with the government as well as small companies, where do you see the future? Where do you see your future going with? Because futures is now becoming I mean at one time, I think even maybe five, six years ago people still shied away from it, but I think people want to see and  know more. Where do you see the future of futures?

Oh, I mean, I think, like you just said, I think I hear the word futures like all over the place now. And I don’t think it’s just my filter bubbles or the internet at least I don’t think so. I went into a university event at University of Toronto and it was around Afrofuturism. So while the concept is being thrown around a lot and there’s a possibility the way it’s being thrown around isn’t in line with how futurists may use it, but at least, when something’s out there and it’s being sort of circulated, there’s an opportunity to have a conversation about it. So I see that being a really great thing for us because we’re at this really critical moment where we need to think about what are we investing in, what are the companies that we support by purchasing their products or services where our companies wanting to invest their own money all aligned at the same time with people increasingly aware about the practice of futures and giving them features, work and foresight.  And so for me, I think this is a really great time for us as practitioners to be able to take these conversations to the mainstream level because we need a much more democratized conversation about futures and foresight work. It can’t be siloed like it has been in the past and boardrooms and government offices singularly or principally. And so I think I seen for sure with academia, no doubt it was siloed and all of these areas. And I think we have the ability to engage with more people need to have a voice in what they want for their future as a society to be collectively. And I think we have the ability to, to direct that because we have frameworks and we’ve been working in this space. I think my work is about playing a role in that democratization of broader conversations, social cohesion, more opportunities for us to have shared conversations and shared frameworks around optimism and what does that mean for all of us to and reality. So like we were saying like the future’s coming no matter what. And I think the ability of playing with possible futures and possible future scenarios is that at least you can prepare for what might be a possibility and just get thinking in the process, but it’s coming whether you want it or not.

And  in the CPA world, can you give them that example because I know because I’ve done some research that said that whole financial industry, especially because of Ai is to systematic so it’s almost like disappearing. So yes, tell them a little bit more.

Yeah. So again, like you got, as I said, I’m a CPA and I practice in a big four audit firm as well amongst private companies, public companies, but audit as a practice, as a career, is it a very precipitous point. Given Ai, given Internet of things, given all these different ways that we can use technology to do a lot of things, audit. It can see the possibility of it coming to an end and the choice of audit and the whole field. And all of us who are CPAS is to say, okay, if that’s a possibility, what do we need to do to pivot? What do we need to get ahead of it, what do we need to do to change who we are? And I think our skill sets are so valuable. They cannot be taken lightly. And so if that field is not going to be what it is and you don’t prep for it, then we actively walk into your, our own end, right?

This is what I think is so critical. So it’s not just this is going to come to it and that’s it. I’m not going to have a job, but what are the other possibilities? What else can this do?  Because I’m an auditor or because of the CPA, I think a certain way, how can I tweak that to look like? What else can I audit? What else could they look at? What else can I say? That to me is the fascinating part. So it’s not about having a crisis because my job is going to be gone or they’re not going to beat me anymore, but what else can I do because of the skillset.

The end is a perception like the end is also a beginning and I think it’s our job to sometimes not see the end as the end and be all and then avoid it because it makes us have an existential crisis.  That conversation about some entire sector no longer looking at all like what it does right now within a matter of just a few, like a couple decades at max really requires to be able to like take a step into that really uncomfortable place, but also like we can pivot. There are opportunities and that can be explored by scenarios. That’s not the only way, but at least it gets you mentally psyched to be able to be open to having a conversation about other possibilities.

I look at this like Christopher Columbus, Christopher Columbus thought that what he saw was all that was there.  He didn’t realize that the world was round, but he was like, I want to go to the edge of that and if I fall off the cliff to fall off the cliff, but I want to see what’s there.  And that’s basically what futures is. There’s this horizon, there’s so much more out there. You can’t see it all. So whether you’re a CPA or a doctor or it doesn’t matter what your career is. But to look beyond that to say I want to. If that’s the case, I want to see more because they have to be something else out there.

Totally its the possibilities and no one is saying that futurists or forsighters are like I think one of the biggest misconceptions I feel I have, and maybe you can speak to this, is that where crystal ball bearers that’s not what we do.

It’s no right answer. It’s just prepping yourself for the possibilities

Like a meteorologists they’ll tell you that its going to snow the possibility of snow with such as such, but they can’t guarantee that there’s good that that blizzard is even going to happen.

But it allows you to be prepared if that contingency happens. Like I think part of my work is creating that scaffolding, using design and art to be able to have conversation just to have the conversation.

To have the conversation, to take that conversation and to develop strategies for that change. I love it. Yes. Perfect. Awesome.

Thank you guys.

That’s wonderful. I love it. Thank you so much. So Prateeska your next project is going to be a Toronto when

The next public project is being installed at the Gardner Museum and the first two weeks of August, so August 1st to August 16th or 17th at the Gardner Museum and that’s with Calie who was another foresight strategist and that’s next public one. There’s a possibility for a couple of conference conversation. I mean, talks but, as you know all that is sort of announced slowly, so when that, becomes public I will definitely share.

Yeah. So we would love to be there. Luckily it’s still warm enough because I know Canada can get really cold. So yeah, we look forward to that. We will love to be there and I want to thank you. Thank you so much for sharing your insights. This has been wonderful. I am an evangelist for. I call myself a futurists evangelist that I want this information to get to everyone and this is it. This is the purpose of the show because I feel that the more people hear it, they’ll more embrace it and they’ll it. I love what you do because you actually make the experience futures, which is right. Yeah.

Yeah. And I think we train people right as you do. Like everywhere we go, we give people an opportunity to also learn about these frameworks. They’re not just something I hold to myself. This is something that you use in your life and your company and it’s just a really great way to learn to deal with uncertainty, which is like all around us and ambiguity, which is again all around us. I would love to have you guys here in August and the value of our work is we can talk about really important issues in a really creative way.

Love it. Email me, make sure you email me all the information. We’ll make the arrangements so that we can be there. So Prateeska thank you so much for being here. Thank you so much for this opportunity. This is great. I am very, very excited about this. We definitely as things emerge and if you start doing more, we would love to have you back to share the experiences because what we try to do is try to make it as comprehensive but bringing real life experiences to people and examples so that they can see where they fit in to futures. Yeah. Thank you. So thank you. All right, so we will see you will be talking to you. So. All right guys, so I will like to thank everyone for being here and we’ll be back next week with another futurist so that you could get more to make more discoveries on how to position yourself for the future. All right then. Until then. Bye Bye. Bye.

Our Guest

Prateeksha Singh is a CPA turned designer who works at the intersection of: design thinking, foresight, ethnography, and systems change.

She freelances under her own creative consultancy called ‘Mpathy’ where she is, in relation to futures work, developing a design fiction based community engagement practice.

She is also completing her M.Des in Strategic Foresight & Innovation at OCAD University (Toronto), and has been appointed to the Board of Directors for the Association of Professional Futurists.

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Interview With Prateeska Singh- “Immersive Design Fiction Theatre”

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