How might we imagine a different future?

by Christian Rauch
Berlin, 27.12.2022

Christian Rauch talks to ChatGPT about feedback gathered from visitors of the exhibition : RETOOL at ZKM | Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe via Futures Canvas. Futures Canvas is a digital tool for collaboratively mapping possible futures. It uses gamification, crowdsourcing and futures-thinking to address wicked problems through collective speculation and open ideation.

During the exhibition : RETOOL in November 2022, over 1500 visitor interactions were collected via an on-site exhibit. The interactions consisted of 60 speculations of possible future developments which were rated over 1400 times. Visitors were asked to take one of the artworks of the : RETOOL exhibition as a starting point and share a thought about how the future could be imagined differently. Visitors could also rate the submissions of others in terms of their perceived desirability and probability.

ChatGPT is the latest prototype of a conversational AI developed by OpenAI and has been released in November 2022. For the purpose of this interview, ChatGPT has been fed with the submissions collected and rated during the exhibition.

Check out what it had to say…

Christian Rauch: Hi! We just finished the exhibition : RETOOL. It was on the topic of re-imagining the future and I would love to get your thoughts on the feedback we collected. During the exhibition, people submitted their thoughts on how we could imagine the future differently. What do you make out of it?

ChatGPT: There are a lot of great ideas here for reimagining the future in a more sustainable and equitable way. Some common themes that emerge include a focus on nature and the environment, a desire for more sustainable transportation and infrastructure, and a desire for a more equitable and just society.
One idea that stands out is the idea of using interconnectedness of trees to repair urban spaces and reduce feelings of loneliness. This could involve planting more trees in urban areas, or creating green spaces where people can interact with nature.

Another key idea is the need to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and move towards a more sustainable energy system. This could involve investing in renewable energy sources like solar and wind power, or finding ways to make our current energy systems more efficient.

There is also a strong emphasis on the importance of education, ethics, and cultural exchange in building a better future. This could involve investing in education, promoting cultural exchange and understanding, and encouraging people to think about the ethical implications of their actions.

Overall, it seems that the respondents are envisioning a future that is more sustainable, equitable, and connected to nature. These are all important goals that we should strive towards as we work to build a better future for all.

This image was created by the DALL-E 2 algorithm and visualizes the short story of a utopian future summarised at the end of this interview.

Visitors were asked to rate the submitted speculations regarding their perceived desirability and probability that these will become a future reality. What differences can you find between the submitted thoughts rated as desirable and those rated as undesirable?

It seems that the thoughts rated as desirable are generally more positive and hopeful, focusing on ways in which we could create a more sustainable, equitable, and harmonious future. These thoughts often emphasize the importance of nature, sustainability, and social justice, and suggest ways in which we could work towards these goals.

On the other hand, the thoughts rated as undesirable are generally more negative and dystopian, focusing on potential negative outcomes of technological and societal developments. These thoughts often highlight the potential risks and challenges that we may face in the future, and suggest scenarios in which these challenges could lead to negative consequences.

One key difference between the two sets of thoughts is their focus on agency and possibility. The thoughts rated as desirable often suggest specific actions that we could take to create a better future, and suggest that it is within our power to shape the future in positive ways. In contrast, the thoughts rated as undesirable often present the future as more deterministic, suggesting that certain negative outcomes are inevitable or that we are powerless to prevent them.

Overall, it seems that the thoughts rated as desirable are more hopeful and optimistic, while the thoughts rated as undesirable are more fearful and pessimistic. While it’s important to be aware of the potential risks and challenges that we may face in the future, it’s also important to stay hopeful and to work towards creating a better future for all.

What differences can you find between the speculations which are rated as probable and the submitted thoughts which were rated as improbable?

The statements rated as probable generally reflect realistic and achievable goals and plans for the future, such as building more bike paths, investing in education, separating waste correctly, and promoting the use of renewable energy sources like photovoltaics and thorium. These statements also acknowledge the challenges and impacts of climate change and suggest ways to mitigate them, such as minimizing animal product consumption, greening roofs and facades, and building with materials that can be reused.

In contrast, the statements rated as improbable tend to be more utopian or unrealistic, such as the idea that loneliness and lack of nature can be repaired through the interconnectedness of trees, that all water will be safe to swim in and drink from, or that capitalism will no longer exist. Some of these statements are also difficult to verify or quantify, such as the idea that whales bind CO2 or that green surroundings increase serotonin and dopamine production. Other statements, such as the idea of destroying cities or eliminating nuclear weapons, may be difficult to achieve due to practical or political challenges.

Let’s look into the submissions in more detail. When we combine the rated desirability and probability, we can divide the submissions into four categories – or four different futures: positive expectations (high probability, high desirability), hopeful dreams (low probability, high desirability), expected challenges (high probability, low desirability), and distant threats (low probability, low desirability). Can you summarize each of these categories and explain which future you see described there?

In their positive expectations, visitors imagine a future in which interconnectedness between trees, clean water, and a harmonious balance between culture and nature are the norm. Bike paths, fewer cars and a reliance on natural resources will be the way of life and green roofs, photovoltaics, and green facades will be commonplace in cities. Wealth and poverty will not exist and a car-free infrastructure will be available to everyone. Robots will pick up the garbage and all new developments will be produced in a CO2-neutral way. We will abolish nuclear weapons. Cancer will be curable, and more greening, water, and rail lines will be seen in cities. Automated processes carried out by robots and artificial intelligence will be ubiquitous, and life will be brought to more planets in our Milky Way.

But visitors also see expected challenges. The future may bring a tipping point of climate catastrophe, leading to the loss of many of the achievements of the modern world. In an effort to address this challenge, the use of thorium to produce nuclear energy may become more widespread, but this solution also carries its own set of risks. Transactions may become easier thanks to advances in technology, but this may also lead to the loss of jobs to automation. Cities are likely to continue to grow and encroach on natural areas, and our society may become increasingly characterized by automated processes carried out by robots and artificial intelligence. Despite these challenges, the world with further advancing climate change may only look slightly different, as the changes brought about by climate change may be incremental.

Visitors do also imagine other, more distant threats. One of these challenges may be the ability to manage all people so that they do not harm the environment. Instead of trees, it is suggested that whales may be more effective at binding CO2. All people may also voluntarily wear FFP2 masks to protect themselves from respiratory risks. However, there may be instances of destruction in cities and a feeling of loneliness as society is steered by a few powerful corporations. These corporations may also prevent any possibility of social renewal by suppressing spontaneous impulses through strict documentation requirements.

At the same time, visitors also shared hopeful dreams about a future in which the interconnectedness of trees helps to repair urban spaces that are currently full of loneliness and a lack of nature. In this future, we will be able to swim and drink from our waters without worrying about pollution. Through the work of cultural institutions around the world, the boundaries between culture and nature will begin to disappear. Our needs will be based on the availability of natural resources and we will have a car-free infrastructure that allows us to be car independent. This future is described as wonderful and one in which wealth and poverty do not exist. People will have less stress and more vitality, and greened amenity spaces will replace car parking spaces to promote community. The capitalist system will not exist in the future and decentralized power will be the better alternative to states. People will learn to appreciate what they have because they will have to work to preserve sustainability. In greener surroundings, more serotonin and dopamine will be emitted. Cities will be characterized by green facades and trees on roofs, and it will be the cities that move towards nature rather than the other way around. There will be no war and no animals will be eaten. The 1.5-degree target for reducing greenhouse gas emissions will be achieved and there will be more streams in the city. All new developments will be produced in a CO2-neutral way. The economic system will change, but democracy will survive and nuclear weapons will be abolished. Evolutionary life will be brought to other planets in our galaxy and there will be fewer cars and more rail lines and group fares. Seniors who voluntarily surrender their driver’s licenses will be able to ride trains and buses for free. Overall, this future world will be characterized by more greening and water.

Let’s talk about possible action. What kind of ideas for sustainable action can be derived from these statements collected from the visitors?

It is possible to derive a range of ideas for sustainable action from the statements that were collected in the public poll. Some of the ideas that might be derived from these statements include:

  • Promoting environmental management practices that are designed to minimize harm to the environment.
  • Encouraging people to take action to protect the environment and reduce their impact on the planet.
  • Working to reduce the risk of climate catastrophe by taking steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate the effects of climate change.
  • Promoting the use of renewable energy sources and reducing reliance on fossil fuels.
  • Encouraging people to adopt more sustainable consumption patterns and reduce their consumption of resources.
  • Encouraging the use of sustainable building practices, such as using sustainable materials and designing buildings to be energy-efficient.
  • Promoting the development of sustainable transportation systems, such as bike-sharing programs and public transportation.
  • Encouraging people to adopt more sustainable diets, such as reducing the consumption of animal products and increasing the consumption of plant-based foods.
  • Supporting efforts to reduce waste and promote the reuse and recycling of materials.
  • Promoting the development of sustainable communities, such as those that are designed to foster a sense of community and connection to nature.

Thank you very much for this conversation. It would be wonderful to part on a hopeful note. Could you take all the submissions which were rated as positive and write a short story out of it, in fairytale style?

Once upon a time in a far-off land, there was a beautiful city surrounded by rolling hills and sparkling waters. The city was filled with towering green buildings that seemed to grow right out of the earth, their roofs and walls covered in a thick blanket of plants and flowers. The people of this city lived in harmony with nature, basing their needs on the availability of natural resources and using sustainable energy sources like photovoltaics and thorium.

There were no cars in this city, only bike paths and car-free infrastructure that made it easy for everyone to get around. The people of this city believed in the power of interconnectedness and the importance of preserving the environment, so they planted trees and replaced all car parking spaces with greened amenity spaces to promote community. They also made sure to properly separate their waste and build schools and other buildings in a way that ensured all materials could be reused when it was time to demolish them.

The city was also a place of great culture and education, where ethics were taught as a compulsory subject regardless of religious affiliation. The cultural institutions of the city worked tirelessly to blur the boundaries between culture and nature, creating a world where everyone could swim in and drink from the waters without worrying about pollution. There was no poverty or wealth in this city, just a sense of fairness and equality that enabled and promoted movement for people of all ages through freely accessible sports facilities and green spaces.

As the people of this city went about their daily lives, they felt a sense of peace and vitality that came from living in harmony with nature. They knew that their actions were helping to mitigate future crises and preserve the planet for generations to come. And so they lived happily ever after, in a world without war, without fossil fuels, and without the need to eat animals. It was a world of wonder, where anything was possible and everyone could thrive.

On the 26th of January, at 18:00 CET STATE Studio in Berlin will host a digital workshop to analyze and process the inputs collected during the exhibition with Futures Canvas.

More info and registration details at: .