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Extrapolation Factory will sell you the future

A design studio predicts what you'll be buying in 2050 – one neon-lit 99¢ store at a time

Think about the places you visit every day: the pharmacy around the corner, or a bakery on your way to work. Now imagine those same places 10, 20, 100 years in the future. They’re still familiar, but marked discrepancies catch your eye. Perhaps plastics have become an uncommon packaging material after trade policy unexpectedly shook oil markets. Maybe wheat was supplanted by a genetic variant that grows in arid climates due to disruption of conventional grain supply by rising temperatures. Or it could simply be that when going to make a purchase, the sign taped to the register lists all accepted cryptocurrencies.

The Extrapolation Factory, a New York-based future-research and design studio, believes we could all benefit by making this type of speculation more common. After building a diverse portfolio including appearances in MoMA’s Talk to Me exhibition and the International Design Biennale, as well as consulting for Microsoft, Intel, and the US Advanced Research Projects Agency, Chris Woebken and Elliott P. Montgomery decided to bring their expertise to the public through a series of pop-up installations that encourage temporal awareness and aim to give people the potential to realize their own possible futures. Dazed asks them about foresight, public art, and their own projections for what’s to come.

Dazed Digital: Extrapolation Factory employs a speculative method you call "futuring." Can you tell us a little about this practice and its social potential? 

Extrapolation Factory: We're interested in facilitating opportunities for thinking about the future with a broad range of people, including experts and non-experts, and doing it in accessible ways.  Critical future forecasting is often left to academics or specialists, but the practice of imagining our futures can be valuable to everyone. The practice of imagining, prototyping, testing and evaluating ideas of possible futures on an extended time scale can change the way we approach near-term behaviors and decisions. 

DD: What are some of the most interesting speculative objects that have come out of futuring?

Extrapolation Factory: There are so many interesting ideas that participants have come up with. One is called “Perform-Air.” The creator of this future-product imagined it might be bought and used to hack a self-driving car’s built-in breathalyzer equipment by capturing the user’s breath before she’s had a few drinks. What we love about this idea is the cultural complexity it alludes to – a technosphere of preventative measures that might still be hackable with low-tech means, a business model which intentionally makes products to be misused, and a society with recalibrated values, looking the other way in the face of drunk “driving.”

DD: What draws you to public artwork rather than showing in a gallery? Are people more inclined to future thinking when given context?

Extrapolation Factory: Anytime someone considers a consumer decision, they take a split second to evaluate it, and to consider how it would fit with their life. At the 99¢ Futures store, shoppers entered the space with this type mindframe, but then applied this attention to the fabricated future products. To make this experience more immersive, we transformed many parts of the 99¢ Futures store, including customized banners promoting offerings such as implants and reputation index services. We became “employees” for the evening, wearing pharmacy coats, sweeping floors and helping curious customers.

As shoppers came across the items from the future, conversations began to light up the aisles with critique and extrapolation. As the cashier rang up the purchases, we casually asked customers why they decided to “invest” in one future or another. The answers were varied, some guided by humor or thrill, while others had personal attachment to the ideas.  A customer buying a “Home Transplant Kit” explained, “this is for my son - he’s a doctor.” When we experience an artifact in an authentic context, there’s a fantastic moment where connections are made that would never occur in a more clinical setting. This is the moment we’re after, and continue to explore. 

DD: Do you have a specific agenda, or do you see it more as an impartial mechanism for encouraging people to be more forward thinking and conscious of timescale?

Extrapolation Factory: We’re focused on developing the method, and aim to be impartial to the extent that’s possible. Obviously, the process is influenced by our curation of the inspiration included in our process, but we try to cull a diverse and conflicting array of inspiration that might contradict itself – provoking participants to consciously critique possible futures, and therefore making the outcomes more thoughtful, and more personalized. 

We both studied at the RCA’s Design Interactions program, an academic course which is centered around peoples’ interactions with technologies.  We think of technology in the broadest sense, as a key influence on the way the future could unfold.  So with our current research we still aim to investigate relationships to technology, but we’re doing so in a speculative manner.  We’re not interested in defining interactions with technologies, but rather provoking participants to theorize ways in which we could interact with technology.

DD: Can you give us one of your own predictions for the future?

Extrapolation Factory: Today, many of us think about relatively narrow, near-term futures: what the weather might be this week, our vacation possibilities or our retirement planning. The culture of broad futuring has been seeded by think tanks, military culture and corporate environments, and now is being adapted by many other contexts. We imagine that systematically thinking about futures will become more prevalent and more rigorous, and we hope to influence this trend.