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The past year or so has seen me venturing into the mysterious field of “speculative design.” In The Apocalypse Project, I’m trying to see possible futures under climate change, which are generally not pretty visions of tomorrow.

There are lessons I’ve learned as well as experiences whose lessons I’m still trying to find. Here they are:

1. Stories rule.

When it comes to something as dry and political as climate change, the best way to get people to care is to let them find a personal story. Climate change is humanity’s story, not just a few individuals’. It is also complex and multilayered; a photo of a melting glacier might trigger the emotions of people living near them, but it might not be as effective to a person who has never experienced a winter. Here in Southeast Asia, I notice that people paid more attention to stories about rising sea levels, extreme heat or supertyphoons, because those are the things that they have personally experienced and have something to say about.

However, this isn’t to say that people in the tropics will never care about polar bears. I think that another property about the climate story is that so many things are connected—a melting glacier may further alarm people who are experiencing drought, for example—and there are opportunities to connect these dots that people never realized existed.

2.  The power belongs to the people.

When people want to buy these hypothetical products, I’m taken aback and get a conscience attack of sorts. My goal was to show people how bad it could get, but instead people’s consumerist tendencies prevailed.

But then, why wouldn’t they want to buy these? I had made them so real that they only thing that was missing was a PayPal button.

I realized the power of people as consumers; the exchange of money for product allows for the existence of these objects. These transactions keep these products—and the ideas behind them—alive. If people refuse to buy the product, then it marks the end of it.

What does this mean for futures? For me, it gives me a barometer to see what types of people are out there. I’ve realized that the point of speculative design is to ignite debate. By making these projects, people have the opportunity to talk about these issues. There are so many opinions out there that

Should I sell these? This is something I keep thinking about. Perhaps letting people buy them allows for even greater awareness, as long as they know the intentions behind it. Let me get back to you.

3. The true test is converting a denier.

The bulk of the people who have emailed me or tweeted about how the like the project are usually futurists, artists, or other people who are already aware of climate change to begin with. While I’m extremely grateful for this, especially for the future collaborations that it could ensue, to put it bluntly these people are already smarties. The next cohort of people that I’ve impacted are the “laymen”—those whose work has nothing to do with design or sustainability, but are folks who can see their personal stories in these projects. I think this is wonderful because I’ve always wanted my designs to exist beyond, well, design. Children have always been among my primary—and usually the sharpest—audience and I usually prototype my ideas on them to see if I’m being too unnecessarily confusing.

Perhaps the pinnacle of “success” in doing projects like this is when I am able to convert a climate change denier. This is the final cohort of people who are going to be the hardest to convert but are those who will give me the greatest pleasure to impact. When the initial wave of press for my projects hit, I get trolling tweets from climate change deniers literally seconds later. It’s usually how I know that my projects are being written about. I would often joke to my friends about how they’re usually just a bunch of old white guys, usually in the US, who’ve never experienced the scale of a tropical typhoon and probably don’t get out much anyhow so who cares. I never engage in them, but the more I think about it, these are the ones that, if converted, means that I was extremely effective in conveying ideas.

But I just think they’re so gross. What to do, hmm. Any ideas?

4. Everyone can contribute to this.

In Future Feast, I got a bit floored towards the end because I truly felt that it was transformative for a lot of people. Having multiple talents together—musicians, artists, designers, scientists, etc.—can feel like high school because they have very different personalities, and I as the one behind this was a bit anxious that the dots wouldn’t connect because everyone had their own vested interest in the project. However, I realized that it was in this multilayered experience that gave people a meaningful experience. In the end, it was great to feel that it wasn’t just my project anymore—it was everyone’s, which was the point.

I’m still evaluating the impact of the work I’ve done in the past few months. Stay tuned here for updates on what’s next, and thanks so much for keeping up with the projects!

 

This weekend, I tried to up my diving skills in Anilao, Batangas. It’s my second time seeing Sombrero Island:

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It reminds me of this island in Jindo, which I nicknamed Little Prince Island since it looks like Exupery’s drawing of the hat with the snake inside. (I wrote about it before here.)

This looked so familiar.

This looked so familiar.

I’m less buoyant. Hurray!

In line with The Apocalypse Project and my future environmental / technology projects, today I doodled diagrams and lines and other things to make sense of what I did, what I’m currently doing, and what I plan to do:

doodling on a Saturday

doodling on a Saturday

Hmm.

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I snapped this photo from Books Actually, a lovely independent bookstore in Singapore.

2013 was the year I turned 30. I feel wise, or perhaps to be more specific, wizened, and thus a recap of “lessons learned.” Ha. Working in the intersection of art, science, and design, I have learned many things both enriching and hilarious from the three primary groups of people I work with. And thus a blogpost to remember. (I identify with all of these groups, so this isn’t a judgy list; I am part of this, too).

1.Everyone desires meaningful work.

2. Everyone desires to be with family and loved ones and to do what really matters to them.

3. Things would work so much better if one person can speak the “language” of at least two disciplines.

4. Artists in black (or clothes stained in their chosen media) and scientists in lab coats (the cool ones would have interesting hair) and designers in plaid shirts and special mention of architects in crisp white shirts. Because fashion.

5. At the end of the day, people are just afraid of messing up and looking like a fool. (Hello, Impostor Syndrome.)

6. Vanity. #Facebook #TrueStory

7. People ranked in increasing order of empathy: scientists<artists<designers

8. People ranked in increasing order of engaging Powerpoint presentations: scientists<<artists <<<<designers. Also: favorite fonts. Scientists: Verdana. (Oh dear.) Artists: Arial. Designers: Gotham, Helvetica, Proxima.

9. People ranked in increasing order of prompt and well-thought-of email I receive: artists<scientists<designers.

10. Every saint has a past, every sinner has a future.

(Note that I only use scientists, artists, and designers to define what people project on the outside. I think many of the scientists I’ve met are also artists—they just don’t have a chance to show that side very much—and many artists are designers, and designers are artists and scientists, and so on. And yes, I suppose this only applies to the artists, scientists, and designers I have met.)

My graduate school alma mater, the MFA Interaction Design program of the School of Visual Arts, recently published 20 Lessons in Interaction Design, inviting alumni to share insights about design and their careers, with some lovely quotes from the faculty. I was Lesson #19. Here is what I wrote, which I will be the first to admit was an episode of me talking to myself:

When I was a student, my self-doubt came from not wanting the same things as my peers. I wanted a life primarily of adventure, of immersing myself in the unknown, and getting through it a stronger person.

You are the architect of your dreams—do not waste any time focusing on what other people want. Make sure that your accomplishments as a student pale in comparison to your accomplishments as an independent adult. I still learn this every day, a year out of school. I experienced a lot of growth in SVA IxD, which prepared me for my present challenges that are making me break even more personal barriers. Two years of graduate school were a valuable stepping-stone; they were a way of filling up my creative arsenal as I venture even further into the unknown.

As I write this, I am on my fourth passport, learning my sixth language, and will soon be living and working in my fifth country. As you enter the real world, if you feel that you are not growing any further—and if this makes you unhappy—it probably means you need to dream bigger.

Visit the IxD blog for more.

Since coming back home a few days ago, I’ve had a good number of what I now realize are anxiety attacks. I haven’t had these, well, ever. You know when you can’t breathe and you feel your chest caving in and you burst out in tears every few minutes? That’s the one.

Just what is it with a homecoming, which is supposed to be a celebratory affair, something that has become a time fraught with worry and trepidation? I have hiked dozens of mountains, have had several near-death experiences, and had to pull through on so many near-impossible projects, but I’ve noticed that I have difficulty walking through my own neighborhood. Familiarity was far from comforting—I wanted to take the next plane out.

I suppose that growing up, I’ve always been made to feel—perhaps involuntarily (or at least I would hope so)—that I didn’t belong. Never a day went by when I wasn’t called out for my skin color, my weight, my accent, my height, my choices. Being at home, it was always a time for either endless interrogation or mournful indifference. The questions of why I travel a lot and why I do what I do and why I don’t conform to a specific type, as well as the blank stares of incomprehension are depressing. You are expected to revert back to your original state. People don’t wish you well anymore; they just wish you were gone. The accomplishments and growth when I was away make me feel guilty. I always come back with a lot of sadness and even more terror.

I’ve realized that the city that raised me is the only one that hasn’t claimed me as one of them. New York gobbled me up and spat me out a New Yorker who had to earn her stripes the hard way. I would claim a lot of roots in Barcelona, which taught me how to live well. And Seoul has pretty much adopted me as her own—though perhaps it was because of my quick assimilation to their culture and the bizarre (and by now, admissible) fact that I do look a lot like her people. Even Singapore, with whom I didn’t expect to belong, has given me people with whom I have genuine connections with and I actually miss. These cities have all marked me in their own ways, so much so that after ten years of travel, people can’t really guess where I am from anymore.

To be fair, all the times I’ve traveled for long periods of time were for programs by perfectly legit institutions. Each leaving was a gamble and I always flew out with so much uncertainty, but I always ended up with a plan, a routine, a welcoming and goodbye committee, and most importantly, solid work that shaped my views as an adult. I can tell you exactly what I did there, each with a website, spreadsheets, slideshows, and a hard drive full of data.  People from other places were always open and eager to hear what I had to say. Just what is it with their easy acceptance of foreigners like me? Why is it that I feel much more at home in unfamiliar places and am always on guard and frightened where I am from?

I suppose that travel-based growth has expiated me of a lot. Excessive social media use, concern for material things, and worrying about one’s place in society are habits that are left, I think, to people who have never had to survive in far from home. And inasmuch as I love the internet for being able to stay connected with people, I also feel that many have substituted it for real relationships.

I noticed that over the years, my sense of time has been recalibrated. The minute things are suddenly shining with importance. Each meeting became more valuable, because it might be the last. I never wore jewelry or kept anything that didn’t have a specific practical use, except when it was given by a friend. I learned the importance of showing up in spite of being “crazy busy.” Many times, goodbye really did mean goodbye, because one is never the same in the next step of his life.

I tell myself that I was perfectly happy a few days ago, and that the past year was the best I’ve had.

I need to fix this. Because designers, while fixing other people’s problems, should in fact, fix themselves first.

The Holiday Hackathon is an excellent excuse to do all the touristy things in Singapore I’ve always wanted to do but never had the time. Today was a trip to Jurong Bird Park, Asia’s largest aviary.

I had a great afternoon surrounded by beautiful birds and three iguanas sunning themselves. I learned new things—a group of pelicans is a squadron, ostrich only have two toes, scarlet ibises get their color from the carotene in their diet, etc.

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I love penguins, but I do wonder about animals kept in climates obviously not meant for them. This isn’t the first time; in Seoul’s Children’s Zoo, I saw a polar bear and a camel. But if their original habitats are disappearing, is it justifiable that they’re here, fed and watered at least? People who may never get a chance to go to polar regions only have places like these to go to. And maybe it would inspire some kids to be conservationists. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments. I just hope these animals are happy.

Penguins. In the tropics. Hmm.

Penguins. In the tropics. Hmm.

I loved seeing birds I didn’t know existed, such as a cassowary, which is a descendant from the dinosaurs. (Or as I like to call it, a rainbow turkey.) This one was a bit shy. Or perhaps because it was a really hot afternoon and needed the shade.

My first cassowary!

My first cassowary!

Another bird I had no idea existed. Here is a rare shoebill from Sudan. There was only a fence between it and me. It did not look happy to see me. Or did it?

A rare shoebill.

A rare shoebill.

And for the heck of it, I tracked my trail around the park when I was: A. In the tram, and B. Walking.

Happy Trails. (L) Track made by riding the tram. (R) Track made by walking.

Happy Trails. (L) Track made by riding the tram. (R) Track made by walking.

Obviously, the latter made me look at more things, but by how much? The tram ride was about 15 minutes and walking and mindful looking took me about two hours, walking more than twice the distance the tram covered. The experience designer in me is taking notes.

The Holiday Hackathon is an exploration/discovery project of me spending my last couple of weeks in Singapore. I just finished an art/science residency, and I’m hoping that asking questions and going to new places will help me figure out that next step/project. 

 

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