Put on by the Center for Complexity at RISD
Funded by Infosys
Dear friends and colleagues,
Our symposium was realized through the hard work of our contributors and collaborators who engaged with us and one another across a variety of platforms. We had over 2100 unique visitors to www.generationc.xyz hailing from more than 65 countries. We are grateful for your kind attention. We hope you found the event to be intellectually challenging and creatively inspiring.
After 3 months working remotely, we are still grieving the loss of the in-person connections that makes work and life so enriching. We had been building our simple studio at RISD into a gathering place for collaborators, faculty, students, and staff. From workshops to our Complexity Coffee hours, we had grown to feel even more a member of the RISD community in our second year. We hope that the virtual community space created through this symposium has lasting benefit.
Initially, the need to host the symposium virtually felt like another loss. But as our contributors attempted to answer questions on what will stay and what will go as the threat of COVID-19 wanes, we discovered benefits to this way of convening. The opportunity for sustained thought and collaboration has yielded powerful insights. We will hold onto elements of this virtual format for our next symposium.
Portions of our lives came to a standstill due to the pandemic. In some ways, time stood still. This provided the space to pay close attention to our ideas, to one another, to colliding crises including COVID, police violence, systemic racism. But this pause also focused our attention on the need for connection and care — for ourselves and one another — in our homes, in our Zoom calls, on the streets. Connection and care are the basic necessities to navigate in times of crisis.
The landscape of ideas and observations that we collectively explored over the week was vast: from New Zealand’s promising experiments in new forms of democracy to the awful effects of systemic racism in the US, to the ways COVID-19 will likely deepen generational divides in wealth, culture, and politics. The CfC will continue to explore these topics and more in the months to come on our website.
To close the symposium, we would like to consider one somewhat unexpected recurring theme: time. Time has had an unusual nature of late. Rather than advancing predictably through routine, time seems to exhibit behavior similar to wave-particle duality. That is, time has been both fixed and fluid, slow and fast, precise and blurred simultaneously. Maybe time has always been this way, but the pandemic has reminded us that time is a construct that flows unevenly through our lives. It is critical now that we re-examine our relationship with time in order to both better understand our complex world and advance a variety of meaningful changes in society.
Notes on Time
Contributors confronted time through the familiar lenses of past, present, and future, but arrived at compelling insights.
In his meditation on maps, Bryan Boyer pointed to our ongoing collaboration with the past:
When one receives the convenient confidence of a map, it’s as if one is collaborating with an invisible group of predecessors to understand the world. They struggled here first so that I may pass with ease. This invisible collaboration is what makes maps conceptually similar to another feature of the contemporary world: silos of knowledge and effort.
But this collaboration requires trust and a willingness to “build your work upon theirs.” In this collaboration, one must be circumspect; looking for the errors that our predecessors have inevitably made in the process of constructing knowledge of the world.
Ignacio Garnham’s response to the Imagination essay reminds us that the past (and present) is directly tied to how the future can be accessed. For many of us, the right to imagine is curtailed by historical inequalities. For Garnham, the stories we tell about the past will shape the future:
Humans imagine futures using their memories. It is undeniable, therefore, that digging deeper into issues of collective memory will shed light on pervasive practices deeply buried in procedural memory. Yes, the past can be re-told, but as Eyal Weizman, Fred Martins, and others have shown, it can also be re-designed. Insofar as temporality is a commodity, being strategic in re-imagining how we speak about the past can provide currency to swim ahead in the tides of temporality: HeLa, the mother of modern medicine or Henrietta Lacks, the black woman stripped from her cell line? Rosa Parks, the fragile old lady on the wrong side of the bus, or Rosa Parks, the determined activist? How we communicate past events that fuel future change matters.
In this historic moment, the present looms large in the experiences and imaginations of all of our contributors. From the killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery to hundreds of thousands of COVID-19 related deaths, to the unmistakable present-day impacts of climate change, this moment weighs heavily on all of us.
Ingrid Burrington’s acerbic reaction to this moment, Don’t Hold Your Breath, eviscerates the present with breathtaking clarity. She writes:
Of course, all of the immediate crises are intertwined and part of the older, deeper crises. Even responding to the pandemic grimly enables the climate crisis by producing mountains upon mountains of unrecyclable hydrocarbon-derived biomedical waste (a curiously discarded detail of the feel-good history of meltblown polypropylene face masks currently protecting doctors from the virus is that they exist, in part, thanks to the R&D work of the Esso Corporation).
Burrington collapses the future into the present. “Don't stay suspended in the possibility of choices…” she says, “Consider how you might all live otherwise. Live otherwise. Or don't. Make a choice.” Decisions must be made now.
The future provides a bit of relief from the present, perhaps, because there are still options. But we feel an intense responsibility to prevent relief from becoming complacency, again.
Would Dan Hill’s proposition of “slowdown” in our daily lives, in our work culture, as a newly widely accepted mental construct, help us address systemic challenges, by granting us a different expected speed at which to operate?
Damian White questions responsibility over time, writing, “the use of generational thinking and categories to understand, explain and ultimately assign responsibility for phenomena, can quickly hit its upper limits”.
Nora Khan offers some immediate places to begin looking, through close readings of the simulations and interfaces that define our COVID-19 lives.
Our interventions can take place in precisely the spaces of no-contact that ultimately determine how we will be in contact in the future. I encourage designers to deploy a vigorous social critique of technology, to recalibrate the metrics of technological fronts that directly shape how we imagine contact and proximity, inclusion and exclusion.
In our role as a platform for transdisciplinary collaboration and innovation, informed by global and local events through the application of creative practices, we have much to do. We will be looking to connect the insights developed here with our growing network of scholars, practitioners, partners, and the RISD community.
As we wrap up our symposium and return to the work at hand, we take inspiration from all of our contributors and end with this final reminder from Dr Gina Siddiqui: “You are what you do every day.” We recommit ourselves to projects and collaborations that advance social justice and the improvement of complex systems that impact the lives of people around the world. We are fortunate to apply ourselves to this work every day.
CfC aspires to be a bridge between the development of new insights and knowledge in complex systems, and enabling people to apply that knowledge in their practice. We will be spending time in the weeks ahead reflecting on the symposium content in order to find the signals and gain insights that will lead to meaningful projects that work towards systems change.
We will create a publication that will be available for free download, on the symposium and CfC website. This is another step along an extended journey and we hope many of our symposium contributors and attendees will walk with us.
We’d like to thank all of the people who dedicated time and skill to making this symposium happen.
All Our Contributors
Without our Compass Essayists, Respondents, Panelists, and Illustrator Cecilia Ruiz, none of this would have happened. We want to acknowledge the time and care you dedicated during a period of intense uncertainty. We appreciate your feedback on our early framing, all the work through drafts, the live events, and everything else.
To all those who submitted work to the Open Call, thank you for adding your words, and imagery enriching the conversation in wonderfully unexpected ways.
Ingredients for a Utopian School
Many thanks to Javier Juarez, Executive Director of Providence Student Union, and Alvaro Morales, award-winning documentarian and VR developer, who stewarded the perfect balance between organization and creativity crucial to this project. And of course, thanks and congratulations to the Youth who took time from their already demanding schedules to work with one another and with us to produce moving and timely content. Wishing you all bright, empowered futures.
Strategic Programs Team
Daniel Hewett, Katie Edmonds, Charlene Sequeira, and Maria Gerdyman. You took the lead on organizing our collaborative conversations but beyond that, you contributed in countless places behind the scenes, from editing and bug hunting to pushing us to clarify our goals for the symposium as a whole. And with recent departure, Sudhir Desai, we are grateful for all your collegial critique.
Research Assistant Team
Thank you all. Nick Larson for all your work on the visual identity and developing and implementing the website. Ndivhuho Rasengani for taking the identity, adapting it for Instagram, and all your work curating our social media. Lizzy Chemel for all your thoughtful edits and feedback to the Compass authors. Maria Gerdyman joined the team and as a cohort you self-organized and coordinated, taking care of problems before we ever knew about them.
Sarah Cunningham. Your leadership and timely intervention helped us rethink our framing and strengthened our vision for the symposium as a whole. We are lucky to have you as a thought partner.
We’d also like to thank Matthew Shenoda for your timely feedback; Joshua Grubman, Rebecca Nolan, Peggy Lewis, Joel Rivera, and Niko Lazarakis for your help and guidance on policies and procedures; Monique Hauser for your Zoom training, assistance, and emergency support; our RISD Museum colleagues Mariani Lefas-Tetenes, Sarah Ganz Blythe, and Deb Clemons for being generous listeners; and everyone at RISD Media for your ongoing interest in profiling the work of the CfC.
We’d like to thank Infosys, especially Ben Weiner, Lara Salamano, and Tan Moorthy for your partnership, advocacy, and deep interest in issues of complexity, resiliency, and the creation and application of new knowledge.
– The CfC Team
The Generation C Symposium was designed and implemented by Justin W Cook, Julie Woods, Sahib Singh, Toban Shadlyn, and Tim Maly.