Now is a time for grief and anger.
For three months, parts of our lives have stopped, parts of our lives have accelerated,
and virtually everything has been disrupted. Pandemic and protests have set in motion cascading transformations in society that scarcely could have seemed believable at
the New Year.
As Zak Cheney-Rice declared in New York Magazine last week, we have spent “two weeks in George Floyd’s America.” How a reckoning with his killing, and the killing of countless other black Americans will reshape America is unclear. But the grief and anger that is ripping through communities remains a potent force equal to—if not greater than—the violence the state has meted out against it. As Cheney-Rice said, “the challenge today is to try something whose failure isn’t already assured”.
With global deaths accelerating toward half a million, the coronavirus pandemic feels as though it is just getting going. Absent federal leadership, Americans appear to be giving up on many of the measures necessary to slow the spread. Unfortunately, although not unexpectedly, in the face of another crisis that requires large scale cooperation, politics has prevailed over science, complicating decisions of both personal and community protection.
For the disruptive impacts of COVID-19, we are only at the end of the beginning. As a new school year looms in K-12 and higher education classrooms around the world, the near future is comprised almost of entirely uncertain and frightening scenarios, including here at RISD. Students are paying attention: yesterday, Rhode Island youth held a die in as part of a protest organized by newly formed Gen Z: We Want to Live.
So, now must also be a time to reimagine.
When the team at the Center for Complexity set out to design the 2020 Complexity Symposium to take place on RISD’s campus at the end of April, our idea was to borrow from high energy physics and take two things and smash them together to better understand how they work. Drawing from our project portfolio, we were going to examine K-12 education and the opioid crisis together to understand how oppositional ideas about who has access to the future shape each system. From that analysis, we could then draw interventional design principles to be deployed by us and others in similar problem spaces.
Events intervened and by mid-March, RISD’s campus was closed and students sent home. On March 25th, the Atlantic’s staff science reporter Ed Yong wrote in a benchmark article that babies being born now should be called Generation C. At the time–what feels to be years ago–and in the abstract, we focused on the environmental differences in which these children were to be raised and how it would surely shape them as a generation. But as the disruptions mounted, we realized belatedly due to our privilege, we all would be profoundly reshaped by the pandemic. Generation C, took on a second meaning: the events of 2020 will matter less when compared to the generation of change that must follow.
As we launched our calls for participation, our idea for the Symposium was no longer about collision, but what could be discovered inside of a pause. In some unknowable amount of time, survivors would emerge from physical, emotional and psychological bunkers of isolation—although some may not. The world would look very different. The pressures and new realities of recovery would undoubtedly push thinking into familiar categories and well-established patterns.
The Symposium was to be an opportunity to think and reflect through this moment. To imagine futures less constrained by the past while our shared assumptions about what is fixed and what is flexible are temporarily thawed.
On May 25th, when George Floyd was handcuffed and asphyxiated for 8 minutes and 46 seconds by a police officer, everything was the same, and also everything changed. For communities of color, George Floyd’s killing was familiar; just more evidence of oppression, violence, and racism. For some, the response made a new future seem possible, one that is just, inclusive and equitable, but only if the hard work of stamping out systemic racism was taken on by everyone.
So here we are. It is June 15th and we are launching our second Complexity Symposium. Generation C is an invitation to the critical work of charting (and generating) a path forward.
We offer 7 compasses as tools to think about what is to come. They don’t describe the landscape but suggest some ways to orient ourselves within it and possibly get our bearings. Our hope is that together we can glimpse what should be known now about the futures that could be.
Contact & Constraints
Crisis & Capacity
Culture & Constructs
Collapse & (re)Construct
Commons & Capital
Chaos & Control
Compasses & Calibrations
In addition to the compasses above, we will also turn attention to the future of emergency medicine and structures of care, seen through the eyes of medical practitioners, as well as the future of civics and education, seen through the eyes of high schoolers from across the country.
Generation C is a starting point. We hope it will help us all navigate the next year and the years to come. In 2021, we will return to the material and ideas generated in this symposium and see how we did. In the meantime, let's take this week to think, reflect and imagine what should be.
Justin W. Cook
RISD Center for Complexity
Justin W. Cook – Executive Director of the Center for Complexity at RISD