In this one week workshop we worked with a class of students from the minor Designing User Research (AUAS), who were challenged to research climate future imaginaries through the design and visual exploration of digital image datasets.

The course was focused on two specific methods: the image grid and the content similarity image clusters (with computer vision). Students worked in groups and each group was invited to explore one climate future aesthetic starting from a list of keywords related to climate fiction. The list is non-exhaustive and includes different aesthetics, movements and genres that are dealing to a certain degree with the topic of nature, climate and the future of society.

Fig. 1: The preliminary list of keywords was compiled by snowballing hashtags used in combination with the word ‘climate fiction’ or ‘cli-fi’ on Instagram.

After the selection, each group designed an image dataset by scraping Instagram or Pinterest, and performed different visual investigations lead by the following questions:

What kind of future is depicted in the set? How is the relationship between humans, nature and/or climate depicted? What can be said about the settings, the visual language, the objects and people involved? What and who is NOT included in the picture?

Fig. 2: a visual summary designed from the image grid of the most engaging Instagram posts for the hashtag #ecomodernism and related subtags. Research and design by Mirai van Dun, Joey Man and Abdel El Hannaoui.

The futures discovered by the students were wildly different in how they looked like and in which topics they put to the front: while ecomodernism is anchored to a buildable vision of the future, revolving around sustainable materials, innovative and long-lasting products, and a controlled nature that is both part of and surrounding  the domestic space (Fig. 2), cottagecore is instead about performing a rural aesthetic far from the dirt and the mud, showing an instagrammable, mono seasonal nature that involves dream-like pic-nic parties in the grass, high-end ‘prairie girl’ fashion with ruffles, puff sleeves and pastel colours, and a strange obsession with frogs (Fig. 3). 

Fig. 3: Thematic image clusters form the cottagecore aesthetic. Research and design by Beate van Garderen, Naomi Nazar and Vera Visser.

Cyberpunk presents a dystopic hi-tech future where nature is lost or barely depicted as a ruin from past ages, while Solarpunk shows the brighter side of a society that managed to put in use its technology to cope with climate change, and where architecture and nature become one. 

A look inwards to our relationship with the other-than-human comes from shamanism, where our relationship with nature becomes symbolic and reached through meditation. To the contrary, eco-feminists tend to look outwards, to the political and the social, by engaging people with statements that encourage social action. (Fig. 4)

Fig. 4: an image-tag network designed using Google Vision API computer vision algorithm. It shows the eco-feminist dataset highlighting different image clusters. Research and design by Salomé de Ruiter, Iris van Ollefen & Maaike van Dijk.

Read part 2 of this three part series on climate futures workshops.