The adjective, 'Habitable', derives from the noun, 'Habitat'. To understand what Habitable Future stands for, let's first investigate the capacity of a
What is a habitat?
A habitat is a place where organisms make homes.
It is a breeding ground for the emergence of lives. A habitat allows the dwelling of all biotic and abiotic factors without centering on one another. There is no need for words such as “intervention”, “ownership” and “agency” to exist because every entity has its own influence upon one another and contributes to endless interdependent relationships, which are constantly evolving. Those relationships make up complex ecosystems, which are impossible for us to map the beginning or the end.
As you can see, the core capacity of a habitat is emergence.
However, the manifestation of the capacity of a habitat has changed when the colonization began. The settlement of white-supremacist, capitalist and colonial ideas built habitats for racism, displacement, exploitation, oppression, appropriation and extermination, etc.
That habitat ruled by western settlers is under a system they built which values profits over lives, domination over collaborations, and exclusion over coexistence. And such colonialism continues in subtle and sneaky ways that have been perpetuated till today.
And it is the same system that hurts the ecosystem and the environment within the habitats. Natural entities as well as the minority/ marginalized people become the vulnerable groups oppressed by the system.
So the approach to subvert that system, also the approach that helps us reclaim our habitats, may not start with environmental protection but the actions that help the vulnerable groups to gain more self-determination power by healing the trauma with care, learning to strategies to thrive, reclaiming identities and narratives, and planning for transition to a decolonized future. No immediate, short-term movement can achieve those objectives, so what we need to do is to frame for their emergence.
An alternative framework for alternative future[s]
adjective. Providing conditions that are good enough to live in or on.
Noun. A period of time that is to come.
Noun. An essential supporting structure which other things are built on top of.
How might we nurture the condition for a habitable, equitable, and inclusive future to emerge?
Futuring and foresight practice is one of the tool that helps shape the future. But looking into the history of the western futuring and foresight practices, it actually has a very colonial origin, which was an offshoot of military and intelligence research during World War II to identify future movements within the Third World and map out strategies and programs targeted at them. Nowadays, for many foresight projects, the core still remains to make clients and businesses ‘future-ready’/ ‘future-proof’ with their political and economic interests in mind.
It is never the tools or imagination they lack, but the intention to examine the harm they created over the people marginalized, displaced and excluded by their future visions. There have been many marginalized communities affected by the single-savior, top-down and siloed approach without their voices being considered. We see that the Black Lives Matter, Stop Asian Hate, indigenous rights, feminism, and LGBTQ+ movements are only heard and backed by corporates and institutions when they want to profit off those groups.
“Understanding and reclaiming history is an essential approach to decolonization, which would also enlighten our decisions about the future.”
——Linda Tuhiwai Smith
The framework, Habitable Futures, began with a prompt that point at the conflict between the ‘bigger forces’ and the local community by not only unpacking the present crisis but also revisiting the trauma of the past with great care to lay a solid context about ‘What is happening right now?’ and ‘What has happened in the past that lead to the crisis today?’. Different from the normative futuring and foresight practices that begin with scanning the signals of today that indicates the near futures, we choose to revisit the past as a provocation. Why?
Because the past is layered with multiple contexts, backgrounds, ideas, positionalities, events, figures, terrains, ownership, etc. Understanding the history of a place often gives us a clue of how things come into existence, and what ideas or isms pushed its transformation. To avoid perpetuating the displacements, exclusions, erasure, appropriations of the pluralities in the past, we need to reclaim our own histories first. It is "partly because such views were regarded as clearly 'primitive' and 'incorrect' and mostly because they challenged and resisted the mission of colonization.” Therefore, understanding the present by reclaiming history is a critical and essential aspect of decolonization.
1. Introduce yourself, and the project overview, importance, rationale, objectives and what you hope to get out of the sessions. Ask for their consent if you need to collect any personal information before you start - a consent form is recommended!
2. Invite the participants to introduce their names and pronouns, how they identify themselves, why they are interested in this activity and how the issue ties to their lives.
3. Invite the participants to go through a prompt that help them immerse into the context of the project while providing background information. Ask them to share their thoughts and feelings after viewing. Without building context for the audience, it will be harder to get them into active thinking and reflections for the following exercises.
“The process of acquiring knowledge begins as partial perspectives, and specific ways of seeing emerge. The more of such partial perspectives and cultural narratives we gather, the closer we get to objective observations. Situated knowledge, therefore, stands against the unlocatable, the disembodied, and the irresponsible.” ——Donna Haraway.
In the second part of the framework, we move from the bigger picture of the past and present crisis to many smaller narratives of personal connections within the local area. Personal memory and oral histories are crucial in this framework to support plural ways of knowing as many languages and cultures around the world are underrepresented. By owning our stories, and our perspectives, we challenge the biases and partial knowledge that lie in the mainstream narratives and impressions. And by gathering a number of such stories, we can acquire different ways of being, different ways of seeing the world, and different things that people connect or disconnect with to help us map out the relationships among the inhabitants within a community or an area. Meanwhile, sharing stories is also a way to build trust and connections among participants.
In order to help participants align on the same page and narrow down what stories to share, I suggest asking each of them to choose a specific place in the neighborhood where they would like to see changes. This enables the researcher to make connections between the narratives and the space where the construction of new visions would take place later on. Then, ask them to mark the things that stood out to them, things that make them feel connected and disconnected to the area, things that have been displaced, and things that have not yet been connected.
"One of the strategies which indigenous peoples have employed effectively to bind people together politically is a strategy which asks that people imagine a future, that they rise above present day situations which are generally depressing, dream a new dream and set a new vision. The confidence of knowing that we have survived and can only go forward provides some impetus to a process of envisioning." ——Linda Tuhiwai Smith
This is where we start to ideate what kind of new relationship can be built among the entities within the community and speculate on what the future that allows such relationships to come into co-existence will look like.
1. Introduce this section while giving out drawing and writing materials (a piece of paper and colorful markers) to the participants.
2. Call for a moment of self-reflection on a specific scene/site in this neighborhood where the participants would most like to see changes in the future. Invite the participant to draw down/map out the area on a sheet. Ask them to mark the things that stood out to them, things that make them feel connected and disconnected to the area, things that have been displaced, and things that have not yet been connected.
3. Ask the participants to share the narratives that come out of this piece of drawing by trying to answer the following questions: What are the entities that you feel connected with? What can make them stay?What are the entities that you feel disconnected with? What new relationship can be built with them? What are the entities that are missing or displaced? What can bring them back?
1. Introduce this section and give the participants another sheet of a transparent film to draw on and be layered on top on the previous drawing.
2. Call for a moment of self-reflection on what they've drawn. Encourage the participants to draw a new scene/map of the future by turning the previous reflections into a future statement:
In the next ( ) years, ( ) will be home to ( ), for it have ( ).
Although there are ( ) for now, they will have a new relationship of ( ) with the community for there will be/we will ( ).
3. Ask the participants to share the future statement and the drawing with the group.
“It matters what thoughts think thoughts. It matters what knowledges know knowledges. It matters what relations relate relations. It matters what worlds world worlds. It matters what stories tell stories.” ——Donna Haraway.
Having a visions is not enough, we need strategies to approach to those visions. Talk about what kind of value needs to be shifted, what knowledge needs to be build, and what actions need to be taken to reach to that future.
1. Give a big round of applause/hugs to the participants for the amazing work they've done so far.
2. Introduce the last section which will be a panel discussion about the things we can do to bring that future to life. Ask the participants the following questions: In order to reach that future, what value needs to be shifted? What knowledge needs to be established? What policy needs to be changed? And what historical barriers need to be removed?
3. Try to craft a small strategic plan for the following 5 years together. It will look like a brainstorming activity rather than serious planning.
4. Make copies of the plan as a gift for the participants to bring them back home or give to others.
After crafting the visions with the people, it is important to share the visions to the 'authorities' who are responsible for making changes in the neighborhood, as well as spread the visions and the strategic plans with the public in the community.
The approach would vary according to different region and community, thus I will not provide a standardized suggestion.
#05 Post-session: Amplify
Therefore, we need alternative frameworks for envisioning and acting upon more habitable futures to examine the dominant power structures, unlearn the white-supremacist and patriarchal mindsets, give birth to non-western, abolitionary, queer, inclusive, and equitable visions through participatory approaches, and uplift the voices and visions to educate the public and inform the authorities.
I would like to propose a framework, Habitable Futures, for collective visions within marginalized community. It is designed to be applied by community organizations to engage with a group of local people when there’s a bigger force working against the community’s vision.
Driven by introspective questions about the paradigm people lived with, the framework opens up a space for lost narratives, displaced inhabitants and new possible relationships within the community. Infused with imagination, the framework give the participants the power to state and illustrate the future owned and determined by themselves. The objectives of the framework is use the future visions and strategies to reach that future emerged during the process to inform the local community about their agency and their power and to inform the top-down planning for the future.
This is Manhattan Chinatown in New York City, where I choose to apply the framework I designed for the historical trauma, the present crisis and the opportunity ahead.
Being characterized as the "Yellow Peril" threat to western civilization, the Chinatown community has suffered so much from stereotypes, discrimination, racism and systemic oppression followed the first waves of Asian immigrants and have been perpetuated till today.
The modern manifestation of those issues include: the scapegoating for the pandemic, the ongoing and rising Asian hate crimes, the construction of the world's tallest jail and the concentration of shelters for unhoused people, etc.
As a Chinese myself, I feel the obligation to take my agency into challenging those issues. So my journey began.
01 The DRI Public Event
Manhattan Chinatown also had been selected to receive an $20 million investment to revitalize the neighborhood for the trauma of pandemic and asian hate crimes. I worked with 3x3 Design as a bilingual facilitator for public visioning events which aimed at collecting the public’s expectation and visions to inform the selection of investment projects. Sadly, I don’t have the agency to make any changes to the structure but at least, I got the chance to talk with many local people about their demands.
The event consists of During the events, some community activists expressed their pessimistic views for future Chinatown as “lots of vagrancy, lots of violence, lots of garbage and no arts and culture.” Some expressed their positive views such as "I hope that there will be a mutually supportive community that maybe they can find a common vision forward. Instead of being just kind of in our own pockets doing trying to do the right thing while everything else is going wrong, or there're bigger forces working against us, maybe try to craft a vision together that people can all agree on. "
The key takeaway for me is the need to forge a strong community of support for everyone to be civilly engaged, to uplift our voices, and to fight against the harmful effects of the big proposals by crafting a common vision with the authority.
March 30, 2022
02 My own approach: From Stories to Visions
Since March, I have been trying all kinds of outreach approaches, including: Flyers, social media, email and canvassing, to attract participants, also known as co-visionaries.
During April, I held 4 online engagement activities with Chinatown folks including visual artists, people working at community organizations, a service designer, and Chinatown residents. Interestingly, all of my co-visionaries who accepted my invitation are Asian females or queer people.
Due to the constraints of online collaboration, the exercises are delivered in written words. And the framework toolkit is modified as well:
From March to April, I have facilitated 1 public events for the Chinatown Downtown Revitalization Program and 4 participatory workshops implementing this framework. During those workshops, I withdrew my designer identity and privilege and tried to be a listener and an inspiration. During the process, I gained so much delight from the mutual-aid ethos of the community. I have received the support and even gratitude more than I need from people who I have just connected with.
The workshops have been very conversational and rich in ideas. Here're the details:
Visions emerged from the workshops
03 “100 Visions 100 fortune cookies”
There have been so many great conversations from the mix of practices. Therefore, to utilize that verbal power, I made 100 paper fortune cookies stuffed with 100 visions and ideas I collected throughout the practices.
Fortune cookie is a great container for the messages, not only for its structure but for that it is a product of displacements, repopulations, and cultural appropriation. Originated from Japanese restaurants, fortune cookies transitioned into being dominated and owned by Chinese-Americans around World War II. One theory for this is because of the Japanese American internment during World War II, which put over 100,000 Japanese-Americans into camps. So Chinese manufacturers took over the production. Now, for the Americans, a fortune cookie became a cultural symbol for Chinese immigrants, while for us, the only thing that relates to our culture, is the idea of “good fortune”.
In order to make the fortune cookie preservable as well as safe and sanitized, I made them out of paper instead of milk and eggs. I have also designed the pattern for them. Because during the workshops, I found that through understanding the historical shifts, we can see more clearly why many things are going on and how we can respond to them. For example, we learned that the reason why Chinatown was such an undesirable place with prisons and shelters was its former identity, the notorious five points which were abandoned by the middle and upper class and opened for poor immigrants. And we understood from the past activist movements that we need to build allies and mutual understanding with all minority communities to stop the hate crimes, and through civic activism, we lift our voices.
I walked around the area of Chinatown to give out the paper fortune cookies and exchange for new visions. I handed them out to not only Asian and AAPI people, but all ethnics groups. The exchange could happen many time, and keeping this going means actively reminding people of their power of voices, their solidarity, and shared visions.
April 23, 2022
Online Prototype: Crack your fortune cookies!
Click on the fortune cookie to see the small voices, ideas, and visions collected throughout the process, which is never ending.
I invite you to get inspired by others and share your visions for a more equitable future.
At the end (almost!) of the process, co-visionaries shared that
Habitable Futures is a framework that is community-led, connection-driven, and optimism-infused, despite its critical and subversive nature. The process builds ways to heal the trauma caused by the paradigm by examining the flaws in our systems, acknowledging the local/ indigenous intelligence, cultures, and spirits, and building connection, trust, optimism, and confidence. It gives people motivation and provides directions to a more habitable, collaborative, and self-determined future. In addition, it reminds the community of the importance of collective visions and efforts, in other words, solidarity. Habitable Futures is bottom-up, and no matter if the authorities choose to listen to the voices of the communities or not, it helps the communities reclaim the power to challenge the set-in-stone. Habitable Futures can be transformed into practices that are living, emerging, and evolving.
Though we almost reach to the end of this web-based presentation, the work does not end. As my work at 3x3 for the Chinatown DRI project keeps on going, I am looking forward to sharing my research outcomes to the committee board for the next public event on May 25. I will keep engaging with the local people in Manhattan Chinatown to amplify their visions by making iterations of fortune cookies, collaborating with artists to visualize their visions and sharing this website to community organizations. I will as well be contributing to those communities by doing volunteer works and donating to their foundation.