Designing the First Humanitarian Futures Exhibition


‘The Future Is Now’ is an exhibition that comprises of multiple artefacts and scenarios that speculated on what humanitarian operations could look like in 2030. The IFRC Solferino Academy and Open Lab at Newcastle University collaborated with an array of design agencies and curators to bring this exhibition to life. This exhibition is the result of extensive horizon scanning research and participatory consultations across the globe. Ultimately, The Future Is Now seeks to ignite thought-provoking discussions about how IFRC’s membership (192 Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies) needs to change today to prepare for the challenges of tomorrow. 

Air Pollution Sample from 2030. Designed by Superflux.

At the intersection of speculative design, strategic foresight, and humanitarian action, this exhibition poses scenarios covering the trends that will transform how humanity copes with complex challenges. The collection encompasses 17 artefacts with carefully articulated narratives aimed at depicting what might lie ahead for humanitarian practitioners on the ground and even on digital spaces. From AI-driven branches through to temporary citizenship for populations on the move, each artefact covers futures where people face unprecedented hurdles but also benefit from the most incredible scientific breakthroughs of the 21st century. A digital curation of the exhibition is available on the Solferino Academy website.

Design process

Research phase

To envision the challenges of tomorrow, it is imperative to analyse and reflect on the systems of today. Therefore, the IFRC Solferino Academy conducted an extensive horizon scanning, harnessing the collective intelligence of a distributed group of volunteers. The team published the findings at the IFRC’s General Assembly. To contextualise this research, the team collaborated with Open Lab to engage young people worldwide in the process of imagining multiple futures driven by their local realities. Read more about this engagement here. This research phase concluded with design workshops with members across IFRC’s membership, whereby they incorporated their views and expertise regarding how both regional and global trends impact their work. 

Research phase insights. Full report available here.

Thorugh this research phase, we found a combination of trends and emerging issues that bring both challenges and opportunities for humanitarian response. Among the multiple challenges identified through this phase, climate emergency was the most prominent one, profoundly impacting several aspects of humanitarian needs. When discussing climate emergency, many other challenges were entwined with this megatrend, such as food security, protracted conflict, displacement, loss of heritage, epidemics, to mention some. Therefore, to tackle this enormous challenge of the upcoming decade, humanitarian agencies will require unprecedented governance and coordination mechanisms.

On the flip side, the consultations yielded scientific and technological advancements as the central area of opportunity for the decade to come. Indeed members at all levels of the organisation, particularly young people, were optimistic about harnessing technology to tackle significant problems around financing, participation, and skill development. Now more than ever, members called for combining science and technology to create inclusive mechanisms of coordination that enable meaningful training of volunteers, unlock innovative financial models, and adapt their services to tackle emerging problems. While these opportunities come with their issues, humanitarian organisations are in control of designing preferable futures where tech and science present an advantage and not a threat.

This robust research phase was the foundation of this humanitarian futures exhibition; however, to truly capture the possibilities and preferable futures, the team used speculative design for presenting the findings and engage even more members in the discussion.

Curation phase

In collaboration with design agencies, such as Superflux, Changeist and Edge, the team curated ‘The Future Is Now’. The IFRC Solferino Academy and Open Lab at Newcastle University were the two primary teams constructing the narrative around the exhibition. This exhibition has been the first futures collection focused entirely on humanitarian needs (to the best of our knowledge), and accessible in four languages: English, Spanish, French, and Arabic. It was presented for the first time at the IFRC’s General Assembly in 2017 and then exhibited in multiple international venues, such as the Islamic Development Bank conference in Tunisia and the Humanitarian Networks and Partnerships Week in Switzerland. 

All the artefacts tell a story about a futures scenario that has implications for humanitarian need. The exhibition was broadly structured in three thematic areas. Firstly, climate and environment which explored the effects of climate change. This theme included artefacts such as bottled air from 2030, blended reality simulations, and satellite imagery art to portray potential realities as a consequence of the climate emergency consequences.

Secondly, technology for good that speculated how digital breakthroughs could impact the Red Cross Red Crescent network. Examples of this thematic area included artefacts like a genetic risk calculator, an AI-driven volunteering branch for the digital world, an e-currency donation system, a distributed evidence registry for tracking humanitarian crises, and humanitarian robotics.

Thirdly, emerging forms of participation and engagement. This thematic area reflected how citizen-led action is shaping new ways of creating impact. These scenarios took into account the futures of those innovations and values from underrepresented groups that challenge a global north model of aid. Swarm-based humanitarian groups, and temporary citizenship kits for populations on the move are examples of the artefacts presented with this theme.

The purpose of these three themes was to engage people with futures thinking, thought-provoking discussions, and reflection in a curated narrative. At the same time, the exhibition included participatory activities for attendees to provide their input and ideas into the whole speculative process.

Participatory phase

As part of the whole immersive experience, the exhibition featured hands-on activities to get attendees to draw from their local contexts reflect on multiple futures scenarios. Three main activities were part of this immersive experience. 

The thing from the future
The Thing From the Future game sample.

This game designed by Situation Lab encouraged players to spark their future-thinking and playfully construct scenarios. Hundreds of attendees engaged with this activity to re-imagine what their services could look like as well as having thought-provocative discussions that might not ever come up in their daily work. Interestingly, each participant conceived a unique narrative shaped by their local, cultural, and social context. 

Suitcases for the future
Suitcases for the future, a display of hopes and dreams.

Sarah Armoush, a researcher from Open Lab, led an activity where she asked youth members to reflect on what skills and hopes they wish to carry with them to the future. This reflective exercise allowed them to construct a suitcase that represents their past while also speculating about future goals and aspirations. This activity aimed to blend futures thinking with research-through-design practices within the future leaders of IFRC’s network. 

Hidden artefacts

Inspired by the concept of ‘Guerilla Futures’ (Candy, 2010), there were hidden artefacts across the exhibition. These hidden artefacts mirrored mundane objects that could be found at the event, such as business cards, newspapers, and posters, but that when looked at closer, they reflected futures scenarios. For instance, business cards had slightly different look-and-feel that reflected future roles the membership might have over the next years like ‘Cyberwarfare First Responder’ or ‘Crowdsourcing and Peer-to-Peer Mobilisation Officer’. Another example of these artefacts was ‘The New World Times’, a newspaper with stories written and illustrated by volunteers from the research phase. The purpose of creating these artefacts and spreading them across the venue was to encourage spontaneous interactions and discussions about the future with attendees in a light, yet creative way.

Personal reflections

The three phases described above deeply exemplify my professional expertise blending together rigorous research, participatory processes, and strategic design. Indeed, this exhibition materialised a whole process that made it accessible for everyday people to think about their personal and organisational futures through creativity and imagination. At the same time, it made it possible not only to envision the promising opportunities for the largest humanitarian network but also provide a safe space to visualise the challenges lying ahead for humanity. 

At the heart of this project was learning the potential of speculative design as a method to steer organisational decision-making. As Dunne & Raby (2013, p.2) mention in their book:

“This form of [speculative] design thrives on imagination and aims to create spaces for discussion and debate about alternative ways of being […] acting as a catalyst for collectively redefining our relationship to reality.”

Dunne & Raby (2013, p.2)

This notion resonates with my views as a designer and researcher, acknowledging the privilege I hold to work with people to reflect on possible and preferable futures. 

Lastly, it was an honour working with an incredibly talented team as part of the IFRC Solferino Academy. Special thanks to Tom Nappey (Design Researcher) from Open Lab, whom I worked closely with on this project and learned from his thoroughness and design skills.  

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