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Winning Formula: Future of Data and Football by Scott Smith

It's World Cup kick-off week, so finally time to write up some thoughts about a project that has occupied a good bit of the last six months, and one that I've enjoyed immensely—Winning Formula. This project, which looks at the future of data and football (soccer), mainly through the form of daily sport tabloid from 2018, was conceived and directed by Fabien Girardin of Near Future Laboratory, and supported by a great lineup including FutureEverything, the National Football Museum, the Centre for Contemporary Culture Barcelona (CCCB), and Fundación Telefónica. It was also supported by ECAS, a European Commission Culture Fund, and MEDIAPRO. It's also gotten some nice press recently.

For Winning Formula, Fabien brought together a team including me, Philippe Gargov, designers Bestiario, and a handful of additional writers including Natalie Kane and Margot Baldassi to imagine and create a 24-page full-color print newspaper that takes a snapshot of a fictional near-future day in April, four years from now, as the European football season is reaching its peak, and the 2018 World Cup in Russia is just around the corner. The project had several aims: to explore a future where Big Data more deeply infiltrates and influences the Beautiful Game through technology on the players, on the pitch, in the home, in media and so on, as well as to experiment with a very practical and simple piece media artifact as a means of moving this discussion and exploration into some new arenas. The project includes a map of emerging connections created within the football ecosystem, and opportunities for non-professionals to play with media-grade analytics applications that show what some broadcasters and teams already have at their fingertips.

The Concept

From the outset, rather than make a high-concept, flatpack app-driven view of a fantastic future or focus on the usual suspects of robotics or tiny drones, the team wanted to give the newspaper, which we called Today with intentional irony, as much of a realistic, mundane feel as possible in appearance and content. We wanted it to be a practical, simple and ephemeral artifact, one that could hide in plain sight. With Today, we wanted to depict an uneven near future where the major dynamics which shape the everyday carrying on as they typically do—punctuated by evolutions, interjections and disruptions presented by rapidly evolving technologies, but grounded in a believable reality. [Note: I talked about this process of "unshocking the future" recently at Data Ecologies '14, using Winning Formula as the example.]

From the basic grid design to the feature and department selection to the choice of production (using Newspaper Club, running on traditional newspaper presses), the aim was to create something tangible, accessible, and even realistic—after all, despite the claims of some, print isn't dead yet, and it's even taking on new life in some areas. Print will still be the key touchpoint for sport and cultural information for hundreds of millions worldwide in four or five years, just as it has been for the past hundred or more. Change takes time.  

We also focused on key tensions and uncertainties: between tradition and innovation, between intuition and analysis, between people and silicon, between legal and illegal, between political and personal, between commercial and amateur, to name a few. We wanted to look at just the sorts of tensions that technology's advance creates in many other spheres of life, played out on a global field, so to speak, where passions, allegiances, and affiliations can run deep. From the lead story on Big Data-as-Manager to an exploration of data doping to second-guessing referees in the big game, to the technopolitics of a World Cup to back-page pieces on cricket in China and graphene-clay court tennis, we tried to explore different corners of a near future through the familiar vernacular that shapes sport reporting.

The Process

A few people have asked questions about the "scenario design" process up front which gave us the storylines for Today. Interestingly, the process more closely resembled building a video game or writing a TV show: agreeing the general mechanics and physics of the world (which we I'd say set on 'strange-normal'), then working within the grid of the publication as our scenario frame, as such. Keeping the various narratives and mini-scenarios we developed as independent writers and futurists in synch with each other, functioning plausibly within the same world, was key for us and required ongoing coordination of an international team to ensure a reasonable level of continuity in this imagined future.

Initial concepting session for Winning Formula, Barcelona, November 2013.

Initial concepting session for Winning Formula, Barcelona, November 2013.

As a team, we identified key topics and technologies we wanted to discuss, but also the types of stories that might appear at this stage in a season, the morning between two critical Champions League matches, heading into a major global event such as the World Cup. Sport seasons have particular arcs to them, and springtime is roughly the end of Act III in a four-act drama for many teams and leagues. It’s also a time when new media tools would be shown off in time for a global audience to focus on a single spectacle, when players and agents jockey for transfers, when stock is taken of investments, and a time when lessons learned from the previous World Cup will be implemented. In short, it’s a moment of peak disturbance in a complex global system.

We captured this complex system, including some via novel hacks using actual video game data to populate our starter universe, through a dozen or so stories, as well as through ads that might be found in a daily paper for products that seem both believable and unsettling. The pieces in Today were researched thoroughly, with as much fact blended with fiction as possible to ground a creative artwork with anchors in reality. They also intentionally maintain different voices to reflect the cultural variation that emerges in such a publication. Lastly, we paid attention to small details, from the climate change-shifted daily temperature of Manchester to imagined exchange rates, currency availabilities and technical standards. Some fidelity in the detail is important to feed plausibility.

The Audiences

This project is unique in that we’ve had an opportunity to show it to a range of audiences that reflect its makeup as an artifact: to football fans at the National Football Museum in Manchester during FutureEverything, to those interested in the future of data with the Big Bang Data exhibition at Barcelona’s CCCB, to an audience of sport and media technologists, and most recently to futurists and designers in a smaller viewing at Oxford Futures Forum in the UK. Each of these showings have given us an interesting opportunity to look at the project through different lenses.

Reactions, not surprisingly, have varied based on the nature of the viewer. Broadly characterized, the reception by the sample football audience was curiosity, mixed with amused disbelief (“oh, could you imagine that? I’m not sure…”). Older patrons seemed less likely to dive in to the stories, while younger ones seemed to see it as a familiar object, with the technological fantasy that is a familiar staple of their daily lives. Those in the middle age bracket perhaps took it in more deeply, already seeing for themselves the changes the game has undergone and where it may go in the lifespans of their children. This last group was probably more exposed to the data and statistics that are becoming standard in match broadcasts and more common in print analysis.

We were also able to run a short workshop with John O'Shea and Seb Chan at FutureEverything with attendees interested in different aspects of sport, football specifically, technology and media. The newspaper served as a great source of inspiration, while the research topics that fed it also became prompts to drive creative ideas and challenges around which teams could quickly imagine and prototype their own innovations. Today effectively gave us a well-rounded world in which participants could quickly create new ideas, or react to ones we presented. That 90-minute workshop produced ideas running from development of third-person wearable broadcasts to stadia that change colors based on fan sentiment.

Data-driven Football Workshop at FutureEverything, Manchester. 

Data-driven Football Workshop at FutureEverything, Manchester. 

A quick view inside the Big Bang Data exhibition in Barcelona provided a different context. Unlike visitors coming to view famous historical items, the handful of visitors I encountered at the CCCB already had data on their minds, and had spent a good half hour looking at amazing data visualizations in the exhibit before encountering the Winning Formula section, perhaps priming them to see Today as less alien, and more natural in a setting where data is manifested all around them. Like Manchester, Barcelona is a tradition-driven, football-mad city, but having invited people in to see bits of the future instead of the past, the newspaper felt a bit more at home—Normal in a sea of Weird, instead of Weird in a sea of Normal. I’ll be interested to get more feedback as the exhibition continues at CCCB.

I gave a short talk in mid-May to talk about the project to an audience of Dutch sport, media and technology professionals as well.  Among this group, some of the discrete technologies we talked about are already well known, and some versions already in the R&D queue, a sentiment echoed by Gemma Pons of MEDIAPRO at our workshop during FutureEverything. However, contextualized in a daily sports paper—effectively illustrating use cases and unforeseen scenarios, gave them something to think about. A few even showed off items such as software for visual pattern recognition in matches—spotting goal scoring by the body language of players in screen, for example—that we hadn’t even considered, while others, like mini-drones for following action up close, we had included but thought might be slightly farther off. The distance to the future is relative to where you stand, it seems.

Big Bang Data, CCCB, Barcelona.

Big Bang Data, CCCB, Barcelona.

Finally, I had an opportunity to show Today as part of an exhibit of design futures works at Oxford’s Saïd School at the end of May, largely to an audience of peers. Curators Lucy Kimbell and Kerri Chisholm did a great job of putting in a natural setting, among the daily papers in a small seating area designed for this exhibit that could have been in an airport lounge. At first, positioned next to the brightly colored exhibits of other designers and futurists, it looked like part of the larger reading room, outside of the exhibit (it was intentionally styled to be as mundane as the design of the artifact itself), almost escaping notice when groups of viewers first arrived. It seemed sufficiently part of the woodwork that housekeeping removed cups and crisp packets set down to add to the exhibit, and on the last day, accompanying newspapers (the FT, Telegraph, and Independent) were removed, as were some of the more ruffled copies of Today. Once the other futurists and designers were invited to engaged with it, though, feedback was very positive as they viewed it from the point of view of a design fiction, standing between the topical content and the instrument of forecasting. Unique among the three settings, at Oxford Today was with its own kind—other forms of manifested speculation.     

Oxford Futures Forum exhibit.

Oxford Futures Forum exhibit.

The Infiltration

One last, ongoing element of the project, not initially scripted, is the guerrilla infiltration of Today into the “real” world, placing it in settings where one might expect to see a daily sport paper. With a week to spend in Manchester around FutureEverything, a few of us took it as a mission to “incept” the paper into bus and tram stops, taxis, restaurants and cafes, betting shops, kebab shops, and a newsstand or two, and reportedly on several trains heading back to London and even in the Dublin airport. We wanted the newspaper to have a brief life among the other free-floating newspapers around the city, going where today’s (or tomorrow’s) news goes, maybe to be found days later by a passerby, picked up by an unwitting late night reveler, taken to a cashier for purchase (it has a barcode), or just used to wrap fish and chips somewhere.

The Manchester Evening News helped this mission somewhat by inserting part of Today into 130,000 copies of a Friday night edition of its paper, which probably reached more people that any similar work so far in a single day. While it was flagged as future fiction (and edited to fit the paper’s commercial constraints), it still put a selection of the articles in an incredible number of locations and hands in a short burst of time. I even found pages from it blown into alleyways and in rubbish bins over the next few days. Somewhere, a page about a player with an augmented prosthetic arm is still probably tucked into the corner of a carpark in the city.

Stats, ads, just like the "real" thing.

This “afterlife” aspect of the project, pushing bits of the future out into the world for an unexpected return was one of the most interesting and fun for me, and continues. Setting up these unexpected encounters with an artifact from the future simultaneously in and out of context presents an interesting opportunity to explore more deeply public response to possible futures, with their attendant discontinuities, surprises and discomforts. In retrospect, a more concrete feedback mechanism or an ability to track a paper’s journey might have been useful—notes for a future future project.

Initial Conclusions

Winning Formula has some time yet to run, including moving to Madrid and possibly other international venues in the next year. As José Luis de Vicente, curator for FutureEverything and Big Bang Data, pointed out, Today won’t be “yesterday” for another three-plus years. Still, I’ve come away with a few thoughts in the meantime that will shape subsequent projects:

  • Not all publics will, or even have ability to, engage with potentially complex and possibly uncomfortable futures in their normal settings—how many people visiting the National Football Museum might also visit an IBM conference on Big Data, where decisions are being made and implementation of new technology decided? Providing a venue and familiar form for the average person to explore futures that could impact them greatly is important (hat tip to the NFM and CCCB for opening up such an opportunity). Design fiction as a method holds some interesting potential for engaging more topics and publics.

  • Changing venues and audiences is incredibly valuable. Seeing the same work through the eyes of different audiences and in different contexts added dimensions perspectives to our work that I don’t think we had foreseen.

  • Breaking out of the traditional 2x2 scenario model to work with something that felt a lot more like narrative design for media was compelling as well. Through a broadly structured production and development process and good communication with great peers, we were able to worldbuild fairly quickly and coherently and spend more time refining the storylines and playing with some more oblique topics.

  • Embedding the artifact in a larger systems map we developed at the outset helped ground it, and provide a kind of meta-structure around it. The larger ecosystem map can be seen as an outgrowth of the artifact, or the artifact as one illustration of the ecosystem at work.

  • Having live, working technology presented alongside the central artifact—in this case MEDIAPRO’s analytics package—was a valuable way to provide a single, tangible illustration of an innovation ‘here and now’ to the public. From the public's perspective, being able to put their hands on a physical model of something they wouldn’t normally have access to helped ground the narratives in the paper itself and give them a richer sense of what’s coming in the near future.

We would love to have broader feedback on the project, which remains an ongoing effort, definitely run more workshops like the one we managed in Manchester (which gave us a lovely set of prompt cards and a great short prototyping process), and find new ways to apply the ideas and artifacts created by the project, so if you have idea, let us know. Also, check out the interview that accompanies the video above for the National Football Museum and Field Matchday magazine.

You can order your own of copy of the newspaper here.

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