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Futurist Friday: It’s ByoLogycal

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog

Your Futurist Friday assignment, watch this 5 minute video, and tell me whether you are willing to try the drug it touts: ByoRenew, a synthetic virus introduced in 2012 with the promise that “you might never be sick again.”

What about it? Are you willing to tinker with your very genome in the interest of health?

Sorry to have gotten your hopes up, but the drug’s developer, ByoLogyc, is the futurist equivalent of the Museum of Jurassic Technology.* And this ad campaign is the21st century equivalent of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds broadcast–likely to scare your pants off until you notice something is slightly off. But unlike WoWW, ByoLogyc was designed to do more than entertain. 

Created by The Mission Business and playing out over the course of 2012-2013,  ByoLogyc was a distributed, immersive look at a highly plausible disruptive event: Earth’s first synthetic pandemic, arising from the cleverness and greed of one ambitious biotech company.

Besides the fact that the project is immense fun (you can still peruse the website and videos online) I’m putting it to you for Futurist Friday because I think museums can learn a lot from the format. 

As described by its principle instigator, Trevor Haldenby, ByoLogyc is a form of “pervasive storytelling.” It infiltrated the world via interactive theatre performances, websites, online video series, social media campaigns on Twitter and Facebook, physical mock-ups of the company’s products, a black-tie design awards ceremony, sessions at professional conferences, and a TED talk set in the year 2025. As Trevor explained last year in this “April Fools” reveal,  

“ByoLogyc’s rise and fall was designed as a warning that would surface across media platforms, and come to life all around the people engaged in it. By the time the BRX Pandemic hit full stride in November of 2012, more than 3,500 members of the public, the academic community, and the private sector had engaged with the ByoLogyc story through live-action experiences, with another 40,000 engaging online through the consumption and active creation of content that brought the dystopian scenario to life.”

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What particularly caught my attention was Trevor’s comment that ByoLogyc was designed as a compelling, high-impact alternative to “written scenarios, inaccessible white papers, and policy recommendation PowerPoints.” ByoLogyc, like SuperStruct (the Institute for the Future’s Massive Multiplayer Alternate Reality Game that played out in 2008, and was one of CFM’s first futurist collaborations) is a format sometimes known as tangible futures, or experiential scenarios. This approach is playful, immersive, tantalizing and compelling. It’s a way to recruit a mass audience to engage in exploring potential futures, and priming them to take responsibility for how the future plays out.

Some museums have been creating great immersive games (like SAAM’s Ghosts of a Chance) based on storytelling and challenges–some of which play out both on the web and in meatspace. But I’ve not yet seen a museum launch a full-blown Alternate Reality project–like ByoLogyc, or SuperStruct–to inspire the public to action. Seems like a good fit for any museum that sees its mission as tackling issues that challenge our future–climate change, health, tolerance, education. 

Elaborate? Yes. But high impact, as well, and with immense potential to reach an audience wider than a museum’s current audience. And, Trevor notes, while most of the content was free, people were willing to pay premium prices to participate in some of the live events–so maybe there’s a viable financial model for such projects as well. 

So browse Byologic’s website and archive, when you have a chance, and think a bit about how this kind of immersive storytelling might be harnessed, on a small scale or large, to engage people with issues you care about.

*Not to spoil MJT for any readers unfamiliar with this genius museum-spoof, but once you step through the door of David Wilson’s “cabinet of wonder” it’s up to you to figure out what’s true, and what’s not. 

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