Cover image: Funda Çevik Dinsdale

Future Tense #2: “Slowdown Papers” with Dan Hill

Published in ATÖLYE Insights · 10 min read · June 17, 2020

An event series exploring plausible futures

Authors: Deniz Yazıcıoğlu (Academy Coordinator, ATÖLYE), Engin Ayaz (Co-founder, ATÖLYE) Contributing author: Dan Hill

As ATÖLYE Academy, we have launched the event series "Future Tense" in order to engage thought leaders from around the world to discuss pressing topics through a long-term thinking lens. In the first session, we hosted Noah Raford, the Futurist-in-Chief of the Dubai Future Foundation, the summary of which can be read here.

For the second session of Future Tense, we invited the designer, author, and urbanist Dan Hill to introduce his Medium publication "Slowdown Papers," for the first time in a public event.

Dan Hill (photo source)

Dan Hill is the Director of Strategic Design at Vinnova (the Swedish Government's innovation agency) and the author of the influential book "Dark Matter & Trojan Horses: A Strategic Design Vocabulary." He has a background in senior positions that range across environment, education and research, government, media, and social innovation. His diverse background made him the perfect host to help us expand the horizons of the discourse on COVID-19 as well as the concept of "Slowdown," both in scale and ambition.

Over 80 people from eight different countries participated in this session. We were happy to see tremendous diversity, not only in terms of location, but also in terms of professions: Learning designers, architects, sensemakers, artists, strategists, buyers, venture capitalists, students and interpreters all attended. Such diversity became especially invaluable for the second part of the conversation, in which Dan covered responses to key questions, whilst many new inquiries emerged and were discussed.

Using Dan's presentation as a starting point, the subsequent discussion session covered two key questions:

"How does a future of slowdown inspire and give hope?"


"What is the gap between how we live and how we would like to live, in terms of our relationship to cities, technology and government?"

Below is a summary of some of the highlights from Dan's presentation, as well as a brief digest of the emerging intelligence in response to the questions above.

Slowdown Papers

Slowdown Papers is, in Dan's terms, a "series of reflections and loose extrapolations dedicated to the early impact of coronavirus and its societal and environmental impacts."

Dan Hill, who began to write this series in January, during the aftermath of the wildfires in Australia, which swept off 18 million hectares of forest, decided to continue to write further - first and foremost, as a reflective tool to make sense of the shifting terrain that humanity was standing upon.

Dan's writing cover a tremendous breadth of issues, touching upon key concepts such as overlapping curves, nested scales, interconnected dynamics, ancient technologies, and geographic-cultural differentiations among various parts of the globe.

Spanning over a two month period, Dan wrote a total of 18 chapters for the Slowdown Papers series (that's more than 6 hours of reading time!) Dan's writing explored how the global coronavirus outbreak relates to many other "drivers" around us, the most critical of which remains the climate crisis. Dan also linked his exploration to Danny Dorling's nascent "Slowdown' concept," which, rather counterintuitively, argues that life as a whole on the planet has actually been decelerating rather than accelerating in recent decades, and is destined to move further in this direction.

Dan argued that the "forced slowdown" of COVID-19 has offered an opportune moment to carve out some lasting changes in society.

Dan's writing and his presentation cover a tremendous breadth of issues, touching upon key concepts such as overlapping curves, nested scales, interconnected dynamics, ancient technologies, and geographic-cultural differentiations among various parts of the globe. Though this is not the place to summarize the whole arc of his argument here, you can access the presentation yourself via this link, and even better, spare some reflective reading time to give this amazing effort justice.

In terms of key takeaways, perhaps the most striking idea is the linking of the rather ephemeral coronavirus phase to longer timespans. The series of curves that Dan presented all spark new interrelations in terms of how coronavirus used as a leverage point to create lasting change.

Graphs demonstrating the ephemeral coronavirus phase to longer-lasting phenomenon

Among these graphs, perhaps the most inspiring is the last one, which maps the effort spent on the Coronavirus vs. Climate. Dan argues that if only we were to sustain our collective effort to "fight" the virus to address climate change/global warming, we would be in for a spectacular journey of collective transformation.

Weaving his argument as meticulous as a Japanese craftsman, Dan built upon the idea of temporal curves and shifted to overlapping scales across space. Specifically, Dan articulated the nested relationships from objects to homes, to neighborhoods, countries and beyond - arguing that the system at large can actually offer a new way of living, only if we were to let go our idea of "centralized urbanism" as the answer.


Describing it as a polka-dot city of multiple nodes of densification, and giving Tokyo as an unexpected yet compelling example of such a city, Dan nudged the audience to think harder on how to design life in a different way.

Admittedly, very few people in the audience, if any, hold the systemic levers to shift collective awareness and behavior towards distributed living. However, the Coronavirus certainly is providing the push in the right direction to question inner-city living's shortcomings, both in terms of economics and well-being.

Emerging Intelligence: Inspirations, Hopes, and the Delta

Following Dan's narrative, we cast three key questions/question sets as points for discussion:

  • What inspired you from Dan's talk?
  • What gives you hope?
  • Where are we at in terms of living environment, technology and governance? Where would we like to be? What is the "delta" in between?

In terms of inspiration, three golden threads emerged, all of which frame a connected mental model for a better future. These threads are formulated in breakout rooms by the participating audience, which we have bundled below for easier pattern recognition.

  1. Limits of growth: Data is showing us that we are near the limits of growth. At this point, there is a possibility to redefine growth in developmental and social terms. It does not need to mean financial growth, as is usually assumed by the term "growth."
  2. Alternative ways of living: Urbanization may not be as inevitable as we thought. We are trying to "find a space where we can be comfortable enough to be safe and collaborate together for a new future."
  3. Connectedness: Humanity, inherently, is a combination of "oneness and interdependence." Everything is connected. Hence, our ability to link across scales is a pivotal skill, for any designer.

From a "hope" angle, three other threads emerged that are worth highlighting:

  • Distributed Networks: The concept of distribution can form a fresh counterpoint to remote working on a smaller scale. On an urban scale, it hints towards the decentralized "polkadot" scheme as a source of hope.
  • Permission and Trojan Horses: With COVID-19, we now may have permission to slow down and redesign, fighting the urge to recover rapidly to the "normal." At this point, the strategic design tool of Trojan Horses comes into play, framed effectively by this question:

Do we have to employ "devious design" and establish measures through the backdoor to bring about lasting change?

  • Ancient Tech: There is so much to learn from indigenous wisdom and time-tested solutions across cultures. Framed as "Wakanda meets Aalto" in Dan's narrative, could we cast a more attentive eye to what we have forgotten, or take for granted, in terms of technology that has outlived other natural or social changes at a systemic level? Can this lens help us in problem-solving for today and tomorrow?

Following upon the idea of ancient wisdom, could this wisdom help us carry a longer term view into the future as we go back in history to read through emergent patterns? Can there be some symmetry between long-term forecasting and ancient histories?

Finally, in terms of the delta between our current state of affairs and where we would like to be in the future, we deployed a real time survey exercise using Mentimeter with approximately 60 participants.

In this survey, we asked the participants about their perceptions regarding their countries' current and desired state around three topics: Living environment, technology, and government. In the visual below, the current state is shown in petrol green (no pun intended), and the desired state in burgundy.

  1. Where is the population concentrated in your country? Big cities, small cities or the countryside?
  2. Should technology be used for producing public or private goods?
  3. What is the government's role in your country? Are they regulating or acting as a collaborative innovator?
Results of the collective Mentimeter exercise

Clearly, this survey holds plenty of biases within it. A sample of 60 changemakers from diverse nations, attracted to the content of Dan's narrative, will not serve as a representative sample for the globe.

Nonetheless, framing the conversations around "future tensions" could actually help us move the conversation forward. In fact, it is precisely such generative spaces that Future Tense wants to hold, and expand upon.

Looking at the results, there is a clear shared desire towards smaller and more distributed cities where technology is seen as a public good and governments as collaborative innovators.

Connecting this golden thread to the inspirations and hopes from the audience, what seems like a compelling next step is to focus on how to shift the mental models of the general public - and this shift needs to happen on two stacks:

  • Growth: On an individual level, decoupling growth from finances and connecting it to developmental and social growth seems like a necessary first step. One may argue that behavior change will start at an individual level, once this decoupling happens. With this mindset, cities, governments, and technology companies may also start acting in a whole new way.
  • Decentralization: As the next step, internalizing the productive capacities of decentralized networks, on an organizational and societal level, seems key. This mindset will unlock new opportunities across all levels, making the whole system more resilient.

Adding our own interpretation to this emerging intelligence, we would like to pose the following question:

If a redefinition of growth and a move towards decentralization seem like the pivotal factors for individual and societal transformation, where does COVID-19 sit in this equation? How might we use the shifting vectors of this odd and in-between period to create lasting change?

This will remain as a pertinent question in the coming months, if not years. It is also worth pondering upon how we nudge each other towards lasting change, as we observe "news artifacts" that pop up across nations.

Carrying a selective perception for ideas that redefine growth and reinforce decentralization may well be the best habitual act we may insist on.

Closing Remarks

Dan's Future Tense session was a beautiful bricolage of seemingly divergent examples sampled from a vast array of intellectual libraries. Touching upon history, geography, politics, economics, urbanism, architecture, design, and environmental sciences - among others - it was a transdisciplinary tour-de-force at best, leaving the audience both inspired and full of hope.

We would like to thank all participants for their presence and contribution, and also thank Dan for narrating this thought process in such an elaborate way.

See you in our upcoming sessions.

If you have any feedback on our Future Tense series or associated matters related to futures design, please contact our Co-founder Engin Ayaz (

If you are looking for ways to help your teams build systems that will allow inclusive and effective means of collaboration and co-creation, please contact Mert Çetinkaya ( the interim Director of ATÖLYE's Academy. For ATÖLYE Academy's events, programs and workshops, including the upcoming Future Tense sessions' details, you can subscribe to our newsletter at this link.

Finally, if you are interested in conversing about the emergent challenges of your organization during this global pandemic, please contact our Studio Director Bengi Turgan (