Possibility Space

The Johari Window is a technique used to reason about knowledge relating to one’s self and others, employed widely within the Intelligence community and elsewhere for decades. It became eponymous, however, with former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld after a 2002 press briefing in which he invoked the concept in response to a question regarding the absence of evidence connecting the Iraqi government to weapons of mass destruction.

As we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know.1


Lauded by some for its concision, criticized by many as cryptic and evasive,2 the statement, made just one year prior to Iraq’s invasion, would nevertheless remain fixed within the lexicon of possibility.

Like the Secretary’s possible pasts, contingent futures are constrained by the same window of lived experience. Without providing context to engage alternatives we limit the prospective imagination.

The Extrapolation Factory, a Brooklyn-based design studio led by Chris Woebken and Elliott Montgomery, develops methods for altering the conditions of forethought by incorporating futures which operate at unfamiliar scale. Studying methods developed to gain advantage in war, industry, and statecraft, they re-purpose these speculative practices for public use, sharing a vision in which everyone may participate in shaping the horizon of possibility.

⸺ Sam Hart


Image from Fog of War (2015), Sam Hart. Situational assessment booklet produced for Alternative Unknowns.


The Extrapolation Factory Operator’s Manual (2016). Available in English and Mandarin via Amazon’s print-on-demand service, CreateSpace.

Participatory Design Futures

Envisioning the future is a collective process which should be available to all. By re-designing state-of-the-art modeling and prospection methods for everyday use, the Extrapolation Factory puts expert tools for imagining futures into your hands.

We study the way futurists work and then use design strategies to distill these approaches, making them accessible to communities and individuals. In our workshops, participants have made fictional products for a future 99¢ store, stocked vending machines from an alternate reality, and created junk mail from businesses that don’t yet exist. By situating physical prototypes within the language of everyday objects, encountering a speculative product becomes an opportunity for interruption. A break from expectation which can bear insight into a future scenario, while still tethered to the familiar. Thinking through a tangible representation, we can now begin to test, iterate, and realize alternative futures.

Taking a practice of applied and participatory speculative design into spaces which serve a wider audience, public service, planning, and policy, we have the opportunity to introduce more imaginative and equitable strategies for dealing with crucial emerging issues.


2012 pre-season coastal storm planning workshop aimed at increasing citywide preparedness for hurricane sheltering operations. More than 15 government agencies and private organizations attended the workshop. Image courtesy NYC EM.

Managing Emergency

Emergency management groups focus their efforts on understanding and preparing for challenges of unknown size, character, and impact. Many of these challenges operate at system-scale, where numerous stakeholders contribute to an evolving state linked by a multitude of causal variables. Emergency Management experts develop flexible, resilient responses to emergency events which act as templates for a range of possible scenarios. These blueprints are continually refined during tabletop exercises and live action simulations in which responders can see how operations may unfold, enabling them to improve communication among government agencies, community emergency responders, and the public.

Live-action training exercises have long been used by emergency management groups, the military, and the police for scenario evaluation within a systemic context. However simulation techniques can also successfully be adapted to serve as design prototyping tools, allowing artists and designers to investigate, propose, and test interactions and scenarios that unfold and iterate over time. In Alternative Unknowns we re-purpose these techniques, creating a method which attempts to introduce speculative tools to audiences in more accessible ways.

Often treated as an afterthought, discrimination and other human rights violations are tragically commonplace during catastrophe. The impulse during a state of emergency is to triage, prioritizing fundamental objectives and saving lives. Given the pattern of social injustice in moments of disaster, however, the Extrapolation Factory proposes we consider emergency foresight as an important social justice issue. By implementing strategy for envisioning emergency scenarios and proposing new tools and systems to intervene in these events, we believe we can navigate future emergencies with a greater degree of social inclusion.


Alternative Unknowns participants at NYC EM headquarters.

A Conversation with NYC Emergency Management

NYC Emergency Management: I’ve worked on quite a few humanitarian design projects, and one thing I notice is that there are a lot of devices people come up with which are cool, clothing that transforms into a tent for instance. I think it’s also important to consider is how people operate together. There seem to be fewer projects that address how people interact.

Extrapolation Factory: So social mechanisms, as opposed to physical ones.

EM: All of it’s interesting, but that’s something I rarely see if I’m on a panel for instance. From a community-based perspective, one thing we want communities to have and to do is form disaster networks. These networks naturally form when there is an emergency because people want to come together and they want to help each other. But then they dissolve because there’s nothing to keep them together after the emergency. That’s something that we think about, how do we keep these networks going when there is no emergency? People like to do work and respond, but when it comes to preparedness, things become more difficult.

EF: Looking on the NYC EM website, it seems there are very few references to physical things. There are ready-bags, with references to things like flashlights, food and water and then a few other odds and ends, but it seems like the scope of things we might have around is fairly limited.

EM: I think in terms of our preparedness message, it has to be sharpened so that it’s understandable by everyone. We want to encourage people to have certain things in place and those are the most important things to have.

EF: Ok, so what can you fit in a bag or a poster are limitations.

EM: Yes, exactly.

EF: For this project we were wondering what type of emergencies might be on your radar, but at the periphery.

EM: Some of the ones that we plan for that have high consequence, but low likelihood are things like an improvised nuclear device. That’s one where it’s a hard message to convey. It’s not very likely, but if the public knows in advance to do certain things, which is basically to get inside and stay inside and stay tuned. That can actually save many, many lives. But it’s one of those things that’s hard to put in a Ready New York Guide. It’s something we don’t have a lot of messaging on, but that we’re trying to get more messaging out because if we’re trying to push that message out during the event it may be too late.

And I think the reason the message is tough is that it’s really counter to our messaging for nearly every other emergency. It’s always get out of the way, evacuate, get to higher ground. Very rarely do we tell people: don’t go anywhere except inside. If you’re inside, stay where you are, and stay put. Even though a nuclear bomb just went off, which is counter to what you might think, and it’s counter to our original planning found, but there’s been a lot of research done in the federal space, if you can keep people inside for 48 hours, before they go outside and evacuate, you’ll actually save more lives than an immediate mass-evacuation. It’s the exact opposite of hurricanes, the exact opposite of other coastal storms.


NYC EM Emergency Handbook Library.

EF: So are you drawing on a lot of work that was done in the 50s and 60s then?

EM: No it’s newer. There’s a lot of work that’s been done through some of the national labs and through our federal partners who have done a lot of research on this. And we say nuclear bomb, but we’re mostly talking about a dirty bomb.

Tim Maughan: You guys went straight in there with the…

EM: [laughs] …yeah, worst case scenario. And a lot of the terrorism-based planning, or anything that has that element that’s a little bit scarier for the public is harder to communicate. Also not just terrorism but bio… Something we recently saw with Ebola was that the public messaging was so important in bringing the fear level down and communicate what is known.

I would say earthquakes are another example because it’s something that has a relatively high probability of occurrence, but doesn’t happen frequently. And thinking about how old our infrastructure is, and how old our buildings are New York City’s first seismic code was put in place in the mid-90’s. And some of the most vulnerable buildings in New York City are unreinforced masonry buildings. So your typical brownstone rowhouse and those account for at least 75% of buildings in New York City.

EF: So what is the procedure for an earthquake?

EM: Well it’s similar to an IED [improvised explosive device], that you should shelter in-place. And we do have a Ready New York Guide for Earthquakes that’s really good.

EF: So from an architectural perspective, regarding earthquakes, is there something that people need to know about the buildings they’re in that would help them make the decision to get inside, or is that the rule for any building whether it’s an old brownstone or a wood construction–are there considerations from that perspective?

EM: If you see major cracking on the facade, then you generally do not want to be in that building.

The other issue though too is aftershocks. So you could leave your building, but you’re not sure what’s coming next, or what’s happening on the street. So it’s kind of a catch-22 when it comes to the unreinforced masonry buildings. But the general strategy that’s been communicated from FEMA and other sources has been to shelter in-place.

Miriam Simun: So that brings up a question I had. In that situation there isn’t a recommendation that you can give people that’s necessarily right. So I would assume it’s best just to tell them something that won’t make them panic. Is that something you address?

EM: There are recommendations you can give homeowners and renters–but the thing is–if people don’t think something can happen they won’t make an investment. There was a study that looked at the [medical] impact of earthquakes, and non-structural damage accounted for most injuries, so all the things which aren’t connected to the building like bookcases, desks, light fixtures. That causes a lot of damage. But there are simple things we can do, like bolting furniture down, which people don’t generally think about.

EF: It’s not part of our lives in New York City like it is for people in LA or Japan.

EM: And we’ve had two of them in the last 5 years. Two tremors. One outside Toronto and one in Mineral, Virginia. And luckily they didn’t cause much damage because the epicenter was so far away. But even this organization did exactly what you’re not supposed to do. We evacuated our building, and you’re standing outside asking, well when’s it ok to go back inside?… Well the building looks ok… so we’ll go back in.


That was not the best option.We now have annual earthquake drills to make sure everyone in our office knows how to shelter in place during an earthquake.But it’s these things that are not ubiquitous to New York City that I think are tough from a messaging perspective. We’re always looking for better ways to improve crisis communication.

Miriam Simun: Yeah, I’d also like to hear how you deal with any psychological aspects [of disaster], or weather that’s in your purview. I know you really have to focus on communicating what the next steps are, but I wonder how you address the psychological component of people dealing with emergencies.

EM: So we’ll look at studies on modeling behavior and, for instance, for a coastal storm we’ll do behavioral analysis using those techniques that try to predict how many people are actually going to evacuate, how many aren’t, what’s the traffic going to be like on particular roadways… So we try to do that kind of thing to the extent we can. But we also realize that we’re never going to be ahead of what’s happening on social media, we’re never going to be the first, but we have to be accurate.

I mean the wave of tweets beat the wave of tremors from Mineral Virginia to New York City.

August 23rd, 2011 - Mineral, Virginia earthquake & social media response.

EF: Really?

EM: Yeah, seriously. So we do want to be accurate. And I think that part of being a trusted messenger is taking the time to get the message right every single time, so that when something big happens people trust you. So we have the Notify NYC system where we put out about 1,200 messages a year on a range of topics, from mass transit disruptions, water main breaks, bridge closures, low-flying aircraft (because there’s still a lot of concern about low-flying aircraft, particularly in lower Manhattan). And we go through painstaking steps to make sure that every time we hit send on one of those messages, we’re getting it right. So that when the big one happens and we need you to stay inside, or we need you to leave your home, that people are going to believe that. The same is true for our press shop, the same is true for our communication shop, we want to make sure that we’re right on the blue-sky days and on the grey-sky days, so that when we have those really bad days people trust us.

EF: I’ve met a few others at NYC EM and I learned about the volunteer, on-the-ground groups, I believe it’s CERT (Community Emergency Response Team). Are they able to respond faster, with less substantiation than you guys, so if someone on the CERT team were to tweet something would they be able to do that without the liability of NYC EM tweeting it?

EM: I think that get’s into the notion of trusted sources, and the benefit CERT has, aside from the ability to help us with all sorts of operations in the field, is that they have these community networks. Most people have no idea who we are, but they do know their local CERT volunteer because it’s their neighbor, it’s the same person that goes to their church or their temple, or they see on their block everyday. So these messengers might be clergy, or school teachers, or people who act as trusted sources everyday, and if we can get them to be our surrogates it’s very helpful.


Community Emergency Response Teams running a Live Action Simulation of a Radiological Dispersal Device emergency in Coney Island, 2013. Image courtesy NYC EM.

Another good scenario that might be good for what you’re working on is pandemics. One thing that we do is repeat the same message, particularly with the recent outbreak of Legionnaires’ Disease we kept telling people that the water was safe to drink, that it’s not contagious from person-to-person. But the information about contagion, and the potential risk from other people might be an interesting topic. There’s particular guidance from the Center for Disease Control on what they call social distancing.

Essentially people are wondering: can we use the subway? Can we go outside? Should we cancel school?


Initial growth of an infectious contact network from the CDC report Targeted Social Distancing Design for Pandemic Influenza.

EF: That’s a really interesting point, that risk assessment from NYC EM’s perspective–how you communicate about it–is often different from what an individual thinks is risky behavior. I feel like those evaluations are difficult and communicating that clearly is difficult.

So with Legionnaires’ and Ebola, those are two different instructions you sent out to people, because Ebola is contagious [person-to-person], and there is a reconditioning that takes place when we change the message. Like this one you can be around other people safely, this one be careful who you come in contact with.

EM: I think your speculation on that is probably as good as ours. We just try to be as straightforward as possible. And particularly I think to identify, those who might be most vulnerable, we’re really trying to get that information out so that people can protect themselves and take care of each other.

Sam Hart: On my way over I was thinking about NYC EM’s role as an agency tasked with preparing for disastrous events, but the circumstances of disaster seem fairly undefined. You must draw on a significant body of research about the scale and likelihood of various scenarios. Can you tell us a bit about how NYC EM decides what constitutes a scenario worth preparing for, and how you allocate time and resources? So how do you weigh likelihood over different time scales versus potential damage?

EM: That’s a good question and there’s really two ways to answer it. One is that a lot of our plans in New York City are based on assessments like [our recent plan for] hazard mitigation. We know (generally speaking) what our threats are in that area, and we build response plans that are flexible and scalable. You could have a mass-fatality event that involves ten people, you could have a mass-fatality event that involves 1000 people, so you have to be able to scale-up.

But I think the other way to answer your question is you don’t know what you don’t know, and we don’t know when there’s going to be an emergency or a situation that we did not directly prepare for. But for most of our plans, especially when you look at things that are built for all hazards, generalize well. So we can take aspects of our coastal storm plan and apply that to a building collapse. And we have, after Sandy there was a huge debris removal operation, second only to Katrina. For a building collapse we may need a smaller debris management plan, but the concepts are the same. So we try to make plans that can scale-up or scale-down.

Sam Hart: One thing you’re alluding to, which would be great to hear you expand on, is determining “degree-of-harm.” So there’s a thought experiment which asks something like: Is it preferable for the “public good” to prevent a million people from getting a paper cut or a stop a single person from experiencing excruciating pain? Certain classes of events impact New York City to a greater extent or more frequently than others, but I know you’re not trying to rid New York of its paper cut epidemic.

EM: Well for us to get funding, there are national planning scenarios that we use to determine our agenda, and those are on the FEMA website–for the hazard mitigation plan to determine what hazards we profiled, I believe what we did was look at the frequency of past hazards. But we also had other agencies like the Department of Health, the MTA, and Con Edison, and we came up with a list based on previous occurrences and we all discussed what hazards were important and issues that could affect them which might not be on the NYC Emergency Management radar and then we voted on that list of hazards.

Sam Hart: So say there was something that threatened Wall Street for instance, that doesn’t have a direct impact on human life, but will clearly have secondary or tertiary effects on people’s lives. How does the discussion proceed for issues like that? –where it’s not posing immediate risk to someone, but the risk to New York, or the country is quite significant.

EM: So we do look at those kind of cascading effects when we’re do our planning, and we encourage our private sector partners to do the same. I guess the most concrete example I can give you is the CEAS program (which is the Corporate Emergency Access Systems program) that we manage, and that private corporations can buy into, so that even if we have to freeze a part of the city, people are still able to get their critical employees past police barricades, past security perimeters that we set up so that they can continue the critical functions that need to perform for their businesses. Because we do recognize that New York City is an economic center for the world, a cultural center for the world, and we want to make sure that we’re able to keep that going.

Things like the blizzard, where we disrupted mass transit, even though the blizzard ended up affecting eastern Long Island far more than it ended up affecting us, we know that could have a ripple effect down the line–Sandy certainly had a ripple effect. So we do plan for that, but I think it’s important to realize, and the toughest things about emergency preparedness particularly on an individual level, is making it ubiquitous, making it part of everyone’s daily life. This is something that people who work here wake up thinking about, go to bed thinking about, but it’s not what the average New Yorker is thinking about.

But if you’re a fortune 500 company, if you’re the New York Stock Exchange or the Mercantile Exchange you do think about this, and you have people you pay a lot of money to think about this. So all of these companies, the stock exchanges in particular, have very robust continuity plans. And this way if Wall Street is shut down, they have places elsewhere on the Eastern seaboard elsewhere in the world they can move to, and make sure they can keep their operations running, make sure they can keep serving their customers. For instance, we have a very nice working relationship–through our national consortium–with the Target Corporation, and if you fly out to Minneapolis and you sit down with Target, they have a huge business continuity team and a watch center that’s keeping track of their employees around the globe for the same reason, because they know that emergencies are not just local. And in New York City, they’re certainly not just local.

One other thing I’ll point to, is that when we craft emergency orders, when we craft suspensions of certain civil liberties, like travelling on roadways, using mass transit, we always carve out exceptions for critical industries. So if you are a Con Edison employee and you get stopped by a police officer during a blizzard that police officer is not going to turn you around, or arrest you for violating the emergency order. Because as a city we recognize that we need people who work for Con Ed to go man the power plants and go fix the feeders, to make sure that the city can stay powered. So even when we draft legislation, when we draft emergency orders, we’re always taking into account: are there critical industries? We don’t want want to block nurses and doctors from getting into hospitals, we need them at those hospitals. So we always take those things into account.

Tim Maughan: Is there a card for these people–I mean if you’re driving a Con Ed van it’s obvious what you’re doing, but if you’re a nurse heading to Mount Sinai on the third shift…

EM: Yeah, it’s definitely more difficult. 56 hospitals in the city, 173 nursing homes, and it comes down to the police officer on the street corner who has the road closed. So there is an operations order for the Police Department, we broadcast our the emergency order, but you need that police officer on the ground to have common sense. And what we tell our partners is that if you come across a police officer who is not letting one of your critical employees through, and that gets to you, call us up in the Emergency Operations Center (EOC), and we can make that happen very quickly. We’ll get word to NYPD, we’ll say listen, we have a nurse sitting on 34th Street and 5th Avenue, police officer is not letting them through, and they really need to go through, can you please let the nurse through? And that happens very rarely, where it gets more challenging is, not everyone who supports New York City’s infrastructure lives in New York City. So our challenge as City Emergency Management is scale–8.4 million people, population of Manhattan doubles every day, but we have great unity of command. We have one mayor, one police department, one fire department, so getting messaging out is very easy. You go to Westchester county, just north of the City, and there’s 46 separate jurisdictions, 46 law enforcement agencies, so if you’re an employee passing through twelve of those jurisdictions on your way, that’s twelve opportunities to get stopped by a town constable or sheriff… “but well no, I have this card, I have to…” –so we try, we get information out to our partners that we do need these people. And up here, at the executive level, people understand what’s going on, but if you’re the town constable and you know that you have to keep the road closed, you might turn the guy away.


CERT Disaster Training at Randall’s Island, November 2009. Image courtesy NYC EM.

Tim Maughan: But is there a card?

EM: There’s a CEAS card, and a lot of agencies, Con-Ed included, will issue a critical employee card. But it always comes down to that ground-level bureaucrat on the street, and the what discretion they’re going to exercise.

EF: Another question I had was the about the amount of time horizon NYC EM is concerned with. So let’s say for example there’s a hurricane, there’s the immediate danger, and then there’s these kind of knock-on effects that can last for months or even years. And I imaging there are a number of scenarios that could be more ongoing. For example if an earthquake happens and a bridge goes down, do we have problems getting resources into the city. Or if there starts to be droughts on the east coast and we have food shortages, are there ways to bring food to the people who need it. Are those part of NYC EM’s mission, or is that starting to move elsewhere?

EM: We generally deal with the immediate emergency, and depending on how bad it is, we deal with the initial recovery, we dealt with a lot of the initial recovery after Sandy, after things like blizzards, smaller kinds of incidents like the east village, or the East Harlem explosion we’re there till the very end. Until everyone has a new home to go to. When you get to things like Sandy, we’re not involved on a daily basis with the Sandy recovery office, or the different housing programs that the federal government and the city government have set up. We played a role in getting those set up initially, but for the long-term recovery planning, especially in a city like New York, typically a separate office, a separate infrastructure will get stood up to manage that.

Another thing, for specific hazards it may be that we don’t have a plan but another agency does. So for droughts or water shortages, the office for whom that’s their core competency, we would coordinate with them, work with them, but the plan actually rests within their agency.

I’m trying to think of things that have theatrical potential, and one thing we plan for is blackouts, and to the question you just asked, what we’re doing here is organizing and consolidating the work of city agencies, making them aware of what one another is doing. And then best-case scenario, understanding what community groups are doing on the ground. But there are networks that spring up within neighborhoods that are maybe on a smaller scale than something that we’re integrated with, and that’s a good question, how you might provide them resources.

EF: That’s interesting, and leads me to the other question I had. Are there measures that NYC EM has in place for connecting with or supporting people who pop up as these local heroes, folks who just step into place when there’s a disaster who might not be part of a CERT team. Who might just say “I’m going to do this, I’m going to set up a solar panel here, or…”

EM: So we do have a plan for volunteer management which we use. We generally think of volunteers as one of two groups: affiliated volunteers, so those would be our volunteer groups who are connected with the red cross or the salvation army, and then we think about unaffiliated volunteers, and these are the people who just naturally want to help out, and are also more difficult to manage during an emergency. So again, we are a coordinating agency. We pull in partners to work with us during an emergency and if there is a big emergency, where we do need to activate that plan, we’re going to call in New York Service, which is the Mayor’s office, and a task force will be set up to help manage those volunteer groups–help us know who’s doing what and where. The idea is that sometimes there are people who are working on something but they’re more needed somewhere else, and so that will make it easier for us to distribute people and resources to the places where we need them.

EF: How much connection was there with Occupy for instance? After Sandy.

EM: I’m not sure how much direct involvement. I know they did a lot of good work, the Occupy Sandy group, and some of them still do. We supported them as much as we could through the EOC, if they needed resources, if they needed other types of support we helped them. But I think there’s an important lesson here, and we heard it from some of our elected, we heard it from some other groups after Sandy. It’s not uncommon to hear it after some of these mega-disasters, “can you believe the XYZ agency, or the ABC church had to do this for the community, where was the government?” And my answer (I don’t think it’s the NYC EM’s official position) is that these community-based organizations are helping the community every day. To expect that they’re not going to help and that it’s just going to be government during an emergency is misguided. We need everyone to help during an emergency, and sometimes the organizations that are in the best position to do it are the people who do a really good job every single day: churches, temples…

We do manage certain facilities, for instance during a hurricane we manage the sheltering system. So in our public schools we’ll set up places where people can eat and sleep. And there are issues of privacy there, and safety, and that might be a good opportunity for a design project. We also deal a lot with people who have special needs. So people who have mobility disorders, or require special sleeping arrangements, or ways to keep people’s medication organized and those sort of unique needs that are often overlooked from a design perspective.

Like what’s the difference between a go-bag for me and a go-bag for someone who takes a number of medications, some of which needs to be refrigerated…

EF: Bringing it back to potential scenarios which might present risk at the perimeter of what NYC EM typically prepares for. There’s a lot of risk assessment happening in places like the insurance industry, do you have a relationships with insurance or actuarial companies. So we went to NCAR recently, the National Center for Atmospheric Research, and their main focus is basic climate research, but they also have a close relationship advising the insurance industry so those companies can produce accurate risk models. So I wonder, are there other research organizations that you engage with that look specifically at risk, and how do you treat risk assessment as an organization?

EM: So I can speak to the mitigation plan, and then also the SIRR report (NYC Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency), which as an analysis that was done immediately after Sandy. There was an extensive insurance analysis that was part of a section devoted to economic consequences.

And then there was FEMA’s THIRA (Threat and hazard Identification and Risk Assessment process), which is how we get our funding from Homeland Security, through the UASI (Urban Area Security Initiative). There was a state-level report, SEPA (State Emergency Preparedness Assessment). Basically a number of data scientists came in and created a risk matrix, and we went through different scenarios. We evaluated things like how long would it take for New York City to run out of resources or for those resources to be so fatigued that we would need help. And based on those different scenarios we ranked how prepared we felt we were as a group and then how many resources we would have to commit and came up with a score.


Alternative Unknowns process diagram

Alternative Unknowns

To test the relationship between speculative design and government services, the Extrapolation Factory invited a group of designers and artists to meet with the staff of NYC Emergency Management at their headquarters in Brooklyn, New York. Following a discussion which outlined challenges amid NYC EM’s preparative agenda, the group was commissioned to create objects that provoke new ways of thinking about catastrophe.

Encounters with the design products, staged within an open-ended emergency script by Tim Maughan, could then evolve within the gallery-turned-simulation space. apexart became the site of four improvisational performances in which actors encountered objects under condition of emergency to reveal their multiple interpretive potentials in which a hypothetical pathogen of unknown character sweeps downtown New York.



Scenario introduction by Tim Maughan.


New York City has been hit by a major pandemic, a new strain of flu virus the city has been battling against for several weeks now–research showing that it may spread easily through the transit system. The city, in association with the MTA and police are enforcing a strict regime of control, monitoring, and–where necessary–quarantine. By constant monitoring of infection data (medical reports, air monitoring/sampling, social media data mining etc.) they are attempting to watch, predict, and hopefully limit the virus’ spread. Using mobile ‘pop-up’ checkpoints they monitor and control the use of buses, subway lines, and in extreme cases completely close off parts of the city from mass transit. Although it largely seems to be working, fatalities have been relatively low thus far, the epidemic has created an understandable sense of paranoia and distrust among New York City residents.


The Canal Street subway station, late evening.


A couple is heading home to Brooklyn after leaving a gallery show in Tribeca. They are surprised to find the streets seem fairly empty. Just as they reach Canal Street station they are alerted via wireless emergency alert that quarantine and checkpoint procedures have been activated in the neighborhood, and a pop-up infection checkpoint has been set up at the entrance to the subway. They’ve never encountered one of these before, but in order to get home they must pass through by proving they do not pose an infection risk…

Performing Disaster

Alternative Unknowns compels participatory engagement with scenario-based possibilities. Rather than leaving speculation to experts in institutions, we suggest a generative and iterative engagement with the public may yield alternative understandings which might not be accessed otherwise.

In a final public round table in which NYC Emergency Management, they assessed the simulation results and discussed further opportunities for incorporating speculative methods, remarking:

There are always gaps in large institutions, blind spots… it’s not something [we] think about enough. The use of improv and playing characters revealed not everyone always thinks as we think.

Simulation Script

  • Tim Maughan

Artists & Designers

  • Nanu Al-Hamad
  • Isaac Blankensmith
  • Fabien Caperan
  • Fernando Cremades
  • Matt Delbridge
  • Sam Hart
  • Dr. Natalie Jeremijenko
  • Matt Jones
  • Clay Kippen
  • Lost Cause Inc.
  • Miriam Simun


  • Kevin Alvir
  • Zenzele Cooper
  • John Peery
  • Candace Thompson


Alternative Unknowns was produced in collaboration in collaboration with the New York City Office of Emergency Management and exhibited as part of apexart’s 2015 curatorial program.

NYC EM interview transcript was edited for clarity and sensitive content.

  1. February 12, 2002 Department of Defense News Briefing – Secretary Rumsfeld and General Myers.

  2. Errol Morris, The Certainty of Donald Rumsfeld. New York Times, March 2014.

  • Dunne & Raby - Speculative Everything (2013)
  • Stuart Candy - The Future of Everyday Life (2010)
  • Robert Jungk, Norbert Mullert - Future Workshops: How to Create Desirable Futures (1987)
  • The Extrapolation Factory - Operator’s Manual (2016)
  • R. John Williams - World Futures (2010)
  • High Desert Test Sites 2, Katherine Ball - Not Broken Yet (2014)
  • Inke Arns - History Will Repeat Itself, Strategies of Reenactment (2007)