Seeing and believing: examining the role of visualization technology in decision-making about the future

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Images are ubiquitous in communicating complex information about the future. From political messages to extreme weather warnings, they generate understanding, incite action, and inform expectations with real impact today. The

Images are ubiquitous in communicating complex information about the future. From political messages to extreme weather warnings, they generate understanding, incite action, and inform expectations with real impact today. The future has come into sharp focus in recent years. Issues like climate change, gene editing, and smart cities are pushing policy makers, scientists, and designers to rethink how society plans and prepares for tomorrow. While academic and practice communities have increasingly turned their gaze toward the future, little attention is paid to how it is depicted and even less to the role visualization technologies play in depicting it. Visualization technologies are those that transform non-visual information into 2D or 3D imagery and generate depictions of certain phenomena, real or perceived. This research helps to fill this gap by examining the role visualization technologies play in how individuals know and make decisions about the future.

This study draws from three phases of research set in the context of urban development, where images of the future are generated by architects and circulated by built environment professionals to affect client and public decision-making. I begin with a systematic review of professional design literature to identify norms related to visualization. I then conduct in-depth interviews with expert architects to draw out how visualization technologies are used to influence client decision-making. I dive into how different tools manage the future and generate different forms of certainty, uncertainty, persuasion, and risk. Complementing the review and interviews is a case study on ASU at Mesa City Center, a development project aimed at revitalizing downtown Mesa, Arizona. Analysis highlights how project-specific visual tools affect decision-making and the role that client imagination and inference play in understanding and preference. This research unpacks the social, technical, and emotional knowledge embedded in visualization technologies and reveals how they affect decision-making. Information about the future is uniquely mediated by each technology with decision-making bound up in larger sociopolitical processes aimed at reducing uncertainty, building trust, and managing expectations. This suggests that the visual tools we use to depict the future are much more dynamic and influential than they are given credit for.