Speculative Design, Critical Design, and Future Design. Notes from the Webinar by Debora Bottà

Specularive Design reimagine imagination

Speculative Design is about re-imagining our imagination to create better futures that are possible and desirable. These are the notes I’ve taken, live, during the webinar held by Debora Bottà about Speculative Design/Critical Design and Future Design.

Image by Tumisu from Pixabay

Imagining our future to start building it today

This, in essence, is what these methods are useful for.

Deborà Bottà is a UX & Service Design Lead in Digital Entity of NTT Data. She manages teams designing User Experience for digital and non-digital services. She also the author of “User eXperience Design” a book in Italian about UX Design.

What is Speculative Design?

Captured slide: a typical futuristic landscape shown within the context of Speculative Design

When we talk about Speculative Design It’s easy to think about science-fiction landscapes as we can see in movies and Tv series in which our lives are radically transformed by technology. This is not the true meaning and purpose of Speculative Design although these disciplines tap into some of the techniques used by science-fiction to imagine future worlds.

Speculative Design has no roots in this type of literature but in the field of Radical Architecture.

Radical Architecture

A cohort of Italian architects and designers active from the late 1960s through the 1970s. They placed themselves in opposition to the rationalism and functionalism of 20th-century modernism and formed during a tumultuous period characterized by political violence and extremism, student uprisings, and social unrest. Working in collectives including Archizoom, Superstudio, and Studio Alchimia, they produced experimental, anti-establishment architectural and interior designs, furnishings, and objects. A spirit of playfulness undergirded an approach that had serious aims. Their eccentric output—ranging from speculative monuments meant to foster worldwide order to lounge chairs shaped like an oversized patch of grass—broke from what they saw as the prescriptive thinking of the past to shape a future free of war, inequality, materialism, and other human ills.

Radical Architects wanted to promote utopian ideas of architecture using what were considered as advanced technologies at that time. Italian culture, as frequently happens, was also key in the development of this movement.

A definition of Speculative Design

“Let’s call it critical design, that questions the cultural, social and ethical implications of emerging technologies.

A form of design that can help us to define the most desirable futures, and avoid the least desirable.”

Speculative Everything, Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby

A Critical Design that reflects on the implications of the technological progress, this is how the seminal book, “Speculative Everything”, defines Speculative Design. What are the most desirable futures? This, the key research topic.


An example video of what a Speculative Design activity would produce as an outcome.

A Day Made of Glass… Made possible by Corning. (2011)

The application of technology where transparent surfaces become screen to interact with digital devices, in everyday life: home, business, and education.

A Day Made of Glass 2: Unpacked. The Story Behind Corning’s Vision. (2012)

This video shows a utopic vision of a world where technology is pervasive and increases the quality of our lives.

In Black Mirror, an entertainment product, a TV Series produced by Netflix, usage of technologies not always bring good outcomes. In this case, the future is seen in a completely different way.

Black Mirror, TV Series, Trailer.

Properties of Speculative Design

  1. Speculative Design/Critical Design is not utopian nor dystopian. Future has many shades and it’s complex because we’re unpredictable and contradictory compared to the perfect consumers we would we supposed to be
  2. Speculative Design/Critical Design Is not an exercise in fantasy. it ‘s based on knowing existing technologies and trends, using the knowledge of experts when needed. It considers futures that are probable, plausible, possible, and preferable, but not impossible.
A Taxonomy of Futures. Redrawn from Speculative Everything. Stuart Candy.
  1. Speculative Design/Critical Design is not a prediction of the future. Rather, it creates a narrative of possible future realities to help us questioning the possible implications on the present: on society, on the economy, on business and so on.
  2. Speculative Design/Critical Design does not solve problems, it finds them. Design becomes a means to search for problems to approach. The role of technology is rediscussed to face its implications rather than its applications.
  3. Speculative Design/Critical Design does not create innovative products. It rather creates imaginary and fictional worlds that allow us to reconsider our world. It questions ideas and assumptions on the roles of products in our lives.
  4. Speculative Design/Critical Design does not talk to consumers. It moves from the needs and wants of the market to focus on a broader social context. It creates artifacts to think on and with, not to be purchased.

Manifesto a/b

A comparison table showing the differences between Traditional Design and Speculative/Critical design

(a) Traditional Design(b) Speculative/Critical Design
Problem-solvingProblem finding
Design as processDesign as medium
Provides answersAsks questions
In the service of industryIn the service of society
For how the world isFor how the world could be
Science fictionSocial fiction
futuresParallel worlds
Fictional functionsFunctional fictions
Change the world to suit usChange us to suit the world
Narratives of productionNarratives of consumption
anti-artApplied art
Research for designResearch through design
Design for productionDesign for debate
Concept designConceptual design
Makes us buyMakes us think

Speculative/Critical Design is the use of design to create artifacts living in a future scenario, fed by current trends, to start a dialogue and a critical reflection. It is not an effort to predict the future but to create stories of possible future realities to question the implication on the present.

—Debora Bottà

That is the meaning of the expression: “Imagining our future to start building it today”.

Starting from the reflection we do on future scenarios we go backward to question what we have learned about what we could do and use it to steer our present towards that desirable future.

Artifacts of Speculative Design

Example: Helios Pilot, a project of Near Future Laboratory, commissioned by Amazon.

It’s a quick-start guide for a fictional autonomous driving car. The idea was to imagine how they would have presented to future users how to use the car instead of thinking about the actual features of the vehicle.

This helps to empathize with real users and consider the implications of this technology. How is my life changed if I own and use an autonomous car?

It’s a tangible artifact supporting our reflection.

Catalog from the Near Future – IKEA

Another example from the same agencies, using the popular IKEA catalog, designers tried to imagine how everyday life would be in the future where the Internet Of Things would be more pervasive. Another way to reflect on a possible future.

Moovel in a Box

What if you could be shipped? A very speculative view on the future of personal transportation.

Example: Mitigation of Shock (London) – Suncorp. By Superflux. A pragmatic experiment practicing hope for a future disrupted by climate change

Superflux imagined a future in which climate change becomes an important disruption: how would we find food? In a real apartment, they created an installation in which they created every detail about newspapers, books on how to use insects to prepare meals. With special lamps, it would be possible to cultivate plants in-house. In this case, they went beyond the prototype by creating real working technologies.

In this case history, Nefula imagined the futures of work by mapping different possible futures and their relations.

Speculative Design, as seen in the previous examples, could be used to imagine a far future or a closer one according to the level of speculation designers are aiming to. It’s always important to remember that al imagined futures must be possible.

what if our data had funerals too?

Design Friction explored a what-if scenario: “what if our data had funerals too?” Would data acquire a different value?

The Speculative Design Practice

The Speculative Design Practice is tied to two concepts:

  • the speculation on possible futures
  • and the design of an alternative present.

And it rethinks the future using those technologies and those social relations that can emerge from our current world. It questions hypotheses and prejudices that we have on the role of products and services in our lives.

Speculative Design Tools

What do designers use in their Speculative Design practice?

Thing from the future card deck

Combining three cards, a type of futures (green), an object (red), a context (blue) you can create combinations acting as creativity prompts to imagine future scenarios.

Example: “in a green future there is a festival dedicated to health, what is it?”

In this exercise, participants are invited to imagine an object coming from the future. While it’s easy to set-up the starting question, trying to go back to design that object, to make it plausible and possible, is the real design challenge. This process promotes critical reasoning about the implications of the imagined future.

Flaws of the Smart City

A tool to think critically about smart cities and their implications.

The Tarot Cards Of Tech

A card deck to stimulate the discussion about technologies and their impact.

Actionable Futures Toolkit

A complex toolkit for designers familiar with Design Thinking approaches to help organizations to build services and products aligned with the future. What should happen today, if we backtrack from imagined futures, to allow it to happen?

New Normal 2020 – Nordkapp

Nordkapp created a report, in which they describe future technology trends to be used as starting points for more documented and researched scenarios.

The Institute for the Future

US Based, with an office in Italy, the IFF is a research organization publishing reports on trends, data, and content to support your Speculative Design.

Reflections on Speculative Design

Differently than science-fiction, in design fiction, there is always a bond between the present and the imagined future. Extending the present in the future is what makes the narrative of Speculative Design a powerful tool to generate discussion and second-thoughts on our lives.

All of the practices we have seen implicate changes.

“Design today is concerned primarily with commercial and marketing activities but it could operate on a more intellectual level.”

— Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby

Design can also be used at a higher level to imagine desirable futures. It can become a means to rebuild our future considering what we are living in today.

“To create something new, or make a change, we have to be able to imagine how things can be different. The future is a place where everything can be different.”

— Jane McGonigal. Institute For The Future

Exercise your Imagination

Jane McGonigal created 3 simple exercises about imagination:

  1. Predicting the past. What if you didn’t do what you’ve just did
  2. Remembering the future. What about projecting yourself in a specific place with the desired person to do something you want to do?
  3. Hard empathy. Stories and cultures: how would you imagine yourself within different contexts you have read in some stories?

“By speculating more, at all levels of society, and exploring alternative scenarios, reality will become more malleable and although the future cannot be predicted, we can help set in place today factors that will increase the probability of more desirable futures happening.”

— Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby

We need to re-imagine our capability to imagine.

We need to be able to imagine positive, feasible, delightful versions of the future before we can create them.”

— “From What Is to What If”, Rob Hopkins

UPDATE: watch the webinar recording, it’s in Italian but you can activate translated subtitles.

Thanks to Debora Bottà for her wonderful webinar. I’ve found so many insights and inspirations to fuel my imagination for the foreseeable future. 😊

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