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.
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?
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 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.
The application of technology where transparent surfaces become screen to interact with digital devices, in everyday life: home, business, and education.
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.
Properties of Speculative Design
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
A comparison table showing the differences between Traditional Design and Speculative/Critical design
|(a) Traditional Design||(b) Speculative/Critical Design|
|Design as process||Design as medium|
|Provides answers||Asks questions|
|In the service of industry||In the service of society|
|For how the world is||For how the world could be|
|Science fiction||Social fiction|
|Fictional functions||Functional fictions|
|Change the world to suit us||Change us to suit the world|
|Narratives of production||Narratives of consumption|
|Research for design||Research through design|
|Design for production||Design for debate|
|Concept design||Conceptual design|
|Makes us buy||Makes 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
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.
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.
What if you could be shipped? A very speculative view on the future of personal transportation.
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.
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.
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:
- Predicting the past. What if you didn’t do what you’ve just did
- Remembering the future. What about projecting yourself in a specific place with the desired person to do something you want to do?
- 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
Thanks to Debora Bottà for her wonderful webinar. I’ve found so many insights and inspirations to fuel my imagination for the foreseeable future. 😊