Ben Stopher & Tobias Revell : Reflections on the SCD Summer School at LCC, UAL.
Speculative and Critical Design is a contentious term. Critical Design was first coined by Tony Dunne in Hertzian Tales (1999) as an approach to design ‘…challenge narrow assumptions, preconceptions and givens about the role products play in everyday life. It is more of an attitude than anything else, a position rather than a method. This ideology was explored under Tony Dunne’s leadership of the now defunct MA Design Interactions at the Royal College of Art. James Auger developed the term speculative design during his time with Dunne at the RCA saying that it ‘…combines informed, hypothetical extrapolations of an emerging technology’s development with a deep consideration of the cultural landscape into which it might be deployed, to speculate on future products, systems and services.’ Along the way these two terms became conflated and combined to form the umbrella term ‘Speculative and Critical Design’ which has since become the cover-all for a set of inquisitive, future-orientated and critical design practices, methods and ideals. It’s not without its academic detractors and critics point to a euro-centrism, colonial attitude and elitism as flaws. Nonetheless, as a ‘field’ it has radically challenged ideas of what design is, what design is for and what the role of the designer is in a world riddled with uncertainty and instability. It now sits in curriculums of design schools around the world and is gaining acceptance in normally industry-focused design events such as the Milan Design Salone. It’s been used as an applied tool of policy research and development and as part of the iterative process in product development.
SCD in the Studio
All this is to say that even if SCD cannot be not a part of mainstream design, it’s certainly more than a fad. At the London College of Communication, UAL we’ve been working it into the curriculum of various courses (Specifically MA Interaction Design Communication & BA Interaction Design Arts) as a way to enhance and supplement courses where human experience, technology and social critique play a vital role. SCD invites these students to think wider and deeper about their design process and practice, how they integrate with the needs of people for whom they are designing and provides a radical framework for iterative concept testing. Most importantly, it invites them to consider the nature of a design problem, question the standard approach of just adding technology and actually think about when not designing is the best solution.
As educators, we don’t often get the chance to test the ideas and tools we’re working with in an intensive context. Usually, and in order to provide for the overall design education experience, these techniques are used lightly and over an extended period. Part of the reason for running the Summer School was to stress test the existing tools we’ve used over the last few years and to invent and try out some new ones with a group of design-literate students.
Building the School
The participants came from all over the world; the US, East Asia, the Middle East, South America and Europe and from a wide range of backgrounds — architecture, design, technology, social science, activism, policy and art. Most of them had a post-graduate education in their field or were otherwise established professionals. This lead to a great energy and some challenging debate and discussion. Most participants were also well versed in the texts and projects of the field and a lot of the criticism.
Each day began with a talk from a thinker or practitioner on an aspect of the subject. Rather than simply bringing in ten people who saw themselves as open SCD practitioners, we invited most speakers from a range of ‘border’ fields that provided insight on a specific aspect of the practice.
Paul Graham Raven (writer, theorist, critical futurist) kicked off by introducing concepts of narrative, scenarios and world building. He also began introducing the vexed problems of futuring, utopia and dystopia which often come up in the borderlands of thinking speculatively about how design and technology might proceed.
Dr Georgina Voss continued this trail by picking up on ideas of imaginaries and intention in imagining and then building the future, talking about how worlds are often unintentionally willed into being by rendering and policy.
Seamlessly, Dr Dan Lockton continued with this line of how intent is embodied through design in a talk around design for behavioural change and it’s history in designing the future.
Dr Catharine Rossi then took us back to a historical line for radical approaches to design through the activities of the Italian Radicals, drawing parallels with the institutional and political contexts of design then and now.
Ai Hasegawa (MIT Media Lab) Anab Jain (founder Superflux) and David Benque (Microsoft Research, Cambridge UK) came to talk about their practices. Although all RCA Design Interactions graduates who use a form of speculative and critical design (no caps) in their practice, they showed the participants different approaches of bringing this practice to research and industry and different models for operating in the ‘attitude’ of critical thinking.
Finally, Nicolas Nova came to talk about design fiction — another often affiliated term — and his practice with Near Future Laboratory, providing another insight into how these practices interlock with the existing design establishment.
Week 1 ‘People and Perspectives’
The first week of the Summer School was structured around a series of rapid workshops in core techniques and ideas while the second week was focused on a participant-driven brief which they undertook in groups.
The idea for the first week was to do something we’ve found to be successful in other contexts; an early stage of bombardment and ‘keeping it moving, keeping it weird’ (as Justin Pickard would say) to open up the field and get the students in a productive mode — quickly iterating based on new ideas and constraints with tangible outputs. The workshops of the first week were also structured around introducing material ideas of speculative and critical design practice. We borrowed elements from Matt Jones’ Hopeful Monsters to kick off with, getting the students to forensically take apart familiar objects and think about the social, cultural, material and political constraints that had forced their construction. The students were then asked to switch these constraints around and redesign the object as if from another world.
We introduced the Strange Telemetry version of Future Tarot to get the students to invent new futures and then systems, services and objects that might exist in these futures. We also introduced the idea of perverse incentive and evil users, asking the students to consider how their new systems might be broken, hacked or hurt people unintentionally — a kind of reverse user-journey for corrupt systems.
Taking James C. Scott’s Seeing Like a State as a starting point we also turned the participants into top-down planners. Similar to Hopeful Monsters, we asked them to analyse the construction of historical cities for indicators as to the intentions behind them and then redesign new cities based on alternative political frameworks. Finally, we ended with a rapid-fire science-fiction film day that allowed the students to get a bit looser with the ideas of story and narrative they’d been picking up.
Week 2 ‘the Brief’
The second week introduced a brief that was student-led. The brief asked the participants to think about the conflicts between mass manufacturing, technological customization and the political drive of individuality. A note on the brief put it like this: “This brief asks you explore trajectories of extreme personalisation looking at how increasingly individual approaches to design enabled by ubiquitous technology and distributed production methods, will change our ecologies of design.”
A critical idea in this brief is that normative design is generous at a wide scale — as its serves a wide group — and that a move from mass manufacturing to distributed manufacturing may undermine this generosity and asks what might this mean for concepts of accessibility. It also asks students to consider where these imperatives come from i.e. the political economies that are involved and where these emanate from. A simple example in the context of this brief is that much of the discourse around distributed manufacturing stems from a digital paradigm of modularity and customisation that has specific ideological connection with what — in 1995 — Dr Richard Barbrook and the late Andy Cameron called The Californian Ideology.
The “ecologies of design” as referenced in the brief was borrowed in this instance from a reading of various texts from Nordes 2015 “Challenging anthropocentrism in the design of sustainable futures Konstfack — University College of Arts, Crafts and Design. Stockholm, Sweden Sunday 7 — Wednesday 10 June 2015” — and in particularly thoughts whilst reading Cameron Tonkinwise’s paper Designing in an Era of Xenophobia.
These ideas — amongst others — were embedded in the brief as coordinates to frame a body of practice based enquiry that connects design practice with critical ideas pertaining to design futures. This approach also offers an opportunity to engage with ideas emanating from the design research community though design practice, which we think is one of the more vital aspects of what can be called SCD practice. Simply put, SCD for us offers one way to develop what in the UK is called “research informed teaching”.
We divided the students into groups based on their initial responses to the brief. Some were interested in looking at algorithmically-mediated systems, others at climate, another group was interested in mental wellbeing. These were only loose beginnings but meant to jumpstart the process of getting the students quickly into productive conversation. With only four days to go, it was vital that the usual philosophising and interpersonal negotiation at the beginning of a project were cut through.
We went largely hands-off with the students. Remaining in the room to encourage discussion and help them move beyond sticking points but the next real deadline was a halfway presentation of design proposals with two days to go. By this point, most of the groups had settled on their concept and story but were struggling with the hardest part of this kind of project — how best to materialise their things into design outcomes. This is often the hardest point of the project because it inevitably means letting go of concepts and ideas that you’ve come up with and find personally important. The difference between an SCD project and a lengthy text is that a good SCD project often gives very little away to the audience, it acts as a lure to bring an audience into the story and allows the audience to imagine the rest of the world around the object or artefact. To do this effectively often means cutting things that might prove problematic when trying to develop a good relationship with an audience such as ideas or concepts that only appeal to a limited range of people or things that are just too complex for people to grasp easily. Faith in your audience is important here.
By this stage we had the beginnings of four strong projects. One project dealt with a ‘normalised’ consumer AI that might inhabit personal devices making simple decisions for you such as accepting calendar invites or auto-replying to messages but with long ranging effects. Another was still thinking about how emotions were quantified by systems to make them legible (think here of Facebook’s reactions). The third team was looking at the interlocking of ‘open’ data and welfare systems and the fourth proposed replacing the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change with an international sport in wake of a reaction of ambivalence to the climate crisis and a public mood of anti-intellectualism.
The next stage was to consider the material practicalities of these outcomes. Most groups gravitated towards videos and short films. The viral qualities of short films as a media and the control you have as a creator over the story has a lot of appeal for short deadlines but we worked to encourage them to explore other options.
The Intergovernmental Game of Climate Change team produced a series of illustrations exploring different key positions that could be taken on their invented pitch as well as a rulebook and a short ‘live’ radio broadcast of a game. At one point they were drawn towards producing more ‘photo-real’ outcomes such as renderings but after discussion we encouraged them to produce slightly more ‘distanced’ objects to avoid destroying the affective humour of the concept by making it too real and to allow the audience to imagine the game themselves based on their experience of international sport.
The Emotional Devolution team produced a series of images that explored how reductive interpretations of emotions through systems like social networks might influence human relations as we see the world more through these systems. They also, in video, made nods to behavioural change systems like the advertising reaction patent that demand more and more explicit emotional labour out of us in order to function. They considered how our physiognomy might change with all this repetitive emoting behaviour inculcated by computer vison, is the web cam the new fork?
The Update team imagined a coercive personal assistant that crossed the creepy line using a combination of AI and personal information which was delivered by automatic update to your phone. They produced a journalistic timeline showing the evolution of this product through reports in tabloid media. As a medium for showing technological development, this was particularly interesting. Looking at how pulp publications and pop culture deal with and assimilate technology is a great way of studying how stories build around it. The influence of Near Future Laboratory was very clear here. They also produced a short piece of motion graphics showing how a fictional conversation between a couple after a first date was being manipulated subtly by their phones’ AIs to influence the relationship based on metrics the AIs had grabbed from elsewhere.
Finally, the algorithmic welfare Got Milk? team adopted a documentary style of storytelling to show how one individual was first struggling to deal with the system and then how they might hack it to their benefit. For instance, avoiding penalties on milk consumption by not putting it in the smart fridge but in a bucket of ice. As a response to the time constraints, the idea of a documentary format was clever as well. This allowed the group to be looser with the filming and scripting as they could treat the ‘actor’ more candidly.
The projects that emerged were in no way meant to be an outcome from the two weeks. They were intended as part of the continuing exploration from the first week of intense workshop but played out more responsively. Less — ‘here’s some tools, now go and use them’ than ‘here’s some tools, look how they’re made, see if you can build your own.’ So the projects were by no means slick, exhibition ready pieces but rough and ready sketches of a grab bag of stuff thrown at the students over the two weeks. It’s worth mentioning again the sheer energy and intellectual strength and design chops of the students. Not only us but every speaker was probed and dissected for reasons, stories, ideas and justification. The conversations I overheard between the students both in the school and at the pub afterwards were sharp and intense, driven by an open-minded embrace of the subject. The criticisms that SCD faces were repeatedly raised and new ones levelled but all discussed maturely and with a broad, ranging look at the future of SCD in a wider design context than academia.
The audience for SCD is broadening significantly as it gains traction in research, policy and industry. The discrete set of tools and principles that the field has developed so far have room to expand into the practices of those without a design-academic heavy background and the summer school was to us as educators and practitioners, an important testing ground.
There are still things to be learnt, for example it may well be too much over two weeks, it was tough f0r studnets to keep the required energy for the full two time and the length precluded the attendance of those who couldn’t find two weeks to spare or afford it. Looking at projects like Dan Hill, Joseph Grima and Marco Ferrari’s Incomplete City Studio there may be space for a SCD pedagogy at a summer school level that is more participative. Rather than a linear lecture and workshop based model, a way of teaching that evolves skills and understanding in an ongoing project.
This said, as a first experiment on whether it was even possible to introduce and engage students knowledgeably with such a contentious and counter-intuitive field it was a success. As you can see from the video above the indications point to the students grasping the concepts and tools skilfully and with energy. The intesive experince offered by a summer school meant that as design educators we learnt new ways of introducing SCD ideas and new ways of talking about how we integrate them into student experience.