A Case for Speculative Design in an Era of Post-Traumatic Designers

What is Speculative Design? I get that question a lot, and sometimes I stumble trying to explain it because I believe it’s best portrayed through examples. And depending on who you talk to, you might get a different name for it: Critical Design, Design Fiction, Discursive Design, Interrogative Design, Ludic Design. Really, it’s all the same thing. And if you asked Cameron Tonkinwise, he’d say it’s all “just design”.

In 2015 I founded a meetup organization and consultancy in San Francisco called Speculative Futures. To cover a broad range of topics we had to settle on one term. We use Speculative Design to describe work that uses design (products, services, scenarios) to address challenges and opportunities of the future. We tend to look 5–10+ years forward and speculate on how things could be and what future we want or don’t want based on these scenarios. Our mission is to try to democratize the process and expose our members to the work and methods that have been culminated over the years.

Designers at a Speculative Futures workshop discuss the future of food in 2026.

I studied Speculative and Critical Design as a methodology in graduate school. In fact, I tailored my entire thesis around it and have been infatuated with it ever since. The term was originally coined by Anthony Dunne in the 90s, and, he, alongside Fiona Raby, pioneered this work which they formulated at the Royal College of Art’s Designing Interactions program. Since then, their students and others all over the world have created their own flavors to contribute to a much wider genre of Design Futurists that had already existed, all chipping away at different ways to look at the future through different disciplines and lenses. Even architects, such as Future Cities Lab, have been future-casting for decades, trying to anticipate new materials, changing landscapes, and probable technologies.

Future Cities Lab’s HYDRAMAX Port Machines project proposes a radical rethinking of San Francisco’s urban waterfront post sea-level rise.

“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.”
- Anthony Dunne & Fiona Raby

United Micro Kingdoms, Dunne & Raby (2012) — A project that sees England devolved into four self-contained counties, each free to experiment with governance, economy and lifestyle. These ‘live laboratories’ interrogate the cultural and ethical impact of existing and new technologies and how they alter the way we live.

Part of the message we try to deliver is that design also has an impact beyond the user. We design for our customer and all of their pain but what about the knock-on effects of our product within societies and ecosystems? How might a future social, environmental or political climate influence our products or how could our products influence those climates in return? Should we merely be designing in response to immediate problems or can we consider a more holistic impact of our work? There’s a reciprocal relationship between what we design and the world they exist in. Just consider how simple devices and new economies have shaped the way we live, interact, and communicate over the last 10 years. Just 10 years ago the iPhone wasn’t in our pockets. (I hate using this tired reference but it seems to be the one that most people can relate to) By employing Speculative Design, we can facilitate ways to look forward but also consider this bi-directional hidden impact and influence.

Instruments of the Afterlife, Burton Nitta (2015) “Instruments are created to transform contamination (pollution/waste) into valuable materials, by employing plants and engineered bacteria”

Unfortunately, Speculative Design gets a bad rap. Mostly relegated to university programs, R&D departments, or the occasional agency project where a company wants to envision the future, rarely do we see it as an integrated practice in design and business strategy. That is slowly changing. New technologies and volatile economies are prodding businesses to become more adaptive and proactive about future-casting so that they are more agile and prepared for challenges to come. Businesses will need to position themselves properly for disruptive technologies to arrive and to take advantage of markets early if they want to survive.

The advent of autonomous cars is a great example of how we need to look several years out to prepare infrastructures and policies to receive this new type of vehicle. However, as headlines of the first Tesla Auto Pilot fatality bubbled up earlier this year, we’re now starting to pay more attention to the potential dangers of this mode of transportation.

The ethical challenges in programming a car’s procedure in the event of an emergency becomes a difficult and charged topic in itself. Recently MIT did a study to gather opinion on a car’s programming to potentially kill or minimize a death toll.

“In general, people are comfortable with the idea that self-driving vehicles should be programmed to minimize the death toll” — MIT Technology Review

Among many of the strategic frameworks used to understand the impact and implementation of the autonomous car, Speculative Design can help. In early 2015, I participated in a workshop conducted by Near Future Laboratories, a global consultancy specializing in Design Fiction. The output was to design a quick-start guide for an autonomous car. To prime us for the future, they plastered the room with articles from the future with headlines about potential problems such as accidents, child safety, and even environmental challenges such as water shortage(at the time California was experiencing a drought). Several categories were presented for us to brainstorm around such as data ownership, insurance policies, emergencies, cleaning, and what to do if you leave your child in your car or if the car gets lost. These were all important topics to dig into to understand how to own and operate the vehicle but also how to deal with sensitive issues.

Near Future Lab’s Quick Start Guide for Autonomous Cars (2015)

Companies in small pockets all over the world are using Speculative Design as vision exercises, but also as ways to create strategies for business growth. Some larger companies, such as Microsoft, are releasing “Vision Videos” to paint future worlds around their own technology’s trajectory. In 1987, Apple created the famous Knowledge Navigator video which portrayed a professor using a then-mythical touchscreen tablet with a personal assistant, teleconferencing and file sharing over the airwaves. This was years before the internet became commercially ubiquitous.

The prop for Apple’s Knowledge Navigator video which foretold the iPad and Siri. (1987)

You see, there are many ways to speculate about the future, and while there has been fiery debate about the relevance or position of Speculative Design in our community, we can still use these exercises to face important topics head on, stimulate new conversations, and develop new perspectives for looking at problems. No matter what you call it, it’s still a form of ideation and synthesis. And once you attach it to a real problem and real science, it can become a platform for discovery and used to generate new products and set new agendas today. We need to stop being post-traumatic designers and start considering the issues that we know are imminent–overpopulation, disease, traffic, urban sprawl, climate change, food/water shortage and do the due diligence of addressing these issues so we can lay the groundwork for the future we want…and the future we have the power to design.

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Experience Design Director at McKinsey Digital Labs; Founder, Speculative Futures/PRIMER Conference

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