Sneak peek of the workshop

Imagining narratives for preferable AI futures

How speculative design helped us visualize & prototype ways in which AI might contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals

Erik Peters
Published in
7 min readAug 21, 2020


As AI systems are often pretty invisible, most people imagine artificial intelligence in the way it often is portrayed in sci-fi and pop culture. The Terminator, Ex-Machina, Blade Runner: AI is basically the same as an evil robot, right?

This workshop aimed to explore the anxieties and prejudices we have around this technology and instead of imagining the easy-coming-to-mind dystopia, focus our gaze on preferable AI futures.

Speculative design helps us to imagine and visualise these explorations, so we can open up these topics for discussion. To focus on real life issues rather than the creation of utopias, we used the Sustainable Development Goals as a framework to thematize our anxieties and narrow down the focus of possibilities.

The event flyer :)

AIxDesign & Speculative Futures Rotterdam

In the span of the workshop, we aimed to imagine how AI technologies could positively contribute to the pursuit and realization of Sustainable Development Goals. We finished the event with a prototyping session of AI-driven solutions for better futures.

This workshop was a collaboration between AIxDesign and Speculative Futures Rotterdam. The three organizers and facilitators — Nadia Piet, Karolina Thakker, and Erik Peters — came about the theme for the event during a casual chat on the perception of artificial intelligence in popular media. We allowed the speculative design framework to take us into less explored paths and together imagine the more hopeful alternatives during a 2 hours workshop.

The setup of the workshop
The setup of the workshop

The event took place online with the help of Google Meet and Google Hangouts for group sessions. We used boards in Mural to create frameworks for exercises and provided an additional Google Docs document with instructions for the participants to refer to throughout the workshop.

The session was packed with exercises we found necessary in providing the structure that could help the participants narrow down the focus and stimulate lively discussions in groups. At the same time, the technical complexity of hosting a workshop with this many exercises within two hours would be a challenge. In hindsight, most participants navigated with ease through all the different online channels.

The workshop: How to use AI for the realization of Sustainable Development Goals?

Mapping and flipping AI anxieties

The event was divided into two main parts. In the first part, in an exercise called Anxiety Mapping, the participants were asked to list down all the anxieties and fears that they associate with the adoption of AI technologies in the current world. The map was filled with all sorts of worries within minutes in which we managed to identify main problem clusters. These challenges were to be used as a starting point for the second part of the workshop in which groups worked on developing AI-driven solutions for preferable futures through series of different exercises.

Filling the Anxiety Map
Filling the Anxiety Map

The participants formed groups based on their choice of the problem they found to be most interesting. Along the theme of our evening, we then asked them to reframe this problem into a Hope — a way how AI technologies could help us in creating better futures, although there is no opinion on what “better” actually means. For that reason, we decided to add Sustainable Development Goals as our reference point. We asked the groups to choose their design objective for the next exercise based on the SDG that they felt was most relevant to their AI-driven Hope.

It was a fast-paced event, so we made the decision not to intervene in the group chats. It turned out well but as facilitators, we missed hearing all the fun bits and weird ideas of group discussions.

How might we use our AI superpowers?

The next exercise was a brainstorming session. First, we asked participants to choose one domain within their focus area that they would like to work on. Besides, we briefly explained the main AI superpowers (add a short one sentence why AI superpower) and provided a simple prompt question to help groups with the idea generation phase of the workshop. People were engaged in the process. It was hard to break the discussions and ask everybody to move on to the next exercise.

We asked each person in a group to then choose their favourite ideas and place them onto the provided Futures Cone template. It was helpful to narrow down the choices and assess the probability of them existing in the future.

Prototyping the Bigotry Bias Buster

The last part of the event was the rapid artefact prototyping session. To make it easier and more fun, we provided the groups with ready-to-use templates. The templates included: an event page, a Kickstarter campaign, a place in Google maps, an app and a LinkedIn job profile. In the end, many shared with us that they enjoyed working in this way and had a good laugh trying to put their prototype together.

Unfortunately, we had only a few minutes left for groups to present their creative ideas for AI-powered futures (who wouldn’t like to own a cute digital double Patronus of their own?), but we were happy to see participants being proud and proactive in their projects.

SDG’s for achieving a better future for all

Team Orange reducing inequalities

From the clustered anxiety ‘reinforcing harmful bias, the group flipped this anxiety in the exploration of Law and Justice Systems, linking this to SDG #10: Reduced Inequalities. The artefact they presented, named ‘Bigotry Bias Buster’, suggests a decentralised system that spots the biased stuff in our algorithms. ‘BBB is a supreme entity that reigns with Fairness on Planet Earth. It condemns entities, nations, citizens, or companies who dares letting any bias into their algorithms.’

The canvas of Team Orange — SDG #10: Reduced Inequalities
The canvas of Team Orange — SDG #10: Reduced Inequalities
The artefact of team orange: A decentralised system that spots the biased stuff in our algorithms
The artefact of Team Orange: A decentralised system that spots the biased stuff in our algorithms

Team Purple guarding digital well-being

From the clustered anxiety ‘lack of privacy / surveillance’, the group flipped this anxiety in the exploration of Help Companions and Data Protection, linking this to SDG #3: Good Health and Well Being. They proposed a Kickstarter campaign for ‘Create Your Own Digital Double’, an avatar hologram that is the visualisation of your private data. The double is customisable and protects your data.

The canvas of Team Purple— SDG #3: Good Health and Well Being
The artefact of Team Purple: An avatar hologram that is the visualisation of your private data

Team Green promoting good health

From the clustered anxiety ‘loss or lack of abilities’, the group flipped this anxiety into Enhancing our abilities and helping us being more in touch with ourselves, linking this to SDG #3: Good Health and Well Being. Career OS is a lifelong coach powered by AI to help build your social and soft skills at work. The system provides ‘timely and proactive recommendations on your next social and work skills to achieve your career goals.’

The canvas of Team Green— SDG #3: Good Health and Well Being
The artefact of Team Green: A lifelong coach powered by AI to help build your social and soft skills at work

Learnings about manoeuvring the digital space

Regardless of time constraints and a heatwave outside our houses, we hope everybody had fun during the workshop and got inspired by the discussions. Many liked working with the worksheets and the artefact templates, but wished to have a bit more time for an initial introduction. As virtual workshops have their limits, we are looking forward to a moment to conduct this workshop again in real life.

We will continue to refine this version for future sessions, online and offline, and hope to set up another session in the near future! Join our Friendly Futures Bunch mailing list to be updated on public workshops, reach out if you’d like a version of this for your team or organization, and stay tuned for more near-future futures work!

About AIxDesign

AIxDesign is a place to unite practitioners and evolve practices at the intersection of AI/ML and design. Currently, we are organizing monthly virtual events (like this one), sharing content, exploring collaborative projects, and looking to developing fruitful partnerships.

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