Proto-Policy, using design fictions to negotiate social and political changes

Thoughts and feedback on ProtoPolicy, an experiment we carried, in 2015, on the potential of design fiction as a mediation tool for political and social changes.
This article has also been published in the Design special issue for the Journal of Future Studies (2016).


Design fiction, a discursive approach in anticipating changes

On this last decade, design-driven methods have been increasingly used as an approach to renew public services and policies. Most of the actions led in this sense rely on a problem-solving posture to improve the experience of public services as well as make them more efficient and cost-effective. However, in times of uncertainty, design as a creative and reflexive discipline might also be envisaged as a tool to anticipate and discuss policy development. The conceptual framework for a “design for debate” is then oriented towards problem-finding.

Speculative design, as coined by Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby, turns the normative design approach into a discursive practice. This alternative posture emphasises the underlying promise of debating about preferable futures. As a close cousin to speculative design, design fiction uses thought-provoking scenarios and prototypes that do not focus on implementation, but rather on discussing “what-if” scenarios with stakeholders. These materialised speculations are envisaged as a resource to foster debates on existing as well as emerging societal issues by lowering the barriers to enter the discussion. Additionally, they promote the pluralism of visions in public policy making by encouraging stakeholders to express and clarify their hopes and fears in an experiential way. A promise and a purpose challenged by our experiment, ProtoPolicy.

From ProtoPublics to ProtoPolicy

Questioning this new role for design fictions was part of ProtoPublics, a UK-based set of collaborative research experiments crafting new services, experiences, projects and policies that address contemporary issues.
Lately, the design research community has been investigating the potentials of design fictions and speculative design postures as a complementary asset to traditional future studies in strategic foresight. ProtoPolicy fits into this vision of design fiction by researching the design fictions capacity to be used to negotiate social and political changes.

To unfold the experiment, the case of ageing in place in the United Kingdom, was selected as a type of socio-political change. As the policy agenda has to consider the increased longevity of the British citizens, the challenges associated with remaining at home rather than moving to institutional facilities appear to be highly systematic. Stakes go beyond health questions, with concerns related to isolation, social care, pension schemes and even regulations for the labour market.

To explore design fiction as an exploration of public unknowns, ProtoPolicy assembled an interdisciplinary team, co-managed by the universities of Lancaster and Falmouth, assisted by the studio Design Friction and members of All-Party Parliamentary Design and Innovation and PDR from Cardiff Metropolitan University.


The ProtoPolicy experiment ran on three months, from June to August 2015, divided in three phases:
• Co-design workshops, including stakeholders and elderly people to underline issues linked to ageing in place.
• Design fictions development, crossing collected themes and extrapolations from the future policy agenda.
• Follow-up interviews, identifying the key arguments advocating or disapproving the use of design fictions in public policy making.


The aim of the two co-creation workshops was to identify main topics connected to ageing in place. Led with the charity Age UK, they welcomed participants from 45 to 95 years old, being already ageing at home and in institutional facilities, as well as social workers accompanying them.

During workshops, participants were introduced to emerging technologies invited to develop “what if?” scenarios occurring in a near future. Groups of participants went on to design a range of speculative services and products in response to their understanding of upcoming public policies. Each fiction was then shared, discussed and ranked by groups. This co-design process was especially looking at highlighting linkages between participants’ ideas and official policy statements.

Among the controversial themes pointed during these sessions, the taboo of euthanasia and the concerns about the ability to cohabit with intrusive or assistive technologies have shown promising inputs for the design fictions.

Three co-design workshops involved elderly people in imagining the future of ageing in place.

Structuring speculative scenarios

Having collected crucial insights from the workshops, the design studio Design Friction has focused on turning these primary scenarios into concrete provotypes, meant to be provocative prototypes, semi-functional products embedding critics as well as speculative values. Their uncanny mundanity and intriguing features are setting an alternative everydayness challenging the audience. Those provotypes consist in the tangible experience of unexpected consequences of ageing with connected technologies.

In order to craft these fictional pieces, the first step has been to articulate participants’ ideas with trends forecasting, examining points of parity. Doing so had given a set of productions completing each other with convergent and divergent perspectives, working as an ecosystem of propositions.
A mandatory step in designing these prototypes was to find formats that are accessible and familiar to non-experts. The medium and aesthetic hadn’t to feel too “weird” and too “exotic”, or it could have been difficult for the audience to believe in those visions.
Another constraint was to think about design fictions that would be simple to set up, being low-cost and quick to produce, but that would also be easily spread in the public sphere, be it using online or physical media. This led the team to design fictitious manuals and flyers for ProtoPolicy, envisioned as “takeaway speculations”, to facilitate their dissemination.

These design principles set the essential elements necessary to craft design fictions that could act as mediation tools to discuss socio-political changes.

Refining design fictions

Based on the insights extracted from the co-creation workshops and following the design fiction requirements, the studio Design Friction had designed two provocative scenarios to explore the future implications of ageing in place.

Soulaje is not exactly your typical smart watch!

Soulaje is a self-administered euthanasia wearable. It tends to look like any smart watch, only it allows elderly people to autonomously end their life when they feel the time has come. A series of safeguarding procedures ensures that the object cannot be used on an impulsive death wish. The rhetoric behind this provotype was balanced with a fictitious flyer protesting against self-administered euthanasia.

A new kind of therapist able to manage human-smart objects issues with uncanny prescriptions.

Smart Object Therapist is a social worker specialised in counselling artificial intelligence and elderly people. Acting as a conciliator, the therapist has the ability to improve relation and compatibility between humans and smart domestic systems. The diagnoses and protocols provided intend to readjust behaviours on both human and machine sides, to facilitate an efficient customisation of automated services at home.

These scenarios combined physical objects, printings and online content to sustain the speculative scenarios and introduce the stories to stakeholders.


A protocol to confront design fiction promises with political realities

To learn how design fictions might help negotiate socio-political changes associated to the stakes of ageing in place, the two co-designed provotypes were shared with civil servants and Members of Parliament. These discussions aimed at eliciting the views of civil servants and parliamentarians on the design fictions and the potential of the method for enhancing political questioning.

Dr Emmanuel Tsekleves presenting Proto-Policy at the Speculative Design and Policymaking Panel Discussion in Westminster.

Feedback from civil servants and parliamentarians

Across the different interviews, the findings of the studies revealed that design fictions appear to be more readily adopted by civil services rather than parliamentarians. 
For one civil servant, a significant advantage of design fictions was being able to interact with a physical object beyond the traditional written report:

“The opportunities afforded by design fictions in policy-making might be the added-value of an enhanced interaction between the civil service or parliamentarians in the form of physical objects rather than more traditional communication mediums from government such as written reports. For example, these types of interactions may contribute to more inclusive policy-making as lengthy government reports isolate those tranches of society that arguable might be able to contribute the most to the policy process. By creating empathy and a deeper engagement, the data and insight generated by the research might be more useful for evidence-based policy-making. Design methods such as speculative design and design fictions might create a symbiotic relationship between the public and governance structures.”

However, barriers to using design fictions for the first time, as perceived by parliamentarians, included costs, the inherent risks of unproductive debates and the pressures coming both from public opinion and party lines. Among the civil servants, the challenges focused on translating the outcomes into evidence including drawing conclusions from small sample sizes and ensuring a connection to the research question. These considerations intend to collect meaningful data by adopting abductive reasoning and the subsequent implications for validity and reliability. Indeed, the question of whether design fictions can generate representative and reliable evidence to inform government decision-making was crucial.

Given the opportunity to push the current practice of design fiction in the public policy making realm, more has yet to be researched about its capacities to sustain debates and decisions. Within Design Friction, building on the insights and hypotheses from the ProtoPolicy experiment, we will dedicate our next research efforts to highlight potentials and limits of design fictions, specifically in evaluating the impact of laws in a post-revolutionary context.

Visit the official ProtoPolicy project page