Reanticipation: Iterative Design Fictions

Bastien Kerspern
Dec 26, 2015 · 17 min read

The following paper was originally proposed in the Design and Anticipation session at 1st International Conference on Anticipation, organized by UNESCO Chair in Anticipatory Systems, in November 2015.

Crossing design and future studies

An introduction to the principles and uses of Design Fiction and Speculative Design in future studies

Merging the design approach with concerns inherited from critical arts, Design Fiction and Speculative Design might be considered an interesting addition to the panel of tools already structuring future studies. By distancing themselves from the traditional problem-solving stand promoted by industrial design education and the recent infatuation for design thinking, Design Fiction and Speculative Design propose to anticipate emerging issues and challenges rather than predict them. Design Fiction, has been defined by Bruce Sterling as the deliberate use of diegetic prototypes to suspend disbelief about change. Speculative Design, was coined by Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby, in their influential publication Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction, and Social Dreaming, as a way to represent and question the sociocultural hypothetical developments of technologies.

Beyond the intellectual exercise of designing for temporalities that didn’t or haven’t happened yet, Speculative Design and Design Fiction foster future studies by envisaging the emergence of new systems promoting alternative tomorrows. As their respective posture are resolutely oriented on provoking thoughts, they invite us to question the possible evolution of status quo currently, and even tacitly, structuring society. Doing so, these radical approaches of design augment the anticipatory ability of future studies by disclosing sociocultural changes and supplying public debates about our relations with emerging technologies.
Extrapolating towards preferable futures, Design Fiction and Speculative Design focus on amplifying weak signals to question social imaginaries and the realms of possible utopias and dystopias inhabiting these imaginaries. As an anticipation tool for future studies, they act as “compasses rather than maps” (Anthony Dunne, Fiona Raby, Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction, and Social Dreaming, MIT Press, 2013), to open and support discussions about changes.

Using mundane artefacts embedding visions for speculative societies, both Speculative Design and Design Fiction play with the everydayness of situations. In this way, Speculative Design and Design Fiction contribute to defining and then designing for the “New Normal”, as mentioned by Anab Jain from the design studio Superflux. Designers’ work consisting in embodying questions or critics into speculative, but basic, objects coming from near futures or alternate realities.

If a sizeable part of future studies might concentrate on macro perspectives, design brings anticipation closer to the public that will be affected by socio-technological changes to allow them to comment these transformations. Design is then a method to represent stakes and draws on creativity to envisage unforeseen perspectives. Making implications tangible and materializing options for projections, Speculative Design and especially Design Fiction are now beginning to be examined as a tool for evaluation as well as for decision-making for both public and private organizations, being complementary to traditional foresight.

Limitations of the contribution from Design Fiction and Speculative Critical

Design to public debate and discussions about future issues
If Speculative Design and Design Fiction prove to be an efficient input for anticipation-oriented practices, their promises tend to show intrinsic limitations. The purpose of speculations and fictions is to act as objects for discussions. However, are these speculations really creating dialogue or are they just framed into monologues? What might be done to act upon realities beyond speculating?

One of the first challenges that need to be overcome by design fictions is to reach a broader audience beyond specialists, as it is in their original promise to address complex issues to a non-expert public. Designers struggle to make their stories leaving the white cubes of museums and galleries. Debates tend to suffocate in these confined spaces, restricting the divergence of opinions. The variety of the audience might be argued, the one visiting these spaces benefiting from a certain cultural capital. The exhibition modalities of design fictions and speculative design projects cut these works from a part of the population who is not accustomed to the cultural places exhibiting them. This audience corresponds to an invisible public, one suffering from economic and cultural poverty as well as from the social exclusion. This public is usually unheard in the public space even if it is directly concerned by growing socio-technological problems and particularly affected by them.
Strategies need to be envisaged to leak speculations in the physical and digital public space to engage this broader audience in the process of discussing futures, audience such as the different communities of interest.

Reaching a diversified audience is mandatory to tackle the lack of different perspectives existing in the design fictions. Indeed, a considerable part of these speculative visions leans on western views. If Speculative Design envisages alternative societies, these new social models remain mainly western-inspired societies; as this posture of design takes root in the Anglo-saxon culture. This conceptual limit raises a paradox: how an alternative world can be envisaged only from the point of view of one dominant society or culture? The Brazilian design research practice A Parede questions “the blind privilege that permeates most Speculative Design projects”. Researchers from A Parede point out the “urgent need to escape its narrow northern European middle class confinement”, insisting in including a broader sexual and social diversity in the speculations. Several movements such as Gulf Futurism, formulated by Sophia Al Maria, are striking examples to consider when it comes to enlarge speculations with non-western views. Underlying these critics and comments, is there a need for a posture to open existing design fictions to other sociocultural visions?

Design Fiction also faces the difficulty to document the sought-after reactions and discussions. These forms of design intervention are as many endeavours to raise awareness and responsibility about future changes. However, a common denominator remains the lack of documented follow-ups on debates supposed to be triggered by speculations. Indeed, we might think discussions implied exchanges between the designer’s vision and its audience, or at least a conversation between the members of this audience. As for now, the speculations can be viewed as one-way stories, questioning then the actual abilities of fictitious artefacts as props to start discussions on preferable perspectives.

The list is not exhaustive, but these first limitations might be viewed as obstacles for Speculative Design or Design Fiction in reinforcing their impact in future studies. However, lately, several projects and initiatives from designers show a latent effort to open the process Speculative Design and Design Fiction. They care for supporting alternative views to voice out about their work in order to collect unheard opinions. Through co-design inspired methods or extensive documentation, these attempts might be seen as Reanticipation, a posture to iterate on design fictions.

Reanticipation, a posture for iterative design fictions

A posture rather than a method, inspiration and definition for Reanticipation

Design is, per se, an iterative discipline and one might argue this should reflect in Design Fiction. As defined, design fictions are material for discussion and debate. How might these fictions evolve alongside the questions they seek to encourage? Indeed, these provocations for thoughts can’t remain fixed in time, as the context and the concerns they emphasise keep transforming.

Building on the notion of project fork, rooted in software development and especially in the Open Source movement, Reanticipation considers opening the narratives of design fictions to further contributions once those future visions have been publicly released. Reanticipation is then a proposition for a design posture that would look after promoting iterations around those fictions. It acts as a call for designers to open their sources, to document their process and to equip other public in order to build and iterate on their work. The key idea behind Reanticipation is to publish the structural elements from an original project to multiply visions on a complex issue. Communities, bet it informal collectives or structured networks attentive to these social, political or technological questions, might start an independent development of their distinct vision, as a fork of the designer’s. By preventing to produce closed speculative visions fuelled with their own finitude, Reanticipation uses the principle of facilitation and iteration to involve stakeholders in the debates beyond a simple reaction to these visions, inviting them to deliver counter-propositions.

The intent of iterating on design fictions might be achieved by collecting feedback from the audience to adjust the former speculations and unfold new sides of the fictions. This process would help to refine the explored socio-technological critics by intensifying specific points of debate, be it the ones arousing controversies or the ones forgotten in the discussions.
As it keeps discussions open, fosters divergence and helps communities to step into the discussions by building alternatives, Reanticipation is a relevant approach to enrich anticipation-related disciplines with new inputs, notably by involving multiple social groups. These inputs include propositions and solutions that consider unexplored economic, politic, cultural or social angles, deviating from the original intention. Therefore, this posture becomes a strategy for mediation, following different archetypes of Reanticipation.

Classification of archetypes of Reanticipation attempts

Reanticipation, in supporting the emergence of new visions, revolves around three archetypical axes.

Documenting sources
Documenting sources on which the speculation is based is a first step in pushing for Reanticipation. Such efforts can be observed in United Micro Kingdoms: A Design Fiction, from Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby. The project speculates on an alternative United Kingdom “divided into four super-shires inhabited by Digitarians, Bioliberals, Anarcho-evolutionists and Communo-nuclearists”. This design fiction focuses on the new modes of transportation designed by these specific communities, according to their values and beliefs. The visions carried by the fictitious artefacts are supported by a thorough documentation of the sources and weak signals extrapolated in the fictions. The website exhibiting the project publishes links redirecting to different articles, scientific publications or discussion threads that have helped the designers to create the design fictions.
These external resources encourage the audience in understanding and deconstructing the speculations. As it can be a first step to reanticipate and iterate on these first visions, the process of consulting the sources of the project also conveys the intention of verifying the plausibility of speculations and figuring out how far we are from them today. The complementary information from the sources offer to consider the interpretation of these facts made by the designers. Learning where the speculations are coming from and how they have been refined by designers is an indispensable phase to extrapolate on the same sources of speculation and develop a different interpretation.

Revealing the process
Revealing the process is another manner to foster Reanticipation and to encourage iterative design fictions. TBD Catalog from Near Future Laboratory is an interesting example to investigate as it provides information about the process of designing the fictions. The artefact is a speculative catalog depicting futures products that could appear in the next ten years. According to its authors, the purpose of the catalog is to “spark conversations about the near future and serves to design-develop prototypes and shape embryonic concepts in order to discard them, make them better, reconsider what we may take for granted”. In addition to the speculative connected products showed in the catalog, the last chapter is dedicated to highlight the process of crafting the whole design fiction. The authors explain there the collaborative methods they used during design workshops to imagine and then assemble the fictions. The documentation of the story behind the project is underlining the decisions made regarding the choice of the technological context approached, here the Internet of Things, the questions raised by provocative prototypes as well as the profiles of the contributors to the catalog. The transparency brought to the creative process and the intentions of the authors might be viewed as a pedagogical effort to explain the project and the steps taken in contributing to deploying future visions. As it is done here, documenting the creation of the design fictions is about delivering frameworks that can be reused to structure further speculations.

Releasing tools and assets to build fictions
Aside documenting the sources and the process, releasing tools for scenario building is the third piece of a growing backbone for Reanticipation. The purpose of the tool is to equip non-designers in creating new fictions close from the existing ones, as an iteration on its current content.
Disobedient Wearables, led in our design practice Design Friction, provides resources and assets to iterate on the design fictions we first published. The project is exploring provocative visions about wearable devices on how they face social issues.

The intent of Disobedient Wearables to open the speculations for reinterpretation might be envisaged as Reanticipation. Our wish is to release graphic assets from the fictitious pieces, such as user manuals, we produced to support the fictions. According to us, it is supposed to concretely help the public in building new visions converging or conflicting from what we first designed. Design Friction also intends to provide a do-it-yourself deck of cards, using the same principle of combination as the Design Fiction Product Work Kit from Near Future Laboratory, a complementary asset to the TBD Catalog mentioned earlier.

The Desobedient Wearables cards are assumed as a tool to design new alternative wearables following the idea of disobedience. The content of the cards has been defined according to the research and topics engaged through the original work on Disobedient Wearables. The deck also comes with a proposition of canvas to structure the design fiction. The toolkit has been tailored for participatory sessions exploring and discussing current and future issues raised by the use of wearable technologies, sessions such as design workshops, for example. Design Friction also aims to facilitate the process of iteration by supporting these tools with guidelines and practices to set an event using the design fiction cards.

It is important to note that those tools and assets differ from the classical creative deck of cards released by design structures, as they occur in the continuity of an existing project, attempting to keep the discussion open around these fictions.

Outcomes expected from the use Reanticipation in future studies

By supporting the rise of iterations on current future visions, Reanticipation is an opportunity to develop the contributions from design in future studies. As the latest had become a strong asset in decision-making processes, Reanticipation might supply the classical futurologist approach with fresh design fictions disagreeing with the current status quo.
The attempts of Reanticipation are considered a strategy to empower interdisciplinary groups and communities to redesign existing future visions. Doing so, it delivers new artefacts embedding values, beliefs and fears that might haven’t been captured in the traditional forms of foresight studies. These diverging visions might celebrate the cultural, political and social diversity of viewpoints. Reanticipation reveals these unique insights by relying on a collaborative process. The published design fiction material, such as assets or documentation, are resources that can be adopted by a community of interest. They can join and promote discussions about future issues by designing pieces of argument based on this material; material that they have then tweaked and reformulated. The opinions expressed through the new fiction offer an interesting continuity of medium as the original fiction and the new one are now answering each other and completing the perspectives about a specific problem.

Reanticipation may be regarded as a way to enrich debate and fictions on growing issues as the communities are not starting with a blank page, but are rather experimenting with existing visions to co-produce controversies. This is an exercise of understanding the message carried by the original speculation. The community iterating on the fiction has to reconstruct visions and make decisions about a fictitious universe that they haven’t designed in the first place. The reactions to the speculation are going beyond the ones when only confronted to the artefact, since the community is also facing the previous choices of the designer when creating it. Then, they might decide to make their own speculation according to the history of the discussion, reinforcing or contesting the points of friction pointed through the initial speculative artefact. Challenging the original vision by reimagining the stories of the design fictions offers to delve thoroughly into emerging points of debate. Iterated narratives can be then perceived as a visual discussion thread that underlines and documents different positions, positions leading to opposing design fictions about a same issue. Beyond tools and methods, Reanticipation is a community-oriented process which allows to openly build and discuss continuous narratives.

A framework to deploy Reanticipation

Methods and processes supporting the implementation of Reanticipation

Being a posture and an ethical concern more than a defined methodology, practices and processes can be envisaged to support Reanticipation. The following points address propositions and hypotheses of support, rather than observed strategies. They consider methods to facilitate Reanticipation by designing places to display the iterated design fictions and modes to document the sparked reactions.

A place to exhibit crossed points of view
Iterating on design fiction multiplies the angles of discussion, with speculative artefacts spreading as the discussion keeps to evolve. As all the iterated versions of a speculation are directly or indirectly dialoguing with each other, there is a necessity to create concrete and actionable links redirecting from a vision to another. Connecting fictions is a binding action to show the discussions shaped by the confrontation of the different iterations.
Design fictions have to co-exist simultaneously in the different spaces inhabited by the various communities engaged in the act of Reanticipation. Visions might be deployed in the spaces occupied or frequented by the communities concerned by the questions raised by the speculation, be it in the online space or in the physical one. The challenge is then to get an overview of the discussions in one medium, leading to the need of documenting exchanges generated by the iterated speculations.

Documenting reactions and discussions
The iterations on the speculations are an opportunity to document the ongoing structuration of arguments. They are successively reformulated by the iterative appropriation of the terms of the debate by different successive audiences. The documentation can be carried out by ethnographic methods and represented through information design in order to visualize the different trajectories of iterated visions. It then endorses to visualize emerging disputes and points of agreement, following the principle of mapping controversies to highlight stakeholders’ positions such as theorized by Bruno Latour in the Medialab from Sciences Po Paris. The original approach proposes to reveal and document the stakeholders’ opinions and the point of frictions about an actual controversial technological or scientific project. The same idea is, here, transposed to a speculative proposition.

Documenting the arguments from the public would be actually only one part of the approach, as another effort would be to document how the media are considering design fictions. An illustrative example is the Audio Tooth Implant from Auger-Loizeau, having attracted media attention in 2002 and being quoted as one of the best inventions of the year by Time Magazine. With this large press coverage, designers received a lot of various reactions on the controversies exposed by the project. Building on this example and analyzing news-making, as medias are influencing the public opinion, designers would map how medias transcribe the perception of the project and then address it to the public. Delivering news about a design fiction curates specific arguments from the speculation and so shapes the debate in a specific direction. The curated arguments are as many new options to iterate on the original design fiction to push further the discussions about future challenges.

Acknowledging the limits of Reanticipation

Reanticipation is a chance to diffuse and expand the variety of speculations enriching future studies, nevertheless the posture also entails risks limiting its significance.

Betray the original spirit of the design fiction
Iterative process raises an intriguing paradox on how to structure the exchanges forming the dialog. Transforming the future visions might end in a perspective distant from the spirit of the original design fiction, at the risk of betraying it. As it is very subjective to consider if the initial message of the design fiction was betrayed by its reinterpretation, the speculation will necessarily be deformed by the iterations brought to it. Therefore, the impact of the original message may decrease. Another limit resides in deviating too far away from the main issue raised by the initial speculation as the discussions keep being supplied with new design fictions and then new arguments. It raises the question about the necessity for rules crucial to support Reanticipation, in order to stay focus on debating about one precise matter. Doing so might also limit the impact of Reanticipation and contradictory discussions. A decisive balance has to be brought between the principle of building on the speculations of others while respecting their works in one hand and pushing to call into question these visions in the other hand.

Licence and intellectual property
A conceptual concern as well as a pragmatic one. The iterations brought by third parties to a fiction question the ownership and intellectual property of the creative content. To sustain the use of their material, designers have to overcome their concerns with copyright and to accept conditions of fair use of their work. The Creative Commons licences offer an interesting framework to consider the sharing and the attribution of the design fictions. Another promising way to avoid the issues of intellectual property would consist in releasing the speculations and their assets in the public domain.

Involving the audience
The purpose of Reanticipation is to iterate on design fictions to confront more perspective on future issues. As in any attempt to foster debates, a challenge in then to involve the audience in reanticipating, as some of the public are not designers in the first hand. Can a public, which is not having skills in design, efficiently deliver visions as crafted as designers’ ones? Insights and practices might be critically inspired by co-design methods used in collaborative problem-solving, relying on acculturation to the design approach and on didactic resources. This concern echoes the stake of reaching an audience going beyond design specialists, raising awareness about the opportunities proposed by Reanticipation and its contribution to the discussions about future issues. Engaging the audience requires to imagine processes differencing the acquisition of the public from its activation. The second step appears to be mandatory to make the public stepping into action and reanticipating the current design fictions.
In this way, Reanticipation is still dependent from classical mechanisms of information sharing and its downsides such as the filter bubble phenomenon, then impeaching any possible debates and confrontations of the iterated vision.

Measure the impact of Reanticipation
Facing the same challenges as Design Fiction, evaluating if the promises of Reanticipation are really fulfilled might be a controversial question. There is, for sure, a lack of identified success stories on how Design Fiction really influences social changes or inspires transformations in the society. However, as art, it seems that Design Fiction has an obligation of means more than an obligation of results. The last could be perceived as a requirement inherited from its cousin, Industrial Design having to justify its efficiency. The question of evaluating Reanticipation is a debate in itself as it is for Speculative Design and Design Fiction. However, in a rational world seeking to constantly adapt itself, is this reflexive discipline free from dealing with the notions of metrics, evaluation of speculative works and their impact?
Specific questions are also connected to Reanticipation, especially when enquiring if this posture really makes the speculations more accessible to a larger audience. Bringing the notions of efficiency and optimisation in the realm of Design Fiction and Reanticipation is adding an intriguing conceptual layer, as in its definition, these forms of design are originally trying to free themselves from the utilitarian constraints.

Further research challenging Reanticipation

As they might be seen as proponents, the arguments developed before advocate for Reanticipation. Further research studies still have to be conducted to question the relevance of these hypotheses on the potential of iterative design fictions. As part of the experiments testing these conjectures, research will include the opening of current projects led by Design Friction, involving communities of interests as well as other designers willing to iterate on released provotypes. A reflexive approach has to complement the experiments by conducting interviews to examine the position of speculative designers on Reanticipation. Given the opportunity to reflect on the current practice of Design Fiction and Speculative Design, more has yet to be researched about the capacities of iteration as a means to sustain debate.

Bastien Kerspern

Written by

Interaction design / Service design / Speculative research – Innovation publique & démangeaison numérique

Design Friction

We are a design practice producing speculative and critical scenarios for the upcoming presents.

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