Exploring the relationship between work and policy making through Speculative Design

When we at Studio Wé started focusing our efforts as designers, on improving the work experiences and processes of teams and entire organizations — which is what we call Work Design — we were struck by the limitation of what Design in a traditional sense could achieve. The design community have 150 years proof record on the ability to craft environments and products that are appealing, ergonomic and match individual and collective life-work needs; we most recently, with the advent of Design Thinking learned how to repurpose creative methods into conceptual tools to guide non-designer teams through user centered or disruptive design processes.

However, changing the way people work seems to go beyond the redesign of those two types of artifacts.

In our recent research and conversations with industry leaders on the subject of workplace and organizational innovation, a recurrent, almost predominant theme emerged: the very meaning of work — what is my role as an employee? what is my sphere of agency and action as an independent worker? — is heavily affected by policies that modify directly and indirectly workers behaviors, work models and work processes and methods.
Policies can be internal to organizations and external as public policies related to work and labor, either ways those are set of values-based directions, principles and operational rules that an organization (or the Government) establish for employees and citizens.

Through our client work, we also observed in the last two years a constant preoccupation of business leaders on the anticipation of work transformations brought in by the wave of the Sharing and Gig Economy fueled by the effects of all sort of technologies, that we can broadly group under automation and AI. Understandably, these technologies are drivers for (possible) phenomena of job scarcity, inequality and unbalanced technocratic power structures, Therefore, they are also object of new policy making in most developed countries to regulate their correct development and actualization.

In short, during our quest of figuring out the designable elements of work, we encountered policy twice: in its relation to organizational culture and behaviors on the workplace; in its role for the the socialization and acceptance of technology that affects workforce and new work models.

At Studio Wé we always try to build disciplinary bridges and start conversation to help communities to reach bolder outcomes. This time we reached our friend and consultant Benoit Meunier, Designer at IBM to co-create a workshop that uses Speculative Design to explore today’s policy making to respond to challenges and opportunities that advanced technologies are fueling for the Future of Work.
We thought that to redesign work as an human activity, part of it was to understand how design can help public policy making, particularly directed to services and programs for work and labor that regulates most of the relationships employer-employee and worker-government. Nesta in the UK developed a framework with IDEO, that correlates Services and Policy Making.

Starting from these bases, we decided to develop a dedicated Speculative Design format (hence the name .Futures) to explore designing future product-services informs current design processes, to empower teams and communities self-defining how they want to work-live tomorrow.

Ambitious purpose. For this first edition, with the partnership and hospitality of IBM Studios we gathered 12 people in their ecosystem in Ottawa for one day, for a workshop that stemmed from our hypothesis that using Speculative Design to augment germinal signals — in technology and work habits — of today’s work evolution, might allow us to create future artifacts representative of scenarios that we could then back cast to current state and understand what should be done in terms of public policies, programs, and workplace redesign, to have a preferable future.

But we will be blunt here, we don’t know the nitty-gritty of how a policy is made. We are designers and we understand the human implications of it. On this point, we believe is crucial to understand how design also has an impact even beyond the user experience of a specific service or program, on the wider systems that a policy affect, that are normally not considered, because too systemic or future oriented, in the scope of an Human Centered Design approach that is more focused on empathize with current users and issues. On this territory — the relationship between Human Centered and Speculative Approaches, the discourse is open and we hope to get comments and feedback, but for now these are some of the topics that are discussed in a .Futures workshop that might be different from Design Thinking topics of discussions :
- Evolution of Infrastructure
- Workplace habits and rituals
- Social norms around work
- Self-employee power and autonomy
- Change in the concept of productivity
-Alternative types of goods and resources produced through new technologies
- New relationships workers/employers/state

And as an overarching question, how consequentially policies would respond to those changing factors over time.
This is how Speculative Design comes in, as an interrogation of consolidated Human Centered Design approaches. Before further explain the process and what we developed during this day, let’s put black on white what is Speculative Design and what is our take on it in this context:
Speculative Design is the use of design to create artifacts that live in a future scenario, informed by current trends, to trigger debate and critical reflection. It is not (AT ALL) an attempt to predict the future or an organizational vision of where they want to be in the future, but rather a creation of narratives of possible future realities of which we can interrogate possible implication for the present. The designs that result from this methodology are not necessarily innovative products for the market, and often they are not even “positive” product-services. Their value is to challenge assumptions, preconceptions, and givens about the role product-services play in everyday life.
We will go more in details about the processes and methods and tools of Speculative Design we use in future post of this publication.

The .Futures process

How might evolving narratives of work, affect government policies & programs, and workplaces of the future.

Future Instances on Voros Cone

We started from this problem statment which comes with attached narratives we presented and included in Future Instances Cards made for the workshop. Curating the instances, that are the initial prompts for a Speculative Design workshop, is itself a moment or critical discovery, and it can take shape in forms of videos, visual input, presentations, or any other kind of narrative visual input. Our cards were designed following four sub themes that emerged form our research on the topic and we presented in a keynote.


With a focus on Human-machine collaboration that goes beyond the established idea of robots replacing humans. Natural Interfaces that allow workers to move and operate seamlessly with technology

Skill development for new industries

This encompass the all discussion of polarized jobs disruption. Researches highlights that high qualified jobs will in fact increase while middle qualified jobs disrupted the most and low qualify jobs will remain mostly untouched, due to developing costs of specific technology higher than unqualified labor. As a counter narrative we are also witnessing the rise of skill enhancing technology that will create new types of work occupation instead of destroying some.

Redistribution of jobs

The issue of technology in control of an handful of companies that hold the most valuable jobs and also here some indirect consequences of workforce development with the example of China were the dissemination of online shopping apps and very fast delivery generated an increase of non qualified jobs in the logistic industry and phenomena of informal economy.

Income inequality and universal income

An entire conversation of how policy should intervene in the pace of innovation as this also trigger side effects of gentrification and mobility of communities when urban fabrics get modified by industrial and knowledge economy investments.

Categories of our Future Instances

The participants, divided in three groups, started discussing and mapping out the instances through the Voros cone. The Future Instances cards were divided in four categories: contexts, conflicts, forces and resolutions to ensure a good mix of narrative elements that would build a comprehensive scenario.

Scenario Building

The first activity helped to understand the interdependence of these important phenomena and facts. Human/non-human entities and factors, that would otherwise be considered in their individual context, are instead emotionally, ecologically or morally interdependent and displaying them on a timeline also allows to focus on their consequentiality.
Each of the three groups created a maps that intertwined these signals and was captured into a scenarios through a Future Instance Scenario Canvas we created.

Radical Questions and Storymaking

The scenario building led to the creation of future narratives prompted by this “speculative brief”:

Develop a year 2048 design fiction intertwining your future instances and radical question into a story arc with a protagonist.

The first supporting activities to the storymaking is the creation of a radical question around the built scenario.
In order to interrogate the scenarios just built, we thought it was important to come up with relevant questions that teams try to answer through the exploration of their futures via new prototypes in the later stage of the process.

This “what-ifs” questions define your direction of exploration, focusing your attention on big overarching issues within your scenario that you will be able to elaborate through a story and artifacts within it and channel the value of the speculative endeavor which is the critical assessment of this high level question.

The second activity to support the creation of a future narrative is the consideration of a a story arc. the trajectory that the story will take, this being escalating some current trend, or the stabilization of observed phenomena, or a future in which different forces destroy each other and new one emerges.

Four Arcs method by Situation Lab

These preparation activities and a scenario-storyboard canvas we created for the workshop, were used by the groups to create their stories based on a suggested narrative structure Context > Conflict > External Force > Resolution, similarly to how the Future Instances were distributed, which is loosely based on the Hero’s journey, to ensure an engaging story dynamic and also made sure a balanced mix of factual information and personal interpretations talks on the collection of future insights were encapsulated in the narrative.

“From this moment, everything you do is strategic to tell your story”

Speculative (Diegetic) Prototyping

Speculative prototypes are the most evident and popular manifestations of Speculative Design. They are the representation of the artifacts that exist in future scenarios and can be showed and experienced by a wider audience. The rational behind prototyping physical artifacts to represent intangible aspects of future policies, in our case, is to play on the correlation between policies and product-services that the protagonists of our narrative would access, so to represent the influences that polices have on how services work and the impact they have on our protagonist-user’s life.

There were moments of the prototyping where the groups used the rough prototype itself, or the decision making process around it to diverge and discuss about the content of the scenario and the implication of the product-service they were developing or moments where the focus was on the completion of the artifact to be used during role-play to depict future interactions. Both strategies are valuable to generate further exploration of our narratives through material tinkering.

The creation of “diegetic” prototypes was also sparkled by the selection of supplies we prepared, that we selected by handpicking a wide range of raw materials for “constructions” (colored papers, textured cardboards, translucent plastic films, etc) , mixed with symbolic semi-manufactured elements to hack (3D glasses, cones, money dispensers). This combination of elements allow two prototyping principles that we consider crucial in Speculative Design:

  1. Prototypes of small components of a wider complex systems can be used to support future narratives as hints to a wider context, the diegetic of the story, which is the allusion to elements of the story that are not told but can be deducted and correlated.
  2. The richness and diversity of material aesthetic allow to fine tune the “look and feel” of the prototype generate the Suspension of Disbelief that allow viewer to notice unusual features and wonder their meaning and reasons to be.

Backcasting and Current Implications and Design & Policy principles

The presentation and role play of the product-service prototypes force the understanding of its technical functioning within the scenario, and it builds connections social and cultural interaction with other actors and systems of its setting, contributing to enlarge the narrative and the discussion of all its facets. This point of an “expanded” and “embodied” narrative, is a good place to start back casting how the future narratives would develop from a timespan of 30 years coming back to now (Current state) and came up with today’s design principles and policy recommendation to suggest possible immediate actions to undertake to tackle the projects uncovered in their scenarios.

Scenario 1 — Post-work Taxation

High skilled jobs have been automated, affecting the taxation and economic systems of most countries, for this reason automation is starting being taxed to extract basic income for citizens. Governments are committed to find new ways for people to contribute to the development and well being of society as work is not longer the driving activity. For this reason the Government decide (or is forced to) replace the capitalist system - there is no exchange of money for good or services -and supports a society where self actualization is as important or more than productivity.

What if… unit of measurement for success is not possible?
What if… robots did all that no one wanted to do?
What if… success was measured by happiness?
What if…under Universal Basic Income, companies, employees and employer would disappear and citizen productivity would have to be considered under criteria that are unrelated to work?

Flower, 50, is a doctor that lives in 2048 in a period where automation tech went through life-changing break through and medicine finally found a way to diagnose Cardiolopus X, a disease that developed for the too intense use of social networks. Flower no longer needs to work due to the contribution that robots are giving to the workforce, but she is still due to fulfill her productivity quota. Although she is not obliged to work at the hospital anymore she is still concerned about her patients, so there is an emotional labor component to her choice now of social activities as she wonders what is next for her in so many options.

The product: Productivity Quota

The productivity quota is a home device that tracks the amount of contribution you provide to society through your daily activities, to maintain your Universal Basic Income benefits. It comes with a guide to after-work lifestyle.
The device needs to be checked multiple times per day to “reinvent yourself regularly”, focusing on present, while high skilled jobs are replaced by robots and money are obsolete.

In 30 years from now…
Government implements basic income, that allows citizens too switch jobs and social activities constantly (on a daily basis)

In10 years from now…
Automation is taxed and low skilled jobs are replaced. That opens up new career streams and necessity to create new ways for citizens to efficiently and quickly find jobs.

In 5 years from now…
Humans no longer work in physical offices, automation is installed in dedicated facilities.

Current state…
Salaries are based on productivity, we witness the capitalist economy beginning of automation. Traditional work environment are changing (tele work, virtual teams)

Today’s recommendation
Design principle #1

Reassure population basics needs are met — Ex. Provides mock up of their rights
Policy Implication #1
Different people define their rights differently
Recommendation: Public consultation on meaning of basic rights

Design principle #2
Provide me with endless possibilities — Ex. multiple choices to be productive
Policy Implication #2
People needs to fulfill their productivity quotas for the system to work
Recommendation: Provide updated opportunities to people

Design principle #3
Escalators of knowledge — Ex. Your learning is personalized and tailored
Policy Implication #3
People need to be up-skilled constantly
Recommendation: Tailor education to each person’s need

Scenario 2 — Augmented Education
The speed of workforce skill development is becoming a pressing issue to keep up with the pace of technology. Governments are looking at new way to educate the workforce and reform the trades and schools system, also working with organizations to define replacement programs for jobs and personnel that become outdated. They are doing it through the use of performance and productivity data. Governments are also exploring genome engineering technologies, that is relatively accessible, to understand how to make humans faster to acquire new knowledge and be speed shifts of occupation.

What if… in the future companies would be one open and connected ecosystem?
What is… Gov- were be connected border less?
What if… collective consciousness would drive society instead of economic drivers?

John worked at Uber driver. He loved his job because it was social and stable, Uber evaluated his performance based on their metrics like productivity and time efficiency instead of more qualitative factors like what made him happy as an employee and customer satisfaction. So through a Gov program that allows companies to relocate employees to avoid unemployment caused by technology. the programs officers ran some tests and diagnostics on him and based on metrics (intrinsic criteria) recommended a new admin job for public services to leverage his preciseness and time management. He hated the new job and got sick.

Happy Path- Taste your future

Happy Path is a medical device used by accredited nurses that can test and diagnose — based on metrics — intrinsic citizens qualities to recommended new jobs in case of technology disruption. Then edibles drugs are provided to that would give the user the skills to perform the suggested jobs.

In 30 years for now…
Technology will be body embedded through aone week long surgery process that will be accepted worldwide.

In 10 years from now…
DIYer will find ways to install technology in their body but it takes two months to hack it and it is only legal to try it in few countries because it requires to plug people in heavy stimulation machines that might have damaging side effects. Alternatively productivity enhancing drugs are very refined

In 5 years from now…
VR enhanced courses are the most common programs for up skilling, they last about one year, the alternative of supporting drug therapy is available but very invasive and tests for enhancing technologies are piloted within the military industry.

Current state…
The only alternative to acquire new skills is hard work and studying, the pitfall of this system is that is dependent by economic condition and inherent individual skills, there are “way around” like Aderall, used by students to perform during exams.

Today’s recommendation
Design principle #1

Make it functional — Ex. Don’t change person’s personality
Policy Implication #1
Controlled substances given by specialised doctors
Ex. Happy Path doctor certification

Design principle #2
Make learning part of the process
Policy Implication #2
Ethics programs implementation on the role of enhancement drugs

Scenario 3 — Data Tribes
Communities that share similar professional interests will use advanced data analysis and devices that can also track vitals and emotions are integral part of society. Due to increase competition and job markets obsolescence and saturation, small groups recognize each other around specific functions and society becomes polarized in hyper specialized communities that support each other. This creates a guild based society where work define what you are and what tribe you are part of. This allow to overcome the issue of loss of trust due to information overloading and data breaches.

WHAT IF… the use of AI is never regulated or we fail to regulate it?
What if… Gov. is run by an algorithm?
What if… we could create crisis to help solve problems (by creating micro solidarity movements as it happens during crises)?
What if… we could leverage technology to create stronger human connections and trust was the currency?

The story of a person called Joe@collectivesoul, 25years and he is passionate about dance. He wants to use dance in a purposeful way. So he decides to propose a new dance ritual, called “Dance Thinking” that existing Guilds could use as an additional communication language. In order to do that he had to demonstrate the value of his initiative to the guild committee, the governance body in charge of regulating guilds’ initiatives and operations, it is a group of leaders from both the private and public sector. The rate of acceptance of his new ritual are high, as the leaders evaluate that movement is beneficial to creativity and work productivity for the Guilds as well as improving trust within the groups. So now Joe can start training Guilds on Dance Thinking.

The Guild Based Society
It is a device that tracks your vital and emotions and allow you to speak a common language with your tribe. Recognize through data who is part of your Guild and then allowing interactions.

In 30 years from now…
Oligopoly of very powerful corporations eats up market competition. Hyper personalized devices enable small communities of services that unintentionally create very closed silos and power groups. Breaches of data brings massive loss of trust between those groups.

In 10 years from now…
Devices are indispensable for engagement in society so the proucers of those hardware and software face fear competition and become public-private services.
In 5 years from now…
We undergo mass adoption of small wearable devices for our daily activities and for the interactions we have with consumer and citizen needs.
Current state…
We notice a tribalism based on different levels of society, social networks communities are thriving and wearable tech is able to scan and categorize us based on brain and bio signals.

Today’s recommendation
Design principle #1

Sharing data — Ex. Emotions
Policy Implication #1
Possible breaches, manipulation, discrimination
Recommendation: Regulating use in commercial services

Design principle #2
Clear social codes — Ex. Like stop sign but for emotions
Policy Implication #2
Regulating cohesion among oligarchies
Recommendation: regulation only what would cause chaos

Design principle #3
Hyper-personalisation — Ex. Selection of content, what you can or can not see, what u can see or make other see by choice to do harm
Policy Implication #3
Could be coded to commit crime
Recommendation: new crime laws


Reflecting on this process, we realized that the layered steps of creating a structured story is crucial to the critical approach of Speculative Design. I want to underline that because stories are structure that we are familiar with since a very young age. The role of the designers here is to elevate this general understanding and try to control the different elements that go into a story so that it acts as a matrix to build a future design process. In Human Centered Design storytelling is used to describe complex portions of current reality, and the process is based on evidences and grounded theories that we can extract from the field. The stories we create in Speculative Design, although partially subjective, should maintain adherence and confidentiality to weak signals, research insights and trends and logics that we include in the initial process trigger, in this case included in the Future Instances methods.
The deliberate curation of those logics and insights are themselves part of the critical discourse.
As a tool for policy making, this Speculative Design exercise became particularly powerful when tracking back the scenarios built into a timeline of changes that policy makers can consider to build measures and programs that address upcoming shifts, following a shared understanding of the agents of change. Under this cause-effect perspectives, even the most unexpected and rather ironic ideas of product-services seemed grounded in a process of thoughts and considerations on the evolution of existing signals.
Being involved in many Service Design projects, we at Studio Wé are new to the practice of Speculative Design, but we found that building on our experience of using storytelling in Service Design and our familiarity to create tailored methods & tools around the challenges of our projects, is now allowing to integrate Speculative Design into wider strategic project goals. For this reason, we will continue to sophisticate this back casting methods to see how designable futures can support process of policy and decision making for our partners.

Gov.Futures was our first Speculative Design event dedicated to Exploring the Future of Government. We also wanted to create and test repeatable and collaborative methods, as we heard different communities and professionals reporting the lack of formal Speculative Design toolkits.
If you are interested in this format for new research or design activities, we would like to hear from you! Reach us at

Studio Wé is a work design studio, focused on helping organizations introduce new ways of working.
We have worked with clients across public and private sector in Canada, US, and Europe to help them embedding design practices into their current processes.




This is Studio Wé’s archive on Work Design, curated to showcase projects, methos and critical reflections to design new ways of working and happy work environments.

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Antonio Cesare Iadarola

Antonio Cesare Iadarola

Co-design consultant | Design PhD | Narrative Environments. Notes on coworking, service design, facilitation, design education |

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