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Introduction to Speculative Design

The aim of speculative design is to imagine all the futures that could be possible, plausible, probable, and preferable.

Artwork by Tanishk Katalkar

Futuring or futures thinking is a cross-disciplinary approach to considering potential futures by exploring trends and drivers for change that may lead to different future scenarios. Read more about futuring here.


While there might be many approaches to futuring, the most popular are Backcasting and Speculative Design. In this article, we’ll take a deeper dive into the latter.


WHAT IS SPECULATIVE DESIGN?

The term "speculative design" was popularised by Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby as a subsidiary of critical design in their book, Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction, and Social Dreaming. This approach aims not to create commercially driven designs but to identify and find solutions to issues that might present themselves in the future. Where typical design practices might only take a look at the small issues, speculative design would step back and look at the bigger picture. In its wildest, yet most normal form, design speculation makes you question your relationship with reality.


THE MOTIVATION

To imagine all the futures that could be possible, plausible, probable, and preferable is the aim of speculative design. The diagram from the original book that coined and introduced the world to the term, shows this taxonomy of futures.


The possible future is where most design practitioners operate and focus on what is likely without the consideration of extreme happenings like a pandemic. This is a present-oriented approach and provides considerable surface area for research.

The plausible future is the area of speculation where your imagination can run wild. This is the realm of exploration and scenario planning. This also weighs in the possibilities of extreme events.

The probable future focuses on the future that could happen. This believes that unless there exists a chain of events that connects the present to the future in question, that future is mere fantasy.

The preferable future is where we want the future to be. This is where debates and discussions happen to ideate and design futures. This is where all futuring techniques want to take us.

Any good piece of speculative design falls under one of these classes and the idea that doesn’t fit into this box is termed fantasy.


Therefore, design speculation techniques seek to answer questions of

  1. How can future technologies impact our lives?

  2. How do we design a healthier ecosystem?

  3. How can design impact the future of the world?

  4. What would cease to exist in an ideal world?


THE PROBLEM

The problem of speculative design lies in the name. It is speculative. In a world where the people in power do not well receive evidence-backed debates, debates that spark from speculations and questions that we create are met with skepticism. The purpose of this approach is to take risks and push boundaries and not guarantee success. This makes these speculative projects less likely to get funding.

According to Dunne and Rabbi, three forces make this concept ‘difficult and less likely' :

Market forces: The notion of ‘if the design is not commercially viable it is not worth investing in’.

Atomization: As society becomes more singularly oriented, the demand for design that answers more significant questions and looks from a wider lens grows smaller.

Pessimism: The younger generation now views the future as something that may never come in the face of problems like climate change and financial recession. They refuse to plan and weigh the possibilities of a future that may never present itself.


Speculative design in popular culture

The British tv series, Black mirror uses speculative design and fiction about technology and its ethics to comment on prevailing social issues like data privacy, surveillance, and consumerism. In breaking down one of its episodes one might find themselves speculating about the harms and consequences of current technologies.


The realm of futuring may be frustrating due to the lack of singularity but it opens up space for a multitude of possibilities and answers. It comes not only with the weight of analyzing our current practices and how they might affect our futures but also imagining a world that is devoid of the evils of now.


References:


Speculative design: three examples from fiction, https://www.invisionapp.com/inside-design/speculative-design/#

"Run Wild a Little With Your Imagination": Ethical Speculation in Computing Education with Black Mirror, https://dl.acm.org/doi/abs/10.1145/3478431.3499308



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