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Speculating Our Futures Together

Updated: Aug 26, 2019

When I first came to Estonia to start my Master’s degree in Design and Engineering, I noticed, with quite a bit of surprise how my class fellows used their notebooks. At the start of every semester they would open their notebooks and religiously jot down the timetable for entire four months on their diaries. Even though they had access to the digital timetable on their smart phones, their laptops and the cloud.

To me this was surprising, my impression of Estonia was a thoroughly digital society which has gone beyond the traditional forms of written media, for example, a digital signature using my ID card has the same validity as the handwritten signature. So, imagine my surprise when I asked them why they prefer spending hours writing down their timetables when it already exists in their smartphones? They already had access to the information they needed, so what was about that activity of writing that made them do it so consistently? My classmates would just shrug their shoulders and say ‘it just feels more real’

 I couldn’t really let go of this apparent anomaly and eventually this topic of handwriting vs digital input became the subject of my master’s thesis. The more I dived into the subject, the more I realized that human progress in technology does not necessarily complement our nature. The push of technology, when not tempered by Design, can go against our values and nature. Consider the case of handwriting; there is a good amount of research that proves that writing by hand improves our cognitive functions, we can understand information more effectively if we write it down. We have an affinity for touching and feeling the interface that we choose to own. That is why we see that physical media of reading and writing are not decreasing in popularity. Yet the advance of technology is unidirectional, pushing us towards a digital society where we are limited by keyboards and screens to express ourselves.

Think about this: There are scores of devices that bring the real-world writing to the digital, eg cameras and scanners, but only one mainstream device that brings digital to physical, i.e. a printer. 

It was during my research when I came across Dunne and Raby’s book ‘Speculative Everything’.  In the preface they describe their aim to solve the real-world problems by not trying to fix the world but rather change our values, beliefs, attitudes and behavior. To them, design should not be just about problem solving. There are some problems that are unfixable until we reevaluate the ideas and attitudes inside our head, which in turn shape the world. One way to do that is to use design as a means of speculating: how things could be. This form of design necessitates imagination which is grounded in reality but free to move in any direction, like a kite which is tethered to the ground but free to roam the skies.

When we look from our vantage point of present to the future, there are infinite possibilities of where things can be. Many of them out of the realm of possibility, for example we know that perpetual motion and precognition of future events is impossible. When we eliminate the impossible, the possible remains. The possible is further divided into different segments. The biggest of them being plausible. A plausible future is a space of scenario planning and foresight, the space of what could happen.

For example in the 1970s companies such as Royal Dutch Shell developed techniques for modeling alternative near-future global situations to ensure that they would survive through several large-scale, global, economic, or political shifts. The space of plausible futures is not about prediction but exploring alternative economic and political futures to ensure an organization will be prepared for and thrive in several different futures.

Right in the middle, the most obvious cone is probable, this is where most designers operate. It describes what is most likely to happen in the future unless there is some extreme upheaval such as a financial crash, eco disaster, or war. Most design methods, processes, tools, practices and even design education are oriented toward this space. 

A final cone intersects the probable and plausible. This is the cone of preferable futures. Of course the idea of preferable is not so straightforward; what does preferable mean, for whom, and who decides?

Currently, it is pushed by industry and limited by the governments through laws and regulations. For example, the industry develops AI for road vehicles and the government decides to regulate it. Although we do play a role as consumers, it is limited. It is this area where Speculative Design operates.

A point to mention here is that although Speculative Design concerns itself with a version of futures that is preferable, it does not do so from higher moral standing. As mentioned before, preferable is a tricky word and we humans are immensely complicated creatures, what is preferable for me might not be preferable to you. What is preferable for me might not even stay the same 10 years down the road. Instead Speculative Design operates by developing ideals that can give us a glimpse of what the future could be. It is up to the collective population of humanity to decide where they want to go then.

But how does speculative design work in practice? In order to do so i.e. to open different perspectives on the future, they take inspiration from various media, it involves theatre, drama and novels that ignite our collective imaginations. For example, In Speculative Everything, Dunne and Raby mention Margaret Atwoods novel Oryx and Crake as something very close to how a speculative design project could be. Oryx and Crake is a post-apocalyptic story where humans have mastered genetic engineering, they create hybrid animals and even herbivorous humanoid versions of themselves. The narrative however is more focused on the social, cultural, and ethical implications of science and technology than the technology itself but still does that without sacrificing the quality of storytelling.

Another way we can speculate about alternate scenarios is by looking at the past and then imagining what would have happened if a different case had occurred. Take for example a project by James Chambers’ Attenborough Design Group (2010). The project imagines what if David Attenbrough -who we all know as a Nature Film Maker- had decided to become an Industrial designer and carried his admiration for nature in the design of products? What could he have designed? The resulting projects are interesting to say the least. A Gesundheit radio, which sneezes periodically to expel potentially damaging dust, and Floppy Legs, a portable floppy disc drive that stands up if it detects the presence of a liquid that can damage it. 

This project offers new insight into product design. What if design objects didn’t just operate at our behest but had characteristics of living beings, primarily the ability to avert life threatening danger and survive?

For the longest time, design has been characterized as aesthetics. It has been at the mercy of the technological innovations. Technology creates possibility and design creates desirability for consumers. But speculative design provides another approach where design gets ahead of the technology, it doesn’t just provide an image, like a novel or a film of the alternate scenario but rather it provides a living and breathing slice of the life that surrounds that object. We can see those objects, touch them, live around them. A design object is imagined and speculated, then a whole society is constructed around it. 

Design Speculation is necessary, more necessary than even before. We are at the cusp of a technological revolutions that will change the very foundations of our humanity. Consider the emerging fields of biotechnology and gene editing where parents could theoretically know the entire genetic makeup of their child. They could edit its DNA to prevent the onset of diseases or perhaps with some more money make the child more attractive: taller, prettier and smarter. What would be the effects on our society on a larger scale then? How will our values and beliefs shift as a whole?

Another more relatable and recent example for the necessity of Speculative Design is Self-Driving cars. Most of us have accepted it with high probability that it will come to happen sooner or later, yet we are still do not have a full understanding of its implications. Before we change the existing system we must identify what the existing system has done to us. Speculative Design in this case would not concern with what the future with self-driving cars would look like. Designers and Engineers are already working on this version of probable future. A good Speculative Design exercise in this case would be to imagine a future scenario where self-driving cars do not exist, what would happen there? What will happen in a future society if we do not push this technology any further? What kind of future would that be?

After learning and applying the methodology of Speculative Design, the result of my final year thesis project was Pensive, a digitally augmented notebook, it imagined a scenario where the boundaries between the real and the digital are blurred. A notebook is fixed yet it can have any content on paper. You can pick an image on the screen of a monitor and then paste it onto your notebook. It becomes any book of your choosing. Pensive provides an idea for a preferable future where both handwriting and the digital media can seamlessly work together.

If the last decade of technological progress has given us any lesson, it’s that technology is a double-edged sword. Technology-driven-design has resulted in lifting millions of people out of poverty but it has also arguably resulted in the erosion of the social fabric and creating more divisive societies. It is about time that designers take a step ahead and create worlds that we could be inhabiting. Some of these places will not be pleasant, they will necessitate a long hard look at our intrinsic value structures, but that is the very reason we should create them. Humanity should not be left at the mercy of the unbridled technological progress; we should venture forth to imagine vivid scenarios where we can end up if we are not careful of the very weapons that we wield.