Up-skilling — the new future of education?

Speculative design as part of design futures project

Image by Markus Winkler — The year 2030

Introduction

As a team of 3 Service Designers, we set out to understand the world of energy and construction as our focus area to generate an evidence-based future, that takes into account both the constraints and the opportunities. To arrive at our insights, we leveraged upon various tools of design fiction and futuring, adapted Research Through Design as our approach, speculated some future scenarios as our opportunity areas, and imagined outcomes that helped us better understand and plan for what is to come next. The result is a series of future objects proposed as an open initiation to create a dialogue and start a conversation with the hope that we collectively imagine a better future and begin thinking about what it will take to get there.

The process

Speculative Design — methodology followed

The capacity to be able to deal with the unknown, with unforeseen scenarios, with paradoxes and contradictions, is among the most crucial aspects of Speculative Design.(SpeculativeEdu | Approaches, methods and tools for Speculative Design, 2021)

I discovered Speculative Design as a part of this unit and in my understanding, it combines design thinking methods with the story-telling and future-world-building techniques of speculative fiction to produce prototypes of future products or experiences.

Why — Speculative Design is not simply about predicting or problem-solving, it's about reframing our perspective of the future to create alternate possible futures, which is where we were getting stuck. We were unable to think of an alternate “possible” future as we went away into a dystopian world and finding our sweet spot between utopian and dystopian was a struggle.

How it helped us — Exploring speculative was an opportunity to shift from human-centered to environment-centered design — the relationship between humanity, technology, nature, and politics. As a service designer, I have been used to following the linear path of design thinking methodology. In this unit, the focus moved to the What If… creating provocative future scenarios so that knowledge coming from science and technology do not remain in the technical domain, but become an opportunity to bring communities together into a critical reflection around possible future scenarios of cities, environment, schools, offices, homes, etc.

Research through Design — the approach taken

Why — To do critical thinking, it was important to interact and co-design at the early stage of the project. We wanted to create objects that work for the people to start a dialogue today for a better tomorrow. We wanted to create value by making things that will not break in an uncertain future. These things are open-ended, less defined, and shaped by the real experiences of the people over time. This meant that we needed to interact with people early on and show them our future to talk about how they see their future. We figured that Rtd was our way forward to talk about the future. This was harder than thought, it was about understanding people and the future possibilities that their lives might hold.

In our case, refining of the concepts pushed us to do more research.

Read along to see how we followed Speculative design as methodology and Rtd as our design approach to deliver the future concept.

Identifying Signals

Fossil fuels are like water

Photo from How to avoid a climate disaster

“There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?” (A speech by the late David Foster Wallace, 2021)

Fossil fuels are like water, it is so common that it gets difficult to understand and see all how it touches our lives. In the book -How to avoid a climate disaster Bill Gates describes how we knowingly and unknowingly use fossil fuels in our daily chores from a toothbrush, toast we eat during breakfast, clothes, toilet paper, the transport, roads, apartments we live in be it wood or cement so and so forth.

So, If we are surrounded by fossil fuels, then how do we move towards net zero carbon?

The business of Energy industry

“Anything that big and complex will resist change”(Gates, 2021, Pg 46) then, how can we push companies to invest more in R&D?

Photo from How to avoid a climate disaster

Laws and regulations

The Paris Agreement, which aims for “net zero” is signed by over 190 countries around the world, aims to limit the rise of global temperature to no more than 1.5°C about pre-industrial levels. (Paris Agreement — Climate Action — European Commission, 2021)

If there are new policies built for climate emergency then, how do we incentivize clean/carbon-free sources?

Summary of horizon scanning

  1. There is a need to bring a change in the energy system and also stay the same
  2. There is a need for a gigantic innovation to attain “net zero”
  3. There is a need for public policies to push the transition

If we want to bring an effective change in the future we must change the way we think and perceive the world around us today (Speculative design helped us do this) and to become more successful creators of the future, we should become more resilient to change.

Screenshot from Miro — Horizon scanning

The scanning helped us speculate some of our early future visions:

Should we have a climate risk tax to help people become more aware of their actions?

What if Carbon information was more visible to the people?

What if there were no energy retailers and people got energy directly from the grid?

What if…?

The bottom line to this exercise is we cannot work to create a future which we do not first imagine.

Thinking Future

“Futuring allows us to imagine possible outcomes with the hope of exploring, better sensing and equipping ourselves for the potential reality ahead of us”(Learning Reimagined: Radical Thinking for Equitable Futures, 2021)

Question 1 — “Think of the desired future”, “a situation” or a “desired goal”.

The futurist in each one of us

While the movie was set for 2805, we are currently living in Pixar’s future — landfills, adverts all around us, holographic screens, drivable chairs, liquid meals, etc. So the first instinct of thinking about the future kind of gave me some chills. But again, we need to think about our desired future, so let’s be optimistic and think about some good solutions for the problems we have and will create in the future.

However, it all boiled down to innovation and technology, and why not since we live in a technology-focused society.

To tell you the truth — all this time I thought that being innovative meant adding new technology to it. But is that it? And what happens once there is some new technology to handle a “desired situation”? These are the forgotten questions which I would like to think about.

This does not mean that I am out of love for technology, but trying to rethink ways of what people can do that tech can’t have become my new mission. As a Service designer, I have always followed a user-centered design approach, which meant trying to design the future by defining what people can do today. The problem with this approach was that I was not very good at predicting the future, there are simply too many unknowns. So we created a map that represents the elements of our future world. This helped us collaboratively discuss how our futures looked to align ourselves as a team and move forward from there.

Screenshot from Miro — Map showing elements from our future world

Summary of map

1.Why are homeowners reluctant to abandon fossil fuel power furnaces?

2.Why don’t landlords upgrade their buildings with more efficient appliances?

3.Why isn’t fossil fuel illegal yet?

4.Why can’t the new buildings use low emission cement over the regular ones?

Question 2: “How will you get there?”

Required plan

Building future scenarios

A Dystopia in the future

At this point we went back to the drawing board and looking at our horizon scanning we mapped out some future scenarios like

What if all coal power stations shut down?

What if energy becomes decentralized?

What if big corporations are forced to pay a climate risk penalty for breaking guidelines?

What if our energy was democratic in nature?

The exercise pushed us to think — who are we forecasting for? Who will benefit? What type of new roles and behaviors will take place?

The newspaper is a visualization of our preferable future.

We tried to answer these questions through a visual of a newspaper from the future. We addressed a vision of Southwark becoming the first carbon-neutral borough.

My lesson — Reducing carbon emissions is not the same as imagining, designing, and building a zero carbon-emitting alternative. The problem is not singular but has many other impacts. Example — moving towards renewable energy will shut down coal mines which will lead to a large number of people unemployed. This broke our bubble and helped us focus on wider opportunities, we realized that cities are already moving towards renewables and the transition is slow yet surely happening. So all we needed was a slight shift in our focus and create a mission-driven strategy over a problem-centered strategy.

Storify the artifacts

Ban, Amplify, and create

So, we role-played a scenario to explain our object, which didn’t really spark any conversation. (failure 1)

So, we are just getting started with our rounds of provocations and conversations. While prototyping, speculative design asks what if that idea was prevalent in our society? Would we want it? — we asked ourselves. But again who is ‘we’? this was a tough question to answer as went from the residents of Southwark to skilled professionals — the journey was long and iterative. Speculative design acted as a decision-making toolkit. It started with What if ?— is this futuristic enough? — Ok now how do we build this?

Carbon Safe

“What if all Construction and Energy professionals were mandated to take up-skilling training for the inclusion of the best sustainable practices in their jobs?”

Carbon Safe is a green license obtained from learning about the new technologies and infrastructures being introduced to lower carbon emissions in buildings and apartments. We found that despite all these advancements in this field, not many professionals are trained for these technical jobs.

The concept responds to this provocation by pushing these professionals to upskill themselves so they are updated with the latest technologies to help lower carbon emissions.

Provocation 1 — Carbon Safe is a green license

Do we make the license mandatory? Should there be an exam to obtain this license? Will age act as a barrier to this license? How can we scale this to a national level? How can we scale this to other professions?

Provocation 2 — Local universities providing short upskilling programs
Provocation 3 — Green quality check for green license holders
Future scenario — gas expert installing a heat pump

What new roles will be coming up with new technology?

Testing

Testing with experts and residents

We mentioned our future scenario followed by showing our fictional artifacts to residents, local businesses, job centers, and skilled experts like electricians to start a conversation. Most of the feedback received was positive as climate change as a topic is a need of the hour in fact that acted as our provocation.

Technician: “People just expect us to know all about the new kinds of appliances in the market, but we just stick to what we know and have been doing for years.”(our victory feedback)

Since most of the feedback received was positive, we wished for some disagreements as well. That would have made the concept more radical. Nevertheless, we ended up speculating the positive feedback as well. What if they never understood the artifact? Or was it too simple for them to understand? Wait, is that a bad thing?

The final concept (Carbon Safe Register) was a much-refined version of several iterations we made and showed to people to spark conversations. Where the feedback was mostly positive, we realized that it was storytelling that needed to be revised at every strep to help them visualize the future we are talking about. We had to enhance this skill at every step by speculating our own objects to gauge what we want the people to tell us.

Testing limitations and challenges — Since it was an iterative process, and we changed our provocations to make them more relevant to the audience, the final concept left us with very little time to reach the expert of the field. We relied upon our own connections and tested with local businesses on the high streets and known electricians to gather some understanding about the object. We wished we could have tested the artifact with some of the universities to understand their take on the future scenario. Because the way I look at this — up-skilling is the new future of education.

Reflection

About methodology

At the start of the unit, my understanding of speculative was the same as any other design methodology — a problem-solving mindset. The fact that it wasn’t about problem-solving or forecasting made the process uncertain, exciting and terrifying at the same time. I gained a deeper understanding of speculative through the iterations we had. The journey until What if went on smoothly, arriving at the big bump of making artifacts. How do we depict “energy” in the form of an object? we thought. Two months into the project and I have finally understood the purpose of-

What if..? — it’s a simple solution to the world’s greatest problem.

Service Design is all about putting people at the heart of the experience and taking a holistic approach to problem-solving and co-creating the future.

Whereas speculative design encourages the world to think further ahead and wider in possibility. The purpose is to generate discussion, debate, and awareness beyond projected or plausible futures, so that designers, companies, and the public not only live more aware of how their actions contribute to manifesting and hindering the future, but so they also begin to imagine and articulate their preferred futures. (Future Thieving #1 — Stealing from the future with speculative design, 2021)

Research through design is the overarching approach. It combined Service and speculative design and laid out a plan of action. The approach pushed us to understand the implications of the artifacts we created weekly leading to modifications.

Benefits

Having fun- designing without restrictions of persona demand, feasibility, technical viability made it a fun and explorative exercise.

Find problems over solve them problems

Show more and talk less — let the artifacts speak for themselves

Acknowledge the failure — learnings for mistakes became our opportunities to refine

Speculative’s Contribution to Service design

Making while thinking

Our Rtd process — Bank of artifacts we created through the project

Taking things forward

Overall

The Design Future unit made me reflect on how we as designers have the ability to put on varied hats when designing viable, feasible, desirable dystopian solutions and adapt to various situations to come up with solutions that can have implications not only on people but also on the environment. The unit started with addressing climate change as a wicked problem and it still is, the year 2020 was a tragic setback. But, I am optimistic that we will get the pandemic under control, and make a real change in climate change because the world is more committed to solving this problem than it has ever been.

References

The Interaction Design Foundation. 2021. Research through Design. [online] Available at: <https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/book/the-encyclopedia-of-human-computer-interaction-2nd-ed/research-through-design> [Accessed 18 May 2021].

the Guardian. 2021. A speech by the late David Foster Wallace. [online] Available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/books/2008/sep/20/fiction#:~:text=If%20you're%20worried%20that,to%20see%20and%20talk%20about.> [Accessed 16 May 2021].

Gates, B., 2021. How to avoid a climate disaster. P.46.

GOV.UK. 2021. Carbon Budgets. [online] Available at: <https://www.gov.uk/guidance/carbon-budgets> [Accessed 16 May 2021].

Climate Action — European Commission. 2021. Paris Agreement — Climate Action — European Commission. [online] Available at: <https://ec.europa.eu/clima/policies/international/negotiations/paris_en> [Accessed 16 May 2021].

Imaginablefutures.com. 2021. Learning Reimagined: Radical Thinking for Equitable Futures. [online] Available at: <https://www.imaginablefutures.com/learning-reimagined/?utm_source=IDEO&utm_medium=blog-post&utm_campaign=learning-reimagined> [Accessed 16 May 2021].

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h1BQPV-iCkU. 2011. [video].

Medium. 2021. Future Thieving #1 — Stealing from the future with speculative design. [online] Available at: <https://uxdesign.cc/stealing-from-the-future-with-speculative-design-e769059b6689> [Accessed 18 May 2021].

Ep.liu.se. 2021. [online] Available at: <https://ep.liu.se/ecp/125/044/ecp16125044.pdf> [Accessed 18 May 2021].

Image — Unsplash.com. 2021. Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash. [online] Available at: <https://unsplash.com/photos/4fSxGPSLNH4> [Accessed 18 May 2021].