Speculative design as part of design futures project
This blog was developed for the MA Service Design program as a part Design Futures unit. The project was alongside Southwark Council addressing the topic of Climate Emergency.
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.
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
What -In simple words research through design is an approach where Designing and Researching happen on parallel grounds as both design and research activities are surprisingly similar — “both aim to create something new, building on what was known before”(Research through Design, 2021). It is the process of continuous ideation, prototyping, and testing while researching and improvising.
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.
At the start of the unit, I started to read — How to avoid a climate disaster by Bill Gates and so a lot of my references will be drawn from this book.
Fossil fuels are like water
“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
The energy industry is one of the biggest businesses on the planet. It involves a huge upfront cost as investment and hence if things change rapidly with new technology, it gets harder for this industry to adapt without a big financial pay-off.
“Anything that big and complex will resist change”(Gates, 2021, Pg 46) then, how can we push companies to invest more in R&D?
Laws and regulations
The environmental laws were not designed with climate change in mind. With new policies coming into action, the UK passed its 6th Carbon budget which places restrictions on the total amount of greenhouse gases the UK can emit over a 5-year period. (Carbon Budgets, 2021)
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
This exercise helped us collect and analyze a significant amount of data in terms of information and trends. 3 things were crystal clear for me:
- There is a need to bring a change in the energy system and also stay the same
- There is a need for a gigantic innovation to attain “net zero”
- 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.
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?
The bottom line to this exercise is we cannot work to create a future which we do not first imagine.
“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 thinking of our desired future — how we see 2050 or rather 2030, took me back to a scene from the Pixar movie Wall-E that simply shows Human Dystopia. Humans abandon Earth due to trash on the planet and are in a space resort on their hovering chairs with video screens to communicate. They are obese and largely unable to move on their own. The movie for me was more of a warning than a prediction.
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.
Summary of map
The map made us question the existing system-
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?”
With a focus date of 2030 in mind, we asked ourselves when and how we can, should, and must take action. But the question is how much time do we have? As we struggled to envision, design, and implement that will achieve our desired goals we realized, we needed a strategy and approach.
Building future scenarios
A Dystopia in the future
After understanding the hopeful aspects of energy and construction, we started with creating our first artifact. This was quite a storming phase for us as we only concentrated on how we can eliminate today’s unsustainable practices as opposed to visualizing, designing, and building sustainable alternatives which are more behavior-based.
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?
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
Now that we had our first artifact, we started with our brainstorming sessions to create tangible objects. The purpose of this exercise was simple — find the right balance between what can be and what should be. To reach the desired future — what will are things we will have to ban (eg- ban fossil fuels) amplify (eg. usage of solar panels) and create — this was the moment where we got stuck. While the rest was clear, creating an object confused us as we couldn’t think of a tangible object for an intangible topic “energy”. We were persistent in thinking how technology would work and how it would function so we blindsided the “what” — What is the object? What purpose will it solve? What conversation will it spark? Learning — don’t overthink ideas — if they are good enough to spark a conversation that means it has some potential.
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?
1.6m gas boilers were installed in a year, compared to just 20,000 heat pumps. Without training, gas installers are not able to explain the options for low carbon heat objectively to householders and install them effectively.
“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.
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?
What new roles will be coming up with new technology?
We went on the streets to show some of our initial concepts and understand if our preferable future aligns with theirs. This is when we realized that our initial provocation was not relatable as there weren’t any coal mines in Southwark. We also went to a few Job centers and understood that the provocation acted as a piece of alarming news and scared them. However, Rtd as an approach left us ample room to iterate our concepts weekly. It helped us to go back to the drawing board and restart with new motivation.
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.
Thinking futures with Speculative design made me zoom out beyond user-centered.
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.
Thinking ahead — Thinking of the future, made me look at the present differently. Similarly designing for the future helped me explore new methodologies.
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
Because of the inherent narrative structure of the speculative design, level of realism, and provocative nature, it could offer service designers an instrument to explore and probe new types of services made possible by emerging and future technologies. As service designers, we could take the lead in this by creating fictional artifacts as means to initiate and facilitate constructive dialogue and align collective action. Because of its fundamental is to tell stories through fictional artifacts, Speculative design could be a new and innovative way for service designers to explore and define new services in a contextually rich and holistic way at the beginning of a design process. (2021)
Making while thinking
This was the first unit where I actually got a chance to use my inventory of great stationery that I hoarded in the name of a “designer”. The constant nudge for making objects physically made us create more relatable concepts. It helped us step out of our tech freak mind zones and not think of flying cars as the only way of thinking about our futures. The physical prototypes also came in very handy while we made our initial rounds of testing. The tangibility of them helped us convey our preferable futures and made them more plausible.
Taking things forward
During our final presentation, when we actually narrated the story in front of the Council and other stakeholders, we realized that although our concept did not belong way into the future, it did have some potential. The simplest idea of upskilling can make its impact on our bigger problem of climate change. However, I wished that we got opinions from more diverse backgrounds and professions so we could challenge our own perceptions.
Me, coming from a UX background, where reducing the number of clicks was important to improve the overall experience to now exploring the realms of Service Design where stakeholder engagement help us refine the overall system and not just the end-user experience helped me broaden my horizons pushing me to look at the bigger picture. Speculative design as a tool helped us think about the Why and Research through design helped us plan our what and how.
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.
Speculativeedu.eu. 2021. SpeculativeEdu | Approaches, methods and tools for Speculative Design. [online] Available at: <https://speculativeedu.eu/approaches-methods-and-tools-for-speculative-design/> [Accessed 18 May 2021].
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].