SpeculativeEdu

Approaches, methods and tools for Speculative Design

June 27, 2019

A look into Speculative Design approaches, methods and tools and introduction to the building of the online repository by Salvatore Iaconesi.

In the SpeculativeEdu project, we have tried to gather together a wider understanding of how designers and other practitioners use Speculative Design techniques in order to compose future scenarios. On top of that, we have reflected on how these techniques can be introduced in education processes and paths to trigger ethical, critical, innovative designs which are able to bring together different publics in participatory ways.

To do this, we have used a series of different sources of information.

First of all, we used the interviews with Speculative Design practitioners that were collected during the project, in which we investigated how different subjects and organisations approach Speculative Design and related practices, how they integrate them in their work, what scenarios they envision for Speculative Design, and how they imagine it being integrated in education practices.

On top of that, we performed extensive research about the tools, materials, models and process architectures that different practitioners use in their practice, as well as in workshops, courses, corporate sessions, and more.

As part of the SpeculativeEdu project we are creating an online repository of materials, documentation, tools and references so that a series of resources can be made easily accessible to perform Speculative Design processes, and to be able to have these resources coming from multiple origins readily available for analysis, to better understand the wider picture of Speculative Design as it is intended from multiple parties and organisations.

The online repository is HERE, and it will be mentioned multiple times in this article, to have some practical examples available.

Analysis

From both types of inspection, it appears clear how most subjects in the domain intend Speculative Design as an approach, more than as a formal methodology, with the intent of bringing together multiple disciplines, skills, competences, cultures and interests, and to have the flexibility which is necessary, first of all, to convey the results of the technical and technological investigations into narrative form and diegetic outputs which are able to engage all senses. And, then, to be able to have the irony, curiosity and spectacularity which is necessary in order to engage different kinds of people, from niche to mainstream, so that the information and 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 their cities, environment, schools, offices, homes, etc.

In the following sections we will first analyse the interviews that we have collected, then compare the toolkits and methods that have been made available by design practitioners. In the end we will draw some conclusions about the most salient characteristics of Speculative Design approaches and about the tools that are available, and about the ways in which Speculative Design can be included in education processes.

The Interviews

The SpeculativeEdu project has collected a number of interviews from Speculative Design practitioners. Each interviewed subject has been asked a series of questions: some of the questions were common across multiple interviews, while some others were specific to each practitioner. You can find the interviews HERE.

We have produced a number of synthetic infographics which allow us to inspect the principal characteristics of each approach. You can find the infographics HERE in the online repository.

Each infographic is similar to the following one, coming from the interview with Daniel Kaplan:

Infographic for Daniel Kaplan

The central part of each infographic is occupied by a word cloud generated from the text of the interviews, with each represented word’s size proportional to the frequency in which it is used in the interview. This allows us to gain an initial understanding of the focuses of the particular subject, and comparing these focuses permits us to start understanding how different practitioners focus on different things to achieve their goals.

For example, in the graphic above, we can see that Daniel Kaplan – apart from words that, in an interview like this, have prominence across all interview texts, like for the word “Design” – has a strong focus on people, on work and on the concept of “creating different narratives for the future”.

If we look at all the word clouds, and compare the results, it is possible to describe the principal focuses of the different “families” of Speculative Design practitioners, or, at least, their focuses on how they express them in their interviews, i.e. the way in which they represent themselves in public communication.

Among the concepts which are more consistent focuses across all interviews, are:

Design
as the main container of the discussion;
Possibility
intended as the need to regain the “sense of possible”;
Futures
plural, as the process of imagining different possible futures;
Narrative
and, thus, the focus on stories, and the way in which they constitute a very effective way to share knowledge, insights and visions;
Thinkable
intended as the capacity to have an uninhibited approach to imagining things;
Different / Alternative
or the possibility to think scenarios that can also be radically different from the ones today;
Produce
and, thus, an active, participatory approach;
People
as above, in a vision of active participation and awareness;
Practice
Speculative Design as a Practice;
World
in the sense of world-building, or describing a world through its objects, behaviours, processes…;
Context
as above, meaning that the designs need to be in context, taking into account both planetary issues (climate, energy, poverty…) and local ones;
Critical / Ethical
as fundamental characteristics of these practices;
Workshops
as one of the most frequent forms of expression of this practice;
DIY (Do It Yourself)
as a fundamental process to create speculations;
Design Thinking
as a term of comparison, as if Speculative Design was in some way built on top of it;
Climate change
as the most pressing issue to respond to, in all its manifestations;
Consequences
in the sense that projects (and the narratives which they define) should deal with the consequences of the designs, so much that the narrations should be able to make strong statements about them;
Physical / Sensorial
meaning that the projects should come under the form of something that is in the physical world, and that is able to deal with all the senses and with communication, as a very effective way to transfer pragmatic knowledge and understanding of the scenarios which are designed.

These items above appear consistently, and may be adopted as a reasonable starting foundation in defining the characteristics of Speculative Design approaches.

Even more insights can be drawn by diving into the interviews, and catching some important statements they contain. We can see them in the lower sections of the interviews’ infographics.

Among the most interesting ones:

These sentences captured from the interviews could represent an effective “manual” for Speculative Design approaches, and should be framed in the context of an array of different possible strategies, tactics and techniques for Speculative Design, as highlighted, for example, by the large number of nomenclatures for design approaches with a speculative character. For this we could say that these sentences define a style, an attitude, a philosophy, which can be declined into a number of different types of practices, roughly isomorphic to the various names of design practices with a speculative connotation.

In these and other statements, it is possible to identify a set of the common, shared characteristics of Speculative Design approaches:

critical
questions the status quo, reflects on the implications;
ordinary life
situated geographically and in context; deals with issues from the point of view of ordinary life, of the practicalities of the everyday, with mundane situations and their objects, relations, places, in order to experience transformation as it manifests itself in ordinary life;
diegetic
address the senses, be physical, describe and narrate worlds; an object allows knowing and exploring reality in very different, efficient ways;
inclusiveness
try to include people that are different, diverse, with different points of view and opinions;
transdisciplinary
engage multiple disciplines, to have insights from psychology, anthropology, design, engineering, arts, technology and other technical and humanistic perspectives, to be able to describe worlds which are realistic, credible;
unexpected
deal with the unexpected, the unforeseen; don’t take for granted that what is valid now will be valid in the future; deal with a world that is in flow, paradoxical, full of contradictions;
engage
catch the eye of passersby; trigger engagement, curiosity, empathy; use irony, pop culture, punk, whatever is needed to draw people into the scenario;
communication
make sure that the communicational life of the scenario is lively, active and inclusive; is accessible online, in the exhibit, on social networks, on paper, visually, etc., use transmedia, creating paths and engagement patterns between online, offline, across relations, media and interconnections.

The toolkits

As we have seen in the previous sections, most practitioners and theorists operating in the area of Speculative Design intend the practice as a series of different approaches, more than a formal methodology.

Nonetheless, a very diverse series of toolkits, platforms and enabling techniques exist for Speculative Design, created by practitioners, teachers, artists, researchers and companies, in order to facilitate reflecting on future scenarios, to build them, and to create diegetic prototypes.

A selection of these toolkits can be explored in the online repository of the SpeculativeEdu project.

First of all, the platforms. There are multiple online tools that can be used to create 3D objects, narratives, maps, communication and more.

For example, online platforms like MeshMixer and Thingiverse can be used to facilitate the creation and exchange of 3D printed objects that are the protagonists of future design scenarios.

Many tools that practitioners and educators use for Speculative Design come in the form of lists of items that facilitate building and exploring future scenarios. For example by describing the forms in which Design Fictions can be created, or by providing lists of probable future predictions that enable designers to have a sense of what may happen in the future.

Some studios and organisations take it one step further, for example by creating and making available electronics and devices which can be used to quickly prototype the objects and processes of future scenarios.

Others aim to create schemes and architectural diagrams (for example information architectures, or communication/representation schemes) which aid and support in structuring the ways in which designers can think about future scenarios and represent them. This can be done in different ways: for example for the ways in which we can think about future scenarios, or to visualise the consequences of future scenarios, or in the ways in which current scenarios can bring us to the future ones.

These and other examples exist and can be used to setup and conduct Speculative Design sessions.

Probably the most common tools come under the form of card decks and games which can be used to create a more streamlined process in imagining and describing future scenarios that are based on the evolution of current ones. For example, some of these initiatives create games which can help in exploring the future narratives of climate change. While others work by combining times, contexts, themes, objects and technologies to compose the basic elements of scenarios, so that designers can build credible and coherent narratives in facilitated ways. Others are simpler, in the fact that they include cards which represent promising technologies for the present and future, the ones which are more prone to contributing to societal change, which is similar in concept to those ones which are dedicated to highlighting future trends.

All of these introduce a level of formality and structure that is not always preferred by speculative designers. Nonetheless, they are valid tools that can help in conducting Speculative Design processes in more formal contexts (for example when a series of pre-assumptions need to be taken into consideration), or when people who are not used to Speculative Design are asked to perform it, in which case they can use these cards and games to avoid being stuck, and to have an array of possible guidelines they can use to speculate.

Conclusions

As we have seen in the previous sections, Speculative Design consists of a very diverse set of approaches, which share common characteristics as well as very different ones, and thrives in combining different approaches and disciplines, to achieve inclusive, critical, engaging and thought provoking reflections about the future, with an implicit “call to action”, in order to stimulate the practical imagination and action of people, who are called on to imagine and perform change.

Many of these approaches also make use of tools such as data, cards and games, which can help in exploring futures in their technological, geographical, social, cultural, relational and psychological levels.

These approaches and tools move in a world which evolves quickly and dynamically with new transformations in society, technology, geopolitical scenarios, environment, energy and so on. 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, which, in the views of practitioners and theorists, must be able to inventively adapt to these transformations, while maintaining a definite critical perspective and, at the same time, using irony, creativity and curiosity to engage different types of people.

For this reason, a definitive, final toolkit or method for Speculative Design cannot exist in a single, stable version, but must be a continuous negotiation among practices and tools which are very different from one another and, thus, are capable of catching different aspects of change and evolution. Together all of these approaches, tools and their evolutions, push Speculative Design in directions that are constantly new, as they adapt to the future – while it is always arriving.