Nicolas Nova: We are interested in mundane situations to express futures

May 28, 2019

The multi-disciplinary researcher and member of Near Future Laboratory talks with James Auger and Ivica Mitrović about Speculative Design today.

Nicolas Nova is a multi-disciplinary researcher working at the intersection of anthropology, computer science and design who studies what people do with technology. He is the co-founder of the Near Future Laboratory, a research agency based in Europe and California, and Associate Professor at the Geneva School of Arts and Design (HEAD – Genève). He is interested in observing and documenting digital and new media practices, as well as creating design fictions, i.e. speculative designed objects exploring the experiences of near future. Nicolas has given talks and exhibited his work in venues such SXSW, EPIC, the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference, O’Reilly Emerging Technology Conference, NEXT, the design week in Milan, and the Institute for the Future. He holds a PhD in Computer Science (Human-Computer Interaction) from the Swiss Institute of Technology (Lausanne) and another PhD in Social Sciences from the University of Geneva.

In your view, what is the current state of Speculative Design (and education in Speculative Design)?

I guess the situation is different depending on the country. For instance, here in Switzerland, I would say that there isn’t much interest in that, beyond student projects, unlike France, the UK, or North America. One can definitely see a split though between speculative projects produced in the context of cultural organisations such as design museums, applied art exhibits, or design schools (proper “Speculative Design” following the RCA DI lineage), and the use of Design Fiction by service design or design strategy studios for commercial clients and public organisations. Few design studios do both, while people like Superflux, or us at the Near Future Laboratory, do not see a clear distinction between these two paths.

Additionally, while Speculative Design is certainly not as mainstream as “design” to the general public, it feels like the “design thinking” trend (and its subsequent fad) paved the way for the circulation of Design Fiction approaches in commercial circles. It’s as if it’s the “next new tool” for consultants. The good side of this phenomenon is that it publicised Speculative Design and the idea that design can play a role in futures research. The limits are clear though: as with “design thinking”, it gives the impression that it’s just a method, a series of formal steps, and following them would lead to a perfect result. There is also a common confusion between “design thinking workshops” and “group creative workshops” which means that, for some clients, the very idea of entrusting a fictional design project to a studio seems strange, since for them it would rather be a large collective workshop where all participants can express themselves to create scenarios. This is a phenomenon I often encounter with partners. I don’t know if it’s related to design thinking and these ideas around collective intelligence at heart, and I don’t mean either that designers have to work alone in their corner, but there’s something surprising about that.

In terms of education, I guess this split isn’t reflected yet in the curricula, but it may happen pretty soon. Speculative Design seems to be taught in the context of design/design research workshops in lots of design schools but there aren’t many programs (BA/MA) specifically devoted to that. And I don’t see that necessarily as a problem, since SCD/DF can be seen as a tool in the designer’s toolbox. However, as with design thinking, there’s a growing interest from business schools to use Design Fiction approaches, especially in the US and in France.

Do you think it’s becoming more of a trend? Do you think that dystopia is also becoming a trend? How to escape from this “temporal loop” (domination of dystopian scenarios which influence our ability to imagine more positive futures)?

Speculative Design with a dystopian twist certainly became a design trope, a way of expressing things with a certain aesthetic, and a focus on the dark implications of social or technological change. However, various commentators and pundits showed the limits of such scenarios and formats (Cameron Tonkinwise, Luiza Prado).

Speaking of “temporal loops”, this notion reminds me of what the French historian François Hartog calls “historicity regimes”, i.e. the fact that human societies have “built” various ways of experiencing time over the course of history. While the 19th and 20th century was lived, in the West, following a regime of historicity oriented towards a promising future, “presentism” seems to be the mode of experiencing time in the 21th century. Hartog basically defined presentism as the feeling of living in a permanent present, with an overemphasis on a nostalgia of the (often idealised) past, and a difficulty to project oneself into the future. We can perhaps see dark scenarios of certain Speculative Design projects as a consequence of this “presentism”: it is as if these dystopias were designed to make us realise we are on a wrong path with this recurring present. Is that a fruitful and efficient perspective? Well, showing the problematic implications of social or technological changes through designed artefacts and props can be relevant indeed given that they allow us to move from abstract notions such as “Artificial Intelligence”, “algorithmic biases” or “environmental collapse” to more concrete ways of experiencing those phenomena.

Is that a pertinent way to escape presentism though? I’m not sure about that, and I don’t have the answer to your question. What I can express though – and this is related to the type of work we do at the Near Future Laboratory – is that it’s more relevant for us to shy away from the dystopian/positive discussion and craft scenarios-expressed-as-artefacts that (1) mix various aspects of probable changes (showing both the balance between benefits and limits, opportunities and frictions, the interplay between new things and old ones, etc.), (2) can be understood and discussed by laymen (hence the focus on formats inspired by pop culture, such as catalogues or manuals of fictional products, magazines of the future, etc.).

Speculative Design can be seen as an approach with a focus and a certain number of ingredients that designers play with in their project.

You are one of the pioneers of this approach. Do you think that the methods/approach have changed from the beginning until today?

I wouldn’t call that a “method”, as it’s too strict and formal. I’d say it can be seen as an approach with a focus and a certain number of ingredients that designers play with in their project. Depending on context, the mix leads to different results. For instance, in our practice at the Laboratory, we are interested in very mundane situations and banal artefacts to express future scenarios, while other designers rely on the white cube aesthetic of art/design museum to present their work. That’s a choice – and probably a tension – but there are certainly ways to combine these parameters and ingredients.

In the context of Speculative Design in general my impression is that there hasn’t been much change, although I’ve seen a growing interest in rethinking the scenario-building process by making it more collective and participatory. I also noticed that more and more designers are interested in creating experiential ways of appropriating speculative scenarios: through dedicated technologies such as VR or game-like situations (video games, tabletop or LARP).

Do you think that designers can make a living by doing just speculative practice, or is it still mainly connected with academic and research institutions?

I do think it is possible, yes. However, it depends on the way the speculative practice is framed and what the expectations are. Depending on who you work with/for, the parameters and the ingredients of Speculative Design I mentioned before can be articulated differently than in a proper art/applied art school.

Also, given the growing interest in Design Fiction in corporate/commercial contexts as well as public institutions, there is perhaps an opportunity to train people in how to develop Speculative Design approaches in their particular context, how to translate this into the daily business of a municipality which aims at rethinking the future with its citizens, a small company that focuses on how to readjust its culture, or a corporate institution which needs to set priorities for preferable futures. This is perhaps where I’ve seen most of the demand from clients or partners beyond academia.

However, thinking that designers can make a living by doing just speculative practice is a bit reductive. At the Laboratory, we are trying to introduce speculative elements to our work and do little bits of Design Fiction where appropriate but it’s one facet of what it takes to be a rounded designer in our opinion, just another tool as opposed to a single-siloed discipline …

Speculative Design and Design Fiction are practices which are grounded in the mix of both thinking and playing with materiality.

What is the ideal level of education to teach Speculative Design (bachelor, master, PhD, what kind of experience)?

In my opinion, it’s less a matter of academic degrees than a question of design expertise. Speculative Design and Design Fiction are practices which are grounded in the mix of both thinking and playing with materiality, physically in the studio, or on screens with computer software. Which is why I think it’s important to work on scenarios-expressed-as-artefacts with a certain level of expertise in graphic/product/interaction design as well as writing/communication skills and techniques. Otherwise, you may end up with post-it walls and PowerPoint decks as project outcomes.

That being said, I don’t see why it couldn’t be taught at any of the levels you mentioned. Perhaps the way you work on a Design Fiction project as a first-year student will be different than crafting a Speculative Design project for your masters thesis, but it can definitely be part of the curricula. I have taught DF at all these levels and my expectations are just different depending on who I work with, but it’s clearly not a problem to have young students playing with that.

Do you think that dominant speculative practice neglects the structural and economic problems of contemporary capitalism – should it (and could it) adopt a more political/activist role? If so, how could this aspect be incorporated into education?

I don’t think so. From my perspective, based on working with people in various social strata of Western societies, we are all well aware of the economical and institutional context we operate in, its drawbacks and its influence on everyday life. Is there a way to change that? I don’t think Speculative Design has that power. However, I’m interested more generally in how design and engineering can operate in a world that is not just limited to big corporations and tech start-ups. For instance, I am personally interested in working (along with some of the students I teach) with public institutions, cooperatives, non-profit organisations, etc.

Do you think that strong criticism of the dominant Speculative Design approach today has changed the practice, and if so, in what way?

The political critique against Speculative Design has certainly made some designers more cautious about their ambition and the role of Speculative Design. However, I’m not really sure it changed the practice that much.

How can we resist or overcome the situation where avant-garde design practices, established as a resistance to the dominant system, ultimately become appropriated by the system itself?

Well, that’s a classic. I don’t want to be too fatalist here but it’s a well-described process, as shown by researchers such as Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello [in The New Spirit of Capitalism]. That being said, there are tactics to overcome this situation, and the history of art shows that a common one is to make things more and more cryptic or private, with self-references and private jokes; another one is mockery, but is that in line with designers’ goals/interests?

Bestiar.io (2017)