SpeculativeEdu

Søren Rosenbak: We need to see pata-designers coming out of education

April 23, 2020

Ivica Mitrović talks with Søren Rosenbak, designer, researcher and educator, about the present pandemic and the current state and future paths of Speculative Design.

Photo by Yanina Shevchenko.

Dr. Søren Rosenbak is a designer, researcher and educator, currently working as Design Lead at Laerdal Medical, where he is designing state-of-the-art e-learning experiences for the future of nursing education. Søren has a broad background in design practice, particularly Design Fiction and Interaction Design, coupled with storytelling and filmmaking. He completed a practice-based PhD in Industrial Design from Umeå Institute of Design in 2019, showing how design can be conceived of as a science of imagining solutions. Across his different practices, Søren finds that the magic happens at the intersection of imagination and participation, when design anticipates and gives shape to futures with, rather than for, people. He continues to consult, publish, and mentor from this very junction, and also facilitates an open-ended conversation around the ways in which design research has failed.

In a recent tweet you were looking at Speculative Design works related or referring to the current pandemic crisis. What is the role of Speculative Design now, when we are already living in what may seem like a dystopian future? Has Speculative Design in any way prepared us for this crisis?

When contemplating the current pandemic, I think it’s worth asking whether we—as a global interconnected community—have not been living out dystopian futures for quite some time already? I certainly think the ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014-16 classifies as an example. Or the Republic of Kiribati in the Pacific Ocean being swallowed by the rising sea levels caused by climate change. Writing from a Northern European perspective, I think much of what is happening in this moment has to do with the West getting to grips with this fact in a really embodied, immediate and deep sense.

With the tweet you’re referring to, I was curious to discover if any Speculative Design works had sought to prepare us for this moment in a quite direct sense. I didn’t come across any examples until last night, when I was listening to a Zoom talk, which mentioned a speculative piece by Stuart Candy relating to pandemics–I’ll certainly look into that. Still, even with this limited selection, I’d say that speculative work in design that effectively and compellingly traverses the imaginary and real, pushing the boundaries of either domain just a little bit in this jumping back and forth, certainly doesn’t make us less prepared. Think about it in the sense of training a muscle: Designers who skilfully engage in speculative or fictional work as part of their practice, are like the people in the Design Gym, who after a nice standard all-round design workout, decide to do some additional rounds on that ultra-something TV-Shop machine in the corner. For sure, this can be a vanity project, but at its best, it can also make us more adept at quickly sensing the shifting space of possibility around us and offer up an empathetic response to those with the most at stake.

Could you suggest examples of such a practice?

Sure, I’d highlight Plastic Imaginaries (2016) by Kristina Lindström and Åsa Ståhl. The project centres around two kinds of hybrid matters: First, plastiglomerates, which is a new kind of stone partly consisting of plastic debris, and second, mealworms that can biodegrade styrofoam.

Plastics, and in particular microplastics, are an increasingly acknowledged global threat for human and non-human life alike. I’m inspired by the way that Lindström & Ståhl more generally bridge ethnography and speculation, and in particular how they bring together the ubiquity of plastics as a signifying force of the 21st century, with this acute curiosity towards its innermost material properties. In that bringing together, I see a parallel to COVID-19. While the pandemic has this vastly complex, lethal presence across the world, we also see all these articles explaining how the category of coronaviruses get their name from the corona (crown) of surface proteins that are used to attach to and penetrate host cells.

Finally, when they frame their work as focused on “hybrid matters that have emerged in the ruins of modernist plastic visions”, it goes to the point mentioned earlier about coming to terms with already inhabiting a dystopian future.

The last time we met was around the UrbanIxD project dealing with the future of the city. How do you see the future of our cities and the role of (Speculative) Design?

Urban IxD was a project that set a lot of thoughts in motion, and of course in this very moment, it’s impossible to think about this question outside the way that the coronavirus has so radically altered not only our sense of urban space but also what urban life means. The corona pandemic is a life-threatening reminder of one of the basic aspects of cities: the close proximity, not only between its human inhabitants, but also its non-humans, along with all the meticulous scaffolding upholding all of this (sewers, ice skating arenas, ATM machines, etc.) At their base, cities appear like curious experiments, that through this close sense of proximity add pressure to a lot of different dimensions all at once. Why would any kind of design not be drawn to this?

Future Domestic Landscape, Umeå Institute of Design (2015–2017).

Could you describe how you transfer your approach/research to the education process (especially regarding your “pata-design practice”)?

Okay, so just to state the obvious, pataphysics is of course the science of imaginary solutions. While everything in this world is pataphysical through and through, pataphysical design, pata-design, is a kind of design that is consciously aware of this fact. Why does this matter?

Let’s focus on design education, which, as we know, can mean a lot of different things, depending on the people in question, the institution, its disciplinary grounding, the history, location, culture, etc. In a design school teaching design in the vein of engineering, a design artefact undeniably looks like a solution to a problem: a chair is for sitting, an app for dating and so on. In fact, the cycles of iteration between user research, prototyping and testing, look an awful lot like a process of optimising this solution. This is all good and well. In a design school teaching pata-design, any design artefact is an imaginary solution, an exception out of an infinite sea of other exceptions. Take a moment to really savour that irresistible combination: A solution which is wholly imaginary, and wholly solutional all at once (whoever told you to settle on a single side of such a tired dichotomy was clearly joking).

This shift in perception has a long series of consequences, sadly far too elaborate to list here. Ultra briefly: It is a design that embraces the artificiality of the Anthropocene world, in which we’re designing and being designed. It is a design that is able to contain contradictions and “wickedness” in its outpourings rather than ironing them over in the slightest. It is an infinitely flexible design that pulls a Houdini on any suffocating “truth claims” with equal grace and ease. It is a design that necessarily meets itself with ironic laughter and the utmost seriousness in a single shrug.

For more enlightenment in this most essential of areas, I’d refer the reader to my friends and fellow pata-design illuminaries, Isabella Brandalise and Henrique Eira, who expertly and extensively emanate pata-design education in Brasília.

Participatory design provides a good example of how design can be impactful in more inclusive and responsible ways. What could speculative designers learn from participatory design – is there any potential in linking/combining the approaches?

Absolutely. Just to bring the obvious pataphysics of this question to the fore, I’d say that participatory design is an imaginary solution to the problem of design becoming a speculative leap happening in a secluded insular space with only enough oxygen left for a few designers. Speculative Design, then, is an imaginary solution to the problem of design not leaping far enough, due to being too caught up in the complexities and sensitivities of all the actors constituting the here and now. Both of these are exceptions and completely equivalent. Since this conversation is basing itself in Speculative Design, I’d stress that rather than thinking of participatory design as this adjacent field offering some nifty tools and strategies for Speculative Design, it’s crucial to understand how they exist in a double bind.

Right now it seems clear that futures in which the various healthcare systems don’t collapse from the spike of infected patients, translate to presents where people develop habits and rituals for e.g. properly disinfecting their hands and staying two metres apart.

Where do you see the potential – if there is any – for critical and speculative practice to generate concrete actions in order to reach different futures? How could this aspect be incorporated into the future of education?

Let me return to the pandemic crisis, as I believe it offers us some instructive perspectives on this question as well. Right now it seems clear that futures in which the various healthcare systems don’t collapse from the spike of infected patients, translate to presents where people develop habits and rituals for e.g. properly disinfecting their hands and staying two metres apart. With all the speculative work going into articulating futures that are supposed to alter our presents, I find this thought quite sobering to be honest.

When students get a brief where they are explicitly invited to unleash the power of imagination and dive into futures, it can sometimes be a very heavy pendulum swing into the fictional domain. In some ways it should be. But while suspension of disbelief is all fine and well, Speculative Design itself needs to come to terms with the fact that it has an inherent escapist drive as a result of this preoccupation. It is the iridescent stickers on that TV-Shop machine in the corner of the otherwise monochrome Design Gym, serenading you from across the room.

I believe we need to see pata-designers coming out of education, who understand that all these instruments in the Design Gym are imaginary solutions, nothing more, nothing less. That Critical and Speculative Design, however hyped and celebrated, too simply are other imaginary solutions. They will walk out into the world, and establish magnificent design practices. And an overpriced department store will want to sell their stuff just before the cashier, and they will say “yes!” And a design biennale will call them and invite them to exhibit, and they will say “yes!”. And a local charity would like to raise money selling off their things in an online auction and they will say “yes!” And trend forecasters will feature them in that back section depicting Spring 2023 and they will say “yes!”. And climate activists will want to set their things on fire and upload it on their Instagram and they will say “yes!”