A Kick-Off Discussion About the State of Speculative Design

February 18, 2019

An excerpt of a discussion about the state of Speculative Design practice from the view of project partners, held at the project kick-off at The Museum of Fine Arts in Split on 22 October 2018.

The discussion included one of the pioneers of Speculative Design, James Auger (M-ITI), along with his partner Julian Hanna (M-ITI), both authors of the influential blog, Crap Futures; Michael Smyth and Ingi Helgason (Edinburgh Napier University), leaders of the noted UrbanIxD project, which questioned the concept of a hybrid, networked city through Critical Design practice; Salvatore Iaconesi and Oriana Persico (HER), founders, together with their students, of the first Italian university course/studio/lab Nefula that deals with the near future; another pioneer in speculative practice, Jimmy Loizeau (Goldsmiths, University of London); together with Sara Božanić and Petra Bertalanič from the Slovenian Institute for Transmedia Design. The discussion was moderated by Assistant Professor Ivica Mitrović (Interakcije, Visual Communications Design Department, Arts Academy in Split) with help from Oleg Šuran from the same institution.

Photos: Darko Škrobonja

Ivica: Hello everyone, it is my pleasure to see you all here in Split. Let’s start with James. Can you tell us what the state of Speculative Design is today, in your view?

James: I’ll begin by describing where we’ve come from and the influence of Design Interactions at the RCA (where I taught for 10 years). Many of the early student projects were visually and conceptually quite provocative and as a result were disseminated very broadly. The students were doing rather well after graduation but, ironically, some of them were shifting into the art world and not the design world, and so the purpose or the function of Speculative Design was somehow being diverted or lost. At present there are a lot of new Speculative Design courses popping up around the world. I hear Design Fiction being spoken about an awful lot too – I have just moved to Paris, and everybody is talking about Design Fiction in Paris 

But I think at this point in time the whole discipline is still quite naive, and so the nature of this project is incredibly timely. Speculative Design is shifting, we’re learning all the time, but still, if I were to ask anybody in the field what is a great Speculative Design project, we don’t have anything up there yet. If we look at mainstream or familiar design, like Furniture Design – if I ask you about great furniture design we have the language, the knowledge and the ability to evaluate that world extremely well, and likewise with Graphic Design or Product Design – we’re very fluent in that particular language. But Speculative Design is still quite vague, because in my opinion, its purpose is still undefined. We don’t really know why we do it – there are lots of reasons put forth by practitioners, but I think the power of the image, the power of the object, the speculative fictional object is its ability to disseminate, and this has given us this notion that public exposure is success, and that a gallery exhibition is success. And it’s too easy, we need to move beyond that. Unfortunately a lot of the courses that are popping up are still lagging behind, lacking the more critical evaluation and the desire to move forward … So it’s really time to embrace this challenge – Jimmy stayed in London, doing new work at Goldsmiths, I moved to Madeira and although we’ve not collaborated on these projects, we’ve both gone forward in very similar directions, very different projects, but the motivations are quite similar, and I think more and more people are beginning to do that; more critical engagement, for example another M-ITI project was with the European commission, with policy makers, using Speculative Design.

So my point is, it’s a long answer to your short question, but I think it’s great timing right now, and one of the goals in this project is to really help us understand and to put forth a metric or system, a better understanding or a way of evaluating and being a bit more critical about Speculative Design, being a little bit more ambitious.

I think the speculation or the kind of shifting of actual speculation is the only thing that has  changed. I’m no longer satisfied to show in a gallery. I’m not interested in just speculating, I’m interested in the activation of speculation.

Ivica: We could say that speculative practice today is “in moda/fashion”, becoming a trend, but at the same time we witness new projects that are trying to move forward, to produce concrete action in the “real world”. For example the work James and Julian are doing in Madeira, and also the project that Jimmy is running now in Wales. Jimmy, you’re also one of the pioneers of this approach. Do you think the methodology or methods that you use have changed since the beginning? Do you use the same approach as 15 years ago today in your project, which looks more participatory?

Jimmy: It’s hard to say … I’d say my personal approach is a combination of being eclectic and occasionally focussed. There are always a lot of projects going on. I’ll try to be more specific about these approaches.

To use the example of the Audio Tooth Implant, it was a response to a fear that we acknowledged was happening or might happen in the world as it embraced communications technology in a way we’d never experienced before. And we used the media rather than the gallery, absolutely deployed the media as our dissemination. It was incredibly important for us at that time that the warning about our intimacy or our potential for intimacy with technology was talked about. Nobody was going to have a democratic vote on whether the Internet was coming or that mobile technologies would be so, kind of, pervasive. So, the media was there as a tool.

The project that I haven’t talked about is the covering of refugees and migrants in Greece, Germany, the UK – so now again the media is a platform or a target or something that I’m very interested in using, whether or not the approach or the methodology has moved on.

I think the speculation or the kind of shifting of actual speculation is the only thing that has changed. I’m no longer satisfied to show in a gallery. I’m not interested in just speculating, I’m interested in the activation of speculation.

Ivica: Michael, the project UrbanIxD was maybe the first European project at the high level which used a Critical Design approach as one of the methods. Could you tell us more about that experience and was it successful?

Michael: That’s an interesting question. Ok, so UrbanIxD was a project in 2013-2014, two years. It was a project that wanted to explore and build a community around cities and the relationships between cities, people and technology. I think as a project it really hit a sweet spot, at that moment in time when there was a lot of debate around a sort of systemic view of the city, so you had companies like IBM and Siemens talking about cities as operating systems. And what that project suggested was that maybe it’s of equal importance to talk about cities as places where you and I live, and to take a really human-centered approach to the problem. I think that the discourse that has emerged since that project has become a lot more sophisticated and nuanced, and I think the distinction is maybe less clear than it was at the time of the project. So, one of the things that we wanted to do and really focused on was interdisciplinarity. It is one of the most used words by people who don’t actually engage in interdisciplinarity, but we were really conscious of trying to encourage participants of these projects to come from multiple disciplines. We called it Critical Design, it seemed like a good idea at the time to take that approach.

The benefit in many ways was that it provided us a sort of level playing field for all of these disciplines. So we ran the summer school in Croatia, in Split here in 2013, and we had 40 people; really, really good participants at that event, and they were from a whole range of disciplines, from computing to sociology to architecture to urban planning, you name it. And you feel as though you’re a representative of that discipline when you are a part of an event like that, and you’ve got to talk about your discipline. Whereas, Critical Design was something which none of them were really aware of or conscious of and as a result it gave them a legitimacy to maybe leave the baggage of their own disciplines behind. They didn’t have to keep banging the drum for urban planning or whatever. And that seemed to really work. That was 2013, and some of the fictions that were produced during that summer school are still very current and they speak to today just as much as they did to 2013. And I’m still using them as well, they have a longevity. They have continued to keep a lot of discussions and lot of speculations about the possible futures of urban living to the forefront of a lot of people’s work. And that network has continued to grow and spread, and develop their own approaches and their own methods. Yes, I suppose I would say that it was successful, given that we were the organisers! Yes, I do, I think it’s actually quite reassuring and really humbling in many ways that that work in eight days, has had such a long impact, you know, the longevity associated with that work is so, so important. The fact of creating those design fictions was instrumental in that and it continues to make me think, which is what it’s all about.

Ivica: Thank you. Oriana, or Salvatore, how do you see these speculative, and related approaches, from an Italian perspective? Is there any kind of specificity? Have you adapted it to your own practice or local context, or is it just a kind of transfer of well known dominant methods and approaches?

Salvatore: Cities like Naples and Rome are in a constant state of reinvention. Laws and regulations exist, but only sort of apply. That’s generally a bad thing, but it also represents a type of capacity – and imagination – for transgression and social negotiation, which is a very positive thing. Because it brings you to face the fact that whatever you do you need to establish relationships, and that reality is negotiable.

This is a fundamental idea: reality is negotiable. There is no real given reality. Ok? Rome is the place where it is not uncommon that the Ministry has to ask the usher for permission to do something. This is a nightmare, usually, because a Ministry can be blocked by an usher. But it’s also a conditional reality in which social mobility is possible, because in some situations, the usher has the same power as the Ministry. So it’s an extremely flexible reality.

I used to be a skater. Skateboarding is a very peculiar activity because apart from breaking legs and arms and ribs and various parts of your bodies, you … it’s a magical thing, skateboarding is a magical thing. Because you take the most horrible bench or handrail in the most gray and horrible neighbourhood and you magically transform it into a place for acrobatics. It becomes a policy, an urban poem. Skateboarding is urban poetry. You take horrible places and you transform them into magical places, for acrobatics. So this attitude for reinventing reality, which is fundamental for this type of design, is also about remixing reality, taking things that exist and not taking them for granted. For me it originates from skateboarding and from cities like Rome and Naples.

This is an enormous opportunity. Because, on the other hand, we have other approaches – even the most successful and approved and agreed upon approaches – that have a very hard time in dealing with (and giving value to) transgression and negotiation. They are very orderly, they are very methodological.

Oriana: It is about encoding.

Salvatore: Exactly. They are very encoded. They have very strict codes, tight frames and narrow scopes. So, this is our challenge. As Italians, as people from Mediterranean, where these attitudes for disorder, transgression, negotiation and openness are very common, our challenge is exactly this one: How can we take these methods, these ways of doing things, these ways for imagination, and bring them out in accessible ways, in usable ways, in ways in which people can come together by using them? Because, I must say that there is one major negative thing about these transgressive approaches, and that is many times they are individualistic. Most of the time they are about the self, about the individual. So how can we take these approaches, these transgressions, these capacities for even extreme imagination, and bring them out into society, in ways that can unite people, to create this social imagination. So this is how we see these kinds of practices from our own point of view. And I don’t know, Oriana, you wanted to add something?

Oriana: Yes, maybe only one more thing, which is about balancing the individualistic transgression thing, that Salvatore was describing. You said that, also from a local perspective, many things we have seen here in the presentations focus on public space. This attitude to create and negotiate, and to have roots in the public space, comes from entire cultures. Which is about how our cities are built, and being here in Split is not that different, and I can see this attitude here, which is about people in the street, people sitting in the street. Or, for example, in Rome water is something really accessible for everyone (as there are hundreds of public, free fountains for drinking water everywhere). Or in the fact that in these cities, going out is not only about consumption. You have a lot of space and urban infrastructure which you can go through, and stay and meet people, and mix with people because there is a broad cultural notion and method, not even written in law, which is about the meaning of public space. So, I believe that this is also an additional element, in terms of local culture, which is very present and important in all these practices.

Ivica: Julian, you came, if I could say, from outside, not coming directly from the design community, and started collaborating with James, in Madeira. What was your experience with this collaboration and how do you see Speculative Design now (I am relating these questions to the Crap Futures blog)?

Julian: Yes, it was really fortuitous because I found myself in Madeira – which was strange enough, coming from Canada to these remote Portuguese islands – and then James arrived from London, and we just started working together from scratch. I don’t come from a design background but I do come from literature, and of course there are a lot of similarities, working with fictional worlds. We started to talk about Speculative Design the way I was also starting to think about literature – as a more engaged form; how it might impact the world and real life. So we started in an empty office and opened a blank shared document, we started throwing around ideas, and that turned into a blog, and then into some experiments that took advantage in particular of the local landscape in Madeira – what we could see from our office, the high cliffs, what you could see at the beach, the volcanic sand, the wood in the hills – and we tried to make use of these local resources and what was special about the place, and to take design into that local place. Speculative Design isn’t that strange for me because I’m not from a design background, so what we do is the most familiar type of design to me. But I can see that it’s not like your average product design.

Ivica: Sara, and Petra, how would you connect your previous critical and speculative experience with the projects you are doing now and in transmedia practice?

Sara: There are a lot of aspects. In 15 years of cooperation the methodological approach has changed, and we always like to push the boundaries of how to design this process. So each year, working together with Ivica, Michael, and Oleg, I took something out of it. And what I’ve noticed about the past is that when we started, we always spoke about user-centred design, so it was always something like a person, person, person. Then we went from the Interaction Design field into the more critical approach, like, criticising things, so I always took it back and said, okay, how do we criticise the entertainment industry, or how do we criticise governmental systems to make them better. But today, I must say, I’m experiencing a new wave of hope. The world has become like, really glazed over with a dark layer and I really dislike it. So I see this project as an opportunity to step back a little, and maybe stop speaking so much about dystopian dreams, and start to really dream again, to feel again – not only to react (like, dislike) – but to create really new, wonderful environments, in which we can all appreciate each other and exchange knowledge, grow, and feel each other.

Ivica: Jimmy, Goldsmiths is becoming nowadays maybe the most important institution using a Speculative Design approach. My question is focused on your students: do they make their living, earn money doing Speculative Design, or is it just a part of academic research or a gallery context?

Jimmy: I think that at Goldsmiths the Design department came out of the Fine Arts department. And it took the best parts of arts practice, which were free-thinking, experimental thinking, not being afraid to say things, and show things and do things, which is exactly what our students do, year in year out. So, it’s a nightmare to teach on our course, because, we don’t define the world of design for them, they do it for us. It means that my career is sustainable and I won’t get bored. It’s a headache to teach them but our students are always, always, kind of relevant. They do get jobs. If they want they get better paid jobs than me – not necessarily better because my job whilst giving me those headaches is brilliant. The students can take on the kind of messiness of the world and some of the really kind of difficult, knotty problems that design has to deal with. And actually some of the problems that design needs to deal with. They can articulate these issues beautifully. There’s a kind of playful thinking, taking risks in order to learn. This culture of risk-taking is something that I worry about, because it’s becoming rarer, especially in the UK. It must look as though we are almost trying to basically fuck up our education system. We strive to preserve this culture of experimental education for our students wholeheartedly, because we know they will be okay in the world. They are very successful in the world. All designers have to speculate – it’s fundamental to any creative practice.

We’d talk about design for debate. We talked about the critique, but where was the critique? Where was the debate? Who was having the debate? And fundamentally how do you make the debate change things?

Ivica: James, looking at the criticism of the dominant critical and speculative practice, do you think that that criticism has changed Speculative Design practice today? Do we still have two opposing blocks between the dominant practice and the people who are criticising this dominant practice? Or has it just really changed the practice in a better or different direction and initiated discussion between the two sides.

James: It’s evolving, that’s all. Like anything that’s not been around for a huge length of time, it’s evolving – but we can still reflect back on what has happened, and we can potentially address some of those questions. From my point of view, you had the design myths slide that I showed a few years ago, design improves people’s lives, design makes things better. This is my big problem: a lot of mainstream design, and I would probably say 90 percent of design education, is still stuck in this 20th century modernist notion of design being a force for good, design helping people, doing good things.

And the problem is that for the most part, if you’d ask anybody who’s not involved in our world who is the world’s “top designer” or the world’s “top design company”, they’ll just point to Apple and Jony Ive. Dyson is often touted in the newspapers as being the Jony Ive of vacuum design, for example. But this idea of what is good design is still locked in the previous century. And so it was for me imperative that design found a more responsible voice, a more critical voice, an approach through which we can address and somehow begin to understand the complexity of modern life. Modern corporate life. I showed this slide at the end from Paul Mazur, who in 1927 was talking about changing America from a country of needs into a country of desires. And to make people desire things before they even realised it. And we’re still stuck in that mold, that’s where design is mostly practiced. So I think that it is really important that we find a way of kind of rebelling or reacting to that.

We started out with that loosely in mind but did it badly. In the beginning that was the stated purpose of a lot of our work (for example the Audio Tooth Implant); we’d talk about design for debate. We talked about the critique, but where was the critique? Where was the debate? Who was having the debate? And fundamentally how do you make the debate change things? This was the paucity of the approach. I think as we get better, we are starting slowly to address some of the issues that arose. Some of the critique was very helpful – in 2012 MoMA published an experimental blog called Design and Violence as a sort of online curatorial experiment. That was where the first critique of our department at the RCA arose from – out of this blog. And some of it was extremely valid and definitely made me reflect enormously on what I was doing. Some of it got a little bit vocal and a little bit unconstructive and to those people I would have hoped they would have contributed more to answers, rather than focusing on the (negative) critique. The constructive reflection, or the constructive critique, can only help and that I think has helped to shape and evolve things. And we’re now at the point where steps are starting to be made. But the thing we’re reacting to is incredibly powerful. If you look at the role of Amazon or Google, their power to shape all of our lives, it’s phenomenal! They’ve got more lobbying power than any company has ever had in history, more power than most governments in the world. At the time of Trump, neoliberalism, techno-fetishism, deregulation, which is what is being pushed forward … it’s a very very complex time in which we live … I don’t like the word, but the enemy is extremely powerful. So these first steps have always been seen a little as being futile. But is that reason to stop? No, it’s not, we just have to get better at what we do. Now is the time.

Further into the project we are going to include other colleagues, academics, practitioners, and students in order to get various and critical insights into speculative and related design practices and education in the European context.

Ivica: Julian, we are close to the avant-garde movement and they were your references in writing the Reconstrained Design Manifesto. Speculative Design, as a new kind of approach, a new vision of design, was also established as a kind of resistance to the dominant system. How (or should) we try to avoid that also this practice will be appropriated by the system, swallowed by the system, as happened with many avant-garde movements before?

Julian: Keep challenging the status quo. Don’t rely on old tropes. Take risks. Write new manifestos. I hope that in the same way we’ve seen a sense of engagement re-emerge over the past decade in the artistic avant-garde, that that might happen with Speculative Design too. In other words what we’ve been talking about today – that a piece in a gallery just isn’t enough anymore. I hope that the best aspects of the avant-garde will enter into Speculative Design: aside from inventiveness, which Speculative Design has plenty of already, the raw energy, the political engagement, the fierce criticality. To go back to your previous question, what I didn’t say was that coming from a literature background, I realised when I started working with designers that not everyone is so critical – I mean, this is what bugs everyone so much when you take a literature course, that all you do is tear things apart. The criticality is essential, but maybe it’s too much. What I’m getting at is that coming into a new practice like design, it was natural for me to dissect and critique everything. But I found that that was not enough, you also have to be constructive and engaged. So maybe by bringing all these things together – the energy of the avant-garde, the engagement, the criticality – that’s how you make something worth talking about.

Ivica: Thank you all. This discussion is just a starting point for our journey. Further into the project we are going to include other colleagues, academics, practitioners, and students in order to get various and critical insights into speculative and related design practices and education in the European context.