Benedikt Groß: Speculative and Critical Design were always kind of an outside position

July 21, 2019

“Antidisciplinary” Speculative and Computational Designer from Germany talks with James Auger and Ivica Mitrović.

Benedikt Groß is a speculative and computational designer who works antidisciplinarily in South Germany, balancing his time between teaching and working on commercial and self-initiated research projects. His work deals with the fascination of relationships between people, their data, technology and environments. He holds an M.A. in Design Interactions (under Anthony Dunne) from the Royal College of Art London, a Diploma in Information & Media from the HfG Schwäbisch Gmünd and is an alumnus of the MIT Senseable City Lab. Benedikt is a professor of Interaction Design at his alma mater HfG Schwäbisch Gmünd and is concurrently associate Director of Design at moovel Lab (subsidiary Daimler AG) where his work deals with future mobility concepts and mobility related data. Benedikt’s work has been published widely and exhibited internationally. Benedikt has been recognised with awards such as the IxDA Best Concept, Excellence Award of the Japanese Media Arts Festival, Information is Beautiful Award Silver, Honorary Mention Prix Ars Electronica and German Design Award.

Your RCA graduation project Avena+ Test Bed: Agricultural Printing and Altered Landscapes provides a powerful example of how a Speculative Design project can move beyond the gallery into a real-life context, in this case exploring the complex relations between scales, complexity, nature and technology. Could you say a little about how you see the purpose of such a project? And what was the reaction of your collaborators?

In my opinion the purpose of such a project is literally to illustrate a potential future for an as big as possible lay audience. I think this is relevant because it’s quite different if a person like me, a designer, is thinking about such a future in comparison to someone from the agriculture industry.

But I should give some context first. The project Avena+ Test Bed kicked off with the observation that there are a lot of things changing in agriculture and that agriculture becomes in general a highly digital activity, more like a digital print process, and radically moves away from the romantic image of farming. At the moment a couple of trends are coming together: (1) Precision Farming: agriculture becomes fully mapped and data driven, (2) a paradigm shift from food to biogas production, and (3) various EU subsidy schemes to promote diversity. Long story short this made me really think, “How could potential landscapes in the future look if farming is transformed to a highly digital activity?” These changes are potentially quite dramatic, but on the other hand it’s also not big news because at least in Central Europe, the landscape always was a cultural landscape, or at least in the last couple of hundred years. But I think we might see a new level soon.

But to come back to the initial question, I think the role of such projects is definitely to investigate and research all those loose ends of trends, new technologies, stakeholders … and to make them tangible. But in comparison to industry, my hope is that such scenarios are not just what is most likely to happen commercially, but rather an “illustration” (think of a visualisation) of a potential future so that more stakeholders (think of society) or in general people not directly involved in that domain, can have a tangible scenario of what that could mean.

I guess I had the typical reaction. It was very successful within the art & design and tech realm. It won a lot of awards and became kind of an icon; the key visual of the project (first aerial image in the project documentation) was featured all over the place, from future of food books to the IxDA Interaction Awards, etc. Which was very lovely and I had a lot of nice conversations about the project. Also Stefan Schwabe from the UDK Berlin is currently working on a kind of follow up project called Farming the Uncanny Valley. I was more than happy to support him at the beginning.

Avena+ Test Bed: Agricultural Printing and Altered Landscapes (2013)

But on the other hand it wasn’t very successful within the agricultural realm. There was interest and it sparked quite a few nice conversations, but it was definitely way better received within art & design. Why? Probably the typical situation for me and I guess for a lot of other people is that: (1) we are just better at communicating within our own domain; (2) designers, that includes myself, often are drawn to new things. At some point I was satisfied with the project and other new things were so tempting, that I just lacked the energy to push it even further. It is so much easier to start something new than to complete a project to the very very end. Also to push a project out to other domains, you really have to facilitate it, e.g. do a lot of PR related work … which is still hard for me.

Maybe we should aim in education for Speculative Design to make the importance of facilitating your work more explicit? I personally would even say that the facilitation step should be an integral part of how Speculative Design is taught. There is a lot of talk about the impact of Speculative Design … which I find sometimes an odd discussion, as in my understanding Speculative Design is about crafting scenarios, but not necessarily about implementing them. If we, the community, wanted to implement things as well, we would have to acquire new skills or maybe create new roles to bridge e.g. the Speculative Design policy maker, the Speculative Design facilitator, the Speculative Design evangelist, etc.

In your opinion what is the contemporary state of Speculative Design (with a focus on education)?

This is a hard one for me because I don’t have a very rigid global overview on Speculative Design in education, but my gut feeling is that it is not mainstream. There’s a lot of interest from all over the place, but it’s still rare to find it formalised at universities. I just know a handful of examples and usually at global high exposure universities like RCA, New School Parsons or the Strelka Institute and so on. So yeah, I guess there is still room to grow and to make Speculative Design just more normal at universities.

You are now a Professor of Strategic and Interaction Design at the HfG Schwäbisch Gmünd. Is Speculative Design (and related practice) part of the curriculum? Is it a widely adopted practice in Germany or still a new approach employed at just few educational institutions?

It is definitely not widely adopted in Germany. I actually don’t know a single university or course which explicitly is about Speculative Design. The only programme which comes to my mind is in Austria at the Angewandte in Vienna, where Anab Jain is head of the Design Investigations programme. Yes not Germany, but at least a German-speaking country, so I think it’s probably fine to mention it here. It’s still a niche in Germany. At the HfG Schwäbisch Gmünd, my university, it’s partly within BA Interaction Design and also MA Strategic Design, but it doesn’t play a big role in the curriculum. But we do have one or two courses explicitly with the headline Critical Design or Speculative Design. And I have to say, people are very aware of the Speculative Design approach … we regularly have graduation and semester projects which deal either with Speculative or Critical Design.

You have a Design Interactions (RCA) education in Speculative and Critical Design – have you adapted your approach since graduation (for example to the new cultural or working context)?

Yes. I just became more pragmatic. I care less about the label Speculative Design and I’m more content or project centric now. If I execute a project and if Speculative Design is the appropriate vehicle then I embrace it. Also the label, Speculative Design, doesn’t help very often because lay people are not super familiar with it. Rather I try to make the intentions of the project more transparent. It can be very hard for such an audience to get the difference between a product scenario to an illustration of an alternative more preferable but unlikely future.

The other thing which I became more pragmatic about in comparison to my time at the RCA, is that I’m very aware of the mechanisms to get a project published and how to communicate it e.g. PR related work, how to speak to journalists, etc. I’m much more aware of how to frame the projects in a way that other people not from art & design can more easily understand it.

Do you think that designers can make a living by doing Speculative Design or is it only possible at academic or research institutions?

Sadly, I think at the moment this is pretty much the case. It’s still too niche. Actually just two studios which push Speculative Design as one of their main things come to my mind. First is Superflux, but again Anab Jain is also partly academic, and the other studio is Studio Ellery in Berlin.

So my advice would be to combine it with other things, like strategic design or future foresight basically consultancy which I think goes potentially well with Speculative Design. Or you could also concentrate on the hard skills e.g. video making, interaction design, communication design … and start then from there to convince clients to give Speculative Design also a try. Basically to combine it with more marketable [laughs] skills.

Who Wants to Be a Self-Driving Car? (2017)

What is the ideal level of education to begin learning Speculative Design? What kind of previous experience provides a good background for a potential candidate?

I would rather recommend to start teaching Speculative Design either at the master level or let’s say from the mid/end of a bachelor. I think it’s already hard for “design beginners” to get a design project going. There’s so many skills on the ground which a designer has to deal with, whether it be illustration, programming, filmmaking, product design … already that can be very hard.

With Speculative Design, in addition comes in the futures twist so even more layers to deal with. Hence I think it’s too much for the very beginner in a design programme. So yes, I would rather go in terms of semesters. A cliche to think about it could also be the one of T-shaped people. I guess everybody has heard of that now? But I still think the metaphor is not that bad for Speculative Design, you need a hard skill on the ground. You have to make a scenario tangible and engaging. I think that is just possible if you can express yourself in some form or in some media. But then again to factor in a broader view e.g. trends, new emerging technologies you also have to think on a more abstract level. So you need also the roof of the T, more knowledge and more experience than (without any offence) “just” to be a good programmer or good illustrator.

We are living in complicated times – politically, environmentally, culturally. After several years of Speculative and Critical Design evolution, do you think that it can have a more influential role in shaping futures/alternatives beyond the discussions that typically take place in the design community?

Yes. I’m still convinced that this is going to happen. Because currently a lot of new people are joining the community. There’s this global trend of the Speculative Futures Meetups and new conferences like the PRIMER Conference of the same community. I think that’s a good thing that a lot of new people are joining. I know there was quite some and valid critique about it. Speculative Design is now far away from its origins of Critical Design and so on. There is definitely a potential danger that Speculative Design becomes the Design Thinking 2.0 and that the expectations are set too high. But on the other hand, I still think there are enough issues and problems which we face every day, especially on a global scale. Just watch the news 🙁 .

For me the fundamental question is whether you want to change something within the system or whether you want to change something from an outside position? Traditionally I think Speculative Design and Critical Design were always kind of an outside position. You can see that for instance “Historically”, in the A/B Manifesto by Dunne & Raby. Or updated in a recent blog post by Tobias Revell, “Five Problems with Speculative Design”, with a lot of valid critique and where Tobias argues in my understanding also for an outside position and not to be part of the system. And then there’s the other position that it’s easier to change things from within the system. My work with moovel lab in the realm of future mobility falls into it. Moovel is 50% BMW and 50% Daimler subsidiary. So it’s totally within the system. But personally I think in the realm of future mobility, I can have more impact from within the system in comparison to a completely outside position.

But ultimately I think we should not waste any energy in: “Is it better to do Speculative Design from the outside or from within the system?”! I think it simply should be a very big AND. We shouldn’t care, in a way, we should just have the two things in parallel and talk to each other and hope for a lot of cross-pollination. Basically we need all the imagination that we can get! There is this beautiful quote by George Monbiot in Out of the Wreckage: A New Politics for an Age of Crisis which sums it up:

“Despair is the state we fall into when our imagination fails. When we have no stories that describe the present and guide the future, hope evaporates. Political failure is, in essence, a failure of imagination.”

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