Enrique Encinas: Criticism has been a very constructive force for Speculative Design

September 4, 2020

Sara Božanić talks with SpeculativeEdu team member Enrique Encinas on the methods, tools and education in Speculative Design.

Enrique Encinas studied electrical engineering in Madrid, semiconductor tech in Taiwan and IT product design in Denmark. He has briefly supported artists in Medialab Prado (Madrid) and technical systems in Vodafone Spain. Some of his design research work was exhibited in the Berlaymont Building of the EU Commission and in the Center of Contemporary Culture of Barcelona (CCCB). He currently works at the Human Centered Computing group in Aalborg University.

Where does your own practice and background sit within Speculative Design?

If Speculative Design was a table I think my practice and background would sit far away from each other. My background would be sitting among those that arrived at the event because someone else invited them to come along and found themselves at home. At 18 I left Lanzarote and arrived in the capital Madrid to enrol in a Telecommunications Engineering program that taught me some programming, stuff about antennas and satellites and how to pass a course by studying the exams from previous years. In my last year, a Taiwanese university invited me to write my thesis there and I discovered that you can actually crank techno-rationality all the way up to 11. Came back to Spain and went corporate, survived, saved money and went to Denmark to study product design and participatory design and one little course on Speculative Design. Then boom. Up to that moment I didn’t seriously consider that there is more than one world out there. I had flirted with art through sound and writing but it was learning design that blew my mind because the worlds that come through design had to be shared, understood collectively, function beyond the individual or what have you. Then I got a grant to do a PhD on something called Design Fiction and went for it because it would offer me some stability to develop my practice (whatever that was) and the chance to see how far you can go when you use design as a way of knowing the world(s). Call it design research or research through design or or or … the idea is to learn to know things by making and designing them. And in the process, find ways to legitimise these very designerly ways of knowing that embrace and thrive in the ambiguous, the artificial, the contradictory and the disputed. So I guess a design that demands questioning, contestation, criticality, poetry and dreaming as Speculative Design does feels like home for me.

What is the current state of Speculative Design in education (formal and informal)?

From my narrow perspective I can only get a glimpse of Speculative Design as a field. I try to keep an eye on the practices and projects from designers that operate outside of universities but I am more attuned to what is happening within them and still the picture remains quite blurry. It seems to me that designers are increasingly expected to deal seriously and effectively not only with the actual, or the immediate future but with the imaginary too. By imaginary I mean the fictions, stories, folk theories, etc. that sustain and inform the realities people live in. Speculative Design as meaning-making or meaning-disclosing seems to be gaining momentum and I see more designers framing their work within this context and later sharing it through publications. Many papers are also presented in conferences and I have noticed that every year there are more conferences that publish Speculative Design work. In turn, more programs in design education seem to be making some space for Speculative Design even though their courses or modules would not acknowledge it as such – they might go by other names that have a lot in common with Speculative Design, like design fiction, critical design, adversarial design, transition design, or what have you. I don’t think this is problematic at all, rather the opposite. If we take seriously the idea that design is fundamentally about possibility in context, it is only natural that the names given to the design practices change and adapt to reflect their particular pedagogical context.

What I am amazed by is how speculative designers appropriate tools and methods from a range of disciplines and, through some sort of participatory alchemy, design new ones (sometimes ad hoc).

Are there any key trends, methods and/or tools that are recognized and frequently used by Speculative Design practitioners?

Perhaps I am too optimistic but I think the trend is no-trend. What I mean is that there seems to be an understanding that the methods and tools of Speculative Design rarely function the way a blueprint does. I guess if someone considers a workshop, prototyping, AfterEffects or tarot cards a “tool” then certainly those are recognised and frequently used. But I don’t find this terribly interesting. What I am amazed by is how speculative designers appropriate tools and methods from a range of disciplines and, through some sort of participatory alchemy, design new ones (sometimes ad hoc). It is as if a method for Speculative Design emerges from the context and the community where Speculative Design happens rather than being replicated from a context where Speculative Design already happened. In a loose sense this reminds me of the “methods and tools” that Louise Banks, the linguist in the fantastic “A story of your life” by Ted Chiang or Amy Adams in Villeneuve’s film Arrival uses to communicate with the aliens that land on Earth. Dr Banks is confronted with an utterly strange mess and she proceeds cautiously. She sets up experiments and cumulatively builds on what she learns after those experiments are completed. One could describe her approach as scientifically rigorous but designerly in principle: she constantly detours trying to find “the ‘wickedness’ of her ‘wicked problem’”. Also, in order to move forward she doesn’t restrict herself to using habitual research methods from her discipline, and besides thoroughly analysing the alien’s sounds and inspecting their calligraphy, she uses theatre, games, props and whatever she considers necessary to find an entry point into the alien’s language.

Together with James Auger, Jaya Klara Brekke, Juan Blanco, Carlotta De Ninni you were working on a blockchain project called On the Block, dealing with urban information economies/systems. Can you explain more about the project itself and the method used for creating such a collaborative project?

The #Blockchain4EU project was a project coordinated by the Policy Lab at the European Union that aimed at looking critically at the potentials within industry for Digital Ledger Technologies (DLTs), like the Blockchain. I was hired together with James Auger by the European Union’s Policy Lab as lead designer of an interdisciplinary group of experts to explore the impact of Digital Ledger Technologies (such as Blockchain) on Intellectual Property. Our task was to lead the discussion and outcomes of two workshops in Brussels and also, to design an interactive object that would facilitate a better understanding of the topic to other stakeholders from industry and politics in the EU.

In the first workshop we narrowed down our topic to intellectual property within the music industry and explored it through “iterative post-it discussions” (a method that I made up just now) that resulted in questions such as: What if money owned itself? What if a financial reward was married to emotional value via physical response? What if music was moderated by a sort of curated scarcity and we were only able to access music by, for example, physical contact? What if there was a sort of universal basic music? (In relation to the much-discussed universal basic income.) What if music was anonymous and had to be mined like currencies in DLTs? These questions led us to settle on a group of primary topics: curated scarcity, community-based contributions, forgotten rituals when relating to music and responses to the value of music. At the end of the workshop we developed a lo-fi prototype that resembled a portable music player. It was a prop meant to help speculate about a near future where sensors embedded in gadgets would be able to detect emotional responses to music. The economic value of the music would be derived from the emotional value via the physical responses recorded by the device. These responses would be recorded and exchanged into monetary currencies via the Blockchain, creating a market of songs that matched the physical and emotional responses of their listeners. Songs would be more expensive if they produced intense emotional responses in their listeners.

For the second workshop we needed to refine this prototype and we realised that the emotional music player didn’t address important stuff we talked about during the first workshop. For example, how to resist techno-utopian discourses when discussing DLTs or how to use the Blockchain to promote community curated content. So we scrapped the idea.

GossipChain taxi. Photo: Julian Hanna

We went back to thinking about how knowledge is transformed into intellectual property and came upon a story involving taxi drivers during the Arab Spring. Egyptian activists, allegedly motivated by their Tunisian neighbours, planned a revolt in the city of Cairo. The task was to spread the message of coming together in Tahir Square on the 25th of January of 2011 to as many people as possible. Evidently, they spread their message online but with only 20% of the population connected to the internet they had to devise alternative ways to reach people. They thought of taxis as diffusion nodes for their message but there was a problem: whenever they directly shared their political message with taxi drivers a heated political discussion would ensue that would normally end with a taxi driver unwilling to relay the message. The activists, however, figured out a way. Instead of directly relaying the message to taxi drivers, two activists would sit in the back of the car and secretly discuss the details of the gathering. The taxi driver would eavesdrop and overhear the conversation as if it was priceless gossip and comment on it with other taxi drivers and passengers. The message spread and the revolt turned out to be historic.

The taxi story helped us mess around with the interactions between the highly formalized and trustworthy and the informal and untrusted and we came up with GossipChain, a reputation and market-backed DLT based on rumours. It uses prediction markets and scores to assess the reliability and value of a piece of gossip. Each neighbourhood has a GossipTotem, a physical sculpture-like structure that is connected to the Blockchain and that manages the upload, validation and exchange of gossip. It is only from a GossipTotem that a community can submit new gossip and only by being physically co-present with it. It is also when a person stands in front of the GossipTotem that other bits of gossip can be challenged.

We designed GossipChain as an interactive maquette: the model of a city where taxi drivers capitalize on their access to informal knowledge via the Blockchain. The maquette is 2×1.6m, hides magnetic sensors and is not self explanatory – so its meaning comes alive not through reading or observing but by physically interacting with it. When the model of a taxi that has a magnet attached follows a route around the town, a path of lights is created. At the same time, the faint sound of a conversation can be heard from certain angles as it emerges from a directional speaker hidden within one building. Finally, when the taxi arrives at the stop where the GossipTotem is located, the gossip stops and the path blinks, symbolizing the upload to the Blockchain.

The maquette was exhibited and interacted with in the European Union Headquarters in Brussels where for one day we participated in a series of talks and presentations. It seemed to work because participants interacting with it during the workshop held conversations about what might happen when more informal forms of knowledge get tokenized, formalized and fixed on the Blockchain. More on ideas about the everyday than about bright techno-futures.

In 2018 you delivered an amazing project together with James Auger and other members of the Reconstrained Design Group called The Newton Machine, which included the Gravity Lamp and Gravity Turntable. The project aimed to provide a more direct challenge to contemporary design, by removing constraints imposed by the relationship to the market. Can you explain the DIY side of the project and why this “do-it-yourself” approach is so important in Speculative Design?

With the Gravity Lamp and the Gravity Turntable we wanted to highlight the separation between domestic appliances and alien infrastructures of energy production and transfer. Instead of relying on a magic wall and its wall plug to make function come alive, we wanted to go beyond the wall and do away with the plug altogether by designing the means of energy generation into the objects. The idea was to make these design artefacts not grid dependent but context dependent, and this included bringing local knowledge and materials to the foreground.

However, we did not want just to restrict ourselves to the design of do-it-yourself objects that were satisfied with performing a function. In our view, this would not differentiate our project from other techno-solutionist attempts that would be considered finished because they worked. We wanted to go beyond the do-it-yourself that excludes aesthetics and design objects that could be seen as an alternative to a purchase in a shopping mall. The goal was beyond engineering and hence, we liked to think of it not as Do It Yourself but as Do It With Others. The Gravity Lamp and the Gravity Turntable had instruction manuals and blueprints that some might find too difficult to build by themselves but that should represent no problem for a professional in their community. A small aluminium pulley, for example, would take just minutes for a local metal worker to make. Local craftsmen have amounts of expertise that we hoped would be mobilised by people trying to build these products. It was very likely too that these craftsmen would be able to improve our designs or come up with new ones better fitted for the contexts of people needing them. We saw this increase in complexity and quality of materials used for a DIY project as a reasonable price to pay in order to design things instead of devices, that is, objects where means and ends exist in a continuum rather than concealing their context.

The Gravity Record Player at the CCCB in Barcelona (2018). Photo: Miquel Taverna

Lately there is a lot of criticism towards Speculative Design. Why is that and how can this be changed?

I see the criticism that Speculative Design receives as one of its most positive aspects. Criticism plays a central role in any Speculative Design project, how could we expect Speculative Design itself not to be constantly criticised? And we cannot forget that Speculative Design is also design or Design, and design lacks an overarching, all encompassing definition accepted unanimously. Design is also constantly being criticised and in the process, redefined. This is how design remains (more or less) effective as the present changes.

In my opinion, criticism has been a very constructive force for Speculative Design to remain relevant and attuned to the contexts where it happens. The whole call for and pursuit of a “Speculative Design outside of the gallery” was a major influence in bringing Speculative Design objects out there and, in doing so, overcoming their status as props. It is through a sustained engagement with criticism that objects of Speculative Design stopped being condemned to some sort of narrative exile and reentered the life of people and communities in the experiential and embodied ways we see today.

So I guess I am quite excited about criticism as fuel for Speculative Design and wonder if sooner or later some of this criticism will start happening through design, or at least with less emphasis on the written word and the linearity of the text. I have absolutely no idea how that would look and feel like (beyond the spoken word) but it would be something to celebrate if designers that are not too comfortable with words (or words in English) could articulate their views in other ways closer to their own design practice.

In your opinion, what is the future of Speculative Design education?

Isn’t the idea of the future a very problematic one? Nothing actually happens in the future, it either happens now or has happened before and at the same time the future is so obvious and so surprising, especially when it is well designed. So, is it ok if I try to talk about the present instead? In my opinion, Speculative Design is in the process of accepting and working with the realisation that it is a product of a particular period of time, in a particular place, with a particular culture and values. I think these are the invisible rules (or oblique design constraints) that speculative designers need to master before they can break them. And breaking them is not just an option, if they want to imagine and design worlds where people regain intimacy with the earth (beyond status quo ideas of sustainability) or worlds where communities thrive (and not just individuals) and where value and experience are not merely measured in terms of money (or in other forms of abstract capitalist exchange). I think it is precisely here that lies the big task of Speculative Design in education today. In how to make the rules visible and learn from worlds where not only those rules apply in order to come up with imaginaries that resonate with new normal and pluriversal contexts.

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