Ivica Mitrović: It’s still possible to act to influence our future(s)

January 18, 2019

A talk with SpeculativeEdu coordinator, Ivica Mitrović by Petra Bertalanič and Sara Božanić (ITD). Read his thoughts and opinions on Speculative Design practice in educational environments today.

Photo by Darko Škrobonja

Ivica Mitrović is Assistant Professor at the Department of Visual Communications Design at the Arts Academy (University of Split), where he teaches Interaction Design and Interactive Media Design. Since 2001 he has been working on the promotion of new design disciplines such as Interaction Design and Critical and Speculative Design. Together with Oleg Šuran, he was selected as curator for the presentation of the Republic of Croatia at the XXI International Exhibition of the Triennale di Milano, “The 21st Century. Design After Design” (2016). He was also co-editor of the accompanying booklet Speculative – Post-Design Practice or New Utopia?. His current focus is tracking and developing new and emerging Speculative Design practices and educational methods.

SpeculativeEdu is an Erasmus+ funded project supporting education, training, youth, and sport. Can you tell us more about what SpeculativeEdu actually looks like and what its goals are?

The aim of SpeculativeEdu is to look at Speculative Design education in Europe and to improve this area by collecting, synthesising, and exchanging existing knowledge and experience. The idea for the project came from my personal struggle with the definition/understanding of this approach and reflection on/in the teaching of it. For more than 15 years in our institution (via the platform Interakcije) we have been promoting and working on design education with a critical perspective, starting from Sustainable and Participatory Design, and later Critical and Speculative design. These discussions, related to future-oriented design practices, are important now because we are living in a time of paralysis in terms of stopping the devastation of the environment and climate change, and transforming the underlying social and economic models responsible for those problems.

In SpeculativeEdu, we are not only dealing with Speculative Design but also with all related discursive and experimental approaches in the field of design that are focused on re-thinking the practice, and which are situated outside the mainstream design world (e.g. Critical Design, Reflective Design, Discursive Design, Adversarial Design, and so on). It is important that we don’t see Speculative Design as the “ultimate solution”, the “best option”, or as “only a critical approach”. We are going to include all important criticism of this approach. We will try to be “critical about being critical” and we will try to include all this criticism in the resulting guidelines for Speculative Design education.

By creating a transnational strategic partnership, built on different contexts and experiences across Europe, we want to create a framework for the exchange of ideas and approaches and develop a Toolkit of resources for Speculative Design education. As project partners, we are not a closed group, but rather facilitators. We are going to invite/include a number of practitioners, educators, and critics to collaborate in various ways on the project.

Interakcije 2018 (illustration by Elvia Vasconcelos)

Speculative Design has a rich history of developing ways of making future possibilities visible. How is Speculative Design practice being carried out today?

Speculative Design practice is very much in fashion right now. Last year I wrote an article dealing with the state of Speculative Design today. We see that more and more designers embrace speculative and related design approaches in their everyday practice. More and more studios produce visions of future scenarios and companies employ designers to imagine future trends. There is more coverage of this practice in both the specialised and mainstream media, and a growing number of publications and books dealing with speculative and related practices. Speculative practice is being integrated into mainstream technology projects and humanitarian projects, as well projects for developing state infrastructure and energy futures. There are more and more mainstream conferences and exhibitions dedicated to the future and related to Speculative Design. Even the military anticipates future warfare using speculative scenarios, and the World Economic Forum employs methods from speculative design practice for discussions about the future of the world economy.

On the other hand, the popularity of Speculative Design is followed by increased dissatisfaction with the approach itself. The critique of the dominant approach to speculative practice characterises it as “Eurocentric” and blames it for narrowness, disconnection from the real world, escape into dystopian scenarios, and an excessive focus on aesthetics and style.

If we look at student production in final-year exhibitions, we notice a certain trend: some student works remind us of “exercises in style”, referring to the aesthetic of English critical design (“the RCA aesthetic”) or the dystopian narrative structure of Black Mirror.

What is the current state of Speculative Design and related design practices in an educational context?

As a result of this popularisation of critical design practices focussing on the future, we are seeing an increasing number of study programmes that base their concepts on speculative practice as a tool for “changing” the future, something which may help attract potential students looking for a place to study. Popularisation of practice implies a danger of stylisation of the production itself. Designers very often deal with high-fidelity fictional artefacts or emerging technologies by focussing on the aesthetic of the future. Unfortunately, they often neglect wider social implications and/or political engagement. These trends are also seen in the educational context. If we look at student production in final-year exhibitions, we notice a certain trend: some student works remind us of “exercises in style”, referring to the aesthetic of English critical design (“the RCA aesthetic”) or the dystopian narrative structure of Black Mirror.

It seems that, as Silvio Lorusso noticed, the popularisation of the speculative approach among students, who use such approaches to avoid direct confrontation with problematic issues, is a result of the notion that they find future scenarios far more attractive than confrontation and struggle with cruel reality. However, outside the European context, we see an interesting attempt to overcome criticism of the dominant Speculative Design approach, for example Speculative and Critical Design: Futures and Imaginings from the Margins, a module in the Design Department of Carnegie Mellon University, initiated by Deepa Butoliya. The curriculum focusses on the practices of “post-critical” and “post-normal” design and intends to make speculative and critical approaches more pluralistic, inclusive, and practical with the objective of opening space for the marginalised.

“Netflixisation” of the Future / “temporal loop”, Oleg Šuran and Ivica Mitrović

Where do you see shortcomings and what can be done to better promote the practice and raise future speculative design practitioners?

Speculative Design and related critical practices are still developing and there are many ongoing discussions about their definitions, roles, and methods. By defining Speculative Design as a specific practice or field of specialisation with its own respective methods, we risk falling into a trap where such identification and placement inside of a “box” might put into question the openness of a practice that does not belong solely to the design context and a closed set of rules (methods). Speculative Design practice should be, above all, understood as an attitude, an approach open to various methods, tools, techniques, and instruments as well as other practices and disciplines. Therefore, it is very important to re-think the practice and its foundations now in order to be able to try answering the question whether speculative practice has the potential to turn into a new, perhaps “post-design practice”, “design-after-design”; or whether it will remain just another utopia, and become a historical reference. This is a task for all of us connected with this project, as well as all other practitioners, lecturers, and researchers, and, for that matter, students in Speculative Design and related fields.

How do you plan to carry out the project?

During the project time of two years, we are going to organise three events: starting with a Future Friends Speculative Design event in Maribor, Slovenia (14-18 April 2019) and consisting of workshops, a conference, and an open discussion. Then there’s a Speculative Design Workshop; i.e. a Summer School in Rome, Italy also taking place this year. And the final event, which will take place in 2020 in Split, Croatia that will be accompanied by a symposium and exhibition. Based on our research, we are going to produce a State of Speculative Design Study, that will describe the current landscape of Speculative Design and related design practices at the European level with a collection of best practices and case studies, and a Speculative Design Textbook, for students and practitioners alike, based on the Study and reflections/evaluations from the various discussions and workshops. An open access online repository, the Speculative Design Open Toolkit, will also be free to use and maintained by the Speculative Design community and networks.

In our practical work, we try to apply Speculative Design practice to “real” situations, in the local community and the local context, the one we know best and the one through which we can take part in the real world.

Where do you see the future of Speculative Design education?

The new context and trends require different educational methods. Unfortunately, the current new approaches often tend to focus only on new market concepts: “knowledge economy” and media specificities linked to digital media without taking into consideration reflections of the profession, political activism, or consequences of design activities. Speculative Design has a role in provoking reflection on design as a profession as well as inducing critical thinking and engagement in the local context – also providing tools and skills for action; i.e. achieving concrete changes in the world around us.

However, to maintain its avant-garde role, it is necessary to continuously think outside of any tendencies at the risk of becoming closed hermetically in its own world, as well as the threat of becoming trapped in “Western melancholy” – to be able to take a step forward and face the “real world” and initiate real activities. Speculative and critical design practices have an extraordinary potential not just for critical reflection on the design profession today, but also for imagining (and participating in the creation of) possible futures in front of us. They have emerged in the Western world, or in the developed centres of the Western world, as a new design approach with an open set of tools, techniques, instruments, and methods. We can understand them as an open toolkit available for us and ready to be used and adapted to the various contexts in which we live and act. Such are our micro-communities.

Here, at the Visual Communications Design Department at the Arts Academy in Split, in our discursive work, we re-think contemporary design practice, and through this reflective practice we continuously develop new approaches and methods for developing speculative projects. In our practical work, we try to apply Speculative Design practice to “real” situations, in the local community and the local context, the one we know best and the one through which we can take part in the real world. The focus of our speculative practice is set on the implications of important global topics in the local context; how will recent and emerging technological, economic, social, and political changes, for example, impact the context of the Mediterranean South-East of Europe.

However, from our experience, it looks like the main goals we want to achieve are: (1) move students away from the problem-solving and market perspective; (2) develop critical tools and methods for raising awareness and open questions; and (3) generate new concrete actions. All are quite complex and highly demanding and sometimes very hard to reach. This is an educational issue I would like to discuss more during the project.

Life After Tourism, Ivica Mitrović and Oleg Šuran

Who are the best current Speculative Design practitioners today in your opinion, and why?

As a result of external criticism and inner reflection in critical and speculative design practice, things have started to change. From my personal point of view, the most interesting projects are those focussing on the local context, most of the time with the participation of local people. Regarding project topics, certainly those dealing with and offering concrete actions towards climate change as the biggest threat we face today.

For example, Demitrios Kargotis and Dash Macdonald (Dash N’ Dem). In their work, both focus on involving the public to participate in the design process and act in the public sphere. For them, this practice is a way to overcome the limitations of Critical and Speculative Design. Their approach is focussed on the local level, known micro-locations and collaborations with people they know. Also James Auger and Julian Hanna and their Reconstrained Design Group in Madeira, working to improve Critical and Speculative Design practice in the local context. Auger and Hanna are focussed on returning designed fictional prototypes back into real life, and finding ways to accomplish tangible social results. In the context of an immense urban centre and possible global disaster in the near future, Superflux studio has developed concrete methods, tools, and materials for citizens to use for overcoming the future shock caused by climate change. Similarly, the Turnton Docklands project attempts to provide optimistic scenarios about life in Europe after environmental disasters of the near future. In this project, speculative scenarios focus on the positive aspects of dystopian futures, realised by means of new social and political change.

In your opinion, what do you think the future brings?

It is really hard to be optimistic today, but the notion that we are starting a project based on education (and the future) sends the message that it’s still possible to act and do things in the “real world” in order to try to influence our future(s).

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