Michael Smyth: Our challenge is to convey passion through the materials we produce

December 3, 2019

A talk with SpeculativeEdu partner Michael Smyth with Sara Božanić and Petra Bertalanič on key challenges and benefits of Speculative Design practice.

Michael Smyth is a SpeculativeEdu project partner and Associate Professor at the Centre for Interaction Design, Edinburgh Napier University. He grew up in a generation that can remember men landing on the moon; he listened to the music of Ziggy Stardust (AKA David Bowie) and dreamt about a future and things that did not yet exist. He likes to tell stories – not stories about the past, but stories about our future. His hope is that these stories allow us to better understand our world and our place in it; and critically what that could be like in the future. During the day, Michael researches and teaches in the fields of interaction design and human computer interaction. He is intrigued by the space between people and technology. Michael is a Co-Director of the Edinburgh Creative Informatics partnership funded through the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council Creative Industries Cluster Programme. Previously, he has worked on European Commission projects funded under Horizon2020, FP7, FP6 and FP5 initiatives, and is the co-editor of the book entitled Digital Blur: Creative Practice at the Boundaries of Architecture, Design and Art.

In 2013-14 you were the leading partner and initiator of UrbanIxD, a Coordination Action project funded by the European Commission under FP7 Future and Emerging Technologies. The project focused on the domain of data-rich urban environments, with a particular focus on human activities, experiences and behaviours. Can you tell us more about the UrbanIxD experience? How did this project come to life, and how has European funding influenced the development of a Critical Design practice in Europe?

There was a moment during my PhD when I had the opportunity to witness architects, in reality students of architecture, creating and manipulating physical models as a way to better understand the relationships between buildings and the environment. The richness of those interactions, as compared to the screen based interactions with which I was more familiar, had a profound effect on my thinking. From that point on I began to focus on the design space between people and spaces and how the activities undertaken in those spaces create the places that ground much of our lived experience. At the same time technology was moving out into the physical space and was changing how we experience the physical environment. How we navigate, meet people and live our lives was increasingly being mediated with and through technology.

In 2008 I read the UN-Habitat Report that stated that for the first time more than half the world’s population was now considered to be urban. I literally stopped reading and had to go back and reread the sentence, just to be sure that I had understood what was being reported. At that moment I began to realise that the urban space posed the greatest challenge for interaction designers. So many people all with hopes, dreams, desires, priorities and concerns – how might technology be designed to offer invitations to their shared dreams of a better life?

I would be lying if I said that the idea for the UrbanIxD project came out fully formed, it took several years of conversations. At this point I should mention Ingi Helgason who is a researcher at Edinburgh Napier University. She and I had worked on a previous EU project and were kindred spirits with a shared interest in design and a love of 80s music. Together we began to hatch a plan. It started life as Transville, it went through several iterations as we practiced our narrative, audiences ranged from bafflement to disinterest – why were interaction designers talking about the built environment?

Transville – an early conceptual image that became the UrbanIxD project, created by Ingi Helgason, 2010.

Fast forward to 2011 and our ideas were beginning to crystallise around a human centred approach to what we were starting to refer to as the hybrid city. The hybrid city was characterised as a technologically augmented, data-rich urban environment. While urban interaction design, as we were now calling our approach, was an emergent field of research composed of three main elements; technology, urban space and people. The vision of urban interaction design was to place people at the centre of design for interactive products, services and experiences in the urban environment. In particular, how the application of technologies serve human and societal needs. We explicitly acknowledged the complexity of cities and sought to draw inspiration for the socio-economic interplay between the traditional aims of spatial planning and the quality of urban life experience. This position was the foundation of what was to become the UrbanIxD project.

The transition from idea to an actual project proposal to the EU Future and Emerging Technologies (FET) initiative took 18 months. The project had the aim of building a network of researchers around the topic of Urban Interaction Design. The approach to building such a community was grounded on a “thinking and doing” strategy and we wanted to incorporate a Summer School as a major activity in the first year of the project. Previously, I had been inspired by the format of the summer schools organised by the EU funded CONVIVIO project between 2002-2007 and wanted to build on that format. It was in 2004 as a speaker at the CONVIVIO Summer School in Split, Croatia that I first met Ivica Mitrović from the University of Split who was the local organiser. Little did I realise on that first drive from the airport to the university in his father’s Renault Twingo that it would be the beginning of an enduring friendship that continues to shape both our journeys.

An important decision for the UrbanIxD Summer School was to adopt a critical or speculative approach to envisioning what a lived experience could be like in a future data-rich urban environment. The summer school attracted over 200 applicants, with approximately 40 participants selected from a variety of backgrounds ranging from computer science, urban planning, social science and design working collaboratively on a series of projects. The effect of adopting a speculative approach introduced a largely novel method that resulted in the production of a series of design fictions that had a major influence on the direction of the project. The design fictions formed the basis of a public exhibition, entitled City | Data | Future, that travelled across Europe and was shown in galleries and at conferences. At the conclusion of the UrbanIxD project the work was permanently housed at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Zagreb, Croatia. In my opinion the public communication of research output is part of the responsibility of accepting public funding.

UrbanIxD Summer School, Split, Croatia, 2013.

One of the most personally rewarding aspects of the UrbanIxD Project is that it continues to influence the work of the participants – from the integration of Speculative Design methods into teaching at the partner organisations to the recent coverage of the work of one of the participants, Sito Veracruz, who has launched an ethical holiday rental website entitled Fairbnb.coop that offers travellers a reservations system for city apartments that support community projects. Just maybe some of the ideas expressed during that summer of 2013 in Split and the UrbanIxD project in general continue to make us ask: what if?

What are the key benefits of using speculation and fiction in the design process?

For me one of the key benefits of using Speculative Design is that it enables a freedom to explore ideas and possibilities. It is not encumbered by the need or requirement to produce a product or service, which raises issues about whether it can be, or indeed should be, incorporated into commercial practice. The ability to critically explore and extrapolate towards possible futures reminds us that many possible futures lie ahead. Speculative Design is one way in which we can navigate these technological futures as it provides a way to humanise these futures in a way that speaks to us and invites us to respond to these sometimes conflicting visions.

What does Speculative Design mean to you?

Speculative Design reminds me that everyone should be invited to have a voice in what our collective future could be like.

In 2010 you co-edited the book Digital Blur: Creative Practice at the Boundaries of Architecture, Design and Art, bringing together some of the world’s leading practitioners and thinkers from the fields of art, architecture and design. The book reveals their working processes and how they exploit the latest computing technologies in their work and the impact such innovation will have for creative practices in the future. From your perspective, how have things evolved since then?

In one sense 2010 seems a lot like today, but maybe the changes are gradual and because of that largely imperceptible. One the other hand, if we examine the context or design space in which we operate, we have witnessed the rise of the gig economy, the impact of the algorithmic age and the democratisation of technology. Developments in technology have changed both the process of design, the nature of products, services and experiences but also the value chains associated with creative practice.

The rise of Virtual Reality (VR) continues apace and at this point I should confess that I have always been skeptical about its application at the “sharp end” of creative practice. Yes it provides an immersive way of visualisation, but can it really contribute to the early phases of design where agility of mind and body are at a premium? Too much time spent with heavy headsets and unwieldy umbilical cords has coloured my judgement. But recently two encounters have left me feeling not so sure. The first was at CHItaly 2019 in Padua, when I had the opportunity to view a short film entitled The Sun Ladies created by Lucid Dreams Productions. Without spoiling the story, this short seven-minute film drew me in in quite an unexpected and powerful way. It also reminded me that storytelling and narrative are key to engagement and while content must be created to push the capabilities of the medium, it is always all about the story. The second encounter was somewhat more mundane and occurred in the E11 Studio, our new creative prototyping space at Edinburgh Napier University. I was trying out a newly purchased Oculus Quest VR headset and was really impressed by how light it was to wear, no longer connected to a PC, but more so the level of dexterity and manipulation it enabled through its dual joystick system. Maybe VR is a realistic tool for creative practice, but that is a story for the future.

But VR is just one development, there is also Augmented Reality (AR) where digital overlays reveal new meaning and nuance to the physical world. Platforms such as Arduino and Raspberry Pi, coupled with 3D printing, continue to move the capability to make bespoke devices to an ever widening audience. The emergence of crypto currencies and blockchain offers new possibilities to assign value and reward to creative practitioners. We are currently working with colleagues in Design at Edinburgh Napier University to build an Ideas Bank that uses a blockchain ledger to ensure provenance remains with students whose work might later be developed into commercial products and services.

Maybe things have changed quite a bit since 2010. Sustainability is now at the heart of creation and consumption and perhaps some of the projects discussed in Digital Blur would struggle today to attract the necessary funding to realise the concept. Data is now a key driver of innovation and a new generation of practitioners with the vision that make effective use of data to shape, develop and deliver innovative products, services and experiences to consumers and citizens is starting to emerge. Perhaps it would be timely to have a Digital Blur 2, to document this new landscape of creative practice?

Can you name some projects that in your opinion showcase best what Speculative Design is and should be?

For a long time I have been an admirer of the work of Haus Rucker Co, a collective set up in the late 1960s in Vienna to explore a new concept of architecture. In particular, a series of projects entitled Environment Transformer that aimed to alter a person’s state of perception or consciousness, using sensory enhancement or deprivation. While not Speculative Design per se, the work was designed to alter perceptions in order to propose new ways to approach and conceive of public space. My personal favourite is the Flyhead (1968) and I use this image whenever I can during talks and lectures, I love its composition.

Another personal favourite of mine is a book called Nonobject by Branko Lukic (2010), in which he describes a series of fictional objects. If you like, objects residing just beyond the present. In the introduction to the book Barry Katz describes design as a means of surveying the bounds of the believable and pressing against the perimeter of the possible. This characterisation of design as a means of “cultural research” closely parallels the aspirations of Speculative Design. Indeed Lukic views design as a way to probe the emotional space between the human and the artefact and, in a wider sense, a more complete understanding of our object world will provide a means through which we can better understand ourselves.

Chin Gym, Innovations Catalogue, Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, UK.

Finally, I do have a soft spot for the TBD Catalog, produced by the Near Future Laboratory, mainly because it imagines our futures through products and services that are firmly rooted in the everyday. Through a series of largely frivolous and unnecessary devices, the catalogue reveals our hopes, dreams, priorities and fears. Its format echoes the Innovations Catalogue published in the UK during the 1980s and 90s that sold a vision of the future through largely useless inventions. My personal favourite from that particular catalogue is the Chin Gym that draws on science to help create a more youthful looking chin, and all for £39.95.

The key challenge is how to further integrate Speculative Design into the wider design curriculum and in so doing cement the importance of critical thinking into design education.

One of the key challenges today lies in comprehensive ways of moving Speculative Design beyond educational environments and galleries. What is your advice on tackling this process?

I think that Speculative Design offers an approach to imagining possibilities, but that in itself is not new – design as a discipline has always been concerned with creating a better future. Where Speculative Design might contribute most is its focus on criticality and reflection. Moving Speculative Design beyond the safe environment of education and away from the controlled space of the galleries could dilute its emphasis on critical thinking and reflection. There is a danger that it could become just another way of communicating the brand ideals of corporations, unquestioning of their vision for our future.

The key challenge is how to further integrate Speculative Design into the wider design curriculum and in so doing cement the importance of critical thinking into design education.

What are the key benefits of SpeculativeEdu and what does this project mean to you?

The receipt of public funding acknowledges the importance of Speculative Design in education. The funding provides the time and resources necessary to design, produce and disseminate the resulting materials to the wider design community. From a purely personal perspective, it enables me to work with friends and colleagues who I admire on a topic that we are all passionate about. So our challenge is to convey that passion through the materials we produce because, after all, passion is a very beguiling attribute.

What is the future of Speculative Design?

In the future I challenge Speculative Design to never lose its edge so that it becomes trivialised in an app.*

*This future was created using the game MANIFESTO! developed by Julian Hanna, Simone Ashby, Sónia Matos and Alexis Faria.

Flyhead, part of the Environment Transformer, by Haus Rucker Co, 1968.


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