Interview: Nik Baerten

July 11, 2020

Nik Baerten, co-founder of the Antwerp-based foresight and design studio Pantopicon: “sometimes the speculative simply gives birth to the real.”

Nik Baerten was trained as a knowledge engineer, with a specialization in artificial intelligence. He started his career as a multidisciplinary researcher at the Maastricht McLuhan Institute’s Digital Culture department. In 2004 he co-founded the foresight and design studio Pantopicon, based in Antwerp (Belgium). He guest-lectures and publishes internationally in various academic contexts. Furthermore, he is a frequent speaker and moderator of discussions regarding future-oriented topics as well as methodologies on the crossroads between foresight and design.

How connected was your education with the Speculative Design (or related) approach you are using in your work today?

Formally, my education has been in knowledge engineering and more specifically artificial intelligence. Although the design mindset in a way has always been present in my way of looking at the world and creating within it, I guess a more conscious framing and use of that mindset came later as I became more exposed to people formally trained in various art and design disciplines, professionally as well as academically (for example at the former Interaction Design Institute in Ivrea, Italy). Coming back to AI – a field with an almost asymptotic relationship to the future I would say – there are various elements in my training upon which I probably – consciously and less so – rely and build in my foresight and design practice today. For example, as a knowledge engineer you work a lot – if not most of the time – with people in other fields. You constantly have to remind yourself, no matter how much knowledge you elicit and assimilate, the real expertise remains with others. Your own role is different, i.e. to critically engage with that. Besides lessons in humility, listening, facilitation, communication and general people skills, you also learn to deal with the complexities of other people’s fields of knowledge and how that interfaces with the complexities of the world. I guess, both in a philosophical sense as well as in very concrete ways you grow muscle in assessing reality in pluralistic and systemic terms. That nurtures the deeply relational nature of our foresight and design work, both in terms of its contents and how it sits in the world, what it does to people, the environment, our systems as well as what people do with it.

Now, education is about more than merely what you studied in school or university. It is as much about the context in which you grew up, the art and culture you were exposed to, the wonder you cultivated and interests you pursued and developed. I am extremely grateful and privileged for the seeds my parents, family and friends planted in that sense. My research years working alongside historians, philosophers, librarians, etc. at the Maastricht McLuhan Institute, where I looked into our gradual shift from a mechanistic to a more organic world/design-view were also very much formative in this respect. Whether it is architecture, visual culture, theatre, literature … to me they are so much more than a mere source of inspiration. Their “educational” value cannot be reduced to any one specific influence or skill, such as “storytelling”.

On a final note perhaps, I always feel a bit uneasy with labels. They do not age well. Therefore I wouldn’t typecast our work as “Speculative Design” as such. Yes, sometimes we tap into more speculative methods or techniques in order to explore or engage people in a certain context or debate, but these approaches are always evolving.

Could you please select one of your favourite Speculative Design projects and tell us what you like about it.

That is a difficult question, especially in a period in which, looking around, we could almost speak of an inflation in “Speculative Design”, just to point to the amount and diversity of projects passing under the label.

The Neological Institute – Design Research Society, Brighton (UK)

There are many people and projects in this realm I admire very much. Dropping names here would merely make me feel terrible about those I would forget. So perhaps let me give you an example of a project I very much enjoyed working on myself and why I look forward to exploring the potential of some of what we did further. The project is called The Neological Institute and it was designed as a 4-hour design fiction performance. Participants would be welcomed on their first day at work in an institution (inspired by the work of Stanislaw Lem) with the sole purpose of crafting new words in order to inspire new worlds and logics. In a way it was a critique on the limited (profound) use of language as an instrument to the imagination of futures. So much of it is stuck mainly in the visual realm. The project was not merely a backdrop or stage-setting, it was an – in the end heavily scripted – immersive experience, a “machine” designed to actively engage people in the creative act of speculation themselves as well. The Neological Institute wasn’t merely about presenting or telling a speculative or fictional story as a design result, but to a significant extent writing it together (some of which we later explored in other design fiction performances such as “Demain’s dialogues: awakenings in future lands”). It was designed not to merely raise critical questions or stimulate debate, but also have that debate. In later projects such as Adrestia or the International Rhizomatic Assembly we continued to play with that element in various ways. Our Man & Interior project – in which we installed booths for five fictional, future-inspired companies on an interior design trade fair – was an early step in that direction, of having the conversation there where it mattered.

I guess these performative, immersive approaches, fit in our continuing quest to experiment our way towards a more transformative manner of raising awareness around future themes and their potential impacts, by provoking, seducing and actively engaging people in a productive debate and activity to help plug our societies’ imagination deficit. It is not speculation for its own sake, but just as much a vehicle for research, a reagent to catalyse change.

If designed well, speculative interventions can also increase the inclusiveness of the discussion, allowing voices to be heard that normally would not be part of a discussion.

If students asked about the practical or professional applications of this type of design, what would you say? (Or What are the practical or professional applications of this type of design?)

They are manifold. At our studio, Pantopicon, most clients are government agencies, cities, companies, NGOs struggling with either a very concrete challenge or a general sense of wanting to find strategic guidance and a compass for their role in shaping and being successful in the uncertainty of times to come. In our experience, many – if not most – want to dive straight in for “solutions”. But to what problem, answers to which question?

In this sense, I would argue speculative approaches are powerful instruments, contextual narratives, boundary objects to reframe existing questions and raise new ones. Sometimes these are refreshing, but often also confronting or straight-out awkward. They provide a format, a narrative context which creates a safe haven for discussions which under normal day-to-day circumstances might be only touched upon superficially or simply not take place at all. If designed well, speculative interventions can also increase the inclusiveness of the discussion, allowing voices to be heard that normally would not be part of a discussion: from the scientist to the janitor, from the children of employees to immigrant workers.

Furthermore, there is also an aesthetic dimension to all this. Some of these projects can be extremely poetic, works of utter beauty. That in itself is an almost Trojan attack on people’s understanding, opening up new pathways to engage with themes and each other. The use of humour and the absurd are well-known and effective tactics in this respect as well.

And then of course, in more tangible terms, sometimes the speculative simply gives birth to the real. We have seen speculative endeavours lead to new products, to new modes of practice, to influence new policies, etc.

Man & Interior – Bienniale Interieur, Kortrijk (B)

In your opinion what is the purpose of Speculative Design? Please suggest up to three key metrics for evaluating the success of a project.

Again, there are many. To reframe, broaden and deepen debates – on both current and future realities – through provocation and seduction perhaps? To serve as an antidote to the imagination deficit, to intellectual laziness, to do justice to complexity in an engaging way? It may sound pretentious, but we should at least have the ambition to elicit a more multi-faceted, pluriversal debate through our work, right? To instill a slower, deeper, more conscious and reflective stance when it comes to raising or answering complex questions in which the world all too often blindly speeds ahead. In that sense, to us at least, I guess Speculative Design ultimately contributes to catalyze change in the present, in view of the future.

As for metrics, more than a measure they often become a goal or steering mechanism in their own right. One could argue our infatuation with measurement itself is an ideology up for speculative debate. Anyway, insights in these matters are always progressive. With the risk of sounding repetitive, at this moment in time, I would say you could think of metrics such as:

Speculation is futile when it does not touch or move us, when it does not lift us to a higher plane of understanding and incite action or change.


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