Interview: Petra Lilja

January 17, 2020

Swedish industrial designer and curator: “designers need to start dealing with other temporalities than those of shortsightedness linked to over-consumerism”.

(Photo by Frans Hällqvist)

Petra Lilja is a Swedish industrial designer and curator. Since graduating from the Pratt Institute, New York in 2002, she has explored different ways to combine creativity and environmental and societal matters of concern. Between 2013-18 she worked as design lecturer and program director of the Design + Change Programs at Linnaeus University. For four years she ran an eponymous gallery in Malmö displaying art, design and research. Petra Lilja’s design work has been exhibited around the world and received numerous awards such as the Wallpaper Design Award for Best Recycling. She is a member of the jury of the annual Swedish Design Award UNG and its equivalent in South Korea. Petra Lilja divides her time between her design studio in Malmö and the academic work as a doctoral candidate at the Royal Institute of Technology and University of Arts, Crafts and Design in Stockholm. Her PhD project is titled “Cultivating Caring Coexistence, Design for Anthropodecentric Futures”. She is a member of academic groups The Posthumanities Hub and Design and Posthumanisms.

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

My studies were conducted in three different design schools, in three different countries on two different continents, in the early 2000’s, prior to Dunne & Raby’s notion of Speculative Critical Design (SCD). At an early age, I had become interested in environmental issues and animal rights and became active by starting interest groups in my schools throughout my teens. I was creative and went on to study interior and industrial design. The biggest learning insight during my design studies was that the education and the profession as such are products of the Western, capitalistic system, which, to me, seems impossible to combine with creating a sustainable world for all, humans and non-humans alike. None of the three design schools I attended mentioned either sustainability or Critical and Speculative Design at the time. It became clear to me that as an industrial designer, I was trained to solve human problems by using “resources”, like materials and labor, without the profession’s expectations to care about their histories. As Tony Fry puts it, the act of designing is inherently contradictory. On the one hand, design is the creation of something new, on the other hand that creation equals destruction (2009, p.205) in terms of extraction and pollution.1

However, this contradiction became my number one driving force in finding my own professional path. Throughout my years as a designer this goal has taken me on an explorative journey from “green-washed” product design, to other, less commercial projects, picked up by the art scene. Before I became familiar with the concept myself, others started to categorize my work as Critical Design, since I was querying over-production and consumption through my design. Although the work (for example a soap made from frying oil from local falafel stands)2 did not intend to be speculative as such, it did possess a certain future-forward quality, aiming to raise questions and awareness but also to change consumer behaviors.

I really appreciate how the book Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction, and Social Dreaming established the SCD approach as an alternative to commercial frameworks, allowing for conceptual work by combining imagination and materiality, and I started to use the book in my teaching in design programs at universities in southern Sweden and Denmark. Currently, I’m using Speculative Design or what I call fictioning3 as an approach in my curatorial work, as part of my PhD-project. Turning to the feminist posthumanities for philosophical input is for me to find home. Many of the previous stops on my design journey, including explorations of “sustainable materials”, “cradle to cradle” and “zero waste”, did not treat the root of the cause. My conclusion is that a whole new way of thinking is needed in a time where a lot of the serious problems we are facing, like climate change and mass extinctions (including our own), are caused by the dominant thinking-paradigm, exemplified in the modern nature-culture binary tracing back to the Enlightenment. Thus, I research strands of the feminist posthumanities since they offer philosophical guiding principles for the kind of complex shifts in mindset and behavior needed in our anthropocentric times.

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

I am currently working as a curator with an exhibition called The Age of Entanglements (TAE).4 It is gathering eight international design studios, using the planet Mars as a platform for critique and speculation. Responding to what could be called a new space hype within the design field,5 TAE has taken a more critical standpoint, by asking the question: Is it easier to imagine life on Mars than to take care of life on Earth?

The Age of Entanglements exhibition.

What I like about this project equals the main challenge for the participating designers as well as the curators. It is the aim to think beyond the human. The designers use fictioning as an approach to create multi-planetary future scenarios. But rather than focusing on technological innovation, which has dominated the field of Speculative Design, they are focusing on non-human others, overlooked in the current space narrative.

My curatorial vision is to challenge the normative field of design, by encouraging Speculative Design ideas that “might better support values such as equality and justice for humans and nonhumans that have been traditionally ignored in design processes”, to quote Laura Forlano (2017, p.17).6

I see kinship and potential in the combination of (speculative) design and the feminist posthumanities as both weave together multiple sources of thought, art practice and science, which is what feminist posthumanists Cecilia Åsberg and Rosi Braidotti argue can be an “engine of discovery and alter-worlding device” (2018, p.3).7 Another connection is Donna Haraway’s use of “poiesis – the making of speculative fabulation” or SF, an abbreviation to which she attributes more meanings like “science fiction, science fact, speculative feminism, soin dela ficelle, so far” (2016, p.31).8

Any Speculative Design project requires a reflexive process but, in this project, I find that it traverses many levels because of the posthumanities framework. What I mean is, that the designers not only reflected on the issue at hand, but also on their role as designers and in addition, the role of humans. Some questions that have emerged from my curatorial engagement in TAE, and that I will bring into the next phase of my PhD project, are: What tools and methods of fictioning can I develop and use to query the current issues of human exceptionalism? Now, more and more people, including space researchers,9 understand that humans cannot survive being autonomous, without other life-forms. What are the best ways to visualize and materialize new understandings of life as symbiotic entanglements across bodies and matter?

The designers in The Age of Entanglements project have created scenarios and fictions that in different ways manage to put the spotlight back on Earth and its entangled life-enabling systems. The various topics range from proposing independent personhood for the entire planet Mars to a focus on the microbiome colonies within the colonizers.10

Generally, Speculative Design approaches deal with near future scenarios, so the challenge here is the far-future perspective. However, if we are to believe Elon Musk, his future vision of “making Mars a really nice place to be” will take place already in 2024.11 Whether near or far futures, I believe that designers need to start dealing with other temporalities than those of shortsightedness linked to over-consumerism. I challenge designers to take on these kinds of far-future challenges more often! Why should we not care for the generations to come? Even though some designers in TAE proposed very far future scenarios, for example beyond the point of human extinction, they still managed to pull it off in terms of making the project relatable and believable. Perhaps, it could better fit under Design Art or Design Fiction, but I’m all for skipping the classifications for the sake of it.

Research is foundational in any Speculative Design project, but in TAE I wanted to disseminate that part of the process as well. So, we printed what is better described as a research journal than a regular image-based design catalogue for the exhibition, where the designers were given space to extensively discuss their research finds. I’d like to encourage designers to engage more fully in research, investigation and critical examination. This is particularly important in Speculative Design and I don’t see the point in projects that focus mainly on the aesthetic qualities and end up with trendy stylized results but lack depth in terms of purpose.

So, what did I learn from the designers’ future scenarios? Perhaps, that The Age of Entanglements is not about the future at all, but rather about the present. Not about space, but about Earth. Neither about aliens, but about the human as an ecosystem. This two-year long project has been a collective learning process. Even if Speculative Design works with future scenarios, it often addresses the present here and now.

Nonhuman Nonsense at The Age of Entanglements exhibition.

What I can conclude is that this exhibition is neither a final product of a research and design process, nor does it offer solutions. Rather, it is part of a continuous process that has made us humbly aware of how difficult it is to step out of our human-centered mindset and how privileged we are to be able to speculate in plausible futures at all. Another insight that became clear in the interesting dialogues with the exhibition designer12 concerns the notion of representation. When thinking through critical or feminist posthumanities, is it correct to make design that is merely representational, symbolizing whatever we want to bring to the foreground? This is something that I will bring with me into the future, where greater change in the design field only can happen if we approach our practice as becomings in the world. Here and now, the wish is that The Age of Entanglements exhibition will spark interest and discussions. It is also a call to continue exploring how design can blur the lingering boundaries between nature and culture even more, and question the living/non-living binaries.

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?)

My main reason to encourage design students to work with fictioning, Speculative Design, or any related design approach oriented towards the future, is to use it as a vehicle to approach complex societal and environmental challenges through design. The enormous issues we are facing because of climate change make the skills of designing our future necessary! So, practically, applying the visualization and materialization of ideas to current urgent issues is the first step to making more preferable futures real. It is also a concrete way of dealing with the unknown that the future will bring.

Regarding the professional applications, design has already a long-standing relation to speculation, one could say all design is more or less speculative. Especially consumer-oriented design uses creativity as a tool for coming up with new ideas and for selling future technology and other forms of materialized trends. In its making, design predicts the behavior of its user to a certain extent. There is an increasing interest from companies, public institutions and municipalities, etc. to hire designers with these skills. Methods like backtracking are good when working with stakeholders or target groups that understand and request concrete action, however, we need to problematize such tools as they are human-centered, linear and used to continue business as usual. What if, all human as well as nonhuman agencies are mapped and considered?

When reflecting on how and where Speculative Design is applied, as in disseminated, the medium of the exhibition immediately comes up. I am aware of, and to a large extent agree with, some of the critique of Speculative Design being shown to a homogenous, narrow audience in privileged rooms like the gallery. Especially because one could question how much change is possible through this type of format. However, since my design practice includes curation, the exhibition format is close to my heart, and I am interested in exploring ways of re-inventing format, site and content of exhibitions in general.

The notion of locality is also important for my upcoming work with design fictioning. The issue of inquiry, literally close to home, is a region in the process of becoming a mining site. By looking at plausible future scenarios at this specific location, I hope to engage a wide range of people affected. Contrary to the TAE exhibition which, despite more ambitious intentions, showcases separate design works in a traditional way, my aim is to work through processes of co-creation and collective fictioning or future-making. Rather than making an exhibition, this will most likely be more open-ended and process oriented, although with an aim to impact policy makers and support community-building.

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

The choice of topics to address with Speculative Design approaches, is for me personally, what makes it interesting or not. As mentioned above, the enormous issues we are facing because of climate change and social injustice in the world call for developing skills of designing futures. Tips: Research your topic thoroughly and understand what is at stake. What power relations come into play? Is it important and for whom?

Moving away from individual projects and stylish results, what I find most interesting for the future of Speculative Design is to find ways for more inclusive and collaborative processes. Tips: Engage as many as possible in fictioning and future-making processes. Whether project participants, exhibition visitors or policy makers.

Related to both points above, the way to crank up the volume for Speculative Design is make it actionable. Tips: Aim for impact and activate your ideas. What impact do you expect the project to have? How can you take the fictioning ideas/visualizations/materializations one step further and turn them into actions?

Fred Erik and PleaunVan Dijk at The Age of Entanglements exhibition.

  1. Fry, Tony. 2009. Design Futuring: Sustainability, Ethics, and New Practice. Oxford: Berg. 

  2. A collaborative design project, The Falafel Soap by Apokalyps Labotek, 2007. 

  3. A term I owe to, and developed together with, my colleagues Ola Ståhl and Sara Hyltén-Cavallius. 

  4. The initial idea for this project/exhibition (originally called Terra Nova) was developed by designer Jenny Lee (UK). When asked to join, I contributed in the shaping of the project by adding critical feminist posthumanities approaches. My main responsibility is curating The Age of Entanglements as part of The Age of.-exhibition. See http://nonagency.io 

  5. E.g. the exhibitions Moving to Mars at Design Museum, London, The Future Starts Here at the Victoria & Albert Museum and ArkDes, Far Out: Suits, Habs, Labs for Outer Space at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, The Moon at Louisiana Museum of Modern Art and the design contests The Mars Colony Prize by Mars society and NASA’s 3D Printed Habitat Challenge, to name a few. 

  6. Laura Forlano, “Posthumanism and Design,” She Ji: The Journal of Design, Economics, and Innovation 3, no. 1 (2017): pp. 16-29, http://doi.org/10.1016/j.sheji.2017.08.001 

  7. Cecilia Åsberg and Rosi Braidotti, A Feminist Companion to the Posthumanities (Cham: Springer International Publishing, 2018 

  8. I have added So Fun, which can be needed when working with such serious topics as mentioned here. Donna Haraway, When Species Meet (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), p. 31. 

  9. For example, The Melissa project (Micro Ecological Life Support System Alternative) Led by European Space Agency (ESA). http://www.melissafoundation.org/page/melissa-pilot-plant 

  10. http://nonagency.io/ 

  11. Cat Clifford, “Elon Musk Defends Plans to Build a Community on Mars after Downbeat NASA Report,” CNBC (CNBC, August 2, 2018), http://www.cnbc.com/2018/08/02/elon-musk-defends-plans-to-build-community-on-mars-after-nasa-report.html 

  12. From a dialogue with interior architect and artist Tove Alderin, Sweden. http://tovealderinstudio.se/ 

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