Phil Balagtas: Speculation has never been more alive

November 26, 2020

Ivica Mitrović talks with the founder of The Design Futures Initiative, home of the Speculative Futures meetups and PRIMER conferences.

Phil Balagtas is founder and president of The Design Futures Initiative, a nonprofit organisation which organizes International Speculative Futures meetups and PRIMER conferences in the US and EU. As educator and futurist his events and workshops bring together designers and futurists from all over the world to teach and speak about strategies for designing for the future and the ethical challenges around emerging technologies. He has spoken at and taught workshops around the world on topics including design facilitation, digital innovation and transformation, and Speculative Design—delivering powerful statements about the importance of design and strategy to shape the future of society and businesses. He has been a Visual & UX Designer since 2001 and has experience designing across a variety of devices and platforms including non-profit, retail, advertising, and enterprise software organizations. He is a Digital Expert / Experience Design Director at McKinsey & Company in San Francisco.

As a founder of the Design Futures Initiative could you explain to us more about it – your motivations, expectations, the present and future of the initiative?

The Design Futures Initiative is a nonprofit and volunteer-operated organization dedicated to the advocacy and education of Futures design and thinking. To date, this includes disciplines such as Speculative Design and Strategic Foresight (and all the other manifestations of speculation and futuring such as Design Fiction, Discursive Design, Afrofuturism, Sci-Fi, etc.). Everything we have created and been working on has emerged through community needs. It began with a meetup I started in San Francisco which I organized simply because I was fascinated by the potential of Speculative (and Critical) Design for strategic thinking. And I’ve spent much of the last decade figuring out how to democratize this work outside of academia. As our meetups grew, the chapters and communities started forming around the world (in 2018 we had 6 and as of Nov 2020 we have 60). Once we organized our first conference, PRIMER, in 2017, we realized we really needed to get organized and that’s how the nonprofit was formed. At first it was just a legal business entity to help track expenses from the conference, but we quickly shifted it into a formal not-for-profit model a few years ago so that we could start creating our own programs and experiment with how we could continue to evolve and expand the practice.

As for the future, it sounds ironic, but it took a while for us to figure out our own future strategy. We actually hired a consultancy, Studio AndThen in Glasgow, to help us get started. We now have goals and objectives that revolve around our value pillars of education, advocacy, and community-building. This provides some basic guidance around activities, but we are really listening to the communities to see what is needed across industries to further democratize this thinking and mindset. We definitely want the global chapters to grow into more remote regions. How we get there, we’re not entirely sure, but we’re doing all that we can as far as utilizing social media and creating content, but again, we are all volunteers, so we are constantly challenged with getting enough time and support from people.

We would love to bring the PRIMER conference to other regions also. We are simply waiting for the right teams to approach us and for us to be ready for what that means. We are trying to balance organic growth without cannibalization. Some people think we are only focused on the US & EU because that’s where PRIMER is happening today, but that is not true. It takes a village to produce a conference and we have a high bar we try to meet every year and we are trying to be careful about how and where we build these events. So we need to be organizationally and operationally ready to have multiple conferences and trust the right people to take that responsibility. But we really would love to see PRIMER in Asia, Latin America, Africa and other regions so that everyone can attend (it was helpful for accessibility that we went fully virtual this year due to COVID). As far as programs, we have a few catered to children, professionals, and higher education students. We are working on finding other groups, demographics and populations to teach. In the end, we are merely a platform and hope that everyone will continue to help us build it around the world.

Speculative Futures Chapters (as of Nov 2020)

The focus of the Design Futures Initiative is on the practice via strategic foresight; however there is a whole line of inclusive (less visible) activities outside business or an academic context. Could you tell us more about those projects?

The programs we have, like the kids program, are all still experimental. When people approach us to partner or collaborate, we try to assess if it fits within our pillars and if it will be something that could scale, expand or evolve the practice. The kids program was a hypothesis around teaching personal futures to at-risk youth. We tested the idea with the Boys & Girls Club in San Francisco and found it to be very inspiring and useful to the students. When we thought about the potential of teaching kids about Futures to help them navigate social and life challenges as they grow into adulthood, it made a lot of sense and made us realize that Futures isn’t just for products, strategies, and social commentary, we could really use these methods to help kids find hope and to use their creativity to build better lives for themselves.

We’re now expanding that program to children with disabilities which I’m very excited about. When you think about kids who are challenged with hospitalization, isolation, and feeling comfortable in society, it can sometimes be difficult to have a positive and constructive outlook on life. We’re working to use this as an educational platform to help them look at alternative ways to live, connect with other kids with disabilities, and learn to have strong, positive and collaborative mindsets. So this program has taught us there are applications of these tools outside of what has been popularized in universities and media. What about people who are incarcerated? What about small villages where Design doesn’t even exist as a formal practice yet? What about parents? The possibilities are endless when you think about Futures as a mindset and not just a discipline.

Middle school students at the Boys & Girls Club of San Francisco practicing a Futures Cone personal futures exercise

The Speculative Design approach is almost 20 years old; do you think that now designers can make a living by doing just speculative practice, or is it still mainly connected with academic and research institutions? 

I do think people can make a living using Speculative Design in the workplace. We are seeing more evidence of that at our meetups and at PRIMER. But there is still much work to do to make it accessible and adopted by all as a formal and monetizable practice that is necessary for business. While there are many successful studios/consultancies like Superflux or Changeist, it’s not practical to tell students to just go and start a studio and you’ll survive as a speculative designer. The reality is, we need to take this into many workplaces and educate businesses that it’s a useful tool for provocation and strategy. This is why we think Strategic Foresight can be a very useful toolkit to use with Speculative Design. The multiple dimensions that trend analysis, scenario planning, and worldbuilding can provide can help institutions really grasp the realities that Speculative Design can illustrate and ultimately help pave new agendas toward preferable futures. This is the soapbox I’ve been standing on for many years.

For most designers who are excited about this work and going into the industry, I would say go and be a designer first and bring the Futures toolkit with you. Once you are inside a company or institution, educate and advocate for this work internally. Use language they can understand, provide data and a foundation that your work can stand on and you should be able to make an impact (and get paid for it). I won’t lie though; it is an ongoing battle at times. We all want to be true to our values and hit hard with our provocations and wake people up to the opportunities and dangers the future or alternative realities may hold. But to get paid for this work, we need to be realistic about our audience and who is willing to pay you for it. Some businesses don’t want to invest too far into the future. They want the answers and ROI (Return On Investment) immediately. And rightfully so, in such a volatile economy, some businesses don’t feel like they have time to speculate 5-10 years out when they have to keep the business running into the immediate tomorrow.

So while it seems like only corporations with a lot of spare cash to burn are the ones that have the luxury of doing speculative work, I think that is starting to change. More institutions are interested in the future (especially since COVID). The R&D or Futures Lab will need to start thinking about how to make speculation a roadmap and not just a thought starter. So, if you’re intent on figuring out how to practice within those parameters without compromising your values, then you can and will succeed and get paid for it. A bright side of the pandemic is that people are worried about the future. They are so shaken up by being blindsided by COVID that they want to understand how to future-proof their business. This is a prime opportunity to apply Speculative Design and Futures thinking and we should all be answering that call.

What is the role of speculation in your professional/everyday practice?

All I can say is that I am practicing what I preach every day. I am helping build these capabilities at the consultancy I work for now. We have a group of practitioners (some of them learning this for the first time) and it is growing. We’re training people, creating documentation, and working with clients to develop more case studies and to learn what works and what doesn’t. It has been accelerated since COVID, so that is helpful, but it also helps that there are many who see the value and are willing to assist. Again, the community-building aspect is so important to making this work at any organization. So, if you want to bring this into your workplace, find people who will help you first.

Afrofuturist author Ytasha Womack presents at PRIMER US 2019

Most of the speculative thinking and doing are still coming from the Global North. What is the perspective for educators and practitioners coming from the Global South, as well as from the edges of Europe?

 It’s difficult to keep track of where and who is practicing this work. We are always very excited when we get proposals or applications for chapters in the Global South. We signed our first African chapter in Abuja, Nigeria this year! But there is still much work to do to expand into other regions. We always try to prioritize diversity and representation whenever possible. We really don’t know if there are more people practicing but we just don’t know about it yet. But when people find us, they always tell us how grateful they are that this community exists and that they’ve found their family. I love hearing stories like that, because it makes us really feel like we are making a difference in people’s lives. But that is what’s great about the platform we’ve built, it gives people a sense of community and a place to share stories and knowledge. So, if you know people, tell them to contact us so that we can tell the world they exist and bring more attention to those regions! I would like to add that while it seems like there are concentrations, we don’t intentionally cater to any particular region. If you see a lot of activity from a region, it’s because people are doing the work and publicizing it. So, I believe the question is not why does it exist only in the Western world, but how do we find, teach or amplify all the others who are interested or practicing in other regions?

How can we make the practice more inclusive?

Do the work and socialize it. We are definitely trying to be inclusive at DFI. Regarding the practice, I would say we need to all be more collaborative and try to seek and amplify voices from all regions. And that is easier said than done. I think people believe that since we have this platform we should do it. We have been criticized for not including certain regions when we promote our events and that simply isn’t true. Since there is this critical mass of people contributing from certain regions who are actively engaged in our community, people think we are not trying to be inclusive. That is false. We’re doing everything we can to invite and include the world. I think some people don’t realize how challenging it is to run a global organization with only volunteers and not forget every single person on the planet. We have the opportunity to have this global platform so it’s a natural commons. There are many ways to connect via social media or other digital channels, so if you engage in the channels you can be recognized. If you want to start a chapter in your city, it’s pretty easy. If you want to connect with us, join our Slack channel and reach out.

Due to COVID we made our conference, PRIMER, free and virtual this year. That helped accessibility a lot. So while we still believe there is a special experience with an in-person conference, we are going to try and keep a virtual component each year from now on. We are merely setting up the platform and opening the doors, it’s up to everyone to come in and share and be heard. We can’t always find you, especially if we don’t know you exist or you are not actively engaged. You will need to do the work to join the party too. And regardless of the DFI platform, I believe being active in your community, socializing, and publishing on social media or the web are really some ways to get connected to others and be noticed and recognized. At PRIMER, when we select talk/workshop proposals, diversity is the highest priority so we are trying to help through that event and other initiatives. This year we organized a Futuring Peace competition with the United Nations Dept of Political and Peace Building Affairs. One intent of that initiative was to highlight voices from the Global South.

Whatever we need to do to help ourselves think beyond tomorrow to design better futures should be valid and accomplishable as well.

In the present time we could say that we are living in a speculative/dystopian future (climate change, pandemic, fake news, surveillance, chip in the human brain, etc.). Consequently, some critics of Speculative Design have declared that speculation is dead.  Is there (and what is) the role of speculative thinking and doing now?

I’d like to understand what the criteria is for alive or dead in this context. In my eyes, and of course it is biased, speculation has never been more alive around the world. We are making a lot of progress growing the interest and building communities and figuring out new ways to democratize and practice it in a variety of contexts. What I believe we need to start accepting, is that the evolution and proliferation of this practice will not look like what we expected. Now, some purists might be disappointed or even offended that we’re not creating exhibits with wild objects in petri dishes and dressed in white. But that’s okay, because like any other practice, it will evolve. There will still be Critical and Discursive Design. It will still exist around the world and, in some form, in business and government. It might be intertwined with what was Design Thinking or Service Design and might become just another tool in your toolbox or it will become its own specialized role and responsibility (but maybe it won’t be called Speculative Design anymore?). From what I see on the horizon, it is slowly becoming a legitimate strategic tool. It exists as provocation and as directive. Some people think you can only future if it’s beyond a certain time horizon, but those kinds of dogmatic views are what will stop it from falling into the hands of those who need it the most. It doesn’t mean we can’t speculate or use these methods if it doesn’t fit a specific mold. There is no rule. Whatever we need to do to help ourselves think beyond tomorrow to design better futures should be valid and accomplishable as well.

Now, I want to be very clear that our efforts to democratize and evolve this practice don’t mean we are trying to water it down or destroy it by depleting it of its most vital assets, imagination and applicability. We are simply trying to figure out how to use it for what it can be powerful for, to provide discourse (and strategy) and help us think about preferable and non-preferable futures. A core component of the democratization of an idea is accessibility. If we just drop a speculative provocation in someone’s lap and say, “Here you go … have a conversation … good luck!” and walk away then we’re not really helping anyone. Thinking differently about tomorrow is one thing, finding a way to act on it is another. We need to be actively engaged in that conversation, collaborate, compromise and help society build those futures. It’s not just a punk movement anymore, it’s become a necessity.

PRIMER EU was held in Madrid, Spain in 2019



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