J. Paul Neeley: After the speculation is where the real work begins

May 27, 2020

James Auger talks with London based designer and researcher J. Paul Neeley about “closing the loop”.

J. Paul Neeley is a London based Designer and Researcher, with a background in Service Design, Speculative Design, Design Research, and Strategy. He has worked professionally at Mayo Clinic’s Center for Innovation focusing on the healthcare experience and delivery, and at Unilever in Consumer & Market Insights on brand development. His current design work explores the social, cultural, economic, and ethical implications of emerging technologies and trends, designing speculative futures that look to engage with possibility as a way of reframing and understanding anew our current state. Recent work has focused on happiness, healthcare and wellbeing, future mobility, AI, and issues of complexity and computational irreducibility in design and business. He consults in Service & Speculative Design at Neeley Worldwide, is the founder of Masamichi Souzou, an organization working on the optimization of happiness through the consideration of everything, he is the Co-founder of Parlia, an encyclopedia of opinion focused on improving civil discourse, and runs the School of Critical Design, an experimental studio focused on critical issues facing the future of humanity. He is a tutor in Service Design at the Royal College of Art, and has guest lectured at Imperial College: Computer Science, London Business School, RCA: Design Interactions, China Academy of Art, NYU: ITP, Köln International School of Design, and SVA: Design for Social Innovation. He holds an MA in Design Interactions from the Royal College of Art, and is a graduate of Northwestern University where he studied Communications Studies with a concentration in Economics.

A recent New York Times article suggested that before the virus outbreak a “cascade of warnings went unheeded”. In a Twitter response to this you state: “If there is one learning for speculative design it is how do we better close the loop, and bring our learnings & insights from interactions with the future into our current activities and strategies. New understandings of risk must change us.” Any thoughts on how we can “better close the loop”?

This is just an incredible moment we are in. I feel like the world has just learned what exponential means. And the biggest tragedy for me has been that we knew this was coming. Experts understood almost exactly how a pandemic like Covid-19 might happen, what it would look like, and what we could do to mitigate its impact, and that governments and organizations responsible and society in general haven’t been able to respond is tragic.

I see this as a failure to close the loop. We understood and had seen this probable future, but we failed to act in the present to avoid this particular branch of the future. Speculative Design is one of many disciplines that can allow us to touch what is ahead, and this illumination of possibility is in and of itself a meaningful and powerful act of creativity, but it is only when we connect this back to new behaviors in the present that we have actually changed the probabilities of one future outcome or another and hopefully shifted towards a preferable one.

The most critical realisation for me of this is that a provocation about the future is really only half the work. With Speculative Design we disorient the audience, help them to think in a whole new way, and challenge their understandings about what is possible. But left alone in that moment, the feeling fades from the viewer, the disorientation is uncomfortable and they soon ignore it, and soon get back to familiar territory and safety. If we are looking for further impact, after the speculation is where the real work begins.

So a few thoughts on what that work looks like.

(1) First, we need a deep and systematic interrogation about what has been learned through the speculation. The development of insights about reactions to and new meaning from this future interaction are important. How did this make people feel? Why is this good or bad? What are the additional implications? This learning should then be codified as principles and insights.

(2) Next, backcasting becomes essential. How do we get from here to there? Or how do we avoid ending up somewhere? People need to see this picture, and understand the interim steps that may lead us to a particular future. You’ve often figured this out in the research, now this just needs to be revealed to the audience. One of the interesting things here on backcasting, is that as the future is coming at us faster and faster as the speed of technological change and impacted societal and natural system change is almost always exponential, many of these backcasting exercises actually reveal very very short paths to the future. All futures are possible much sooner than we generally appreciate.

(3) And finally we must look to have real and meaningful impact now by changing behavior today. With companies I work with this is often: “What else do we need to learn here?” “What will we start or stop doing?” “What new products do we offer?” “How does our culture change?” “What new investment will we make?” “What new or amended strategic frameworks should we be using?” The actions are very often not one thing, but the work sparks conversations and initiatives across the organization, the work moving into various teams across the business, like research, strategy, product, leadership, etc., etc. Closing the loop is a diverse and multidisciplinary activity.

Probably the largest success I’ve had was with a Fortune 500 company who after our Speculative Design work together updated their sustainability and circular design manifesto from language that came out of one of our futures, and started several new and accelerated existing projects with leadership from retail and supply chain. Our work only really changes the future when we change behavior in the present.

More and more I see Speculative Design as this catalyst, an opening for current state change to happen. I now even find myself sometimes getting a little impatient with some of the futures work that I see. I get it, we’ve seen this, yes it is a possibility, everything’s a possibility, thank you for showing us this … and now help us. What does it mean? What do we do about it? What do we change today because of what you’ve just shown us? This is what closing the loop is about.

Closing the loop is also about acknowledging the expertise of the speculative designer and how difficult futures can be to work with for most people. Sit down with a group of speculative designers and they are comfortable and familiar with (even jaded to) a vast array of emerging technologies and future scenarios that would be shocking for the general public. We need to appreciate that difference, and the speculative designer in many instances I think has a responsibility to not leave our audiences in that state of future disorientation from our work. I have to help them come back to today, and resolve the disconnect between their current state and the future that they have just experienced.

Sometimes when I share this concept of closing the loop it is painted as a critique of Speculative Design work that shows up in the museum or gallery or in academic work, and that is absolutely not the case. That kind of work is beautiful, vital, cutting edge, important, thought leadership, that speaks to very different audiences. For me closing the loop is more about the special needs and practical cases I find with doing Speculative Design work for corporate clients and other organizations with unique power in the world, that often have a vested interest in particular futures and are balancing current state needs.

Surprisingly, I don’t think that speculation on optimistic futures alone is helpful. I’m perhaps much more of a realist in this sense, and if a future is possible, then it is worth exploring and understanding.

It is problematic for Speculative Design – an approach known for its ability to create future dystopias – when reality becomes more dystopic than fiction. From the perspective of an optimist (see our interview with Tobias Revell), is it more constructive to speculate on optimistic futures that could be achieved?

Surprisingly, I don’t think that speculation on optimistic futures alone is helpful. I’m perhaps much more of a realist in this sense, and if a future is possible, then it is worth exploring and understanding. This means everything, and I feel much more comfortable with a sense of completeness to the speculations, that all futures are necessary. When we can answer “almost” to “have we considered everything?” is when I start to feel a little more comfortable with things. I’ve also learned that much of my optimism comes from seeing work and action towards a desired state, and because of that I’m currently very pessimistic about the current climate crisis.

I also really believe in what Tony [Dunne] and Fiona [Raby], and you James, have talked about for many years, that the messy, complex, ambiguous futures are critical to explore, and I generally find pure utopia and dystopia harder to accept and work with. I believe that good is bad and good and bad is good and bad and often we can’t tell the difference, and it is important for our speculations to reflect that.

That reality has become more dystopian than our current fictions is a stunning thing to consider, and suggests to me three possibilities. (a) Either we hadn’t meaningfully explored all futures ahead of us as this current state always existed we just hadn’t appreciated it and could not see the path here. (b) Or we saw it as a possibility, but it came at us faster than anticipated, and we failed to understand the exponential nature of change. (c) Or we saw it as a possibility but collectively hadn’t been able to act in ways that would prevent society from going down this previously unthinkable path. It is most likely a mix of all three, and suggests to me that we need more Speculative Design.

Your practice sits in a kind of inbetween space, straddling Speculative Design and Service Design. This is unusual as it positions you outside of the typical academic contexts where speculation is possible and perhaps more in the corporate landscape of business and systems. How do you succeed in maintaining a critical/ideological perspective when, for example, providing design services to a healthcare group like the Cleveland Clinic?

I’ve found this in between two worlds to be a productive space to be in for Speculative Design work.

As a consultant in corporate settings I often have much more freedom to be critical than internal corporate teams. Many times the people I’m working with can individually see the problems facing the business, and can see the conflicts with the future, but it can be difficult for them to speak up as they are supposed to be “bought in” and towing the company line. As an outsider I’m free to point out the ugliness of the business, and can be very critical about the nature of their work.

Dealing honestly with future possibilities that are often completely at odds with current business goals and practices is valuable to any business, but generally companies don’t have internal mechanisms to be self critical. As a speculative designer doing corporate work I get to be a sort of whistleblower for the future, and can be extremely critical of current activities. And that criticality actually becomes a big part of the value that I can add to the business as a speculative designer.

The Service Design perspective also helps in this criticality, as I get to play with a very whole systems approach to looking at the businesses issues and can ground any speculation that we do. The work generally starts as we are looking to improve some aspect of the business, which includes on-stage, all user touch points and interactions over time, and off-stage, the rest of the business as it is set up to deliver those interactions. This end-to-end view means that if we are speculating on the future, I’m free to point out issues anywhere within or systemic problems across the business, and also have the purview to help them make changes to remedy these issues. The criticality is palatable to the business because I can also help them out of their current state. The system and service is a sort of home-context for the business to speculate within and about.

New Kind of Design Principles – Neeley Worldwide

Related to this, you teach Service Design at the Royal College of Art (RCA). In many ways Speculative Design is going through the same process of corporate appropriation that Service Design went through a decade ago (I’m thinking Uber and Airbnb). What is the contemporary state of Service Design and what can we learn from it?

It does feel very similar, and I think there are good and bad things that happen with this kind of transition. Doors open up, there is interest, people listen, and there is money for work. But it can also initially lead to a lot of checkbox design.

We often have Service Design students show work at the RCA, and I’ll respond with criticism about how bad it is. They protest, “but look, here is our user research, here is our stakeholder map, and here is our journey map! How can this be wrong!?” The trick with all of these tools and approaches is that there are still infinite ways in which they can be deployed and understood and used. As with all design there is a decision making and craft that is honed over time, and there is a real difference between how a newcomer will use the tools and think through things versus a seasoned designer who has an educated intuition developed over time through hundreds of projects.

In Service Design this has meant, where many companies were coming to us about 7 years ago at the RCA for Service Design training for their existing staff, those same companies have now realized you can’t just give someone a set of tools and they become a service designer. The tools alone generate some impact, but many of those companies have now created full time Service Design roles and hire our graduate service designers to come in house to do the work. They recognize the value of the trained designer. (And I think this will become true of Speculative Design as well, and it’s one of the reasons I think your SpeculativeEdu initiative is so valuable.)

Additionally, Service Design has ridden this wave of value creation as the world has shifted from a product to a service and experience driven economy. In the same way I feel that exponential changes in the world like climate change, pollution, Covid-19, AI, CRISPR-Cas9, VR/AR, fake news, etc., etc., etc., are forcing governments and organizations to pay better attention to the future. This shift requires more insight about and empathy for the future of the kind that speculative designers can generate.

All of this to say, I think we will probably see a similar transition for Speculative Design over the next decade. A lot of continued hype, a lot of toolkits and talk of “everyone can do it”, new agency offerings, new courses and training, a lot of bad and good projects, and out of it a broad skilling up of the design community and the rest of the world on what is meaningful in this space that will lead to more opportunities for Speculative Design work and its practitioners. It is not always a smooth ride, but I think it ends with Speculative Design and speculative designers doing better work and much closer to power.

Climate.Studio – New Kind of Design, Considering Everything – Neeley Worldwide

Of course I remember very well your project Masamichi Souzou from your time at the RCA. Could you describe the project and let us know how it has evolved since your graduation?

This project completely changed me, and in many ways still defines a lot of my practice and who I am today. I’m ever grateful for Fiona and Tony, your feedback James as a Tutor, the rest of the DI tutors and team and other classmates, who were all a big part of this process and work, which has become a defining moment for me.

For those that aren’t familiar with the project, while an MA student on the Design Interactions course at the RCA during my final year I had been exploring design in complex systems and my thinking collided with the concept of computational irreducibility. This is the idea that in some complex systems you can’t actually simplify or reduce and model the system as that simplified model critically fails to represent the system. Everything is important and the entire system is the computation. This made me realize how poorly equipped our design practices were for complex systems, as almost everything we do is based on simplification, narrowing of scope, and abstraction. This led me to question what design practice might look like if we were to consider everything, and what might the ultimate design intent of everything be.

I concluded that the ultimate design intent was happiness, and that the reason we undertook any design activity is because we believe its accomplishment would ultimately make us better off and happier. During the research I completely redesigned every aspect of my life for happiness, from breathing, diet, sleep, exercise, and material possessions, to relationships and purpose. I then began creating a speculative future company called Masamichi Souzou which would design everything in the entire world for happiness. I wanted to dream up what this company would do and that world would look like. In the end the research around redesigning my life became the bulk of the final project.

Almost ten years later I still have a spreadsheet where I record my daily happiness along with behaviors and other personal metrics. I’ve also continued to work on my thinking around New Kind of Design, the principles of and practices I’m developing for designing in a complex and computationally irreducible world, like considering everything and universal responsibility. These ideas show up in a lot of my projects and experiments (like nightnight.みんな or climate.studio), and I am looking to (finally!) have a short book on the topic out in the fall of this year.

But most exciting for me was realizing that there was no reason this fictional future organization couldn’t exist today. Masamichi Souzou is now a registered company in the UK, and we have a small team of volunteers, and actively looking for others to join, who are supporting the project in their free time (with special thanks to Elliott Wortham who is currently studying at CIID and has helped pushed a lot of the work forward).

Our very basic prototype tool for supporting individual optimization of happiness is up at mmsz.design (very rough still, apologies!), and uses essentially the same protocols that I used during my first personal happiness experiments, with simple daily reflection on general happiness, and best practices for evolutionary basic needs. We’ve started to do more in depth research and work with individuals on the design of their lives for happiness. And we are talking to several organizations about possible designs around happiness for their employees and customers.

We have also just finished up a project in January of this year, where we consulted with the Mayor and her team in a small town in Virginia on the design of happiness for their citizens. We spent several weeks in the city doing ethnographic work, researching the current state across a full spectrum of factors, and then came back to the mayor and her team insight and guidance on opportunities for changes in their city that we felt could lead to meaningful impact on the happiness of the people living there. It was a great project and they are implementing some of those concepts now, and we are looking forward to doing more of this city / citizen level happiness design work.

So very early moments for Masamichi Souzou in terms of real work, but I love that what started as a Speculative Design project has become something that exists today, and I hope to spend more and more of my time on this effort in the coming years.

Night Night Everyone – New Kind of Design, Universal Responsibility – Masamichi Souzou

Can you point us to one or two projects, initiatives or groups that we can be inspired by? Describe why they stand out for you.

Because I’m a big advocate of closing the loop, I’m really inspired by the work of Extinction Rebellion. The more you believe in and understand the possibilities of the future, the more urgency you feel for action today. The climate crisis is absolutely terrifying and we are currently on a track towards catastrophic warming and a tragic end to nature and human society as we know it. Extinction Rebellion gives me hope that collectively we can fight for a future we want and against the entrenched interests that are keeping us from needed change.

I love that we have a Minister of the Unborn in Wales, Sophie Howe. There seems to be greater acknowledgement these days of the disenfranchisement of future generations in our choices and actions today that will greatly impact them. To then have a minister looking out for their interests as policy is being developed is thrilling. I’m excited to see how this role develops, and while there are some similar roles in other countries I hope this work and thinking become more widespread, and is a direct opportunity for Speculative Design to engage.

I love Nick Bostrom’s SuperIntelligence, advocating for strong controls on AI to mitigate future existential risk. Bostrom set up the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford to further develop this thinking and work with academic and industry partners to understand and put safeguards in place. That won’t be news to this audience, but what is exciting to me is to see the institute’s scope expanding beyond AI and the researchers addressing all existential risks facing humanity, as outlined in Tony Ord’s new book The Precipice.

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