Speculative Design ecosystem (via social networks)

Image 1 : topics

January 7, 2019

A brief inquiry of the Speculative Design ecosystem using social networks by Salvatore Iaconesi.

One of the objectives of the SpeculativeEdu project is to understand how different subjects, universities, communities and networks define practices such as Speculative Design, Design Fiction, Near Future Design and others. These different definitions shape the methodologies and practices which these subjects and groups use in their work, and they also influence how collaborations appear.

For this reason, we have started to ask ourselves which methods could be used to collect evidence about all the different understandings of these practices, to be able to have sufficient data to compose a map. Among more traditional methods, such as desk research, questionnaires and data collection forms, we chose to experiment with using social media to contribute to the data.

For this, we used a series of open tools which Human Ecosystems Relazioni, one of the partners of the SpeculativeEdu consortium, uses in their work, to start a data collection on social networks such as Twitter and Instagram.

We configured the tools in very simple ways to collect data about public social media content which explicitly mentions “Speculative Design”, “Design Fiction”, “Near Future Design” and a couple of other name variations, which we keep progressively updated as we discover new terminology through our research. With this approach we have discovered (and are still in the process of discovering) a number of interesting facts which we wanted to share.


What do people talk about when they talk about Speculative Design?

We have tried to understand this by using Natural Language Processing techniques to detect the topics of discussions related to these design practices.

Image 1 : topics

Image 1: the topics of the discussions on Speculative Design (click HERE to see a larger version of the image)

Image 1 shows a bubble graph of the topics of discussion, obtained by taking the hashtags which are most recurrent in social media posts, aggregating similar ones together, and giving each bubble a size which is proportional to the number of times it has appeared.

“Design Fiction” and “Speculative Design” are the two most common terms with which subjects address these practices. Other terms also appear, although in much lower numbers, such as “Design Ethics”, “Design Thinking”, “Service Design” and “UX Design”.

During the data capture several important Speculative Design-related events took place, and this clearly shows in the results. Not only are these events useful to understanding what is happening in the Speculative Design ecosystem – they are also important for grasping what these events and communities focus on, what methods they promote, how they get people engaged and what their impacts are, leading to a deeper understanding of phenomena across education, industry, civic actions and institutional strategies.

For example, from 14-16 December 2018 the MindFHack event was held in Lyon. Its communication strategy was particularly well designed, so that it was able to clearly show what kind of communities it was able to engage, and to provide usable hooks to measure impacts and effects. As a result, the “mindfhack” topic appears remarkably large in the data capture image, reflecting the event’s evident impact.

Other initiatives took place during this timeframe, such as AP2042 (Action Publique 2042), which used Design Fiction approaches to address “future human life” scenarios and “transhumanism”, or the Design Up conference, in which Future Studies and Design Fiction were two prominent topics for discussion.

Another useful thing that we can see in Image 1 is evidence of the topics to which Speculative Design approaches are being applied. They are many and range from education to genetics, innovative uses of AI, the future of work, climate change, the role of robots in our society, healthcare, food, energy, democracy and more.

From the data we can also try to understand how Speculative Design-related themes are diffused in different countries and cultures, for example by looking at the languages in which these public messages are written. The majority of messages are in English, which is also used as “lingua franca”, meaning that most of the messages are written in English not only because the writers are English speakers, but also to address international communities. French closely follows English, thus confirming the large popularity that Design Fiction and Speculative Design are currently having in France. German, Spanish, Italian, Dutch, Polish and Japanese are next, and this completes the majority of the ecosystem.


Image 2 communities - small version

Image 2: the communities of Speculative Design (click HERE to see a larger version of the image)

Image 2 shows the communities which have formed around the different Speculative Design practices. Each node of the network in the image is a subject (for example a single designer or an organization). If two nodes are connected it means that they have interacted with each other on social networks (for example by mentioning one another, or by sharing the same content).

As we can see in the image, there is a larger cluster of 11 communities that are closely connected and, besides these, there are a little less than 30 communities overall. This of course does not mean that these subjects and communities are the only ones which deal with Speculative Design and related practices, but rather that these are the ones that have discussed this theme on social networks since we started collecting data at the beginning of October 2018.

The central cluster of subjects and communities which is visible in Image 2 is composed of several of the most prominent groups dealing with Speculative Design practices internationally.

Among these, the first effects of the SpeculativeEdu project are visible, in purple, as the interactions between project partners create their first manifestations on social networks. As the project goes on, consortium partners such as Interakcije, Crapfutures, Design Friction, Plurality University, and all of the other partners and their connections will start sharing and interacting, and tighter connections will start to form.

Other clusters, not connected to the central ones, show events as they appear on the relational map (for example the ones we have already highlighted in the previous part of this post), as well as other smaller tribes and communities.

Why is this important and what we will do next?

This kind of analysis is important because it allows the consortium to use social network to discover subjects and practices which may be unknown to us. For example, using this technique it is simpler to explore what people in other places, using other languages, and working in other industries are up to regarding Speculative Design. Around which topics are they operating? Using which methodologies and tools? Collaborating with whom? Organizing which events?

On top of that, by knowing who these people and organizations are, it is possible for us to get in touch with them, engage them in our research, ask them for information and advice, and share with them our results and the possibility of connecting to wider communities.

This is also very important for us, because we can position ourselves within the relational ecosystem of Speculative Design – to understand our similarities and differences with other diverse approaches, to see who we are collaborating with and who we could collaborate with next.

We will take snapshots of this data periodically during the whole duration of the project, to observe and evaluate how the situation changes. Have new relationships and collaborations started through the SpeculativeEdu project? Have the communities expanded? Is Speculative Design being used to address more or fewer issues than before? Are industries and companies more or less aware of the uses of Speculative Design than before we started?

These and similar questions are the ones we will try to answer by the end of the project.

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