The common reference of the speculative (and critical) design practice is primarily the radical architecture and design practice of the 1960s and 1970s. The founding principles of the radical approach; resistance to the mainstream modernist practice and technological domination, focus on social topics, re-thinking of the profession, often through a political prism today figure as the main characteristics of the speculative and critical practice. The context of exceptional technological progress and ubiquity at the time when these radical practices emerged may be related to the present technological context (nano and biotechnologies, data-rich urban environment, ubiquitous computing and so on). As the radical design was challenging the modernist paradigm as the dominant ideology of the time, the new (speculative) design practices are also confronting current social, political economical and environmental issues. However, it still remains to be seen whether the speculative practice has the potential to become the new, post-design practice, the “design after design, or yet another utopia and a historical reference.
Ramia Mazé underlines that design practices can never be neutral; there are always critical and political issues, as well as alternatives and futures linked to them.Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby emphasize the potential of speculative design for large-scale social and political issues, such as democracy, sustainability or the alternatives to the existing capitalist model. At the same time, Naomi Klein warns that the present domination of dystopian scenarios in literature and films leads to a view where catastrophic scenarios are unavoidable, making us passive rather than proactive.
Critics of the currently dominant approach to the speculative practice are characterised as “Eurocentric”, highlighting its excessive focus on aesthetics (on the visual and narrative level), tendency to escape to dystopian scenarios, vanity, and separate from the real world. Cameron Tonkinwise underlines that many dystopian scenarios found in the present-day speculative fictions (of the Western world) actually (and unfortunately) have already been taking place in other parts of the world. He stresses that the present role of speculative design is providing solutions for mistakes of the modernist project, and re-materializing, in our everyday lives, the visions of a radically different future. In an online discussion accompanying the exhibition Design and Violence showcased at the MoMA, the critics of this “Eurocentric” approach pointed out the privileged “Western” position stating that criticism could only be possible outside of that comfort zone, by taking a position and organizing activities in the “real world”.
Hopefully, we see that things are slowly changing; students and new practitioners study new guidelines and lookat new and different practices. For example, in order to offer a new set of guidelines, Pedro Olivera and Luiza Prado have published a “Cheat Sheet for a Non- (or Less-) Colonialist Speculative Design” as a starting point for decolonisation of the speculative design. James Auger and Julian Hanna in “Crap Futures” blog document their work on the positive paths, seeking to produce tangible societal outcomes. Franciso Laranjo in his “Modes of Criticism” magazine, among other stories, constantly publishes comprehensive discursive and critical texts on the speculative and critical practice. We also witness activitiesat the School of Design at the Carnegie Mellon University to re-stage “Feral Experimental and New Design Thinking” exhibition as a part of the “Climactic: Post Normal Design” event by adding works from South Asia, East Asia and Africa.
Moreover, recent Speculative and Critical Design Summer School at the London College of Communication (led by Ben Stopher and Tobias Revell) approached the practice from the broad perspective “with the criticisms that were discussed in the context of the future of practice in a wider design context than academia”. In practice we also find approaches that can be taken as positive examples of the new speculative views. For example, Demitrios Kargotis’ and Dash Macdonald’s (DashnDem) work focuses on critical citizenship education and participation. They are working directly in the public realm. Our practice at the Arts Academy in Split tackles dystopian scenarios in line with the Mediterranean approach (“from the edge of Europe”, removed from the European urban and technology centres) and challenges them from a humanist perspective.
The above-mentioned examples from the discursive, educational and practical context bring hope that the critique in this field will become more precise and, as David Benque states, will “start dissecting why a specific approach, or project is, or is not successful in its context”.
James Auger (JA) is one of the pioneers of speculative design practice. He is a former member of the legendary Design Interactions department at the Royal College of Art. James is now a researcher at the Madeira Interactive Technologies Institute and also co-founder of the Crap Futures blog, which questions contemporary design practice.
Régine Debatty (RD) is a writer, curator and critic, and founder of the cult blog we-make-money-not-art.com. She writes and lectures internationally about the way in which artists, hackers, and designers use technology as a medium for critical discussion.
Demitrios Kargotis (DK) is a part of the collective DashnDem, where he works with Dash Macdonald. Through public performance, creative social experiments and humorous interventions, their practice explores and exposes the effect of existing socio-political systems and institutional mechanisms.
Matt Ward (MW) is Head of the Design Department at Goldsmiths (University of London). Goldsmiths BA Design programme has championed a critical, contextual, and situated practice of design, which also includes understanding speculative design as a method and a practice to evolve designers’ education.
Mirko Balducci (MB is one of the co-founders of the Italian laboratory called Nefula. It is one of the first laboratories in Italy applying the speculative design approachcalled “Near Future Design Methodology”.
Luiza Prado (LP) and Pedro Oliveira (PO) are PhD candidates at the University of the Arts in Berlin, funded by the Brazilian Council for Research and Development. They are usually known as A Parede. They work with speculative design as a platform for political literacy. They are also active as critics of the dominant Western design practice.
Ivica Mitrovic (IM): Hello everyone, it is my pleasure to see you all here in Split. Let’s start with Matt. Could you tell us how do you see the state of speculative design today?
MW: I think we’re seeing a shift in critical and speculative design; In recent years it’s become far more quoted and common as a practice; it’s become recognized as an approach that can be embraced by lots of different parts of design. However, I also think we’re seeing it problematized in terms of its role and function; whether within education, industry, or a gallery or museum context. So, I believe we’re at a very interesting turning point in speculative design; one where it’s becoming far more open and known and the other where it’s somewhat dissipated (partly due to the closure of MA Design Interactions at the RCA) and problematized.
IM: Do you think it’s becoming a trend?
MW: Yes, to some extent. I think it’s become an excepted approach, which obviously has a long historical genesis from the Italian Radicals to Dunne & Raby and beyond. If we create a working definition; where designers are exploring the language and possibility of design without the constraints of an immediate marketplace, where the temporality of context is pushed out of the normal time frames of design, then it’s less of a trend, more of an approach or method. And this is why it is always, as a body of work is emerged through education, it evolved in universities, through research practices, where people are trying to think through the role and function of design. It evolved through pedagogic practice where students are trying to understand the role of design and their position within it. A speculative, critical context, where you don’t have clients in the real-world context and a manufacturing chain, you can start exploring ideas in a very different way
IM: James, you are one of the pioneers of this approach. Do you think that the methodology has changed from the beginning until nowadays?
JA: Well, yes, for sure - I still do not know exactly what it is (speculative design) if I’m truly honest. It’s evolving and like anything that is evolving, it is impossible to make a clear definition. During my ten years at the Royal College of Art we had some of the most fascinating discussions (about the direction we were taking). We always had an open mind about what the students were doing and supported the most diverse range of projects you can imagine. Of course we have to judge the quality of these projects. Our ability to do this was also something that evolved – this aspect needs to be considered when projects become subjected to negative critique. I have a problem with some of that (critique) as the projects chosen to represent speculative design might not necessarily be exemplar projects. For instance, if I take this chair - this is a particularly ugly chair. Is furniture design then bad because this is a bad chair? You would never say that. Why, with speculative design, has the whole approach been demonised because there are a few problematic projects out there in the press. Speculative design can be glamorous, you get provocative imagery, it disseminates very well. As a result, projects that shouldn’t deserve publicity are broadly disseminated. This is a continuing problem.
In the background, however, the practice is evolving. We are developing a vocabulary and generating a better understanding of what constitutes a good project, and fundamentally we’re starting to articulate much better the purpose of this kind of design - because the purpose is potentially vague. It’s very easy to understand the purpose of a chair, but the purpose of a project that does not satisfy a clear need or desire can be quite spurious and complex. Just to sum up: the problem I have is that a lot of people simply buy into the glamorous side of it and the very edgy, provocative side of it without really understanding its strengths. And this is the fear I have for the future as the approach continues.
IM: Thank you. Régine, could you tell us what is your opinion, how do you see the state of speculative design today from your position from outside, as a curator and a critic?
RD: I think it might be relevant to mention that my interest for speculative design and in general for technology started long after i had had finished my studies. My background is not in technology. At the university I studied Classics (Latin and Ancient Greek), and language has always been my real passion. Then I fell in love with someone you could call a ‘new media artist.’ At the time, he was doing art performances with mobile phones. That was over thirteen years ago and his practice was fairly ground-breaking at the time. Especially for me! But I quickly realised that he wasn’t the only one. There was a whole world out there where designers, artists and hackers
who were looking at technology, science, innovation, and progress with a different, more critical eye. Instead of being passive consumers, like I was and still mostly am, they were throwing away the users manual and tweaking technology in order to create thought-provoking, inventive, sometimes silly, often meaningful works.
To come back to speculative design, I would say that my entrance point in this field was really art. I love art. It defines and informs my practice more than design. The problem with art though is that most of the time, it is located inside galleries and museums, and only a limited portion of the population is going to visit the spaces. Either because the price of the entrance ticket is a bit steep. Or maybe because many people do not realise that there might be something relevant to their life and interests in galleries. They might perceive it as being alien to their life. Design, on the other hand, has the advantage of coming with a more ‘domestic’ dimension so people find it easier to relate to what they see and give it more thought. The actors of speculative design are engaging in an interesting and critical way with technology and science (like artists do) but they are using a more explicit language, putting everything into a more recognisable framework, in everyday life, in society, in all kind of contexts. Their work engage with transport, furniture, new ways of dating, of consuming, etc. Everybody is familiar with that. As a member of the public, you look at these works of speculative design and you are far less tempted to say— this is just art, this is purely conceptual, a crazy idea that does not relate to my life at all.
IM: Thank you. Luiza, Pedro, you are known for your criticism of the dominant speculative design approach. Could you explain your position and your criticism.
PO: It’s long, so we’ll try to keep it short. I would start by saying there is a lot of criticism at the speculative design approach that completely dismisses it. What differentiates what we have been doing is that we are actually trying to use speculative design as a way of interrogating these very problems that we see in what speculative design sets itself to do. We do not see it as a thing for which you can say — it does not function for anything but rather — what does it function for if we change the terms, not just the content of what it does. Our criticism started as more of a very immediate look at the lack of representation, the lack of non-white bodies, the depiction of women and people of colour in subservient roles. Another thing that stood out a lot to us was the normativity depicted in social relationships. The world is changing, and these debates are so immediate now. Speculative design is not addressing this. It addresses futures in which social structures are still the same, and very conservative.
For us, as subjects coming from a very different social, political, and historical background, we also saw a complete lack of self-identification with the projects. We see a structural problem of speculative and critical design in that it always assumes technological evolution to be taken for granted. It presents its own reality as something we all will definitely encounter. It doesn’t take into account that technology is not accessible to everyone at the same level, even if you take in consideration something like mobile phone use, something very ubiquitous within the confines of the so-called Western World. I’m not talking about other countries in south Asia, or West Africa, but rather where we come from – Latin America, Brazil, the most "developed", or "developing", country in Latin America. It’s still a country of such profound social inequalities which technological development is not able to address. We fail to see many of the things we know from our own histories being addressed in what speculative design is doing. And that’s where we started–we started probing into different ways of doing it.
LP: The thing is that we’re not so focused on technology itself. We’re more interested in the social structures that make this technology possible, or the world that this technology inhabits. The problem is, as we see it, when you focus on the technology in speculative design, and fail to address the politics of it. You fail to address these underlying politics that surround these things. And we see it as a problem when these reflections are not an actual part of the project. Because something that tends to happen, that for instance Cameron Tonkinwise has already called out, is that frequently when a project like this is called out on its problematic views, on its problematic stance then all of a sudden the response is to say — it was actually a question, not an affirmation. A good example of this could be for instance the building the border wall project that has been circulated a while ago. They had an open call for people to send proposals for building a border wall Trump wants to build, between Mexico and the US, and all of a sudden when the organiser was criticized, then it turned into a question, they literally just added a question mark at the end. But the problem is… when you have a problematic thing like this, putting it as a question doesn’t change the fact that this is a racist project, a xenophobic project, it toys with things that are very serious.
PO: I think the border wall is an interesting example, because it was later marketed as something that meant to use the "absurdity" of asking designers to build the border wall for "igniting debate". So they added a question mark, and Building the Border wall became Building the Border Wall? Doing so does not necessarily turn this into a "critical project". If you understand the border wall to be a technology in itself, then you start to see how this creates other layers of interpretation that you can probe into and start asking — Ok, but what exactly should be criticized? — isn’t it the very existence of a wall, or the social structures that makes this wall be though of in the first place, the very idea that makes us build walls? This project does not address these questions just by adding a question mark or even by asking people to develop those propositions for those walls. I think that an important thing to highlight is that the lack in design education of an engagement with sociology, political science, anthropology, things that actually constitute the design profession as such, and the impact designed things have in the world. So when critical design becomes the "political branch" of design, it exempts the rest of the design profession of its own political accountability. It assumes that critical design is what design has to do to be political, and not assuming that designed things are political, period. Or that the design profession is political, period.
IM: Any comments at this point?
RD: I’m coming from the outside so my comment might sound a bit off. But I find the parallel with the wall a bit too strong. It’s not clear to me whether you are criticizing speculative design or Western design in general. What or who are you targeting exactly with this example of the wall?
PO: I think one thing is not disassociated from the other. Design itself is a Western profession, and therefore speculative and critical design is also a Western profession. I don’t see speculative design as some specially disconnected from these Western constraints. I think if you start criticizing speculative and critical design, and the ideas that cause speculative and critical design to make certain assumptions about the world, you end up inevitably up criticizing the foundation of the design profession itself. So, to answer your question, yes, I think both. It is a deep interrogation of what design can do and on what foundations it was built. Not to deviate too much from the subject to a more general statement of design, but even Brazilian design is promoted as something that comes from Europe, ignores completely what has happened in Latin America before Ulm professors went to Brazil. It puts Latin America in a state of tradition and not of design, in state of craft and not of design; it ignores other things that could be seen as design as being apart from that world.
MW: I think, there are two important things to consider here. The first is about the naming of things, a nomenclature of intellectual ownership. I’ve seen how ‘critical and speculative design’ projects have moved into the world and I don’t think any of the designers producing them say; “this is my critical and speculative design”. I think the ‘field’ emerged at a particular historical moment in education, where a group of people where trying to find a position that reacted against decades of formal, conservative, commercially orientated design education. So, they where trying to do some things that you were saying, they were trying to think about the social consequences of technology and to challenge the normative delineations of technological progression. It was trying to give a human voices to the social reality of technological hype. It didn’t try to come up with an identified, rigorous method, it wasn’t a grand scheme or plan. It’s subsequently been named as this. I think the naming of things becomes very powerful and a bit dangerous.
This brings me to the second point to consider; which is about modes and mediums of distribution. How ‘the Internet’ reports this work is key, it will be interesting to have Regine’s insight on this. A large percentage of the projects that have defined critical and speculative design are students doing courses. This involves a lot of learning, getting stuff wrong, doing projects that don’t workout, not doing it quite the right thing. But then they’ve being taken and presented to the world as a type of design; a definitive understanding of a reality of a niche practice of ‘critical design’. When they are actually people thinking through things and getting things wrong. How do these projects move into the world and how knowledge is disseminated is really important because, as it moves to different parts of the world, to different communities, they are read in very different ways. They go feral and they’re not always read in the way they were intended.
Now obviously it is important to take care in the production and dissemination of work, but I would argue that these politics are in everything we do. For example, you are both engaging in PhD which has its own politics and power structures; it comes from a place of privileged, situated within the politics of ‘the academy’. All of these systems of knowledge production and dissemination are mutating; it shifts the meanings and representations of ideas in the different worlds they enter.
JA: I cannot help but wonder if your critique should really be focused on mainstream design because essentially we are fighting the same battle and there is probably an awful lot of agreement on many of the points. You said that critical design is the philosophical of branch of mainstream design… and that suggests that they are complimentary, that they are the part of the same family - with that I really disagree because as I said on the design myths slide (design is good, design improves people’s lives, design solves problems) there are huge problems with the design industry. Speculative and critical design provides a way of critiquing this industry - it is in affect its enemy or a counter to it.
Secondly there is this issue of where design happens - the ways we develop and apply technology in the West (and the role of design in that process). This is hugely problematic, in particular the notion that technological progress is unquestioned.
This is the context I am familiar with, so it makes sense that my focus is here. Automation, for example, is going be hugely problematic in the years to come, driverless cars destroying communities; robots coming into our homes doing things for us at all times. The potential implications of this raises huge philosophical questions: this is primarily a Western problem at this time and of course it affects everybody ultimately. I do not know too much about Brazil or other countries that have different power structures or different approaches to technology. I would be probably be critiqued for being imperialistic if I went there and started imposing my views… so it is a kind of lose-lose situation. What I do feel is that the questions, the critique and the examinations (made by speculative design) are valid and could be disseminated and used elsewhere. Because it is just a way of exploring and examining the world using design, through design and trying to think of how things might be otherwise.
DK: I am looking at it from an educational and practical perspective, speculative design has opened up the possibilities of how people can more freely play with ideas. Product design limited people to the constraints of industry production, the materiality and the cost implications. So the whole pedagogy was evolving around those systems and it would only work within certain countries where that infrastructure existed. Using design then in the context where it allows you to research in ways where you can be really experimental, you can be a journalist, you can approach it from chorographical point of view, you can approach through a theatrical point of view, you can freeze up the potential to play not only with the way you would approach research but with the materials and the collaborations that you might do so has democratized design language for more and more people.
It does not only exist for a minority of thinkers. I mean look at where we are having this discussion today in Split/Croatia, which does not have a product design industry but here we are exploring design thinking. It allows people to think in a way that you could not do before. I mean we do not need to have complicated workshops; we don’t need to have expensive materials in order for that thinking to happen. Today, we were using card post-it notes, markers and more importantly our imagination. So, as far as I am concerned, I feel quite positive about this development of design and less cynical about it. The fact that a few projects were highlighted as morally or ethically problematic is also to say that people are also impressed by how this approach creates such debates. Yes there is a fetishizing of this ideal design, ok, but that is probably because people like it has got, as James said, glamourous elements. But if we look to its core it’s open up so many possibilities.
LP: Well I do agree that speculative design has a very interesting frames to really look into, to really tap into the polemical questions that arise from technology and science, and so on. I would not even be working with speculative design if that had not attracted me in the first place, but what we feel is that the way that it’s been practiced is problematic. That goes not only for the projects themselves but the educational aspect of it, how speculative design has been taught within educational institutions. The critique is rather shallow, superficial. You have a student, for instance, going to a place in the Global South and appropriating knowledge developed there and then going back to a powerful institution like a University in the UK and saying “this knowledge is now in a neutral cultural context”. When projects like those are awarded degrees, you see that there is a clear problem in the way that these educational institutions are fostering this understanding of the West as the standard by which everything else is measured. There is a serious problem that I see in an institution that actually does not question a student when they make these kind of assumptions… [interrupted by MW]
MW: How do you know if wasn’t questioned as part of educational discourse or process? Every supervision session you have with your supervisor isn’t published, the tutors might have asked questions, but they weren’t taken on board, but that’s education. You are making quite specific, quite grand claims about the discourse of the pedagogy, but I’m not sure that you can back them up. You don’t know they weren’t questioned in that way. We are not talking about the awarding of a degree, degrees are awarded based on meeting certain learning outcomes... and you can look at those learning... of an institution and that goes against the practices that people do.
LP: Well, in my opinion, if I were a professor and had a student make this kind of assumption I wouldn’t let it pass. I feel that speculative design is very very behind any other discipline in that sense, design in general is very behind. In fields such as cultural studies for instance you would never be able to make such an affirmation and actually get a degree. You would never pass if you talked about neutral cultural contexts like this even exists. For me this is a very serious problem in design. This for me illustrates… [interrupted by MW]
MW: One of the massive differences with the act of creative production, it that it’s far more difficult to track back to the intentions of the work through an image or an object, so you are trying to unpack and reinterpret that image and object. With a sociological text, the intensions are explicit, identified and articulated. I am talking about misrepresentations and about misreadings.
PO: Just to be clear, the “neutral cultural context” was a sentence written in a thesis, not an assumption. It is a direct quote. I think we can go deeper into that, to the types of academic problems that this entails. For an institution, as you said, to grant a degree, the student has to meet certain requirements. And if questioning the political dimension of knowledge is not part of these requirements these sorts of assumptions become acceptable. This is a huge problem. I think the issue, more than the actual degree, is how this coloniality of knowledge becomes something that professors and institutions can turn a blind eye to. Professors could ask students to go back and to address these types of issues, to reflect on those things a little bit more. As a student and researcher you always have a lots of reviews, lots of things that need to be addressed in your work and that you have to be very aware of. If this sort of assumption is not taken into consideration when research work is evaluated, then this is a systemic problem.
JA: If this were a court of law (which it obviously isn’t) we would be walking out within seconds because without discernable examples, without knowing the school you are talking about, without seeing the project, it’s meaningless. It’s one project among thousands of thousands of projects. You cannot just pull out one example and use that to make a scathing critique about a whole approach. There are so many projects passing through our schools that do not get published, huge behind-the-scenes debates over student projects that fail, debates over the grading of student projects – all taking place in the background. In the foreground, as I discussed earlier, are the projects that do receive publicity and as a result are the ones that people tend to latch on to. I have followed these debates, I know Cameron Tonkinwise and we have discussed it personally, all of this stuff. As Matt said, a lot of these are student projects and people are still learning. There is a responsibility of the teaching staff to guide people of course. But I would have preferred the critique to have focused on some of the more established people in the field. For example, John Thackara, in the design and violence discussion, could have chosen one of Dunne and Raby’s projects, Foragers - that would have made far more meaningful debate than latching onto a recent graduate’s project.
PO: With this example we wanted to point out how students are being taught speculative design. It’s difficult to disrupt the work of established designers. We mentioned this project as an example of how speculative design is being taught without a critical eye. Student projects should be criticized, and this is not demonizing. The way that you have put things here, we have ended up having to defend ourselves more than anything.
All we want to do is to question what kinds of things are being taught, what speculative and critical design should focus on. You can address lots of things in the work of established designers, we wrote a long critique of Republic of Salivation that will be published soon. But then we go back into the cycle of mainstream design versus non-mainstream design, because like it or not this is also mainstream design.
DK: Looking at this area of design from a pedagogical perspective, I am also an academic in visual arts and design and part of my work is to explore opportunities of how students will eventually engage their practice as creative professionals. And that involves, collaborations with different practitioners, partners and companies from around the UK, Europe and beyond. What I find increasingly is how potent an interdisciplinary approach to creative pedagogy can be for the industry, especially in instances where job descriptions are vague or too general and need the creative flexibility to mould it into something from the grass roots up. Often, the fundamentals of the design discipline don’t really change; but as communications and priorities change so does the re-thinking of how to approach these mechanisms. As a freelance, you are able to engage within a broader gamma of industries, communities, professionals and that helps establish new typologies of creative engagement – very important for a time where the design profession incorporates a much broader meaning to what it used to be. Institutions need to embed more cross disciplinary pedagogy and use the learning that comes from these collaborations to establish new education programmes.
IM: We are going a bit forward, thinking about what is the "real world" and how can we act in the "real world". I really like your approach, DashnDem, you are working in your local micro-context in collaboration with people you know and in the context you are familiar with. I see this kind of approach as a model for doing things in the so-called "real world".
DK: We still employ ‘what-ifs’ or ‘speculative processes’ if you like, but this is very much in the early stages following outcomes of research we do where we discuss ideas and what underpins them in their various socio-political contexts. The ‘real-world’ you mention essentially means that the idea is then further developed with a range of relevant partners (professionals, communities, institutions etc.) who we invite to be become co-authors in the process. Perhaps at this stage there is still speculation of who we choose to develop the idea with; we never fully know whether a collaboration will be successful and often requires extensive discussions which usually focus on whether they share common values with the ideas or an opportunity to extend their profession(s)/objectives by engaging what they would normally do but in a different way.
One example is working with several community groups in Bedford to voice what they want; by developing a clear message of their direct needs through billboards in the run up to the general elections. The political poster and slogan has been a powerful tool for shaping common opinion and we collaborated with a political cartoonist and established advertising agency to develop workshops to help articulate their messages into powerful slogans for the masses. This process is quite exciting as we see how a profession or specialism is suddenly re-formatted to respond to a particular context and the opportunities that emerge from that are very interesting.
As a result, the community groups established another level of outreach which addressed a wider audience and gave them a voice to do that, and used the sophisticated advertising mechanisms and political cartoon aesthetics to do that; the workshops brought all these groups together to discuss and develop their core values which extended beyond introverted opinions and became embedded within broader discussions with other groups. There is a form of service which we provided but also extended the possibilities of how they can be more effective and empowered as a community group. We maintain the core of the idea, that is, thematically a strong interest in exploring alternative communication and education models through public engagement or critical citizenship but curious how would these function in a real world context. The outcomes stem from issues directly concerning the people we work with which give a more focused and richer process of engagement and outcome. The intertwining collaborations that take place with the participants create a ‘can do approach’ to self-belief and empowerment to act or to encourage change.
IM: Yes, thank you. Mirko, to get you involved in the conversation – you are just starting a new practice in Italy using speculative approach. It's happening in a new context without previous fundaments in the field. What is your experience and how could this discussion be helpful to you?
MB: Italy is definitely not the promise land for Speculative Design. We started with Nefula two years ago and this group of people - we are nine actually - was born inside ISIA, an important design institution in Florence. As many of us in Nefula, I’m no academic. Despite this, we are strictly connected with the world of education, university, and research. ISIA is the first university in Italy that has an entire course of Near Future Design -our personal way to interpret speculative design- held by Salvatore Iaconesi and Oriana Persico, two Nefula members and my ex-teachers. We are the first Italian studio that works with the Near Future Design approach, in a hard context, as I said before.
In Italy there is, I don’t want to say a huge problem, but for many reasons design is something historicised and pretty important in our culture. And when I say “important” I’m talking about this really rooted vision of design as furniture, or something related with marketing and advertisment: chairs, lamps, Milano, Salone del Mobile, cars, and all this kind of stuff. Those are the stereotypes of design in Italy. But I have to say that in the last 10 years the situation has changed a lot, and many other fields related to design, such as typography, or data visualization, have found a way to express themselves maturely. Also the same concept of “furniture design” has evolved, but in this new scenario speculative approaches, in the universities as in the market, didn’t find their place.
Changing the point of view, the situation became pretty different. That’s why we are interested in Arts and Sciences. Last August, together with ISIA Florence, we organized a summer school to explore the topic “living the planet as an interconnected mind” and the result, the BAOTAZ project, was exposed at the XXI Triennale International Design Exhibition. Luckily, Arts and Sciences are topics where we have centers of excellence in Italy, usually underestimated or not well promoted, especially in the South. We are in contact with museums, cultural foundations, and scientific research centers, working to spread consciousness about speculative approaches, especially when they are side by side with a multidisciplinary approach. Also, Florence is an area where Italian Radical Design was born in the ‘60s, and an important New Wave Italian current exploded in the ‘80s - let’s see if could be the right place for a new vision!
IM: James, do you think that your moving from the West-European urban technological, political and economical centre to the edge of Europe, Madeira, providing time for reflexion, has influenced your design practice and approach in general? Also, are you still doing speculative design?
JA: Good question. So, first of all shifting to the edge of Europe, to a particularly tiny island, was a choice I consciously made. It is a small island and being based at a quite important research institute on the island means that we regularly have European ministers visit, the country’s president has been through a couple of times. We are constantly meeting with big political players on the island and therefore have access to political systems, to the energy systems and so on. So, first of all, we can talk to these people, we can influence them hopefully, we can certainly start a discussion with them in ways that would be very difficult somewhere like London (where I was living before). During my first month we had a cocktail party to launch the group that I am in, all of the ministers were there and I pitched this energy project that was already growing in my mind. Last November we talked little bit about our goals and our dreams, and they were on board right from the beginning. So if we actually put these plans into practice (which is the goal), is it still speculative design? I do not care in a way - it is not something I really think about too much.
If pushed though, I think it is because it emerged from speculative design project. Mohammed J. Ali, a student of mine in Design Interactions, produced a counterfactual project based on different outcome to the 1979 Scottish independence referendum. One of New Scotland’s main driving goals was to become energy independent and allow people to become energy-autonomous, to have control over their energy needs. Mo developed a bunch of very speculative projects that looked at how society might develop during that time period. When I got to Madeira I started looking at the landscape there and looking at the energy problems. I immediately thought about Mo’s project and doing a version of it here. Mo is also involved and hopefully coming out to do a PhD. So it emerged from speculative design project but has moved beyond the gallery, and this is what I would really love to see happen more often.
A lot of people talk about speculative design being all about dystopias - a kind of glossy dark version of the future world. Of course a lot of projects do present such imaginaries - they are the ones the press like to publish because they are dramatic and provocative but speculative design can also show positive potential futures and I think that is what Mo’s project did for me. If we can explore various futures and describe alternative approaches to the one that we are following at the moment, why not try and make them happen? And that for me is the most positive outcome of a project.
IM: Thank you. We are entering the last part of the discussion with a question for everyone. I will start with Luiza and Pedro, because you have started to write something about it — how we can shape and develop this approach further to make it to work in the so-called "real world"?
PO: I think that very fact that such a heated debate happens in the first place is a sign that things are changing. I would not say necessarily developing but changing; at least, I think being questioned and criticized. Referring back to what I said before, we still see potential for speculative design to become something different and meaningful. We are trying to do that in our research, as one humble contribution to a body of other work that is coming. We are trying to turn speculative design not into a toolkit, but a pedagogical platform.
We also see speculative design as something that has to engage more actors than just designers themselves. It needs to become more of a collaborative thing that creates space for multiple futures, that allows people to discuss how they see their own futures. The narrative of speculative design is just a starting point. We have been doing that in our research, in what we call the Yarn Sessions for the past year or two. It is more about like collective storytelling and building plural narratives instead of just one single story. We explore with our participants their power and agency over the depictions of their own futures. We are trying out ways of making this more a horizontal process, a more inclusive process for all parts involved. For our part, that is our humble contribution to the debate – what the future of this might be.
IM: Thank you. Matt, how we can integrate this in the educational context, as you have already started explaining.
MW: I completely agree, I think that opening a space to ensure that multiple voices are heard and diversity is discussed is essential, but it comes back to the earlier point about some of the ways that design education is evolving. The demands of a networked world, where people have access to a different type of knowledge, a greater kind of connectivity, with a wide range of people, we need to ensure that the educational models that we have built are fit for purpose; they need to be more open, more encompassing…but they also need to give students and designers the tools appropriate to the contemporary age.
Designers are moving into very different areas of social life and therefore the skills necessary to engage in far more complex social domains need to be imbedded into their education from very early point. So I think educators have got ask themselves what context will designers find themselves in the future and how do we equip them with the appropriate sensitive adaptive skills to manage these incredibly complex ethical, social, environmental, debate, critiques, positions and ultimately decisions. Because design ends up becoming the mediation of certain decisions and being informed about the implications of those decisions is really important.
MB: We did not talk a lot about the market as the "real world" in this discussion. I mean, speculative experiences are obviously linked to experimental and research practices, but I think that it is pretty obvious that private markets, or works commissioned by companies and municipalities are a fundamental aspect of the contemporary speculative approach. And this opens many new questions and challenges for us.
In our short experience last year we collaborated with an important Milan based market research company, for work about news making and the information market, called Infosfera (Infosphere). The most challenging part of our collaboration was trying to find a common language able to communicate our results as something valuable for the market, not used to speak an “academic language”. They wanted reports with numbers and charts, privileging a scientific approach more than an humanistic one. We learned a lot from that experience, and the topic of “languages” is a great challenge for us right now. As a studio, how can we talk with clients from different backgrounds that have different requirements? I can share the same question with everyone here, asking how speculative practices can find a way to escape from its academic cage.
MW: One of the things I have seen, and maybe one of the drivers behind the popularisation of a critical speculative approach to design, is that ‘the market’ has become hungrier for ideas about technological futures. Large corporations have amassed huge wealth and therefore spend time and money speculating about where technology will go. People who are equipped with certain skills in imagining those trajectories become quickly consumed into very different job market, whether that’s in think-tanks or advertising agencies, they’re employed to produce imagery and ideas about the future.
The generation of wealth has become unevenly distributed towards a small number of technology-based innovation companies, which has become a powerful draw for designers, but then again, that has been there from the start. The RCA’s MA Design Interactions evolved from Computer Related Design (CRD) which was heavily subsidised by Interval Research, the technology incubator founded by Microsoft’s co-founder Paul Allen. This type of technology company has been engrained into critical and speculation design education from the start.
DK: Yes, following all from that, when we look in recent years how education itself is going through a crisis; in the UK paying higher fees for education commodifies what was once a right for all. Then you have pop-up schools which create fantastic programs but aren’t yet fully accepted or coherent enough beyond the progressive few. Then you have companies creating institutions like Dyson for example who will shape the curriculum to meet the direct company needs of the brand. Education has become a commodity with USP’s and the student ‘experience’ as a key priority to how education should be delivered. Student satisfaction surveys determine whether an institution is good or not and academic appraisals are largely targets with percentages. We will increasingly see education shaped like a product that will have a particular market appeal and a curriculum that responds to that. Experiential learning isn’t a bad thing at all but we will see a direct change in how education will be delivered in the future.
IM: We are coming to the end, of the discussion so I would like to ask James, who opened this discussion, to give us some concluding comments.
JA: I was going to thank you really just for bringing everyone together. It has been fruitful. It would have been good to have another one-week workshop continuing the discussion to conclusion because we will not find out tonight. As I said early on, speculative design is still evolving and I think it’s probably likely to split as things settle down. Different approaches are emerging, different reasons for doing it are emerging, and probably 20 years from now we will have some sense of all of this. It might be dead, who knows. But for now I think it is critical that we have such discussions to move things forward, to improve, to challenge, to understand. It is also important to refine our ways of questioning and challenging how things are because I see the world becoming increasingly problematic in many ways and (mainstream) design operates in the middle of that problematic part. For me, educating designers differently is critical, finding ways for them to create positive change is really really important. That is the goal I always had with this. I have been doing this work for a long time and I look at Madeira and I think - am I actually doing anything? I might just be wasting my time, creating some nice images for people to look at. I look at my sister, who is a palliative care nurse, who has got a very positive role in life and then I sometimes get depressed… But with the new project, I come back to life and I think there is something we can do. So you know I do think we can keep pushing forward - it is a matter of not being satisfied with a lovely gallery exhibition or seeing your work in print, it is a matter of going out there, being more active, being more critical, talking to more people. I think this is something we probably shared across the table tonight, but it takes motivation, and drive and not looking in the mirror too much.
IM: Thank you for this nice conclusion. We are all doing critical practice and critical discourse and it is part of out job to be critical — also about the critical. As Pedro said, we are here to improve our approach, to make it better and I hope this discussion is going to be a helpful contribution. Especially today, when we can say that speculative practice is standing somewhere between criticism of being a new agent of/for the future technological colonisation and a trend of becoming spectacular stylish cliché, i.e. “Black Mirror”.