What is speculative design?

If someone has explained the term speculative design to you before, you’re not alone in feeling confused. Speculative design is relatively new, meaning it has a variety of different terms; critical design, design fiction and disruptive design to name a few. It’s defining qualities that set’s it apart from more traditional design is its emphasis on future thinking.

Most design methods build off the current technology and culture of the time, with the objective to develop ‘products’ or ‘solutions’ that address current demand, or shortly in the future. Speculative design speculates multiple aspects of the future and creates narratives to act as the bases for design.

For most of us, we don’t live in the future. However, as many Sci-Fi films have told us, knowing the future ultimately changes it. Speculative design doesn’t claim to act as a future forecasting process, but it does offer the opportunity to speculate how multiple futures could play out. It’s this loose, playful way that speculative design gives you the ability to think divergently upon the future of business, culture, politics and the environment.

How can speculative design be used as a method for innovation?

Innovation on a whole suffers from our cultural ability to see only in the short-term. This is simply because the ‘future’ is unknowable and intangible. Speculative design offers businesses and public sector to creatively approach understanding the future and giving guidance to innovation. Put simply, if your following a vision it’s easier to develop technology to enable it.

Speculative design applications don’t end there. Creating artefacts of the future can ultimately change our behaviour. This is where the line blurs between art and design. Here design is being used to structure how people think and feel about the future. Artefacts are created to inspire critical thinking and provide a bases for discussion.

For most businesses thinking creatively about the future 5 years from now is difficult. Businesses use speculative design to think 5 – 10 – 20 years into the future, but why stop there? For public sector, they need to be thinking generations ahead with their policy making, not just what might benefit some people now.

The dangers of speculative design

Speculative design sometimes works by provoking emotions in people on culturally sensitive topics. The responses to speculative design can, and usually are, unpredictable with rare unintended negative effects. For artists this is part of the job, but with governments and businesses this can be a costly and damaging risk. Alternatively, if not done correctly meanings can be misinterpreted and have the directly opposite effect you intended.

The main danger with speculative design is simply who is using it and why. Like propaganda, it can be used to manipulate opinions and alter perspectives for immoral reasons. I know this sounds like ‘Inception’ but take comfort in the knowledge that speculative design on its own is usually dismissed as simple artistic representation.

Examples of speculative design

Speculative design isn’t just a theoretical process, it’s already being used in government and entertainment. The application of speculative design varies greatly and doesn’t have fixed outcomes, meaning good examples are rare. Please see the links below for examples and if you have the time, watch ‘Black Mirror’. Alternatively, good books to read are also listed below.

Reflections on education, skills and forecasting futures – UK Gov

https://openpolicy.blog.gov.uk/2016/06/20/reflections-on-education-skills-and-forecasting-futures/

Anab Jain -Ted Talk

Black Mirror

https://www.netflix.com/gb/title/70264888

Books

Dunne and Raby: Speculative Everything

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Speculative-Everything-Design-Fiction-Dreaming/dp/0262019841

Critical Design in Context: History, Theory, and Practices

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Critical-Design-Context-History-Practices/dp/1472575172

Where might it go in the future

For the moment speculative design is being mostly used for research and experimental policy projects. However, speculative design has the tools we need for development of policy in conjunction with design thinking, such as human-centred design. We can expect businesses realising it’s potential to sell longer-term products and ideals. Hopefully we can see speculative design becoming one of the many techniques to navigate our direction as a species. Or at bare minimum we get more Black Mirror episodes.

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