1 The (sort of) canonical definition of speculative design is that it is an approach to design that does not seek solution-oriented projects. Instead, it attempts to probe alternative (technological?) futures. Its purpose, according to the various pioneers of this design genre, such as Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby, is to allow critical reflection through future narratives that are often mediated through objects.
In the Near Future Laboratory, we are interested in a variant called “design fiction”. This variant Bruce Sterling described as: “The deliberate use of diegetic prototypes to suspend disbelief about change”. That is the best definition we have come up with. The important word here is “diegetic”. It means that you are thinking very seriously about potential objects and services and trying to get people to concentrate on those, rather than entire worlds, political trends or geopolitical strategies. It is not a kind of fiction. It is a kind of design. It tells worlds, rather than stories. In our case, we take an even narrower definition: the depiction of products / services / situations as if they had already existed or had occurred so that we can learn how to innovate and create new opportunities. More specifically, in our work we use standard objects and media conventions (a video showing a person’s life, a catalogue of fictional products, a fictional newspaper, a manual of non-existing devices, etc.) to express ideas about future uses of technologies.
Perhaps the biggest difference in respect of speculative design is its stronger focus on artefacts that belong to popular culture (e.g. catalogues and manuals), as well as the importance of humour / irony that is present in these objects. To some extent, the way we see design fiction at the Laboratory is less oriented to the context of a museum or gallery (although our work may be shown in such places), and aesthetics.
2 The role of speculative design and design fiction projects is to experiment with change (be it technological, social or ecological) and project concepts dealing with potential futures.
In our practice at the Near Future Laboratory, we use design fiction to uncover unexpected challenges, unknown unknowns and hidden opportunities of certain changes in everyday life situations. Since we generally use design fiction in the context of design-oriented projects, we feel that this helps us in forming concepts and evaluating their implications. For instance, instead of discussing networked objects and automation in abstract terms, it can foster dialogue within the design team about the necessity (and generally the ethics) of certain product features. This approach works well for abstract concepts because it forces us to work backward and explore the consequences of artefacts or by products linked to a certain vision (e.g. a user manual, a fictional newspaper) and then reconsider the products that are currently being designed.
In a broader context, for example in the case of a public debate on certain socio-technological changes, the idea is that speculative design aims at initiating discussion. The main problem here is that the objects produced in the context of such projects are not enough; the “debate” needs to be orchestrated by designers. And that is not easy. The debate should indeed be inclusive, with a certain level of diversity (of perspectives and people represented in the design process), and with a dedicated attention given to what will emerge from this debate (otherwise the whole thing becomes pointless).
3 Considering the challenges at stake for our planet, three things preoccupy me the most: (i) From a general perspective, I think the work of French anthropologist Philippe Descola should be taken to the letter here: we need to understand how other cultures “compose worlds”, how different people (from Achuar hunters to physicists working on the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, to take Descola’s examples) “see things in the environment”, how they live together and build an understanding of the world around them. To some extent, History (how people lived in the past) and Ethnography (how people live in different cultures) are quite helpful for that matter. Curiosity and interest in those things are mandatory for any designer. Such ways of “composing worlds” can be seen as a source of inspiration for today’s and tomorrow’s challenges. (ii) It is wrong to think of the future as a singular word. Tomorrow is not something given, it is not falling from the sky as a meteorite and it is certainly more than a uniform vision produced by the Western science fiction. There are several scenarios for the future, and they have not been written, yet. (iii) It is impossible not to consider ecological consequences and implications of any project involving technology and/or social change. The new media type of design should take that into account even if this implies reconsidering the mere existence of the project in the first place.