You won't believe these five reasons why speculative design can't save the world
I gave this talk back at the Speculative Futures meet-up in London and it was super interesting. I’ve been teaching and on/off practicing some form of speculative design for years and have settled into an understanding of its limitations. I believe it is an useful research tool, but like any tool it can be used to help and maintain or to exploit and destroy. I’m always a bit vexed by the messiah-like reverence it can be treated with especially by the recent breathlessness it's being dragged up with in UX and design thinking circles. So when I was asked to talk about it at a meet-up aimed at sharing it amongst young professionals I decided to try and articulate some of my concerns about the overstepping of these limitations.
As a caveat, the audience were really great and very engaged in a discussion we had at the end with myself and the other presenter, J-Paul Neeley who was a bit more upbeat but equally wary. Also as another caveat, this talk is riddled with generalisations and broadsides which further confirm my unsubstantive polemical approach towards serious, nuanced discourse.
As another caveat, the audience were amazing the organisers perfect and J-Paul was a goddamn powerhouse of changing my mind, I hope he publishes his talk too.
Anyway, our story begins…
Design Interactions at the Royal College of Art a few years previously but was seeing the difficulty of speculative design moving beyond the academy or the gallery. It seemed that here was a useful technique but it was struggling to translate provocation to meaningful change. I was practicing and studying in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis when that particular world of design was seized by the opportunity that the seemingly inevitable collapse of capitalism presented.
However, the last few years have seen speculative design proliferate in a different way, as part of the mainstream of the business of design - as service to profit and narrow definitions of 'good' and consequently reinforcing the very thing it was conceived of to critique. I’m going to deliver my worries about this trend in the form of five conceits or provocations that sort of flow off one another. They could probably use more thought tbh.
radical movements of the late 1960’s who provided an anathema to the central-planning modernism of most mainstream practice.
Superstudio were one of the most renowned of these practices and their principle, Adolfo Natalini, laid out the critical responsibility of creative practice in a lecture where he said…
dystopia generation or as ways of reinforcing, or, at best, mildly incrementing on current social conditions. There appears to be an unquestioned subtext that the European social democratic notion of 'progress' is preferable and speculative designs are cautionary tales about straying from this path rather than genuinely exploring alternatives.
Luiza Prado and Pedro Oliveira, Dr. Ahmed Ansari and the work of the Decolonising Design group amongst others. Discussion between practitioners and theorists in the comments attached on Burton Nitta’s Republic of Salivation project on Design and Violence is illuminating. Here, commentators pointed out the unquestioned political positioning of privilege when designers could work on projects about speculating on starvation while actual starvation was happening and as a seeming glamorisation and cautionary tale about change. A kind of speculative disaster tourism.
A/B Manifesto we can use the right-hand column to interpret principles of critical (and speculative, if you like) design but what’s more important is the act of comparison itself; the idea that there is a position to be taken when practicing design that needs to be acknowledged. This is something that mainstream design is often reluctant to do.
good range of speculative design but also fund climate change denial. Design thinkers can cash in all the post-it notes they can get their hands on in an effort to ‘improve’ the products or ‘better’ the user experience but the market imperative of these companies is to maintain a status quo reliant on the exploitation of fossil fuels. Good speculative design in this context would be antagonising these systemic problems rather than targeting the user, which I’ll return to later. Speculative design in the mainstream has largely retreated form these larger questions, not entirely of its own fault; Microsoft and Google would be reluctant to pay the invoices of designers telling them they are destroying the planet.
secure themselves against what they admit is an almost inevitable climate and social collapse. There is no more a genuine investment in incremental improvement through design than there is through legislation. Speculative design has failed to achieve the meaningful tools for change that we once hoped for and has instead been co-opted as a white-washing exercise for tech companies who fund climate change denial and buy high-altitude property to escape rising sea levels.
I'm away next week so no blog from me unless it's a terrible week and I am so bored that I want to brave blogger's mobile interface. Ha! no.