Five Problems with Speculative Design (Pensee, Germinal, 227)

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…
In around 2013 I asked ‘What if? Then what?’ I had been through 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.
Speculative design seems, in its popular form, has lost its critical dimension. Perhaps my most major criticism is the appropriation of speculative design by the charlatan science of ‘design thinking’ and its deployment as a tool largely used for whitewashing corporate ambition and adding a patina of ‘design research’ to make a convincing argument. I’ve been part of these projects and have seen hundreds of them. Like any fad, the knock-offs quickly follow behind. However, this appropriation has meant that speculative design per-se is divorced from its critical origins. Rather than critiquing and antagonising the underlying institutions and structures that are complicit in the rampant social exploitation, irresponsibility and complacency that threatens the existence of societies, the species and the planet, speculative design used to make them ‘better.’
Speculative design traces its origins to critical design and the broad corpus of critical practice across the social sciences, art and architecture. For me this critical practice elicits an antagonistic confrontation with social exploitation, irresponsibility or complacency in the same way as a good artwork, film or song might. This corpus can most easily be traced to the often-referenced 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…
Superstudio produced provocative future images of an homogenous global society and the world of it as a way of highlighting the complicity of design culture in the social divisions that were present in the everyday experience of people. They suggested design had a responsibility to challenge, not to serve. Though this approach was biting and is referenced in creative institutes the world over, it was largely inaccessible; design for designers. For most it had no tangible effect and it didn’t connect with policy or social in any tangible way. It became an intellectual practice that created discussion but failed to spill over into the wider political discourse. Dunne and Raby, in their formulation of critical design addressed this issue explicitly:
It's fair to say that the range of projects which have connected more meaningfully and tangibly with publics and policy is greater than in the mid-20th century. There are some great projects that have had distinct effect on policy and informed public discourse. Unfortunately, in doing so, another problem in the speculative design thesis is brought to light.
What I mean here is that speculative design if often used for either 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.
This has been significantly better explored in the work of 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.
Questioning the politics of speculative design as a practice or method is useful because it acknowledges that at least it is a field that has a politics or acknowledges that designers are political actors, which other fields of design are often reluctant to do for fear of becoming activist. Here in Dunne and Raby’s 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.
The manifesto also suggests a questioning of what design is for, what the values of ‘good’ or ‘better’ are when we use these tools for ‘improvement.’ Is ‘better’ more profit? More engagement? More experience? Or is ‘better’ less engagement? Would it actually be better for a person to engage less with your service – to stream less music, to watch less television, to access less information? When using speculative design to ‘improve’ services or products the implicit belief is usually that ‘better’ is equivalent to ‘more.’ Consequently speculative design simply serves to reinforce existing design tendencies rather than question them.
Puling away form the individual design of a product or service its worth questioning how speculative design, as a subset of human-centred design or user experience is most often geared toward the interface of the individual and the organisation – the products and devices that people use rather than the systemic inequalities that inform these designs.
For example, Google and Microsoft in particular produce a 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.
This is a problem beyond speculative design perhaps and more a problem of design per se, in particular that of human-centred design. In this individualistic mindset, responsibility is the burden of the individual, given under the premise of ‘autonomy.’ This has the effect of atomising collective or social responsibility into information-rich individual bubbles where it’s imperative on the individual to improve themselves at the behest of the organisations making technology.
Think of basically every app ever made. Every app geared toward ‘improvement’ is about changing the lifestyle of the individual in order to conform to the worldview of the organisation producing the app. This precludes a dialogue about why that company are funding climate change denial because, by design, you are at fault for the world’s problems and you need to change. When speculative design is deployed to improve these types of interactions it invariably light-touches on the way the information is delivered or the type of interactions by which it is received. It never attempts to reignite a sense of collective responsibly for change or the spiritual necessity of Earthly survival.
The argument most often used in counter to this idea that, essentially, speculative design is not deployed critically or antagonistically to a point where it has meaningful effect is that of trickle-down. This is the idea that speculative design will influence decision makers and students of design toward more conscientious practices and wider critical consideration. My concern is that this just simply isn’t good enough. We don’t have the time for trickle-down effects or incremental improvement of exploitative organisations.
We don't have a good speculative design for planetary-change. The operating model of the business-design pipeline is exploiting the planet at one end and users at the other. The idea that these might in fact be the same thing would mean admitting that an operational focus on individual users and discrete time windows was ineffective design. And large sprawling change over massive time windows and shifting human/non-human interactions does not conform to the way in which revenue is reported. Again, this isn't the fault of speculative design; designers need to eat. But, under these conditions we can't to look at it as a catch-all solution for planetary collapse.
The idea that there is genuine investment in trickle-down, incremental improvement is not justification enough for light-touch or non-critical practice. And speculative design is toothless as long as the ultra-rich and leading organisations 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.

Ruche, Germinal, 227

I’m currently engaged in a fellowship application which I keep being encouraged to make and I reckon I can get but the process seems to have been made Darwinian difficult. There’s obviously an element of ensuring rigour but at the same time, if you want people to do it, make it an easier process.

Decline online is basically done

Well, as per last week, it turns out I can run python from my server. Once I’ve updated python and installed all the modules which sounds simple right oh my god let me tell you about trying to install pip. I’m on a shared server and their version of Python doesn’t include pip or any of the other things I need so I have to install my own local version. But even a local install of Python won’t include pip. And without pip I can’t install anything. Including pip. The solution was simple, suggested the host's notes, install Python as normal and just include the flag ‘--with-ensurepip=install’ But. I'm a proud man and I outright refused to take ten minutes out of my day to reinstall and so instead spent hours trying to get round the lack of root access to sudo install, uploading packages, scraping archives, wget’ing the hell out of my keyboard. Eventually. Eventually. Eventually. I gave up and reinstalled including the flag. Easy peasy. Look, life’s a learning curve.

  1. I wanted to do something my way
  2. That thing was prevented by sensible security
  3. I was obstinate that my way was how we were going to do it
  4. I lost

Look at him!

Anyway it works. I had actual tears in my eyes watching my little script run over SSH. So that’s fixed. Actually, it was quite a week after that. I pulled a couple of all-nighters and Decline Online is basically finished and ready to roll out. I followed this example to get some visualisations rolling with quite a bit of tweaking and adapting. The next major problem was trying to dynamically scale the data so that everything fitted in the same canvas. For example, sea level changes may be in the range of -5 to +5 while oil prices are in the range of 1000-1200 so getting them literally on the same page was a bit of a problem. Lucky for me Jonny Thaw here at LCC in the Creative Technology Lab solved the problem in like ten minutes with some JS wizardry after I'd poured a couple of hours into it. I'm eternally grateful to him for fixing that as well as explaining some core concepts to me that really helped.

So I've currently got the Python script churning away grabbing data. I'll come back to the front end in a week or two and see how it handles a larger set of data and if it looks good then I'll put it out there and hope that people find it interesting. I'm still always on the look out for new,  interesting data sets which will be the next thing to fix up after launching.

Writing Sucks

I met with my PhD supervisor last week and we looked over a huge manuscript that I’d pulled together over the summer. There’s about three PhDs in there and I’ve got a lot of work to do to get it into something more manageable, but then my theory on everything is always that it’s more rewarding to overstretch and come back then just to go as far as you need to.  He said my writing was really nice and he enjoyed reading it which was great but then I thought more about why I don't enjoy writing.

Having spent a lot of the week doing quite technical activities I realised I get the same kick from them as I do from playing the video games I like (RPGs and city builders generally). There’s a kick in seeing incremental progress towards a larger goal that’s very much present in coding, RPGs and city builders/strategy games. In both working on a bit of code and those games there’s sense of making progress, that I’m trying to achieve something and I’m getting closer all the time and each success is genuinely joyful. Getting the python script to run perfectly on the server was a very similar feeling to what I had when I beat the cleric beast in Bloodborne.

Pictured: me iterating a function over a JSON array. 

Writing doesn’t hold that same thrill because there’s nothing concrete about it. There’s no markers of like ‘ok that works, what’s next.’ Writing doesn’t ‘work’ at all, in fact. There’s no teleology (big word, probably used wrong) to it. So there’s no thrill to it for me. You finish it, it goes to someone they go ‘yeah, great, thanks’ maybe they give you money, maybe they don’t and that’s it. You never get to compile, deploy and test it to see how it behaves and whether it achieves what you want. In fact, the objectives, for me of writing are often pretty vague. It just needs to be done so I do it rather than wanting a specific outcome.

It’s not like I’m bad at it. I’m pretty good (maybe not on here) but when I put my mind to it I can pull together a pretty good sentence. Nowhere near Will Self level but certainly better than someone mashing the keyboard in the YouTube comments thread. I need to find a way to enjoy it, I have a lot of it to do.

Channel Recommendations 

I don’t have a YouTube recommendation for you because I fell into a YouTube hole of influencer videos as a consequence of clearing my cache for Decline Online. I watched like three of them trying to get the point of what was going on, it was mostly teens talking about the things they owned or something someone said. YouTube do have all of Charley Boorman and Ewan MacGregor’s Long Way Round on there which I watched last week. That’s still a really fun series.


I'm going to Milan. I'm around for about 48 hours so let me know if you want to hang out or catch up, I've got a bit of an itinerary but I'm always flexible, you know that. Alright, ciao.

HĂȘtre, Germinal, 227

Well, it’s still quiet. My calendar is perversely empty. Maybe I shouldn’t have told you that in case you want me to do something.

Supra Systems and the Cerebral
We had a good meeting of Supra Systems Studio last Thursday where we spent some time trying to figure out what we were about and why. We’ve got a larger group project coming up that we want to use as a demonstration of the studio’s potential and it was great to get just a load of super sharp people in a room together to hash out a plan, some ideas and a direction. It’s also great to have a whole day of intellectual discussion.

Paradoxically, the more time I spend in academia, the less time I spend in academic pursuits. Everyone has the usual complaints about the emails and meetings but I don’t actually mind the operational stuff, I actually really enjoy it. There’s a pleasure in feeling an institution, a subject and an attitude move forward and a privilege in having the opportunity to be part of steering it and that leads to a quiet appreciation the value of what might otherwise be quite prosaic activities. However, I do miss more cerebral work sometimes and it can be hard to jump out of the mindset of strategy and operations into intellectual discussion. I suppose it’s about keeping all these things in balance. That’s another reasons for redoing Ongoing Collapse, it gives me something technical to tinker with and keep those muscles active as well.

Anyway, the studio has some stuff coming up but we’re also at a point where big steps need to be taken to ensure its public and institutional legitimacy beyond than the fantastic excitement that was present at launch.

Decline online 
I haven’t changed much online (added a clock and tidied up some styling errors I found while playing with it (the perils of working on a 4k screen)) this week because of having to get a load of stuff done on the book. I got some time on Wednesday night to get the scraping script and JSON FTP uploading setup.

I’ve been playing with Python in recent projects and I really never want to touch PHP ever again so I have a new pipeline which is running a python script with Beautiful Soup (on my computer at the moment) which scrapes and compiles into a JSON file then uploads that via FTP. It works really well and is much less finicky than PHP.

I have several things to figure out now (hopefully tonight):

  • Can I run this python on my server? (Tips and help would really be appreciated here.)
  • At the moment it prints out direct to JSON, however that's going to eventually cause issues as the data set grows. 
  • So can I also set it up to send to an SQL database as a backup?
I also need to get into the grind of scraping all the sources, so if you have any I can add, please let me know. 

Speaking of the cerebral, we submitted the draft manuscript yesterday! I spend most of the weekend at it and we made a big push in the last few days to go over and over it and get all the styling and references sorted. 

It’s quite a different writing process to normal. Because we’re aiming at an audience who are designers or students of design we’re not assuming have much of a reading of critical practice. This means that we’re starting at the core stuff and by the time you’re getting into full flow you hit the word count wall. So, more nuanced ideas sometimes have to get cut to accommodate the core stuff. After re-re-re-reading each chapter I sort of sit there and go ‘Is this good?’ But then I (or one of the people I talk to almost every day) wrote it. So, is it just that I’m so used to it that it strikes me as not that interesting? Reminds me of looking back on old bits of work and thinking ‘Hey, this is pretty cool, why did I hate it so much at the time?’ Or every time someone says they like a project and I’m like ‘really?’ in a high-pitched squeal of disbelief. (This is often taken offensively as people think I’m belittling them. I’m not. I’m sorry.)

I’ve got a meeting with my PhD supervisor (the lovely Matt Ward) tomorrow where I’m looking forward to thinking through what’s next. I feel like I’ve got a large chunk of it done, maybe a quarter(?) But then maybe I’m wrong. At LCC there’s loads of organisation to do, planning for next academic year has already started and I’ve got a massive team I’m working with at the moment. There’s a lot of moving parts but I’m thinking they’ll all line up well enough. There's also still two jobs we're recruiting for so please get in touch if you want to talk about them. (Senior Lecturer, Digital Experience and Motion Design and Course Leader, BA Graphic Media Design)

Oh, I’m going to be in Milan on 10th-12th April for [accent and hand gestures] Salone. It would be lovely to see anyone who wants to hang out. 

I’m going back to Italy after that but I’m not telling you where or when because it’s my holiday with Mrs Revell. Leave us alone.