Training for the Future
Designing the future: Speculative Design
Designing for the future is like having your own time machine. You will be tempted to fly to Utopia, but you will find it is necessary to stop by at Dystopia for a short visit, to create your Neutropia.
If this idea excites you, let me introduce you to the gadget that can fuel your time machine: speculative design.
This mind-blowing practice of speculative design will give you a sneak peek of the future you are about to visit, almost like a movie trailer. It will prepare you to watch the movie, or at least help you imagine how it might be.
The Taxonomy of futures from Speculative Everything helped changed my perspective of the future, and this way of thinking about multiple futures changed the way I approached the design process.
There are millions of variables at stake and it can be nearly impossible to predict the future for one simple reason: the future does not exist. There are many futures competing to exist, and it all depends on the millions of choices that we make every day.
The only thing that we can do is to observe the signs that occur now and look for the stories of tomorrow, and speculative design teaches us to do just that.
“It is the backdrop that interests us, not the narrative; the values of the society the story takes place in rather than the plot and characters.”(Dunne and Raby, 2014,p.75)
This line from the book helped me wrap my head around this design methodology.
Service designers try to detail every aspect of our design, the more we detail, the more we know the idea has legs. We create journey maps and intricate service blueprints. But this radical approach to design teaches us to express our design proposals through design artifacts and physical props, aiming to bring the story closer to our own world.
This trend doesn't imply that speculative design should replace the regular Design Thinking practice. They both serve different purposes, with one aiming to show the problem, and one to solve the problem.
Speculative design can help reveal certain aspects of reality that we weren't aware of before, and once it’s revealed, it is so obvious that it cannot be ignored.
Research Through Design (RtD) Methodology
This terminology was introduced by Christopher Frayling in his paper Research in Art and Design in 1993, and is described as “practice-based inquiry that generates transferrable knowledge.”
In my understanding, RtD is about the creation of knowledge, and not necessarily design. Of course, design is an essential part of it, but as long as it is instrumental to the study of something else — a resource for the production of new knowledge.
For me, research has always been the process that would help me come to a conclusion, that is backed by data. Now I was introduced to the idea of research whose purpose is to induce further knowledge that others can use to design other areas.
And how exactly can we do that?
This question was very eloquently answered in Design Research Through Practice:
“People listen to other people, influence them, pay attention to things others see as important and mold their opinions on things like ethics based on these social influences.” (Koskinen, 2012,p.144)
We as designers have always tried to bring social context into the design by creating storyboards and other visuals, with the aim to define the behaviour of a service. We create characters who live in this context and come up with many stories about them to imagine new behaviours that can help improve their lives.
Basically “people experience things together.”
This highlights the importance of creating future artifacts, something that can act as a door to the world that you are trying to create, so everyone can experience it together.
This methodology, combined with speculative design is like a match made in heaven.Speculative design makes you ask the “whys”, and RtD helps you express your thoughts, to further create more thoughts.
Southwark and Sustainability
Southwark Council, a local government organisation in the London Borough of Southwark, came to our cohort in MA Service Design at the University of the Arts London, with a brief to bring carbon neutrality in the district by 2030. Their objectives were to reduce carbon emissions across the key areas of Building Constructions & Energy, Transportation, Biodiversity, and Consumption. My team chose the area of Building Constructions & Energy, due to the large scale of emissions belonging to this sector.
We found that 86% of the borough’s emissions were not within the direct control of the council, with about 30% emissions coming from housing and construction.
This was an interesting brief for all of us, as in the past we have all been accustomed to analysing in-depth systemic issues to propose contextual solutions to solve them. It was more short-term in nature. But this unit demanded us to not just look at the interdependent systems, but also sneak around the past, present, and the future to come to a conclusion. It involved us questioning every systemic activity that has been happening now, or in the past, to form the foundation for our forecast.
We mapped a horizon scanning of the chosen area and identified news articles, technological innovations, behavioral problems, political agendas, and trends. This helped us get a sense of the ever-dependent systemic behaviour, and how no aspect of it can survive alone. Doing this served as a visual reminder that one cannot work in an independent silo and that any change in one sector causes a butterfly effect through all.
Having never used this methodology before, I could witness how this helped detect early signs of potential problems, risks, and developments and helped challenge my past assumptions.
Based on the current and forecasted trends, we mapped an all-new world set in 2030. Backed by our research, we forecasted that in our preferrable world local products will be extremely important, there will be a rise in immunity building practices as people become more health-conscious, there will be ruralisation as people move away from the city due to remote working, technology innovations will create a rise in new technical roles and creation of new positions, and some element of public shaming can occur if one does not abide by climate-friendly actions.
Creating this world, we kept in mind to steal trends not only from the utopian world, but also from the dystopian world, and represented the same as a mood board.
Looking back at the world we created, I realise that nothing we proposed was random, even though we may not have fact-checked every single forecast. And the same time if I showed this mood board to anyone, they would never guess it represents a world 10 years from now. No sci-fi cars or floating buildings, but things that have partially begun to happen, but will swing into full force in a decade. So is the future just a myth that we tell ourselves? Or did we not speculative deep enough?
After the briefing digest and understanding of the current and future scenario, the time came to create an object depicting our future service that can start a conversation.
The Future Service Scenario
We asked ourselves “What if all Construction and Energy professionals had to be proficient in green & sustainable approaches to energy and construction?”
This provocation came from learning about the new technologies and infrastructures being introduced to lower carbon emissions in buildings and apartments.
We found that despite all these advancements in this field, not many professionals are trained for these technical jobs.
15% 0f the UK’s total carbon emissions come from the energy we use to heat our homes.
78% of UK adults want to play a part in reaching the UK’s net zero goals.
1.6m gas boilers were installed in a year, compared to just 20,000 heat pumps.Without training, gas installers are not able to explain the options for low carbon heat objectively to householders and install them effectively.
The concept is about up-skilling and training Southwark professionals from the field of Construction and Energy (like electricians, plumbers, gas experts, Home repairers, etc.) as a way of ensuring that they include sustainable practices in their jobs.
A mandatory “green license” guarantees that professional has been trained with skills to keep up with the increasing demand for sustainable energy and construction alternatives. Under the guidelines of this license, these workers will be legally bound to offer green and sustainable technologies as the first choice for any customer.
Does a local council have the authority to do this? Can this be done on a national scale? How do we define at what level a professional is profficient enough to apply for this? Does the professional have to pass a local/national examination?
How do we incentivise the universities to create such short modules? Will they be able to keep the education cost low so these professionals can actually afford it? Now that education is moving online, can these benefit virtual students? Who makes the course format to ensure maximum practical training? Can universities partner with organisations?
Will tagging “green experts” on online service platforms change the way consumers hire these professionals? Will there be creation of new emerging roles in the industry? Will there be new recruitement trends? Will online service platforms promote such trend?
Professionals legally required to offer a greener substitute first.
Can such a national or local law be passed? How will the energy companies react to this development? Will gas or other fossil dependent organisations hire these “green experts”? How will that change the way the company functions?
Stakeholder and Responses
Testing reactions and gathering feedback is an important aspect of RtD. Showing our concepts at the early stage helped gauge reactions from our important stakeholders.
“ When I was moving houses, I asked for an electrified kitchen, but the technician did not know how to do that and even I had very little knowledge about it so eventually I settled for Gas.”
“People just expect us to know all about the new kinds of appliances in the market, but we just stick to what we know and have been doing for years.”
“We have been getting so many sustainability-oriented projects, so we will definitely prioritise people who have some special, niche expertise in this area.”
Local Business owners:
“Upskilling is definitely a good idea for individuals and the business, but try to distinguish between the residents and the business where residents are more about how to a live a green life and how can business attain net-zero.”
Testing the concept with just objects and almost no explanation was a bizarre experience. Even if we got positive reactions it made me wonder if we were successful in communicating our concept. What if they reacted positively because they did not totally grasp the concept? Does that make our object weak or our concept? If people liked the object without challenging it, does the make the concept not radical enough?
Looking back, I wish we got opinions from more diverse backgrounds and professions so we could challenge our own notions. The concept could have been taken to a radical and absurd tangent if we had more people challenging and disagreeing with us.
I have realised that people tend to accept changes that are “safe”, that fit their own mindset, and agree with their own agenda. But that does not make a concept a success. In fact, it's the opposite.
Even though the Council members seemed to like the concept, what worried me was they found no weakness in the scenario. Maybe if this was your usual design thinking-problem solving-service blueprint kind of a project, maybe this reaction would have been ideal. But liking a concept that has barely been detailed out, and is actually meant to question your thoughts and assumptions is not the kind of reaction I had hoped for.
It confirmed the nagging fear that I had at the back of my mind throughout the last phase of the unit-that my team’s concept is not as futuristic as we had hoped for. Nevertheless, the experience helped with the understanding of research through design and solidified the importance of creating artifacts.
So what was my RtD process?
The concept presented to you was only the tip of the iceberg and came with iterations on every step of the journey. The process was not perfect, and the objects were far from convincing, but they led our way. Listing a few of the objects that helped create the conversation we were hoping for.
#1:Green certificate for School and University students
Should we give voices to those who are the most receptive to climate change? Should youngsters be included in important decision making processes? Will climate emergency benefit by further democraticing the society?
#2:Emphasis given to green education in a resume
Will such skills be a mandatory requirement before a company hires a new employee?
#3:New emerging roles in the industry
Will new industry roles emerge? Will companies value green practices over the rest?
#4:Climate Olympiad as a testing criteria
Should there be an evaluation criteria that tests important sustainability knowledge? Who can take these? Should this be compulasary across industries?
RtD can be a messy process and is rarely ever linear. We went back and forth with many concepts, objects, and scenarios to reach the finishing line. Concepts were eliminated, objects were misunderstood, and conversations were sparked in the direction it was never intended to. I find that this methodology relies heavily on storytelling. No matter how mind-blowing your concept can be, if you cannot express it with the right words, visuals, or analogies, then the desired outcome will never be reached.
My main learnings from this methodology:
- Let your objects speak, while you stay quiet.
- Balance the present and the future states by integrating the object, so people can relate and understand your provocations.
- The process of provocation starts from the touchpoint (object), which further explains the service, as opposed to our usual ‘service to touchpoint’ way of presenting a concept.
One important lesson I learned was- future artifacts are like jokes, if you have to explain them then they probably aren't good.
Going on from here
This unit has been very different than what I have learned in my Master's Program so far. It has truly challenged me by putting me outside my comfort zone, and there are many valuable lessons that I will be taking with me.
RtD is always Work in Progress.
As I have mentioned before, this design methodology is in the business of creating knowledge over design. And as the end goal is not to create a fancy blueprint or a beautifully illustrated journey map, but to create knowledge, every prototype made, no matter how polished it might be, is just a stepping stone to the next future object.
Presentation skills can sometimes be more important than design skills.
This might be a controversial statement to make but I have found how immensely important it is to be a good presenter. Sometimes I found that a concept may be average, but the scenario that was created through words, visuals, and other imagery made it stand out, whereas some of the best ideas were lost in translation. In fact, creating presentation structures was almost like my own person RtD: some worked, some didn't, but they all created the knowledge required to make the next iteration.
I have wished previously that our team had done more stakeholder testing, and the effect showed in the final results. By not testing enough we actually did not design enough as every comment on the object adds to the data bank of the knowledge you wish to share.
Not everything can be solved.
The goal of the design should be to improve people’s lives, and as a designer, it is not only our professional but a personal responsibility to avoid creating socially destructive work. I mean we are in this business because we primarily love two things-design and people. So naturally, my instinct to date has been to discard any concept that causes even a tiny bit of a negative impact. This unit has taught me that no matter what you do, sometimes not everything can be solved. Everyone’s preferable future is different, the key is to choose your battles and at least recognise the dystopia you have created so that we can be prepared. Often there isn’t one right answer — there may be several right answers or just some “least wrong answers”.
Too much practicality can kill creativity.
Being someone who is known to be practical to a fault, I found it difficult to wrap my mind around the fact that I had to design a service scenario for a world that simply did not exist. For the most part of my journey, I used to get into highly technical areas or detail out how the service would actually work. I believe this is part of the reason why the outcome is more likely to be placed in the next 3–4 years and not the intended 10 years. My left brain dominated the right when it should have been in sync with each other.
But I could not be happier for the mistakes I have made, because that ensures that I will never forget them, as I now believe that a design process not only describes the journey of the project but also of yourself.
“There are no mistakes in life-only lessons. Lessons to be learnt and re-learnt until they are no longer lessons.”- Cherie Carter-Scott
The more I learn about design methodologies, the more convinced I am that the term “designer” oversimplifies the role drastically.
Service Designers have the uncanny ability to shift perspectives. We have the understated power of being the mediator between different stakeholders, and what we say-do, and the way we say and do it makes a huge difference.
More and more designers have the privilege (or burden, depending on which side of the glass empty/full philosophy you take after) of changing human behaviours to have a positive impact. We now have more power than we ever had in the existence of our profession, and will have more so in a time where we will be designing products, services, and policies that have the ability to influence millions of users dramatically. More now than ever do we have to consider the ethical consequences behind our design decisions.
RtD and Speculative design have shown me that we not only have the privilege to solve a problem but also to show a problem begging to be solved.
It helped me stop imagining the future to look like this:
Our future is not a bunch of flying cars with magical technology. Our future is what we create now, and the small nuances and changes that can help make it happen. Our future is made of our present actions, with a dash of our past learnings, and the ability to be perceptive to dynamic changes.
Ending with a quote that unintentionally (or intentionally?) best describes the process of designing for the future, using the RtD methodology:
“The best way to predict your future is to create it.”-Abraham Lincoln
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