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Embracing unforeseeable futures: A look at speculative design

Speculative design raises thought-provoking questions about the future, and the ways in which we take part in shaping it - today.

Illustration by Shai Samana.

Profile picture of Lillian Xiao


8 min read

In recent years, designers have welcomed a variety of approaches to creating new technologies. From social science research methods, to scientific styles of inquiry, to engineering-based models for problem-solving, designers can choose from a variety of ways to tackle any design challenge.

One approach that has gained momentum in recent years is speculative design. Popularized by Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby in their book Speculative Everything, the speculative design movement sparked an interest in critical and imaginative methods for design. The introduction of Speculative Everything in 2013 coincided with a burst of new consumer technologies and the rapid integration of new products and services into our daily lives.

When a product or service enters into our daily life, it becomes a part of our reality. The simple act of buying, in part, has direct implications on our future.

With so many possibilities for new consumer technologies, we as designers need to continually ask, Is this the reality we want? How might we shape our future through the products and services we create?

Speculative design provides a framework for asking these critical questions. It allows designers to imagine what the future might look like if different solutions were adopted. It provides designers with the tools to speculate upon social, ethical, and political implications of new technologies.

What is speculative design?

In a typical design setting, designers create products and services that are sold to consumers. In a speculative design setting, designers create artifacts and prototypes meant to provoke thought and reflection. Speculative design operates on a more conceptual and philosophical level, by inviting us to question how new technologies might alter our everyday lives, and how they might impact our futures.

The core question asked within speculative design is, “What if…?”

With speculative design, we start by asking, Is this a good idea? Before asking, How do we make it happen?

Speculative design aims to provoke thought about our current world, and our possible futures, through the lense of technology.

An example of speculative design can be found in the automotive industry. During annual auto shows and media events throughout the year, car companies showcase a variety of new concept vehicles. Though they’re typically never planned for production, concept vehicles invite the public to speculate upon a future in which the vehicle exists as a part of everyday life.

In their book, Dunne & Raby believe that auto shows can take the speculative element further by demonstrating how different concept vehicles could impact the way people move in a future ecosystem.

With speculative design, we start by asking, Is this a good idea? Before asking, How do we make it happen?

A concept vehicle design
A concept vehicle design.

The future is full of possibilities

Futures are central to speculative design. Within this context, the future is seen as a range of possibilities. Futures can be characterized as probable, plausible, possible, and impossible, depending on the likelihood of it occurring.

A time horizon of ten years (the near future) is considered ideal for speculative design. According to Phil Balagtas, founder of the Design Futures Initiative, if we project too far into the future, we’re more likely to end up with mere speculation. At the other end of the spectrum, if we stay too close to the present, our predictions would have to be thoroughly and critically researched. Speculative design, therefore, exists somewhere in between.

It also allows us to identify wild card scenarios, or low-probability, high impact events, that can jolt society in a major way.

Based on this model, the future is something that we shape and build through the choices we make today.

A futures cone used in speculative design
A futures cone model, used in speculative design.

Speculations based on hard evidence

Despite its theoretical nature, speculative design relies on thorough research and analysis. In order to avoid pure speculation, plausible scenarios must be built upon a strong body of well-researched evidence. This can be developed by following evidence-based trends over time, or by examining how certain events have played out in history.

Superflux is a London-based design agency which specializes in futures-oriented design. In their various projects, the agency creates scenarios by extensively scanning for trends and signals, while relying on historical and contemporary datasets to derive evidence-based scenarios for the future. Some of their work aids government officials in determining policy changes for the future.

Inspiration from literature and contemporary art

Designers today come from a variety of disciplines, ranging from art and architecture, to computer science and biotechnology, to psychology and anthropology.

With the proliferation of consumer technologies, design in recent years has turned to engineering-based models and social science protocols for problem solving and for studying how people interact with technology.

Breaking away from this trend, speculative design looks toward literature and contemporary art for inspiration. From literature, it borrows techniques for crafting fictional narrative, as well as literary devices for keeping readers immersed in a make-believe world. Like literature, speculative design is also a way to explore human nature, constrained only by what’s possible through language.

One genre that closely mirrors speculative design is speculative fiction. A key figure in this genre is Booker prize winner Margaret Atwood, author of many books, including The Handmaid’s Tale. In an interview to The Guardian, Atwood distinguishes speculative fiction from science fiction by noting that it is based on events that “could really happen,” drawing it away from the fantastical and towards the realm of the possible.

Speculative design also borrows practices from contemporary art, such as the use of objects for social commentary, rather than for commercial or functional purposes. Speculative designers may also use museums and galleries as spaces to display their work for public consumption.

One interesting example of speculative design is Facestate, a project by Amsterdam-based artist collective Metahaven. This work speculated upon the possibility of a social network becoming an independent state. The artists created objects that represented the type of government, currency, and surveillance system such an entity might have. According to Metahaven’s Vinca Kruk and Daniel van der Velden, these objects were meant to be “more of a prototype, a sketch, than a finished product,” in contrast to the polished commissioned pieces which we often see in galleries and museums.

Building upon an evidence-based foundation, speculative design adopts techniques from literature and art, placing an emphasis on the use of criticism and fictional narrative.

Finally, speculative design also draws from a range of specialized disciplines, including critical design, design fiction, design futurism, and strategic foresight.

Speculative tools and frameworks

Below are some tools and frameworks to provide a sense of what speculative design practices might look like. A number of these are borrowed from strategic foresight frameworks, and can be used on their own, or combined with other design approaches:

1. Scenario building

Scenarios are stories about what the world might be like tomorrow. Scenario building involves following trends across time, and recognizing how key technological, social, and political forces might impact the future. Some scenarios can seem far fetched, but they are important reminders that we can overlook possibilities, simply because they seem implausible to us now.

Scenario building starts with a focal point, such as how biometric tracking might be used to monitor health. We can map out known trends, such as age demographics in the next ten years. Then we can consider possible unknown forces, such as government regulations, public opinion, or potential misuses of biometric data.

Questions to ask are: What are the most important technological, social, and political forces to consider? How certain are we about each of these forces?

As a key feature of speculative design, scenarios can be illustrated through writing, storyboarding, film, or a number of different ways.

By developing complex, detailed scenarios about what might lie ahead, these exercises serve to inspire thought about the hopes and fears surrounding different technological futures. They also allow us to explore alternatives that don’t necessarily sit comfortably with our current understanding of the world.

2. Backcasting

Backcasting is a framework that involves working backwards from a chosen scenario. A scenario is chosen to illustrate a precise and detailed situation from the future, and backcasting provides a framework for working backwards in time, breaking down the steps needed to achieve the prospective goal. Key events, or milestones, are identified to illustrate a path toward this future.

For example, backcasting can be used to establish milestones for working towards a future in which certain sustainability criteria is met for electric vehicles. Working backwards enables us to determine how technologies and policies need to fall in place for the desired future to come to fruition.

This exercise allows designers to think about how the products in question can shape our life and society, instead of focusing merely on the product and the technology behind it.

3. Artifacts from the future

Artifacts from the future can be imagined as items that an archeologist traveling ten years into the future would bring back, as an illustration of what daily life would look like then. These artifacts serve as tangible conversation starters, in order to make scenarios more concrete. Tangible prototypes also serve as great starting points for critical discussion.

For example, this might be a news feed from the year 2030, a face mask worn in futuristic New York, or an object from a remote workplace of the future.

Artifacts from the future are objects that provoke thought and dialogue and, according to Dunne & Raby, may knowingly include contradictions and cognitive glitches to make us think twice about its purpose and impact in the world.

Although these prototypes are not meant to be preliminary versions of a commercial product, they can nonetheless help designers gather information about what and how to design products and services that can bring us closer to our envisioned goal for the future.

4. Futures wheel

The futures wheel framework is an exercise for exploring the direct and indirect implications of a new product, service, or technology. By placing the object of inquiry in the center, designers can map out the first- and second-order consequences of introducing a new product into the world.

With engineered (or “clean”) meat, for example, a direct implication may be the availability of greater supermarket options or new restaurant menu items. An indirect implication could be the preservation of rainforests normally cleared for livestock grazing, with further implications being a deceleration of climate change due to large-scale efforts in producing meat substitutes.

This exercise allows designers to think about how the products in question can shape our life and society, instead of focusing merely on the product and the technology behind it.

5. Fictional narrative

Narrative can be used as a design tool to articulate scenarios in a rich and compelling way. It helps us illustrate a point of view, in a way that logical arguments fail to do.

Speculative design also employs fictional narrative in order to craft future scenarios, weaving together fact and imagination. Narrative within speculative design can bring in elements of humor, satire, or subtle forms of absurdity for emphasis.

The use of narrative also allows for unconventional framings, such as viewing a futuristic city from the perspective of an autonomous vehicle. In the film Where the City Can’t See, speculative architect Liam Young crafts a narrative entirely from the perspective of a driverless car, through the lens of laser scanning technology. The film follows a group of factory workers in search of a spot in the city that exists but doesn’t show up on a map, wearing clothes that camouflages them from machine vision technology.

One famous example of narrative used for exploring technological futures is the Netflix series Black Mirror, which eerily speculates upon the implications of new technologies embedded into daily life.

Critiques of speculative design

A lack of actionable solutions

Without the emphasis on creating commercially-viable products, speculative design can seem like a futile exercise, producing outputs that are not immediately actionable.

Nonetheless, speculative design has the potential to enrich product and services development, especially when companies like Visa, Ford, Pepsi, Samsung, and NATO have hired science-fiction writers to craft visions and speculations for the future.

For whom? By whom?

An important question to raise in any design practice is, For whom? By whom? It’s crucial that designers are not placed at the center of the process, assuming a single reality, when there could be seven billion possible ones.

Designers can mitigate this bias by bringing in different perspectives throughout the design process, while playing more of a facilitator role. Understanding who the audience is, is crucial for framing outputs in an impactful and accessible way.

A bias towards dystopian worldviews

While a healthy balance of optimism and pessimism may be important for speculative design practices, the discipline can veer dystopian at times.

Exposure to too many dark and estranged scenarios may be paralyzing, and lead to a passive and fearful view of the future. Speculative design is not meant to be a disheartening practice, rather to encourage designers to be proactive about shaping the future.

Final thoughts

Design can be a useful tool for provoking thought and discussion around what we’d like to happen in years to come, and shaping, instead of reacting to, what’s ahead.

While it’s important to design products and services to meet today’s needs, it’s also important to explore the social, ethical, and political implications of the new products and services we produce. Speculative design helps us realize that there isn’t just one way, but many ways to go forth into the future, through the roles that we play in helping it to take shape.


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