Speculative Design for long term future foresight and strategy

In an increasingly fast changing world, the discipline of speculative design is gaining in popularity for agencies, corporations and institutions.

"Speculative design is a creative process that produces boundary-pushing prototypes and design systems for the future.” Tina Gorjanc

What is speculative design, if you’ve never heard of this practice within the field of future foresight?

Speculative design tries to imagine what life would be like without the current limitations of today. Contrary to science fiction, it retains the link between the present and an imaginary future. It must consider the domino effects of current technologies and social climates in order to project us into possible futures.

By projecting us into the future and making us empathise with it in various immersive techniques and prop making, it makes us question the biases and blind spots we have about our everyday lives, products and services.

Speculative Design centers around propmaking which can take a variety of forms and is not limited to:

Speculative Design offers drastic changes in our values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviour.

Its main interest is to challenge social problems that seem unfixable within our current mentality.

The term itself was coined by Anthony Dunne, professor and head of the design interactions programme at the Royal College of Art, and Fiona Raby, professor of industrial design at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna. They further popularized the concept in their book, Speculative Everything: Design, Dreaming, and Social Dreaming.

“By speculating more, at all levels of society, and exploring alternative scenarios, reality will become more malleable and although the future cannot be predicted, we can help set in place today factors that will increase the probability of more desirable futures happening.”

Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby propose a an approach to design that creates props to speculate about how things could be and imagine possible futures. Although it differs from traditional future trend forecasting methodologies; it naturally creates predictions which can be exceptionally insightful for organisations, especially during great times of change and uncertainty.

The “what if” questions that arise from speculative scenarios and props open up debate and discussion about the kind of future people want or do not want to live in.

This is a fairly new and an emerging culture of creating design ideas and ideals. Why we include Speculative Design in our course in a lecture led by Tina Gorjanc is because it draws from  futurology, political theory, philosophy, technology and fiction.

We see it as an incredibly powerful tool to solve wicked problems rooted in the present for which we need to envision their potential outcomes in the future.

Ultimately, it is important to be very specific when contextualising your scenario. Zooming into particular instances of everyday life events or tasks will help make your product more relatable to the user/client/reader.  Examples include:

  • a cloud-seeding truck
  • a phantom-limb sensation recorder
  • devices for food foraging that use the tools of synthetic biology

Speculative designers, including Dunne and Raby believe that if we speculate and imagine more—and include every detail of our daily lives to make these imaginations realistic — a future reality will become more malleable.

By creating these immersive and speculative future props and scenarios, the odds of achieving desirable futures are increased.

Already, leading institution recognise the importance of being ahead of the game in terms of technology and services and imagining futures. Visa, Pepsi, Ford, and even NATO have collaborated with speculative designers to create more innovative products and strategies. The UK government has also invested in using speculative design tools.

To recap, why is Speculative design important for macro trend forecasters?

  • In a complex and fast changing world, we need to embed imagining futures at the very core of how we forecast the future.
  • Unlike a traditional future trend forecast which tends to be a static piece of reading or listening, speculative design immerses us into the future by the use of prop-making.

Furthermore, future trend foresight in the design and creative world tends to focus on product innovations and less on relational innovations. That is changing as our societies face massive cultural and behavioural shifts that are much more important than the next dress shape.

Speculative design highlights relations and situations rather than objects.

Within Macro trend foresight specialisation with a focus on purpose an, ethics and sustainability, we see speculative design as a key practice to embed for macro trend forecasters.  By creating future scenarios, situations using speculative design, forecasters are able to test them. They can back cast and create more than products, this is not what speculative design is best used for. It is most commonly use it to create innovative and ethical strategies and services.

What can you apply speculative Design for, in your future foresight work?

For future strategic thinking

Scenarios are an excellent tool for framing strategy innovation, and for stress testing existing strategies. It challenges social problems that seem unfixable within our current mentality. In that way, it proposes drastic changes in our values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviour. In summary, it isn’t about predicting the future but about asking the right questions.

For speculative products and services testing scenarios

Products and services created using speculative design techniques can positively serve the citizen of the future. It helps to tackle some of the wicked problems faced by industries and society by taking a more balanced approach.

For powerful future narratives for design and with design

Its outputs can be in a tangible or/and intangible form. Besides the physical props, we associate with scenario designing; speculation can take any other design form which helps illustrate its everyday scenario: infographics, services, sound, games, etc. Speculative design's strong suit, in comparison to future foresight methods, is its power to induce empathy and self-identification. The props trigger the viewer's imaginative response, enabling the experience of a situation beyond his current everyday life. It requires using your imagination muscle. For most, the term “prop” means something fake or that does not work. In the context of speculative design, a prop can be a fully functioning prototype, or not.  As for the second instance, the product needs to be based on an existing technology or science which allows for realistic forecasting and suggesting.

“The stories we tell about DESIGN and WITH DESIGN have the power to speak to individuals and whole COMMUNITIES. Scenarios offer the chance to speculate what stories we want to tell & futures we create.” Tina Gorjanc

How do WE use speculative design to envision futures?

Our founder Geraldine Wharry has worked on Speculative pieces for Dazed Beauty, Plurality University and with trend incubator Limbo & Hatch & artist Harriet Davey

As a community and school, we care for our future at the Trend Atelier. Additionally, we encourage our members to learn about speculative design because it forces us to empathise with our future. By immersing us in it, we are able to put someone else’s or ourselves in our own future self’s position.

Ethics are strongly embedded in speculative design because it enables us to depict the project from a stakeholder’s perspective that does not necessarily reflect our own.

"The outputs of speculative design usually act as tools of initiating a debate or change. They aim to spark critical thinking to either help set in place today's factors that will increase the probability of achieving more desirable futures or spot early the factors leading to undesirable ones.” Tina Gorjanc

At the Trend Atelier, it's also about futuring in a way that we understand that every idea and scenario we generate and direct our clients and audiences towards has power of influence and therefore our role comes with great responsibility.

“We need to remind ourselves that the future is never empty, never a blank space to be filled with the output of human activity. It is already colonised by what the past and present have sent to it. ” Tony Fry

Are you ready to join Trend Atelier?

Trend Atelier is a school and community for purpose led professionals and beginners looking to expand their methods and vision, while making a difference in the world via futures research, methodologies, and foresight.

Sign up for a course and join the community.