Senescence: Speculative Design at the Policy Interface

Using techniques drawn from speculative and critical design (SCD), Strange Telemetry worked with members of the public to generate evidence for a Government Office for Science (GO-Science) Foresight project exploring the challenges and opportunities of an ageing society. This project marks the first active use of speculative design in UK government policy processes.


Strange Telemetry designed a series of custom visual artefacts to guide discussion and debate with members of the public around possible developments in employment, services, and transport over a 25-year time horizon. In a series of 3-hour workshops in February and March 2015, these artefacts were deployed as a means of eliciting specific and sufficiently granular responses to the uneven ways in which an ageing population could impact on employment, mobility, and the provision of key services.

We used a custom card deck to structure responses to the scenarios depicted – moving beyond questions of plausibility, and steering responses about what participants deemed to be the benefits, drawbacks, and wider implications of specific elements. The cards came in five colours, and participants to asked to consider:

  • Green: What do you like about the image? Are there things that resonate or are familiar?
  • Red: What do you dislike about the image? Are there things that you disagree with or find unlikely?
  • Blue: Put yourself into this scenario: what are your gut feelings about it? Do you feel uncomfortable, sad, happy, relaxed, anxious?
  • Yellow: What changes would you make to your own life now if this scenario might be in your future, or part of it?
  • Purple: What changes would you want others (policymakers, local government, companies) to make if this scenario might be in your future, or part of it?

The artefacts were developed by extrapolating the possible interplay of a range of current trends, and included digital mock-ups of possible future workplaces and urban transit systems. Each workshop had a different theme and in each case we experimented with different types of images and ways of drawing out discussion. We were assisted in these workshops by our colleague, Wesley Goatley.

The first workshop in Swansea looked at work in relationship to ageing. For this we produced three comparable scenarios; a family-owned robot repair shop, an e-lancers living room and a piecework call centre. The participants were invited to use the colour cards to analyse and discuss the scenarios as well as speculate as to the lives of the people involved.
The second workshop in Leicester looked at the future of services. For this we produced a single, more complex image for the participants to work from.
The third workshop in Manchester looked at the future of transport for an ageing population. In this workshop we created two directly comparable images - one with a more state-backed, localised and social infrastructure, the other more privatised and liberal.

We produced two reports from the project, examining both the outcomes of the workshops, and the efficacy of these methods as means of collecting and structuring qualitative policy inputs. These reports can be found here. We are also developing a longer White Paper, to be released later in the year.

For us at Strange Telemetry, this project was an opportunity to begin developing tools to bridge speculative design, policy, and strategic foresight, as well as facilitating public engagement with the complex, messy realities of socio-technical systems. We were particularly excited by the prospect of moving speculative design out of the gallery, deploying its methods to prompt – and scaffold – deliberation and debate.

Moving forward, we want to continue prototyping new and inventive research methods able to give us greater purchase on the interface of technology and society; and, in the context of foresight and public engagement, enable a more structured mapping of attitudes, consensus, and dissent.

You can find the project reports on both the outcome and the methods here, and some thoughts from Tom Wells at the Government Office for Science, here. We've blogged about the process and our thoughts here.