White spaces to Whitehall:  Unpacking speculative design and policymaking

It was as we were packing to leave Manchester for Leicester when we realised that the stack of speculative digitally-rendered images we’d mounted onto foam boards fitted neatly – almost too neatly – into the back of Georgina’s suitcase; and suddenly the prospect of a whole new career as futures smugglers reared up ahead of us. (“Futures! Getcher future here” – opens briefcase – “we got happy ones, sad ones, dystopias, utopias, nice bit of Terry Gilliam, yeah? Lovely.”)

This spring, Tobias and Georgina spent the better part of February and March running from London to Swansea to Manchester to Leicester, carting around a massive sack of digitally rendered speculative futures. We’d been commissioned by Government Office for Science and Policy Lab to generate qualitative evidence for a large project that they were running about the future of an aging population, and in doing so explore where and how speculative design techniques could be brought into the policymaking process.. This was, to our knowledge, the first time that speculative design had been actively used in a UK policy-making context which was both ear-bleedingly exciting and somewhat intimidating. For more about the specific findings of the workshops, our reports are here and the more general project page here – but in this post, we think about what this project might mean for a critical understanding of socio-technical systems.

Critical understanding of socio-technical systems is our primary focus at Strange Telemetry – the reason we first came to work together – and we’ve been intensely, actively curious about how best to make this happen; with speculative and critical design (SCD) long in our line of sight.

SCD is an approach pioneered by Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby (2013) during their tenure on the Royal College of Art’s Design Interactions program. Pitched in direct opposition to the dominant ‘design as services to industry’ processes developed in the twentieth-century design and engineering schools, SCD creates fictional artefacts – objects, images, films, texts, and more – which bridge the speculative and the everyday. Working to unsettle tacit assumptions and social norms, these artefacts challenge publics to explore the implications of new developments across science, technology, and politics (cf. Bassett et al 2013.)

Tobias, a graduate of Design Interactions, has been exhibiting his SCD work around the world globally for the past few years, and has compiled a thorough taxonomy of the field. Georgina has been using similar approaches in ongoing work to explore the lines between sexual healthcare and collapsing supply chains; and is a co-author of the ‘Better Made Up’ project exploring the co-constitutions of science fiction and innovation.

The field of SCD is a decade old, and is often bundled in with another comparatively young concept: ‘design fiction,’ a process of creating prototypes that are not intended to demonstrate proof of feasibility, but instead gesture at a wider story, context or milieu, by prompting audiences to imagine these prototypes in-use. They also provide a specific hook for designers – and, potentially, policymakers – to consider the political and social values hard-baked into objects.

There are a number of absolutely excellent SCD projects out there – too many to name, but personal favourites include: Thomas Thwaite’s ‘Policing Genes’; Sasha Pohflepp’s ‘The Golden Institute’; Marguerite Humeau’s ‘The Opera of Prehistoric Creatures’; and Tim Clarke’s recent project on the forms of innovation reflected in speculative supersonic planes, ‘High Speed Horizons’.


However. However.

Despite clear potential for public engagement and the cultivation of a broader understanding of socio-technical systems, most speculative design work is to be found in a gallery or curated festival setting, closer to the art world than the wider public it was perhaps seeking to engage. With the notable exception of projects like Anne Galloway’s 'Counting Sheep,' most completed works of SCD have either operated as stand-alone spectacle, or engagement and translation work conducting in a collaboration with those deemed to have ‘expertise’ – scientists, technologists, economists, but rarely the lay public.

This has led to strong debate about who SCD is for, resurfacing any number of longer-standing questions about participation, access, and expertise (eg. Riesch and Potter 2014), and mirroring similar debates in the fields of foresight, community arts, and the public understanding of science.

Many formal foresight practices, including the Delphi Method, are intentionally expert-driven, attributing unique insight to specific individuals – something increasingly challenges by crowd-driven, participatory methods. Similarly, work on public engagement with science has challenged the notion of a ‘deficit model’ of communication, re-evaluating the role of lay expertise and different forms of ‘upstream’ and ‘downstream’ engagement.

Sensitized to these issues and dynamics, we worked to combine best practices in public engagement with SCD’s emphasis on specific designed objects and artefacts. We started with a horizon-scanning exercise, compiling signals of current, ongoing, and anticipated future developments in the relevant areas, as material with which to begin developing our artifacts.

We created six digitally rendered visual images, depicting scenes of potential Manchesters, Leicesters, and Swanseas in the year 2040. Nothing in these scenes was intended as prediction, as we were careful to emphasise to the participants who joined us in the workshops. Instead, these images were designed to provoke reactions, through a discussion guided by a set of ‘colour cards.’ These cards prompted participants to consider possible positive and negative aspects of each scenario, and note any emotional or gut-level feelings. To start unpacking how reactions to the image might fit into policy levers, we also guided discussion around consideration of possible trade-offs and wider implications, both in terms of system-level dynamics and personal behaviour.

It is worth emphasising here that speculative design practice, like science fiction, is not about the future – rather, it is about setting up difference; something about there which is somehow different from here; a cognitive dissonance in our expectations of the present. Our images were intentionally designed not to be particularly ‘future-y,’ as the greater the level of chrome, robots and jetpacks, the greater the cognitive estrangement and the wider the gap between peoples’ own experiences and the scenarios depicted. Our participants picked up on this, with one commenting on the similarity of the 2040 robot repair shop to existing generic white goods shops in Swansea.

We are extremely grateful to both Policy Lab and the Government Office for Science for initiating and supporting this experimental work. Taking tools previously unused in this space and allowing us to see how – if, even – speculative design could be used to generate and record tangible results of the type required by the policy process.

What we have here then, we hope, is the start of a dialogue. Firstly, about how speculative design techniques might be deployed in support of policy-making processes. We feel that these methods have the potential to provide the base for the deliberative assessment of future scenarios, acting both as a form of public engagement, and a means of collecting public responses in a form that policymakers would find legible. We’re also thinking about how this could be used might compliment elements of existing public engagement and foresight toolkits, enabling exploration of ideas around possible alternative spaces.

Over the summer we’ll be developing these thoughts into a longer White Paper that takes on speculative and critical design, policy, politics, public engagement, and who ‘counts’, and brings together some of our other work in this area. In the meantime, 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.

Tim Clarke's 'High Speed Horizons' looks at models of innovation through speculative supersonic jet liner designs.