Why Designing Futures matters

Creativity, Innovation and Design class students (Princeton University, Spring 2016)

We live in a world where everything is more interconnected, and everything we do has an impact on the planet. In addition, we experience constant rapid social, economic, technological, political, cultural changes that create more uncertainty and ambiguity in different areas of our lives. For instance, technological advances are great to help us perform some activities faster and more efficiently, new technology is also scary when we think about the future implications such as job loss, privacy issues and so on. Cities are growing and it is easier than 20 years ago to do certain things, but as cities grow, it is harder to navigate from one place to another (traffic can be ridiculous!). Looking broadly and systemically, many models (economic, education, etc.) don’t seem to be as efficient as before.

These changes are creating larger, more complex, unframed and new challenges.

What is the role of design in this context? How can designers help address this type of challenges? How can design work have a positive impact?

During the last five years, through my classes and Sense Information Design, I have been working on ways to reorient design in line with these new challenges and emerging demands. For example, my teaching positions design as a means of tackling a range of complex and systemic challenges, such as people’s perceptions and attitudes towards sustainability, diversity and inclusion in the classroom, and loneliness. The complexity of this type of challenges demands fresh perspectives and different ways to problem solve than the ones used in the past, making creativity the skill to master in both industry and education. To come up with both unique and relevant possible solutions creative thinking has become essential.

Creativity, the core of Speculative Design

Projects from Extrapolation Factory, US

More recently, creative thinking has been manifested through speculative design, which was coined by Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby as a type of design working on proposing radically new paradigms, asking questions and finding problems, rather than solving problems and answering questions. Speculative design focuses on (1) generating and designing possible futures, (2) building details and scenarios to explain one of those futures, (3) debating and discussing the scenarios to identify positive and negative implications, and (4) strategically thinking through the implications of those scenarios. Prof. David Staley explains that “scenarios are about understanding systems that we cannot influence, but scenarios are also employ as a tool for visioning, for imagining a preferred future.” The exercise of thinking backward about how to make an ideal future happen helps understand and manage the drivers of change, and how to identify and challenge the barriers of change.

Generating alternative possible ways of approaching problems helps develop a growth mind and a deeper understanding of the root causes of problems that could help anticipate surprises and be better prepared. For example, speculating about future scenarios can help entrepreneurs seeking to create the next product, educators seeking to rethink anew the higher education system, and policy making seeking to create new policies to improve a community.

Why isn’t this type of design practiced more often?

There are many reasons why speculative design should now be at the center of design practice. The following are just three of them:

  1. Disciplinary boundaries are not as rigid as they were ten years ago; problems aren’t the domain of only one discipline.
  2. Transdisciplinary collaboration has become a common way of working; many project require expertise from multiple domains to develop successful outputs.
  3. Tackling systemic challenges has become an urgent need.

However, both creative thinking and speculative design are still questioned. Many times I have been asked: What is the point of imagining futures? How would you convince [insert here the main decision-maker] that this is valuable and needed? Creativity is too frequently described as not academic enough in some higher education institutions and its value is questioned among clients (and peers!). Speculative design is still a hard sell in higher education too; the idea of teaching a graduate program on the subject needs too much convincing. Interestingly, creativity literature describes judging and fear to the unknown as core mental blocks preventing people from trying something that looks different from the “norm”.

In 2017, Hugh Dubberly pointed out the need for designers to learn how to deal with much less defined problem situations, and focus less on fixing physical things and more on identifying connections between them to develop less tangible solutions (strategies, systems, experience). To have a go at addressing systemic and complex challenges, it is imperative to first understand the key components of a situation, the interconnections and how these relate to the bigger picture.

The traditional design skills are not sufficient to deal with ambiguous, complex, unframed challenges. Designers need more than layout, typography or color skills. Both, the new generation of designers and the more experienced ones, need a broader set of skills. The ability to imagine freely and speculate, work closely with other disciplines, make ideas tangible, think strategically, find new opportunities, ask questions and critically discuss a wide range of perspectives are some of the new skills designers need.

Designers should not have to convince clients, peers, Governments, or other faculty of the benefits of designing speculative future scenarios. This way of thinking should be engrained in any problem solving approach.

– Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby (2013) Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction, and Social Dreaming.The MIT Press. 
– David J. Staley (2019) Alternative Universities. Speculative design for innovation in higher education. John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.
– Hugh Dubberly (2017) Connecting Things: Broadening Design to Include Systems, Platforms, and Product-Service Ecologies. In Encountering Things: Design and Theories of Things, edited by Leslie Atzmon and Prasad Boradkar, 153–66. London: Bloomsbury. 

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