Transitions of Speculative Design

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How to design futures in the 2020s

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Masaki Iwabuchi | UX Planet | 10 min read | Jan 24, 2022

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Lecture of Designed Realities by Dunne & Raby at The New School (taken by Masaki Iwabuchi, 2020)

I received direct teaching from Dunne & Raby, the proponents of Speculative Design, at The New School in 2020. Studying Speculative Design from them has been my longtime dream and why I moved to NY.

The word Speculative Design was born in 1999, and I believe its meaning has been changing in the last 20 years. Dunne & Raby no longer proactively use the word Speculative Design and explore “beyond” Speculative Design in the Designed Realities Studio, established at the New School in 2016.

In this article, I look back at the evolution of Speculative Design and introduce the concept of “Designed Realities” that Dunne & Raby are currently researching.

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Designed Realities Lab at The New School (taken by Masaki Iwabuchi, 2020)

What is Speculative Design?

The future seen from the present spreads in a conical shape like a flashlight illuminating the darkness. Distant futures are vague, but there are many possibilities, alternatives, and dreams rather than a single probable consequence by extending current values and technologies. The purpose of Speculative Design is to materialize and imply fragments of possible futures and broaden our horizons through design. It encourages us to think of alternative futures and discuss which direction we should go.

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Voros, J, The Futures Cone, use and history, 2017

The Origin of Speculative Design

In human history, design has always been a problem-solving process. There have been problems such as inconvenience, hardship, and vulnerability in the world, and we have continuously solved them by Business, Technology, and Design to make our world better. This process of finding and solving problems will continue to be the mainstream of human production and economy.

Drawn by Masaki Iwabuchi

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During such mainstream values, Dunne & Raby argued that design and technology should have other uses to critique the current world and envision futures we want to live in. Anthony Dunne used the word Critical Design in Hertzian Tales in 1999, and the concept of Speculative Design had evolved from it.

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Dunne and Raby’s manifesto called a/b Design, 2009

Because they are from product design, they tried raising new questions for possible futures through tangible products. In the era before iPhone or Alexa was born in the world, they sought inquiries of how we would interact with super-sophisticated robots in the future.

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Dunne & Raby, TECHNOLOGICAL DREAMS SERIES: NO.1, ROBOTS, 2007

This concept heavily related to and referred to other arts and philosophies such as Science Fiction, Radical Design, and Postmodernism. They sought not a commercial success but questions of how advanced science and technology could change humans and society.

In this way, the starting point of Speculative Design in the early 2000s was to use design as a medium to probe pluriversal future possibilities rather than to solve problems by rationality and functionality.

Drawn by Masaki Iwabuchi

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Speculative Design until the mid-2010s

From there to the mid-2010s, when Dunne & Raby were teaching at the Department of Design Interactions at the RCA, Speculative Design’s scope had spread from technological worldviews to more ethical, societal, and political ones.

For example, Japanese artists Sputniko! and Ai Hasegawa, who learned under Dunne & Raby at this time, asked ethical questions through their works Menstruation Machine, Takashi’s Take (2010), and I wanna deliver a dolphin... (2011). They showed some new technologies that would allow men to experience menstruation or the feasibility of letting humans give birth to dolphins, but what they explored was not these technologies itself. Instead, they wanted us to think about what people’s mindsets of ethics, gender, and policy should be in the future when such technologies are realized.

Sputniko!, Menstruation Machine, Takashi’s Take (2010)

Ai Hasegwa, I wanna deliver a dolphin… (2011)

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These works are also called Design Fiction. Fictional designed objects work as a lens for imagining complex socio-technical futures and encourage people to think about what if such a future would come, how human values would change, and whether it would be the future we want. Dunne & Raby tried these practices when teaching at the RCA, and it is the currently recognized Speculative Design concept.

Drawn by Masaki Iwabuchi

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From Design Fiction to Designed Realities

So how has Design Fiction changed since Dunne & Raby established Designed Realities Studio at The New School in 2016?

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Designed Realities Studio (taken by Masaki Iwabuchi)

In my experience, one characteristic of Designed Realities Studio was to discuss futures together interdisciplinarily with students from diverse backgrounds worldwide.

When Dunne & Raby were at the RCA, Speculative Design attracted students with a strong interest in technology due to the characteristics of the department of Design Interactions. Personal critiques about current technologies and alternative uses of advanced science and technology were the key triggers of speculative inspirations. And as Sputniko! practiced, the individual’s fictional scenarios seeped into a big audience and evoked critical discussions in society.

On the other hand, Designed Realities Studio gathers students from various majors from design, architecture, technology to business, political science, anthropology, and they discuss thought-experimental questions together. The questions are mostly political, anthropological, and ethical. For example, what is a nation operating on an entirely different policy-making system, or how do humans look to post-Anthropocene creatures? By thinking of these as a transdisciplinary body, we can imagine these worlds and possible products with more sense of reality.

In a dialogue with me, Fiona Raby said, “Speculative debates are now happening worldwide, unlike in the 2000s. No one blindly believes that technology will keep advancing humans anymore. This is what Speculative Design wanted to create. So from now on, I have to use that imagination to create reality to tackle planetary problems.”

Therefore, Design [Fiction] and Designed [Realities] are literally opposite processes for me.

drawn by Masaki Iwabuchi

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The New School is a private research university in NY consisting of multiple autonomous colleges called “divisions.”

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drawn by Masaki Iwabuchi

Therefore, students from all divisions come together at Designed Realities Studio regardless of specialty, nationality, or gender. When I was there as a student in Design and Technology at Parsons School of Design, I sat at the same table with students majoring in all other design practices, fine arts, and social studies. For me, Designed Realities Studio was like a small “society.” It was the place to throw my idea, spark chemical reactions from every kind of academics, and imagine different worlds with higher resolution.

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Books from Dunne & Raby’s collection in all fields (taken by Masaki Iwabuchi)

At Designed Realities Studio, I have envisioned an imaginary pluriversal worldview where all humans, animals, and machines coexist. Newspapers in this world no longer have geographical tags (North America, Asia, etc.) or the categorization for human beings (Sports, Entertainment, etc.) as in the current news. Instead, it has changed to categories for all entities on the planet, such as climate, resources, and habitat.