Embracing unforeseeable futures: A look at speculative design

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Speculative design raises thought-provoking questions about the future, and the ways in which we take part in shaping it - today.

8 min read

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In recent years, designers have welcomed a variety of approaches to creating new technologies. From social science research methods, to scientific styles of inquiry, to engineering-based models for problem-solving, designers can choose from a variety of ways to tackle any design challenge.

One approach that has gained momentum in recent years is speculative design. Popularized by Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby in their book Speculative Everything, the speculative design movement sparked an interest in critical and imaginative methods for design. The introduction of Speculative Everything in 2013 coincided with a burst of new consumer technologies and the rapid integration of new products and services into our daily lives.

When a product or service enters into our daily life, it becomes a part of our reality. The simple act of buying, in part, has direct implications on our future.

With so many possibilities for new consumer technologies, we as designers need to continually ask, Is this the reality we want? How might we shape our future through the products and services we create?

Speculative design provides a framework for asking these critical questions. It allows designers to imagine what the future might look like if different solutions were adopted. It provides designers with the tools to speculate upon social, ethical, and political implications of new technologies.

What is speculative design?

In a typical design setting, designers create products and services that are sold to consumers. In a speculative design setting, designers create artifacts and prototypes meant to provoke thought and reflection. Speculative design operates on a more conceptual and philosophical level, by inviting us to question how new technologies might alter our everyday lives, and how they might impact our futures.

The core question asked within speculative design is, “What if…?”

With speculative design, we start by asking, Is this a good idea? Before asking, How do we make it happen?

Speculative design aims to provoke thought about our current world, and our possible futures, through the lense of technology.

An example of speculative design can be found in the automotive industry. During annual auto shows and media events throughout the year, car companies showcase a variety of new concept vehicles. Though they’re typically never planned for production, concept vehicles invite the public to speculate upon a future in which the vehicle exists as a part of everyday life.

In their book, Dunne & Raby believe that auto shows can take the speculative element further by demonstrating how different concept vehicles could impact the way people move in a future ecosystem.

With speculative design, we start by asking, Is this a good idea? Before asking, How do we make it happen?

A concept vehicle design
A concept vehicle design.

The future is full of possibilities

Futures are central to speculative design. Within this context, the future is seen as a range of possibilities. Futures can be characterized as probable, plausible, possible, and impossible, depending on the likelihood of it occurring.

A time horizon of ten years (the near future) is considered ideal for speculative design. According to Phil Balagtas, founder of the Design Futures Initiative, if we project too far into the future, we’re more likely to end up with mere speculation. At the other end of the spectrum, if we stay too close to the present, our predictions would have to be thoroughly and critically researched. Speculative design, therefore, exists somewhere in between.

It also allows us to identify wild card scenarios, or low-probability, high impact events, that can jolt society in a major way.

Based on this model, the future is something that we shape and build through the choices we make today.

A futures cone used in speculative design
A futures cone model, used in speculative design.

Speculations based on hard evidence

Despite its theoretical nature, speculative design relies on thorough research and analysis. In order to avoid pure speculation, plausible scenarios must be built upon a strong body of well-researched evidence. This ca