11. September 2023

Nego­ti­at­ing the future

Spec­u­la­tive Design

The large back­lit pho­to­graph by British artist Alexan­dra Daisy Gins­berg shows a jun­gle-like, dense­ly grown, lush green for­est. A piece of wild nature, an intact habi­tat, you think to your­self. But if you look more close­ly, you dis­cov­er even more in the pic­ture. Strange ele­ments — hybrids -, some­where between a tech­ni­cal prod­uct and an ani­mal, make them­selves at home on the ground and on the bark of the trees as well as in the foliage.

The appar­ent liv­ing crea­tures are actu­al­ly devices that per­form cer­tain func­tions. One, a kind of mol­lusk patrol, serves as a ’soil biore­me­di­a­tion unit’ and neu­tral­izes the over-acid­i­fied soil. The oth­ers — small, spiny, thick, worm-like — crea­tures act as ‘autonomous seed appli­ca­tors’ and are designed to increase local plant diversity.

To keep the bio­log­i­cal and tech­ni­cal cycles sep­a­rate, all the devices are pro­grammed with a 6‑base DNA code that ren­ders them ined­i­ble and pre­vents con­sump­tion by nat­ur­al species. For each of these inven­tions, there are pre­cise draw­ings, expla­na­tions of func­tion and sci­en­tif­ic expla­na­tions, staged in a cre­ative way.

Real­i­ty or fiction?

What is it now? Promise of sal­va­tion or wish­ful think­ing? Research project or mag­ic? Already real­i­ty or still future?
The artis­tic work ‘Design­ing for the Sixth Extinc­tion’ (2013–2015) tries to find an answer to the cur­rent extinc­tion of species, in which we humans have a sig­nif­i­cant share. Gins­berg places her work in the field of ten­sion between nat­ur­al and tech­no­log­i­cal pos­si­bil­i­ties. What if, instead of try­ing to pro­tect exist­ing ’nat­ur­al’ species, we used syn­thet­ic biol­o­gy to devel­op new organ­isms for the ‘ben­e­fit of mankind’? ‘Design­ing for the Sixth Extinc­tion’ is an answer to what the wild might look like in a syn­thet­ic bio­log­i­cal future. Mod­eled after fun­gi, bac­te­ria, inver­te­brates, and mam­mals, the fic­tion­al species are eco­log­i­cal machines to fill the gap left by dis­ap­pear­ing organisms.

Ginsberg’s inten­tion with this work is not to sug­gest a pos­si­ble solu­tion, but to ques­tion that very solu­tion. Not only Gins­berg, but also oth­er design­ers inves­ti­gate with their works the com­plex rela­tion­ships in and between ecosys­tems, human as well as non-human habi­tats and the change of these through new tech­nolo­gies such as biotech­nol­o­gy, but also arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence, smart tech­nolo­gies or the meta­verse. They see their task in the crit­i­cal and mul­ti-per­spec­tive inves­ti­ga­tion and medi­a­tion of pos­si­ble future life designs, utopi­an as well as dystopi­an. The objects they con­ceive and charge nar­ra­tive­ly as well as sym­bol­i­cal­ly con­vey cer­tain sce­nar­ios that seem to become real­i­ty all at once through their imme­di­ate design. They arouse emo­tions or reac­tions in us that trig­ger a sen­si­ti­za­tion and con­fronta­tion with spe­cif­ic issues affect­ing us as a society.

A future, how­ev­er dis­tant, becomes not only imag­in­able and tan­gi­ble for us humans, but also nego­tiable. This gives us anoth­er basis for weigh­ing up the pos­si­ble con­se­quences of our deci­sions. that may result from our deci­sions. This is not sci­ence fic­tion, but a sci­en­tif­ic method that uses the means of design to bring pos­si­ble futures into focus.

Spec­u­la­tive Everything

Spec­u­la­tive Design uses crit­i­cal and spec­u­la­tive design meth­ods in its approach to open up a space for thought as well as new pos­si­bil­i­ties for action for dis­cus­sion. Impor­tant impuls­es for this expand­ed field of research and design in design were set by Antho­ny Dunne and Fiona Raby, who sig­nif­i­cant­ly shaped this field.

In their book ‘Spec­u­la­tive Every­thing: Design, Fic­tion, and Social Dream­ing’ (The MIT Press, 2013), they explore design in its expand­ed pos­si­bil­i­ties of spec­u­lat­ing, cri­tiquing, and imag­in­ing fic­tion­al worlds in order to chal­lenge com­mon world­views and offer a spec­trum of future real­i­ties for dis­cus­sion. In doing so, they do not seek to pre­dict ‘the one’ future, but to reveal future spaces of pos­si­bil­i­ty through fic­tion­al scenarios.

With the help of design, these become rec­og­niz­able and tan­gi­ble, and they can be ques­tioned, nego­ti­at­ed, and sub­vert­ed. They are not con­cerned with stag­ing a sci­ence fic­tion, but with think­ing fur­ther about cur­rent real developments.

„Crit­i­cal design is crit­i­cal thought trans­lat­ed into mate­ri­al­i­ty. It is about think­ing through design rather than through words and using the lan­guage and struc­ture of design to engage peo­ple.” (Antho­ny Dunne und Fiona Raby: ‚Spec­u­la­tive Everything’)

This design prac­tice of spec­u­la­tive design has been estab­lished since the last 15 years, espe­cial­ly in design teach­ing and in cura­to­r­i­al work at muse­ums. The work of Alexan­dra Daisy Gins­berg, who earned her Mas­ters in Design Inter­ac­tions as well as her PhD by Prac­tice at the Roy­al Col­lege of Art in Lon­don, is also exhib­it­ed inter­na­tion­al­ly and is in pri­vate and muse­um collections.

In an expand­ed under­stand­ing of design, design­ers are no longer pri­mar­i­ly con­cerned with serv­ing a con­sumer-ori­ent­ed mar­ket, but rather with using their con­cep­tu­al designs and future sce­nar­ios to ques­tion and over­come pre­con­ceived notions in deal­ing with tech­nolo­gies and the asso­ci­at­ed social effects. Design­ers do what they are good at: They design visu­al­ly pow­er­ful images or arti­facts and devel­op future per­sonas and sce­nar­ios that stand as sym­bols of pro­to­typ­i­cal life worlds. It goes with­out say­ing that these are not always promis­ing. The designed mod­els used do not claim to be func­tion­ing prod­ucts, but serve to make com­plex inter­re­la­tion­ships visible.


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In this way, spec­u­la­tive design delib­er­ate­ly posi­tions itself out­side of an order-based and mar­ket-ori­ent­ed con­text and can ques­tion pre­vail­ing prac­tices and con­ven­tions such as con­sump­tion ori­ent­ed towards per­pet­u­al growth. Its poten­tial lies in not being behold­en to any imme­di­ate appli­ca­tion and hav­ing to con­firm or rein­force it.


Design­ing instead of creating

The design dis­ci­pline has always found itself in the dilem­ma of want­i­ng to design a liv­able future on the one hand, and serv­ing as a tool for brand­ing, prod­uct inno­va­tion, and increas­ing sales on the oth­er. Many of our prob­lems today have their ori­gins in yesterday’s inno­va­tions. As ear­ly as 2004, Cana­di­an design­er Bruce Mau asked in his pub­li­ca­tion and exhi­bi­tion of the same name ‘Mas­sive Change’: “Now that we can do any­thing, what will we do?”, allud­ing to the sup­posed inter­ests and entan­gle­ments of busi­ness, research and soci­ety, but also to the atti­tude the design dis­ci­pline takes here. This gives rise to ques­tions such as: What kind of future do we actu­al­ly want? Who decides about it and who ben­e­fits from it? Is there real­ly no alter­na­tive to this future?

Rec­og­niz­ing the trans­for­ma­tive pow­er of design, design meth­ods are now increas­ing­ly being tak­en up and applied by com­pa­nies, research insti­tu­tions and pol­i­tics. Meth­ods, tools and mod­els of think­ing that come from design should help to accom­pa­ny trans­for­ma­tive process­es in a mul­ti-per­spec­tive and trans­dis­ci­pli­nary way in order to be able to meet com­plex eco­log­i­cal, eco­nom­ic and social chal­lenges and to bring alter­na­tive mod­els and new ways of think­ing into focus.

This may not require ‘more’ design, or ‘dif­fer­ent’ design, but a ques­tion­ing or even ‘de-design­ing’ of exist­ing sys­tems, envi­ron­ments and things. Par­tic­i­pa­to­ry and col­lab­o­ra­tive approach­es, as well as crit­i­cal and spec­u­la­tive design approach­es, serve as cat­a­lysts and stim­u­la­tors to leave behind pre­con­ceived notions and con­ven­tion­al approach­es and objec­tives. The cre­ative dis­ci­plines such as art or design take on a cen­tral role here. Their abil­i­ties to gen­er­ate sen­su­al expe­ri­ences or par­tic­i­pa­to­ry, play­ful approach­es to social­ly crit­i­cal issues make it pos­si­ble to adopt oth­er per­spec­tives and encour­age rethinking.

Lim­its and pos­si­bil­i­ties of spec­u­la­tive design

The claim of crit­i­cal and spec­u­la­tive design is cer­tain­ly to want to over­come com­mon fore­casts and designs for the future with its own dystopias or utopias. This is not easy if one does not want to triv­i­al­ize or ampli­fy the extent of social, eco­nom­ic, eco­log­i­cal and polit­i­cal inter­re­la­tion­ships with one’s designs. The often fuzzy prob­lems, whose ques­tions have yet to be defined, require col­lab­o­ra­tive and explorato­ry coop­er­a­tion between dis­ci­plines in order to grasp them in all their complexity.

Design dis­ci­plines, with their abil­i­ty to com­mu­ni­cate sci­ence, but also their exper­tise in trans­fer­ring this knowl­edge into appli­ca­tions and illus­trat­ing their rela­tion­ships and impli­ca­tions, should be involved in trans­for­ma­tive process­es from the very begin­ning. Only then will design in gen­er­al, and crit­i­cal and spec­u­la­tive design in par­tic­u­lar, have the poten­tial to open up new per­spec­tives and new hands.

„We’re still talk­ing about the same things we did twen­ty years ago but the shape of the world around them is chang­ing polit­i­cal­ly, social­ly, and tech­no­log­i­cal­ly. In response to this you start chang­ing the way in which you see crit­i­cal design’s rel­e­vance.“ (Rick Poynor mit Antho­ny Dunne und Fiona Raby ‚Crit­i­cal World Build­ing’ Inter­view in: Alex Coles: Design Fic­tion, Vol.2, Berlin, 2016, S. 49)