Stay Speculative: Designing Our Future

The future feels uncertain, now more than ever. As a species we face looming and unprecedented challenges and a growing awareness of — and fascination with — our shrinking proximity to existential risk. At the individual level, we are living through an  ‘accelerando’ of technological innovation, a ‘cambrian explosion’ of new tools, ideas, capabilities and identities that push the boundary of what we have thought was fixed, eternal, possible, real.

While we’ve never been great at predicting the future, these rapid changes make it harder than ever to understand how the accelerating pace of tech-driven social transformation will play out. The beliefs, stories and metaphors that have long-governed our world have broken down as traditional definitions of intelligence, power, value, gender, class, life expectancy, the nature of work/play, and even reality are constantly called into question. Given this state of flux, how is it possible to understand what’s happening today, let alone imagine how something like the blockchain or virtual reality might shape our future in 2050? How might we better cope with the present and prepare ourselves for an uncertain future?

We need to stay speculative.

“If somebody describes the world of the mid-21st century to you and it sounds like science fiction, it is probably false. But then again, if somebody describes the world of the mid-21st century to you and it doesn’t sound like science fiction, it is certainly false. ” – Yuval Noah Harari

Probably the best way to start doing this is reading and writing speculative fiction. A great science fiction author, Kim Stanley Robinson, once explained to my class in grad school that reading scifi was like donning a pair of 3D glasses. One lens was prophecy, prediction; the writer’s ability to make sense of new science and technological innovations and envision how they might shape possible future scenarios. The other lens is metaphor. Writers are grounded in the here and now, attuned to the social, economic, and political narratives of the world around them. Fundamentally, they can only ever write from their experience of today. When focused well, these lenses snap together and create a vision of the future rooted in deep-time. A feeling of continuity, that what is happening today could lead to the future being described. A sense of empathy with the characters who live in that future and the ability to relate to the heart of the situations they face, even if the products, services, systems and societies they interact with are drastically different.

Stories are powerful. They can help us explore, relate to, and critique visions of the future, attuning ourselves to which we find most preferable. They can also help us become better sense-makers today, noticing and discerning which emerging signals may lead to the futures portrayed. But the one things stories can’t do on their own is make the futures we want real.

For that, we need to design.

“Design makes futures. What designers make becomes the futures we inhabit. In this, design is unique. Other discourses imagine new and different things, but do not make, do not realize them as things that people in the future will experience as their reality. There are practices of making, but these crafts do not imagine new kinds of, and so future, things.” – Cameron Tonkinwise

Regardless of the specific practice, field, or domain we work within, design can help us to more constructively speculate, better articulate, and tangibly communicate the preferable futures we imagine. Whether you call this speculative design, design fiction, technology-led design, strategic foresight, design futures, critical design, discursive design or just plain design doesn’t really matter at the end of the day. Design is important because we increasingly live in a designed world. The majority of the products, services, and technologies we experience today were once designed (arguably) with our future needs, goals, behaviors, motivations, and pain points in mind. For this reason, we can relate to others, even fictional future others, through the products and services they use, more intimately understanding the world they live in and empathizing with their daily joys and challenges through the shared language of the quotidien. Design makes speculations concrete, even if imperfectly, and in doing so has a far greater ability to suspend a user’s disbelief (it’s not just fiction) and situate them firmly in future represented by its existence.

The act of designing also forces us to realize our speculations through the eyes of everyday people. Tools and methodologies like observation, ethnography, systems mapping, new tech analysis, personas, and scenarios make us prototype, test, and refine them into something people can understand. Something that, through its embodiment, tells them a story about where it is from, how it is used, and what that could mean for them. If good speculative fiction is a pair of 3D glasses, then good speculative design is a 3D printed prototype, taking that vision and actually figuring out how to make it (or an approximation of it) so it can be handled, tested, debated, demoed and critiqued until it is ready for alpha distribution.

But what does speculation and design look like when they come together in the right way? How do they combine to “make the futures we inhabit”? How can they help us to not only understand our rapidly changing world but find the agency to take the first steps towards the future we want?

They birth innovation.

While speculative fiction may just be ‘fiction’, stories are powerful. More and more, people and organizations, inspired by the futures the portray use design and emerging technology to engineer new products, systems, and services that bring them into reality. One of my favorite novels, Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson, features a virtual ‘metaverse’ that was the inspiration for the recent blockchain project Decentraland, a decentralized world owned and created by users. It also popularized the term ‘avatar’ in digital slang and was the inspiration for Google Earth, Quake, and Xbox Live. As virtual and augmented reality products become more ubiquitous, movies like “Ready Player One” and anime like “Sword Art Online” help us to raise important questions about what it means to live in a virtual world, who should own/run it, and if the life lived there should be considered any more or less real or better than what we currently consider ‘reality’.

So how do we cope with uncertain futures? How do we prepare ourselves for challenges and opportunities we can’t hope to predict, for jobs that don’t exist, for systems we can’t yet imagine? We stay speculative. We read and tell stories about the future, design and share prototypes of new ideas and innovations, learn about emerging technologies and discuss what social transformations they engender. Most importantly, we collaborate. We work together to bring our unique skills to the table and remix the output of our collective imaginations. We use what we have today to create spaces that empower others to join us in debating what we want for tomorrow.

The future is already here — now let’s distribute it.

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