Chi: Hello, and welcome to another episode of This is HCD. I’m your host Chi Ryan and in this episode, I’m speaking to Phil Balagtas and Jack Wilkinson from speculative futures, an international community focused on speculative and critical design, design fiction, futurism, and strategy and foresight. Practitioners in their own right, Phil has been a practicing visual and interaction designer since 2001 and has experienced designing across a variety of devices and platforms within non-profit, retail, advertising, and enterprise software organisations.
He is currently and experience design director at McKinsey and Company, working with a variety of industry to transform and enhance their digital businesses and strategies. He’s also a founder and organiser of the design futures initiative, which organises the international speculative futures meetup and the Primer conference in the U.S. and Europe. Educator and futurist, his events bring together designers and futurists from all over the world, including working with the boys and girls club to help put young people on the path to great futures, and teach and share strategies for designing for the future and the ethnical challenges around emerging technologies.
Jack is an invention lead, design futurist, and part-time faculty at Parson’s in New York City. His practice is rooted in speculation as a means to empower imagination and explore what lies across the post-human horizon. Leveraging his background in both entertainment and psychology, he seeks to utilise design to create transformative technology to evolve human ontology. Jack had a past life in reality TV and is a comedian, no pressure.
Together, they are some of the folks behind Primer, an annual speculative design conference created to prepare for the future and equip people to help shape it. Get your ticks for Primer via Primerconference.us. Welcome to the show, Jack and Phil. Let’s start with the big question, what the heck is speculative design?
Phil: Wow. That’s a good question. I have a definition or one of the definitions. Many of the definitions that are out there, it’s a way to understand possibilities and to facilitate a more responsible path into the future. While speculative design was never necessarily only meant to be about the future, that’s what we’ve clung onto, because we felt it was not only just a good vehicle for imagining outcomes for the future, or how Dunne and Raby used to present critical design, which is also in the same realm. The social, the cultural impact of design or emerging technologies and the ethical challenges around that. I’d like to hear Jack’s definition.
Chi: Me too.
Jack: Yes, I think you nailed it. I think we should talk about some history of it at least. You mentioned Dunne and Raby, Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby. They were at the RCA, the world college of art, where they were the heads of the interaction design program there. Then reformative it as design interactions. Really started this conversation around using design to explore alternatives to the ways the world could be, the way human beings could be, the way we interact with one another, we interact with technology, all of these things that are alternative visions and alternative realities for what that could look like.
I really feel like they spawned generations of people who are now out in the world, teaching speculative design in their own way. Whether or not it’s much more experiential, or it’s about the artefact, or it’s even about there’s a much more writing component, or they’re immersive, these are all people who are out int eh world and teaching it to a whole new generation. I feel like I might be one of those people from that second order generation.
I learned a lot from Eliot Montgomery who is much more around the participatory side of things, letting people be involved in the process of imagining alternative futures, alternative presence, even an alternative past, which I think is actually super fascinating.
Phil: I think it’s really interesting how a lot of us refer to Dunne and Raby as the forefather and foremother of critical design.
Phil: Fore-parents, exactly, of critical design. Speculative design has been practiced for much longer. You can see it in architecture, as an exercise in academia. Critical design became its own thing in the late 90s when Tony, he coined the term in his book, I think it’s Heard Tea and Tales. Then, again, with the designer interaction program spawned off, just like Jack said. There are many people in Europe who have taken critical design and it’s still called critical design there.
I think sometime in the 00’s, it was coupled with speculative and critical design, then it came speculative design. Critical design hasn’t necessarily faded away, there are definitely some purist practitioners out there, but then there’s design fiction, where at one time it felt like design fiction was the popular term in America. That was coined by future labs, like Julian Bleaker, and that got published into a paper.
That became this other version of speculative design. Not as conceptual, I don’t even know if that’s the right way to design critical design, but it was this other flavour of it. Now, that’s still a very prominent term, as well. It’s not a U.S. versus Europe thing, but it’s all the same. I think it’s this evolution of one, the terminology and how it’s manifested and practiced by people has been an interesting thing to watch over the last 20-something years.
Jack: I think that’s also part of the interest with the design futures initiative broadly, is that there are so many great practitioners in the world and there’s such a large conversation about what is this practice? People who are just like, I’m an artist and they’re doing what other people would say is speculative design or people who are like, I’m a writer, but the type of writing their doing is much more around the description of designed artefacts or telling stories about designers working in alternative worlds. Then it becomes a thing where it’s like to me, that feels like all part of the same space of practice. Part of what we’re trying to do is bring those voices together to see what comes out of deep conversations.
Chi: How do you apply speculative and critical design in your own day-to-day practice?
Phil: At McKinsey, well, let me go back to when I was working at GE Aviation, which is the first time I actually tried to bring speculative design into a corporate environment. At the time, I was an interaction designer for GE Aviation, then I later became a director there. I had a little bit more authority to push methodologies. We would bring it into the brainstorming session, the vision and strategy workshop for airlines, when we were working with airlines. Actually, aviation, industrial businesses and airlines are good place to use this because you have to look pretty far out. For engines, aviation engines, it takes about ten years for the engine to actually roll off the assembly line, so you have to do a lot of risk mitigation and planning.
That was the template that we used for a lot of things. These engines keep the planes in the sky, it’s very important, why can’t we use that kind of rigor and risk mitigation to look at what we’re building as software or for passengers for airlines and airplanes. We would literally just smuggle the process in. We’d say, we’re going to do a journey map, and we’re going to look at what we’re building for you in the next two years, but let’s look beyond that because we know we can build software in the next two years, but let’s look at the next five years, do you know what the world is like in five years?
We would do this exercise as a kind of microworld building exercise of what is the airport of the future feel like? Not try to hinge it too much on the technology, though, that’s what they’re interested in because they’re like, how do we actually put butts in seats five years from now? Who are the people we’re designing for then? How do we get them to pay for tickets and get more people to pay for a ticket? We’d used these little anchors to keep them interested in the conversation, economic impact, the technology that’s available then, how can they take advantage of drones and beakans and all of that stuff?
Then push onto the outer limits of, do you actually know your customers? Do you know who they are, how they’re interacting, what their cultures are like? These are the customers that five years from now are probably the people who are in school today. Do we actually understand the people that we’re designing for who are in the schools, the millennials at that time? That pushed the conversation outside of how can we make money on people and what technologies can we use, into like what are the actual interactions? How are these people behaving and their families and what are the things they like to do? That started to push into the realm of social impact.
The ethics around, can we actually get these passengers to buy into a system that’s tapping into their data, or get them to sell them things, is that actually the right thing to do with our technology at that point? That was the best we could do at that time. We weren’t actually creating the speculative design was more like, here’s the airport of the future, or here’s the aircraft of the future. They might be autonomous and there might be drones flying around it. It was more practical science fiction. I wouldn’t even call it science fiction. We were very careful around the terminology. Like I said, we didn’t call it speculative or critical design, it was more a visioning workshop.
That was it, we stopped it there. Today, I think it’s a little bit more accepted. I think speculative design, as a term, it feels like a lot more people are talking about it. We do strategic foresight at Mckinzey. We have a few people that actually actively are working with governments and a lot of clients who are really invested in having the long view. We do a lot of that thinking there. We’re not exactly creating speculative and critical design projects like you might see in the media or in academia today, but we’re sort of just getting there.
Chi: Have you got any examples of where you’ve put speculative design into practice?
Jack: It’s so hard to measure an outcome for projects like that, to say, “See, now the world is different.” This is where this conversation around how closely related speculative design can be with art. Where it’s just like, I went to that art exhibit – how do you measure how changed people are, or that five years from now, a person totally took different action in the world because they went to the Mo Ma. It’s really hard to draw that line. I feel like the hope is always putting things out in the world. People are interacting with them.
You maybe don’t even know who they are, they’re being challenged by the project. As a result, they’re questioning the decision-making. I think that comes sometimes on a micro level. Sometimes it’s on a macro level. A project that I did that I felt pretty good about in that regard was, there’s a lot of conversation around space right now. I had been working on this project of, what does it look like to be non-anthropocentric in space.
Chi: What does that mean?
Jack: Anthropocentrism? Okay. Well, right, anthro, human being, and anthropocentrism would be the world that we live in is centred on the human. The Anthropocene, which is a whole other conversation, is that the time we currently live in is dominated by the fact that human beings are the predominant force shaping our planet. A lot of people are going to be like, “That’s not the best definition of that.”
Chi: I’m immediately like, wait a minute, you sure that humans are the ones that are doing that, because maybe it’s not us?
Jack: I would say, like, when you look at archaeology, right, you look at the bands of time, there will be a band that is human beings. There will be types of rock, that the rock itself is different because human beings are on the planet at that time. I think that is at a conceptual level what the Anthropocene is to me is trying to say. That the planet itself at a very physical and fundamental level is radically different because of human beings. I always spend a lot of time being like, if we just should stop making things that are so focused on the human. That is already something that we’re bringing into our explorations of space. We fire things to the moon and just leave them on the moon, we don’t care. What is garbage on the moon?
Chi: Yes, we’re assholes.
Jack: Yes, space junk is a huge problem. I’m just imagining this time where we continue to just try to fire things at Mars and try to land there, then we just destroyed the planet and we haven’t even physically been there yet, we just keep shooting things at it, hoping to try and land there. Maybe just our pure presence there is itself pollution. Like, just by being there, we are polluting it. I have made this short little film that was an attempt at imagining an alternative to what that could be. That these scientists are just bearing witness to the planet. They live in floating habitats above it.
They are actually attempting to clean up Mars after a period of failed attempts of landing on it. That the entire point of them being there is for them to understand the possibilities of Mars being the origin of life. There are several layers to this. I did present that at the international astronautical congress as part of this track that there that is put on by a series of arties and designers. Including Nelly, Ben Hey Yun, who is an incredible designer. It is supposed to be – it is a track that is supposed to be challenging engineers and people working in the space industry, like, at their conference.
Here’s a series of projects that are alternatives to everything that this conference is about. To me, that is a lot of where these projects get from being, okay, this little short film that sits on my website is not, I’m going to show pieces of it to people who are actually building and designing these things. That, to me, is the feedback loop, is putting the projects in front of the people and making the things, so that they can be challenged by how they’re making the things and hopefully make them different. That was a long-winded way of saying…
Chi: Let me as you this, how can listeners in its most simple form bring a little bit of speculative thinking, maybe a little bit more critical thinking to their own practice, to whatever they do? If we define it by the terms that we’ve discussed, so speculative design, so thinking a bit more deeply about what it is that we’re making in the future and what the impact of what that might be, and then critical thinking, so being a little bit more critical, sceptical of the things that we make. How can other people who are listening bring that into what they’re doing?
Phil: I think the one thing we struggle with, and we do get this question a lot is, that there is not double diamond for speculative design, or futurism, or strategic foresight, or science fiction authoring. There are multiple frameworks that all of these different disciplines have used to try and understand the future or world build. World building is a discipline of its own, as well. I with that there was a double diamond for speculative design, or that there’s a way to easily explain. I think you actually did a really great job of explaining how it fits into that process. I don’t think it’s as easy as like, yes, just go do it.
A lot of people in the world today work at corporations and startups where it’s not that easy to just make the wild object and to get away with it because there’s funding behind it. Just to speak tactically, I think there are a couple of different things that need to be done for those types of designers. One is just getting by. If you can imagine when design thinking became a thing, an actual practice, how did you sell that? It’s just research, right, and it’s just craft. There’s also probably a very similar struggle of bringing this new structure or formula to corporations. Getting buy-in first of all is the most important thing.
Maybe, again, playing with terminology, or hinging onto whatever your company really cares about. If you’re trying to have a conversation about ethics of privacy, what are you going to bring to your CEO or your design director to make them care about those topics? Do you use data privacy because that’s a popular topic, this is going to be the anchor that we’re going to use to launch into all of these different conversations around ethics and cultural impact? That’s a great one and people should use that.
Unfortunately, we were seeing the negative impact of those issues, but you should use that as a launching point if you can to have those much broader conversations. Then there’s the actual practice of it. Again, there are so many different ways you could practice it, like, making the wild object, creating scenarios. Nick Foster who works at X, which used to be Google X, created this really great video called the Selfish Ledger, you can find it online today. It was definitely a design fiction, or speculative narrative around what Google could become or the different ways the ledger or the AI could actually tap into people’s data. There’s one segment of that video that says the ledger doesn’t know something about its user, which happened to be its weight, the user’s weight.
It taps into all this data it knows about the user to understand this aesthetics that that person likes and then it creates a scale. It 3D prints a scale just to acquire the weight, this piece of data. When it got out, it was an internal video just meant to poke and create a discussion around what are we doing. Just maybe stimulate some creativity and imagination. There was a huge debate about it when it came out because they thought this was actually real. This is what Google wants to do. Debate is always great. That’s the intent of it sometimes. That was one method of doing it.
There are tons of examples in the world around these vision videos that people do internally. Like, Apple has a very famous one called the knowledge navigator, which was done in 1984, which was the – I don’t think it was intended to be the precursor of the iPad, but there are a lot of components of this video that have a touch screen, it’s a touch screen tablet. It has an AI, a virtual assistant. It connects to the internet magically, which wasn’t very commercially available at that time.
There are a lot of things that you can do, artefacts or scenarios to create those visions for a company. Again, I think the steepest hill to climb right now is getting people bought into the idea of speculation. Not just like, we paid you for this thing, this is what we want you to build and it has to be out in the next year or so.
Chi: I think of speculative design in a way of a provocation. Just the term in itself because it doesn’t necessarily have one meaning or it doesn’t have a double diamond, it doesn’t quite fit any other boxes that the term itself is a provocation for people. It makes people question something. It’s certainly the thing that I try to do with this podcast. Pretty much anything else I do is provoke people to think in other ways. Speculative design is a label that allows you to do that. It makes people question what it is or what is that? That’s the starting point. If you can get people to do that on a day-to-day basis, that’s where it begins. You don’t have to have a scaled outcome of what the result of speculative design is because to be quite fair, you’re absolutely right, Jack, over a period of time, you can’t know what the future is actually going to be until it really happens. You can guess, but there’s not always a definitive answer of what the impact is.
Unfortunately, in business, that’s what people are asking for. They’re asking for a definitive understanding of the impact of whatever it is and isn’t. The point is, you can’t get that, but by being more critical and asking more questions, we can try to figure out whether or not we should really do something or not. That’s probably the most important thing. Is there a book or other, it could be documentary, whatever you like, a game, cards, that you think is a really great starting point for someone who’s kicking off thinking about speculative stuff?
Phil: I think that, and I think that Jack will agree, that the seminal book to start with is called: Speculative Everything by Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby.
Jack: Yes, absolutely.
Phil: Granted, that it is a collection of projects both from them and I think other designers at the RCA, it is more positioned around critical design. I think it’s still a good start. It might not seem very practical, but I think as far as just hitting you hard on the head around the potential and power of this type of design and that type of issues that it surfaces, it will get you understood. I used to use this card deck that was developed by situation lab, Steward Candy, called the thing from the future. It’s a nice, very easy introduction to getting people to practice it. It’s a card deck with four different prompts. You can just play a game basically. Granted, you don’t want people to think that this is a game. But you can start to get them introduced to how you think about the future.
Jack: I really want to highlight the extrapolation factories operator’s manual. It has a lot of amazing workshop and participatory futuring methods in it, which I would say primarily is how this practice shows up in my work, which is engaging with people around how they think about a certain domain.
Phil: Yes, I will say that we’ve talked about a lot of tactical, practical ways to practice this or introduce it to your company. It is a very, like we said before, a rigorous practice, mired in research. It’s not easy. As long as we’ve been practicing it and doing workshops with people, we have a platform that we’ve created to help introduce. We have a lot of 101 talks and 101 workshops, but to do it really well, to do it at the level of Dunne and Raby and the people from RCA and some of these other people who are actually practicing futurists, it takes exercise. You have to be able to unpack the world differently. Even when we do these workshops, people think about the future as, it’s now just ten years later. The same stuff appears.
Like, there are mobile phones, but maybe they’re smaller. Or the internet it more widespread. They can’t think outside of the box or outside of technology. That’s the issues of being in San Francisco, is everything’s connected to technology, or social media. I can’t even count how many Facebook apps of the future, or mobile apps of the future came out of some of these workshops. It’s not that they’re wrong, they just didn’t understand how to think about implications. That’s the one thing that we really try to press. It’s not just about the tech, it’s about the implications. The impact in society. Like, our role in that, in the future, and a lot of other dimensions that people just completely dismiss. Maybe not intentionally, but they just don’t address.
Chi: Do you think that there’s anything that the design industry needs to do to change, to adapt to that?
Phil: Yes, I think just being more open to the practice. I think, again, like we said, businesses don’t want to invest in something that they can’t see, there’s no ROI, how are we going to measure this? It’s happening in five years. It sounds like it’s reasonable. It sounds like a reasonable threat or opportunity, but how do we invest in that? I think just being more open to those ideas and then being able to extract what those design proposals mean, that it’s not just like, this is the future and you should either go for it or avert from it. I think they should understand, well, how can we address it in a very sophisticated and logical way that we can drive our business, change society, influence society, influence our users, or whatever it is that they’re caring about. Be more impactful to the world. Not just their bottom line.
Chi: Every morning I wake up and I have this thought that we’re doing it wrong. I kind of imagine this evolutionary path that humans went on. Something happened, like Monty Python style, and we went off and this tangent and that’s where we are now. In a way, we have to un-design a lot of what’s been done.
Jack: We’re very narrowminded. I think that we feel like we’re the most advanced species on the planet, but when you really take a step back, we’re really irresponsible, we’re really just very ignorant about a lot of things. Very like we do things very unilaterally. We don’t think about societies outside of our borders. It’s both fascinating and disappointing at the same time. Not to be too dystopic about things. The human mind and we’re animals and we’re still figuring things out. We’re actually still very primitive. We’ve put people on the moon and satellites into orbit and stuff, that’s great, great advancements.
Chi: Did you watch the – what’s the film with Ryan Gosling as the… the one where they go to the moon?
Jack: First Man.
Chi: First Man. I watched this the other day and I’m thinking; I would have never got in that tin can. No way, they were inside nothing and they just shot them up there.
Chi: It’s frightening as hell.
Jack: In the scene where it’s creaking, I would have been like, okay, hey, one of the bolts is loose. It’s not ready yet.
Phil: I want to know really what Elon Musk’s strategy is for putting people on Mars. It’s 99.5 or 99.8 carbon dioxide. Like, just breathing on Mars is going to be quite a challenge, not to mention getting back if we have to or all the other things around just surviving there.
Chi: We haven’t even explored the depths of the ocean.
Phil: Exactly. We shouldn’t be allowed to explore another planet until we can actually responsibly fix our own. Just sustain on our own planet.
Jack: I don’t think we’ve ethically evolved enough to be able to participate outside the boundaries of our own planet.
Chi: Maybe that’s why they made it so hard for us to get off.
Jack: Totally. Even if you were another species and you saw our planet and you see all the space junk that’s floating around it. You’re like, okay, they don’t get it yet. We still have a radical herd mentality, where we do everything that everybody else is doing. We buy into the same things that everybody else is buying in. Designers, as creative as we think we are do the same thing. There are trends as far as what a website looks like, just interactivity on web pages is all having buttons look all the same. At its most micro level, we are like… and template. Ready to go.
Chi: That’s because humans are lazy. That’s why there’s so much space junk.
Chi: We’ll just leave it, whatever, someone else will clean it up. 20 years’ time I’ll be gone, who cares?
Jack: There’s so much of that short-term thinking that is the reason why we are so stuck in, I’m doing this this today and I don’t really care.
Chi: That’s why speculative design and critical design is so damn important.
Jack: Yes, absolutely.
Chi: Why don’t you tell us a little bit about the conference?
Phil: Primer is a conference that we started in 2017. Originally, it was meant to be the annual gathering for our meetups. In 2017, we only had a few chapters in the United States, so just to give you an idea of how fast we’ve grown, in May of last year, we had six chapters. We had three in the United States and then two in Europe. Today, we are over 30. There is definitely a huge interest across the world around this topic. The conference was really just meant to be the annual gathering for all of them. It’s since grown. This year it will be at Parson’s School, where Jack is faculty. June 13th through the 15th. This year, we had 150 applications for speakers workshops and exhibitions. It’s three times as many as the first year. We have Paolo Antanelli.
Jack: From the Mo Ma. Then we also have Manosh Fenolan, from Parson’s. We have Yutasha Womak, who wrote and incredible book on afro-futurism. Then we also have Parson’s and Charlesworth who are practicing speculative designers.
Phil: Matthew Manos.
Jack: Who recently wrote a book.
Phil: Towards a Pre-emptive Social Enterprise, I think it’s called, yes.
Jack: Yes, about all of the ways in which we’ve already done terrible things to the fabric of our world.
Phil: We have a pretty well-rounded program. We have been trying year after year to, again, expand the community, inviting science fiction writers, afro-futurism writers. We’ve [inaudible 00:30:05] foresight practitioners that are coming in, actual futurists that are practicing in large corporations. We’ve got the art; we’ve got critical designers like pure critical design. There’s a huge spectrum of people that we’ve invited this year.
Jack: So many conferences about the future are people talking about the future of work and the future of interfaces and the future of mobility and it’s all about the future of a thing. This conference is much more about the practice of thinking about the future. I wouldn’t have really anyone who’s going to get up there and just be like, here’s the future of the toilet.
Chi: That would actually be a great talk. The reason I say that is because, I actually proposed a thesis on toilets. In particular, public toilets.
Jack: Yes. Waste is a big issue.
Phil: It is.
Chi: Bathroom and toilets and public toilets in particular are terribly designed.
Chi: That’s a whole other podcast. I don’t want to make any toilet puns either, but anyway.
Jack: Well, they’re really shit, let’s be honest.
Chi: There’s the comedian. Well, on that note, I’m going to say thank you for both of you for being here. It’s been great to have you. There you have it. Primer 19’ is happening this June in New York City. Get your tickets now from Primerconference.us. Primer 19’ is organised by the design futures initiatives in collaboration with the school of design strategies at the New School at Parsons. There are some amazing speakers on the line up and you’ll be able to catch me running my: Impact the world isn’t ready for workshop at Primer 19’. We’d love to get your feedback or thoughts on speculative design.
Are you using speculative design in your practice? Go to: thisishcd.com and register to join our Slack channel to join in the discussion to learn about how other people across the design community are using speculative design. We use our Slack channel to shape future episodes of the podcast, as well as sharing interesting design related content every day. I’m Chi Ryan, thanks for listening. See you again soon.
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