Bella Spencer explores the potential of speculative design to engage society and democratise the debate around science.
You watch a genetically modified mosquito buzz outside your window on a sweltering day in December. It’s a sentence that could be plucked from a science fiction novel; a speculative future. The advances that would lead us to such a surreal reality are complex and controversial, but they are based within the realms of scientific possibility and would impact us all.
Scientific discoveries and developments are playing an increasing role in shaping the future. But as innovations drive us forward, the gap between the decision makers and the communities outside the “ivory tower” widens. This dynamic can be seen in the mass rejection of genetically modified crops, when the so-called ‘franken foods’ were introduced to British supermarkets without public consultation. The disconnection between science and the wider public contributes to a mistrust of the industry and developments that fail to reflect the wants and needs of society.
Providing platforms for citizens to engage with scientific advances is a fundamental step towards provoking conversations and enabling conscientious decision making. Science fiction has long been exploring matters of science and technology by creating a portal to fantasy futures where developments have shaped society. Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale depicts a population whose fertility has been devastated by environmental pollution, while Black Mirror’s Nose Dive episode imagines a society where every interaction is rated and contributes towards an individual’s social credit score. Though these narratives are predominantly doomed, twisting science and society into their most gruesome and dystopic form, they bring complex issues to life. By evoking emotions and contextualising scientific developments within a future reality, audiences can be engaged beyond the potential of percentages, predicted outcomes and reams of jargon.
Creating an environment for imaginations to run free is an approach to science engagement that is being harnessed and adapted by the emerging field of speculative design. By presenting fictional futures, speculative design enables citizens to imagine where developments and innovations might lead. Working in consultation with scientists, designers weave real scientific methods and issues together with fantasy, to create fictional and often playful scenarios and diegetic objects that embody, and draw people into, the narrative.
The scenarios are not designed to be a crystal ball to predict futures, but a transparent and creative space to allow anyone to understand complex concepts, reflect on their potential impact and join the discussion. As Anthony Dunn and Fiona Raby explain in their renowned book Speculative Everything “By facilitating debate on the implications of advanced research in science, design can take on a practical, almost social purpose, and in doing so, play a role in the democratization of technological change by widening participation in debates about future technologies.”
Food Fictions, a recent exhibition at Berlin’s Museum für Naturkunde, invited visitors to reflect on complex issues of food supply and sustainable consumption. Designers and food experts collaborated to create five speculative, and rather spectacular, fictional futures spun from matters in current research. The scenarios were presented as inconspicuous objects that wouldn’t be out of place in a family home. Designer and Exhibition Curator Lynn Harles explained “When we talk about mundane futures, keeping speculations close to our reality have a much higher impact because you can find yourself in the scenario. If the speculative objects could be imagined in our kitchens as they look today, then we can relate to it in a better way.”
In one scenario, designers worked with Dr. Nina Langen, a senior researcher at Technische Universitӓt Berlin, who is investigating the drivers, determinants and obstacles of consumers choosing sustainable food solutions. In this speculative future, dubbed “Farm Buddy”, city dwellers no longer pop to the shops to buy a steak but instead invest in a cow from the local farmer throughout its lifetime. The purchase comes with a Tamagotchi-like device that allows an emotional connection to form with the animal while the consumer waits several years for it to grow to maturity. This tongue-in-cheek exploration of how technological empathy could reduce the amount of meat we eat, prompts reflection on, and debate around, the impact of food production and consumption.
It’s an unconventional approach to engaging people with topics that have real consequences to our environment and society. However, Dr Langen believes that it may be needed to foster changing attitudes and behaviours. She commented that “So far the whole discussion about sustainable food consumption is not really catching the consumers attention. Therefore, we have to come to other approaches so that science and scientific recommendations go to the kitchens of ordinary people and their ordinary evening meal. [Speculative Design] can help me rephrase and rethink issues, to get curious, and make the points that we think are relevant more explicit.”
With the approach still in its infancy, questions remain as to how the conversations provoked by speculative scenarios can be harnessed to shape complex decisions. Harles believes that solving this crucial part of the puzzle requires buy in from the players that have the power to implement change. She explained that “This is an interdisciplinary research topic that can not just be answered by designers- you need more stakeholders in this construction. [Speculative Design] will have the biggest effect when it has the opportunity to shape research agendas and influence policy making. If you’re talking about bi-directional science communication, it’s super easy to engage the public, but there is not much research about how to get my findings on the desk of a policy maker.”
Designer and self-confessed trouble maker, Daisy Ginsberg, creates speculative scenarios that take an alternative path to trigger change, by provoking reflection within the research industry. Ginsberg’s Designing for the Sixth Extinction explores a future forest where synthetic biology is used to engineer organisms in order to conserve nature. On one tree sits a lab-grown, self-inflating, bauble-like pump, designed to fight a real and currently incurable disease called “Sudden Oak Death”. The fictional organism has an artificially modified genetic code that sets it apart from nature, a method currently being explored in synthetic biology research. Ginsberg imagines that corporations could invest in these organisms to compensate for the destruction of nature caused by their activities, in a form of “biodiversity offsetting”.
The media misinterpreted the message of Ginsberg’s work and spun a story heralding Designing for the Sixth Extinction as an indication that synthetic biology could “save nature”. This caused a stir in the synthetic biology world and researchers accused Ginsberg of damaging the field’s reputation by making false promises. During a talk at STATE Studio, Berlin, Ginsberg gleefully explained that while this was not her intention, she did aim to provoke synthetic biologists to reflect on their own promises and consider the potential impact of their work. These moments of reflection, in an industry preoccupied with progression and results, seem fundamental to ensuring that decisions are made with consideration of the wider implications on the environment and society.
The future will not only be experienced by the monoculture of senior decision makers, but by societies with an amalgamation of needs, values, hopes and fears. Through play and provocation, speculative design takes scientific innovations and revelations out of the abstract and into people’s imaginations. Forests co-inhabited by synthetic organisms and kitchens shaped by sustainable food choices allow us to put ourselves in the heart of the scenario.
Speculative Design enables citizens to reflect on and discuss the potential impact of scientific advances on our lives. Incorporating these perspectives into research agendas and policy could contribute towards a more equitable future. Democratising the debate around the complex and controversial can also cultivate trust, and with trust comes collective acceptance. Unified actions towards unpredictable challenges, such as pandemics and the climate crisis, would create a more resilient society, better prepared for uncertainty. While we can not predict the future, we can make sure that everyone gets a say in how it is shaped.