I did something for africa. Speculative Design summer school.

[Disclaimer: this is a live article in edition. Take this notes as the backbone of what will be an article about my outcomes and experience in Speculative.edu summer school]

Futures design and my practice

During the first week of september I got to be invited to a summer school about Speculative Design (SD) in rurality. The summer school, hosted in RUFA and led by HER and Ruralhack, was part of a european project called speculativeedu. Its scope is to collect, exchange, reflect upon, develop, and advance educational practice in the area of speculative design and its self-critical approach. The project is participated by some of the most active and relevant individuals, institutions and research collectives in the SD space around europe. Among others: University of Split, Goldsmiths, Madeira Interactive Technologies Institute, Napier University and Institute for Transmedia Design.

Along the last years of my work and practice as a designer engaged in transitions towards sustainable futures I have been drawn to futures studies and practices. Sustainability and design interphase has, since the beginning of the field, being infused by them. Strategic management, scenario planning, technologic speculation, backcasting, forecasting, future prototyping… are all part of the usual sustainable designer mindset and toolkit. Moreover, “visions for the future” and “theories of change” are two of the conforming elements of Transition Design as an emerging field. Design, by definition, is a future oriented and speculative practice as Cameron Tonkinwise puts it. 

“Designing that does not already Future, Fiction, Speculate, Criticize, Provoke, Discourse, Interrogate, Probe, Play, is inadequate designing.”

Throughout the last years I have actively added specific knowledge, concepts, tools and notions from the growing field of futures design (even though this concept is still discussed in the community) by exploring the writing-making and engaging with some of the leading figures in speculative design, design fiction, transition design and critical design. Back in 2018 I participated in a summer school organized by the Centre for Postnormal Policy & Policy Studies and Blanquerna University about future studies. Some of my notes and takes from the school can be checked here.

All these learnings have been introduced in several of my latest transitional projects in inèdit. Specially on those focused on sectoral level transition toward more sustainable futures. Such is the case of the multiyear and multiagent process which I co-facilitated about logistics and about urban transportation.

Futures of last mile logistics (work for Laboratorio Ecoinnovación)

In addition to these projects several future oriented practices such us future prop and scenario prototyping has constituted part of my daily toolbox as designer. I have engaged with them in several different contexts (educational, consulting work, cultural/art…) and industries. Such is the case of the the strategic exploration we facilitated with SEAT for exploring new roles of automotive OEMs in the context of Mobility as a Service in a circular economy.

Scenario prototyping (work for SEAT)

Once immersed in my gap year, SD started to track more and more of my attention. Part of the foundations of this open program is about generating impact, about transforming myself while transforming my relationship to the world(s). There’s many things to get fixed out there. We are living in an age of colliding crisis one of which is a crisis of imaginaction. In these spheres our inability to imagine alternatives has become almost a mantra. Although is worth to continue developing new imaginaries I believe there’s already a great amount of them, just not evenly broadcasted.

In an era of “slow cancellation of the future” social imaginaries of what’s possible, desirable and probable are being colonized by the totalizing narrative of capitalism. We are in need, then, of new and mobilizing narratives and potential complex states of the system as much as of infrastructures for action and transformation. SD offers interesting insights as well as an enactive quality of engaging bodily with alternative futures. After all that performative quality, although not present in every practitioner,  is what brought me to SD.

Approach of the workshop

As a practice there are many different approaches to SD depending on the elements each process stresses more. There’s some practitioners putting a variable emphasis on the object and its affordances, the interaction, the narrative aspects, the exhibition, the dialog derived… The introduction lectures on the first day made it clear that the approach for the workshop was meant to be semio-narrative one. The choice of selecting different global and uneven locations also made clear a place-based approach. 

Quote from Umberto Eco

The brief handed to us included the setting up of an exhibition on the last day of the workshop which ought to be populated by several props describing both a fictional future scenario and portraying our process and methods. This self-imposed limitation in the form of a closed structure helped frame the work for the rest of the week. Part of my interest in the workshop was having a inner experience as a student and seeing with my own eyes how people from different backgrounds struggle with the uncertainties of such a process. The workshop was not suggesting a concrete methodology or set of tools but the organizers trusted the groups in their self-organizing skills. This created some issues with the group. Personally it put a little bit of stress on me for keeping the pace and the process. Each group had a facilitator whose role was purposfully loose.

SD mapped over traditional design process (source).

Our group got assigned the location in Lushoto in the Tanga region of Tanzania and was asked to start doing some research putting our attention to both “trends or for things that are curious, peculiar [or] innovative”.  Early in the processo the first concerns and conversations around coloniality started to emerge. Almost the whole day we engaged in several discussions that helped frame our our work for the rest of the process in the form of these and other open questions:

Can we speculate about other peoples’ realities?

Is it better to act well-intentioned on an uninformed opinion than do nothing?

Is deciding not to design the most radical act of design?

Can knowledge ever be neutral? 

Is speculation possible without projecting one’s own desires or fears?

Where is the grey area between inspiration and colonisation?

This helped reframe our initial brief which was to speculate around the future in this community. A couple of pathways were brought up:

  1. Relocate our focus to ourselves. Recognize interdependencies, take responsibility of our privileges and recognize our contribution to the colonization of possibilities as a post-colonialist community. This aligned with what I later learned to be multi-sited ethnography.

    Could we work on a constructive image from the future to engage people in the creation of post-colonial futures that respect the autonomy of Tanzania and Lushoto?
  1. Use the parody as a critique to some bad practices in the field of SD and to ignite conversations about the decolonisation of these practices by:
  • Mimicking a non critical process like we were supposed to do
  • Repositioning ourselves as a design object by reproducing the workshop like done in Lushoto by local designers imagining the futures of Rome or Europe. We rejected this option because of some reservations about the idea of positing ourselves as victims and blaming an oppressed community.

After discussing both possibilities we decided to go for the satirical approach and try to provoke some conversations. We decided to track what could be done badly process and ethic-wise. For that purpose we decided to follow our previously agreed process impersonating a fictional character named Alex who might embody characteristics of all of us a SD community from the global north (here a general description and biography of Alex can be found). Hard conversations were held discussing about where to focus our critique (persona, practice, design community…) and the level of subtlety of the critique (how evident? how maniquea? how open ended?).

Well aware of the deep critiques SD has been receiving from different sides we decided to do some background reading about post-colonial and critical perspectives. Among others we skimmed over:

 Apart from these references we also got interesting insights by browsing some of the critiques, discourses and evolutions of more mature disciplines/approaches such as critical studies, ethnography or participatory design.

After these conversation and having a clear position and point of view for our project we let the parody process start. Hereafter I describe some of the pitfalls of SD and bad practices which we identified and enacted during the process. I also share some of the wicked results and poorly frames insights which we highlighted.

Research: days 1-2

The brief for this initial research was to familiarize with the context we were designing for taking into account both the general trends and the curious, the eye-catching, non normative… We started by reading some of the available information which happened to be mostly official reports from international organizations like UN or FAO. We also did some desk research about grassroots efforts in innovation and technological development. We also dove into social media to see tagged pictures and publications in Lushoto. Some imaginaries about the location started to pop up. Here some of the main findings are aggregated.

Caption from a local facebook group.

We aggregated all the findings from our research in a map that helped assign some focal points for our project: land grabbing from chinese funds, deforestation and soil quality, water, seed preservation, role of women in community, start-up ecosystem, religious conviviality , access to education, tech usage and literacy, migration…

Trend map

Some of the bad practices that could be introduced in this phase:

  • Non-participative or poorly participated research. Lacking context, imaginaries, placed knowledge, etc.
  • Participatory process in which the role of communities is purely as “observed” or “extractive sources”
  • Research based on international reporte with a clear bias / institutional knowledge as superior
  • Bias of our narrative/metaphorical frames of reference
  • Not having technological contexts of the use of different tools (ex. fish with pig face pic and FB group)
  • Rational dualism. Exotization of the other.

Problematization and scenario setting – day 3

In every design process (ass well in SD) and after having sufficient knowledge and understanding of the situation it takes place a process of problematization which is key for the definition of scenarios and worlds willing to be explored. Problematization is not a neutral process, moreover is deeply political. Some of the most fierce critiques to SD elaborate on accusing the practice of not tackling the structural aching elements of real-world problems (accumulation of capital, capitalocene…) moreover aestheticizing them. 

For the definition of our scenario (which can be consulted here) we used a collective narrative assemblage process.

Narrative assemblage

Some of the bad practices that could be introduced in this phase:

  • What if..? scenarios already introduce desirabilities both in positive or negative examples. These desirabilites are sometimes taken for granted following the mainstream narrative. 
  • Exhaustion of futures. Slow cancellation.

Ideation – day 4

Throughout this phase we started sketching out some ideas about a prop that could populate the world we had created and that embodied visually as many as the pitfalls of poor SD. Already in this phase we started reflecting about which message and performativities we would like to introduce into the final presentation. We wanted to use the context of the exhibition to loosely and without lots of nudging rise some gut level feeling of inadequacy. 

Ideation sketches

The breakthrough of the process was the serendipitous encounter of a maasai spear. We decided to provoke a detournement effect by opposing a traditional tool with a badly understood bottom of the pyramid DIY approach using waste from capitalistic world (the Pringles antenna).  This object was meant to create a rejection from the spectator almost as in Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty. We also decided to leave the purpose of the gadget quite open-ended,

Some of the bad practices that could be introduced in this phase:

  • Enchantment of tech. Techno-utopian bias.
  • Reproduction of models. Scaling and replicating bias. (Tanga Valley)
  • Bias towards the new.
  • Tyranny of what’s possible.

Exhibiting and engaging in discussion – day 5

The final day was mainly about producing the final piece for the exhibition and orchestrating the different elements of it: a scenification of Alex’s working space containing his process diary that itself consisted the narrative of a speculative designer struggling with post-colonial issues, a map of the hypothetical scenario in Lushoto and the prop. 

Final setup for the exhibition

Additionally we decided how to set up the presentation and how to open the discussion with the audience. For that reason we projected some critical questions slideshowing in the background as well as a Twitter thread of Alex interacting and being criticized by Victória Turner.

Some tentative conclusions (edit mode)

In order to overcome some of the critiques that we (and others) have raised about SD as a practice, us designers need to push for:

  • Real and meaningfull autonomous participation of the communities we are designing with.
  • Diverse visions and perspectives more evenly broadcasted

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