Design Fiction and Space to Speculate

When we work in the same way as our competitors, we sign up for the same set of constraints. On the same path to the same destination. We’re good at improving our products through a series of iterations, but the holy grail of bold innovation is as elusive as ever.

We’ll see how fictions and possible futures can help us to think without boundaries. We’ll talk atomic priests, glowing cats, and love-struck computers to see how making space to speculate leads to new ideas.

Design Fiction and Space to Speculate

Jack O’Donoghue: Experience Design Lead – Sportsbet

Jack is product design leader and practitioner who likes to take analogies from different areas of the creative industries to shape his own understanding. Some techniques he commonly uses are interviewing fellow creatives on his interview series ‘Design the Things’, as well creating talks and presentations such as this one, to think and speak through ideas and analogies.

The genesis of this talk was thinking through the idea of how to take something that inspired him and make it not just relevant but useful for other designers to use in their day to day work. In working through the process of drafting thoughts, talking with others, and wavering between feeling inspired and discouraged, he realized the process itself was where the insight was, that having the courage to think through new ideas and challenge convention could in and of itself yield fruitful material. If viewers of this talk come away with only an opposing view to his, this is still of value as by challenging other’s perceptions and opinions we come to a fuller understanding of our own working process from what we value to the ways we use this in our work.

Core Idea of this presentation: making space in your work to wonder about the future and to speculate can help you innovate today. Too often designers are given conflicting briefs, e.g.:

  • experiment and try new things, but do it fast, and hit those KPIs.
  • disrupt our industries, but to do it using the same tech, constraints, and resources as our competitors.
  • be creative, but do this very specific task, don’t miss those five stand-ups, planning sessions, feedback sessions, showcases and one on ones.
  • ‘think big’ in a room full of people judging you, even though they say they aren’t, in front of your boss, and next to a colleague who might be up against you for that promotion.

  • Bold innovations come from bold ideas. Bold ideas come from bold thoughts. Bold thoughts come from being bold enough to take the time and making space to think freely…. What if we had the space to think freely, go down a few rabbit holes, to hit a few dead ends and come back to reality with a deeper understanding of something new? And what if we didn’t?

    The goal today is to encourage listeners to loosen up the boundaries of their work and give themselves and their teams the space to speculate, because

    If you do what everyone else is doing, you’ll get what everyone else gets. Speculation is to engage in thought or reflection, to meditate on or ponder a subject, and to review something idly or causally and often inconclusively.

    So how to operationalize speculation? One way is to start by posing design challenges that tease big questions in order to encourage deliberate thought. The example of a nuclear waste storage site is illustrative of a challenge where speculation was really the only possible approach.

    If we have a nuclear waste site that would remain toxic for 100 000 years, how do we warn future humans/inhabitants to stay away?

    How would we communicate the dangers of the site and encourage distance? What environment is going to be stable enough to house it and what structures will be able to withstand tectonic or temperature challenges? We cannot know what the planet and its inhabitants will look like nor what semiotics or communication methods they will be using, therefore we must speculate. We could use solutions we know now, such as creating a religious order but there are pitfalls of using myth and religion as signposts. We could breed a cat to glow when near nuclear waste, but beliefs lose potency when connections and meanings are lost and the way we interpret information changes over time. We could arrange the landscape to look ominous, but this may also encourage daredevils to explore.

    None of these thought experiments/speculations solve the challenge, however they do offer useful insights by identifying the key variables and drivers of the challenge; people, landscapes, and communication. By extrapolating these into the future and therefore the unknown, we were able to speculate on possibilities which can offer new perspectives on the challenges of today.

    Examples such as this might be seen as fluffy, but they are fun, and creativity is enhanced when creators are having fun. This example is different and the potential solutions risky, but bigger risks yield bigger payoffs, so again the process of speculating can offer contemporary insights.

    Another example of the value of a speculative approach can be seen in the television show Black Mirror, which depicts some of the moral quandaries and impact on society and behaviour that technology may have on the future. The show tends toward a dark interpretation, but the core reason it is so engaging is that it feels like these futures are possible through charting the sequence of events that could thread together to lead to often dystopian outcomes. The formula of the program is similar to our thought experiment above: take one factor from today’s zeitgeist, extrapolate it into the future, speculate on what possible outcomes could result from continued progression of this thing, and reflect on and explore the result.

    Again, let’s look at the benefits of this approach:

  • Encourages you to focus on what’s important now
  • Encourages you to think about what might be important in the future and
  • What the consequences of the decisions you make today are
  • By channeling this new perspective into projects you can come up with fresh ideas whilst maintaining a strategic outlook and gain a bird’s eye view of the driving factors and consequences behind your product or service.

    We can also see this threading effect working through past examples in Science Fiction, which predicted many products which today are commonplace in the tech world, such as mobile phones, driverless cars, virtual reality, AI and this list goes on. Tim Berners Lee was said to have been inspired in the creation of the web by the scifi book Dial F for Frankenstein. Speculative fiction writer Neill Stephenson was in turn inspired by the early www to write Snowcrash, which inspired countless other cyberpunk spinoff books, ideas, and projects. These seemingly independent works actually are bound by the shared territory of future tech speculation.

    When Jack first discussed some of these ideas with a mentor, he was warned to ‘expect pushback’, but he takes this as a sign that he’s onto something new. Ok now, all of this sounds cool but is it useful? How do we take these ideas and use them in our own work?
    1045 Let’s use the frame of a visionary, defined as ‘someone who can think abstract in freeform thought, then using logic and pragmatism, weave those ideas into reality to solve real problems’

    Extrapolating this out, speculation and creativity go hand in hand with critical thinking and problem solving. Think about the relationship between invention and innovation – they thrive under different conditions, but are both necessary to make leaps and progress 1120. Invention, speculation and creativity need freedom, space to be left alone and not judged, whereas innovation, critical thinking and problem solving need scrutiny, criteria, rules and boundaries. If you do too much of one without the other, you’ll be ineffective, or get mediocre results.

    So…. Invent in a basement, innovate in an incubator. and remember to balance creativity and speculation with critical thinking and problem solving.

    Key takeaways:

  • Loosen up the boundaries of the work you do
  • Spend more time thinking about the future to help inspire ideas for today
  • Challenge conventions even if you believe in them, especially if you believe in them
  • Expect pushback, it could be a sign you’re onto something new
  • Be ok with hitting dead ends
  • Give your team space to speculate
  • Be bold enough to reach for new ideas
  • Jack’s website.