”Western Melancholy“ / How to Imagine Different Futures in the ”Real World“?

27/08/2018

News

“Western melancholy” can be understood as the ultimate consequence of our community’s acceptance of the incapacity to stop devastation of the environment and climate change by transforming the social and economic models responsible for those problems.

(Text was originally published on the Croatian Designers’ Association portal dizajn.hr in July 2018.)

 

In the 1960s, Jaques Tati created a film series about Monsieur Hulot who unsuccessfully refuses to accept the modern western world characterised by growing consumerism. Monsieur Hulot is constantly wrestling with the future he did not opt for but cannot escape. In Tati’s satirical and somewhat surreal world, the main actors of such future are primarily technology, architecture and design. Critics of the dominant economic models emphasise that capitalism, by promoting and investing in technology, and particularly so in its neo-liberal phase that began in the 1970s, actually programmes technological development and thus constantly colonises the future. In that context, design has always been playing a key role since it never stopped creating new products and iterating new lines for the existing ones by bringing new styles without adding new values or quality. After having matured during High Modernism, design evolved into one of the key actors of technological determinism, primarily focusing on the market and failing to systematically re-think potentially negative implications of the technological progress. Unfortunately, some attempts to critically elaborate technological development or to establish utopian models through the prism of design in most cases ended on the margins of mainstreampractice or appropriated from the system itself. In that context, design critic and teacher Cameron Tonkinwise emphasises that design had a dual role throughout the 20th century (and this trend continued in the beginning of the 21st century as well): it was both a product and a producer of modernism.

Welcome to someday, CompuServe, 1982 LINK

James Auger, designer and design researcher, often highlights the fact that in the past technological processes were something tangible and materialised in design artefacts (e.g. a telephone stood as a symbol of telecommunications, an airplane symbolised jet propulsion, etc.) while people perceived technology through the concept of progress (faster, easier and more efficient). Nowadays, however, the so-called “disruptive technologies”1 operate at the levels which people find very difficult to understand (Big Data, automatisation, Internet of Things, Smart City, nano or bio technologies, etc.). New technological phenomena provide plentiful possibilities in the context of which design becomes the fundamental distinctive element of new products, the way they are connected with users/consumers (e.g. experience design or life-style design via technological artefacts/gadgets), that is their market success. New products, systems and services developed in such a context might have dramatic consequences on the society. For example, the concepts such as Uber or Airbnb are based on design approach in designing services and experience and they have shaken up the foundations of economic, legal and labour systems in many cities and countries in a relatively short period of time.

New City: Taobao Village, Liam Young, 2018

Due to the complexity of various technologies and the need to rationalize it, in other words, because of their incapacity of understanding the way technology functions but also due to the closed nature of patent systems, people have always been relating technology with the concept of a “black box” or “magic”. Consider, for example, Marconi’s radio as the first patented “black box”, or the “magic” of “The Wizard of Oz” or Terry Pratchett’s wondrous iconographic device from his novel “The Colour of Magic”2 Rationalising technology is something that makes part of the history of mankind and human spirit, and such perception, represented through the concepts of supernaturalism, brings along many dangers, primarily because of the fact that in doing so we tend to denounce any control over technology, which currently dominates more than ever before in human history. In this context, designer and educator Tobias Revell and researcher and curator Natalie Kane speak about the phenomenon of haunting as a result of domestication, i.e. the entering of such technologies which we are unable to entirely understand in our everyday lives and homes. If we describe or call the way certain technologies function as “magical”, we risk to shift our focus on the end-result and ignore different ways of accomplishing that result (as well as the context).

Extreme climate conditions do not only imply changes in our living environment but they also indicate changed social, economic and political relationships.

Design, as the driver of modernism, also had its role in the establishment of the so-called “Anthropocene“ (or “Capitalocene“), which more than ever in human history opens possibilities for extreme catastrophic scenarios that are about to take place in the near future. Although scientists have been warning about the implications of human activities on the natural environment for more than four decades now, the regulation of technological development has not been globally established. Nonetheless, while most of the prominent scientific institutions have already established that climate change is undoubtedly linked to human activities, many members of political structures and the academia still deny the relationship between climate change and human impact. Extreme climate conditions do not only imply changes in our living environment but they also indicate changed social, economic and political relationships. They are drivers of changed power relations, new social inequalities and the new distributions of opportunities. They also imply the change in technological environment, new energy strategies, possible comeback of abandoned technologies, analogue communication, mechanics and similar.

Italy in 2100, Jay Simons, 2012. LINK

From an optimistic point of view, it is most probable that the “big” disaster or some kind of apocalypse will not happen instantly. Actually, there will be a series of small, aggregate changes that will have an impact on climate change on local micro-levels. Increased air temperature or sea level rising will not have the same impact on the population of the Baltic part of Sweden, the US east coast, the south of Sri Lanka or the population of the north Mediterranean, i.e. the Adriatic coast. Unfortunately, those with least influence and power to create the future (as a consequence of many centuries of power constellations and development possibilities) will be those most severely hit by such futures.

In such a context, design, unfortunately, in most cases uncritically promotes the new technologies with the production of prototypes and narratives that communicate ways in which the emerging technologies might have an impact on our lives in the future. The scenarios generated in such a way rarely deal with possible negative implications of the introduction of new product in our lives but rather serve to the owners of those technologies to pace their products more successfully. The role of design in the process of adoption of future technologies in everyday life, i.e. in its domestication, has been recognised even outside of design circles but, unfortunately, without any critical perspective.

“Western Melancholy”

The times we live in, very often called the times of “new normality”, “post-normality“or “hypernormalisation“, when we witness disappearance of the world we once knew with an uncertain future ahead of us, are the times characterised by new uncertainties for individuals, society and the planet, rapid change, new distribution of power, chaos and shocks on multiple levels, and the times when narratives about an exceptional opportunity for design practice are re-introduced. The importance of design on the new future labour market has been constantly emphasized along with trendy, instant-made design specialisations in, for example, “human organ designer” or “nanotech designer”. Modernist myths about the revolutionary role of design as the discipline that would change the world are also reappearing. Everyday, we witness new design competitions focusing on finding solutions for big global problems and hear voices of those who believe that new disasters also create new opportunities for designers. On this account, designer and researcher Silvio Lorusso, while describing such glorification of design, has ironically concluded that an outside observer might be under the impression that designers were the only ones capable of interrupting this cycle of capitalism. However, all these approaches have been continuously ignoring the idea of inducing political change or radical shifts in the existing educational models as the guiding principles of the classics of Modernist design. In most cases, they are reduced to individualism, or individual “empowerment” where design is primarily perceived as a source of new competences and consequently, increased productivity.

Fix the World, Wired, 2013 LINK

The embodiment of the myth about design as the main driver of all change nowadays comes in the form of philosophy of the so-called “design thinking”. The idea that design thinking as a method could be used for resolving problems in business or everyday lives has conquered the neo-liberal world. Through concepts and business models offering methods and tools for “designing one’s own life” (Life Design Lab), this business philosophy actually has a tendency to transform into a worldview. „Design thinking“ may be observed as the extension of the “Californian ideology” that was detected in the mid-1990s by British sociologist Richard Barbrook as the combination of cybernetics, free market, counter-culture and libertarianism adopted as the new “faith” on the US West Coast (via Silicon Valley), and which subsequently spilled over to Europe and the rest of the world (primarily via online magazines).

Such a phenomenon can be described as “western melancholy or the process in which a designer focuses on the consequences of the current situation instead of dealing with the causes of a particular problem.

In the context of the relationship between design and technology, “design thinking“ has its place in the series of similar processes intending to resolve the problems that have resulted from technological development (inside of the capitalist system) through innovation that in most cases results in design and production of new technologies. Such a phenomenon can be described as “western melancholy”3 or the process in which a designer focuses on the consequences of the current situation instead of dealing with the causes of a particular problem. This concept is not limited only to “design thinking“ or the technological sphere. For example, Evgeny Morozov, publicist analysing relationships between technology and society, talks about “solutionism“, a concept that is particularly present in the world of start-ups, and which implies that technology can resolve all social problems. “Western melancholy” in design also refers to the contemporary scientific and technological determinism embodied in the movements such as Ecomodernism. This paradigm is rooted in a number of dogmas, i.e. the one that “we have always been and we continue to resolve problems with knowledge” and that “the future will be hyper-ultra-turbo interesting!” This belief celebrates the position where a human being evolved from an observer into a creator and in the name of progress and growth, he or she can and must change the nature while the consequences of human activities are to be resolved by means of science and technology, anyway.

Western Melancholy, Oleg Šuran, Ivica Mitrović, 2018

Projects such as SpaceX or SolarCity represent the ultimate embodiment of such an approach or the idea about genius creative persons (or scientists) who are the only ones possessing the necessary knowledge and wisdom and who are going to save the planet from self-destruction (via innovation and technology). Although Ana Jeinić ,theoretician of architecture, uses the syntagm “salvation architecture“ in the context of architecture, it might be easily expanded to a much broader context.She establishes that such seemingly “utopian projects” despite of sharing “technological innovation, ‘futurist’ design as well as size and radicalism of spatial intervention with the 20thcentury spatial utopias”, still remain relatively unavailable to other social groups. Jeinić further expands and claims that such “salvation” projects in the end evolve into “isolated cocoons of energy efficiency and social welfare, high-tech islands of sustainability in the sea of unsustainable investments and destructive capital”, which “in its elitism, apparently provides a kind of climate refuge only to those who can afford it“.

Mars Colonization 2022, Space X, 2017 LINK

The need to explore the cosmos and to leave this planet is not founded only in the human aspiration to investigate and search for an explanation of the emergence of the universe (and life) but also in the scientifically-based theories about the temporality of life of our planet and our galaxy. Without any doubt, explorations of the universe play an important role in the development of revolutionary scientific and technological findings (mostly achieved through complex political processes and, mostly competing with military budgets). However, future scenarios focusing on the so-called backupplanets, emphasizing that human beings do not necessarily have to be associated with a single planet, tend to merely preserve status quo and foster scenarios in which the Earth gradually turns into a planet where the future life is impossible because of used-up resources. In that way, they are additionally reinforcing the context of new technological production, or technological determinism to take us away from this planet where we lack resources for further life. Not only that these scenarios are lost in such “Western melancholy”, but they seem to neglect the fact that all the problems resulting from the current state of affairs would necessarily go to the new planet together with us. In addition to that, such “colossal and mythic” projects focused on the universe utilize the exact same colonial rhetoric (and ideology) of the past centuries, as well as terms like “conquest”, “colonisation” and so on.

Lost in Space, 2018 LINK

Furthermore, “Western melancholy“ can be also observed in the mainstream Hollywood production. For example, the 2017 blockbuster Geostorm was based on speculative fiction about the future where a network of satellites encircles the planet and controls climate change via new and innovative technologies. Geostorm is just one of many films tackling climate change produced by the mainstream cinematography during the last decade where a human mythical hero (a scientist) embarks on a quest to save the planet. Predominantly dystopian climate fiction might be explained as a reflection of the failure of the global endeavour to mitigate changes induced by humans.

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Geostorm, 2017

One does not have to look far to understand “melancholy“. There is an outstanding example created by the Zagreb School of Animation – Professor Balthazar. In the episode dating back to 1976 and titled The Air, professor Baltazar, as a “genius scientist”, “brilliantly“ finds a solution to the problem with the traffic smog by inventing filters which are supposed to be affixed to exhaust pipes. A local industrialist recognises the invention and turns it into an innovation that the whole city can use. Nevertheless, since technology cannot miraculously4 resolve the problems resulting from the previous technology, the new industrial site for the production of fresh air filters produces even bigger pollution.

Professor Balthazar, 1976 LINK

“Western melancholy” can also be understood as the ultimate consequence of our community’s acceptance of the incapacity to stop devastation of the environment and climate change by transforming the social and economic models responsible for those problems.

Speculative Design as “Post-Design” Practice

More and more designers practice different design approaches, departing from the dominant perception5 and dominant design practice. Those “new designers“6 are active on the edges of traditionally defined disciplines removing the borders between them. At the same time, they are establishing links with diverse scientific fields in order to be able to critically reflect on the role of technology in our society. They are re-thinking the role of technology in our everyday lives by focusing on implications rather than applications of technology. By using design practice in a collaborative process, they speculate on new technological as well as social, economic and political constellations in the future.

Traditional vs Speculative Design, Oleg Šuran, Ivica Mitrović, 2015 LINK

Speculative design practice is most certainly the most significant example of such7 new design practices. It is a discursive activity founded in critical thinking and dialogue reflecting design practice (and its Modernist definition). However, the speculative design approach expands the critical practice towards imagination and diverse visions of possible future scenarios. Through imagination and its radical approach and by using design as a medium, speculative practice inspires thinking, raises awareness, examines, provokes actions, opens discussions and has the ability to provide alternatives needed in the world today. With critical thinking, design of objects generating a story or through the stories embodied in artefacts, speculative design attempts to anticipate the future and in the same time helps us to re-think the world of today.

Speculative Design Practice, Oleg Šuran, Ivica Mitrović, 2018

Speculative practice moves from the consumerist role of design and uses speculation about potential futures and design as a medium to challenge current social, economic and political relationships as well as our relationship with the natural environment. It also intends to move from the role that design has in presenting market-ready solutions and attempts to restore the design foundations, such as discursiveness (analysis, reflection, examination of various possibilities, anticipation and so on). Product designer and educator Matt Malpass emphasises that speculative design practice has close connections with technology, which is not neutral, but rather reflects diverse political and ideological constellations within a society. Thus, he underlines the importance of speculative practice and social science theories focusing on science and technology. According to Malpass, speculative practice focuses on social, political and cultural consequences of scientific research and technological innovation and vice-verse, on the way they influence the society, politics and culture.

The foundation of the currently dominant speculative practice is the so-called “English critical design“, introduced in the late 1990s by Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby through their design practice and educational activities at the London Royal Collage of Art. In parallel with that, it is also important to refer to projects created by the Near Future Laboratory in California (with a European link) directed towards developing design fiction practice. Speculative practice, as James Auger and Julian Hanna explain, strives to create and communicate imaginaries of a potential technological futures, closely linked to the world we live in, before they actually happen. In that way, it tries to have a significant impact on the so-called “preferable” future.

Design potential in terms of thinking about the future results from the very basis of design profession; design has always been focusing on the future. Damian White, sociologist with a research interest in design practice, points out that speculative thinking, prefiguring, prototyping, doing things differently, falling and starting over again are the core elements of any good design education. When it comes to communicating potential future scenarios, design has an additional advantage in the fact that it uses the language that is attractive to broader audiences and that can act outside of the academic or the narrowest professional context.

Twin Peaks: The Return, 2017 LINK

Dunne and Raby emphasise the potential of speculative design practice in thematizing and acting on broader social and political issues such as, for example, democracy or sustainability, as well as alternative solutions for the existing capitalist model. As Damian White claims in his essay on the relationships between critical design and critical social sciences, in order to realize the potential for possible social changes, it is necessary to collaborate with other relevant stakeholders dealing with political economy and reconstruction of institutions, primarily in the fields of sociology, anthropology, philosophy, history, culture studies, etc.  It is also necessary to involve certain political stakeholders, civil sector and activists.

The extraordinary technological progress we witness today (nano and biotechnologies, hybrid urban environments, ubiquitous technologies, automatization and so on) and domination of techno-determinism can be directly linked to the time when the Italian radical architectural and design practice emerged, i.e. High Modernism during the 1960s and the 1970s. Radical practice used the language of the consumerist culture through speculations about possible impacts of technological development on the future to critically reflect on social, political and economic relationships of the Western world at that time. It was undoubtedly marked by political activism focused on criticising the educational system in the time of High Modernism and with some attempts to introduce alternative educational systems. Very often, the scenarios were radically dystopian (as opposed to the Modernist utopias) and shocking because they wanted to open the space for critical thinking about the world.

Il pianeta come festival, Ettore Sottsass, 1972 LINK

Thus, it is not difficult to understand why the Italian radical practice is the major historical reference8 of the speculativedesign practice. The core characteristics of the radical approach were: the resistance to the mainstream practice of High Modernism and the so-called “international style“ (as the basic ideology of the time) and technological domination, focusing on social issues and re-thinkings the profession, mostly through a political prism. In fact, those characteristics are today fundamental characteristics of speculative and critical practices as well. In the same way the radical design confronted or put into question the paradigm of High Modernism as the dominant ideology of that time, new (speculative) design practices today attempt to confront the dominant consumerist ideology.

New City: Machines of Post Human Production, Liam Young, 2016

Speculative design and related critical practices are still developing and there are many on-going discussions about their definitionsroles and methods. By defining speculative design as a specific practice or a field of specialization with its respective methods, we risk to fall into a trap where such identification and placement inside of a “box” might put in question openness of the practice that does not belong only to design context and a closed set of rules (methods). Speculative design practice should be, above all, understood as an attitude, an approach open to various methods, tools, techniques and instruments as well as other practices and disciplines. Therefore, it is very important to re-think the practice and its foundations now to be able to try answering the question whether speculative practice has the potential to turn into a new, perhaps, post-design practice, “design-after-design” or whether it would remain just another utopia and historical reference.

“New designers“, coming speculative and related design practices, tendency to depart from the conventional design practice as an activity lying at the foundations of our contemporary consumerist society is apparent in many names used to describe their practice; i.e. they call themselves transdisciplinary, post-disciplinary or even post-designers sometimes without even stating that they are coming from a design perspective. Certainly it is result of their intention to keep the openness of speculative and critical (also personal) approach refusing to be classified according to traditionally defined “boxes” (profession or specialization). This trend of moving away from the mainstream design is also apparent in the expansion of design practice; nowadays designers undertake roles of “researchers, writers, critics, curators, etc”. In his essay about the design practice today, Silvio Lorusso detects a problem with such identification because it seems that today it is no longer sufficient to be “a designer as a designer”.

Designer As…, Critical Graphic Design, 2014 LINK

Such trends indicate that within the profession itself, unfortunately, there is no perception of the importance of identifying design as fundamentally discursive, critical and (self) reflective activity. In a conversation about design and activism, practitioner and researcher Pedro Oliveira claims that these prefixes attached to the design practice are very often just attempts to escape responsibility of design profession and the fact that design always needs to be discursive and critical, i. e. that design implies political activity. He additionally problematizes the position where design becomes a kind of “political branch” of the design practice and undertakes the exclusivity of political activism. Ignoring the fact that any design activity implies political consequences (or stands as the consequence of a particular political context) represents the fundamental problem of design profession today. Because, as researcher and educator Ramia Mazé points out, design practices can never be neutral, there are always some critical and political issues, alternatives and futures involved, while design theoretician Matko Meštrović writes about a strong link between theoretical and ideological thought in design. Political consequences of design activities are easily recognized everywhere around.

Good practices of product design and graphic design have always contained discursive and critical components.

Graphic designer and publicist Dejan Kršić says that design has always been a signifying (discursive) practice that generates, analyses, distributes, mediates and reproduces social meaning. Furthermore, he adds that any design implies a process that produces meanings and, as such, has uncertain result (outside of a designer’s control yet dependant on the interaction between users/the audience, reception, decoding, context in which those processes take place and so on). Design process is always a speculation about such conditions and possibilities, about the final result of in a complex context that is actually undetermined and unpredictable. Good practices of product design and graphic design have always contained discursive and critical components. For example, the educational approach at ours Visual Communications Design Department has always been based, thanks to one of its founders, educator and designer Tomislav Lerotić, on the critical approach. Although it has never been labelled as “critical” or “speculative design”, it undoubtedly comprised the elements of those design practices. Therefore, Cameron Tonkinwise precisely detects that design that does not image the future, does not speculate, does not criticise, does not provoke, does not reflect, does not interrogate, does not probe, does not play actually does not present inadequate design. Silvio Lorusso further expands that dealing with the question “what if” actually represents the basic mode of design (and human) existence.

We can conclude that speculative design approach has the potential to reinforce discursive design practice because it provides mechanisms to overcome disparities between the theory and practice and demonstrates that design is not just a practical activity of creating concrete object or services. Rather, it encompasses reflection, historical references, documentation, analysis and other things. In other words, it acts as a discursive activity with a potential to deconstruct divisions to strictly defined spheres of science and art, as well as other traditional disciplinary divisions.

Dystopia as New Utopia

Science fiction has always been an extraordinary inspiration within design practice,  from the interaction design and interface design to visual communication design. Literature, film and visual art serve as inspiration for imagining new worlds, i.e. new social, economic and political systems built around the future technology or having the future technology in them.9 Despite the fact that designers have always been in various ways involved in the production (for example, by designing artefacts, interfaces, scenography, characters and so on), the speculative design practice is the practice that has completely integrated science fiction in the design process. The use of science fiction language and methods, with a long history of creating imaginary scenarios, worlds and characters with which the audience closely identifies, makes an integral part of speculative design practice. As opposed to sci-fi utopian or dystopian scenarios about the far future, speculative design practice is closely linked to the present in which we live and primarily deals with the near future. Imaginary technologies and social relationships of the future created through the speculative practice are clearly linked to our today’s world.

Logan’s Run, 1976 LINK

However, sci-fi visions of the future also serve as the tool in the hands of big corporations in the realization of their preferable futures, which are usually built around corporation technologies (products). One of the best-known examples is the 1939 New York World Exhibition and the most attractive presentation of General Motors’ Futurama, as one of the biggest pavilions of the exhibition. The pavilion was designed by one of the pioneers of the American industrial design, Norman Bel Geddes, and represented the vision of an American city of the future (in the 1960s). According to the vision created by General Motors, in their city of the future cars, as the core product of the corporation, have a central position. This city of the future was not designed to suit humans but rather cars, or highways. Unfortunately, it successfully anticipated modernist urban development based on the imperative of speed and efficiency.

Futurama, 1939 LINK

In their blog on the critical perspective on technological futures, James Auger and Julian Hanna refer to Richard Barbrook who claims that the corporate fetishisation of emerging technologies through aestheticization actually changes the position of technology in the society from its initial role of improving the quality of life into a struggle for market placement. To illustrate, Barbrook uses the example of the extraordinary IBM pavilion at 1964 New York World Exhibition with utopian visions of the imaginary future ruled by artificial intelligence, a technology developed during the Cold War seeking a new position on the market (and a new life) via this effectively designed presentation.

Key words such as safety, optimization, efficiency, speed and similar are used in all corporate visions of the future built around their new technologies. People in those advertisements are always good-looking and happy, the environment is clean and organised and technology functions perfectly.

Similar rhetoric is nowadays used for advertising by big corporations, predominantly in the ICT world. Key words such as safety, optimization, efficiency, speed and similar are used in all corporate visions of the future built around their new technologies. People in those advertisements are always good-looking and happy, the environment is clean and organised and technology functions perfectly. Tobias Revell states that such visions of the future are entirely dehumanised since people are nothing but “props” for the technology. Microsoft Office Labs vision 2019 is a classical example in which design fiction envisage the future of the communications, as well as many other similar scenarios designed by other big corporations.

Future Shore Control Centre, Rolls-Royce, 2016 LINK

Similar approach is also used for creating visions of technologically enhanced (hybrid) cities promoted as “smart cities” that very often represent a one-way, systematic, corporate view on how to optimise city resources. Such concepts focus on visions of a network of sensors to collect data about the city and its inhabitants or the analysis of data and its impact on city performances. In such future scenarios citizens are no longer inhabitants who create their urban life by interacting with the city but “users”without any possibility for taking action.

Luckily, future scenarios presented in film and TV production include criticism and offer much more fun. Apart from utopian scenarios, there are many involving technology that does not always function as planned. Rod Serling’scult TV series The Twilight Zone, the first edition (1959 – 1964) in particular, mostly certainly stands as one of the most significant mainstream examples of speculation about futures. Behind lucid, disturbing yet profoundly satirical future scenarios there are many interesting stories, such as, for example, the episode titled From Agnes With Love, where a computer falls in love with the operator or The Brain Center at Whipple’s, where an owner completely automatizes his factory only to be dismissed from it by a machine. Also, let us not forget Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, Fritz Lang’s Metropolisor the above-mentioned Jacques Tati’s series as classical examples of the critique of modernism.

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The Brain Center at Whipple’s, The Twilight Zone, 1964

In our century Charlie Brooker shared a similar world-view with his Black Mirrorwhich introduced a number of new dystopian and disturbing future scenarios. After turning to the North American production (Netflix),Black Mirror became a global dystopian hit (that has preserved its basic role of criticizing consumer society through satire, mockery and subversion in the mainstream context). It is apparent that dystopias are back in fashion. Therefore, the abundance of dystopian stories in the western (Hollywood) mainstream production, be it for films (Blade Runner 2049, Ghost in the Shell 2017, Interstellar, etc.) or for TV (Handmaids Tale, Westworld, The 100, Lost in Space 2018, etc.) comes as no surprise. Of course, with some significant differences between superficial action thrillers about apocalyptic disasters and profound dramatic metaphors about the current state of political and ideological repressions we face and need to put an end on. Dystopian literature is also on the rise and has recently reached the level of its “golden era”, i.e. the Cold War era in the mid-20th century.10 Another specific feature of dystopian literature today is its focus set mostly on the teenage audience.

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Black Mirror, Season 4, 2017

There is no dilemma that dystopian fiction is an important cultural phenomenon that has always resisted non-critical technological determinism (especially during the period of High Modernism). Ramez Naam, author of sci-fi fiction, underlines the historical importance of dystopian fictions serving as defence mechanisms and assistance in recognizing “the dark worlds” in the future as well as scenarios that come before them.  For another famous sci-fi writer Margaret Atwood they are important because they teach us how to act today in order to avoid similar futures tomorrow. Dystopian fictions, and this is particularly apparent in Black Mirror that uses methods similar to fiction design , play an important role in bringing speculative and related critical design practices closer to the broader audiences, such as student population in particular.

The Handmaid’s Tale, Westworld, The 100s, Interstellar, 2014 – 2018

Nonetheless, popularity of dystopian future scenarios also implies certain dangers about which publicist and activist Naomi Klein warns. She talks about the current domination of dystopian scenarios  in books and films that leads to people’s understanding of catastrophic scenarios as unavoidable, which makes them passive instead of proactive. Ana Jeinić warns about the fact that such dystopian visions of the future are everywhere around and we are actually trapped somewhere between “fatalistic dystopian fears, passive nostalgic mourning, the impeding discourse of totalitarianism and the circular temporal loop of profit-oriented speculation”. Dystopias very often deal with “big topics” mostly on the global level and thus divert the attention from the “real world” and all the problems we face on daily basis. Even those dystopian fictions that focus on the present moment, i.e. political and ideological threats in the near future, predominantly hold the position that it is better to withhold the present status quoin order to avoid such possible dystopias instead of offering possible systematic mechanisms for drastic changes in the world we live in. Speculative design, as a practice that derives directly from speculative fiction, has also been criticised for its escape to dystopian scenarios. Julian Oliver, artist with focus in critical thinking about the new technologies, notices that we tend to hide in such dystopias, lacking strength to struggle with the real facts of life, such as climate change and environmental disaster. It seems that people are gradullay giving up on the future and that the apocalypse is inescapable whereas the existing visions of the future do not offer any hope or comfort.

Writer of speculative fiction and one of the founders of the cyberpunk genre, Willam Gibson, claims that dystopia is not equally distributed and that even today a considerable part of the planet lives in the conditions which can be considered dystopian from our western-centric perspective. However, we should not forget that a large portion of western population, those with smaller chances or those living on the edges of the “developed world” also live in such conditions. Dystopian fiction has been traditionally generated by the comfortably positioned Western European middle class. In the same way dystopian fictions have been criticised because of their privileged position in the western world, speculative design has been criticised for its “Euro-centrism”. Cameron Tonkinwise says that many dystopian scenarios of speculative design that emerged from the western perspective have unfortunately been already taking place in other parts of the world. Members of the Near Future Laboratory conclude that someone’s future is already the present for someone else, i.e. that some have much better chances to realize their preferable futures than the others.

Altered Carbon, 2018, LINK

The most common reference and visual model of speculative design practice is closely linked to the so-called “futures cone” created by futurologist Joseph Voros, illustrating multiple future scenarios as “possible”, “plausible”, “probable” and “preferable” futures. In fact, speculative practice examines which futures are “preferable” or to whom they belong and who finds them preferable (states, corporations, “invisible forces” or “common” people). Tobias Revell discusses about the major drawbacks of the cone and emphasises its linearity and the absence of the impact of the past on the future. In addition to that, Ana Jeinić points out that speculative scenarios often encounter problems when they need to project expectations about the future back onto the present. Namely, she states that projections about probable futures have a direct impact on the present and thus create a kind of “temporal loop” stopping any possible radical improvement. This is evidenced in the above-mentioned dominance of dystopian scenarios when dominating dystopian visions of the future reflect on the present and thus create an illusion of inevitability of such scenarios. The present to which dystopian futures refer very often generates the same dystopian futures. Trapped in such a “temporal loop”, we can hardly generate different or positive visions of the future that we need today. The only positive visions of the future come from marketing campaigns designed by big corporations (which promote their technologies capable of bringing “a better future”).

“Netflixization” of the Future / “temporal loop”, Oleg Šuran, Ivica Mitrović, 2018

The influence of such “netflixization” of the future on the speculative design practice, as a result of predominantly dystopian media production (and demand) of the consumer society in the second decade of the 21stcentury, creates the future that is linear, predictable and dictated by the context in which it has been created. That kind of future no longer provides multiple possibilities and different paths – it is again the only option. A real threat lies in the fact that in this way speculative practice can only return to the limitations of consumerist design from the critique of which it has emerged. Therefore, it should try to set free from the “temporal loop” and start thinking about different, non-linear futures that designer and art historian Nikola Bojić describes as non-centralized futures. In fact, it should once again remove from the new monopolization of the future from the critique of which speculative and critical design practices came from.

Speculative Design is “en vogue”

Without any dilemma, speculative design practice is very much in fashion today. More and more designers embrace speculative and related design approaches in their everyday practice. We witness more coverage of this type of practice in different specialized and mainstream media. There is a growing number of publications and books tackling the issues of methodology and theory of speculative and related practices. Also, there are more and more studies producing visions of the future technological scenarios, companies employing designers to imagine future trends and surveys on the adoption of upcoming technologies. Speculative practice is being integrated in the mainstream technology projects, humanitarian projects as well projects for developing state infrastructure and energy future. There are more and more mainstream conferences and exhibitions dedicated to futures and related to the speculative design and their outreach is much broader than the professional one. The importance of linking speculative practice with the business world is also in the focus. Greenpeace utilizes design fiction to raise awareness about environmental issues and the military anticipates future warfare using speculative scenarios. Even the World Economic Forum employs methods from the speculative design practice for discussions about the future of the world economy.

Blockchain Banking Engineer 2030, Word Economic Forum, 2018 LINK

As a result of the popularization of critical design practices focusing on the future, we see an increasing number of study programmes that base their concepts of thinking on speculative practice as a tool for “changing” the future. The two with the most media exposure are The New Normaleducational programme organised by the Strelka Institute in Moscow and the new MA studies by the University of the Undergroundinitiated by Nelly Ben Hayoun in Amsterdam. Both study programmes have emerged outside of the traditional European academia and potential students find them to be hypeplaces for studying.11 Designer and educator Matt Ward also notices the “hunger” of big corporations (and markets), which tend to consume professionals with relevant knowledge and skills required for creating scenarios about technological futures. Recent controversies related to the publication of the speculative project The Selfish Ledger, designed for Google’s internal operations and lead by one of the pioneers of design fiction, Nick Foster, raise a number of questions regarding the role of a speculative design inside big corporations. Although in this case  some see additional popularization of the practice, there is a risk that because of its departure from the role of critical reflection and integration in the neo-liberal system speculative practice might become a tool in the hands of big companies (with far-reaching consequences) in their search of techno-determinist phantasies.

University of the Underground, 2017 LINK

Finding new audiences and gaining visibility for speculative and related design practices plays an important role in their promotion and somehow signalises the achievement of one of the goals, that is expanding the scope and reception of scenarios. However, this kind of “spectacularization” of the practice also implies the danger of moving away from the objectives of the speculative practice and focusing on the reception in the media instead of generating social actions. Silvio Lorusso observes immense popularity of the speculative approach among student population, which uses such approaches to avoid direct confrontation with problematic issues, or the reality. Lorusso tries to explain the trend by concluding that students find future scenarios far more attractive than confrontation and struggle with the cruel reality. Sometimes it seems that speculative practice is another way for designers to find solutions for problems they invented themselves.12

Also, if we look into student production at final exhibitions following the end of study programmes, one can notice a certain trend; some student works remind of exercises in style, referred to the aesthetic of the English critical design (“the RCA aesthetic“) or the dystopian narrative structure of Black Mirror.

Popularization of speculative design practice, which is becoming a mainstream practice, also implies danger from stylization of the production itself. Through the practice, designers very often deal with high-fidelity fictional artefacts or emerging technologies by focusing on the aesthetic of the future. Unfortunately, they often neglect wider social implications or political engagement. Also, if we look into student production at final exhibitions following the end of study programmes, one can notice a certain trend; some student works remind of exercises in style, referred to the aesthetic of the English critical design (“the RCA aesthetic“) or the dystopian narrative structure of Black Mirror. Although some successfully communicate speculative concepts, with such stylisation the speculative design practice falls in the trap of producing boring and predictable works that are very often also self-possessed and hermetic.

Our Friends Electric, Superflux, 2017

Large popularity of speculative design is accompanied by increased dissatisfaction with the approach itself. As previously explained, the critique of the dominant approach to the speculative practice characterises it as “Eurocentric“ and blames it for self-possession, disconnection from the “real world”, escapism to dystopian scenarios and excessive focusing on the aesthetic and stylisation (both on visual and narrative levels). Criticism is particularly directed at its almost “clinical” activities in the context of the protected “rarefied environments” such as museums and galleries, which often results in the renewed fascination with technology (although the speculative practice emerged from the critique thereof). In addition to the above-mentioned threats of repeated sliding into the “Western melancholy”, speculative design is also confronted with criticism regarding the lack of political engagement and strong activism, i.e. confronting with the “real problems” such as growing chauvinism, fascism, as well as racial, class and gender inequality. Pedro Oliveira emphasises that the dominant speculative practice actually addresses the future where social structures remain untouched and rather conservative. By focusing only on technology, the speculative practice actually diverts its attention from the real issues and challenges.

Decolonising Design platform gathered around the above-mentioned critics of the speculative and design practice coming from the western perspective, states that although many of such practices have good intentions and strive to change the world for the better, on the global level they can be interpreted as a kind of “new design colonialism”. They object the dominance of the western discourse in the practice claiming that it is predominantly practiced by the white middle-class, which offers critical and speculative design as the universal promise to the world. In their review of the exhibition titled Climactic: Post-Normal Design, designers and educators Bruce and Stephanie Tharp underline that dominant discursive design practices hardly go beyond the western perspective and different social contexts even though they simultaneously claim to be providing the overview of a broader context and alternatives to the existing status quo. In an on-line discussion, on the occasion of the exhibition titled Design and Violenceat the MoMA, critics of the dominant approach highlight its privileged western position and state that criticism is only possible outside of this comfort zone, by taking a position and organizing activities in the “real world”. In the case of educational systems outside of the western context, students find it hard to relate to the western critical and speculative approach.

However, there is an apparent need for constant improvement within the speculative practice. For example, designer and researcher David Benque discusses the problem related to the lack of advanced criticism in the field as well as the lack of criteria to define the quality of speculative projects. Are media attention and large audiences enough or is something else needed, such as generating action? Tobias Revell also emphasises  the dilemma about how to measure success of the speculative design project which, according to him, is not defined by the number of devices sold or the amounts of money raised through crowd funding services. When it comes to criticism about the “usefulness” of the speculative design practice, Dunne and Raby respond that it is necessary to examine the practice in the broader context and speak about “valuable” (instead of “usefulness”) of the practice since it seeks to change the perception of design as an exclusively functional activity.

“Western melancholy” and above-mentioned critiques of the speculative practice indicate its weaknesses and frequent lack of strength as well as the way for stepping outside of the (capitalist) system inside of which it emerges (and on the criticism of which it attempts to emancipate).

The Italian radical practice perceived its activities in a similar way by emphasising that criticism does not come with solutions automatically but that it can trigger various solutions and initiatives outside of the architectural (or design) community. In that context, Dejan Kršić remarks that today is questionable to define a particular practice as “useful”. He points out13 that “usefulness” of a particular practice implies that it is compatible with the logic of capitalist production, or circulation, and that it can somehow fit in. This is contrary to the very foundations of the speculative practice that evolved from the presumption of departing from the consumerist role of design. Therefore, Kršić points out, such approaches to design face the challenge where contemporary capitalism might reappropriate, use and include  “speculative”, “virtual” and “dematerialised” practices back in the system. “Western melancholy” and above-mentioned critiques of the speculative practice indicate its weaknesses and frequent lack of strength14 as well as the way for stepping outside of the (capitalist) system inside of which it emerges (and on the criticism of which it attempts to emancipate).

Speculative NOW!, 2016 LINK

Speculative and critical design practices have most definitely come to a turning point.  On the one hand, they are becoming mainstream practices characterised by all the above-stated disadvantages while on the other they face more and more attacks accusing them of becoming new colonialist practices. Thus, we can say that the current position of speculative design is somewhere between the critique accusing it of being the agent of the new technological colonisation and production of spectacular style clichés such as the clones of Black Mirror future visions (unfortunately, in most cases lacking its brilliant satire). Many discussions and reflections within the practice are very important activities that can contribute to the development of the practice by setting standards. James Auger, as one of the pioneers of the speculative practice often says that this practice is still being evolving with all specific approaches and motivations for taking action within the speculative field. Matt Ward adds that the speculative practice appeared as a result of dissatisfaction with the state of design and design education over many years and, as such, it emerged in its own context (western) to confront the world and go further with all its advantages and disadvantages. James Auger underlines that the basis of this approach, such as examination and criticism, are universal and that they stand as the ways of exploring and questioning the world with the use of design at the same time trying to imagine how could things look differently. We should also not forget something that designer and educator Demitrios Kargotis from the design duo Dash N’ Dem mentions, and that is the fact that these new practices provided new perspectives to designers, that they democratised the language of design by opening it to a growing number of people.

We can understand them as an open toolkit available to us and ready to be used and adapted to various contexts in which we live and act, our micro-communities.

For the speculative design practice to maintain its avant-garde role, it is necessary to continuously think outside of any tendencies of becoming closed hermetically in its own world, and outside of a challenge of becoming trapped in the “Western melancholy”, to be able to take a step forward and face the “real world” and to try to initiate real activities. Speculative and critical design practices have an extraordinary potential for critical reflection on design profession today but also for imagining (and participating in the creation of) possible futures in front of us. They have emerged in the western world, or in the developed centres of the Western world as a new design approach with an open set of tools, techniques, instruments and methods. We can understand them as an open toolkit available to us and ready to be used and adapted to various contexts in which we live and act, our micro-communities. For that reason, Bruce and Stephanie Tharp point out that turning the discourse towards local communities that designers know well can help in identifying and overcoming new realities, such as neo-colonialism.

It is of utmost importance that the speculative design practice, primarily directed towards the future or new social contexts and organizations, establishes a critical and reflectional position on the historical misconceptions of Modernism. Cameron Tonkinwise emphasises that the current role of speculative design is to provide answers to the mistakes of the modernist project and to re-materialize visions of a radically different future in our everyday lives. As Margaret Atwood points out, dystopias require some counterbalance or positive visions of the future. James Auger notices that the media today, unfortunately, mostly covers the projects offering visually attractive, dramatic and provocative dystopian scenarios. However, he believes that speculative projects can also provide new and positive futures. Furthermore, he concludes that if we are able to explore and describe such future scenarios, why can’t we try to realize them as well?

Speculative Design in the “Real World”

As a result of external criticism and auto-reflection within the critical and speculative design practice, the things have started to change. Educational institutions and practitioners are examining new approaches and ways to practice critical and speculative design. For example, Pedro Olivera and Luiza Prado published a set of guidelines for “decolonising” speculative design, which have become a part of the broader design movement with the aim to depart from the dominantly “western” discourse in design practice. In Modes of Criticism, among other topics, Francisco also publishes texts relevant to the critical and speculative design practice. At the Climactic: Post Normal Design event at the Carnegie Mellon University Design Department extended Feral Experimental and New Design Thinking exhibition was hosted with the works from Asia and Africa that also comprise elements of critical and speculative practice but come from a different discourse and cultural context. More and more projects are focused on local communities and local historical references. For example, the exhibition titled Tomorrows: Urban fictions for possible futures showcased future scenarios in design, architecture and art projects in the context of Mediterranean urban centres, whose futures will be framed by “economic crisis, climate change and mass population movements”.

Modes of Criticism, 2017 LINK

On the island of Madeira, James Auger, in collaboration with publicist and educator Julian Hanna, at the M-ITI, initiated the Crap Futures blog that documents their work but also tackles discursive and reflexive topics linked to the critical and speculative practice. As a result of their discursive activities, working with others as the Reconstrain Design group they published a manifest about the current state of design. The group intends to change the current trend of narrowing various directions of design discourse, dominating assumptions of the practice as well as permanent corporate influence by overcoming the limitations of design thinking and practice. Also, in the context of the SCD Summer School at the London College of Communication (UAL), lead by Ben Stopher and Tobias Revell, the practice was approached with criticism but through discussions about the future of the practice in the context broader than academic. In order to find answers to a number of open questions within the practice at the Visual Communications Design Department, as the part of the Interakcije 2016: Speculative NOW! event, we have also organised a discussion aiming to re-think and critically acclaim the current speculative practice and its role in the “real world”. 

Speculative NOW!, 2016 LINK

The practice also showcases new and different approaches that seem to be closer to the so-called “real world”. For example,Demitrios Kargotis and Dash Macdonald (Dash N’ Dem) in their work focus on involving the public to participate in the design process and act in the public sphere. For them, this practice, as they point out, is a way to overcome the limitations of critical and speculative design. Through a collaborative design process, a kind of design activism, they are trying to give the power back to individuals who thus get the opportunity to think how the world affect them and how to reimagine that via design. With such participatory approach, as Dash N’ Dem emphasise, it is possible to go beyond the limited outreach of the practice and involve the broader audience and not just well-educated middle class. Their approach is focused on the local level, known micro-locations and collaborations with the people they know.

By The People For The People, Dash N’ Dem, 2015 LINK

Participatory approach15 within the speculative design process most definitely has its potential in the future development of the speculative practice. By definition, the speculative and critical practice still focuses on individuals, so frequently questions are raised whether this process is directed exclusively at “the people”, does it take place “with the people” or does it merely imply thinking about “the people”. Pedro Olivera believes that it is important to involve as many actors as possible in the speculative process nowadays dominated only by designers to create plural narratives about the future. From the very beginning, the active participation of the “common” people in the design process results in overcoming the situation where they are just a passive audience expected to engage and get involved only after the perception of a completed design project. Participatory approach opens up possibilities for the “common” people to think about, imagine but also to act on the path of creating their preferable futures.

Based on similar principles applied to the Mangala for All project, Superflux studio applies ethnographic methods to communicate the Indian space program to the “common” people. Georgina Voss notices that in this way it is  possible to successfully communicate “big topics“ and open discussions with the local community by confronting global narratives about big technological “heroes” who will change the world. In The Welsh Space Campaign project, Hefin Jones applies a similar approach, or “speculative participation“, in which he, by understanding the specific context and working with the people involved in that context, speculates about alternative possibilities. In this project, through valorization of the traditional skills and local culture, he integrates the “common” people from Wales in the fictional Welsh space program. It is important to note that participatory approach always implies taking account that such projects (and that is also apparent in the contemporary art practice) frequently result in a situation where artists/designers actually appropriate the work of anonymous, local communities with any actual exchange. Therefore, it is always important to focus on collaboration, exchange, collective work or a changed role of designers in such activities.

The Welsh Space Campaign, Hefin Jones, 2013 LINK

Auger and Hanna manage the above-mention Reconstrain Design group in Madeira and their goal is to improve critical and speculative design practice in the local context. They emphasise that their activities focus on returning designed fictional prototypes back to the real life and finding ways to accomplish tangible social results. They also state that they intend to work on turning speculative aspects of the future into real facts by moving from imagination about “the preferable future” and acting upon “how to realize the future”. The Newton Machine, a prototype of the device for storing energy, emerged from that mind-set. The prototype was developed in collaboration with the local community with the use of the local tools, technology and knowledge.  Along this line of thinking and in the context of an immense urban centre (such as London) and a possible global disaster in the near future, Superflux studio develops concrete methods, tools and materials for the “common” citizens to use for overcoming the future shocks caused by climate change by applying the experimental design approach. Similarly, the Turnton Docklands project attempts to provide optimistic scenarios about the life in Europe after environmental disasters of the near future. In this project, speculative scenarios focus on the positive aspects of dystopian futures, realized by means of the new social and political change.

The Newton Machine, Reconstrain Design Group, 2018

Speculative designers are also establishing better links with state institutions and working on real projects. For example, Strange Telemetry collaborates with the public administration on large infrastructural projects. Another similar project of social importance involving speculative practice took place earlier at The Lancaster University. The project applied design fiction to communicate potential scenarios about how to get senior citizens involved in political processes. More recently, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies started collaborating with speculative designers on projects dealing with potential complex changes in the upcoming decades, such as new conflicts, climate change and new inequalities as well as potential roles of humanitarian organisations in such a world.

The Future of Railways, Strange Telemetry, 2016 LINK

New educational approaches strive to combine the speculative design practice and a more active political role of design in everyday life. The approaches very often refer to designer and activist Victor Papanek’s work in the 1970s and some more recent activities reinstating the importance of design’s political role in the world today, primarily in Tony Fry and Ramia Mazé’s work. A new design approach thus appears in the form of “transitional design” that strives to overcome existing limitations and problems related not only to the speculative and critical practice but also to sustainable and social design. It focuses on the balance between global and local levels of discourses and activities. To overcome criticism saying that speculative and critical design embraced a neo-colonial position, Deepa Butoliya initiated Speculative and Critical Design: Futures and Imaginings from the Margins study programme at the Design Department of the Carnegie Mellon University. The curriculum of the study focuses on the practices of “post-critical“ and “post- normal“ design and intends to make speculative and critical approaches more pluralistic, inclusive and practical with the objective to open the space for the marginalized. 

“Mediterranean Speculative Approach“

Silvio Lorusso notices two basic approaches applied to overcome the problems of the speculative practice and existing dissatisfaction with the impossibility to make change happen. The first approach he calls the “nihilist approach” which looks for a refuge in more abstract forms, such as text or discourse. The second one is called the “pragmatic approach” and it is engaged in the local, specific context with appropriate tools and methods. We can say that here at the Visual Communications Design Department at the Arts Academy in Split we combines the both of this two directions in our approach to the speculative practice. In our discursive work, we re-think the contemporary design practice and through this reflective practice we continuously develop new approaches and methods for developing speculative projects. In our practical work, we try to put the speculative design practice in “real” situations, in the perspective of the local community and in the local context, the one we know best and the one inside of which we can take part in the “real world”.

The focus of our speculative practice is set on implications of important global topics in the local context; how will recent and emerging technological, economic, social and political changes impact the context of Mediterranean South-East of Europe.

The approach we named “Mediterranean speculative approach“, practiced far away from European urban and technological centres, “on the edges of Europe“, is used to take this somewhat “off“ perspective, and dystopian scenarios are perceived from a human centred perspective. The focus of our speculative practice is set on implications of important global topics in the local context; how will recent and emerging technological, economic, social and political changes impact the context of Mediterranean South-East of Europe. Our works finds references in the work of Tomislav Lerotić, designer, educator and activist (and one of the founders of the Department) whose work was most intensive during the 1990s and the 2000s. Lerotić developed his approach to design, that also reflected on the educational process,  based on references to the above-mentioned Italian radical practice, Victor Papanek’s sustainable design and Joseph Beuys’ art activism. With his work and satirical approach that often comprised the elements of critical design (although he never named it as such), Lerotić systematically focused on local issues related to environmental destruction and strived to initiate discussions that the local authorities and political structures wanted to avoid. Nevertheless, he also provided guidelines for concrete activities to be taken by individuals or the local community with the use of bottom-upapproaches in order to change the current state of things.

The New Academy, Arts Academy, 2008 LINK

As Dejan Kršić notices,16 in our work (but also, as the result of our work), we understand speculative design as a tool or a method for social exercising, adoption of skills/competences/knowledge needed for better orientation in new situations and contexts of the near future. Even when they do not have a specific or “useful” result (i.e. they are not integrated in the existing capitalist system), the scenarios we generate through our practice or educational activities stand as a valuable accumulation of opportunities, skills, scenarios and hypotheses.

Southern Comfort, Ivica Mitrović and Oleg Šuran, 2016 LINK

The above-described approach resulted in a series of work titled “Mediterranean Speculative Trilogy”. Eutropia dealt with the “smart city” of the future, privacy and new economies in such cities. Southern Comfort examines reliability of social networks and rating systems in the context of new economies based entirely on tourism. The last work of the trilogy The Last Mediterranean Skipper employs the speculative design approach to tackle the growing phenomenon of automatisation in the local context. Eutropia was also part of a international exhibition titled City | Data | Future – Interactions in Hybrid Urban Space, and produced by the European UrbanIxD project. Southern Comfort was produced for the exhibition of Croatian speculative design titled Speculative –Post-Design Practice or New Utopia? at the XXI Triennale di Milano. The Last Mediterranean Skipper premiered at the exhibition titled How Will We Work? at the last year’s Vienna Biennale named Robots. Work. Our Future.

The Last Mediterranean Skipper Ivica Mitrović and Oleg Šuran, 2017

As a continuation of the series, the new project following the footsteps of the Mediterranean Speculative Trilogy once again tackles important global issues in the local context. The project intends to apply the speculative design approach to provide possible alternative scenarios to probable extreme climate futures. Those scenarios might be able to prepare us for the post-apocalyptic future. However, as opposed to the Trilogy, which primarily wanted to open up a range of issues, raise discussions, and warn about the potential future scenarios, this time the intention is to take a step forward and provide concrete tools, techniques and mechanisms as well as point out to causes of the social organisation so to help individuals and the community to construct a life after the disaster and to provide a new hope in a new beginning.

UrbanIxD Summer School, 2013 LINK

As it has been emphasised several times, the educational level that needs to become more open and pluralistic, is the basic foundation of any change within the design profession. For that reason, ever since the beginning, we wanted to translate the knowledge and experience gained in discursive and practical activities into the educational process. Through Interakcije, as an informal platform organised by the Visual Communications Design Department at the Art Academy in Split, there is a number of educational activities organised, including workshops, lectures, exhibitions and publishing. The concept applied to workshops is inspired by the Summer School held at the Interaction Design Institute Ivrea in 2001, and initiated in 2004 with the Summer School as a part of the  Convivio, project. Workshops continued on annual basis applying the critical approach on interaction design, participatory design, and critical design to finally focus on speculative design and related practices. The biggest outreach was achieved in 2013 during the summer school within the European project named UrbanIxD, which resulted with the above-mentioned exhibition, City | Data | Future – Interactions in Hybrid Urban Space. By applying the critical approach, workshops have always been questioning the design profession and finding links between the discourse and the practice gathering many prominent professionals active in critical, speculative and related practices.

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Fjaka (Let’s Party – DIY Politics), Interakcije 2016

The new context and the trends require different educational methods. Unfortunately, new approaches often tend to focus only on the new market concepts, “knowledge economy“ and media specificities linked to the digital media without taking into consideration reflections of the profession, political activism or consequences of design activities. Therefore, workshops and accompanying discursive activities and exhibitions fundamentally aim to provoke reflection on design as a profession as well as induce critical thinking and engagement in the local context but also to provide tools and skills for activation, i.e. achievement of concrete changes in the world around us.

 

Special thanks to Oleg Šuran, Dejan Kršić, Marko Golub, Kristina Tešija and Luciana Škabar on their comments and assistance. English translation by Mirna Herman Baletić.


  1. The omnipresent term “disruptive technologies“ first appeared in the business world, i.e. in an article written by Clayton Christensen in 1995. In the 2000s it turned into the dogma of start-up and IT companies and spread as a business world-view to education, health care, culture and other fields that do not share the same values and objectives as the business world. 

  2. I would like to thank Marko Golub for this reference. 

  3. The syntagm “Western melancholy“ was initially coined to express regret because of technological estrangement manifested in disappearance of real social interactions. Through interaction design, this “problem” has been in principle “resolved” with the introduction of new products intending to re-introduce the missing social interaction. The term was inspired by the conversation with Erik Sandelin and Magnus Torstensson, founders of the Unsworn design studio, that took place in 2009 as well as the term used in a similar context by Thomas Binder from the Danish Royal Academy of Fine Arts. 

  4. It is hard not to refer to Smog Free Tower, the project by Dutch superstardesigner Daan Roosegaard who designed a tower using “super innovative patented technologies” to filter city smog from the surrounding environment. Collected smog is then integrated in a piece of jewellery, a ring, the purchase of which additionally finances the project. The project was realized in a park in Beijing and proved to be entirely non-functional so that it had to be renamed to Smog Warning Tower and repurposed for an art project/installation

  5. “Designer: Author or Universal Soldier“ is a dilemma that has always been present in the world of design in various movements, manifests or individual practices with varying degrees of visibility and importance in the context of design. 

  6. The syntagms like “new designers“ and “new design practices“ encompass a broad commonly accepted expression for designers whose approach or position intends to overcome the dominant design practices. Their methods, approaches and techniques as well discourse actually are not “new” but rather refer to previous design or art avant-garde movements and individuals that have, unfortunately, disappeared on the margins, in recollections or swallowed by the dominant design practice. 

  7. Nevertheless, it is not the only one. We should not forget other discursive and experimental approaches in the field of design dealing with re-thinking of the practice, situated outside of the mainstreamdesign world, e.g. reflective design, adversarial design or research through design

  8. Here we tend to forget the examples of design practice outside of the western perspective that have never become part of the mainstream context. For example, the pearls of Japanese design within their specific local context or bottom-up design approaches coming from Africa or another similar example in India with the “Jugaad“ phenomenon. 

  9. However, publicist David A. Banks states that in the engineering context various references from science fiction are often used as examples for the legitimacy of the consumer system while dystopian warnings have been interpreted as technocratic guidelines for designing new products. 

  10. It is worth mentioning that the Cold War and rivalry between the two blocks had its specific features with a prominent role of dystopian fiction in the Eastern Block’s literature and film, which often tackled the same topics as the one in the Western Block. 

  11. The study programme of the University of Underground was severely criticised by the host institution, the Sandberg Institute, due to its spectacularization. 

  12. Taken from the e-mail correspondence with Marko Golub. 

  13. Taken from e-mail correspondence with Dejan Kršić during 2016 and 2017. 

  14. The critique about the necessity of change is not new. There is an interesting example of discursive approach presented by design theoretician Matko Meštrović in the 1980s in the book titled Design and Environmental Problems, presenting a strong critique of some “avant-garde“ names of the western design practice (primarily Victor Papanek and Benjamin Fuller). Meštrović criticises their utopianism and rhetoric, i.e. their insufficient resolution in questioning the dominant (capitalist) system. 

  15. Participatory practice is most certainly one of historically relevant examples of resistance to conventional design practices and, as such, it has a great potential within the speculative practice. Although the speculative practice might be at the first glance interpreted a top-down process placing the designer in the centre, let us not forget that every successful speculative project has strong fundaments in the examination of a social context and remains primarily focused on individuals, their needs and wishes. 

  16. Taken from e-mail correspondence with Dejan Kršić during 2016 and 2017.