Designing Discussions about Science and Technology: Participation Conversation in Critical and Speculative Design

The aim of my research is to explore how speculative design methods can be used to foster discussions about science and technology through live events and participatory experiences.

‘Critical’ and ‘Speculative’ design are approaches that seek to use design as a form of social critique, to ask questions, or explore future possibilities. Often inspired by developments in
science, technology, economics and politics, speculative designers create hypothetical objects and scenarios to depict so-called ‘possible futures’ and ‘alternative presents’. These works seek to question tacit assumptions about how we live and how we relate to the (technological) world, and to challenge us to consider possible future implications and applications of techno-scientific developments.

Various practitioners and theorists have described the role of critical and speculative design as ‘design for debate’. By giving shape and form to hidden problems, and clarifying complex issues, it is argued that speculative design makes issues debatable. Although it is often unclear who is engaged in this debate or what exactly is being discussed, many consider speculative design to be doing an intrinsic political good by generating compelling alternatives to the status quo and thereby demonstrating that change is always possible.

Many speculative designers are drawn from the fields of industrial and product design, and work is commonly materialised through objects (often with supporting film and images) displayed in a gallery setting, and disseminated through conferences, publications and online fora. However, some commentators have begun to ask whether the rationale of ‘design for debate’ could be explored though other more participatory or conversational approaches, such as events, workshops and interactive performances, which involve a more active and sustained engagement between designer, audience and other forms of expertise. It has been pointed out that such an approach could provide a depth of information arguably difficult to achieve in an exhibition context - important given the value placed by speculative designers on their work being accessible and easily understandable - and that working collaboratively with different communities and forms of expertise could generate richer possible futures and foster public action.

This research project sets out to explore the possibilities of event-based, conversational and participatory forms of speculative design through a number of practical projects and an
analysis of existing works. The close relationship with participatory and conversational forms of fine art practice and the public engagement with science movement, both of which have flourished in recent decades and have many areas of overlap with speculative design, are key reference points in this  research.