Transdisciplinary Design

Lead Us lest Too Far We Wander: Futuring and the Poetics of Speculative Design

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on December 16, 2014

. . . What if, between this one and the one
we hoped for, there’s a third life, taking its own
slow, dreamlike hold, even now—blooming, in spite of us?1

Surely we will become entombed by the limits of our language unless we begin designing for new grammars of possibility. In their book ‘Speculative Everything’, Anthony Dunn and Fiona Raby suggest that “we need more pluralism in design, not of style but of ideology and values.” Dunn and Raby use design as a strategy to prompt discussion about the social, ethical, and cultural implications of emerging technologies and systems. Similarly, the purpose of work such as Michael Burton and Michiko Nitta’s ‘Republic of Salivation’ 2 is not to show where we’ll be, but to demonstrate a biopolitical scenario that can be leveraged to respond to the historical and future challenges we might face as a society. We have to imagine dystopia in order to better imagine appropriate courses for future action; to step in and out of reality to better understand it. Systems narratives, propositions about how a system could evolve, procedural rhetoric – all are tools used to reveal how a system is encoded, modeled, and assumed. In a lecture entitled ‘Technopolitical Futures’ Ed Keller noted that “we cannot understand the current moment without some form of mediation to process the event.”3 Perhaps speculative design could act in this way?

Pushing these bounds, Veronica Ranner is now working on a PhD in design interactions involving the exploration of ‘designing’ sericulture, or the rearing of silkworms for the production of digitally imprinted medical implants. She challenges the conceptualism of speculative design, saying:

Critical design was conceived operationally, the problem is when speculation becomes nothing more than speculation. It is unconvincing, dealing with social complexities yet not dealing with those complexities in any way. How do you deal with speculative design and make it in the world? How do you keep design in the world and go beyond it? How do you build a bridge between the critical and the operational?2 

Ranner’s work is simultaneously an experimentation with cutting edge biotechnology and the conscious design of the ethical parameters around an engagement with such experimentation. Ranner reminds the design community of the difference between ‘methodology’ and ‘sensibility’. The difference between having the right tools, and knowing how, when, and why we use them. As a result she is able to act in unorthodox ways, or not at all should the situation call for it. In her work ‘Survival Tissue’  she states, “A design response with synthetic skin could even improve an extreme premature infants’ survival chance, but what ethical and emotional problems will we face through the progress of such technology? How do you measure potential medical benefits? And where do you draw the boundary of life?”3

The enmeshed praxis of her work recalls a lecture given by Constantin Boym on Critical Design, “The critical in design lives only in its embodiment in configurative practice. It is things as the bearers and translations of the critical. The critical, in other words, is enacted.”4 This is not dissimilar to what futurist Stuart Candy suggests when he says, “What futures as a practice has traditionally lacked is the visceral dimension. A grounding in materiality. And a context that is worth/not worth designing into.”5

So how do we build a bridge between the critical and the operational? What does that process look like? How has this process occurred historically? Can we even think about this work in terms of precedents? How are the epistemological conditions of the anthropocene interfering with this bridge building process?

1. Phillips, Carl. Double Shadow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011. Print.
3. Keller, Ed. “Technopolitical Futures.” 4 Dec. 2014. Lecture.
4. Ranner, Veronica. “Biophilia.” 20 Nov. 2014. Lecture.
6. Boym, Constantin. “Critical Design.” 13 Nov. 2014. Lecture.
7. Candy, Stuart. “Permanent Garbage: Victor Papanek and Beautiful Visions of Failed Systems.” 4 Dec. 2014. Symposium.