Over the course of 2020 I become increasingly enamoured with Design Anthropology, a field focused on using anthropological research techniques and insights to guide the design process. Adam Drazin, one of the professors of anthropology at UCL, suggested I look into the work of Anthony Dunne & Fiona Raby. The pair led the well-regarded Interaction Design programme at the Royal College of Art up until 2015. Their approach intrigued me because it's not the standard "futurologist" idea of casting predictions with "weak signals," but instead a playful, open-ended, generative invitation to take cultural imagination seriously.
Dunne and Raby argue that in the current moment, our dreams of the future have been downgraded to mere survival. The current prospects of the climate crisis make it difficult to imagine positive outcomes and alternative lives.
"Dreams are powerful. They are repositories of our desire. They animate the entertainment industry and drive consumption. They can blind people to reality and provide cover for political horror. But they can also inspire us to imagine that things could be radically different than they are today, and then believe we can progress toward that imaginary world"
People often think design is about solving problems, or simply crafting visual aesthetics – making logos and Bauhaus posters. Designers themselves carry an "inherent optimism" about their ability to fix problems and are often overly concerned with dreaming up material solutions. They should instead address the values, beliefs, attitudes, and behaviour that lead to Wicked Problems - ones we cannot fix with 'innovative' gadgets.
Dunne and Raby suggest we should use design "as a means of speculating how things could be." Speculative Design aims to create space for discussion, and explore alternative ways of being - "a catalyst for redefining our relationship to reality."
This all sounds to me like it would jive well with Tim Ingold's hopes the future of anthropology in Anthropology: Why It Matters. The point of anthropology is to expand people's awareness of what human culture makes possible.
Most Futurism & Futurology work tries to pin down the future by identifying trends and weak signals, then extrapolating on them. Dunne and Raby believe this kind of work is futile.
What is far more useful and interesting is using possible futures "as tools to better understand the present and to discuss what kind of future people want" or do not want (2)
This kind of futures work is usually presented as a simplified, provocative scenario or what-if question in order to open up debates and discussions.
This approach uses future speculation as tools for thought rather than as destination planning.
Stuart Candy presented The Futures Cone at the Royal College of Art in 2009 - the probable, plausible, preferable, and possible. Everything outside that is impossible/fantastical
Most designs operate in the realm of the probable - the things we can be relatively certain of. Plausible scenarios are less certain futures where large economic, political, or cultural shifts have happened. Possible scenarios are the most valuable area to explore - anything that could happen under the sun, given the vast diversity of possible ways of living on our planet.
"Designers should not define futures for everyone else but working with experts, including ethicists, political scientists, economists, and so on, generate futures that act as catalysts for public debate and discussion about the kinds of futures people really want" (6)
D&R were influenced by Victor Papanek's design for the real world movement in the 1970's. During the 1980's Neoliberalism took over the design world and disregarded any form of practice that wasn't focused on economic wealth generation.
The fall of The Berlin Wall in 1989 fed the narrative that Capitalism was the only solution. The end of history. People stopped imagining other kinds of economic and political configurations for society.
We've all become more atomised and individualistic over the last four decades. The Margaret Thatcher years moved the UK away from social safety nets, communal values and towards Individualism - each person responsible for themselves.
D&R want to create a space for conceptual design away from the marketplace. It's about using the language of design to explore alternate possibilities for how things could be. It doesn't need to be "realistic" or sellable or restricted to what our current materials, supply chains, and technology is capable of. It's an idea that helps us explore our values and ideals.
Marcel Duchamp is generally considered to be the first conceptual artist - the man who put a urinal on a pedestal in the 1910's. In the 1960's Sol LeWitt and Adrian Piper advanced the notion that ideas themselves can be works of art.