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What is ‘Speculative Design’ and how can it impact upon the future of cities?

As part of our Lunchtime Lecture series, the Urban Innovation Centre hosted J.Paul Neeley, Service Designer at Neeley Worldwide who gave a fascinating lecture on the concept of ‘Speculative Design’ and how it can impact upon our daily lives and the work we do at Future Cities Catapult.

The concept involves researching possible paths which society could develop in, and constructing products and services which could be prominent in those futures. These inventions and ideas are then critically analysed to determine how plausible or implausible they are.  Speculative design is focused around research, design and then implementation. Companies are good at looking at ‘horizon 1’ which involves planning strategy for ten years ahead. However, short-term business goals often cloud their strategic objectives and the opportunities to plan beyond the next few quarters are missed.

Firstly, J. Paul discussed the idea of ‘future forecasting’, a specialised form of horizon scanning which is conducted in five steps; spotting Signals/Focus/Interests, proposing scenarios, creating speculative propositions, investigating the implications and developing strategies. Looking for signals involves analysing contemporary societal issues that are worth exploring. An example is the growing inequality in the US and lowering living standards. There is also an active interest in indirect consequences that arise from these signals. J. Paul discussed an Artifical Intelligence (AI) project he worked on with a hospitality group. The client had not considered the impact that AI could have on the hospitality industry and had not prepared a perspective for this possible future. J. Paul could then take that signal and develop a focus or scenario from it.

Scenarios work in multiples and can take different directions. Propositions are created by analysing what sort of products could exist in ten or twenty years in the future. With the sole focus always on the ‘human experience’, implications are then outlined about what benefits these products could bring or how they could go wrong.

“Technology is not benign, but rather both good and bad, simultaneously, and often we can’t tell the difference. Its critical that we engage with this complexity and understand all of the related implications.” – J.Paul Neeley

The core of this Lunchtime Lecture revolved around what makes speculative design so innovative. The key thinkers behind this idea are Tony Dunne and Fiona Raby who have co-authored the book ‘Speculative Everything’. J Paul expanded on this concept by outlining the idea of ‘Amara’s Law’, proposed by American scientist Roy Amara. Amara stated that we tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long-run, with the danger that society can be left behind.

Some examples were also given of speculative design outcomes: one project was created by a designer who imagined a future where craft becomes a viable method in which human organs can be created. The designer proposed an idea where silkworms could create the foundations for human cells into which a heart or kidney could be built. J. Paul concluded by linking speculative design to the work we do on here at Future Cities Catapult. It can influence how we create visions for city development and provide a guide on alternative methods of creating products and designing services for cities. By creating our own futures and interrogating them, we can improve our work in advancing urban innovation.

Missed this Lunchtime Lecture? View it on our Youtube channel.

For more information about J. Paul Neeley’s work, visit his website.

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