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SciFly NYC // 86 // Speculation for Good?

Weekly Events 7/22 - 7/28

Hey SciFly Readers!

This week I want to follow-up a little bit on my thoughts last week, and talk about some ideas I have had for how to use speculation for social good.

As I mentioned, I have been considering this for a couple of reasons. First, I am doing some work on creating the Future of Production/Making, and have been reflecting  on several design research and testing methods to get the group work started, leading up to a 'Theory of Change' and User Journeys about the future we imagine & how we will get there with our idea. Second, I have been reading Lean Impact which adapts the lean-startup methodology for social mission oriented groups and organizations, focusing on why/how it is different to do strategic and business design for impact rather than profit.

One thing I keep coming back to over and over again while pondering both how to get started, and reading this book for inspiration, is how my specialty, speculative practice can be brought into the process. When I first learned about Social Impact Entrepreneurship, I was very early in my career and didn't really give a second thought to how speculation could help entrepreneurs. However, as I have worked more and more with people aspiring to make the future a better place, I have often found a lack of creative storytelling and world-building around the future they desire.

Before I talk specifically about how I think one can link speculative practice to social impact design methods, I want to first break Speculative Practice into a couple of rough, steps. I do know that it, in reality, speculative practice is far-ranging and can have many facets, vs. one methodology for undertaking it, however for simplicity, I'm going to break the the process down into three main activities: 

1. Understanding
2. Speculating
3. Communicating

Understanding is any practice or framework that helps one undertake speculative research. This can include things like signal scanning, STEEP analysis, trends & forecasting methods, and even reading speculative fiction or articles about emerging technology/social transformation and jotting down some emerging themes. The goal of understanding is similar to an author doing background research on the setting for a novel. In order to imagine and communicate the future effectively, it is important to lay a foundation of constraints that define the boundaries of plausible futures. If the speculation is too wild or off-track from what is happening today, it will be hard to connect it to the present, thus reducing the empathy viewers/users can find with people who would inhabit this future.

Speculating is any practice or activity that helps one to use the knowledge gained from Understanding to construct a plausible future context, and imagine the goals, behaviors, motivations, and pain points of real people from that future. This can include anything from Systems Mapping, Personas, choosing parts of STEEP to run with, to games like Things from the Future, mapping futures on a futures cone, whatever. At its heart, Speculating is about world-building, using the seeds of what is happening today and imagining how they might plausibly grow into different futures. Therefore, Constructive Speculation is any speculation informed by Understanding that maps out plausible futures based on what is happening today, vs. just spinning what you think the future will look like off the top of your head (and yes, understanding can be informal. We live in the present, and sometimes gut-checks are best. But usually, having a framework to map these gut-checks helps us to get more creative). You can think of Speculating like a writer actually figuring out the setting and characters for a story based on research about their topic, and empathizing with how someone would handle that/live in a world defined by what the research uncovers.

Communicating is any method, medium, or platform by which one conveys their speculative future to others. In essence, this can be as simple as an informed conversation or presentation whereby a future scenario is mapped out and described to others. Realistically, this usually requires a form, context, and audience. The form can be a book, comic, movie, art-piece, prototype, installation, made-up website/store from the future etc. Going back to my analogy about writing, this stage would be the plot of the story. Taking the research and resulting world-building, imagining characters in that future, and telling the story of some part of their lives, whether just what they interact with during one, or many parts of their day, or a whole story talking about the opportunities, challenges, and dramas they face.

Earlier this year, in a presentation about speculative prototyping, I created the Speculative Design triangle to articulate ways to effectively undertake this 3 part process, and create a speculative 'thing' that helps communicate the future it comes from to others (from a project/prototyping POV). This was adopted from IDEO's: Desirability, Feasibility, Viability model for product/business design.  

The Speculative Triangle: Provocation, Feasibility, Aesthetics

Through these three types of activities, Understanding, (Constructive) Speculation, and Communication (and by using the Speculative Triangle as a compass for effectively direction that speculation) I believe that one can start to more effectively speculate and convey those speculations to others, helping to create a shared language about the future you imagine, the things in it, and the forces, products, services, systems, joys, and tribulations people living in it might experience.

So back to my original point, I also believe that, in many ways, these activities mirror and complement those in the Impact Entrepreneurship start-up model.

As I learned from reading Lean Impact (spoiler, I'm not done yet!) so far, some of the most important aspects of creating an impact-driven organization (and don't take organization to have to mean business, I mean a collection of people trying to create impact greater than they could achieve on their own) are as follows:
  • Identifying a Big Audacious Problem
  • Understanding where to intervene & how those interventions might scale (aka play out in the future)
  • Brainstorming creative solutions to this problem
Yes, there are many more steps needed, but again, simplicity as I try to work out my spinning thoughts on the topic (from a super rough outline I jotted down while super excited reading Lean Impact on the train to work no less).

If I were to consider where I would want to bring speculative practice into the design of impact-driven organizations, it would start in these three areas.

1. Identifying a Big Audacious Problem - Speculative fiction especially, can be said to be a story about today set in a fictional, yet plausible future. The acts of Understanding, and Speculating this future are an amazing way to identify not only audacious problems (like climate change and anything related to it, rising populist/nationalist sentiment, blatant racism from political leaders) but to imagine what those problems will turn into if they continue to go the path they are on vs. if an intervention was made.

When doing an analysis such as STEEP, one laser-focuses on the Social, Technological, Economic, Ecological, and Political signals emerging today as a way to narrow the range of futures to be speculated into a more plausible grouping. Using frameworks like these, it is much easier to understand the root causes of some of the big wicked challenges we face, allowing us to more intimately connect with the problem and its probable outcomes. For example, we know that Climate Change is a particularly nasty audacious problem, but using speculative practice, we can more constructively imagine why it is a problem, how the problem will grow worse, how the problem will spawn new problems, and how people will react to this problem in a variety of ways (from pretending it doesn't exist to burrowing underground, to living in half-flooded tidal cities, to trying out some crazy (yet possible) technological intervention that potentially make things worse). 

2. Understanding Where to Intervene & How Interventions Might Play Out - Once you have your big audacious problem fully Understood through both speculative practice and real design research methods (they are complementary, not replacements) speculative practice can continue to help you understand where to intervene. Before a 'final' solution (the best one for now) is found, organizations are told to ideate through several different prototypes of how they can affect impact to understand which are the most effective, and which can create the most impact in a complex system.

While 'real' prototypes are important, many of the prototypes that emerge at this stage are already speculative in nature, e.g. creating a flier about a fictional future product/service/workshop you would offer and measuring interest to see if people would attend as a barometer on whether to move forward with this intervention. One can take this idea further and make an effort to create purely speculative prototypes form the the future being imagined (if the impact was fully realized in the world) and using them to create conversations and get feedback from users; donors and beneficiaries.

By using speculation in the iteration and prototyping stage, it is possible to help demo and refine the type of impact you are hoping to achieve in your fictional (as of yet) future, gathering feedback from people on whether it really is or is not foreseeable. All designers start from a place of ego, it's inevitable, all humans do. But we are trained to break out of this as quickly and thoroughly as possible by relying on research methodology to help us 'fall in love with the problem, and not the solution.". Like any good romance novel, a little fantasy can go a long way. :P

3. Brainstorming Creative Solutions - Finally, speculative practice can help to create truly radical and creative solutions that others may not have dreamed of. In Lean Impact, the author encourages would-be social impact entrepreneurs to never dismiss radical interventions when coming up with solutions. While they are often the hardest to conceive of, since they tackle an issue at it's roots (kind of like changing the paradigm in the leverage points model), I firmly believe that a strong speculative diet, and speculative tools and practices can help innovators come to much more interesting and radical solutions. As I mentioned above, speculation can be used as one way to prototype a range of small interventions and potential ways to tackle the big audacious problem. Pushing further on this idea, I believe that Constructive Speculation and Communication are ESSENTIAL for coming up with a novel solution. By immersing oneself in stories about the future, it is possible to push the boundaries of the imagination to greater lengths, and to find the language to communicate those futures to others (like funders) to gain support.

While speculative fiction may just be fiction, and speculative design the incarnation of that fiction into a new form, perhaps a bit more thought out in terms of feasibility, both activities help us to imagine radical interventions to the problems we face today, because someone, something (or many someones or somethings) have already done the legwork for us. As I mentioned last week, I found it much easier to riff on potential solutions for a Future of Distributed Production/Making with another member of my working group because we shared a love of science fiction novels where this was a reality. Many of these novels went into detail about the pro's and con's of various solutions and ways of doing this work, even if they do so through the lens of the trials and tribulations that the characters in that future faced. This doesn't make those assessments any less real, in fact, they are probably just as well thought-out as several of the white papers and business plans floating around the inter-webs that promise the "Future of X". 

Anyway, that is all I have for now. I will keep jotting down notes as I read Lean Impact (with a helping of pure Speculative Fiction as I go) since it has been such a great catalyst for thinking about how to bring the combined image of my 2 worlds, Speculative Practice, and Designing for Impact into better focus. I can feel in my bones when the two topics harmonize and I know there is something here. I really do believe that Speculation can make us more informed, creative, and hopeful humans, and I'm pretty sure it can make us better problem-solvers as well, especially when those problems rest on the shifting sands of uncertain futures. 

I'd welcome any feedback or thoughts on this topic! Always more fun to speculate with others, and I'm sure many of you reading this newsletter have your own unique takes and insights!

Thanks again for listening, and please read on to see this weeks events.

If you found this on the interwebs or social media, and find my ramblings interesting (or just want to scroll past them in favor of cool event-lineups) make sure to Subscribe using the button at the bottom of this newsletter!!!

"The future is here, now let's distribute it." 

Doc Martens

SciFly is a design studio dedicated to leveraging speculative design and science fiction to imagine and prototype alternative futures enabled by today's emerging technology.


Monday | 7/22

Tuesday | 7/23

Wednesday | 7/24

Thursday | 7/25

Friday | 7/26

Saturday | 7/27

Sunday | 7/28

OnGoing [classes, exhibits, shows etc.]


What I'm Reading

Here is a quick snapshot of my favorite books, podcasts, and articles this week.

The Obelisk Gate
by N.K. Jemisin

Lean Impact
by Ann Mei Chang

Muslim tradition of sci-fi and speculative fiction has thrived despite being overlooked by most Western readers
by Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad

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