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SciFly NYC // 97 // The Speculative Journey

Weekly Events 10/7 - 10/13

The crew

Hey SciFly Readers!

This week I want to recommend a really amazing interview I read this week with on Speculative Edu with, a design and research group that is based in Shanghai who explores the implications of automation and machine intelligence leaking into the everyday through real and fictional products.

While their work itself is super interesting and impressive on it's own, the part that struck me most about the interview was the journey they described into speculative practice, and how closely it mirrored my own - and I'd guess many others who have fallen down the speculative rabbit hole.

The members, Simone, Matthieu, Saurabh, and Lorenzo all came from very different design and engineering backgrounds (Computer Science, Industrial Design, Civil Engineering, and even Cinema Engineering) but all ended up doing masters in Interaction Design and stumbled across Speculative Design and Design Fiction as an outlet for some of the ridiculous optimism around emerging technology that you inevitably encounter in graduate programs like that. As they said, what they found so powerful about speculative practice was it's ability to explore questions/doubts about the hyper-tech positivism that permeates many design/tech related academics, and the design and tech industries more broadly.

This is absolutely something I can relate to as well. Before coming to Parsons MFA D+T, every time I heard about a design firm or the lean/agile/whatever tech industry was through the bated breath of another public official or nonprofit PI who thought creating an app could somehow solve whatever problem it was that we were working on like magic - and probably draw in grant money and PR to boot. This wasn't anyones fault, in the nonprofit sector, the ability of tech startups to disruptively 'solve wicked challenges' was huge, things that nonprofits hadn't been able to really move the needle on for years looked like they were shooting into the cloud and getting scaled - and somehow people were making money!?!?!  To be honest, this also led me to be quite starry-eyed about technology and it's potential for all-out social impact. Just throw some tech at it and what could go wrong? Pretty sure that was the nature of my essay to get into Parsons.

Then, at MFA D+T, I finally had a chance to learn more about how this technology worked, who was making it, and what hidden costs it had, and I got SO critical after a few months. I remember looking around at some of my classmates pitching final projects that were 100% techno-optimistic to the point of being creepy, or just completely tone-deaf. Not through anyones malice or incompetence, just through a completely different outlook and prescription of rose tinted glasses that said an AI chat bot can solve cyber-bullying, or a light-up robot could make someone less lonely in the long run. It was just so depressing sometimes I wanted to scream. I knew I wanted to stay something, but I didn't know how to show people how incredulous I was.

Then I found speculative practice. While the authors came from technical backgrounds, for me the ability to make real fictional things for the first time felt like magic. Things that took today's technology and a little hand-waving to represent a very close parallel present or near future, all created from someone who wasn't any sort of engineer, just an avid aficionado who fell in and out of coding over the years. If I could do it in 6 months and make you believe it, what the hell were real companies doing? Like the authors, I found things by Dunne & Raby and James Auger, fascinated by how their projects used the process of design thinking and the language of a variety of aligned disciplines (product design, industrial design, computer science, art) to '[toy] with that blurry border of real and fictional, present and future."

I joked to a friend last week that Speculative Futures Meetups were like therapy for designers, a way for people who designed things, whose job it was to get into peoples brains and figure out what they need and how to hit it - to do some creative processing after figuring out one more way to get someone to click a 'CTA' and buy a widget, or give over their data, or post a selfie.

That is why speculative practice is so freeing. It uses the same tools of design, or art, or tech to pull back the techno-optimistic blanket and really think about what a future would be like where many of these technologies will permeate our everyday in new ways. The fact that so many technologies have already snuck up on us, completely transforming our lives, is what makes it so effective. It really isn't that hard to believe, if designed right, that whatever speculative artifact you are holding won't be on a shelf in malls next week, no matter how fucked up it is (looking at you 23&Me Target stocked custom DNA profiles for the weirdest shit, yet looking like a fancy make-up kit!)

As they say in the interview, in response to a question on what is the practical or professional applications of speculative design:

"It's a great stretching for your mind. Being able to think and explore the ironic, the dark, the hidden paths of an idea or future allows you to later be freer to move and explore in any work context or situation."

By staying speculative, by stretching your creative muscles, you start to realize that all of the theories, tools, and frameworks of things like 'design thinking' or 'human-centered design, or even 'strategic foresight' are just what they sound like, tools, 'frames' for arranging your thinking to gain new insights. And those processes, those recipes for thinking about certain things in certain ways are only as strong as the information they uncover, and the patterns that light up in your mind. If being a designer is like a detective, always trying to understand the pattern the clues are telling you, then speculative practice provides the reflexes to be Sherlock Holmes, to look at that same pattern and determine that space aliens did it. Or robots. Something no one else could dream of because it was hidden away in the shadows of what is perceived as possible.

But what does that mean in the workplace? They believe that  " this field becomes more mainstream and accepted in the commercial design world, it might be that knowing the 'process' of Speculative Design is something that will be useful in the actual work or even required new knowledge on your CV as user-centered design was."

While, like the interviewees, this makes me cringe, given our mutual experiences 'working in a context where "design thinking" was used more as an instrument of corporate entertainment than an actual process for design', I wholeheartedly agree that what is so important is "...embrac[ing] the mental state and approach of what speculation and fiction can add to your practice and thinking. Asking the naive and mundane questions about a technology or a future context, questioning assumptions coming from technological determinism, drilling down into the reality and the details of that future, thinking of real future people with real future problems in real future ways."

At the end of the day, what 'job skill' could be more important?

Anyway, I highly encourage you to check out the article for yourself, and most of all to stay speculative!

Remember, futures are like seeds scattered on the wind. Not all of them will land on fertile ground and take root. Staying speculative allows you to understand what directions those winds are blowing in order to better intuit where those seeds might land, and what types of futures may take result as a want. But more importantly, it helps you understand which ones you want to water.

Read on for this week's great speculative events!

"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 | 10/7

Tuesday | 10/8

Wednesday | 10/9

Thursday | 10/10

Friday | 10/11

Saturday | 10/12

Sunday | 10/13

OnGoing [classes, exhibits, shows etc.]


What I'm Reading

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

Infomocracy (Centenal Cycle #1)
by Malka Older

UPS just won FAA approval to fly as many delivery drones as it wants
by Jay Peters

New Conference Invites “Troublemakers” to Discuss UFOs, Doomsday
by Future Society

Thanks for Subscribing

Thank you for reading! We hope you have enjoyed this weekly dose of NYC's best speculative design, fiction, art, and technology events.

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You can also learn more about my work at


Want More Speculation?

Join the NYC Speculative Futures meetup, a group for those interested in Critical Design, Speculative Design, Design Fiction, Discursive Design, Futurism, Science Fiction or any other incarnation of the approach which involves using Design to speculate about alternate futures. We'll be hosting speakers, workshops, and more!
Join Us!

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