Design fiction: Prototyping Desirable Futures

Design fiction enables us to imagine and critically explore possibilities for the future through tangible objects.

Pauline Frederick, Potiphar's wife. 1910-1915

Pauline Frederick, Potiphar’s wife. 1910-1915 | Library of Congress | Public Domain

With the advent of new societal, cultural and economic logics and models, new imaginaries for the future are needed along with new tools to construct them. Design fiction is a new methodology that allows us to prototype tangible objects, with a deliberate specific aesthetic and an implicit narrative property. With these objects we can travel to future scenarios and reflect on how we want tomorrow to be.

When we think about the future, we usually think of it as a space that we will reach (like a utopia, or dystopia by default). A scenario pre-constructed by third parties with power, such as major technological or economically-focused corporations concentrated into international forums. Concepts that reach us in dribs and drabs through sensationalist media headlines about the “creatively destructive” power of the inevitable new technology of the moment.

The future is ceasing to be understood as a pre-defined place to which we are heading, or as a destiny from which we cannot escape. Now we are starting to understand, although it seems obvious, that it is more a matter of a horizon of possibilities and probabilities that are gradually woven together through our collective actions. This is one of the most important breakthroughs or transformations of the “future” concept in historical terms. In between there was the nihilist punk version: “No future”…

In the light of practices that consist of calculating and trying to predict the future with tools somewhat similar to those of stock market speculation, the new social and cultural logics demand new future imaginaries that are not mere repetitions of the same ideals of over a century ago, with versions that are faster, more efficient and smarter (robots, space colonisation, increased human capabilities, wireless telecommunications and electricity, and a long and surprising list).

The post-modern era (or hyper-modern, depending on whom you ask), the Internet society, or however we want to characterise the present, implies new forms of doing, working, producing and reproducing. Design fiction is one of the new methodologies for opening up chinks between the diverse possibilities and preferences for more ideal futures offering a greater social benefit. And perhaps also for co-creating the new preferential views of the futures that we are hoping for.

The futures cone

Thus, the future is no longer understood as an inevitable and singular space, but rather as a plurality of scenarios: today we talk about futures, in the plural. The cone diagram is the representation that best illustrates this new paradigm.

It is a two- or three-dimensional cone, where the present is situated at the vertex: sometimes it may be a point, representing the viewpoint or perception of an individual or an organisation; sometimes it starts with a cut section that would represent the present from a more complex, broader, collective viewpoint. Time is represented in projection, expanding as its distance increases: the more we want to look at or anticipate the distant future, then the broader the possibilities and the ignorance or uncertainty. Situated within this cone are various categories of future.

The futures cone

The futures cone | Based on Nesta model

  1. Probable futures: these are those futures that have a statistic or social probability of happening, including the fact that knowledge and the resources to make them viable already more or less exist.
  2. Plausible futures: those that for reasons such as social, political and economic tendencies of the present are not as likely to happen as the first category, but where the knowledge and resources for them to be viable already exist, and in the face of an unforeseen historical event (or “black swan” as they are called) or simply a change in powers, the factors of probability could alter, changing them into a probable future.
  3. Possible futures: these include the probable and plausible futures, but also other non-probable and non-plausible scenarios. The include all those futures which wouldn’t seem strange to us to think about, or for which the knowledge for them to happen does not yet exist, but could be achieved in a faster time term than expected. For example, if an alien species gave us a new technology that allowed us to travel to any point in the universe in a matter of seconds.
  4. Desirable futures: these futures, transversal to the previous ones, consist of those that, whether probable, plausible or implausible, are desired by society, or by a specific group. Transhumanism, for example, is a movement that since the 1970s has promoted and positioned specific future scenarios, and that today situates them in the mainstream and canonical “future” par excellence.

It is important to take these into consideration, since according to the energy and resources invested, it may occur, as we have seen in recent years, that a desirable future, considered possible, becomes probable, and ultimately, the present. We could cite, for example, the case of the Star Trek tricorders, relatively small mobile devices with various sensors, imagined for a more distant future. Meanwhile, in our pockets we carry around devices with very similar capabilities.

To these four types of future, we could also add another that I consider attractive to work with. It is that of the “alien” futures, or futures of the unknown dimension of Stranger Things: it is the cradle of new potential imaginaries of the future, of what is almost impossible for us to visualise, rather like Donna Haraway’s Chthulucene.

The most important learning is that, in truth, there is no single scenario, but rather that we all have a certain capacity, or “agency”, to contribute towards changing a desirable future into a probable one. Here is where design fiction comes in, equipping us with a powerful tool.

Design fiction

Design fiction is more than a tendency or a discipline of design: it is a theory and a methodology. One of the main concepts worked with is the diegetic prototype. This term perhaps sounds as though it is more associated with music: in film, the word diegetic is used to describe music that is heard not only by the audience (as happens mainly with soundtracks) but is also heard by the characters. They may even hum along as they hear it.

Life is Good for Now | Winner - Speculative Concept Award - Core77 Design Awards 2016

Sci-fi cinema is full of diegetic prototypes, such as the aforementioned tricorders, or the “gesture interface” in Minority Repot that has so influenced our current technology. Diegetic, therefore, refers to the capacity that an object has to be able to participate in and evoke a narrative, in this case of the future. Other diegetic prototypes could also be the weapons and tools used by civilisations in fantasy films.

This field is not exclusive to cinema; rather it is a resource that has been used in the field of critical design and of speculative design, and is being employed in strategic thinking or in innovation for diverse purposes. In the first two cases, what is sought is that the viewer, through a tangible object (by either using it or seeing it), can enter more deeply into the narrative or fictitious scenario to which it belongs (in this case created by a designer or any creator) and thus question that scenario.

To achieve this it is necessary for the future scenario to which that prototype belongs and which it narrates to be coherent with our present (therefore, it is necessary to understand it in all its complexity and in many more dimensions than the purely technological dimension), to be credible with the narrative that it aims to illustrate and “explain” and also the prototype should be thought-provoking, triggering a debate that will continue reflecting on the futures, the technologies and the society that we want.

Thus then, design fiction is becoming the new science fiction, a new cultural space where reflection on, and the creation of future scenarios adapts over time, where speed is more accelerated and, to a certain extent, we live in intermittences between the futures desired by certain corporations, and the negation or powerlessness to imagine new ones. Now is the time to prototype them and construct new possibilities.

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  • Ricardo Mejia | 14 June 2017

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Design fiction: Prototyping Desirable Futures