Dreams to Reality — A Journey Through Speculative Critical Design

“Where do you want to be in the next 10 years?”

A question we were posed with quite often as school kids. However somehow back then we could confidently answer that question, whereas now we would fumble or think twice before doing so.

When we think about our individual futures, probably the first thought that comes to mind is the dream of the ideal person that we would like to be, or the ideal world that we would like to build around ourselves. We believe this is mainly what gives our lives purpose. Humans are future oriented beings and from the moment we dream it, we are constantly mapping out how we can achieve it. Each action, each reaction ever since that moment plays a role in shaping our dreams.

We question, alter, and further define our dreams as we go through this reality. Perhaps that is the reason why we fumbled when we were asked this question today, and not in school.

By definition, a dream is a cherished aspiration, ambition, or ideal. But can we dream collectively? Can we shape the future of society? Can we shape the future of this earth?

Speculative Critical Design sets out to achieve that sole purpose:

“This form of design thrives on imagination and aims to open up new perspectives on what are sometimes called wicked problems, to create spaces for discussion and debate about alternative ways of being and to inspire and encourage people’s imaginations to flow freely.”

Design speculation is like a dream — acting as a catalyst for collectively redefining our relationship to reality.

Our dreams are optimistic, and so are we. But our fears push us to question ourselves and work towards avoiding situations in which our worst fears come true.

Can speculative critical design be fearful rather than aspirational? A vision of the world that is not utopian, but rather dystopian, an embodiment of our worst fears, pushing us further to strive for an ideal world, for our dreams.

These are the questions we have been asking ourselves over the last 2 weeks of our Design Futures unit in MA Service Design, emphasising that critical design is about ‘problem finding’ and not ‘problem solving’.

Changing Realities

In this unit, my team is working with the Southwark Council to tackle the climate emergency and envision a sustainable future for Travel and Transportation in the London borough.

Just like yours, our minds also jumped from flying vehicles to self driven and electric cars. To understand the scope further, we set out to do a “horizon mapping” exercise to place relevant examples from the current global scenarios of sustainable transport, categorising them into different levers of change — behavioural, economical, political, environmental, social, and technological. (Figure 1)

We summarised our findings in a systematic manner in the hope of narrowing down on an area that would enable us to create most impact :

  1. Behavioural: In the era of digitally enabled transport services like Uber, people’s personal decisions are driven by expectations of convenience, low cost, availability, reliance, and reassurance.
  2. Economic: Economic effects of the pandemic on public transportation have enabled governments to see the potential in public-private partnerships and new revenue-generating options to bridge the widening funding gap between the two.
  3. Political: To achieve their carbon neutral goals, incentives and policies introduced by governments towards sustainable vehicle alternatives have been somewhat successful, although infrastructure still remains a big issue.
  4. Environmental: Ownership and responsibility of personal environmental impact on the broader society should take centre stage as the ones most affected by emissions are the ones causing them the least.
  5. Social: There is a need to introduce MaaS (Mobility as a Service) that views transport systems holistically rather than in silos making it accessible to the disenfranchised communities.
  6. Technological: With the increase in new digital mobility services, concerns about personal privacy and cyber security need to be addressed by reevaluating the role of data collection in digital systems and its limitations and implications.

As we studied the local context of these findings and deep dived into the brief, we unpacked the inter relations of the main objectives set out by Southwark -

  1. Make cycling and walking easier
  2. Discourage the ownership and use of polluting cars
  3. Improve the accessibility and sustainability of public transport
  4. Reduce unnecessary journeys
  5. Cut down on unnecessary flying and offset carbon footprint

One of the main objectives of the council is ‘reduce unnecessary journeys’ which immediately caught our interest, seeing it as an overarching goal to achieve the other objectives defined by the council.

To move further, we had to try to answer an important question — What are unnecessary journeys? And how do we define them? It certainly cannot mean getting people to stay at home. After a lot of debate, we came to the conclusion that reducing journeys by unsustainable modes of transport like fuel powered vehicles would be a fitting definition of ‘reducing unnecessary journeys’. In short, reducing car journeys.

The next few days we immersed ourselves in churning out as many future scenarios and objects as possible that answered the question — how might we reduce fuel car journeys?

We deployed the Futures Cone framework by Voros (2003), and began to classify our future scenarios in their respective cones (Figure 2). We realised most of our visions were plausible and possible, but were they really preferable? How many people in Southwark even owned cars? What matters to them? What is the conversation we need to have?

To gain a broader perspective, we decided to look at ‘why people travel’. Mapping our own journeys, and factors that influence how and why we travel helped us identify the barriers we face in adapting the most sustainable, active modes of travel (walking, cycling). This was our moment of breakthrough — How might we reduce the barriers for active travel?

We are currently applying speculative critical design methods to this question, leveraging the information we have today to eliminate these barriers, and creating a fictional object to start a conversation around the future of active and sustainable travel in the borough.

More updates on this necessary journey are coming soon!

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