What is — What if?
This is a reflective blog post on the Design Futures unit in the MA Service Design course. The project was a collaboration with the Southwark Council and involved us speculating future scenarios to help build a plan to achieve their strategy of becoming a carbon-neutral borough by 2030.
Travel and transport define the way we live and work and also how cities are shaped and transformed. At the same time, it is the biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in the world. In London particularly, half of the nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter air pollution is estimated to stem from road transport (Centre for London, 2019). If this trend continues, the future holds extremely polluted living environments and very low levels of citizen wellbeing. Locally, the effects of climate change can already be seen in the London Borough of Southwark with more extreme weather and an impact on the health of the residents. In 2020 the Council declared a climate emergency and pledged to achieve a carbon-neutral borough by 2030 (Southwark Council, 2020). Although ambitious, the brief presented to my team the opportunity to design a sustainable future for the travel and transport systems in Southwark.
To combat the severe effects of climate change, our role as designers was to transform people from how the world is to how the world could be. By using speculative design we created spaces for discussion and debate about alternative ways of being (Dunne and Raby, 2013), helping the council understand what design can do for them to achieve their goals. As a resident of Southwark for seven months now, I could relate and apply my experiences to help tackle the unique challenges we were presented with. Throughout the blog, I will be making connections and reflections between — my interpretation of the brief, horizon scanning of the current opportunities and problems in the travel space, emerging speculations, and prototypes. I will reflect on my research through design process and illustrate how it aided the concept development and informed a future scenario that addresses travel beyond transport.
The carbon neutral strategy, Tackling the Climate Emergency Together, drew in a sense of collective action towards climate change. In particular, it mentioned the need for residents to ‘avoid unnecessary travel’ and shift to zero carbon or active travel (walking or cycling) (Southwark Council, 2020). As a team, we started our journey by studying the context of other countries to learn from their strategies of encouraging sustainable ways of travel (Figure 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, and reliance (Fishman and Bornstein, 2017).
- 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 (Hertzke, Linder and Sahdev, 2019).
- Social: 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 (Southwark Council, 2020).
These key considerations drove us away from the direction of electric and new energy vehicles, directing our focus to behaviour change in people to adapt sustainable ways of getting around. As a designer, scanning the horizon enabled me to gather a holistic view on how transport impacts or is impacted by is a sum of socio-political structures and individual behaviours.
It all started with us asking what if questions as a method of exploration, and provoking conversation. Some initial questions we asked ourselves were — What if owning cars became too expensive? What if unnecessary travel was banned? What if travelling by cars was made inconvenient? As we began to visualise these what if scenarios, we realised that we hadn’t yet considered travel holistically — where do people travel, what modes they use and why, and how does it influence their lives?
To understand people’s motivations and behaviours, we mapped out their personal journeys and identified the barriers to not choosing sustainable means of travel, particularly walking and cycling.
Through this exercise, primary and secondary research, we had some realisations that built the foundations for further speculations -
Incentives: We considered rewarding or incentivising sustainable behaviour as opposed to penalising people for unsustainable behaviour. However, the question still remained — if people respond to incentives successfully, will it reduce unsustainable ways of traveling? In a conversation with Jeremy Leach from Living Streets, a UK charity, he confirmed that the idea of incentivising people to travel sustainably is an interesting one and had not been explored yet.
Active Travel: We found that there are low levels of car ownership in Southwark — On average 60% of the households do not own a car (The 15-minute city: a London case study, 2021), and rely on getting to places on foot, by cycling or public transport. This particular insight informed our breakthrough, and we decided to focus on enabling people to use active modes of transport like walking and cycling. We learnt that if we had to get people to walk and cycle more, we had to reduce the barriers to this mode of travel and motivate people.
Travel beyond transport: Transport defines a significant part of the way we live — It is the way in which we move around, it defines which places are accessible and to whom, and makes up the social fabric of neighbourhoods. We realised that to achieve a preferable future scenario, we had to look at the borough as a place of economic and cultural activity that flourishes primarily due of the provision of travel systems.
These key realisations informed our future scenario which was based on incentivising active travel, ensuring a larger benefit for activities in the borough.
Research through Design
Creating future objects or prototyping our speculations allowed us to generate knowledge through the initial development process of our preferable future scenario, making a whole range of viable and not so viable possibilities tangible and available for consideration (Dunne and Raby, 2013). So far in our service design journey we had been using prototypes as a result of inquiry, whereas in the Design Futures unit, prototypes became a means of inquiry (Trinidad Wiseman, 2018).
Our first prototype — StepCoin, uses people’s steps as currency, incentivising them to walk more, shop locally and help regenerate their high streets (Figure 2). The success of Brixton Pound, a local currency created to support Brixton businesses by allowing money to circulate locally (Romeo, 2021), validated that a concept like ours is somewhat viable.
“We have got to get to a point where people in motor vehicles are guests in the urban environment”
A quote by Jeremy Leach that stuck with us and made us question — will incentivising walking ensure reduced use of unsustainable means of transport? In order to give the power back in the hands of the pedestrians, we proposed that the value of StepCoin would be generated from taxing carbon cars (Figure 3). The aim was to provoke conversations around the value system a future object like StepCoin would create.
We created prototypes showing the different touch points an individual using StepCoin would interact with in a future world (Figure 4). Reactions on these from our tutors pushed us to reflect on “who will benefit” and “who will save money” in this world where StepCoin is widely accepted. It was important to consider these questions to understand how StepCoin would affect its surrounding systems. We realised until now we had not looked at making the StepCoin system circular, and were taking a rather transport focused and individualistic approach.
We speculated again — what if the Southwark Council was to accept a certain percentage of business rates from local businesses in StepCoin? Such a scheme could potentially provide benefits to these businesses to accept StepCoin payments, ensuring more footfall to the local high streets and building a future that reinforces the idea of the 15 minute city (Figure 5).
Further research also showed that the taxes collected on vehicles belong to the central government and TfL, and taxing carbon cars to generate value for a currency that can be used locally was not a viable option. But upon discovering that local boroughs raise transport related funding mainly from parking charges collected (Centre for London, 2019), the second part of our future scenario was born — creating annoyance for unsustainable behaviour (Figure 6).
Jack Skillen from Team London Bridge highlighted that introducing benefits on business rates for local businesses would not be viable for Southwark Council as the majority of taxes collected go to the central government. He mentioned that StepCoin could be a locally funded scheme and also asked us to consider the role of Public Health England (PHE) in implementing something like this. This pushed us to think in the direction of what active travel would mean for the health of an individual and its collective benefits to the local health systems and ultimately the council. We knew this had potential, especially since people are more motivated by personal health over collective action towards sustainability and climate change.
Upon further research we found that — The estimated cost of physical inactivity in Southwark exceeds £17 million each year (Southwark Council, 2017), whereas if Londoners walked or cycled for 20 minutes each day the NHS would save £1.7 billion over 25 years (Centre for London, 2019). This demonstrated the possibility of StepCoin being funded by local health initiatives and charities, with a chance of expanding support to a larger level from national bodies like PHE.
Through further inquiry we looked at the concept through a social justice angle, realising that we were leaving out the cycling population and the people who have mobility issues, limiting the reach of StepCoin only to the walking population. As a result, we reframed the future object as Southwark Coin, to make it accessible to a wider demographic and capture the aspect of localising the currency.
The extensive prototyping and research through design process helped me critically evaluate every aspect of the initial future scenario, inform the directions I should be looking at to make it a possibility, draw upon relevant data, and propose a preferable future scenario — the world in which the future object sits.
For the most part, we were focused on creating the exact touch points for Southwark Coin, detailing out how it will work and how to fill in the gaps. However, midway we realised that it is about showing a world wherein Southwark Coin is a norm and how the world around it functions, to provoke an effective conversation.
The future world 2034
In our preferable future world there is a shift in the power dynamic from motor vehicles to pedestrians. Carbon emissions due to transport are under control and everyday services are easily accessible due to the realisation of a 15-minute city. People live healthier lifestyles and are empowered to make positive economic decisions in their everyday life by supporting the local community (Figure 7).
Inputs and reactions on our prototypes in the research through design phase informed three key aspects that made the existence of Southwark Coin a preferable future (Figure 8) -
- Sustainability : The main purpose of Southwark Coin, getting people to adapt active modes of travelling, was achieved by illustrating the amount of carbon emissions saved if that particular journey was made by a polluting vehicle instead. Although not the main factor for decision making, this aspect provides a gentle nudge, making people realise that they are contributing to a bigger cause and evokes a “feel good” emotion. Mainly allowing the council to better measure success in combating emissions and attract the necessary funds needed to tackle the climate emergency.
- Health : Southwark Coin, through promotion of active transport tackles the negative effects of physical inactivity on people’s personal health and the wider health systems. We found that, the social and economic benefits of only 20 minutes of walking everyday could be large, helping the NHS save £1.7 billion over 25 years (Southwark Council, 2017).
- Local business : Southwark Coin supports local businesses by enabling people to travel to them in sustainable ways. Ensuring that this currency is used to buy only locally produced and sustainable products, a larger number of local businesses would be encouraged to sell more of these items. Through this we envision a future where high streets will be formed by only local businesses that meet the sustainability goals of the borough. But in the lead up to that, this meant depriving the council of the larger players that pay higher business rates.
While detailing the future concept, we realised that the existence of something like Southwark Coin has wider implications — It would mean infrastructure changes for more accessible streets, reduced wealth inequalities across communities, and a more socially and culturally inclusive society.
We are aware that this concept has some potential risks associated with it that I believe can be addressed through further prototyping, research, and iterations to solve the issues of — making the benefits of Southwark Coin accessible for people with mobility issues, ensuring people do not continue using unsustainable modes of transport in parallel, and improving the quality of goods available at local businesses.
Presenting our future concept to Southwark Council, the local business aspect was highly appreciated although there were concerns around how the money for Southwark Coin will be generated. As we discussed tying the concept into public health and the potential for money to come from medical bodies like the NHS, an interesting insight from our tutor Dr Lara Salinas particularly stuck with me -
“The public sector requires a long term vision because we are talking about prevention practices, and also long term budgeting across different services.”
It made me reflect on how all sectors are trained to function in the now, and if something doesn’t work today, it will never work in the future is a general attitude we are trained to develop. It reinforces the fact that Southwark Coin provoked a conversation in the direction of developing a long term strategy, which is the core essence of backcasting — planning for how these futures may be attained (Buhring and Koskinen, 2017).
The response also made me think about how public officials think a certain way and might not always fully consider how the strengths and weaknesses of different public services can work together for public good. As a service designer if I can help break these silos and bring together different bodies to work collaboratively, to create a positive impact on the people and the climate, it will be a job well done.
My first experience working with speculative design helped me realise it is a form of exploration over traditional design practice. Putting out the half baked ideas inside our heads to test them can be a scary process. The outcomes of the last few projects we worked on in this MA were informed by extensive primary and secondary research, and rounds of testing to finally develop a prototype, whereas in this project, we developed prototypes as a research archetype (Trinidad Wiseman, 2018).
The final presentations to the Southwark Council made it apparent that speculative design is a rather hard discipline one to grapple with. People often tend to dismiss the future ideas or become easily uncomfortable by them because it might not fit their idea of “how things should work”. Moreover, in a proposed future world, certain things are left for the audience to interpret or make sense of, unlike the usual practice of presenting a seamless service journey. Like the others, I was too struggling to wrap my head around this approach when we first began to work on the Design Futures Unit. However, through repeated practice of speculative design, prototyping, and research through design over the last few weeks, I am able to explain why there are merits in adopting this methodology in design practice -
“We believe that by speculating more, at all levels of society, and exploring alternative scenarios, reality will become more malleable and, although the future cannot be predicted, we can help set in place today factors that will increase the probability of more desirable futures happening. And equally, factors that may lead to undesirable futures can be spotted early on and addressed or at least limited” (Dunne and Raby, 2013, p. 6).
I also realised that we as humans are speculative beings. We speculate about scenarios in our daily lives and try to work around them depending on if the scenario is favourable for us or not. The simplest most relatable example for Londoners would be — You have plans to step out and someone says — what if it rains today? After five minutes of debate you probably would have 3 alternate plans charted out for what could be done if it rains today. As service designers, our inherent abilities to speculate also inform some of our premature ideas before we embark on working to solve a design brief.
Through the last 7 weeks, approaching a project as a problem finding exercise over a problem solving exercise has helped me develop my critical analysis skills. Frequent and quick prototyping of objects has reinforced that it is imperative to create fast and fail fast. As an individual, I can now say I’m less afraid of failing, and more open to critical feedback from my peers and tutors. research through design also helped me develop an anchored research practice, motivating me to reach out to the right people who can feedback on the future objects, validate my assumptions and provide a focused direction.
Ask a non-designer and they will believe that designers can be overly optimistic. Even though I agreed with that opinion to a certain extent, I never fully accepted that I did until I completed this unit. Design’s inbuilt optimism can complicate things by channelling energy and resources into fiddling with the world out there rather than the ideas and attitudes inside our heads that shape the world (Dunne and Raby, 2013). In this unit, through tangible objects as physical manifestations of our ideas of the future, we were able to gauge people’s authentic reactions, which tended to be more critical than affirmative, making the design process more realistic than optimistic.
While reflecting on my process in this blogpost, it has become clearer that research through design is not a singular method or approach (Trinidad Wiseman, 2018). Depending on the nature of the problem and the different stages of the design process, mixed methodologies can be used to enhance the traditional design practice, a learning I would like to take forward in my major project.
Until then, I would like to leave you with one question that has been on my mind — Was the world we live in today once speculated by someone?
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