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Prototyping Artefacts of Change

Prototyping Artefacts of Change

Design fiction is the idea of having a discussion around possible futures through the creation or observation of an artefact. That would be my short definition of it anyway. Some of the best ways of learning are by asking questions and through discussion, two things design fiction is useful for in strategy and foresight.

I reached out to Nicolas Nova who—alongside his colleagues at the Near Future Laboratory—has created a number of superb and thought-provoking design fiction artefacts. Nova’s work lies “at the intersection of ethnography, interaction design and futures research” so he’s well equipped to introduce us to the concept of design fiction and how organizations learn through that practice.

Patrick Tanguay—Can you give us your definition of design fiction and perhaps how it relates to critical design and speculative design?

Nicolas Nova— “Critical design” is a term often used in design circle, it basically refers to a design approach that does not seek to solve problems per se. Instead, it attempts to probe alternative futures. Its purpose, according to the various pioneers of this design genre, such as Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby, is to allow critical reflection through future narratives that are often mediated through objects.

With my colleagues, at the Near Future Laboratory, we are interested in a variant called “design fiction”… which corresponds to the depiction of products / services / situations as if they had already existed or had occurred so that we can learn how to innovate and create new opportunities. More specifically, in our work we use standard objects and media conventions (a video showing a person’s life, a catalogue of fictional products, a fictional newspaper, a manual of non-existing devices, etc.) to express ideas about future uses of technologies.

Perhaps the biggest difference in respect to speculative design is its stronger focus on artefacts that belong to popular culture (e.g. catalogues and manuals), as well as the importance of humour / irony that is present in these objects. To some extent, the way we see design fiction at the Laboratory is less oriented to the context of a museum or gallery (although our work may be shown in such places), and aesthetics.

The goal being to give a group or organization something to discuss. Elsewhere you’ve mentioned that sometimes the discussion is in the process of creating the artefact and sometimes in using an existing project as a conversation starter, as a common “thing” to gather around. Can you expand on that and maybe give us some examples?

NN— The underlying idea of design fiction consists in having a debate about the issues at stake in the domain we want to address. This means that the artefacts should rather be seen as a means to an end: a vehicle for debate, an alibi to start a conversation, an excuse to step back. This debate is more important than the objects, and it can happen in different ways.

Most of the time, we are commissioned to develop futures scenarios about a certain topic and we develop a design fiction project with a multi-disciplinary team in order to come up with a series of group activities. The series of tasks we undertake to do that are the opportunity to discuss the details of the topic at stake, as well as clarifying issues, problems and opportunities. For instance, we did a project about self-driving vehicles back in 2015. It’s easy to speculate about this kind of technology, but it’s trickier to think about the details. To spark a conversation around the larger questions regarding a world of autonomous vehicles, we set about to create a tangible artifact from the near future of the self-driving car. We ran a workshop in collaboration with students from the CCA, interaction designers and developers to create the interaction design for a self-driving car. We did this as a way of digging into the details, discussing the known topics and raising many more unknown ones through the design of the vehicle’s Quick Start Guide. This gave the group the opportunity to experience the consequences and implications of a world with self-driving vehicles.

Another way to use the design fiction approach can consist in us working separately on a series of artefacts (e.g. a catalogue of fictional products) and use that in a series of workshops with clients. Based on desk research and ethnographic studies, we craft objects that highlight potential scenarios—the catalogue format is good to show a diversity of possibilities through different objects. The idea is to then use that to make workshop participants react to the artefacts produced and structure a discussion around them: what’s surprising? What’s difficult? What’s desirable? What’s not? Where do you sit as a company? What does it mean for your products/services in the near future?

You’ve also spoken about building worlds, not stories, saying it’s really a form of design, not fiction. How is building a world more useful than presenting a story?

NN— The design fiction approach is close to what futurists are doing, except that we’re focused on the shorter term. We’re less interested in imagining science-fiction stories. Our role consist in anticipating the potential consequences of (social or technological) changes and in telling these through objects. To some extent, the idea is to show what kind of world may come to pass. Showing the materiality of this world helps to describe the pragmatic concerns, ambitions, fears, everyday needs and wishes of the inhabitants of some envisioned near future. The stories are implicit in the objects themselves. The manual of a self-driving vehicle we designed is just that: each panel of the guide shows the problem and the issues of this piece of technology, but it’s not a story in the strict sense.

Showing the materiality of this world helps to describe the pragmatic concerns, ambitions, fears, everyday needs and wishes of the inhabitants of some envisioned near future.

As I mentioned in the introduction, I’m especially interested in how organizations can learn through this practice. What are your thoughts on that and do you have examples of things companies might be seeking in launching into a design fiction process?

NN— The two approaches I mentioned above—building design fiction as a group, or reacting to design fictions—can be seen as a means to structure the dialog between people of multiple disciplines and backgrounds in a creative and original way. These artifacts are meant to materialize changes, opportunities and implication in the use of technologies. They particularly point to details in situations where one of the objectives is to avoid too general a discussion, something that rarely helps. In our experience, organizations often need moments to get out of their comfort zone / bubble, and try approaches like this in order to look at their problems from a fresh perspective. Rather than the old-fashioned “strategy consultant’s” report or “futurist’s” white paper or bullet-pointed PowerPoint conclusion to a project, we think there is a need for approaches that have the potential to feel much more immersive and engaging. To some extent, design fiction workshops corresponds to a sort of “learning by doing” perspective on complex topics.

Some people would worry that thinking further out like this would be too removed from their current issues to be useful. Once you’ve created one or multiple artefacts and had those discussions, are there some common ways of “circling back” to the present, of implementing those discussions in strategy, services or products?

NN—Well, that’s a fair point. While I understand the importance of addressing current issues, there is a need to balance short-term thinking and anticipation. Mostly because discussing what can happen in the coming years—3-5 years ahead, not necessarily more—can certainly help in taking the right design decisions. What I’m interested in with design fiction is simply to use such scenarios to get back to the current affairs, and see how we can adjust product or service features. People versed in futures research use the term “back-casting” for this: a planning method that starts with defining a possible future and then working backwards to identify what can be done to connect it to the present.

Werner Vogels, from Amazon, uses a rather similar approach, that he calls “Working Backwards”:

“The product definition process works backwards in the following way: we start by writing the documents we’ll need at launch (the press release and the faq) and then work towards documents that are closer to the implementation.”

In our work at the Near Future Laboratory, we generally use the design fiction as a way to generate a debate about potential futures, and then do workshops to discuss what they mean for current projects: what should be changed? What can be adjusted? How can those scenarios lead to new opportunities?

I’ve seen design fictions used mostly in-house, for internal discussions on issues / potentials or as something “put out there” for the public in something more like an exhibition or an art gallery. Can it also work as a discussion between companies and users?

NN— With private organizations, it’s mostly in-house work. The crafting of the design fictions never leads to public presentations / debate. However, it can involve users and people from the general public who are chosen to participate in workshops (generally with non-disclosure agreements). That being said, I’m convinced it can be a good tool to engage potential users; the more contact with the external world, the better!

It’s easier with public organizations, for which a debate with citizens is more common, especially in European countries. We work with different cities in France, Spain and Switzerland and it’s possible to use design fiction publicly. It’s just another approach in the toolkit.

As if dystopian speculations were easier to design

Going back to the building worlds idea, are such techniques used with a citizen or (h)activism type of focus? To advance public discussion, to try and manifest what might be called proactive visions of the future?

NN—As I just mentioned, the use of design fiction in the context of public debate might be easier out of the commercial world. Speculative design (design fiction’s close relative) is a common approach for activists, with a wide range of projects… aiming at making provocative statements, or raising public awareness. In most of the cases, the purpose is rather about criticisms than showing a compelling vision of the future, which always seems harder to come up with, as if dystopian speculations were easier to design.

While we are believers in learning as a way of living we are also starting to explore the idea of it as a “perspective.” Design is a perspective; approaching problems and challenges with design tools and methodologies to explore solutions. It can be seen as a toolkit for solving problems. We find that “what can we learn,” “what can this situation teach us” is also an interesting view point. The tools of design, alongside a constant observation of what we learn on the way, feels like an excellent combination. Design fiction is one such toolkit, which we can explore while adding our learning filter or perspective.


Nicolas Nova
Nicolas Nova

Nicolas Nova (PhD) is a researcher, writer and co-founder of The Near Future Laboratory, a design and technology collective interested in exploring the near future’s normal everyday ordinary. He is also Professor at the Geneva University of Arts and Design (HEAD – Genève).


Patrick Tanguay

Editor-in-Chief for E-180 Publications. Obsessively curious transdisciplinary thinker and learner. I help connect people and ideas.