Speculation as Process: Part 1

Speculation as Process (taught by Richard The & Chris Woebken) was a great introduction into the practice of speculative design. In this two day workshop we examined how to forecast future scenarios, developed concepts, and each created and presented a work of speculative design. 

The workshop started before the workshop even started with a little homework. Two great readings: chapters 1 & 2 of Speculative Everything, an excerpt from Super Sad True Love Storyand a small writing assignment to describe three typical New York City scenarios – situations we notice, stray observations, daily annoyances, or really anything characteristic of living in this city.

The first two chapters of Speculative Everything  are an intro to and historical look at the role of speculation in design as well as a more critical look into how we currently think of design. The authors challenge the contemporary wisdom that design can solve the world’s problems. Here’s the problem:

…[design] channels energy and resources into fiddling with the world out there rather than the ideas and attitudes inside our heads that shape the world out there.

And here’s why they believe speculative design can solve that problem:

Speculative design can act as a catalyst for collectively redefining our relationship to reality.

This just reinforces something I think gets obscured sometimes as we talk more and more about the digital tools we use to design: the imagination is an incredibly powerful tool in and of itself itself. The a design is filtered through our perspective of reality. And so we get an imagined sense of a design + its context, relative to our personal reality. Speculative design plays with those filters and contexts to give us novel perspectives.

In the case of this workshop the contexts that we began with were a litany of situations we observe living in New York City.


An incomplete list:

  • Putting your stuff in/getting your stuff from storage
  • The ubiquity of food trucks and carts
  • Catcalls
  • Having 3′ x 3′ of outdoor space
  • Encountering an empty subway car that is empty for a reason
  • Not being able to hear anyone in a bar or restaurant
  • Bodega visual culture
  • Everything smelling like piss all the time
  • Looking for a train you know isn’t coming
  • Queuing for everything from concerts and art shows to Trader Joe’s checkout

We cross-pollinated our situations with a printed database of future scenarios from Chris’ (and Elliot P. Montgomery‘s) studio The Extrapolation Factory.


In a short sprint we spent time developing a few concepts then shared the results and discussed the potential of each and well as any interesting questions or tangents. This delightful little coordinate system, ranging from utopia to dystopia on the y and inevitable to impossible on the x, provided a handy guide and good way to stir up discussion.


After all the ideas were posted on the wall and we stopped quivering in fear from the few concepts that fell into the “inevitable-dystopian” quadrant of the map, we each selected one to move forward with. As our concepts went through a truncated speculative design process (recognizable in this case by a whirlwind of iterations in only a few minutes and the clittity-clack and whispered “shiiiiiits” that are marks of quick/dirty photoshop/illustrator work) they were solidified into ideas complete with context and designed.

My initial mix of NYC situation and future scenario was “looking for a train you know isn’t coming” X “programmable bacteria.”  I extrapolated that into a scenario in which the MTA solves communication issues with riders by offering a course of programmed bacteria that creates a sub-dermal intraface (an internal device of interacting with data, devices, and information) or “feeler” which delivers information directly to them by way of haptic transmissions. I’m calling this program MTAsense.

Check out the next blog for the design and presentation.