Speculative Design for Government, Policy and Politics

By: Dr Anna Whicher Date: 26/06/2017

Policy Lab, in the Cabinet Office, identified Speculative Design as the number one policy prediction for 2017 stating that ‘More policy makers will look to speculative design for answers’.

At PDR, we are engaging more and more with Speculative Design in order to explore possible futures for a range of thematic areas, for example with:

  • Age UK and the Associate Parliamentary Group for Design to understand the implications of the 2015 Assisted Dying Bill in the project ProtoPolicy.
  • HMRC to imagine what might come next in Making Tax Digital for individuals and businesses. 
  • DesignSingapore to hypothesise about the future of design policy ahead of their Policy Roundtable event in November. 
  • Scottish Enterprise to discuss how business support in Scotland can be more user-friendly to hit targets of providing support to 5,000 businesses. 
  • The Associate Parliament Group for Design and CHEAD to plan a brighter future for design education in the UK. 
  • The partners in the Design4Innovation project to understand how we could drag government financial support instruments out of the murk of bureaucracy. 

So what is Speculative Design and how can it help government?
Speculative Design is an emerging design practice with many names. Speculative design is a process that creates an artifact from the future with a specific narrative. These narratives are powerful tools which can better understand ethical or sensitive issues, by having a directed open discussion, using an artifact to demonstrate the future. A physical object can ground discussions around complex and abstract policies, services and political positions.
Speculative design is commonly used within the film industry and usually takes the form of the unique future reality in which these films are set, for example; dystopian worlds with killer robots or fantasy alien worlds with glowing plants and floating rocks. With this in mind, these films probably created these future worlds with dramatic effect and interesting plot lines in mind, however the concepts of these worlds have remained with us.
Parallel to this phenomenon, glowing plants have become real with the use of DNA printing by changing genomes and swapping it for bioluminescent bacteria. This breakthrough of human potential to create new forms of life, could give way to an infinitely more adaptable future that we could have never had expected.
The current state of government constantly needs to adapt to these ‘new’ developments and usually take time to adjust. Governments around the world are still adjusting to the internet, as the digital world is actually closer to the wild west as opposed to the modern day society we see on the surface today.
Speculative designers and researchers could reveal these problems, by providing narratives for these futures in a variety of formats – provocations, prototypes, products, images, films and so on – to express the urgency of change which is required today!
Humanity is excellent at adapting to an immediate problem, however we refuse to change to a slow burning one. It’s these slow burning problems that speculative designers can bring to light and reveal in all their complexity and their severity.
Crucially, policy-making processes are changing. We need to put citizens back at the centre of public service and public policy development. Speculative Design is a tool to do this, not only to creatively imagine solutions but also to think more long-term.
If you would like to find out more about Speculative Design please get in touch as we are planning a workshop ‘Speculative Design: the Future of Policy-Making.’