Oh Hai! We are A Parede, a brazilian design research duo currently living in Berlin. Our research interests fall within decolonial thought, radical pedagogies, gender and sound studies.

Drop us a line for collaborations, requests, ideas and/or general friendliness: hello@a-pare.de

Dystopian Presents and Dismal Futures (2014)

We were invited by the organizers of the FAD Fest in Barcelona, Spain, to speak at the 3rd annual “Open Design/Shared Creativity” Conference. We took part in a round table/open session assessing the relationship between Speculative and Critical practices with that of Open Design. Along with the two of us the session was also joined by Laura Forlano, Lisa Ma and hosted by Ramon Sangüesa from “La Mandarina de Newton”.

Dystopian Presents - Opening Slide

We decided to present our point of view on the current affairs of the discipline (as assessed by these texts) and also talk a little bit about our “Design in Times of Crisis” research project.

Find below a summary and some slides of our presentation, followed up by our own wrap-up of the discussion that followed afterwards during the session.

Slide 02

One of the main points of the session was to discuss how Speculative and Critical Design could become a truly open conversation. As we see it, SCD practices have, thus far, a worrying tendency to the “designer as god” scenario, capable of single-handedly changing the lives of others and the evolution of technology; this ends up causing design decisions and depictions of the future to be based on very narrow perspectives of the world that surrounds said designers. We gave some examples of what we meant during our presentation.

Speculative design owes many of its ideas to critical theory, a philosophical movement first formulated in the Frankfurt School in Germany; it aimed to enlighten the masses, offering critical assessments on society and culture’s underlying structures of power. Though this initial proposal does sound interesting, one cannot help but observe that it is also a rather patronising and arrogant stance – once again rich, white european men felt entitled to say what others should or shouldn’t think/do.

Though practitioners have been known to deny any proximity between SCD and critical theory, the latter’s profound influence on the former is quite evident throughout both theory and praxis as pointed out by these quotes below: similar origins, similar language, similar goals.

slide 04

Much like in critical theory, the initial idea proposed by SCD definitely sounds bold, exciting and ambitious – but as we got to know the field we were a bit underwhelmed. Why?

Because SCD usually falls much short to its critical aspirations – critique seems more of an intellectual exercise than a real effort to discuss serious problems in society.

We’re saying this because if you want to question the status quo, provoke and reflect on design’s role within society you necessarily need to acknowledge and address issues of social justice (like gender, race, class, ability and so on).

Unfortunately SCD tends to ignore these issues in favour of very narrow, privileged ideas of what “critical” could mean.

We see that the biggest problem of Speculative Design right now is actually two-fold: not only it hasn’t dared to take its proposal for critique a bit deeper, but it seems to have decided to depict its futures with a very narrow perspective. If you look at a wide range of speculative design projects, you will notice that most people depicted are white and implicitly european, couples and families are always based on a traditional heterosexual model, the lifestyle of middle and upper classes seems to be the norm and even the visual language of the discipline tends to borrow the vices of things like fashion photography (as evidenced by how women in particular seem to always be depicted within a certain beauty standard).

SCD ends up operating from a very narrow and normative depiction of everyday life, one that unconsciously reaffirms our current status quo instead of questioning it: minorities, in their futures, have no space, they do not take part on the conversation. If critical design aims to question the status quo, critical design must be bold, it must approach complicated themes, it must deal with issues of social justice, and yet most of the production in the last 15 years has all but ignored these issues in favor of what some people recently have named as “first world problems”.

Slide 09

Unfortunately SCD seems to also have inherited CT’s patronising stance, operating from the entitled and privileged point of view of the white, academic, middle class designer from the developed world, who is either unaware of or doesn’t care about realities different from their own.

That doesn’t mean that SCD is ill-intentioned, but it does mean that we have a very serious problem of privilege and entitlement permeating the discipline. This privilege and entitlement is a general problem in design and a specific problem in SCD. It’s something that’s bound to happen in disciplines developed within the safe confines of expensive universities in developed countries.

In their most recent book “Speculative Everything”, canons of the discipline Dunne & Raby have shown this interesting diagram, called “Cone of Future Projections”. They are not the first ones to use this cone – it has been largely used by SCD practitioners and it is all over the internet if you look.

The Cone

Whereas we do think that it is a useful graph to show the ways in which SCD projects work – questioning “whose preferable future” and building scenarios somewhere between probable and possible ones, they let one very, very important detail amiss: we do not live in the same present.

(Acknowledgements to Cameron Tonkinwise here)

Slide 19

Ask any South American, any Middle Eastern, Asian or African person and you will notice that our dystopia is happening right now. We have seen a myriad of SCD projects that question “what if we lived in civil war” or “what if we suffered food scarcity”; but bear in mind that this is not a “what if” question in many, many places of the world – it is daily life. The dismal futures developed countries fear so much are in fact our dystopian presents.

It is this ignorance of the world around them what makes the current status of SCD very, very dangerous. On one hand it is fair enough that they should concern themselves with their own reality and problems. But the questions being asked most of the time show that there is a lack of acknowledgement and empathy to whatever is out of this very narrow reality. Not because they should come and help us (like sometimes they think they should) but rather because they are ignoring that there’s an entire world below the Equator line, as well as to the right of Germany. The few projects that address these issues usually incur in the very colonialist mentality of being the saviour of a population that supposedly cannot solve their own problems. No! What designers need to do is to just stop and listen. Instead of designing for them – or even with them – designers need to understand their perspectives and more importantly, let their voices be heard. And with this we mean also minorities who are oppressed due to sexual orientation, gender, race, class and so on. We, as designers, do not have the right to speak for others. We have to make these design spaces open enough, comfortable enough for these discussions to take place.

Slide 23

So our biggest question to the discipline right now is: whose voices are taking part on the conversations, and whose are being left out? How can SCD include the very minorities that are living these dystopian presents and hear their voices? How can SCD practitioners let these visions of near-futures and immediate presents be the central role of a speculative project?

Or, making it more akin to the theme of this conference, how do we turn SCD into a meaningful, truly open conversation?

Slide 24

After the presentations there was a short round of discussions within the table, followed by questions and remarks from the audience. Some of the important things mentioned in this session were the concern with being “politically correct” – a term that is usually employed to be derogatory towards activists – versus a need for design (and SCD for that matter) to portray “provocative futures”. In our view, designers don’t need to refrain themselves from provocation, provided said provocation is aimed at generating politically relevant responses. We pointed out that we do not advocate for SCD to portray utopian futures, but rather we understand dystopian depictions as a means of generating true social debate.

FAD Fest

We were also inquired on how we see this “openness” happening within our practice; for us, designers speculating on the future should be very aware of whose future they want to talk about, and particularly, avoid designing “for” and even “with” them, but rather let their voices be heard, period. While we do reckon it is a task not all designers are willing to take upon themselves, we do think that teaching design methods is a good starting point – as in, democratising the design practice as much as possible (a really great reference for this topic can be found here). Another important point in this democratisation of SCD practices would be to spread it around much farther than western universities and art galleries – think schools and communities in developing countries or minority activist groups. In order for the discipline to evolve, it is paramount that the next generation of SCD practitioners comes from other parts of the world and other social and cultural backgrounds.

Finally, one thing that was mentioned within the table and is worth highlighting in our wrap-up is the issue of representation. This is the concern that first triggered our questioning towards the first wave of Speculative and Critical Design Projects. It is still a matter that needs to be addressed more carefully – not only in terms of which subjects SCD decides to tackle as “critical” and “provoking”, but also what kinds of representation are being consciously chosen to portray their futures. Documentation, we argue, is as important as the project itself for it survives it. We were questioned whether or not this may end up on using “tokens” for minorities; we argued that this is not what is at stake: if it happens, it only shows that the problems within SCD lie way deeper than we thought at first.

Thinking back we are now able to better explain what we meant by this: though tokenism is a legitimate concern, when we say that this is not what’s at stake we mean that as the community of SCD practitioners becomes more diverse tokenism actually ceases to be a problem: instead of someone trying to include a minority they’re not part of, we will have people owning their own stories.

Our warmest thanks to Viviana Narotzky, Sol Polo and Ramon Sangüesa for making this session possible.

All pictures from the FAD Fest Session by Xavi Padrós. More of them can be found here.