Reflections and outcomes from the intensive workshop at the master’s study programme at Politecnico di Milano, School of Design, held in February 2023, led by Ivica Mitrović and M Buonincontri – as a case study contribution to the topics we are exploring here.
Future is a tool often used in speculative design practices to visualise a portion of time and space standing somewhere in front of us, to contextualise change and to exercise difference. During the workshop, students were challenged to speculate specifically on near-future scenarios, taking into account the changes currently happening to climate, nature, economy and society. A near-future is feasible, it is a time in the future but not too far away – halfway – almost a stretched version of the present.
To prepare to leap in the near-future, students were also asked to connect to local bottom-up communities, collectives and activist groups to specifically research how these radical examples of resilience and survival have been organising and operating to sustain themselves. What was already interesting in this stage is how, in a class formed mainly by international students, the very meaning of the word “local” gradually stretched and became broader – proving that local is where we live, local is where we come from, local is what we know, local is a type of experience, an access point. Local is personal and personal experiences are often left aside when it comes down to other design practices.
Author Ursula K. Le Guin, one of the gems of science fiction, in the essay “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction”, instead of isolating a utopic future scenario, focuses on the past and speculates on the origin story of humanity redefining technology as a cultural carrier bag rather than a weapon of domination. In doing so, Le Guin makes space for another story, less linear and progressive, gathering what was left in the margin by the dominant narrative. This longing for another perspective also comes from a very personal, not less radical nor political need. She writes “[…] it also grounds me, personally, in human culture in a way I never felt grounded before. So long as culture was explained as originating from and elaborating upon the use of long, hard objects for sticking, bashing, and killing, I never thought that I had, or wanted, any particular share in it.” By speculating on the past, Le Guin shows that (speculating on) the future – the preferable, the possible, the plausible, the probable one – is just a strategy. The true core of speculative design is to explore alternatives, broadening perspectives, and bringing what is in the margin to the centre.
Before the introduction of the printing press, so-called “marginalia” were those comments, glosses, critiques, doodles, or illuminations – fragments of thought scribbled in the empty remaining area of the page, a space of criticism, playful speculation and leakage. The first books were filled with notes and considerations in the lesser space of the margin, telling different versions of the bigger space story. In the same essay, Le Guin says that “it is the (dominant) story that makes the difference. It is the story that hid my humanity from me, the story the mammoth hunters told about bashing, thrusting, raping, killing, about the Hero. […] The killer story.” The story makes the difference and the difference is grass-rooted, nurtured in the margins.
The goals of the intensive five-day workshop at the master’s study programme at Politecnico di Milano, School of Design, were to: a) speculate and sketch possible local, near-future community resilience as a way of b) reclaiming and bringing back a positive vision of the future, c) redefining our relationship with the changing nature and d) thinking about different approaches, tools, methods and mechanisms for this transformative process via design practice. These goals were challenged via future speculations, present-time research and proposed concepts communicated by various design outcomes (services, objects, design interventions and others).
The workshop started with speculations of the probable climate changes driven near-future scenarios in the local context (selected by the students themselves). Due to the fact that the class were international, project locations were coming from Milan and surrounding areas, the rest of Italy (from Rome to Enna in Sicily), speculating about the climate future of the central Mediterranean, but also including students’ home places around the world (i.e., Sao Paolo in Brazil or Lake Urmia in Iran). The second step was to focus on the present and investigate the local, bottom-up community practices which show a certain level of resilience via their everyday activities in dealing with future and the present crisis. For the final phase, the task was to develop a near-future speculative concept based on the imagined probable scenario and mapped local resilience community, i.e., to try to use those existing bottom-up practices for building different, community-preferable futures.
Speculative design has been recognised primarily as an approach and attitude, rather than a closed design practice with strict methodology. This allows designers (and other practitioners) to use their own acquired methods, tools and techniques in the design process. For workshop participants, this opened possibilities to challenge their design perspective, moving from traditional, affirmative problem-solving to a speculative and reflective approach in their everyday practice. Looking into the future via speculative thinking, they have addressed issues and reflected on the present, situated in a local context with local people as an environment, which is well-known by them.
They speculated about near-future scenarios around climate changes, with a focus on a few decades into local futures. This includes extreme heat waves, new migrations (from both South and North), new pandemics, failure of international production chains, cities going underground, nature “striking back” and reclaiming the urban zones, and a number of other scenarios, all radically altering the economic and political context inducing new class stratifications. New resilience actors included anti-system groups, social centres, eco/permacultural communities, physical forums, mycolic anarchist communities, illegal funk music party communities, upcycling communities and others. Inspired by these practices, approaches and activities, the students developed speculative concepts focusing on respect and active engagement with the environment, twisting anthropocentric models, looking into the coexistence of humans and nature, speculating about the role of animals in society, and experimenting with how knowledge can be transmitted. Ultimately, they tried answering the question “are we able to transform the probable not-so-promising futures into human-friendly conditions?”
Critical of the romanticisation of the Arcadian past and of historical constructs such as the concept of nation, national identities and heritages, the students’ speculations resulted in various non-affirmative design approaches such as a design for cohabitation, “bio-driven” and “fungi/mycelium” design, new modes of non-verbal sub-messages, analogue communication systems, writing manifestos, learning from vernacular interventions, design, cultures, and others. Even without obtaining real, tangible or broad changes, the workshop outcomes, as conceptual short-time projects, could be seen as a sign of resilience, shared passion and dreams to overcome challenging times, especially for communities with no/little hope.
The workshop provided a series of methods, tools and approaches giving students the possibility to challenge prevalent systems and world views, abandoning conventional design practices and designing without the need to solve problems. In their words, i.e., using a “community-inspired aggressive illegal DIY approach,” and imaging bottom-up problem-solving practices they “challenged the established design deontology, showing us how communities manage social needs related to economic marginalisation.” Moreover, inspired by small local communities, they started thinking about “a structural and administrative change capable of reorganising the structure of the entire city.” And not only cities. Challenging their perspective both as designers and as human beings, they were critical of the “unconscious application of a Western view on different realities,” opening decolonial, non-Western-centred possible futures with a different role of the so-called Global South. Another important focus point for the students was looking into possible post-human futures where “nature continues to provide signals of the possible reversal of roles, imposing itself to reassert its presence on the territory and stem the anthropocentric drift.”
Due to the short duration of the workshop, the dynamic was mainly focused on the process (speculations, investigations, research, developing concepts and discussion) rather than on the communications and prototyping part. To investigate how, via speculations about the future, we could address and make actions and changes in the present. The workshop intended to provide students with a speculative approach as “one more tool in your designer’s toolbox”. Outcomes and reflections again showed the strong potential of a speculative approach in the educational context, as a reflective tool for students’ practice and perception of design and as well as a tool for thinking about and imagining the role of design in building a better future (and present). Investigating how to move forward using design in the participative process with both communities and nature.
This speculative project explores a future scenario of Milan in the near future, in which climate change would significantly affect access to water and thus the cultivation of fruits and vegetables as we know it. Faced with this scenario of profound change in the raw materials involved in Italian cuisine, the initial question was about the shifts in Lombardy’s cultural identity in the face of future changes in the techniques and species chosen for cultivation, given the new adverse climate.
To explore this scenario, the sample “Mycellaneous” ways of living were designed, which exposes, taking an archaeological-educational approach in its design, the core values and artefacts employed in daily activities of the future communities envisioned. Both of these aforementioned aspects are based on current methods and customs of existing groups such as the community surrounding the shared orchard “La Milpa” and different groups aligned with the “Radical Mycology” theory and lifestyle. Their sustainable and anti-capitalistic activity could serve as a response and a way to achieve adaptation, integration and resilience to aid in the enrichment and evolution of Milanese inhabitants’ identity through their active engagement and exchange with the land.
Students: Diego José Valdivieso Benavente, Huajie Zhang, Nicolás Raigoso, Beini Mo, Malena Paz Del Zotto and Carmen Framiñán Galán
This is a speculative design project that aims to provoke a discussion about design practices in a possible dystopian world devastated by global warming. São Paulo, the near future. The protagonist of the story is Murilo Santos Periera, an eccentric technician who uses his skills to build and sell equipment in order to help his “baile” community to cope with the energy crisis. Indeed, to make the “baile” funk parties happen, poor communities of favelas have to steal electricity from the wealthy downtown.
The whole project can be experienced by exploring Murillo’s studio and the exterior environments, an immersive narration into the speculative artifacts and the Brazilian vernacular culture. Super Choque Studio deals with socioeconomic issues with an aggressive DIY approach. Imagining bottom-up problem-solving practices (inevitably illegal), the project challenges the established design deontology, showing us how communities manage social needs related to economic marginalisation.
Students: Luiz Carlos De Souza Junior, David Hazan, Ye Li, Alessio De Nicolò, Mona Abolghasemi and Nima Ahmadi
This speculative scenario is inspired by the current state of urban administration in Rome. The city’s condition has increasingly deteriorated due to both the climate emergency and state mismanagement. Speculation examines the consequences of emerging fauna in the city, focusing on the circulation of wild boars. In the near future, the containment of the animal is no longer possible and man must adapt to a life that is no longer anthropocentric. Every citizen of age receives a citizen’s handbook, assigning them to a wild boar in one of the natural areas in the city, to be responsible for the sustenance of the animal with their waste. In return, the animal will contribute to the citizen’s energy supply through their biomass and movement.
The idea behind this work is the inherent opportunistic nature of humans and animals. To be open to coexistence, humans must perceive a tangible benefit for themselves and vice versa. The provocative approach of the project does not aim to provide solutions, but rather emphasise the ironic situation of the city where the original natural order of things is slowly but strongly being restored. Nature provides signs of a necessary change of course, ignoring them is to put the central role of humans at risk.
Students: Denise Beretta, Noemi Capparelli, Matilde Cirafici, Francesca Curati and Claudia Pezzini