(Left: Black Mirror episode ‘Nosedive’ premiered in’ 2016. It explores the idea of ‘What if your social media rankings based on your everyday actions and interactions govern your standard of life? | Right: A display of a facial recognition system shown during the 1st Digital China Summit in 2018, before announcement of a fully operational social credit system to be implemented in China in 2020, nypost.com)
As part of my MA Service Design course at the London College of Communication, we (me and my team of 4 co-designers) created a project in collaboration with our Design Futures tutors and GOV.UK Digital Service team. The task was to speculate a future 10–15 years from now, design a service that sits in that future, and create artefacts that exist in that service. Sounds simple, right? Not quite, as this journey involved multiple loops of confusion, frustration, and sometimes, even agony. This blog is a glimpse into that tumultuous (albeit fun) ride, including questionable choices we made and lessons we learned along the way.
Since we are continuously on a race towards the future, I will be using a phrase that is commonly used in racing to break my journey down into three phases: Ready, Set, and Go.
So sit back, relax, and I hope you take a thing or two after reading this blog post!
Phase 1: Ready
Discovering a topic through horizon scanning
To kick off the project, we started with a futures thinking method called horizon scanning. Also known as environmental scanning, it helps discover early signs of potential change. The primary purpose of horizon scanning is to be aware of changes by identifying trends, discontinuities, emerging issues, and other signals of change (Studio Dojo, n.d.).
(Types of Futures Knowledge and Intelligence, Futures Platform, 2020)
Our team focused our search on trends and weak signals of change:
- Trends — the rising developmental changes on global, national, and societal levels.
- Weak signals — change that starts off as background noise, or murmurs.
The reason why it is important to look out for the weak signals, is because it helps us think of emerging issues quicker, and allows us to get ready for any possible disruptive events that will happen in the future (GOS Futures Toolkit, 2021).
We began our search and started looking for news articles, blog posts, podcasts, and announcements that fit in the 16 categories that were provided by our tutors. By creating a ‘horizon scanning bingo,’ it made the research task interesting because we had a sense of accomplishment from filling out each box. There was also going to be a prize for each team that completed the bingo, so of course, my team wanted to go for the gold!
After finishing the horizon scanning bingo, we discussed as a group and narrowed down our topic choices into three: 1) change in value systems, 2) climate emergency, and 3) new media. There was a fourth one, 4) demographic, which came into play a bit later, but we initially started with those three.
(Our Horizon Scanning Bingo, with black squares as the trends, and white squares as the weak signals of change, Team 2 Miro Board, 2023)
How did we make those decisions as a team, you may ask? We used a dot-voting system, a familiar method in service design teams where each team member is given sticky dots (in our case, digital stickers) to mark their choices (Stickdorn et al., 2018).
Our team used the following criteria in selecting our top three. It had to:
- Be a topic with multiple, relevant pieces of research with both weak signals and mega trends.
- Have a potential to be linked with a GOV.UK service.
- Be interesting to dive into, and fun to make prototypes with — (this was our last unit working in teams after all, so we wanted to have fun!)
Through team discussions, peer feedback from our fellow service designers, and informal presentations with our tutors and staff of GOV.UK, we ultimately decided on one topic: new media.
Exploring our future through world building
Bear in mind that when I say ‘our future,’ I do not mean what me and my teammate’s personal lives will look like 15 years from now. Rather, I am referring to a broader scale of what the future of society will look like. Specifically in the UK, and what role GOV.UK plays in that future.
After selecting our topic, it was now time to build our future. Now we did not do this by creating story-long narratives and coming up with characters to place in each scene (although there is an element of this later on), but we used Design Future’s method of creating diegetic prototypes — which are objects (artefacts) that exist in that world aiming to suspend disbelief about the changes that occur, and communicates the future world it lies in through scenario-setting (Paraboschi and Dalla Rosa, 2016).
We did this through the process of looking at our trends and signals, formulating a ‘What If’ question that led to our future world, and creating headlines of a newspaper from that future.
(Top: One out of 11 formulated ‘What If’ questions and 16 future newspaper headlines | Bottom: Headline example of a newspaper from the future world where our ‘What If’ question exists, Team 2 Miro Board, 2023)
By creating a simple prototype in the form of a newspaper headline, we gave context of our future world to the viewer, without having to reveal too much information. After this activity, we were now ready to move on to the next step of the journey: prototyping!
Before that, let me share with you the main challenges we encountered and outcomes we made in this phase:
- Compared to our previous Service Design projects which had one specific research focus, we started out very broadly in this DF project. It gave us freedom to explore topics, but perhaps too much freedom, that we found it difficult to find an area to focus our research on.
- Finding the weak signals of change was much harder, since it required deep digging and looking at non-mainstream channels of information. We also found it more challenging to research news under some categories such as ‘Southern Hemisphere’ and ‘Technocratic Government,’ which is why we lacked trends and signals in those areas.
- By rooting our future scenario from trends and signals, it made our world building plausible and relatable.
- Having a ‘What If’ question rather than a ‘How Might We’ allowed us to express more creativity, and not be limited to a single problem area or set piece of information.
Phase 2: Set
Creating our future service concept through prototyping, testing, and iterating
Very early into the SD course, one of our lecturers told us, ‘Don’t think that service design isn’t a ‘making’ course, time will come when you’ll have to make make make!’ — and I have always been excited to get to that part ever since.
As a conflicted artist~designer, I am highly fascinated with making, doing, and creating. We were first introduced to the concept of ‘thinking by doing’ in our Collaborative Unit (CU) class, where we had to design tools through prototyping, testing, and iterating. In DF however, this was further materialised as we were creating artefacts for a future that was a product of our speculation.
(A basis of good world building is addressing the ‘What Ifs.’ In this phase, we had to design a service from our What If, and create a prototype that represents that service. Gabby’s notes, 2023)
Our prototyping journey was very enjoyable and insightful, but it also had its challenges, which I will share with the accompanying prototypes below:
(First prototype testing session in LCC Canteen, April 2023)
Prototype: Ultra-targeted Political TikTok Campaign Video
Challenges: Our team found the first rapid prototyping exercise very difficult. We were stuck and were scrambling for inspiration. We ended up with prototypes that were ‘too safe,’ and ‘not provocative enough.’ After a team retrospective, we agreed that it might have been due to our chosen topic, ‘New Media’ — which was challenging to translate into a tangible object. We created a ‘live’ TikTok video participants could interact with, which resulted in a lot of engagement. However, since the role play was part of our prototype, it was something we had to iterate in addition to the physical object itself, which was a bit strenuous.
Outcome: This experience led us to reconsider our topic, big time. We sought feedback from our peers and tutors, who agreed that our topic may be limiting us from making more provocative future services. It was a tough call for us to make, but eventually, we decided it was better to restart early on than for us to continue going in the wrong direction.
(Our newly decided topics from left to right: Fertility and Immigration, Beauty and Cosmetics, and Energy.)
Prototypes: Childbirth Machine, Government-initiated Baby Making Facility, Instant Beauty Shop, and The Building of Renewable Energy
Challenge: Although we had more fun in making prototypes this time round, we were spread out in too many directions. We built 10 prototypes that fit in 3 future worlds, and that was a lot! As we were constrained in time, we spent more time testing one prototype than the others. This also meant we did not get to conduct many iterations, as most of our time was spent in getting feedback for the other prototypes.
Outcome: This really helped build team cohesion and get our creative juices flowing! By making different artefacts, it helped us think outside the box and dig deep into building our future scenarios. Testing out multiple prototypes also led us to narrow down (yet again) our topic, based on the prototype that sparked more conversations and provoked more thoughts, which was the Childbirth Machine.
Top: An animated step-by-step of how the Childbirth Machine works. Wang, 2023 | Bottom: A diagram explaining terms of the GOV.UK Co-owned baby policy. Team 2 Miro, 2023)
Prototype: GOV.UK Co-owned Baby Policy
Challenge: The Childbirth Machine prototype got us to think deeper about our future service concept. It was the one that generated the most discussion, but it was also the one that caused the most disturbance. Building a government baby co-ownership service around that prototype made our future world incredibly dark and dystopian. And although our prototype was rooted in the trends and signals we found in our research, having a fictional machine at the centre of our service illustrated a ‘technology = magic’ phenomenon, which was not the aim of this DF project.
Outcome: Another series of testing, presenting, and critical feedback sessions propelled us into (quite literally) — killing our baby machine. We experienced a common phrase in Service Design of ‘killing your darlings’ firsthand, and it was painful. However, this forced us into developing our service concept into a more realistic and preferable future, which brought us a lot closer to answering the GOV.UK brief, and for our team, the DF finish line.
Researching through design
(Prototyping sessions in of the Childbirth machine, generating conversations about body autonomy, choice, life, and convenience. LCC building, April 2023)
Frayling (1993)’s study of Research through Arts and Design (RtD), argues that contrary to popular stereotypes around the process of artists and scientists — designers can conduct a form of research by ‘doing’ the design itself. By combining material research and action research through making, the results are communicated — which separates it from the primary and secondary methods of information gathering research.
(Service design vs. Design futures processes. Gabby’s notes, 2023)
Demonstrating RtD in this project was a complete turnaround from the type of research we were used to. In our first service design projects, which included a lot of user-centred research, interviewing, shadowing, and desk reading; in Design Futures we merely had to create a piece of object, invite the participants to interact with it, and let the object communicate for itself.
(Design research through practice has evolved from the lab–scientific design, to the field–design through society, to the showroom–design for debate (Koskinen et al., 2013). Gabby’s notes, 2023)
From my understanding, designing through the field is the research more applied in social sciences, such as in our User-Centred Project unit, where we conducted design ethnography, created personas, and co-designed with residents of Camden to develop our service. While designing through the showroom is more used in art, such as exhibitions and installations, to enrich communication and speculate interactions.
The goal in Design Futures was to fuse those two, producing an awkward hybrid of designing through the field and the showroom.
(Team 2’s V&A Museum Visit, May 2023)
Too much to grasp? Let me give you an example. My team was in a bit of a conundrum on how we were supposed to mix these two methods of research too. So we did what any fun-loving design team would do, we took a break. We went to the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), and as we were going around the cast and jewellery collection, we found ourselves learning new knowledge and experiences — both of the artwork and of each other, just by observing and interacting with those objects.
Was this design research through the showroom? Maybe. Although it was fascinating, it felt one-sided and subjective. What is the purpose of the interaction? How does it promote inclusive design? We were challenged to reflect on these thoughts and apply them to our project, by combining the participatory approach of the field with the speculative approach of the showroom, resulting in interactions that bring forth provocation and impact.
Phase 3: Go!
Launching our final service concept through engaging with stakeholders
(Service concept iterations, from New Media to GF Child Care Service. Team 2 Figma, 2023)
Finally, we were inching closer towards the finish line. Or so we thought. Getting rid of our initial prototypes and world building took hard work, as it meant we had to iterate the concept, as well as the prototype itself. Using an amount of trends we had in our research, we slightly shifted our focus to child raising instead of childbirth. We still maintained our future of a declining population resulting in an unbalanced demographic, affecting the economy; but we asked a new question:
What if the government was more heavily involved in child raising to increase the national birth rate?
(GF Child Care Service banner logo)
🔵 Introducing the Government Funded (GF) Child Care Service — launched to achieve a more balanced distribution of age groups in the UK — resulting in a sustainable, circular economy.
🔵 This programme provides financial support to eligible parents — to assist in raising their children aged 0–15 years. The beneficiary of this service (GF child) repays the government through various methods of their choosing once they reach 15–18 years old.
View full service T&C’s here.
(Main artefacts representing service touchpoints1. GOV.UK Policy2. Opt In Contract for Parent/s3. Repayment Selection4. GF Privilege Card upon successful repayment )
(Diegetic artefacts representing individual and societal implications5. Metro Newspaper showing mixed outcomes 6. Business card of a new profession — GF careers advisor7. Wanted poster of lawbreakers — non-repayers8. Runaway letter of a 12-year old demanding freedom)
Highlights of the final concept testing
Our testing approach from phase one to phase three looked drastically different from each other. Here are some key observations and realisations from that experience:
✸ Iteration, is it co-design? — Throughout our journey of inviting participants to engage in conversation with our prototypes, we had this big question of ‘are we co-designing with them, or not?’. Perhaps not in the traditional sense of co-creating, but by learning through feedback. We could not adapt our service to each and every participant we spoke with, and instead, we had to acknowledge our biases and political stand, to draw out the issues we wanted to amplify.
(Feedback from testing conducted with families, security personnel, local and foreign parents, and teenagers. Elephant & Castle Park, May 2023)
✸ Prepare for the provocations — Before we set out to conduct our final testing, we listed down the thoughts we wanted to provoke through our service, who was included and excluded, and the unintended consequences of our service existing in the future. Using service design tools such as systems mapping and user journeys made us anticipate the hard questions for when we eventually engaged with our stakeholders.
An example is a comment a resident of Elephant & Castle asked us during the testing, ‘What if the child does not want to pay back the government when they grow up?’. Because this was one of our unintended consequences, we had already prepared an artefact for it: a runaway letter from a rebellious 12-year old.
This was also demonstrated by Superflux, a futures company, who was commissioned by the government of UAE to design possible futures of their city around renewable energy. While seeing a physical model of a future city with zero-carbon emitted from cars was very promising, one of the participants raised a valid point, that there was no way he can tell his own son to stop driving his car, therefore deemed it impossible to see a future where all citizens start using public transport.
(A flavour of what it would feel like to breathe air samples from the years 2020, 2028, and 2034 containing the most likely combination of PM10,PM2.5, carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and ozone. The Future Energy Lab, Superflux, 2017)
The designers came well prepared with this concern, and came up with a prototype of the ‘air from the future,’ and just a whiff of the air sample proved to be noxious, causing the participant to back away as soon as they inhaled a small amount of it.
By being aware of the implications your service will have, both preferable and not, you prepare yourself for the tricky conversations and build on your future world with solid provocations.
✸ Getting it wrong before getting it right — Sometimes it takes the crazy ideas to get to the sweet spot. We started out being safe with our New Media concept, then it got farther and farther towards the future, until we eventually reached dystopia. By bringing our concept closer to reality (and closer to home), we were able to land on a preferable future with touches of friction.
(Our future service concepts laid out on the Possibility Cone. Speculative Everything, 2013)
✸ Problem-solving, the long way — At the start of this blog post, I established that DF is not about solving a problem. But in a way, it kind of is. Not from the get-go, but from an indirect connection of ‘what does this future look like?,’ ‘how does it affect me?,’ and ‘what can I do so that I’ll prefer it over other futures?’. It is problem-finding through provocation, and problem-solving through conversation.
(Some feedback during our final presentation at the GOV.UK office. One of the GDS designers suggested community-provided child care support, either through the neighbourhood or elderly, in lieu of the government’s financial assistance. Whitechapel Building, May 2023)
By the time you have finished reading this, our Design Futures unit has already come to a close. However, one of the plans is to have a Show & Tell in June 2023 to showcase our service concepts to members of the public. Should our team’s project be considered, we will need to fine-tune our prototypes and curate our storytelling, with the help of Marion Lagedamont and Dr. Lara Salinas. So if you are ever around London at that time and would love to join us, just send me a message here!
(Left: Receiving feedback from the GOV.UK GDS design team. | Right: A team proudly mentored by Dr. Lara Salinas, one our MASD DF tutors. Whitechapel Building, May 2023)
Overall, embarking on this Design Futures journey was hard (to say the least), but oh so worth it. It was an incredible experience, made more special by the fact that the GOV.UK GDS Head of Design compared our service concept to a Black Mirror episode! But in all seriousness, using design as a lens to make futures tangible was eye opening. Futures thinking changes the way we look at the future, influences our relationship with it, and impacts the way we act now.
The future is continuously being shaped by us, today. Anab Jain in her 2017 TED talk: Why we need to imagine different futures, said that designing the future is not about predicting it, but about creating tools that help connect our present and future selves. By speculating future scenarios through world building, creating tangible objects by prototyping, and exploring various journeys of how we will get there through storytelling, we can become active participants in creating the future that we want.
As a service designer, it is my social responsibility to create new types of concern that will influence positive impact.
Through Design Futures, I expanded my ways of knowing and working. I learned not just new methods of research, but also imaginative ways of communicating ideas. I discovered how to problem-find and problem-solve beyond the Double Diamond, how to ask questions beyond a ‘How Might We,’ and how to tell a story beyond blueprints and personas. It is easily something I will incorporate in my practice, throughout the present and in — *wait for it*, the futures to come.
Black Mirror (2011) Netflix. Available at: https://www.netflix.com/gb/title/70264888
Dunne, A. and Raby, F. (2013) Speculative everything: design, fiction, and social dreaming. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.
Frayling, C. (1993) Research in art and design. London: Royal College of Art. Available at: https://researchonline.rca.ac.uk/384/3/frayling_research_in_art_and_design_1993.pdf (Accessed May 18, 2023)
Government Office for Science. (2021). A brief guide to futures thinking and foresight. Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1113574/A_Brief_Guide_to_Futures_Thinking_and_Foresight_-_2022.pdf (Accessed May 18, 2023)
Jain, A. (2017). Why we need to imagine different futures [Video]. TED. Available at: Available at: https://www.ted.com/talks/anab_jain_why_we_need_to_imagine_different_futures (Accessed March 12, 2023)
Koskinen, I. et al. (2013) ‘Design Research Through Practice: From the Lab, Field, and Showroom’, Morgan Kaufmann, 56(3), pp. 262–263. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1109/TPC.2013.2274109.
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Stickdorn, M., Lawrence, A., Hormess, M. and Schneider, J. (2018) This is service design doing: applying service design thinking in the real world : a practitioners’ handbook. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media, Inc. (Accessed May 18, 2023)
Studio Dojo. (n.d.). Participatory Futures Experiment. Available at: https://www.studiodojo.com/participatoryfuturesbot/ (Accessed April 15, 2023)
Superflux. (n.d.). Future energy lab. Available at: https://superflux.in/index.php/work/futureenergylab/# (Accessed March 12, 2023)