[ Design for Futures #5 ] Design Project Sharing: Design Futures for Biodiversity
Design works as a tool to change existing situations into preferred ones (Simon, 1988). It bridges what the world is (present) and what the world might be (future). This article will introduce how I conducted a Design Futures project, which addressed futures fulfilled with proactive biodiversity awareness and actions, with service designers at the University of the Arts London and professionals in Government Digital Service.
The article is divided into three parts. To begin with, I will discuss the relationship among various disciplines within the field of design for futures. Subsequently, I will delve into the project process, which involves an alternating cycle of research and design. Finally, I will share the insights gained through my journey from three role perspectives: service designer, human being, and a species on Earth.
Part 1 : Design Futures
1–1 The Difference between Speculative Design, Design Fiction, and Design Futures
Speculative Design is a discipline that explores futures by creating design artifacts, scenarios, and narratives (Auger, 2013). It goes beyond the boundaries of design thinking, which typically focuses on problem-solving in the present or near future. Instead, the Speculative Design aims to provoke thoughts, raise questions, and challenge existing assumptions about the future, being problem-finding oriented (Dunne & Raby, 2014).
Design Fiction and Design Futures are distinct areas of Speculative Design (Figure 1). Although both envision future scenarios, they emphasize different aspects and serve distinct purposes. Design Fiction primarily aims to provoke critical reflection on current circumstances, whereas Design Futures adopts a more systematic approach to stimulate discussions on how emerging trends may shape plural alternative future worlds (Dunne, 2009; Leitão, 2020) and engage participants in future policies and strategies (Figure 2).
Figure 1 Design Fiction focuses on criticizing, whereas Design Futures aims for future strategies. (Adapted from Montgomery, 2017)
Figure 2 The Difference Purposes of Design Fiction and Design Futures (The Example of Design Fiction: I Wanna Deliver a Shark…)
1–2 Why do futures matter to design? And Service Design?
The future building is relevant to design disciplines. Design can use various tools, such as co-design or prototype tests, to incorporate diverse opinions and perspectives. This approach ensures that the future is designed with a solid foundation in real-world contexts. There are three reasons why futures matter to design and Service Design.
#1 Horizon Broadening
It is precisely because other possibilities have been turned into “impossibles” that we find it so difficult to imagine other realities.
— Escobar, 2018
When imagining futures, people often project current issues onto the future, typically seen as an extension of the present (Sardar & Sweeney, 2016). This tendency, known as “recency bias” (Richards, 2012), causes humans to rely excessively on recent experiences and trends when envisioning futures. Consequently, the potential for unexpected events and the opportunities for desirable futures are limited and excluded (Figure 3), echoing Escobar’s observations. Design can assist individuals in breaking free from cognitive biases by serving as a medium to explore diverse future possibilities.
Figure 3 Using design tools can help jump out of the stereotypes of futures. (Adapted from Voros, 2001)
#2 Interaction Provoking
First brought futures to light; then brought them to life.
— Candy & Weber, 2019
Future world and scenario building must incorporate diverse voices and opinions, just as the current world does. To understand how humanity will evolve and respond to future worlds, future narratives should be developed and enriched by diverse stakeholders. Therefore, applying design to visualize and materialize future scenarios is a practical approach that can stimulate conversations (Figure 4).
Figure 4 Using future prototypes to interact with international students, residents, and governments.
#3 Detail Developing
Every miraculous iPad there are countless partly broken realities: WiFi passwords, connectivity, battery life, privacy and compatibility amongst others.
— Foster, 2013
The future is shaped by countless intricate changes. An engaging future building lies not in designing the gloss but in seeing beyond the gloss to the truths behind it (Foster, 2013). In this regard, Service Design plays a significant role. Service Design’s thinking methods and tools enable a comprehensive analysis and sense-making process (Figure 5). This allows for the logical and systematic development of future perspectives on policy, society, values, services, and daily life (Figure 6). By constructing a verisimilitude worldview, participants can immerse themselves in the future and anticipate their values and responses.
Figure 5 (Left) Using Service Design to imagine future policies, societies, and ethics (Iwabuchi, 2020). / Figure 6 (Right) How my team utilized the design process to envision futures (Adapted from Salinas, 2022).
In general, building futures with design can help jump out of the projection of two edges of the future spectrum: ideal future worlds (Utopia) and the exacerbation of current crises and controversies (Dystopia). Instead, the progress of Design Futures, constructed by scientific identification of the present and creative imagination of the future, enables audience engagement, contemplation, and preparedness for the future.
Part 2 : Design Futures for Biodiversity
2–1 Why futures for biodiversity?
# From “Human” to “More-than-human.”My team had contemplated whether the concept of “human-centred” had been overused. In societies that frequently emphasize the “human-centred” approach to showcase their friendly and convenient spirit, considering other species is often neglected. Despite significant advancements in human society and technology, many individuals ignore or deny the escalating climate change and environmental loss, even when facing overwhelming evidence. This phenomenon of numb perceptual denial, known as “Postnormal Lag” in the field of Future Study, is common in society (Sardar & Sweeney, 2016). The observation of this Postnormal Lag served as the starting point for our project. Our team aimed to challenge the “human-centred” mindset and contemplated what scenarios and conflicts may arise as this Postnormal Lag unfolds (Figure 7).
Figure 7 One of the metaphors of biodiverse futures at the beginning: What if the environment is our employer?
My team envisioned futures where societies must transition from “egotistical” to “ecotistical” in response to declining biodiversity. The aim of envisioning such futures was to explore the process and the impacts that arise when societies faced the gradual loss of biodiversity (Figure 8). Instead of highlighting the number of endangered species or the dire consequences of biodiversity loss, we focused on imagining how societies would react and what services and countermeasures would be developed to address the situation.
Figure 8 What will happen in the process between Egotistical and Ecotistical? (Adapted from Martusewicz et al. 2021)
2–2 How to construct it?
The Design Futures project process was characterized by rapid, continuous, and public-participatory iterations (Figure 9). My team’s methodology had two primary phases: Present Analysis and Future Envisaging. We utilize various tools and frameworks to gather evidence, develop prototypes, stimulate discussions, and enhance the design to accomplish these purposes.
Figure 9 The project process - The boundary of the two phases was vague since the process alternated between research and design.
There was a dynamic interplay between research and design in the process, referred to as Research for Design and Research through Design (RtD) (Frayling, 1993; Baytaş, 2022). The former encompassed the process of knowledge-finding and analysis to ensure that our team’s envisioned proactive countermeasures for biodiversity decline were scientific and logical. The latter, RtD, involved using prototypes to gather authentic feedback, allowing individuals to interact physically with, manipulate, or discuss design ideas, refining our concepts.
# Methods for Analyzing the PresentAnalyzing the present was to identify and interpret weak signals, existing things or phenomena that can indicate potential significant impact (Dufva, 2020). In our approach, my team primarily employed PESTLE Analysis and Causal Layered Analysis.
Initially, we utilized the PESTLE analysis method, which examined the current situation from political, economic, social, technological, legal, and environmental perspectives (Haines, 2019). This enabled us to explore and categorize present issues relevant to climate and biodiversity (Figure 10). Based on the insights gained from PESTLE, we noticed that the power of nature restoration and adaptation was strong, and many services in human societies advocated for co-living with other species. This led my team to ask: If measures and services for biodiversity protection were more proactive and radical, what might the “new normal” look like?
Figure 10 Using PESTLE to collect signals and gain insights.
However, we found that PESTLE Analysis only provided general guidance for the future of biodiversity and might not effectively communicate all relevant information. For example, when we created prototypes for co-living with microbes (Figure 11), participants were confused and unable to provide feedback. We realized that using such a broad approach to build the future was invalid.
Figure 11 What if people need to help grow microbes due to the lack of biodiversity and environment? We created a rapid prototype to interact with students at UAL.
To address this issue, we employed Causal Layered Analysis (CLA), a thinking framework that helps uncover underlying values and beliefs (Inayatullah, 1998; Lipsett, 2020). This approach allowed us to delve deeper and explore the potential for paradigm shifts (Figure 12). Through CLA, we gained a clearer understanding of what values and services would look like in the future of biodiversity. After bringing future scenarios to light, we continued to prototype and co-design the details with participants to bring futures to life.
Figure 12 Using CLA to analyze the shifts of values and worldviews
# Methods for Envisaging the FutureMy team applied co-design, prototyping, and storytelling to incorporate diverse opinions and perspectives, ensuring the future was designed with a foundation in real-world contexts. In this phase, design served not only as an outcome but also as a medium for further exploration. We created numerous fictional future artifacts (Figure 13), invited people to brainstorm future scenarios (Figure 14), and expressed their thoughts together, known as co-design.
Figure 13 My team used “Crazy 8” to generate 8 ideas in 8 minutes. Then we were able to make prototypes to interact with people rapidly.
Figure 14 Tourists and residents who walked at Kew Garden told us how to improve the prototypes and gave us new ideas.
By engaging in prototyping and co-designing with people, I avoided professional deformation, which refers to the cognitive tendency of perceiving the world solely through the lens of my design profession (Polyakova, 2014). During this process, participants shared their ideas regarding the potential emergence of services in a biodiverse future, jobs for nature protection, and other necessary improvements to adapt to that future. Examples of such improvements included the development of an education certificate mechanism for learning about biodiversity (Figure 15) and the establishment of legislation concerning animal rights. These valuable insights from individuals enabled my team to iterate and refine our approach.
Figure 15 Based on participants’ feedback, my team iterated the concept of Mandatory Restoration Service to Biodiversity Conservation Certificate, which can embed biodiversity teaching into the education system and make the public feel more comfortable (when compared to the “mandatory” service.)
Another benefit of co-creating futures with people is the refinement of storytelling. It allowed my team to understand which future contexts can captivate the audience’s attention and what kind of prototypes can stimulate reflection and elicit feedback during participant interactions. As an illustration, we constructed a future scenario where “the Ministry of Biodiversity” exists (Figure 16). Through this fictional government entity, we communicated potential policies and measures authorities might develop to tackle biodiversity decline in future societies. This approach enabled participants to immerse themselves in this future worldview and readily provide feedback. Before introducing the “Ministry of Biodiversity” concept, participants had limited clarity regarding our prototype and the narrative during our interactions with them.
Figure 16 The Ministry of Biodiversity and the Founding Members (My team)
2–3 What does it look like?
During our research and insights, my team engaged in a series of iterative “what-if” questions to envision the future of biodiversity (see Figure 6). Initially, we established a fictional ministry and developed three pilot policies and future scenarios (Figures 17–19). These were then utilized to interact with people and specialists in the Government Digital Service (GDS). By gathering feedback and conducting numerous iterations, my team could backcast the present world and created a concise stakeholders action chart (Figure 20) to inspire GDS’ future strategies regarding biodiversity. The input from GDS also provided valuable inspiration for further development of the Ministry of Biodiversity. They inspired us about how to enhance public communication of such policies, how diverse government ministries and departments can collaborate to address biodiversity, and what digital services and portals could be created to support these policies.
Figure 17 Policy 01 - Nature Recovery Season: What if public spaces like parks and rivers are closed for natural restoration?
Figure 18 Policy 02 -Biodiversity Conservation Certificate: What if knowledge and awareness of biodiversity become a requirement for higher education?
Figure 19 Policy 03 -The Bill of Multispecies Rights: What if non-human species have legal rights?
Figure 20 The Stakeholder Action Chart
Part 3 : Realization & Reflection
Through exploring multi-species perspectives, I reflect on three key roles I have played on this journey: service designer, human being, and a species on Earth (Figure 21).
Figure 21 Reflecting the project through three role perspectives.
1. Engaging stories and prototypes are essential.
How designers demonstrate a provocative whilst at the same time familiar future is difficult.
— Auger, 2013
Through this project, I realize the challenge of depicting provocative imaginations of future scenarios. These futures must balance between being too fictional and too familiar, requiring the careful accumulation of details. The contexts of these futures must be rational and able to withstand scrutiny. If the narrative is not coherent, participants will be confused why no one has come up with solutions when cities are flooded by rising sea levels in 2050 or why a sudden new technology emerges to address a food crisis. Designers should communicate the progress of how humanity arrives at those future scenarios, bridging the gap between the present and the envisioned futures to engage participants.
The future is the present for the next generations. Instead of creating brand-new innovation, how designers can rearrange things people are currently familiar with (Figures 22 & 23) to make their designed futures understandable is a challenging but fascinating part.
Figure 22 My team combined the future policy and the scenario with Google Maps, making the future policy easy to understand.
Figure 23 (Left) Combining the familiar slogan with the future promotion poster. (The slogan is the same as the current Transport for London use.) / (Right) Putting the future artifacts (the policy of the Nature Recovery Season) in the real world (Kew Garden).
2. Participation in future designing raises a sense of ownership for the future.
Prototype testing and discussing future scenarios affect participants much, making them proactive and optimistic about the future. Engaging in participatory activities is a powerful reminder of their ability to influence and change the world, often surpassing their expectations. Through effective co-design, participants’ confidence is boosted, fostering a shared sense of responsibility for shaping the future. They become active protagonists in shaping the future instead of passively waiting for predetermined outcomes. Witnessing such positive reactions from participants also gives me a profound sense of accomplishment.
3. Design Futures helps build a mindset of “anti-fragile.”
Antifragility helps build a systematic guide in any situation in which there is randomness, unpredictability, opacity, or incomplete understanding of things.
— Taleb, 2016
Going beyond the designer role, I believe Design Futures is vital to making humans “anti-fragile.” Anti-fragility refers to the ability of societies to prepare themselves in the face of stressors, uncertainty, or risks (Taleb, 2016). Design Futures involves posing questions about the future of society and organizations. Through continuous examination and iteration, it becomes possible to identify vulnerable aspects of the system, enhance the capacity to tolerate risks and impacts and enable the entire system to evolve and adapt. Consequently, even in the face of unexpected and profound events, known as black swans, which have significant effects not previously predicted or anticipated (Taleb, 2016), societies can swiftly adjust tactics and strategies based on their envisioned future. This adaptability helps mitigate the scale of impact and may even lead to benefits (Figure 24).
Figure 24 Design Futures’ problem-finding approach helps build an antifragile mindset. (Adapted from Taleb, 2016)
4. The tradeoff between humans and non-humans is more complicated than among humans.
An insight I have gained from our participatory interaction process is the presence of a subconscious “human-centred” mindset. When we presented the land restoration policies from the Ministry of Biodiversity in two different ways, we observed that participants’ reactions were influenced (Figure 25). This intriguing cognitive tendency indicates that the underlying goal of restoration may affect human responses.
Figure 25 When I introduce the nature recovery policies with two different purposes to students at UAL, their reactions are distinct.
Besides, it is interesting to receive feedback such as, “Would people vote for a government that implements such radical and seemingly unfriendly policies towards humans?” or “What if foxes or squirrels cause trouble in my house?” As a fellow human, I can empathize with concerns about how biodiversity-oriented policies might inconvenience or limit our leisure activities, such as strolling along the riverside of the River Thames or enjoying a sunbath in Hyde Park. However, I also raise the question: Is the emphasis on humans’ liberty and equality encroaching upon the liberty and equality of other species?
5. Species Relativism: Some specie’s future is another specie’s crisis.
The “Cultural Relativism” concept in anthropology describes no absolute principles regarding normative beliefs, justifications, or rationality. Instead, there are only relative ones influenced by different backgrounds and experiences (Herskovits, 1973; Richard, 2020). This concept was also embraced in my project. My team knew that humans are just one species among many on Earth. We explored the idea of “Someone’s future is another one’s crisis” from a more-than-human perspective. We contemplated how humans can cultivate empathy and respect for other species, similar to how they do for other humans, and envisioned what such a process would entail.
I believe a future of “Species Relativism” or “Ecotistical” is possible, although it is not always straightforward. The future is shaped by the actions every species take in the present. The purpose of looking ahead is to understand what the paths to future scenarios might look like, determine what human beings, and other species, should do now, and actively bring that envisioned future into the present, thereby transforming it into our reality.
Limitations of the Project
- The design process can involve biologists and other scientists to incorporate more realistic details into policies. For instance, they can consider different ecological conditions in various regions, identify endangered species, and provide more accurate estimates for the duration of nature restoration. This approach ensures that the policies are more closely aligned with reality.
- Due to project constraints on time, our team primarily focused on envisioning urban areas in the context of future biodiversity. However, it is also a great scope to delve into rural areas. Relationships between the farmland and the natural environment are worth further exploration and discussion. For example, how agriculture policies in the future can balance the dilemma of overpopulation and biodiversity protection.
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