Rehearsing the Future

From moonshot thinking to the power of listening, members of Google’s speculative design teams discuss how they’re rehearsing for what’s next.

At Google, various strategy and visioning teams use their creative expertise within internal studios and departments to explore what may lay beyond the horizon in five, 10, or even 15 years time. We spoke to a number of creatives leading these teams to explore Google’s approach to speculative design and how this works in practice.

To understand the role of speculative design at Google, we can look to the MacGuffin theory, which states that the importance of a prop in narrative film is not the object itself, but the effect it has on the characters and their motivations. Similarly, the value of speculative design is not in the object that is created–whether it’s a prototype, installation, or live experience–but rather the discussion, contemplation, and understanding that it sparks.

Leading these conversations at Google are various strategy and visioning teams, who use their creative expertise within internal studios and departments to explore what may lay beyond the horizon in five, 10, or even 15 years time. We spoke to a number of creatives leading these teams to explore Google’s approach to speculative design and how this works in practice.

Predicting plot twists

Although speculative design is relatively new to the tech industry, the field itself has been around for decades. The practice builds on the work of the Italian Radicals in the 1960's, through the critical design work of Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby in the late 1990’s, who developed design approaches for the exploration and critique of ideas, rather than for the creation of objects.

“We talk about speculative design as creating a menu of possible futures,” says Golden Krishna, Head of Design Strategy at Google’s Platforms & Ecosystems group. “It’s a way of visualizing forks in the road and what futures might be down them; like a movie trailer that shows what’s coming, depending on how you make the film. The idea is to depict wildly different outcomes from which Google can then pick its direction.”

This expansive view on speculative design is one shared by Philip Battin, a former designer on Google’s augmented reality eyewear project Glass and now lead at Seed Studio, a strategic design group responsible for advanced concepts and special projects.

He believes that design as a practice has been commercialized to the point of misuse. Where once it was a byword for new bold landscapes, it has since been reduced to the aesthetics of business.

“The power of design can be used for so much more than beautifying an object for the sake of increasing desirability,” says Battin. “At Google, speculative design is almost evolving design to conceive the world in which products exist, as much as the product itself.”

Leaps in the dark

Envisioning worlds that are yet to exist is an exercise fraught with challenges. Chief among them is knowing where to start. For these often ambiguous, immensely technological pursuits—every direction is a leap into the dark.

One approach is to start with problems that exist today, project what symptoms might arise from them in the near-future and then work backwards to create preventative solutions. Whether from user research or community engagements, ‘listening’ to problems is a powerful tool for those in speculative design, explains Alison Lentz, who leads Strategy on Cerebra–an internal Google team working on the design of intelligent systems.

“Implicit in ‘rehearsing the future’ is ‘whose future are we rehearsing?’. “Listening to the people whose problems we are attempting to address is critical,” says Lentz. “Nobody should be designing someone else’s future without involving them in the conversation.”

Another area of debate within speculative design is whether it is an act of predicting the future or shaping it. And while the old mantra that the best way to predict the future is to create it might ring true, Lentz believes that this is not always the case and that some outcomes are inevitable.

“Some aspects of our future are more probable or inevitable... The key question isn't 'will that happen?' It's how do we get there and what do things look like on the other side?” says Lentz. She gives an example of the recent shift towards personal privacy and how tech companies will have to rethink their current approach. It is not a question of whether or not this will happen, but rather how tech companies will handle it and the downstream effects.

From creating to critiquing

Whether predicting or shaping how the future will unfold, speculative design needs to strike a balance between what’s possible and what’s pure science fiction. Too ambitious, and your concept will likely never materialize. Too practical or conservative, and the value of speculative design is lost. As Golden Krishna puts it, “If everything that we thought of got made, then we wouldn’t be doing our job right.”

Many speculative design teams work closely with engineers, maintaining semi-regular ‘reality check-ins’ as well as building tangible prototypes and artefacts to gauge how plausible these concepts are for the near or long-term future. In fact, the power of speculative design is in its scope for critical thinking, believes Nick Foster, Head of Design at X, an Alphabet company inventing moonshot technologies—ambitious, ground-breaking pursuits—that ultimately hope to make the world a radically better place.

“Speculative design is critique,” he says. “To use an analogy, there’s a good reason why food writers aren’t often chefs; the act of making and of critique are often separate. They hold their own values. So while, of course, some teams at Google still want us to create assets, our ability to analyze ideas is what’s particularly useful in a corporate setting.”

Designing a better future

There is also an understanding that any assets you create may never be launched publicly. For those working in the field, the motivation is rarely the outcome of a project, but rather the opportunity for discovery, says Ricardo Prada, Principal UX Researcher on AIUX—a team bringing a human-first approach to Google’s advanced Research & Development programs.

“To follow speculative design you have to be dissatisfied with the world as it is now. You have to want to change it,” he says. “Success is a funny thing, because if you’re ambitious enough then you expect your project to never see the light of day. There’s a reason why this is called the bleeding edge–you bleed for it.”

That desire to change the world runs throughout speculative design, where success is often measured not in what’s made, but instead the impact of your idea and how it seeps into wider thinking. Influence may be a softer metric, and one that might not be evident until years down the line, but it can be a meaningful one, explains Alison Lentz.

“It may take time, but by looking at possible futures and seeing what we can do about them now, there’s a real opportunity to inspire cultural change and advance humankind,” says Lentz. By listening to people’s needs and thinking critically about real world problems, speculative design can steer the narrative towards a better future.