Date: 16 May 2019
By: Ai Yamanaka

Speculative Collaboratively

The Future Possibilities of Speculative Approach in Public Engagement

Introduction: The Signals

In 2015, the Government office for Science in the UK ran a series of workshops exploring futures of ageing society as a part of the Future of Ageing Population project. Co-operated with Policy Lab and Strange Telemetry, design research and consultancy, it showed participants the images presenting possible futures of work, service and mobility and gathered reactions (Policy Lab 2015a; 2015b). Generating the evidence collaboratively about the impacts of ageing on society, the workshops are regarded as the first use of speculative design in the UK government policy making (Voss et al. 2015). Three years after, the EU Policy Lab, the internal unit of the EU Commission Joint Research Centre, ran foresight research projects named The Future of Government 2030+. Combining foresight, design and engagement methodologies, it used scenarios and workshops for envisioning possible futures of governments (Vesnic Alujevic et al. 2019).

When I worked for the public education project in Japan, I had a chance to organise a similar workshop for students envisioning the futures of the local community. I created a leaflet and video with a scenario which an imaginary council called ideas to revitalise the community, and we asked participants to proposed plans, as the future citizens. Although I did not know the idea of speculative design at that time, it taught me the creative power of imagining futures. Becoming a master student in service design, I have known speculative design and felt its potential for citizen engagement. What if speculative and participatory design approach would be applied more for public engagement? In this essay, I will discuss this future possibility with my speculative design experiment, which explored the futures of public preventative healthcare system and its implications.

Context: Speculative Design as Participatory Practice

Speculative design is an approach developed by Dunne and Raby (2013), which intends to open up public conversations by proposing possible, alternative futures mainly through scenarios and tangible artefacts. As Dunne and Raby (2013) said it encourages people to participate more actively as citizens, speculative design has a participatory design attitude as its core component. Participatory design has begun as collective activities to question existing approaches to the workplace computerisation and to reimagine different visions of the future workplace (Robertson and Simonsen, 2012). Dunne and Raby regard speculative design as a ‘catalyst for collective redefining our relationship to reality’ (Dunne and Raby 2013, p.2), and it almost corresponds to how participatory design has begun. In this essay, I regard speculative approach as participatory practice.

Now in our society, there have been increasing demands for public institution innovation (Christiansen 2019; Vesnic Alujevic et al. 2019), and alongside this, foresight projects are becoming popular in the governments (Voss et al. 2015). Whereas, I would like to argue that in the future, it would take a more participatory and speculative approach by stating the trend from three perspectives; the increase of citizen engagement; the change of government roles; and the focus on future generation perspectives, with the drivers behind that.

Trends Analysis 1: Increase of Citizen Engagement

First, it is clear that citizen engagement has become already a common approach in the public sectors and the degree of engagement would increase more. It is argued that today’s democratic system faces challenges, and it impacts on the distrust in public institutions (Christiansen, 2019; Vesnic Alujevic et al. 2019). The EU Future of Government 2030+ project report points out that this phenomenon drives governments in Europe to be open and innovative (Vesnic Alujevic et al. 2019). From the on-site perspective, involving citizens seems coming from more practical needs. After coming to the UK, I had several chances to talk with people working in and with the public sectors. When I asked the reason why local councils have started to take participatory design approaches, they answered it was because of “crisis”; while the fundings from the central government have declined and short of resources and staff, the demands for public services, like social care, has increased. One of them told me that some cases ask citizens to take a part of the responsibility of the projects. It is projected that that citizen engagement will grow with the active citizens powered by information and technology (Vesnic Alujevic et al. 2019; Deloitte 2015).

Trend Analysis 2: The Change of the Government Roles

Along with the demands for public sector innovation with citizen engagement, the roles of the government and officers are changing (Christiansen 2019). States of Change, a collective initiated by Nest shared the skillset of public sector innovators, which includes co-creation and foresight as the key elements (Christiansen 2019). It based on the brief that the public institutes will become a ‘change agent’ experimentally solving problems and shaping the environments to archive that (Christiansen 2019). With the development of AI and real data analysis, the EU Policy Lab also draws a scenario of ‘super collaborative government’ as a future possibility (Vesnic Alujevic et al. 2019, p.44). Deloitte (2015) has forecasted a government would change to ‘an enabler instead of a solution provider’ (p.5). In these scenarios, a government plays the role of platform builder, where citizens and other stakeholders work together from decision making to implementation. The signals can be seen in the public sector innovation labs arose around the world, although some of the initiatives have shifted to implementation rather than experimentation (Apolitical 2019; Prehn 2018).

Trend Analysis 3: The Future Generation Focus

The third trend related to speculative design practices in the public sectors is increasing attention on the future generation. The public philosopher Krznaric (2019) argues that politics are falling into presentism; governments tend to take ‘quick fixes’ and near-time benefits instead of dealing with fundamental causes and long term interests. More and more people are concerned about the negative effects of this presentism, such as impacts on the environment, partly caused by the election system and companies pursuing their benefits along with the system (Krznaric 2019). Krznaric (2019) points out today’s representative democracy ignores the interests of future people, ‘the citizens of tomorrow’. He compares this situation with the time of colonial conquests when the British called Australia ‘nobody’s land’, stating that the future is regarded as an ‘empty time’ (Krznaric 2019). In COP24 summit 2018, Greta Thunberg, a 16 years old climate activist pointed out: “You say you love your children above all else, and yet you are stealing their future in front of their very eyes.” (Connect4Climate, 2018). Some authorities have been aware of this issue and have children parliaments to reflect their voice on policies (Children’s Parliament n.d.), others try to take future perspectives by setting future focus parliamentary groups (Krznaric 2019). Krznaric (2019) gives Wales Future Generation Commissioner as an example, which manages policy making to consider at least 30 years future.

The Future Trend

With the growth of citizen engagement and long term interests, the demands for public institution innovation is increasing, and participatory and speculative projects can be a future possibility of it. As Dunne and Raby (2013) present, the classic approach of speculative design is using artefacts with scenarios. We can see this approach in the UK and EU Policy Lab projects, as well as UAE Governments’ the Future Energy Lab with Superflux (Superflux n.d.).

While this artefact approach asks us to shift the things what we see, there is another approach which asks to shift our points of view itself, from where we see the things. The practice named Future Design, led by Japanese economist Saijo, is an attempt to create intergenerational discussion by creating ‘imaginary future generation’ in decision-making processes (Hara et al. 2017; Krznaric 2019). Saijo and his colleagues ran workshops in local municipalities in Japan, where participants were divided into imaginary future generation and present generation groups and discussed future visions and policies of the municipality (Hara et al.2017). According to their action research, the groups of future generation were more likely to have creative but practical ideas with perspectives of long term and social implications (Hara et al.2017). Their presence affected the decision as a whole as well as present generation groups’ ways of thinking (Hara et al.2017). If changing our beliefs and behaviour is vital to tackle wicked problems in our society (Dunne and Raby 2013), this role-playing approach could be one of the ways to make it into actions.

In fact, taking other generations into account is not new (Sugioka 2017). Saijo (2015) mentions that the idea of Future Design has existed in The Great Law of Iroquois Confederacy, a Native American community principle, considering the impacts of the decisions on the next seven generations. Yanagida, a scholar of Japanese native folkloristics who had used to be a government official, states that future generation and even past generation will have and had had interests on the national development, therefore, we should consider them as citizens (Hatanaka 2017). Referencing Yanagida’s argument, Hatanaka (2017) proposes giving suffrage to Kappa, an imaginary creature of Japanese folklore living near water, which represents spirits of the dead, as a metaphor of considering the wish of the past generation. The people in the ancient animism society in Japan might think the voice of the spirit of the mountain or the sea and this might affect on their ways of thinking, fostering the concern about the environment of their lands.

There is also an integrated approach combining several methods. A foresight company Rorosoro is one of the players of this practice. They created gaming tools and workshops using artefacts, scenarios and role-playing methods with several governmental and international organisations; the examples are Scenario Exploration System, a future simulation tool, with the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre; The Ripple, card game system with Singapore’s Civil Service College (Rorosoro, 2014).

Based on the theory of Dunne and Raby and discussion above, I organise what speculative approach could bring to the public engagement into four points. First, as we see in the previous discussion, it enhances people engagement and ownership of the projects (Dunne and Raby 2013). Secondly, by questioning reality, it asks us to think out of the box and beyond existing boundaries, which would change our thought and behaviour (Dunne and Raby 2013). Obviously, speculative design is the future focus approach. But proposing alternative future possibilities, it reframes ‘our relationships to reality’ and this enables us to rethink today’s actions (Dunne and Raby 2013). Finally, since speculative design demand participants imagine future situations by themselves, it fosters awareness for potential implications of the outcomes (Dunne and Raby 2013). In other words, speculative practices foster our ‘social imagination’ toward the future (Nerlich 2015). With these potential impacts, it could be argued that speculative approach would contribute more in the public sector innovation in the future, which needs to seek more citizen engagement and of long term interests.

Experiment: The Context

In our master programme class named Global Design Future, I had a chance to experiment speculative design methodology with scenarios and artefacts. The project was partnered with Pharma Factory, which is a part of the Horizon 2020, the EU Research and Innovation Programme. As a collaborative research initiative for plant biotechnology development, Pharma Factory (n.d.) aims to increase public awareness of molecular farming medicines and other products. Under this umbrella, our coursework project explored ways to engage and open up discussions with stakeholders and the public in general. Although we did not engage citizens, I would like to analyse how speculative approach could work in public engagement through my reflection. Focusing on that theme and make the discussion clear, I picked up the parts of our practices and reconstructed them to a relevant scenario for this essay.

Experiment: Artefacts and Scenario

Our group developed several scenarios and artefacts around the public preventative healthcare system with personalised medicines, based in 2039 in London. With the increasing the cost of treatment following the threat of economic crisis with Brexit and a growing needs of social care (Medic Portal n.d.), we foresighted that NHS would shift their budgets from treatment to prevention. It would be enabled by the development of genetic engineering technology and the cost reduction of DNA testing. Based on these drivers and trends, the first scenario was created, questioning what if the government know the diseases and addiction that your child is likely to have and control it systematically?

Figure 1. Visualised Scenario (Illustration by Frenny Feng)


As soon as babes are born, they get DNA testing which defines diseases and addiction they arelikely to have. Pharma Factory Lab analysis DNA and produce personalised preventative medicines, which are delivered their home. All of the information is managed by the government, NHS, and the parents receive the test result and the medicine prescription as Personal Child Genetic Record.


  • Digital Visualised Scenario (figure 1): It shows the scenario overview, how the service works.
  • Personal Child Genetic Record Booklet (figure 2): Just like the Red Book, The Personal Child Health Record issued by NHS, this Green Book tells the child genetic information including DNA test result on possible disease and addiction and schedule of the personalised preventative medicine.
  • Stakeholder Pieces (figure 2): It is created to prompt discussions on the implications of different stakeholders.
Figure 2. Artefacts: Personal Child Genetic Record Booklet and Stakeholder Pieces

We tested our artefacts and scenario with design professionals and researchers from Pharma factory. Then participants interacted the artefacts and talked about their feelings and opinions freely. The Green book worked well, especially for those who have children, as it was a mimic of the existing service. Stakeholder Pieces helped to open discussion on how the service would affect other fields and industries. The discussion went around several topics, but as a whole, it mainly about the data protection, should the government collect and keep these data for personalised services?; and addiction, to what extent should the government be responsible for preventing addiction?. However, the artefacts and scenario included broaden topics and did not clear the core provocation.

Experiment: Iteration

Based on our group practice, I reconstructed the experiment as personal iteration, focusing on addiction prevention system since it includes controversial topics. According to NHS (n.d.) definition, addiction is a condition ‘not having control over doing, taking or using something to the point where it could be harmful to you’. The relationships between genes and addiction are on the way to be investigated (University of Utah, Genetic Science Learning Center n.d.). Some people argue that substance abuse has negative impacts on not only the individuals but also the society as a whole, an increase of crimes (Recovery.Org.UK n.d.) and health inequality, for instance (Public Health England 2015). On the other hand, social unacceptability of substance addictions would cause a cultural shift toward that behaviours, as smoking is now stigmatised in some countries (Graham 2012). Building on the previous scenario of DNA testing and personalised medicines, the iterated experiment questions; what if the government and society know your child is likely to be addicted substances?; what if NHS controls the addictions with DNA testing and preventative medicines?; and what if the government records addicted conditions systematically like criminal records, and employers and companies like insurance require you to submit the certificate showing you are not addicted to any substances?

(Additional Artefacts)

  • Preventative medicine package with a letter from NHS (figure 3)
  • Addiction Screening Certificate (figure 3): Just like a DBS check certificate, it shows the result of an addiction screening test.

Figure 3. Iterated Artefacts; Preventative medicine package and Addiction Screening Certificate

Through the artefacts and scenario, I would like to prompt discussions around the conflict between public health improvement and stigmatisation of the specific behaviour which is caused by the combination of gene and environment. Looking at this on the broader context, to what extent the government should intervene in individual behaviour to protect common good in society, and the implications of the policies. Although I did not have a chance to test them as a set of a workshop, we got feedback on individual artefacts from design professionals. The reactions on the preventative medicine package were slightly negative, as it has provided the solution itself. Some of the participants called it “magic medicine” as if it solves all problems. The certificate could provoke discussions around governmental control and its implication in broader social contexts such as discrimination in education and employment. However, some of the participants said the artefacts as a whole looked too constructed and realistic.

Experiment: Reflection

The experiment and feedback from participants allowed me to examine how an effective scenario and artefact look like. While it should have a provocation, it needs to remain enough space for participants to imagine openly. If the scenario provides an answer for the provocation, participants feel they could only agree or disagree on the idea. Second, connecting with the existing services or products is one technic as it enables participants to connect their own experience and think as if it would happen. However, if it is too realistic, participants feel there is no space to discuss. I think these points should be in careful attention, especially when the public authorities run workshops because they already have a certain degree of power on policy-making and implementation.

Conclusion: The Future Possibilities of Speculative Approach

As we can see above discussion, participatory and speculative approach has rich potential in public engagement. By reframing the relationships with reality and raising awareness of the implications of our decisions, it enables to rethink our perspectives and actions and foster peoples’ ownership. As an engagement tool, in my experiment, I could observe that the tangible materials enabled participants to interact with the ideas and the future scenario expanded their imagination to social implications.

As a conclusion, I would like to argue preferable future directions of this trend to make its potential more relevant. First, to increase the degree of citizen engagement from participation to ownership and enhance the impacts, it would be better to involve people in creation processes. For instance, if we could involve researchers of Pharma Factory and their stakeholders in the scenario creation process, they could explore possible future directions more in-depth. Dunne and Raby (2013) and Voss et al. (2015) point out this possibility as a next step, encouraging participants to create their own narratives and giving them authorship. Although its tangibility provides active interactions, artefact approach needs artists or makers who can create and support participants to craft materials physically. The role play approach, which participants stand at the future generation perspective, would reduce this barrier and enables them to be an author of the future scenario. By asking us to put our foot in others’ shoes, this approach would foster our empathy and raging awareness for social implications. For those who need more structure, the integrated approach like gamification would give directions on how to organise the practices.

Now, it would be time for speculative design to move from museums and labs to the fields. As we can see from the book title, Dunne and Raby (2013) put ‘speculative everything’ as the core argument, but the main channels for speculative design projects remain in exhibitions, publications and the internet. As Robertson and Simonsen (2012) said, ‘if we are to design the futures we wish to live, then those whose futures are affected must actively participate in the design process’ ( p.5). If participatory and speculative practices happen in on-site fields more, it would have more impacts in our society, and public engagement projects could be one of its new channels.

Article, illustrations & photos from Medium

Thoughts & Reflections

Similar to the previous report, this article also shows how the UK government is using speculative design in their policy making. The workshops they ran gave stakeholders and citizens the chance to generate evidence collaboratively about the impacts of ageing on society. The scenarios prompted viewers to think more deeply into the issues and also gave them the freedom to dictate their own ideal futures. 

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