Design thinking vs. speculative design - the future to come

17 June 2021

Design thinking vs. speculative design – the future to come

Design for production or design for debate? Innovation or provocation? Applications or implications? Problem-solving or looking for problems? Providing answers or asking questions? In the service of industry or in the service of society? Changing the world to fit us or changing us to fit the world? In the last few years, the word design has begun to function outside the traditional realm of product and communication. Design became popular and began to encompass all social engineering events such as experiences, services and social innovation.

Here and now vs. somewhere in the future

Design thinking is the best known, most frequently used design approach. It is the designer's natural approach to problem-solving. We owe this methodology a focus on value creation: pursuance to innovate by solving user problems and inviting everyone to participate in the process. Design thinking focuses on the user in the present and past, only slightly entering the future. Therefore, it is insufficient to create solutions for the future.

Speculative design addresses problems whose effects are yet to come. The need to create a vision of global solutions, decades ahead, concerning large social groups, makes the methodology of dealing with problems and paving the path to a sustainable future become an important topic for designers in the 21st century.

Development goals

Over the last few decades, we have been informed in detail and on an ongoing basis about global environmental problems. The Sustainable Development Goals set out by the United Nations together with the European Green Deal policy tell us what the development priorities of our region will be until 2030, indicating trends and goals that will apply for at least the next decade. Bill Gross from the IdeaLab accelerator, in his famous TEDx speech, cited research on the most important factors for the success of startups – new businesses that are created to quickly become a leader in a new industry. His research clearly shows that proper timing for a startup is the most decisive factor, more powerful than access to finance or even a business idea. When great politics and the global economy are moving towards a circular economy and seriously strive for sustainable development, we can assume that this is the right time for impact businesses, those with a positive footprint at the heart of the business model. Impact business works on solutions for the future, it often maneuvers in the space between science fiction and science fact. Right now, a market is being created for such firms, consumers are maturing, subsidies are being prepared, burning global problems inspire their emergence, and employees are interested in joining such initiatives.

Dreams have power

What made us ignore serious global problems that will catch us soon? Why are we looking for short-sighted insights here and now through the commonly used Design Thinking as a source of inspiration for innovation? Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby in Speculative Everything suggest that we are dealing with a crisis of great visions. It's hard to say what today's dreams about the future are. They seem to have been relegated to hope. Hope we will survive on our planet, hope there will be enough room for a growing population, hope we will solve our problems before the end of what drives civilization today: water, oil and democracy. Why? Because we don't know how to fix these growing problems. That is why we think forward no more than just a few years. We avoid the topic of future scenarios since design as a change tool is enough for us in the design thinking approach to adaptive improvement here and now.

Looking back, we have long been inspired by radical architecture and art that use speculation for critical and provocative purposes, discussions around great ideas. Especially designs from the 60s and 70s of such studios as Archigram, Archizoom, or Superstudio. But why is it so rare in today's design? Dunne and Raby ponder how this spirit can be reintroduced into contemporary design and how to re-extend its boundaries beyond strictly commercial use after the hyper-commercialization of the 1980s. Although for several decades this design, oriented towards the here and now, was sufficient, nowadays the feeling of dissatisfaction and the need for an alternative is growing. When design departs from industrial production and the market, we enter the reality of conceptual design – designing an idea.

What role can design play?

When most people think about design, they equate it with solving problems, at least the aesthetic ones. Faced with great problems such as overpopulation, water scarcity and climate change, designers feel an overwhelming need to work together to solve them.

The innate optimism of design is a wonderful thing. However, today it is becoming clear that many of the challenges we face are not easily remedied and that the only way to overcome them is to change our values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviours. The common approach to design directs energy into what design does best – shaping today and maybe even tomorrow. It doesn't look forward to the upcoming decades.

Fortunately, there is speculative design. It is a method that develops the imagination and aims to open up new perspectives to open a discussion on alternatives. Scenarios for the future can act as a catalyst for a collective redefinition of our reality. This large-scale design theory suggests a new role for the designer in the 21st century and extends the scope of design.

Speculative Everything, design for the future

Being related to science and technology and cooperating with many technology companies, we regularly encounter thinking about the future and its only, most likely scenario. Typically, our activities relate to forecasting, new trends and identifying weak signals that can be extrapolated to the near future. The idea is to try to pin this one version of the Future to the wall and find possible alternatives. What interests us is the idea of ​​multiple possible futures – multiple scenarios with different probabilities of an event – and using them as a tool to discuss what future people want. How to make these preferred scenarios come true.

The Stuart Candy model is a reminder that there are different kinds of potential futures. This applies to plausible scenarios. This is the space where most designers work. They describe what is likely to happen unless some extreme, unpredictable circumstances occur, such as a financial meltdown, ecological catastrophe, or war. Further probable futures are scenarios of what could happen. This space is about imagining different scenarios and preparing your organization to cope with different contexts. Then there's room for what's possible. Next is the fantasy zone. The last area crosses the area of ​​the potential and the probable, talking about preferred futures. This is the part that interests us. It opens a discussion and enables the common definition of a preferred future for cities, companies and societies.

Design through a microscope, telescope and kaleidoscope

Masaki Iwabuchi in his article entitled "5 approaches to start a design project" remarkably explains the differences between design methodologies. To paraphrase:

Design thinking is looking through a microscope, a useful methodology for thinking about the near future from the perspective of the past and present. However, it is impossible to create far-reaching breakthrough solutions only thanks to the knowledge and use of design thinking tools.

Speculative design is looking through a telescope. Proposes a problem to be solved based on future predictions. Picks up driving forces that could change the world, such as signals from the future and advanced technologies. Based on these inputs, it presents radical visions of the world in the form of tangible products to encourage audiences to jointly speculate on a possible future.

Design-Driven Innovation is looking through a kaleidoscope. It assumes that it is the creation of new meanings that leads to innovation. Therefore, instead of listening to the user's voice, you should listen to your inner voice, create products out of the will to change the world and develop the product by accepting constructive criticism.


Working with many innovative organizations from very different industries, we have noticed a trend that the vision of the future with which our Partners / Clients come to us covers an increasingly distant perspective. Until a few years ago, the strategy was calculated for a maximum of 5 years, and companies planned just one or two years in advance. Now we meet more and more organizations that are creating strategies until 2030 and beyond, still working on operational plans spreading to one or two years.

The world is constantly changing at an unimaginable pace, and we observe long-term trends that will not fade away in a few seasons or years. It's time to get involved in shaping the future while respecting the planet's boundaries.

Each generation has its own experience – we can confidently speculate that global environmental problems are the experience of our generation. It only fell to us because these had been ignored for the past few decades.

We are the last generation that can build the future by bringing our planet back into balance. Science and technology give us more opportunities than we can commercialize and use today. There are not only risks and threats, there are opportunities. For a better future, however, we first need to fix our thinking – to dream more.

Katarzyna Śliwa

Katarzyna Śliwa

CEO of Ergodesign consulting and design studio. Previously, a project leader, manager, advisor, and entrepreneur. She graduated from business studies specializing in innovation management and the design of management systems and continues her greatest interest in design at a strategic level. For almost 10 years now she’s worked at Ergodesign, where she managed to create a strategic design au...

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