Science as a Critical and Participatory Design Project

Critical and speculative design approaches are specially powerful to confront complex problems, to imagine new possibilities and to derive their implications. As Roger Ibars remarked at the workshop that he himself and Lisa Ma gave at La Mandarina Space last December :

  • the goal of critical design is to create a “design without a happy ending,  a quote Roger borrowed from his former professor Anthony Dunne of the Royal College of Art. This is a type of design that creates friction, dilemmas, debates and questions. The works of Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby who created apparently useless objects are in every design anthology. They invented the concept of “Design Noir” to show this aspect of design as opposed to the school of purely utilitarian and functional design.
  • the goal of speculative design is to generate new visions and new ways of dealing with the unknown and the ambiguous, as Lisa Ma showed in the same session. Bruce Sterling points to designer Anab Jain and  her “Design for the New Normal” in this sense.

In both cases, these design approches create open proposals. They are specially helpful for dealing with the ambiguity, the uncertainty and the fears generated by the evolution of science and technology. They also help us to free our imagination and create a framework for discussion. Those who use these approaches will find themselves in a place beyond the vested interests of both business and the technological and scientific ”caste” that evolves around science, technology, its processes and products.

All this makes both critical and speculative design approaches particularly suitable for the way we  at La Mandarina de Newton deal with that huge field that has come to be called “science communication”, a label that we find very limited and biased. As several analysis have already exposed, most science communication programs  tend to reinforce the interests of the “scientific and technological complex”. Just an example, let’s remember one of the most common cliché of this approach. Ask yourself how many times you have encountered communication initiatives where scientists were presented as heroes and selfless individuals. Conversely, going to hypercritical extremes does not do any better service to a healthy debate. Therefore, finding methods that allow us to explore and share ambiguity is important.

We champion an approach to science as emergent and and as little influenced by pressure groups  -business or professional- as possible. For this reason, we started our own investigation long ago about the hybridization of critical, emergent and participatory design. We thought that in this mix we could find ways for people to design their own ways to approach science.

There are times when debate can originate from the interaction of people  with  the “dilematic objects” of critical and speculative design. Let’s suppose you are invited to “Nuclear Dialogues”,  Zoe Papadopoulou’s exhibition  (thanks to  Lisa Ma for pointing us to Zoe’s interesting work).  We would approach a table where we would see a very peculiar tea set. The pastries would be “Yellow Cakes”, the name by which a certain type of uranium ore is known. The tea is complemented by the sound of the reading of a nearby Geiger counter.  Zoe is inviting us to reflect on the radioactive pollution of our foods by using a cozy but uncanny display of objects.

Should we or should we not eat the “yellow cake” we are offered? The answer is not so simple and the exhibition as a “dilematic object” originated what it had wanted:  an intense debate among visitors.

Critical and speculative design projects seem especially appropriate not just for “communicating” science but for generating deep public debate and, at the same time, some level of joint learning through discussion.

Therefore, we believe that it is possible to focus public projects that approach science to citizens in a critical way by making use of the  speculative and critical design attitudes. This is a line we’re working on and what we thing  can give interesting fruits.

However … is this all?

What good is a critical design approach  if audiences were just “exposed” to the result of the work of critical designers?  … What would be the effect of the ensuing debate? Perhaps it would be nothing more than the impact of some “ArtScience” approaches. Some are very spectacular in their presentation but have little effect as to learning and mobilization is concerned. There are some signs that science communication projects should go a little further in the design direction. Maybe the recent presentation given at ECSITE by Michael John Gorman points towards the next step along this direction. His presentation at ECSITE was, significantly enough, entitle “Speculative Design”. He seemed to imply where the institution he leads, a flagship of the ArtScience approach, may orient itself in the near future.

We are not interested in this shift as an institutional strategy but because its potential impact. We believe in going some steps further along the critical and speculative design path. Public involvement should move from the receiving the result of a critical design process to the process itself. We are already doing so in our project on internal contamination. We are mixing participatory design methods with critical design methods. This is one of the research areas that we are opening this year. We will be sharing the new possibilities we discover. For now, let’s just close by exploring the connections of these design methods with other critical cultures of practice. Let’s just share with you the opinion of a well-known cultural critic on the importance of finding a  common ground and of hybridising design with other critical cultures as the one of hackers or of the Matt Ratto’s “critical makers”.

So at some point technology has to be part of the critical conversation. And that’s where hackspace culture, hacker culture, some of maker culture, is so incredibly helpful. It’s equipping people with a basic knowledge of how our world actually works. But you have to add the question of how could it work better, how could it work differently. And as a totality, not just “I want a better widget.” What would be a better system? That’s the whole critical de- sign question. The central question to me now is the avantgarde of design.

McKenzie Wark

And this is the line of work where we will place ourselves in our upcoming projects. Let’s add that we believe that thee main contribution lies in letting people participate in the process of critical design and the associated discussion, not just on one or the other.


Critical Design Cycle: summary of First Participative Workshop about Internal Contamination

Last Friday (March 1, 2013) at the Mandarina Space, we had our first participatory workshop to give shape to the participants’ ideas about Internal Contamination. As you know, this topic was presented by Dr. Miquel Porta (18/01/2013), an internationally recognized researcher and an expert on the field and after his presentation a first debate took place. The goal of friday’s session was to begin a process of critical and speculative design around the concepts and ideas that popped up during that talk.

The workshop, led by Ramon Sagüensa (La Mandarina de Newton), began with an inspiration exercise for the participants. We challenged each of them individually to complete the question ‘What if …?’ with ideas, questions or concerns that came to their minds, related with the topic Internal Contamination. They had to reflect on the positive and negative aspects of it. In just 10 minutes many ideas were generated: What if we changed our lifestyle (if we stop eating meat, if we abandon the urban lifestyle), What if we could measure in detail our internal contamination levels, or the levels of toxics in the products we consume?, What if we could eliminate the toxics of our body, if we could recycle or metabolize them?, What would happen if there existed a region in the world without contamination?, What if contamination were something good for our health, if it could expand our live expectancy? What if internal contamination levels were visible? … and much more!


This individual exercise was the starting point for the actual teamwork. Now, participants discussed together these ideas and the dilemmas created by their interplay. For that, they stuck the post-its on a panel and, with the participation of all, reorganized them by topics or concepts. Eventually, an agreement was reached and several clusters of ideas emerge: food, communication and information, utopia, methodology, and disposal of PTCs (persistent toxic compounds). From here, each participant chose the topic that found most interesting and in this way the working groups were formed (four in total).

Then, we started the ideation phase. In each group, participants discussed and identified the ideas they wanted to explore. With the working ideas defined, the participants began to give shape to their proposals and build their ‘prototypes’.


The first group, who had chosen the topic ‘Food’, devised ‘The BNQ – The Body Whitening’. They proposed a treatment to ‘withen’ the body internally. With an amazing pill one would be able to clean the body from internal contaminants and this would be reflected in one’s outward beauty: ‘Clean on the inside, beautiful on the outside’.

The second group, based on the topic ‘utopia’, proposed a comics/animation campaign – ‘PTCs Superpowers’ – in which the stories would revolve around a family of characters who had superpowers due to the accumulation of PTCs in their bodies. The third group, who chose the theme ‘elimination of PTCs’ created ‘Sintox’: a set of pills developed by a pharmaceutical company (‘Mandarinartis’) and marketed to a fairly high cost, but that would be able to eliminate completely all your internal toxics. Finally, the fourth group, inspired by the topics ‘information and communication’ and ‘methodology’, proposed a next generation device, the ‘Anxiety Machine’. This product would be comprised of a pill with a PTCs’ sensor that you would swallow. Travelling through your body it would detect your internal levels of PTCs and transmit that information to a square-shaped personal and portable device.

This device would then show the toxic results, identify the most likely diseases that one would develop as a consequence of the level and type of contamination, and it would also offer an option to share the results within a social network (a kind of facebook with the contaminants’ profile of each user).

During the presentation of the proposals, there was also an interesting exchange of ideas and suggestions between the groups. It was Friday evening and dinner time was approaching, so we had to end up the session. Once again, we received a very positive feedback from participants, an extra motivation for us to continue organizing these kind of brainstorming, creative and multidisciplinary co-creation sessions.

This was the first workshop within the Critical Design Cycle about Internal Contamination. We will continue working on these proposals on the 5th of April (Friday), 19:30 at the Mandarina Space (as always, we will create a registration form on Evenbrite). Remember that these sessions are free and open to all of you willing to participate. And not just for those that came to the previous sessions, but to anyone interested and eager to share their ideas in a co-creative way.

We will keep you informed!

Remember that you can check the summaries of the past sessions of the cycle in our blog and the presentations’ videos in our Youtube channel.

You can also find all the photos of the workshop in our Facebook page.


Critical Design Cycle: summary of Miquel Porta's Presentation

On friday, January 18th, Dr. Miquel Porta, an internationally recognized researcher and an expert on the field ‘Internal Contamination’, was at the Mandarina Space to lead a debate within our Critical Design Cycle.

We discussed about the different aspects of this complex problem that affects our society. ‘We are all contaminated!’ highlighted Miquel Porta.

The existence of persistent toxic compounds in our bodies is a reality. We may not all be conscious, but we ‘ingest’ contaminants when we breath, eat, drink… Needless to say, the presentation generated an interesting debate between the participants. In the end, we challenged them to reflect on the subjects discussed and to write down in post-its the positive and negative aspects of the topic, their doubts, worries… Very interesting ideas came out! We will now continue to work on these ideas on the next activity of the Critical Design Cycle, which will take place on March 1st. It will be the first participatory workshop of the cycle with which we aim to begin a process of critical and speculative design based on the ideas that arose during this talk.

Remember that you can watch the full presentation of Miquel Porta in our YouTube channel. Here you have the first video (of six):

In the channel, you can also find the presentations of Roger Ibars and Lisa Ma, the two designers that we had the pleasure to have at our space in December. They discussed the concepts behind critical and speculative design.

Check all the photos of the session in our Facebook page.


Critical Design Cycle: summary of Roger Ibars and Lisa Ma‘s presentations

For the opening of the cycle 進化 – “Jinhuà,from image to science, from science to design” we had the pleasure to have with us two international designers who have distinguished themselves by their personal approach to critical and speculative design: Roger Ibars y Lisa Ma.

Roger Ibars’ presentation

Roger Ibars presented the main differences between traditional design (which he referred to as ‘affirmative design’) and critical and speculative design:

  • affirmative design creates proposals that define the interpretation of the design that the user should make and also frame the corresponding values
  • critical and speculative design uses less-restrictive proposals and aims to provoke debate and controversy in order to explore new ways of thinking about what could become a reality: new technologies, possible future applications of science, etc.
  • the strategy and techniques used in each case are quite different: whereas affirmative design approaches the user through the methods it popularizes, such as Design Thinking (people, prototypes, shadowing, etc.), critical and speculative design generates original and controversial objects (cultural probes, ‘placebo’ objects, etc.)

Roger shared with the audience a diagram with the different aspects of both types of design:

Interests and approximations of Critical Design (click on the image to enlarge)

Recalling the words of Anthony Dunne, affirmative design tries to reach the ‘happy ending’ between the designed object and the user. On the other hand, critical and speculative design looks for an ‘unhappy ending’, provoking friction and discussion.

Moreover, the appealing side of critical design does not end in the generation of controversy: from the debate it creates, new aspects of the object are explored (which otherwise would most likely not have arisen). It has a clear contribution for social debate.

Therefore, the Critical Design approach is useful to explore controversial and ambiguous issues, as the ones we have chosen for our cycle, internal contamination.

Here you can find the first video (of three) of Roger Ibars’ presentation. You can watch the rest of his presentation on La Mandarina de Newton Youtube channel.

Lisa Ma’s presentation

Lisa Ma has devoted herself to work with ‘fringe’ communities by means of critical and speculative design. One of her aims is to preclude the over-exploitation of these communities by the big brands. This is what happens, for example, when the design departments of fashion companies use these underfavoured communities to search for new ideas on how to dress or how they create music. These insights are then used to develop new products and services for mainstream communities of consumers, the wealthy and integrated ones. In other words, the benefits of exploiting the fringe communities end up being beneficial to others and, thus, the original communities do not get a clear advantage from their contribution.

Lisa Ma showed us several creative projects in which two or more fringe communities eventually ended developing services and activities for all the groups involved.

She introduced us to some of her own, really original, projects:

-Association of Feline Association: it takes as its point of departure the, apparently, interaction with cats (many of them with toxoplasmosis) to improve some feminine characteristics. The result is that ‘beauty addicts’ get in touch with the ‘cat ladies’ (women that take care of a considerable number of cats).

- Heathrow Heritage: communities of passengers that have to spend too many hours at the Heathrow airport get in touch with the community of activists against this airport. The result are touristic tours around Heathrow that include, for example, places related with Shakespeare.

- Farmification: it is a project with a community of chinese workers of a joystick factory (who come mainly from a farming background) that aims to offer them the opportunity to work part-time creating their own farm plots in the factory premises or in adjoining land plots.

Here you can find the first video (of three) of Lisa Ma’s presentation. You can watch the rest of her presentation on La Mandarina de Newton Youtube channel.

After the session with Miquel Porta, we will start a process of Critical and Speculative Design with which we aim to develop a design object from the topic ‘Internal Contamination’.


Critical Design Cycle: Presentation on Internal Contamination with Miquel Porta

Next Friday, January 18th, at our space in Gràcia, we will have a first presentation about the central topic of our cycle on critical design.

The focus is on “Internal Contamination”, i.e., the existance of persistant toxic materials in our body due to our interaction with our increasingly complex artificial environment. The whole problem will be presented by Dr. Miquel Porta, an internationally renowned researcher and expert in these subjects.
This is topic with a lot of implications, interwoven causes and complex webs of interests and behaviours. We thought it was a difficult “wicked problem” and we have decided to approach it from the perspective of “Critical Design” in order to create dilemmatic objects and open up a project to include designers, scientists, science communicators, educators and plain citizens.
The project is organized around several presentations and workshops that will take place from January to April 2013.

This is the first one and you are invited to join. If you are interested, please register through Eventbrite:

We expect to meet you at Espai Mandarina!.

The presenter.

We have the honor to have with us one of the most renowned experts in “internal contamination”: Dr. Miquel Porta.

Miquel Porta (Barcelona, ​​1957) is a physician and epidemiologist. He has promoted the integration of biological, clinical and socio-environmental knowledge in research and teaching of health sciences.

He is currently head of the Clinical and Molecular Epidemiology of Cancer Unit at the Hospital del Mar Institute for Medical Research (IMIM) in Barcelona. He is also Professor of Preventive Medicine and Public Health in the School of Medicine of the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB), and Adjunct Professor of Epidemiology at the Gillings School of Global Public Health, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

His research focuses on: 1) the clinical and molecular epidemiology of pancreatic cancer, 2) ‘diagnostic delay’ and early detection of cancer, and 3) the health effects of persistent toxic compounds. He belongs to the editorial boards of several international journals, and has published over 300 scientific papers in international journals. He has taught in numerous American and European universities, including Imperial College (London) and Harvard, where he enjoyed a sabbatical. He has been president of the Spanish Society of Epidemiology, of the European Epidemiology Federation, and of Científicos por el Medio Ambiente.

Miquel Porta believes that scientific leadership must be projected beyond the academic world and, therefore, he intervenes occasionally in the media, such as the newspaper El País. His latest non-scientific article (whose title is “Las quiero a morir”) is à propos Spotify and the massive enjoyment of music (published in the January-February 2013 issue of  the journal ”Claves de Razón Práctica”).

進化 -Jinhuà: from image to science, from science to design

A collaboration between La Mandarina de Newton and the Science Section of the Barcelona Ateneu. 



The sessions on Critical Design start!

进化 – From image to science, from science to design and back

Vesalius' "Anatomy"

Decoding images  from the past and designing objects that aim at the future in order to examine challenges of high scientific content of the present.

"Jet Lag" from the "HWD Corporation" series. Roger Ibars.

Four conferences and workshops from December to April at Barcelona’s Ateneu and Espai Mandarina.

A joint project by the Ateneu de Barcelona and La Mandarina de Newton. Here you have the full description in pdf.

On  December 11th at 7pm in Room Oriol Bohigas at Barcelona’s Ateneu we will attend and participate shortly by presenting the entire cycle and La Mandarina de Newton presentation, then we will facilitate workshops at Espai Mandarina.

In brief: the conferences at Ateneu will give concepts and insights for the workshops and what happens in the Critical Design workshops will be fed back to the next conference at the Ateneu.

Focus: critical and speculative design

“[Critical Design] does not seek to produce immediately “useful” objects, but rather meditative, harrowing, always beautiful object-based scenarios. In an early-2008 interview, Dunne explained, “Usually, designers would make technology more user-friendly, easier to use, more attractive. But as technology is becoming more complex, and the impact it might have on our lives becomes more dramatic, designers are starting to use imaginary design products to debate and discuss future possibilities. Design in that way can facilitate a debate about whether we want these futures or not.” Paula Antonelli.

From "Farmification". Lisa Ma.

Science and technology evolve so fast that challenge us with possibilities whose practical implementations pose deep dilemmas. That is why an approach based on the Critical and Speculative Design may be a good way to help our sensemaking.  Hence the collaboration between Ateneu and La Mandarina de Newton within the  Project Platform Co-Creating Cultures.

What will we do in the first workshop?

  • An initial presentation on Critical Design by reowned designers Roger Ibars and Lisa Ma at Espai Mandarina.
  • Roger and Lisa will present the main concepts of Critical and Speculative Design.
  • They will discuss projects that fit into this way of approaching design.
  • They will explore possibilities for projects to be developed in subsequent workshops organized around one of the topics that will be addressed in the series, “The image of science” in the science section of the Barcelona’s Ateneu.

Addressed to: General Public, Scientists, technologists, designers and artists.

Registration: Please make your registration using eventbrite: or, if you prefer, you can send us an email to:

Intrigued by the chinese ideogram? ;-)


Looking around the world



Press clipping

Working Groups


@CoCreatingCult Tweets

Follow @CoCreatingCult on twitter.