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.


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