Preferable Design Futures: Situating Urban farming in the future using Service Design

Updated: Oct 12

Key words: Speculative Design; Service Design; Future of food; London; Southwark; Critical Thinking; Prototyping; Un-conventional Design Thinking; Adaptive Methodologies; Urban farming; Community farming; Typologies

The future is uncertain. Future scenarios are based in either utopia or dystopia. The future is a thought, a desire, a probability or a critique, that is tangible. The latter are three sentences that will shape this conversation brought in context using service design tools and methodologies to aid speculative design futures of food and farming in London. Also relying on my past experiences of indulging in the domain of designing in the future. The first three sentences are a result of extensive reading of speculative, system, design thinking tools and

In frame: Me working on a Speculative Project 2019

their application over the past 5 years. The closure is almost around the corner as I draft my proposal for a Masters Dissertation in Service Design at UAL which is yet again based on application of design thinking in future scenarios. I use yet again to point out the fact that the nature of my undergraduate thesis was also in a speculative space.



As an industrial designer, I had explored the dimensions of speculative thinking on numerous occasions at both- academic and industry levels. Now, imagining a future is as hypothetical as it gets and in order to stay on course I was introduced to design thinking tools for speculative research for the first time in 2018. I was on a team of four 20 year olds pursuing undergraduate degree in Product design, tackling a brief from Maruti Suzuki to optimise the interior space of a 2035 car in India. What might sound like a futuristic mobility solution and gives the impression of Star Wars and ‘Back to the Future-esc’ renders of a car, ended up looking exactly like the car of today just used by a ‘user’ of the future. We conducted extensive user centred research to derive personas, scenarios, consumption patterns based on two elaborate tools- “Slingshot or catapult- a chart capturing the past and present to imagine the future (Fig. 2&3: Slingshot for 2035 Maruti Suzuki car, 2018; Catapult for Philips Thesis Project GENX DUO, 2019) which was informed by the “SPECTRUM” trend analysis tool. The word spectrum here is an abbreviation for Social, Political, Economic, Cultural, Technological, Religious, Universal, and Market trends that influence demand and supply parameters in the commercial world of product consumption. It was an academic project that ended there for us until the learning of the same allowed me to structure my undergrad thesis project with Philips in 2019-2020 and then again when I was introduced to Design futures at MA Service Design.



Fig 2&3: Maruti Suzuki & Philips Speculative Map

My approach to speculative design was almost cast in iron until I started learning the application of Service design tools in a social domain. Over the past few months a lot has changed in the way I approach design and its interpretations. I have started looking at the process as a set of questions. As rudimentary as it sounds, the importance here is not just asking questions but asking the right questions. The kind that are structured to understand the scenario, objects, and the interaction that they trigger with their audience. Pointed out by Dunne and Raby, it is the urge to ‘breakdown and quantify’ information to solve problems that usually shapes a designer’s approach but the true application of speculative design is to instead trigger conversation, debate to inform design and build preferable futures. (Dunne and Raby, 2013, pp.1–46) In the process however, we formulate questions that make us drift away from ‘preferable’ conversations and end up speculating ‘probable’ and ‘possible’ futures.(Bland and Westlake, 2013)(Dunne and Raby, 2013) (refer to fig 4: for better understanding for the terms) To start with, the first right question here should be- What are preferable futures?



Fig 4: Cone of preferable futures (Dunne&Raby,2014)


What are preferable futures?

There have been numerous attempts over the years to establish a clear definition of the term. It sounds as simple as a combination of two words- Preferable (desirable); futures (a scenario set in the future).(Bland and Westlake, 2013) It starts getting tricky when we ask the second right question- What is desirable in the future. I use the word tricky here because as designers we are trained to study the ‘spectrum’ in order to understand the user and the space but in this future context the user is assumptive. The user persona needs to be identified and in that process we begin considering probabilities to inform a possible future. Preferable however is more emotional. As defined by Bland & Westlake for Nesta:

“Preferable futures: desirable, and largely emotional: commuting by hoverboards rather than the underground.”

J. Bland & S. Westlake, 2013

This particular definition helped me realise that preferable is not statistic but emotional. The way to capture emotions is through conversations and that narrate the direction of the project at hand. Nature of the brief assigned by our collaborator- Southwark Council Climate Studio, for Design futures required us to explore the preferable food futures in the Borough. This meant exploring what different kinds of people think about the context and to do so we needed to start conversations triggered on the grounds of constructing ‘plausible futures’.


What are plausible futures?


The key aspect of a plausible future is that it is factual which means that it’s basis needs to be backed by evidence. (Bland and Westlake, 2013) Another parameter of the same is that its structure is held in place by a vast system of human interactions. In order to back the foundation of the scenarios we aimed to build, my team of Service Designers from varied backgrounds decided to split up and gather as much foundation material as we could. (Bland and Westlake, 2013) The aim of collecting this information was simple- create an informed prototype situated in the future. What sounds and appears straightforward took us the entirety of most of my team’s first Spring in the city of London to read, walk around and visualise using a tool prescribed by our project facilitators and mentors at UAL called- Evidence Safari.


What is an Evidence Safari and how to build one?


The prescribed methodology for the module pushed us to use prototypes in the early stages of the design process. It was a challenging task to begin with prototypes that were built on the basis of an Evidence Safari instead of developing them after defining insights from primary research. As unusual as it sounds this approach has existed and prevailed in the domain of participatory design for policy making for decades. An evidence safari is an aiding tool to this process, built around 6 main elements: A headline that is extracted from a reliable secondary source of information; an account of its situation- answering where, when, and who to establish context of the collected information; a set of key words that define the information to make it easily referable; a reference list of the sources with images or visuals and; a key insight- which is the synthesis of information collected that can lead to a plausible future scenario. (Fig: Evidence safari: Good food all Londoners).


Fig 5: Evidence Safari

As seen in the example of an Evidence safari above, the insight is based in London; on recent reliable data collected across various boroughs of the city on the topic of Good food for all Londoners. The insight gathered here is based on the statistics that compare high and low performing aspects of urban farming in Southwark. It helped us identify that even though the Borough ranks well in taking initiative for urban farming the economy for the produce does not exist. I learnt through the application of this methodology that it creates the possibility of drafting another ‘right question’ in the process- a What if, that can be used to present a plausible future to arrive at a preferable future. (Bland and Westlake, 2013) At this stage the team and I diverted again to explore the various ways in which we could prototype our findings.


The conflict in my mind at this stage was between considering the plausible side to be a prototype to derive a preferable option; or to present a preferable scenario based on assumptions to collect critique to build on. The answer to this was simple and I decided to prototype both of the futures in what seems to be a mundane object of the past- a Newspaper. In order to make it relatable, I chose to write two different kinds of articles in the same newspaper using two opposing narratives. (Fig: Newspaper Articles as Prototypes)

Fig 6: Evidence Safari for Protoypes

The first article in this newspaper was designed to provoke a conversation around a scenario set in 2030 which helped us quickly transport the conversation to the future and the headline allowed us to focus the conversation around availability of land for farming. It pointed at a future where we have run out of farming land; there is policy in place which is making transported food more and more expensive; and people are going to be able to rent and buy pieces of land in the urban landscape to set up their own farms to consume or sell the reaps as rewards. A critical analysis of this tool is addressed under the heading of “A critical analysis of speculative prototypes,” towards the end of this blog. Testing this prototype not only helped in validating the speculated futures but also triggered conversations where people themselves started pointing out the un-preferable scenarios that would lead people into using the presented- plausible service. (Foster, 2013)


Following up on the conversation around un-preferable futures which are the opposite of preferable futures, I decided to assume the direction of proving conversation through showing people visuals using famous artworks as basis to edit and create and convey a point. Seen in the Fig 7: Artwork: The future of groceries, the aim was to use a relatable artist to start a conversation. The artwork here represents the style of Banksy a satirical street artist based in the UK.

Fig 7: Artwork: The future of groceries by Yashovardhan Sharma

Most of the findings from testing the newspaper and art prototype projected a direction that required us to use our understanding of Participatory Design which we gathered over the past few units of the course. The fact that the conversations and applications were based in futuristic yet social setting meant that we needed to incorporate opinions of people. The tool helped in gathering voices to validate the speculative context that were trying to present. In another prototype developed by our team, the testing showed us first hand critique of something that we had assumed to be a possible future but turned out to be something un-preferable.


Over the past six years of pursuing design education, I have learnt over and over again that the aspect which differentiates design thinking from other methodologies is the fact that it is not a rigid approach. It allows for an organic flow utilising methodologies and tools to inform, re-inform, validate and sometimes even invalidate a direction. (Holliday, 2019) This entire unit got me thinking about the textual limitations that I had gathered around the context of using Design thinking tools. Applying the approach suggested by our facilitators at MA Service Design I was able to question what various tools meant and what they can be applied for. In my past experience the application of methodologies was rather rigid and not really open to contextual interpretation which I have learnt is possibly the most important aspect of being a designer in the day and age we are living in. The most amount of critical understanding that I have gathered as a product designer is around tool of prototyping.

What is a prototype to a product designer?


“You use prototyping to process the ideas themselves and to help you think through the idea better.”

-Chris Nyffeler, IDEO Executive Design Director (Nyffeler, 2019)

Theoretically, prototyping is the second last stage of the design thinking process which follows the ideation stage and lays foundation for testing. As defined by IDEO in their Design thinking tool kit, it is a tool which is used to not only iterate ideas but also build better ones. (Nyffeler, 2019)


How is it different from the definition?


The application however is not so theoretical as it expands in domains like service design thinking which is often used for policy design using non-conventional touch points. (Bennett, 2018) As seen in recent research projects conducted by the Policy Lab UK and FutureGOV, using prototypes as tools of conversation for participatory design to narrate a foundation that can help build democratic services and products for the identified user groups. As stated by Holliday, in his report on the use of prototypes, Services can be tested using parts of service propositions to start conversations in order to collaboratively build systems with the users themselves. (Holliday, 2019)


Constructing a ‘un-conventional’ prototype for the future

Un-conventional in this context doesn’t necessarily mean low fidelity, which was my prior notion towards the tool, perhaps it means exploring beyond the touch points of the desired action. In simpler words, it means considering various objects or touch points that either lead to the desired action or are trigger by undertaking the action with the main aim of starting conversations that allow users to situate themselves in a future scenario.

A critical analysis of speculative prototypes:


  1. Newspapers: The newspaper prototype was the most effective in terms of helping participants connect to the future scenario we wanted to discuss with them. It also created a conversation as people were curious about the speculated headlines that were created for 2030. (Image: Newspaper Prototype for Urban Farmlands and BManure) The use of real life characters and their depiction in the future made the prototype relatable and allowed the conversation to take iterative directions. One of the interviews with a micro farm business stall owner at the London Farmers Market, Marylebone triggered a conversation where he discussed the future plans that he has for his start up and how that might align with the preferable future scenario we imagined that explores the possibility of urban farmland services. Another key learning gathered was that newspapers are also a great means to discuss policy specific speculations as people are used to consuming such information via news articles, shows, etc. The drawbacks however, revolve mainly around limiting the conversation to viewpoints and not development of the service model at hand. Hence, the application of such a prototype is more beneficial to validate future scenarios over building new service touchpoints.

  2. Role play: Using role play as a prototype displaying props and setting a conversation in the future worked as a good prototype for us to start a conversation and engage the participants in a thought that we wanted to present. The conversation however was one on the side of appreciating the thought instead of bring out opinions or critique to inform design.

  3. Stickers on products/posters: To test one of the directions suggested by our evidence, we aimed to test the reactions of consumers at grocery stores in Southwark (both chain and local) towards stickers/packaging components that inform them about the carbon footprint they will contribute to if they were consume the item. The feedback was not how hoped it would be as the prototype validated an antithesis to our speculated preferable future. It helped us realise that without taxing or incentivising users of a product, it is extremely difficult to extract a reaction from them.

  4. Workshops: The course gave us an opportunity to conduct a workshop with children between 11-16 years of age at the Dockland Settlements in Rotherhithe. We used the name of our team- Avengers to create conversation that would indulge the participants in a conversation of choosing a preferable option for a meal box. It was focused at deriving the qualitative reasoning behind the selection of available options. The fact that this workshop was hosted with children, it allowed for the conversations to be unbiased and pure. It was interesting how we start thinking in complex systems at such an early age. Our prototypes of meal boxes worked well in a few cases as two out of 7 participating kids managed to present ideas and develop their own future systems to tackle sustainable food cycles revolving around packaging, consumption, and disposal of food.

  5. Art: As addressed earlier, this kind of a prototype can be used to for satirical commentary to display un-preferable futures and provoke a conversation to derive what is preferable. The conversations that were triggered by using this tools were open ended as one of the interviewee did not relate to the artist and the artwork that was chosen. While the conversation was fruitful to inform a preferable future the essence of the direction we were focusing on was lost. The use of such a prototype would perhaps suit an audience that can relate to or has been introduced to the artworks prior to the conversation.



While the prototypes helped us navigate through the process of preferable future scenario construction, the final stage was addressed by a another tool called backcasting which we applied to further develop our prototype “Spare-farm” a service concept which acts as a marketplace where an individual can share/rent unused space with other residents of the locality to utilise vacant, unused, wasted or “spare” area in their homes. As we tested the concept with people in the London borough of Southwark, we were told about various kinds of locations that we could use, the people we could get in touch with to make such a thing happen and the kind of training that people would require to be able to effectively run the service. This process allowed us to organically collect information about the stakeholders that can influence and amplify the application of our model over the following years that lead unto the preferable future. This stage of the process is called back-casting. (Robinson, 1990)


Back-casting- identifying stakeholders the other way round:


As the name suggests, it is a reverse process but it isn’t something that forces the process to be structured in any way. In my personal opinion it was the most organic stage of the process as it kept coming up during the prototype testing stage but was completely missed at that point. What it helped us do was not only identify the key stakeholders of the service- Spare-farm, but also helped us speculate the various touch points that our service will benefit from like establishing an educational organisation that trains individuals to take up urban farming jobs, etc to aid a system of an independent agricultural economy in the borough of Southwark.




Bibliography


Bennett, S. (2018). A role for art in policy-making? - Policy Lab. [online] openpolicy.blog.gov.uk. Available at: https://openpolicy.blog.gov.uk/2018/10/10/a-role-for-art-in-policy-making/ [Accessed 24 Apr. 2022].


Bennett, S. (2021). THE ART-POLICY MATRIX II. [online] SRG Bennett. Available at: https://www.srgbennett.com/blog/the-art-policy-matrix-ii [Accessed 17 May 2022].


Bennett, S. (2022). Tools for climate policy (3): six effects of art in policy - Policy Lab. [online] openpolicy.blog.gov.uk. Available at: https://openpolicy.blog.gov.uk/2022/04/07/tools-for-climate-policy-3-six-effects-of-art-in-policy/ [Accessed 17 May 2022].


Bland, J. and Westlake, S. (2013). Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow: A modest defence of futurology. [online] Nesta. Available at: https://media.nesta.org.uk/documents/dont_stop_thinking_about_tomorrow.pdf [Accessed Apr. 2022].


Dunne, A. and Raby, F. (2013). Speculative Everything. 1st ed. MIT Press, pp.1–46.

Foster, N. (2013). The Future Mundane. [online] Core77. Available at: https://www.core77.com/posts/25678/the-future-mundane-25678.


Holliday, B. (2019). A guide to different types of prototyping. [online] Medium. Available at: https://blog.wearefuturegov.com/a-guide-to-different-types-of-prototyping-9866e8ff0f7b.


Nyffeler, C. (2019). Why Everyone Should Prototype (Not Just Designers). [online] IDEO U. Available at: https://www.ideou.com/blogs/inspiration/why-everyone-should-prototype-not-just-designers.


Robinson, J.B. (1990). Futures under glass. Futures, 22(8), pp.820–842. doi:10.1016/0016-3287(90)90018-d.


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