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Futures Design Thinking: Shaping our Destiny with Speculative Design

Ahead of our upcoming November Conference we asked one of our speakers, Phil Balagtas, to give us some insights into his work and the reasons why he will be talking to us about Speculative Design on 21 November.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and what your experiences are in UX and design?

I’ve been designing digital interfaces and experiences for almost 2 decades. I  started my career as a Web Designer in Washington, DC serving mostly nonprofit and government sector clients. In 2007, I moved to San Francisco to find different work. Until then I had very little product design work in my portfolio, it was mostly content/marketing sites so it was difficult to find a job as a UX designer back then, especially since it was still an emerging role and field.  In 2009, I attended CCA’s (California College of the Arts) graduate program to learn more about research, strategy, and interaction design. It was during my thesis work there that I discovered Speculative & Critical Design as practiced by Anthony Dunne & Fiona Raby at the Royal College of Art in London. I was fascinated by the idea of using design as a vehicle to imagine new aspects of the future (interaction paradigms, dynamically changing social norms, and emerging technologies—from postulating what society could be like in the future, to how their interactions might change based on the different lives we might live. The question of Design’s role, impact, and implications was profound for me because I’d never seen or experienced anything like it before. But most importantly, embedded in these projects was always an underlying message that asked “What if?” Or “Should we?”, what are our ethical and moral standards? These projects showed us the potential reality of hard decisions we may have to make one day (or now) to let us manifest futures into existence. 

Why Speculative Design?

I don’t think it’s a matter of “why” you should use Speculative Design because it’s not really that different than any other form of strategic thinking. Businesses use strategic frameworks to map out trends and projections all the time. They do this to understand the market landscape, technological disruptions and opportunities, and it allows them to make decisions on how and where they should take their business. Speculative Design & Strategic Foresight can be just as analytical, but the output looks a little different. I think the more important question today for Speculative Design is “How” and “When” to use it. Not all situations allow or require it. But If you want another way of looking into an unknown fate for your product or company, it can be a powerful vehicle (when done well) to dream of new kinds of products and services to cater to new generations of people, policies, and ecosystems. Speculative Design employs the same processes as Design Thinking. It’s mired in research and trends; and simply creates a more vivid picture of what that reality could look like. It can be artifact, immersive experience, or a simple narrative. And if you’re able to thread it with elements that organizations can stand behind, they can either steer their agendas toward preferable futures or divert away from non-preferable futures. The hardest part is measuring and accounting for Speculative Design’s ROI.  If a company isn’t prepared to invest in Futures thinking then they also aren’t prepared to reshape their long-term strategies. At it’s core, these exercises teach us how to analyze the trajectories of many factors and at minimum is a Risk Mitigation (or Innovation-finding) exercise. 

You founded the Design Futures Initiative (DFI)? Can you tell us about that?

As I mentioned earlier, I used Speculative Design as part of my thesis framework. It was all very new to me then so I didn’t have much guidance but I understood the importance of it and how it could ultimately be used in much larger contexts (not just products of the future) In 2015, I was going through a small mid-life crisis and really wanted to make more impact with my work.  After grad school, I put Speculative Design away and didn’t take it seriously again until 2015, when I remembered how much potential it had, and if anything, the work was really amazing. I wanted to share what I had learned, but didn’t know if there was a community in SF that would be interested. So I just took a risk and started a meetup. About 20ish people attended our first event.  In Feb 2017, we organized our 1st conference, PRIMER.  So that’s when DFI was formed. At first it was just a business entity to manage ticket sales, but I always knew we wanted it to be a living organization that could contribute to the community in other ways. We now have our own programs we’re building and continuing to evolve our offerings.

What’s next for DFI?

Well we now have over 36 chapters around the world and more keep popping up every month. So we really need to focus on the community and get organized and keep them inspired and engaged to carry out a mission to help people dream up new future realities. We see so many people get so excited to learn new methods, but also to see how we can use it to help solve bigger problems to ultimately improve the fabric of society and our environment.  How do we generate revenue without feeling like we are capitalizing on our community?  We have a vested interest in educating youth and underserved communities. We currently have a program with the Boys and Girls Club of San Francisco where we work with middle school kids and teach them methods for dealing with social challenges like violence, gangs, drugs, and racism. When we look at where Futures work is being practiced across the world, it seems to be relegated to the upper echelon’s of society—higher education, museums or private corporations. Thus, we are making it part of our mission to deliver this practice to more underserved communities everywhere and continue to look for new ways to apply it. We believe “Futures for All” is a theme we will adopt as part of that core mission. 

Are you looking forward to coming to London to speak at MUXL Conference 2019?

Hell yea!  I’ve only worked on a few mobile apps in my life! But I love design conferences. Anytime I get to go and meet designers from across the world is a gift. I love seeing all the different things people are working on and how they’re solving problems across different sectors and applications. 

If you could give one piece of advice to the UX community what would it be?

I think one challenge with UX is that it’s constantly changing. You can try to reuse patterns and libraries, and that’s good for speed to completion. But as a designer you need to keep adapting to changing environments, market & consumer trends, emerging technologies, accessibility, all while using design to create the most usable and novel approach. To continue to stay ahead, designers should develop futures-mindsets so that they can incorporate the needs and opportunities of tomorrow and not just contemporary popularity.

Phil Balagtas
Founder – The Design Futures Initiative/Speculative Futures/PRIMER conference
@neshacom1
@futures_design

Mobile UX London Conference: 21 November 2019

On 21 November, we will be holding our annual conference, exploring the evolution of and future of UX Design.

This year’s conference themes include:

Mobile UX London Conference


Throughout the day there will be over 15 talks, 4 masterclasses and 6 workshops to choose from. 

Use discount code BLOG15 for a 15% off discount.

Early bird tickets are only available until 20 September 2019.

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