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On the speculative

The presented conceptual framework must be informed by a less ‘solution-driven’ kind of methodology and more attentive to the complex problem of intricate systems, so (urban) design can propose fitting perspectives. This means an alternative approach to the common design process. It is, in majority, assisted by a well-known “double diamond” approach of discover-define-develop-deliver, where the diagram below reflects the cyclic nature of divergence and convergence in the design process. In summary, to diverge means to open up and explore more options, to converge to close and select some more promising directions - even though no process is so clear and linear. The focus is on the idea that eventually some problem is going to be solved. So far, in general, this diagram works both in terms of methodology and planning of the design process.

Alternatively, Dan Hill, in his book “Dark Matter and Trojan Horses: A Strategic Design Vocabulary” states that “design has failed to make the case for its core value, which is addressing genuinely meaningful, genuinely knotty problems by convincingly articulating and delivering alternative ways of being. [...] Yet although it can solve problems, design should be about much more than this. Indeed, the problem-solving ability is perhaps the least important aspect, coming as it does at the end of a potentially more valuable exploratory process or approach.” Today, with systemic issues like the planetary boundaries approach proposed, the design methodology must reinvent itself and avoid the trap of trying to ‘fix’ so-called “wicked problems”. 11 In that sense, it is necessary to focus better on the left part of the diagram.

In the age of complexity it is maddening to try to catch all available information, so the skill of speculation comes as even more important to be trained. “For the social sciences, the ‘speculative’ is being taken up as a practico-theoretical approach to reconceptualising problems and seeking more imaginative propositions. In other words, speculation acts as a means for asking more inventive questions.‌” (Gabrys et al. 2014) Benjamin Bratton argues that “Speculative design must focus on what is so deeply functional as to be unlikely.” (2019) The task of design can be powerful when providing images from futures that are hard to imagine due to the current conditions of possibility and the complex nature of problems. The speculation is perhaps the best tool that can probably be used to find different angles to view the problems. Often the speculative is perceived as a complete freedom from any constraints and envisioning any possibilities, that is why grounding the work with profound research is crucial. Not only that, it is important to remember that the focus of speculative design and, therefore, speculative research is not about predicting or designing the future directly. It is about creating the visions that help debate the preferable directions of the present.

Understanding its pertinence to the topic of energy, Hein (2018) states that “Urban and architectural design professionals are well-positioned to imagine life beyond oil—to imagine alternative energy practises, to transform existing cities, and to design meaningful new urban forms and practises.” In conclusion, we need to make sense of the built environment and its representation’s relevance in the construction of power systems. In the case of fossil fuels, this industry has created the space and networks, influencing culture to adapt it to its necessary efficiencies and in a way that embodies robust, heavy, long-term materialities. Nowadays, even if fading at some points, this industry continues to largely shape societies’ value systems, imaginaries, and decision-making. “All of this makes it particularly difficult for societies to overcome oil dependency and promote new energy practices. The first step in reimagining the future is truly seeing the extent of oil’s effect on our everyday landscapes and understanding the ways in which collective mindscapes shape the physical environment.” (Hein, 2018) Even if she is advocating for a transition out of fossil fuels, it is also possible to already localise this challenge for the renewable energy mode. This highlights the scope of design to be attentive to more research and communication-based work, so the urban design can not only produce different spaces but also problematise it as it goes.

As a conclusion for the approach suggested by the methodology, Dan Hill (2012) summarises it clearly when saying that “much existing design practice falls neatly within an analytical context of problem-solving, broadly speaking, yet the idea that policy and governance can be convincing through mere presentation of fact supported by clear analysis is also being directly challenged. In-depth analytical approaches can no longer stretch across these interconnected and bound-less problems, where synthesis is perhaps more relevant than analysis.” Synthesis gives us the power to combine things that did not seem to belong to one another. Moreover, that capability is largely amplified when the step from the conventional design process to the speculative is made. The diagram below illustrates the idea of “upstream speculation”, reworking the double-diamond diagram not to find the solution for the problem but to find the best solution for its communication format.

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