Cli-Fi & Design Explorations

One of the most challenging projects I faced as a masters student was to design healthcare interactions for 2040, twenty years from now. My team quickly discovered that traditional co-design research methods were limited by the frame of our current world.

We needed to first get ourselves, and our participants, in a future frame of mind. We hosted a science fiction movie night, we researched and had long conversations about which technology would be mainstream, we bodystormed which gestures felt more natural for data transfer (we assumed humans would still have our anatomical body parts), and we primed our research participants with elaborate storytelling, ‘imagine it’s 2040 and…’. There were days of effort that came before we even started planning our people-centered research and developing a concept.

Many designers use similar tools of forecasting, foresight, or design fiction to explore the future. In the past year alone, I’ve attended three talks that presented different approaches to forecasting as a designer. This is inspiring.

Especially when it comes to climate forecasting, designers have one incredibly strong tool: reading.

From scientific reports to papers about what the physical changes to earth mean to human systems (agriculture, health, economy, etc.), thousand of brilliant minds have already opened a wide range of futures and implications.

Image: Tom Hermans

On top of this information is the field of climate fiction, or ‘cli-fi’ as coined by Dan Bloom. These authors build rich narratives on top of academic forecasting, bringing to life the nuances of change, exploring the deep complexity of our urgent ecological questions. The Chicago Review of Books has a monthly collumn to get you started, Burning Worlds, and I’d also recommend reading Alex Steffen’s new collection of articles and stories from the Nearly Now.

Designers need better starting points for our climate projects.

There’s incredible value in looking ahead. Changes will keep accelerating and if we’re only solving problems in today’s systems, we are not going to be ahead of the changes. We need to be much smarter about how we apply our design efforts.

I see two traps that climate design explorations often fall into:

  1. The design team doesn’t think deeply enough about the nuances of an issue, and develops concepts which address surface level issues for today (ex: shower timers to nudge lower water consumption). These are certainly more valuable concepts than blatant consumption, but they’re not going to be enough to avert the worst of climate change or help water-poor communities adapt to shortages. We have to start by thinking of impact ‘hot-spots’ and working with the right partners who can implement the changes needed.
  2. The design teams applies a dystopian lens which results in quite dark scenarios and concepts. The reality is that the past four decades have already seen rampant resource degradation and there have been both winners and losers. Most probably our future will also look like that, not complete catastrophe (well, at least we still have a chance of avoiding it). It’s far more powerful to explore the nuances that climate change will bring–the systems that will change, and how we can enable quality living within these changes.

During the recent CIID Summer School, I ran a workshop teaching people-centered research skills, focusing on Copenhagen’s climate adaptation plan to increase bluegreen infrastructure. The city’s primary threat from climate change will be increased cloudbursts and, in preparation, has started an ambitious and inspiring transformation of the city to handle the increased rain and flooding. For our class, we wanted to identify opportunities for services and products that could enhance experiences for local communities who will live near the new bluegreen parks, water boulevards, etc.

Student putting up post-its

Image: CIID Summer School

While the primary aim of the workshop was to teach design research skills, the week also sparked a reflection for me about how design research methods could be better adapted to ensure strong concepts. Especially as I think about the value of cli-fi and forecasting, I have five suggestions for a more robust approach:

  • Start with a deep ecological investigation. Talk with scientists and experts, read the adaptation reports, look at the data.
  • Expand your thinking to look at the nuances and possibilities. Read related cli-fi, talk with people who’ve lived through similar ecological changes, and use everything you’ve explored to start imagining future scenarios.
  • Work backwards to the questions we can, and should ask today. Identify key opportunities where design can help towards better futures.
  • Partner with organisations and businesses that can help realise these futures.
  • Explore those questions together through design research, prototyping, etc. and synthesise all the learnings into appropriate concepts.