Issue 4

Speculative Design

Next Nature

Photos by Karolina Koryl Words by sarah dorkenwald





The development of nature manipulated by humans—such as crops and
livestock—is diametrically opposed to the development of systems created
by humans—such as the financial world or transport—which are no
longer predictable but, contrastingly, display natural behavioural
traits. Speculative design draws on the imagination and on informed conjecture to
carve out visionary positions for the future.


Design student Pauline Alt has created a hand axe, or prehistoric stone tool, by layering plastic. In doing so, she has mimicked a transformation brought about by centuries of climatic effects and geological processes by using plastic refuse to imitate the Earth’s strata. In the distant future, such a transformation may well lead to plastic becoming a natural raw material which could then be mined and utilised in product manufacturing. Pauline Alt’s design object represents a speculative examination of the waste we humans leave behind and its impact on the environment, while at the same time debating what is synthetic and what is already natural. The new hand axe might also be interpreted as a symbol of a broader understanding of nature, according to which everything, irrespective of whether we are dealing with a living organism or dead matter, real or artificial, designed or natural, might be regarded as part of a single holistic ecosystem.


A new generation of designers is casting a critical eye over the capitalist value system, its related consumer behaviour, and our contemporary belief in progress — which, by its very nature, inevitably leads to conflict between mankind and nature. Instead of creating technology-based solutions for environmental problems, these designers are opening up new perspectives and action plans for how human beings deal with nature, with the aid of notional and prototypical scenarios, rules and systems. This article hypothetically presents ideas related to where such speculative approaches might lead us and the degree to which they could fuel our imagination with regard to the Next Nature concept.



Everything Nature

In his book How to Thrive in the Next Economy: Designing Tomorrow’s World Today, the author John Thackara illustrates a number of grassroots projects which scrutinise the way in which we deal with soil, water, nutrition, clothing, mobility and health. He highlights soil restorers, river keepers, seed savers, de-pavers and cloud commuters, and defining them as signals of a new history. As Thackara explains, “The crux of our problems today lies in the fact that there is no longer a connection between the world fashioned by humans and the biosphere, of which we are, after all, a part. Either we don’t give any thought at all to rivers, soil or biodiversity, or we treat them as available resources, whose sole purpose is to drive our economy. That’s why I am an advocate of design which restores connections–not just between human beings, but with all manner of ‘living systems’ on which our lives depend.” He believes that opportunities for innovation and new forms of business might emerge in the context of these deliberations, such as the restoration of rivers, urban farming, food cooperatives, collective kitchens, communal eating, edible gardens and new distribution platforms —all possibilities offered by urban design approaches.


Potential for change is based on sophisticated networking and on sharing resources such as time, know-ledge, services and needs. Designers, artists, strategists and activists are charged with linking all these bits and pieces in a meaningful way and generating change together. The object of the exercise is to gradually change the economy from the ground up so that it is no longer contingent on growth. “As we have learned from systems theory, transformation can happen silently over time as a combined result of changes, interventions and minor shifts. At a certain point in timeand it is hard to predict exactly whena turning point or phase shift will be reached and this will transform the entire system.”



Design for Non-humans

The consistent application of this school of thought in a design process would mean that human beings and their needs would no longer be the focus. The environment would take centre stage and form the focal point of consideration. It therefore follows that the basis of the process and of the issues it raises would be ecocentric, not anthropocentric design. Human beings, with their needs and wishes, would play a subordinate role and would form part of a considerably more complex system, in which multi-faceted interdependencies and mutual relationships governing all beings would be taken into account. This, in turn, would demand a completely new design approach. In his research paper entitled Symbiotic tactics, designer Martin Avila investigates “how a fruitful and symbiotic coexistence” between man and nature might emerge from the current understanding of ecology. His Domestics project constitutes a series of objects designed to promote coexistence with creatures we tend to find menacing or repulsive, such as scorpions or spiders. Floor gratings or homemade spider houses are products which might make it possible to integrate these creatures into our living space in order to better understand them and overcome our fears.



Co-Working Nature

What form might cooperative working relationships with nature take if we seek solutions to make the interfaces between human beings and nature positive and mindful? Assisted by current scientific knowledge, designers are increasingly researching how plants, bacteria, microbes and insects could become equal partners in the production of materials and objects, or to what extent they might be able to provide functions related to energy generation and medical care. Mike Thompson is a speculative designer who uses new technologies to create an altered, redefined relationship between product functionality and user behaviour. For instance, the owner of a living, breathing Latro algae lamp should treat it like a pet; if regularly fed by exhalation and exposed to sunlight, it will reciprocate by providing light. The principle of the lamp is based on the potential use of nanotechnology to insert gold electrodes into chloroplasts, which are the photosynthesising elements of the algae cells. This produces a low level of current which can be used when photosynthesis takes place. Consequently, Latro represents a new form of consumption which promotes a symbiotic relationship with nature.




Altering Nature

It is a fact that nature and the environment are exposed to huge human influences. The debate on the subject has generated the term anthropocene on the assumption that human beings are the most important factor in biological, geological and atmospheric change. The Center for Genomic Gastronomy, a design centre whose critical design focus is on current food production and forms of nutrition based on genetic engineering and biotechnology, has asked what benefits we can leverage from these changes and, among other issues, has speculated on the potential positive effects of radioactive contamination in plants. Within the framework of its Disaster Pharming project, the centre developed a set of tools for amateur biologists to safely carry out research work and look for new types of plants in regions contaminated by radioactive substances. Radiation has been used for decades to try to induce mutations, above all in agricultural crops, which will ultimately return to the food chain. In principle, contaminated areas such as Chernobyl or Fukushima should have spawned new forms of plant life, which might, for example, have some pharmaceutical uses. Consequently, the Cobalt 60 Sauce menu designed by the collective includes items containing radiation-mutated ingredients, such as Todd’s Mitcham Peppermint. Animals such as the Pyrenean ibex — which is actually extinct — suddenly crop up on the menu for the fictitious — De-Extinction Deli. In this way, and not without a certain irony, the Center for Genomic Gastronomy tackles a subject which has long been preoccupying biotechnologists: how to revive extinct forms of life, albeit not necessarily in order to eat them. Or, perhaps, precisely for this reason? Humankind is increasingly casting itself in the role of the creator of nature. However, what are the limits of all these technology-based visions?


Biotechnology plays a leading role in scrutinising our understanding of nature. High-precision, low-cost genetic modification, where proteins are used to alter genes like tiny robots controlled by human beings, is now a very real possibility and, consequently, no longer solely in scientific hands. In order to prevent this technology becoming a plaything for major enterprises, as has been the case in areas such as the pharmaceutical industry, biohackers are working on making synthetic biology accessible to ordinary people as well. We would thus be in a position to create organisms that produce biofuels or foods, or plants able to withstand climate change, and we might even produce our own antibiotics. However, perhaps it is plants that will allow products to be grown for us. British designer Daisy Ginsberg, co-curator of Grow Your Own–Life After Nature, an exhibition at the interdisciplinary Science-Gallery Dublin, is a pioneer in the field of researching the potential offered by synthetic organisms and speculative design. Using fictional scenarios to produce artefacts derived from these, she visualises a negotiable future which is not contingent on established approaches. However, the notion of modified plants, microbes and bacteria growing materials, foods, packaging or simple products for us still seems to be based on the concept of using technology to govern nature. The developments driven by speculative designers, which are often shaped by mainstream science, certainly help to expand our imaginative powers in terms of new applications and may be inspirational and provocative; however, they can also challenge our more established, fami­liar — and correspondingly more radical — attitudes towards the environment in relation to our living space, infrastructure, consumption, production and distribution: to what extent are these cultivated artefacts still natural, and what would happen if they were left to themselves? What future sce­narios would emerge if we were to allow uncontrollable, wild nature to take over, instead of time and again acceding to our urge to conquer it and exploit the benefits for ourselves?

Next Nature

What would come next, if nature were to become so fundamentally altered by human intervention that it could no longer be assigned a certain natural quality? Are genetically modified or especially bred featherless chickens still natural, or are they already artefacts, that is to say, the product of human design? Conversely, must technical systems – such as the internet or the global financial sector — be regarded as part of nature because, like hurricanes, they are now out of control? The Next Nature Network, which also poses these questions, is a platform initiated by artist and philosopher Koert van Mensvoort, which aims to stimulate public debate concerning our relationship with nature and technology with the aid of speculative design projects. The Next Nature Network posits that our technology-based environment has become so complex, intuitive and autonomous that it could be regarded as an extension of nature. The network designates anything man-made but no longer controllable — including computer viruses or traffic jams — as next nature or wild systems, while everything created by nature but controlled by human beings, such as animals bred by humans, genetically modified seeds or diamonds, is defined as cultivated nature. This almost absurd-sounding reversal — where technology becomes nature — raises the question of whether our constant desire to control natural phenomena like hurricanes and spring tides, or even issues such as health, mobility, eating, procreation or defence, in addition to mankind’s permanent desire to use technology for the purposes of control, emancipation and optimisation, need not automatically require us to increasingly relinquish our sense of humanity or naturalness. Are humans ultimately just a kind of living, controlled robot, beleaguered by an algorithmic invincibility? As ever, it seems that all this is simply a matter of perspective. And after all, this is exactly what designers are good at: constantly starting afresh with a new sheet of paper, crumpling it up, picking it up, folding it, and in this way, turning its content upside down!