December 19, 2013 | 42 Comments

Republic of Salivation (Michael Burton and Michiko Nitta)

From the curators: Designers Michiko Nitta and Michael Burton often work from a conceptual perspective—meaning that they identify future problems and imagine possible outcomes. In the Republic of Salivation scenario, which is part of their larger After Agri project, they contemplate what could happen if our society were confronted with food shortages and famine. They envision a dystopian fallout in which the government is forced to implement a strict food-rationing policy, whereby an individual’s food allotment is carefully tailored to the emotional, physical, and intellectual demands of their employment. The example explored here is that of an industrial worker’s diet: composed largely of starch, allowing the body to work for longer periods on fewer nutrients.

I’m with Wendell Berry on this one: “The cities have forgot the earth and will rot at heart till they remember it again.”

These oh-so-urban artists ask us to imagine what the world will be like in the event of a global food shortage, but they exhibit no curiosity as to the causes of this imminent threat. They focus, instead, on ways to change the body so that it can be fed synthetically—a solution that contrives to be both downstream and fantastical at the same time.

With their knowing references to “the scientific study of nutrigenomics,” and an airy promise that “new organisms will be tasked with erasing Man’s destructive effects,” this kind of work masquerades as radical. But in its steadfast refusal even to think about the roots of our alienation from living systems—among them, food—it belongs squarely within the neo-liberal worldview that only Man is smart enough to correct the odd mistake that He may have made.

If the artists were to focus more on observable nutrient and energy flows, and less on infantile science fictions, they would discover that the roots of our food crisis lie in a bad idea that can rather easily be fixed. The bad idea involved pumping nutrients out of distant ecosystems and feeding them to cities in a one-way process. This misstep dates back a long way, to the beginnings of agriculture, but its malignant effects have accelerated under thermo-industrial capitalism.

For a long time, we did not realize that that the benefits brought by the plough and its successors would be time-limited. Now we do know. We are also beginning to understand how living soils function and how plants grow. In this new light, the idea of feeding ourselves by force, rather than by artful husbandry, is absurd.

The good news is that we are on our way to “remembering the earth” once again. We are discovering—thanks, in part to science—that when left to do so, soil organisms support flora and food webs in mind-bogglingly complex but self-renewing interactions. These processes are interconnected, too, in a most modern way. In mycorrhiza, as Paul Stamets puts it, nature has evolved its own Internet over billions of years.

Knowing what we do now, the ecocidal impacts of industrial agriculture can be eliminated by a transition to methods still used by hundreds of millions of poor farmers to this day. Yes, of course these practices can be improved. But the proper role of science is to help us work mindfully with living systems–not, by violent means, to subjugate them.

Do violent, dystopian visions ever lead to positive, substantive change?

  1. December 23, 2013, 2:08 pm

    Susan Yelavich

    " the choir'

    Violent dystopian visions affect us when they have the power of literature. Lord of the Flies has lost none of its force for all its exposure and readings over the decades. The question here is one of distribution and dissemination. I worry that critical design is only preaching to the choir. Work like this needs to move into the space of editorials and essays that are read outside of the design community.

  2. January 1, 2014, 6:28 pm

    Tim Parsons

    John, correct me if I’m wrong but I really feel this is a rather disingenuous response to Burton Nitta’s project. You know as well as I do that this project comes from the realm known as speculative or critical design which does not work from the problem-solution paradigm but from the position of raising awareness and debate of issues through the creation of fictional scenarios that the creators do not necessarily advocate. This work does not therefore hinge upon its scientific accuracy, its moral relationship to our own values or even its plausibility to become reality. It rests on its ability to get its audience to discuss and react to the central subject matter – here, food shortages and famine. In fact your response in proposing a scientifically viable solution, in my view, only goes to prove the effectiveness of the work.

    To quote Paola from her Eyeo 2013 presentation, “in order to have consequence on a world that sometimes seems like to have lost its compass, designers and architects have to be brutal or disquieting, pose hard questions and tackle unpleasant subjects in uncomfortable ways.” This is what Burton Nitta do. To label them as having a neo-liberal worldview could not be further from the truth.

  3. January 1, 2014, 7:17 pm

    […] beautiful and functional ways. However, design can also be viewed as a creative act of destruction. Design and Violence, an online curatorial project at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), is currently exploring this […]

  4. January 2, 2014, 3:56 am


    Stand for something or fall for anything

    Thackara is spot on. Critical design isn’t just a waste of time, it actually does damage to how people understand design.

    The critique of critical design has nothing to do with its departure from instrumentalism. The problem is that it does so without committing to anything other than noncommittal aesthetic play. This is precisely why it is a form of liberalism and the reason it is so at home within a fine art milieu.

    The appeal to ‘raising awareness and debate’ should be categorically refused. This work trivialises the issue of food. It trades on a sense of ‘what if …’ without acknowledging that much of what it casts as speculative is not only already happening to the vast majority of the world’s population (people’s diets, even in wealthy countries, are already shaped along class and racialised lines through urban design and management, prices, food stamps, income management etc.), but is and has always been a condition of capitalism. What the designer’s are in a sense saying then is ‘OMG how would you feel if this were to happen to us’, without acknowledging that you have to set yourself apart from most people’s histories and lived reality in order to frame this kind of thing as abnormal.

    Suggesting that this work is somehow ‘brutal or disquieting’ is profoundly stupid. The only thing that this work ‘confronts’ its audience with is a narcissistic fantasy.

    The real confrontation has to be with conditions that permit the privileged to forget and/or ignore the political significance of food (i.e. a form of structural violence that is both delivered and shielded from view by design). It means confronting the fact that in order to make universal access to healthy and sustainably produced food a reality (not just an abstract right), radical and decisive movements must be made against the status quo. The confrontation here is that ‘we’ are currently ill-equipped to achieve this and will continue to be so long as ‘we’ indulge critical design’s lofty nonsense.

  5. January 2, 2014, 5:18 am

    Tim Parsons

    Design is big enough for both approaches

    Forceful words Matt. Too forceful in my view. It is a shame that you find no benefit in critical design as myself and many others find it a force for good and an important addition to the field. To explore a few of your points…

    I disagree that the critique of critical design has nothing to do with instrumentalism. Design has been bound to intrumentalism and optimistic futurism for so long that when it takes a different tack, when it borrows from film, literature and the fine arts and dares to offer us something cerebral rather than practical, it gets shut down. Well, perhaps its time to consider that the field is large enough to include these approaches alongside more instrumental ones. We need hospitals but we also need art galleries. If you want to live in a place where our design culture speaks only of functionality and is not allowed to use poetic means to explore and communicate issues, be my guest, just don’t expect us all to want to live there.

    You suggest critical design has no voice because in your words it is “noncommittal”. Have you ever listened to an evangelical preacher? Do you think being committed to a position when trying to make people think is a good thing? Critical design work is non-committal only in the sense that it doesn’t shove one viewpoint down your throat. That doesn’t mean its protagonists are apolitical charlatans. It means you have to think about the work to form your own viewpoint.

    I think the designers know full well that diets are already shaped along class and racialised lines. I also think they may well agree that their project is about saying “what if this were to happen to us”. The fact is have proved incapable as a wealthy western society of being sufficiently impacted by news of the realities of the food crisis around the world. Otherwise we would have done something about it by now. So why not let design try to help create that impact?

    Finally, why is creating work to elicit debate about an issue of importance “lofty” and “narcissistic”? I really think you should be saving such adjectives for “star” designers churning out chairs with no subtext other than spreading their own name. At least these designers are trying to make work about issues.

  6. January 12, 2014, 7:48 pm


    We can't afford to spend thousands of dollars\pounds\euros on science fiction

    As a brown, lower-middle class, radically leftist designer living in one of the most dangerous cities in Asia, all I can say is that, while I can sympathise with the fact that the intentions of most speculative fictions lie in provoking thoughtful debate, critical design is a) speaking to the largely small community of people interested in avante garde solutions to design problems, and b) a huge funnel for money into solutions that are largely not feasible. It’s a classic ‘design-as-persuasive rhetoric’ vs ‘design-as-problem solving’ debate. Rarely have I seen a design fiction lead to something that can be implemented to solve real problems, and my third-world sensibilities are often shocked at the large amounts of money spent on creating and then exhibiting these pieces. Design works when it fully understands the phenomenon, in all of its political and ethical dimensions, that it seeks to affect a change in. Bring me a design fiction that can demonstrate that it fully understands the complex politics of say, birth control in a country like Pakistan and can pose thought-provoking questions about what can be done, and I will not laugh at its shallowness.

  7. January 15, 2014, 10:44 pm

    cameron tonkinwise

    curators curate!

    Paola, Jamer, Kate,
    You have been running this site for a couple of months. There has been occasional debate in the comments (sometimes followed by peer attempts to discourage critique). Some substantive issues are emerging. In this case, important issues are being raised that go to the very heart of the project. It seems to me that these questions – concerning the efficacy of speculations in spaces of privilege – demand some editorial response. Is the project just going to be more of the same from now on: a well-written post, perhaps debated in the comments, followed by just another well-written post, and so on? Or is MOMA going to use its weight to make a difference with respect to the issues being raised, curating responses for example that extend beyond the usual spaces of privilege? Is this just a ‘build-it-and-see’ or is there some design behind this project? Is there responsibility being taken for what emerges by hosting this site and encouraging these debates, or is it just ‘c’est sera sera?’

  8. January 16, 2014, 6:01 pm

    James Auger


    It might be helpful to clear up some misconceptions about speculative and critical design (SCD). Addressing some of the specific comments made in the previous post by anon, and building on Tim’s excellent responses…
    Also I appreciate that the post was initiated by an analysis of a specific project (After Agri) but it is unfair and unhelpful (both to BurtonNitta and to SCD) to examine a whole approach by basing the critique on one project. I therefore speak in more general terms about the subject.

    – Starting with the title of the anonymous post – one of the strengths of SCD is that it operates (entirely from my experience) on minute budgets. Many projects are self-funded or based on small commissions and are entirely not-for profit. The high-resolution delivery using many techniques may give the impression that big budgets are behind the quality but this is a reflection of the skill of the designers rather than the depth of their pockets.

    – It absolutely does not intend to provide ‘avant garde solutions to design problems.’ And its intentions are to speak not to a ‘small community of people’ but as large and diverse a community as possible. The purpose of many SCD projects is similar to that of philosophers of technology such as Langdon Winner and Neil Postman but through using a product language they aim to make this discussion accessible to a much broader audience. SCD does not solve problems but attempts to understand better what the problems are… both today and in the near future. As Anon points out design works when it fully understands the phenomenon, but phenomena today and in the future are becoming increasingly complex, for example, how might disruptive technologies such as synthetic biology and informatics impact on our future lives? SCD projects can explore such questions to generate understanding and knowledge helping to better inform technological development.

    – The classic rhetoric vs problem solving debate is non-sensical. As Tim points out, Why can’t both, or even many other forms of design exist together. This mindset is the same as suggesting that all chefs should work in soup kitchens. This is clearly ridiculous so why do people get so upset when designers shift their effort away from solutions and markets?

    – How many other practicing designers actually solve real problems? The majority of products shaped by designers are on a fast track to landfill sites through making ephemeral (and in many cases pointless) objects desirable. Design itself can be the problem. By moving away from markets and their constraints SCD is free to explore related issues, expose problems and imagine new possibilities.

    – Birth control – whoever claimed that SCD could solve birth problems in developing countries? It is odd to assume that it could… Could the design team at Apple? But I would argue that with the right information and research it could pose though-provoking questions on the issue (admittedly not necessarily about what could be done).

    The fact that people think that is shallow exposes its problems. It is unsettling (rather than violent). Like good horror films there is a lot of ‘uncanniness’ and that can be provocative. This though can be managed and exploited, it makes the work media friendly hence the viral nature of many SCD projects. The challenge is to curate the debates and discussions that follow, engaging policy makers, scientists, publics and others in the process. Not enough SCD projects have achieved that yet hence the justified wariness.

    Coming back to the original question (as it seems to have been consumed by the role of design debate) violent dystopian visions can too easily be dismissed as fiction – they shock but only temporarily. Carefully crafted, plausible, tangible, but at the same time unsettling visions are far more effective.

  9. January 20, 2014, 3:08 am

    cameron tonkinwise

    carefully crafted

    Just to push on some of your points with a cruel mash-up

    So SCD tries to:

    1 “generate understanding and knowledge helping to better inform technological development”
    by being
    2 “unsettlng”
    3 “on minute budgets”
    4 “carefully crafted”
    at the risk/benefit of being
    5 “media friendly hence… viral”
    but only when there are also well-designed attempts to
    6 “curate the debates and discussions that follow, engaging policy makers, scientists, publics and others.”

    So, there seems to be some agreement that, re: 6, “not enough SCD projects have achieved that.” (Will this MOMA gig achieve that?)

    The argument in these comments here seems to be about the relation between 2 and 4 and whether either can achieve 1. I took Anon as saying, ‘How wealthy do you have to be to be ‘unsettled,’ in ways that ‘generate understanding,’ by these carefully crafted communiques?’

    Certainly Design must find a way of doing something other than filling landfills with wearables. Is SCD what it should be spending time on? (Is SCD what MOMA should be spending its [segment of the attention] budget on?)

  10. January 20, 2014, 2:04 pm


    Design is big enough to swallow the world if we let it.

    To give it its dues, SCD does encourage a way of thinking about design beyond market imperatives. However, this does not mean that it is a progressive force. At most it means that SCD is making use of some privileged but historically contingent social spheres (fine art, academia) that permit the denial or obfuscation of an economic base. Sometimes this is done to good ends. In the case of SCD though I think we should be demanding much, much more.

    My critique (for those who didn’t get it the first time) is NOT that SCD should be instrumental, or even that it is wrong to appropriate elements of the fine art tradition. My critique is that we ALL should be accountable to a serious political end, one that DOES NOT take the fine art and elite design worlds, the city, the suburbs, the West, the affluent, whiteness, the middle class, MoMA etc as the horizon of what is, among other things, ‘shocking’.

    In this sense SCD should not be permitted to get away with speculations that have no stated purpose other than speculation for the sake of itself. That is not cool, not progressive, not clever, and not defensible. It is just flitting away the large amounts of money and privilege that IS actually involved in schooling people up on elitist art culture, running galleries, publishing books etc.

    Against indulging in ‘anti-market’ fetishisation, I want to know what SCDs current strategy is for actually abolishing the capitalist market system. I want to know what SCDs strategy is for addressing the problems raised by Thackara. I want to know to whom does SCD consider itself accountable to and how its work is evaluated in this light. I want to know to whom is SCD aligned and what collective goals it is working towards forming and achieving.

    I’m not going to hold my breath for these answers though because, as far as I can see, SCD actually does not have, foster, or encourage the kind of serious political analysis that could provide these answers, let alone any serious inquiry into the nature of design. Hence why it falls back on to a banal liberalism, and hence why, again, Thackara is right.

  11. January 22, 2014, 4:59 pm

    James Auger


    You both make (some) good points and but others I’m afraid are completely wide of the mark. It would be helpful to furnish your argument with examples because at the moment it is overloaded with generalisations, unsubstantiated comparisons and misguided suggestions of privilege. The key problem that I alluded to above is that there are many approaches to SCD each with different purposes or goals. As with any creative discipline there are good examples and bad examples. SCD is a work in progress and as such its boundaries are blurred, your arguments seem to be based on a generic understanding that is simply wrong.

    It is experimental and evolving but (and I can only speak for myself and the projects I consider to be good examples to SCD) is done with both worthy and timely intentions and with a clear stated purpose. I don’t wish to completely hi-jack the MoMA discussion on violence so will not go into detail about all the approaches, rather focus on one – that is to speculate on and to depict imaginaries of near-future life before it happens. These speculations are based on extrapolations of emerging technologies and are commonly informed through collaboration with scientists. The purpose is to facilitate a more considered and democratic approach to technological development and future formation and to examine and critique the established and largely capitalist notions of progress that are currently shape research into technology and its eventual application.

    Basically design has the potential to move upstream from where it normally functions introducing the complexities of human needs and desires and the rules of everyday life much sooner in the developmental process. We have developed working relationships with scientists from a number of fields such as informatics and synthetic biology leading to extremely engaging collaborations and dialogue.

    I totally agree that we should be demanding more of SCD, and we are in the process of finding new ways of exploiting the potential of the approach. This includes more curated events and discussions, new ways of using museums, finding ways of engaging different publics, policy makers, working with anthropologists, sociologists…

    I still fail to understand why think this approach is capable of abolishing the capitalism market system (like the birth control issue above) but it certainly encourage serious political and enquiry – just click to the post on the liberator for example.

  12. January 23, 2014, 4:17 am

    Jamer Hunt

    Thanks so much for the thoughtful question…and for the frequent comments on the site. Your question is one that we consider continually. We launched the site to shine a light on a shadowy corner of design. Part of our ambition was to bring mostly unheard voices into the design conversation so that we could gain varying perspectives on the impact that design has—positive and negative—on a broad community. We also hoped that the interactive format would spark responses and reflection on important topics in a very public, accessible way. We, too, wonder how the site might lead to new initiatives—whether by us, or, even better, by others. In launching this experiment we also imagined that it might create a platform for other initiatives or other ways for designers to confront violence. We have conspicuously tried not to inject our own editorial voices into the fray. In that sense we see our role as facilitating conversation by providing catalytic prompts rather than staking out editorial territory. We don’t see our position quite as “que sera, sera” as you suggest, but we do think the experiment simply needs more time to evolve.

  13. January 23, 2014, 6:09 am



    I consider designing to mean the imposition of direction (benign or otherwise) within situations that are already directed. In this sense, speculating on and imagining the future before it happens, as you say, is not in itself designerly (or political) as it avoids the task of forming a collective sense of where we SHOULD be going and how to get there. Speculation and political decision making are qualitatively different tasks (they actually feel different), with the later being not just a design outcome but a product of design i.e. structuring a social situation so that people can arrive at a decision about what is imperative along with a commitment to act in an organised and deliberate way.

    By contrast, what I have seen of SCD is for the most part beautiful musings about how technological things might change for white middle-class Europeans. There is little to no political analysis of what drives socio-technical change, and no position taking on where things should go. Things are left open to endless contemplation, exploration, and discussion. This might sound all nice and liberal, but is actually fundamentally irresponsible as it never amounts to a directive decision in a context that demands one.

    This is to say that I question whether SCD can meaningfully ‘facilitate a more considered and democratic approach to technological development’. The critique that Spinosa, Flores and Dreyfus give of liberal democracy in Disclosing New Worlds is relevant here, as is Tony Fry’s in Design as Politics. Beyond this I’ve come across no evidence of SCD actually having an impact outside of its own discursive sphere (compare the project that Fry has been involved with in Timor Leste). Compared with, say, Atelier d’Architecture Autogéré or Marjetica Potrč, I’ve never seen a proponent of SCD talk in a serious way about organising with communities, so I don’t understand what SCD has to offer to wider publics other than as spectators to more SCD. Fry, AAA, and Potrč are all important examples here because in addition to not being ‘market orientated’ their projects take responsibility for making change happen, not just hope other people will be inspired to act based on a museum exhibit. Because SCD doesn’t take a political position I don’t understand what its proponents would advise policy makers to do other than fund more vague chats about technology. I’m also suspicious that there is no critique of the state and the political class to guide any engagement with its bureaucracy.

    If there are examples of SCD that contradict this assessment I would be genuinely interested to hear about them.

  14. January 23, 2014, 2:26 pm

    James Auger

    Matt, with respect I feel that we are talking in circles. My second to last paragraph in the last comment acknowledged your issues with SCD and explained how we are hoping to address these. I feel that we have similar aspirations although probably in different contexts. Fry’s book is inspirational as is the Timor project but I personally feel that there are enormous problems much closer to home, and that is where I chose to base my practice. Projects in Timor aren’t going to stop people taking out payday loans to buy ipads for their 12 year olds christmas present. Why this leads to accusations of white middle classness is beyond me. These are different problems and require different methods; it is excessive middle class political correctness that values one over the other, or even seeks to compare… the world is big enough for both…and many others.

    The approach I described above is exactly intended to form a collective sense of where we are going; once we have a better idea of what this is, figuring out how to get there is much more straightforward. Well-defined goals were much easier to identify in the past when the technology available for shaping, controlling, mediating etc. was tangible and local – designing a better chair/washing machine/car is a relatively simple challenge and the benefits obvious (with the car the implications less so). Recent developments though, such as the digital revolution and the internet, have changed the way we do everything – for both good and for bad (and not just for the white middle classes). The next revolutions will happen on the nano scale, in petabyte data sets and with living material, and our increasing levels of control over them leads to an imperative need for more clarity and communication on what the possibilities are and more importantly what is preferable. The role of SCD from my perspective is to communicate what these possibilities are, this needs to be free from industry as their presentations of possible futures are obviously shaped by promoting versions advantageous to their interests. SCD can simply show, as vividly and accessibly as possible, what could happen. We can then make more informed decisions about what is better. Designers cannot make these decisions on their own – but nor should scientists, or politicians. And involving publics (or from the perspective of those largely responsible for change, consumers) is imperative. SC Designs in isolation will not facilitate more considered and democratic approaches to technological development but as focal points and instigators of curated debates (with policy makers, scientists, communities…) and generators of information and feedback they can provide a way to better inform technological trajectories. At the moment it seems that the best approach is to work within the system hence the lack of overt politicisation. The system is incredibly complex and powerful – unsettling it seems to be far more achievable and constructive than revolutionising it.

  15. January 27, 2014, 1:10 pm


    Its ok that we’re not going to agree. My own interest is in clarifying the lines of disagreement.

    I was using the Timor project and the work of both Atelier d’Architecture Autogéré and Marjetica Potrč as examples of what SCD does not do, namely, use a political critique to guide transformative work with communities or institutions beyond academia and art galleries. Claiming that Timor is not ‘closer to home’ is very much besides the point that SCD has nothing to say on the matter of what should be done, or how to do it, at any level of political action (i.e. from ‘grass roots’ to policy making). It cannot to this because it has no political position (or, in other words, its politics is liberalism), does not do political analysis, and does not engage in political organising. SCD is speculative (non-directive, and therefore not designerly), asocial (the genesis of its fictions are nearly always some kind of technological change, not a change to social relations), and apolitical (for the reasons given).

    The point about whiteness and class etc. is related to SCD being asocial and apolitical. There are very serious problems in the UK at the moment, particularly in terms of housing, unemployment, and racism, all of which are exacerbated by an economy in chronic decline (there are interesting arguments now to suggest the UK is actually dedeveloping i.e. it will never ‘recover’). The UK is in the grips of futural crisis, one that the political class is unable and unwilling to solve. There is a need for radical socio-political (not technical) change, the kind that takes into account shifting movements at a global (e.g. climate change), regional (population movement), and local scale (the end of work, repressive social discipline). There is a need for affirmative visions of alternative futures and counter-formations of political actants. Why then, in the midst of this, is SCD fixated on very trivial prospects such as personal use robots? This seems to me to be a symptom of an unreflexively privileged imaginary, one that is uninterested in majority world experiences or social struggle, something reflected quite well in SCDs phlegmatic and generally pasty aesthetic.

    The approach you described has little to do with what I mean by forming collective understanding and intentions. When I say this I am thinking about my experiences in workshops and meetings where a collective has decided upon a direction and strategy for political action (i.e. not conferences or exhibitions). Creating a fiction about a new technology is not the same thing. It does not provide any agency to anyone. It merely presents a possibility, it doesn’t propose how to intervene it it, or how to learn how to intervene in it. To say ‘We can then make more informed decisions about what is better’ is meaningless. Who are ‘we’? How are ‘we’ supposed to make a decision? When are ‘we’ going to make a decision (if you never pose an imperative it will never be answered)? What can ‘we’ do to stop technological changes when decisions about technological change are, for the most part, beyond ‘our’ power to control? I’m interested to hear you describe Design as Politics as ‘inspirational’ because if nothing else it is a forceful critique of this very argument (see especially pp. 52-62).

    The biggest fiction of SCD is perhaps that it is unsettling. But in its narrow scope of interest it misses the extent to which our futures are being unsettled by much more dramatic movements. Either way SCD has nothing to say about what unsettlement means, at least not in the sense that helps to organise a response.

  16. January 29, 2014, 7:21 pm


    I stand by what I said before. Show any of the projects in this exhibition to a non-white, non upper middle-class, third world public and they will laugh. Nothing about them is in the least unsettling to such an audience, although it might be absurd. Again, we’re talking about this being for a white, middle class American audience, so perhaps this is what white middle class Americans find shocking. What I find more shocking than the pieces themselves is that this is what white middle class Americans are supposed to find unsettling.

    Imo, want to unsettle someone? Figure out a way to take them to the factory in China where their IPad was assembled and let them experience it firsthand. Let them go to the garment factory in Bengladesh where their t-shirts were sewn. This is both the present and the future of these communities and others – those factories won’t shut down overnight, and are as much a part of the near-future as household robots and flexible lcd screens. I often find myself asking why a majority of scd projects are wholly occupied with revealing one side of potential futures, i.e. their promise and pitfalls, without showing the other side, i.e. how those futures will be made and sustained.

  17. January 30, 2014, 12:21 pm

    James Auger

    What is this obsession with class systems? The UK may have its financial problems but most of us stopped obsessing about these divides in the distant past.

    Also it is lame for you both to respond with such vitriol from behind the cloak of anonymity. Who are you to be so well placed to make such a damning critique of SCD?

    To pick up (for the last time) on a couple of the points. Designerly – speculations do have direction; they are about exploring possibilities in informed ways, just like prototyping a concept. Many iterations are developed each informing the process and helping to identify goals. If you know what the goals are, there is direction.
    SCD has much clearer goals for technological progress that those currently directing research, development and funding models, it is extremely ‘designerly.’

    Second, If you think that examining our current technological trajectory is facile or indulgent then this whole discussion is pointless. Matt, you choose robots to exemplify your argument. Why do you consider this a trivial subject? Perhaps if your understanding is based on several decades of stereotypical media depictions which are indeed quite fanciful, but the reality is that the robotics industry today is consuming billions of dollars annually in attempting to make them an everyday reality – this is happening across the globe. Google is buying robotic research companies; A.I. research labs and countless others forms of robot related research. Data accumulation, analysis and algorithms promise to be able to read humans and predict behaviour in turn making us more robotic. Robots have already revolutionised the industrial landscape through production lines and CNC machines. Our transport systems are potentially the next robot frontier – automated cars (and potentially drones) removing the work of taxi drivers, delivery vans etc. No! I don’t think domestic robots are a trivial subject. Designers are perfectly placed to examine how this form of technology might impact on everyday life via the products, services and spaces that will exist as a result of contemporary research.
    Your world view seems to be based on neatly packaged and isolated events and activities. How can you separate technological change, notions of progress, faith in technology etc. from political dogma, social change, conspicuous consumption and so on? It is an enormously complex ecosystem that needs to be first acknowledged and then examined, especially when we plan to bring new things into the world. As Postman said, change is ecological. And as Jared Diamond points out in Guns, Germs and Steel it was the ability to control nature through technology that originally shaped the global power structures that exist today.

    Designers have always worked with technology (as an element to be arranged using Eames description of design). Designers have rarely considered the implications of the technology they arrange (social, political, economic, cultural, psychological). This should naturally be part of the design process and this is what we practice and this is what we teach.

  18. January 31, 2014, 8:59 pm


    So, I should probably say here that I’m a designer from Karachi, Pakistan (incidentally, considered to be one of the most violent cities on the face of the planet, if you believe Vice and Google – hence the interest in this MOMA exhibit). I live in a city where bomb blasts, riots and citywide shutdowns are the norm rather than the exception – I am no stranger to armed violence myself. I have also lived, for a time, in the US and in other parts of the world. I think I speak from a position of knowledge and experience – I am not weaving vitriolic statements out of thin air.

    If you agree that these systems are complex and interconnected, they are also global – in all likelihood, the parts of the robots of tomorrow will be assembled by underpaid factory workers somewhere in Asia. I’ve bought t-shirts in the US where the labels on their backs read ‘Made in Pakistan’, and I’ve been in the factories where they have been made here. This is an ethical argument that I am making. Most critical design that I have seen or experienced glosses over the global ethics of the kinds of futures it seeks to question. If you say that technological change, notions of progress, faith in technology, cannot be separated from political dogma, social change, conspicuous consumption etc., then they also cannot be separated from exploitation, poverty, the legacy of colonialism, cycles of violence that perpetuate long after the damage has been done (Pakistani citizens are now being bombed by the relatives of drone strike victims who turned to terrorism). The political, economic, social and cultural implications of technologies are never local but always global and systemic – they ripple out and affect people you may never know or see in your lifetime. It’s great to believe in the promise of technological progress when you belong to a class and a society that will directly get to reap its benefits in the end. Most of the examples you point out…household robots, self driving transportation, robotic mechanisation…sorry, but 2/3rds of the globe won’t get to seem ’em, regardless of the millions of dollars being spent on them by corporations like Google. Many villages and towns in Asia and Africa barely have electricity in this day and age – even large cities like Karachi loadshed electricity for as long as 8 hours a day in the summers.

    So yeah, I do question scd’s sense of responsibility, and I don’t find the work unsettling or deep, but then, I don’t come from a class or society where I would find this sort of work unsettling or deep. Obviously, we do not agree on this – the argument is moot.

  19. February 4, 2014, 10:44 pm

    Luiza Prado

    James’ misguided question – What is this obsession with class systems?- doesn’t surprise me at all, honestly.

    SCD was theorised in and for developed, northern european countries by the privileged, intellectual, white, middle classes. It serves their own purposes, while largely ignoring the underlying issues of colonialism, liberalism and white supremacy it helps to perpetuate. I wrote some more thoughts on the subject here:

  20. February 19, 2014, 9:32 am



    I Identify my practice with what’s being described here as SDC, and like other commenters here it’s the topic of my PhD thesis. My sense is that descriptions of the SDC are often restricted to texts that go in exhibitions and on blogs. Often our claims to bring about debate are conflated with aims for the dissemination of the work. So it’s probably a good thing that partitioners are writing scholarly accounts, and vital that the approaches are extended and challenged, otherwise there is a danger that the practice will become repetitive and irrelevant.

  21. February 20, 2014, 6:02 pm

    Scott Denison

    SCD, as it has been labeled here is in the emerging, speculative space of design. Though many agree on what it is—and that of design fiction—it is too new and formative to ‘be anything’ or so well defined that it could fall neatly into conceptions or misconceptions of purpose and execution. In my practice of design fiction, it is not about what ‘should’ be but rather what ‘could’ be—good or bad. To me, fictions of snappy, sleek technologies that make the privileged more comfortable are neither SCD nor design fiction. In my definition (since there are many) design fiction stories are intended suspend disbelief about change, making it seem real enough to us that we want to talk about it, assess it, and ask ourselves if this is really the future we want—and if it’s not—what might we do about it, how might we change it, refine it, or avoid it altogether.

    In the broad spectrum of design and design thinking, the end result becomes more than solving problems, design thinking can be just that: thinking. Something I believe we do too little of before we create anything.

  22. March 3, 2014, 11:30 pm



    “Violent dystopian visions affect us when they have the power of literature” and the movie industry?

    Did the documentary movies, Food, Inc. and Fast Food Nation, lead to positive, substantive change? For me, yes. For others, I think so. Are they violent, dystopian visions? Sort of? Not really. I don’t know. Can documentary movies be compared to SCD? I really don’t know.

    Is SCD the new kid on the block getting beat up in front of literature, movies, art, etc.? Maybe.

  23. March 6, 2014, 5:42 am

    Blair Moore

    Marketing Scam


    Although I have to agree that these films lead to a positive change, it was only a change in a small group which was most likely not a long lasting one. The reasoning behind this is due in part to the difficulty of maintaining such a specific and expensive lifestyle and diet. These documentary films are a fad, and are almost marketing ploys for these fast food companies. Every other word coming out of the commentators mouth is “McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and Burger King”. If you’re a younger child listening to your parents watching this movie, the only thing you’re hearing are these words, and seeing their logos and products on screen.

    What’re your thoughts on this?

  24. March 12, 2014, 1:44 am

    Blair Moore

    Living in a Dystopian World

    Dystopian novels are becoming the hottest sellers in the young adult/teen age group. Many popular series from this genre are The Hunger Games, Divergent, and the list could go on and on. However, although these books are highly entertaining and addictive to read most people do not see beyond the surface level of these books. They don’t look deeper into the readings to try and see what these authors might be alluding too, but if you do what you realize is that these novels are cautionary tales of what could happen to our world in the future if we don’t change. Of course, they are highly exaggerated, but they should hold some merit. All of these novels seem to start the same way, with the explanation of how the “old world” otherwise known as our current world screwed up and the human race nearly died off. What these novels are trying to say is what Wendell Berry said “The cities have forgot the earth and will rot at heart till they remember it again.” (Berry, 2013). You can describe all of these books simply by using that statement. In the relationship to Human Centered Design being comprised of the expression of method and the expressions of principle, this issue relates more to the expressions of principle. The issues that are harder to fix on a whole instead of fixing the initial immediacy of the one.

  25. March 13, 2014, 5:46 pm


    John, really?

    John T, turning your back on the thing you helped create?

  26. March 13, 2014, 7:09 pm

    Matt Malpass

    I'm not Matt

    This doesn’t contribute to the discussion. In response to a number of inquiries I’ve received, I’d like to express to those participating in this discussion that I’m not the Matt expressing views here.

  27. March 15, 2014, 3:45 am


    In reply to Luiza Prado

    @luizaprado you talk about blind privilege. but what you seem to be blindly promoting is a focus in SCD on classical political issues such as feminism, class divisions, etc., and you don’t see a value in projects that focus on other issues whilst being in a white middle class context. SCD projects can’t critique everything at once, there need to be elements in the design that are recognizable to the viewer, in order for the part of the design that is different from our world today to stand out and to be read as a critique. so, if a SCD project is for example dealing with the ethics of a new technology, it makes sense to not overload the project with a) a critique of our whole societal system and b) the potential ethics of this technology, but to decide for one. that is why many projects go with a familiar context – white middle class – to be able to more effectively critique one specific thing such as aesthetics.
    yes, it would be interesting to see more projects on third world issues, gender, etc., but there are actually not that few SCD projects that deal with these topics (you exaggerate to make it sound like there are virtually none).
    also, remember that SCD is not here to save the world and it never will be. it is such a young discipline and just now becoming more political, and it will be interesting to see how it develops. but seeing less value in all projects that don’t deal with the political issues that interest you is ignorant – there are many things to be critiqued.
    if you are really so worried about these political issues maybe you should get out there and protest, become involved in politics and found a transgender support group or something. pressing political issues will not be resolved through SCD, and it seems that’s what you are mistaking it for. SCD is part of a culture, like literature, film, theatre, art, etc. it is not politics.
    and as one of the many female designers working in the field i am offended by you saying that SCD is male dominated, that is definitely not the case. it seems it just fitted better into your list of clichés (white middle class MALE).
    PS. “northern european” means scandinavian, i’m not sure that’s what you mean? doing a bit of research before you write an article like this helps.

  28. April 21, 2014, 10:11 am

    […] In the age of Behance, of earning badges and appreciations, when one of the most used words in the site’s feedback circle is “awesome” and likes and followers are easily bought, graphic design has another opportunity to reexamine its apparently incurable allergy to criticism. Within interaction design, speculative and critical design is now being openly questioned and the critical design projects’ political accountability and relevance to society debated. […]

  29. May 13, 2014, 3:57 pm

    […] the past few days I’ve been following this excellent and profoundly enlightening discussion on MoMA’s Design and Violence page. The conversation, initiated by John Thackara’s comments on […]

  30. May 27, 2014, 4:22 pm

    Pedro Oliveira

    SCD is not politics?

    Particularly directed to “Linda” who bluntly criticised the fact that we (since I co-authored the text she refers to) claim that SCD should take a stance on politics: I think your assumption that SCD is “culture” as art and film are, is not wrong, but to claim that they are not “politics” is at least a naive assumption. I honestly thought that this was a given among those working/researching in the field but apparently it is not.

    In that regard, I cannot help but recall your own argument and kindly ask you to do some research before claiming such a fact. Some examples:

    Not to go too deep, I will just throw in a very very brief and summarised notion of “politics” that happens to be literally lying around on my table now. Langdon Winner writes that “politics” are “arrangements of power and authority in human associations as well as the activities that take place within those arrangements.” If you want to go even simpler, here’s Wikipedia (!!) definition of the term, after the Greeks: “[politics] is the practice and theory of influencing other people on a civic or individual level […] A variety of methods are employed in politics, which include promoting one’s own political views among people […]”

    I’d like to point you, as a SCD practitioner, to one of the so-called “canons” of SCD, namely “Design Noir” , in which Dunne and Raby affirm that “[…] all design is ideological, the design process is informed by values based on a specific world view, or way of seeing and understanding reality.” In that regard, even though “politics” and “ideology” are not technically the same thing, you have to agree that they are immensely close to one another.

    Assuming a small degree of text interpretation, you may see that in the text that is exactly what we meant by politics: SCD, as a practice preoccupied with “challenging narrow assumptions” (to quote Dunne once more) about said “specific world view” is and has to be responsible for addressing questions outside the privilege we point out.

    Design and SCD can be a form of protest, so can be art, literature, film, theatre, music and whatnots. I do believe that “founding a transgender group” is indeed helpful, but so can be design, for trans* people are already invisible to society, let alone in Design circles.

    While I do reckon that perhaps *your* practice might be apolitical (which is a political stance in its own right), please do not assume that *all* SCD should be as well. This is as narrow-minded as claiming that we dismissed all SCD projects to date in our text 🙂


  31. May 27, 2014, 4:37 pm

    Luiza Prado

    In response to Linda

    Hi Linda,

    First of all let me thank you for your profoundly enlightening comment – few times have i seen the most disgustingly problematic issues with the SCD crowd illustrated more clearly than in your comment, so thank you for that.

    Now, first of all, you depart from the assumption that SCD is made by the white, european middle class, for the white european middle class, otherwise you wouldn’t be making a statement like “many projects go with a familiar context – white middle class”.

    Also, you say that “SCD projects can’t critique everything at once”. I certainly agree with that, but I don’t see why they have to talk about the same things, over and over again, always from the same, narrow point of view. I’m not asking for SCD to deal with everything – I’m just suggesting it might be useful to stop being so self-indulgent if the discipline ever wants to truly fulfil its promises of critique.

    You go on to say that “yes, it would be interesting to see more projects on third world issues, gender, etc., but there are actually not that few SCD projects that deal with these topics”. First of all: I am most definitely not counting projects about developing countries (third world is a very outdated term, you know) made by europeans, because as a brazilian I’m kinda tired after 500 years of colonialism. We can think by ourselves and deal with our problems (most of them caused by colonialism…) by ourselves, thank you very much. Same thing for gender issues: why on earth would I want a cis man telling me about gender dystopia? In short: if you’re on top of the food chain, please keep quiet and listen. Give space to others, let us, who are oppressed, tell our own stories. That’s not what I’ve been seeing in SCD – even the few projects that do deal with these issues are usually initiated and led by the same old (colonialist) crew. And I still want to stress that gender violence/futures/dystopia is indeed a hardly touched topic.

    And sorry to break it to you, but EVERYTHING is politics. If you truly believe that politics are not embedded in your everyday life – from the way the urban space is designed (check out Winner and Latour on that one, to name a few) to the design of objects (you might want to read Dunne & Raby…) well… *shrug*

    And as to your suggestion that I might want to “protest, become involved in politics and found a transgender support group or something”: first of all, I don’t own you any sort of explanation on my involvement with politics, activism or anything in general. The general tone of your comment is dismissive and aggressive, but this last part really is the cherry on the cake, especially your not-so-subtle sarcastic suggestion that things like “founding a transgender group” (which I won’t do because i’m not trans……..) are useless. I’m sorry, but they aren’t. When you come from a privileged background (which I assume you do, because you think that white middle class is the default mode of existence), even being part of a minority (assuming that you used your real name….) is easier, and the struggles of trans* people go through are something neither you nor I can fully grasp. So please show some respect and empathy – it might even help you step out of this marvellous world where everyone is white, cis and rich.

    Finally, by “northern european” we mean the UK, Germany, Scandinavia, the Netherlands – the usual suspects. Ask portuguese, spanish, greek and turkish ppl for a bit of perspective on this 🙂

  32. July 11, 2014, 3:50 pm


    diversity through homosexuality?

    are there chances to improve the diversity and impact of SCD? yes. is a heterosexual privileged girl (read: “brazilian phd student in berlin”) claiming diversity by depicting a non-heterosexual relationship the way to do it? probably not.
    i agree with you, luiza, colonialist approaches concerning the developing world are not a way to bring diversity into speculative design. but being non-heterosexual myself i am also annoyed by the way heterosexuals keep claiming diversity simply by depicting gay people. how much do you know about our reality? and your project isn’t even about any real gender issues. i’m really sorry, but it feels a bit like “look i did a project and i put some gays in it, so it’s totally diverse”. was the fetish look an accident or a cliché that you used because it shows gay people? this was quite upsetting to me.
    it’s easy to criticize things, but when you’re doing exactly the same mistakes in a different way that’s not going to bring SCD further at all.

    on another note, here are a couple of quite interesting and diverse SCD projects, including some with gender and developing world topics:

  33. August 5, 2014, 6:05 pm


    heteronormativity much?

    Hi Betsy,

    Who said I’m heterosexual? I certainly didn’t, and I wish you wouldn’t assume I am.
    Privileged, absolutely – I’m a PhD student in Berlin after all, but hetero… not so much, so please hold your horses there (and there it goes, I just had to out myself because of your comment. Not sure how to feel about that.)

    Anyway, if you mean the A Protected Life project then yes, at the time I was doing this project for my Masters (late 2011/early 2012) my praxis in SCD wasn’t completely engaged with my activism yet. Some issues in SCD had started bothering me precisely because of my activism, but I still hadn’t found a way to converge both things – at least not completely – so I decided to start with the issue of representation, which was the one very obvious problem I felt I could approach at the time. The “fetish look”, as you put it, came much earlier than the documentation itself, but considering your assumption that I’m hetero I can understand where you’re coming from with your critique, and I’m grateful you pointed that out – it had never occurred to me that it could be read in that way. Also, I never claimed that what I did with APL was the tell-all of diversity in SCD – to the contrary, I pointed out that it was still just a scratch in the surface of the problems within SCD.

    Right now for my PhD I’m starting to develop a few projects that focus on the issues pointed out in the medium text. As with all kinds of activism, I’ll probably mess up somewhere along the way, I’m sure. But hopefully I’ll learn from these mistakes, and they will inform the next steps for my praxis, my dissertation and my activism.

    Finally, thanks for the link! There’s a lot of projects there, I’ll be sure to check them all out 🙂

  34. February 5, 2015, 10:48 am

    Rachel Uwa

    defining the terms could be helpful to both sides?

    hi all,first of all, thanks for this amazing discussion. I’m a relative newbie to the field,
    still trying to figure out what SCD is and what it isn’t. A few months ago I read Dunne and Raby’s Speculative Everything and afterwards found myself quite confused as to the difference between speculative design and critical design. After reading this thread I now wonder, is it possible that all of you are right? So in the Tim/James camp we have speculative design and where speculative design meets critical design we have Anon, Luiza and Pedro? That the critical part is critiquing existing paradigms and power structures to influence the socio-political issues of the day, as opposed to fictional ones of the future? An oversimplification perhaps but if the field is still in the early stages and terms are still being defined, why not make this distinction if only to give legitimacy to both sides and avoid this debate from happening over and over and over (and over) again?

  35. July 6, 2015, 9:02 am

    Beta Simultan

    speculative design proposal

    speculative white middle class designers could become really more creative with designing their ethnic background, gender and appearance. See Rachel Dolezal

  36. July 6, 2015, 11:03 am

    […] has led to strong debate about who SCD is for, resurfacing any number of longer-standing questions about participation, […]

  37. May 4, 2016, 7:24 pm

    […] project and re-materialize in our everyday lives the visions of a radically different future. In an online discussion on the occasion of the exhibition Design and Violence showcased at the MoMA, the critics of this […]

  38. May 4, 2016, 7:24 pm

    […] i ponovo u svakodnevnom životu materijalizirati vizije radikalno različite budućnosti. U online raspravi u povodu izložbe Design and Violence u MoMA-i kritičari ovakog “eurocentičnog” pristupa […]

  39. May 22, 2016, 12:06 pm

    […] of majoring in Discursive Design. The Director of the Discursive Design major spoke at a MoMA Design and Violence forum saying, “Speculative Design is pointless unless it is active in giving form to the speculations […]

  40. September 12, 2016, 1:33 am

    […] see, there are many ways to speculate about the future, and while there has been fiery debate about the relevance or position of Speculative Design in our community, we can still use these […]

  41. January 12, 2017, 12:18 am


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