In a recent debate about the future direction of Critical and Speculative Design at Open Design Conference, I found myself in an old “exclusivity of design” argument. I was defensive, explaining that Critical and Speculative Design isn’t to solve a problem but use the problem-solving process as a tool to explore possibilities and complex issues. However, a few sleepless nights on, I’m starting to synthesise some problems of the much-too-satisfied notion of “critique as exercise”.

Sitting with half of my face numbed in a surprisingly ergonomic dental seat, I remembered one of my previous research with conspiracy theorists that believe dentists to be implanting RFI in our root canal. I asked James Auger, of Auger-Loizeau (creators of  The Audio Tooth Implant back in 2002) if he realised their “conceptual proposition intended to encourage discourse and comment on the possibilities of biotechnology and its potential impact on society and culture” 12 years ago, is still the root of this mass international healthcare hysteria. To this day, that tooth haunts me.

tooth newspaper from June 2002 Sun newspaper article from

I argue that the validity of  Critical and Speculative Design is, rather be in the moment of exhibition, lie in its long tail of real-life, scientific and political effect. The results from these designs are possibilities that subconsciously morph into old-wives tales and urban legends, into our cultural consciousness. It is our quests as designers to enforce a practice that reflects the after-effects and its tractions, even if it’s giving credit to a disturbed dental trip, rather than allow these design to become one-minute wonders simply for short-laughs or elitist intellectual exercises.

“Deploy or Die” rather than “Demo or Die”

It’s essential that we start to release designs out into the real life. Recently, Nicholas Negroponte’s famous mantra of “Demo or Die” -in reference to the world academic culture of  “publish or perish” is being transformed by Joe Ito into a new statement of “Deploy or Die“. For  more than  2 decades MIT Medialab had comfortably used a system of inspiring large corporations until recently, with its offsprings of FabLabs being more successful than ever and professors making projects out of the lab and into full independent companies, the world’s more industrialised blue-sky thinkers are being challenged to carry their projects all the way into manufacturing and distributions.

Competing to connect with a world where being a ‘Maker’ is becoming cheaper and more flexible, there are less excuses than ever for any designers to simply hide behind the institutional curtains of shows, exhibitions and demonstrations. Design needs to catch up with changes of real-world expectations in order to continue a meaningful input. Speculative design cannot hide behind the comfort of  just conversing within a well-respected community on prestigious science funds. We need to release these ideas into the real world and be prepared for misappropriations, scary responses and learn to answer to their consequences. Much too often, designs are still expected to be whittled down into a finished product of a video, a portrait or a tool of wonder (or in the case of many degree shows, all three.) Many newer design projects that are long continuous explorations have a problem of being distilled into these traditional modes of demos.

“Years ago, young people used the term demo as shorthand for a political march or rally. Now, to thousands of computer-obsessed kids across Europe (and a growing number in the US), it’s more likely to mean a short, self-contained graphics-and-sound demonstration program.” 

This charmingly dated reflection of the changing times in 1995 in Wired Issue 3.07 | Jul 1995 By Dave Green is a parody of where design is now, once again having to defend itself against a changing society where thoughts, manifestos or even prototypes are enough for the inquisitive public, hungry for another level of tangibility. There’s a wider, more diverse community of artists, tinkers, activists, strategists and designers that are developing and stretching this framework. My next exploration with this community will be with be Bioluddites – redirecting a history/community/politics surrounding the Luddites community:

-away from a stagnant mockery as antiquated caricatures that “fear” digital technology

-into the field of biotechnology, where they are reinstated as pioneers of  social critiques of technological systems.

Written by Lisa Ma

Lisa Ma socializes activism. Combining ethnographic research and speculative design, Lisa creates platforms of engagement from surprising insights and processes that deeply resonate with the global technological community. The emergence of clicktivism – to protest at the click of a mouse – is trivializing activism. Lisa argues that although activism doesn’t necessarily benefit from technology, we need to evolve how activism contributes to technological societies. To illustrate this, she designs dilemmas and creates social events that are perceived as activism but function as services.

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