Nature and Biodiversity

What is design fiction and how can it shape a sustainable (real) future?

Star wars toys - showing the power of design fiction

Design fiction: Imagine the future you need and desire. Image: Photo by Mulyadi on Unsplash

Heather Snyder Quinn
Assistant Professor of Design and Wicklander Fellow in Ethics, DePaul University, writing for Neste
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  • Design fiction is a tool for reimagining the past, present, and future.
  • It makes scenarios real enough to feel possible, inspiring dialogue, interaction, and even policy changes.
  • If we are to solve the great issues of our time, design fiction and futures-thinking are necessary to change existing systems and structures and to improve quality of life in a sustainable manner.

First published by Neste.

As we move into the age of experience, we live with great uncertainty about the future. Moreover, the global pandemic has further amplified the significant issues of our time, from big tech's pervasiveness to healthcare costs, wealth inequality, and climate change.

As a result, the public demands a clear understanding of the impact of their choices and a consensual voice in building their collective futures. As stated by Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel, "Why are we waiting for the future? How do we bring the future to the present? Design can create a framework to tell people it's ok to think differently."

Design fiction is a tool for reimagining the past, present, and future. It makes scenarios real enough to feel possible, inspiring dialogue, interaction, and even policy changes.

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Making the audience feel unsettled

None of this can happen without creating a strong provocation, a “what-if scenario” that somehow makes the audience feel unsettled. Typically, there are three requirements for a provocation to lead audiences towards understanding possible societal change:

1. The design fiction itself (designed artifact/object)

2. A strong narrative story (written, audio, or video)

3. Clear context (different time/world/place than the present)

There is a difference between a design prototype and a design fiction. While a design prototype is bound by the parameters of the present, a design fiction has no logical constraints, and it's part of a narrative story set in another time. The resulting provocation makes us believe "this could be real," enabling us to converse and understand the possible impacts on society and on earth.

Enticing narrative power is why design fiction and speculative design are used by innovation giants such as Tesla, Google, and Apple. Because these companies are not limited by what’s possible, we hold magic every day in the form of the smartphone, for better and for worse. However, it is easy to forget that such a device was once deemed impossible, something only imagined in a science fiction novel.

Designers are the new inventors. When they work in tandem with scientists, entrepreneurs, business strategists, and even entire communities, the collaborative power is immense, allowing us to imagine the futures we need and desire. It is without boundaries and even revolutionary. Anything is possible, even magic.

This same magic makes us optimistic about the future even when the world is in crisis. However, the world insists that companies pave the way towards a preferable future, one that is sustainable, equitable, and just for all.

Unfortunately, most companies continue to do more of the same, setting us backward, says Perttu Koskinen, Vice President of Innovation, Discovery, and External Collaboration at Neste, a regional oil refining company transformed into a global leader in renewables and circular solutions.


The power of possibility

Koskinen and I believe in the power of possibility, and we agree that we can’t go backward in our standards of living. But, according to Koskinen, we don’t have to.

“The standard of living is increasing around the globe, and that is how it should be, but we need to achieve it sustainably. This is possible, and it is full of great business opportunities,” Koskinen says.

I’ve worked with some of the biggest companies in Silicon Valley. They are fearless in their pursuits, and anything and everything is possible while not always ethical or even desired. But this is where Koskinen and Neste are different. Neste is not interested in creating something simply because it is possible; rather they are interested in creating what is sustainable, responsible, and preferable.

“The circular economy is a key enabler in solving the climate crisis because the current single-use, linear economy is inefficient. Most material is wasted because less than 10% of material extractions are reused. Therefore, it is important to take one step at a time when you are developing new technologies. If you try to develop the perfect solution, it might take too much time, and with the climate crisis, there is no time to waste,” says Koskinen.

Neste is setting the bar high in its pursuit of circularity and renewable solutions. The small daily steps on Neste’s part, are moving towards a vision that is set in the far future, and it's quite important to put time in context. Take augmented reality (AR), for example, first imagined in the early 1900s and officially invented in 1968 by Ivan Sutherland. Today, 100 years later, AR is a technology present on almost everyone’s smartphone. In terms of the earth’s lifespan, 100 years is not a very long time.

“The scale of using fossil resources for energy, transportation, chemicals, and materials is so huge it is impossible to imagine. To replace these, we have to use all the sustainable solutions available now and in the future,“ says Koskinen.

Embracing the imperfect circle

As a mother of two daughters, much of what I do is for their future. In my work, especially in the provocations I imagine through design, I want to see the possibilities for them. I want to ensure their future and their children’s future.

If we are to solve the great issues of our time, design fiction and futures-thinking are necessary to rethink the systems and structures that exist and continue to improve the quality of life in a sustainable manner.

There is no time for all-or-nothing thinking or perfectionism. Instead, we can ask ourselves, “what if we can recycle and reuse 90% of materials extracted?” It turns out it is not magic after all. It is absolutely essential to ensure futures for all, and thanks to design fiction, we can imagine it and eventually make it happen.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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