Speculate to innovate

Why you should add speculative design to your service design toolbox

Traditionally, the designer was perceived as the inventor, the creator, the innovator. Designers are seen as problem-solvers, brought in to help beautify artefacts as they navigate the eternal tensions between function and form.

The process of connecting these artefacts — these touchpoints — is unique in service design as we involve our direct and indirect users and stakeholders in the creation of the outcome. A key approach in service design is the iterative approach — a way of flexibly navigating between insights, identifying opportunities and designing feasible outcomes.

We work with a wide set of tools and methods, moving back and forth along the spectrum from tangible to abstract. But how do we move beyond abstract insights, and suggest tangible, actionable and innovative solutions?

As service designers and facilitators we enter the design context equipped with research and design methods and tools. But we would do ourselves a favour to add one more tool to the mix: speculative design.

Speculate to Innovate

What is speculative design? Speculative design is a practice of creating ideas around how things could be. The practice was coined by Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby (2013), who suggest that design is more than problem solving — design can be a way to speculate and imagine about how reality could be. As service designers, we sometimes encounter those wicked, intractable problems for which our practical methods are short-sighted. Dunne and Raby suggest how speculative design is a means,

“(…) to create spaces for discussion and debate about alternative ways of being, and to inspire and encourage people’s imaginations to flow freely. Design speculations can act as a catalyst for collectively redefining our relationship to reality” (Dunne & Raby 2013, p. 2).

I believe that the process of service design should increasingly embrace speculation and imagination to seed for actual innovation. Using design as a way to speculate and imagine how a service could work within a context could help us move beyond our established mental models, processes and frameworks. As the innovation foundation Nesta put it:

“Innovation starts with a story about the future. Imagining and sharing desires and fears about the future is a way for all of us to shape it” (Nesta 2013, p. 5).

The speculative design practice of future scenarios is particularly beneficial for innovation in service design. The practice offers tools to enable us to facilitate co-imagination with our users and stakeholders. The nature of speculative design enables us to innovate and create the future instead of letting assumptions about the future dictate our services.

Isn’t that just future forecasting?

While speculative design might sound quite similar to future forecasting, the methods are quite different. In future forecasting, companies and consultancies try to predict what will happen the following year — they analyse and map trends, identify weak signals and predict how the future will probably look. Speculative design, on the other hand, imagines how it could.

Speculative design has the potential of being a catalyst for innovation when its used within service design; it can become a tool to create the future instead of merely predicting it. Instead of accomodating to future forecasts, we need to create the future through what we design.

Stop predicting, start creating!

Interaction design and service design share a core theoretical launch pad and a wide spectrum of practices and tools; however, my experience with practising interaction designers (in both private industry and academia) is that they are often better than my fellow service designers and myself at embracing the imaginative and uncertain nature of design — allowing themselves to dream (or even to welcome the nightmares) about how tomorrow could look like. They allow themselves to speculate in order to innovate.

Most of us — knowingly or not — have probably already encountered speculative design in arts and literature. Perhaps in the shape of science fiction literature such as George Orwell’s 1984 or the British success show Black MirrorBlack Mirror is a great mainstream example of design fiction; through the creation of future scenarios we explore how a product or a service will or can impact future contexts, spaces and human relations. Similar to enacting or roleplaying with a prototype, design fiction allows us to imagine a potential future scenario.

By asking “what if?” speculative design can help us open up the process of creating and testing because it welcomes utopian ideas and allows for craziness.

A great example of speculative design for innovation comes from IKEA’s future living lab, Space 10, which built The Growroom. Through a spherical garden in the middle of Copenhagen, Space 10 explored how urban food production could look in the future.

The Growroom by IKEA’s future living lab, Space 10 (2018)

The Growroom as an artefact or touchpoint became an embodiment of a potential future:

“Designers focus on the creation of artifacts through a process of disciplined imagination, because artifacts they make both reveal and become embodiments of possible futures” (Koskinen et al 2011, p. 5 ).

Agency Future Facility, likewise, explores how the future could potentially look. Their project The Amazin Apartment was carried out for The Design Museum in London in 2017; through a provocative concept they sought to delve into how a service apartment for the elderly might look.

Future Facility’s The Amazin Apartment, commissioned by the Design Museum in London (2017)

Another example comes from Superflux, who worked with the Red Cross to explore the challenges of the future that the humanitarian and development sector might face. One of the future areas of interest was how alternate finance strategies change sponsorship and donor-based funding models. In collaboration they created DONAID, a future donation platform converting digital processing power into a virtual cryptocurrency. Engaging with DONAIDallowed Superflux and Red Cross to explore a potential future of donations and sponsorships.

DONAID by Superflux for Red Cross (2017)

You, your users, stakeholders or clients are not fortune tellers; speculative design allow us to create potential futures and engage with them by creating scenarios and narratives that we can engage with and test. Speculative design can help designers avoid being blindsided by our current realities and allow room for collaborative innovation to thrive.

Further, speculative design can fuel the service design process through experimentation. By challenging existing mental models and potential tacit knowledge, speculative design can serve as a catalyst for change — allowing us to reframe problems and imagine new outcomes, and create for the future we want to live in.


Dunne, A. & Raby, F. (2013). Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction and Social Dreaming. MIT Press: London.

Future Facility (2017). Grasping the Future for Design Museum [online]Available at: http://futurefacility.co.uk/grasping-the-future/thedesignmuseum/ [Accessed: 10.07.18]

Koskinen, I. et al. (2011) Design Research Through Practice: From the Lab, Field, and Showroom. Waltham: Elsvier.

Bland, J. & Westlake, S. (2013). Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow. [Pdf]London: Nesta, p. 5. Available at: https://www.nesta.org.uk/sites/default/files/dont_stop_thinking_about_tomorrow.pdf [Accessed: 10.07.18]

Space 10 (2018). The Growroom: Exploring how Cities can Feed Themselves [online]. Available at: https://space10.io/the-growroom/ [Accessed: 10.07.18]

Superflux (2017). Evidencing Humanitarian Futures [online]. Available at: http://superflux.in/index.php/work/humanitarianfutures/# [Accessed: 10.07.18]


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