The world as we know it is on the threshold of a major turning point in the technological capabilities and promises of the vehicles we drive. Over the past few years, a proliferation of novel transportation, mobility and compute technologies has accelerated their confluence, with a myriad of incumbent and emerging companies advancing research and development to launch self-driving cars. The tremendous safety potential, reductions in greenhouse gas emissions due to the increased traffic efficiency, transformation of parking garages into new public spaces and automotive travel for those with a range of disabilities are just a few conjectured motivations for the widespread use of self-driving cars.
However, the design of systems, services and experiences that will be constructed upon these mobility platforms is a highly complex research domain, requiring a constant specific dialogue around what a world that reflects our daily interaction with self-driving technology would look like. The “self-driving vehicle” in a design context, along with novel practices to construct fictional narratives of the autonomous future, is becoming a more recognizable framework for designers. Yet the design innovations happening in interaction imaginaries to make the self-driving car user experience more welcoming and robust are only at their inception today. As an early emerging area of practice, many design ramifications are yet to be fully examined and addressed, particularly around consumer education and direct system interaction involving people and autonomous vehicles; this includes both occupied and unoccupied vehicles.
Despite the significant technological progress in sustainable transportation, computer vision and urban network infrastructures, many key issues are yet to be answered about how these autonomous vehicles will be integrated on the roadways, how willingly people will adopt them as a part of their daily lives and what new types of human-centered design interaction will emerge as part of the built environment. Because autonomous driving has the potential to profoundly alter the way we move around and radically transform society in ways we yet can’t truly imagine, using it as a speculation basis can offer an insight into the creative processes today.
Modern Design and Critical Design Practice
“Post-design” practices, shaped by the accelerating pace of technological and digital transitions within contemporary cultural, social and economical processes, are no longer grounded in the commercial, rigid reality of the marketplace. But this was not always the case—traditionally, (industrial and product) design was defined and steered by the utilitarian practice to solve user-oriented, singular problems. In the past, technological developments, whether new products, services, or environments, often materialized in tangible design artifacts, underlying the fact that design was seen as a consumption-driving practice, primarily concerned with aesthetics, functionality and betterment of consumer’s socioeconomic standard of living.
Nowadays, however, a new wave of designers depart from the conventional, previously dominant design practices. They embrace multidisciplinary approaches found in other scientific fields—psychology, computer sciences, engineering, anthropology, sociology and philosophy—as a way to foresee a wide range of technological consequences in a much broader social context, increasingly considering technology ramifications as they arise from different design options. Particularly, the proliferation of digital platforms, simultaneously constructed for billions of individual people, to a great extent propelled interaction design to became manifest in the distinctive social factors of new products and new user experiences. The common definition of interaction design describes it as creation of interactive products, application and services (digital artifacts) in which a designer focuses on the way users will interact with these technologies. The convergence of art, interaction design and technology have consequently led to the exploration and creation of new hybrid forms of cultural design spheres, blurring the lines between applications and implications. This new generation of designers focuses not only on the future consequences of technology on our everyday lives but on its social, economic and political role as well—moving away from tackling current issues to create speculative scenarios for the future.
Frog Design, a global design and strategy firm founded by industrial designer Hartmut Esslinger, uses such new techniques of storytelling to prompt discussion about the social and ethical implications of new technologies. The firm have devised ‘futurecasting’, a design methodology that allows designers to understand the underlying forces shaping the future, and then find ways to envision products, services and experiences that will create value in those possible futures. Instead of planning from the point of time where we are currently at and working forwards from here, futurecasting practice starts in the future and works backwards. By researching and evaluating how the world may change, identifying transformative trends, and what new products and services may be needed as a result, it helps to define the design steps to getting there and consider what social, economic and cultural aspects of human interaction will need to change. Depending on the technology focus and current development, the participants could be requested to only look a few years ahead or ten or more decades into the future—from the perspective of autonomous vehicles/transportation industry, changing the infrastructure, regulation and human behavior will take time, so the focus can be set five to ten years into the future. As an example in the self-driving vehicles domain, participants can be requested to imagine that one day humans are no longer allowed to drive or control their own vehicle within certain parts of Manhattan. More specifically, using a storytelling approach by the means of a design artifact (or ‘diegetic prototype' as discussed in the next section)—local media headlines announcing new driving rules go into effect or unveiling a new road sign that bans human drivers—participants would explain the steps involved in how the imagined future might have occurred and which auxiliary products or services might have emerged on the way. By presenting this future scenario and guiding participants to work through how they could collectively achieve (or plan to avoid) a certain aspect focused around a desired design interaction, such scenario analysis process encourages designers to think about what is possible rather than focusing on current processes or structures. The goal would be to understand the risks in the existing infrastructure models (such as skyrocketing rates in traffic and emissions, division of urban communities by a new network of transport routes, relegation to inconvenient pedestrian crosswalk points or emergence of high-priced inequitable mobility services) and opportunities and trends to improve on for a faster, frictionless adoption of self-driving technologies (slower and safer streets, deployment of zero emissions vehicles, affordable and reliable frequent mobility, and access for all ages and abilities). It is evident that futurecasting, a new kind of design and rebranded relative of speculative design, design fiction and critical design, eliminates creative thought constrains to present new solutions on how emerging technology can help redesign the way we live, work and travel around.
Speculating through Design and Design Fictions
The practice of ‘speculative design’ or ‘design fiction’, where fictitious scenarios, implicitly constructed in the future transpire to expand the discourse of design as it is happening today, can be categorized as the most notable example of such experimental design practices. With critical thinking, design of objects generating a narrative or through the stories embodied in artifacts, designers attempt to anticipate the future and in the same time helps us to rethink the world of today. Speculative design, developed as a practice in the late 1990s by Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby based on their work at the London Royal Collage of Art, is considered a discursive exercise rooted in critical design thinking, where “we might see the beginnings of a theoretical form of design dedicated to thinking, reflecting, inspiring, and providing new perspectives on some challenges facing us” (Dunne & Raby 2014). In their proclamation on how the design approach can be a source of creative thinking, rather than a rigid blueprint for problem-solving, the researchers suggest that through new speculative design practices it is possible “to create spaces for discussion and debate about alternative ways of being, and to inspire and encourage people’s imaginations to flow freely” and where “design speculations can act as a catalyst for collectively redefining our relationship to reality”. Therefore, by linking between the present and the envisioned future, the critical design approach, along with speculation design and design fiction, can be a powerful tool to encourage stimulating discussions on the possible implications of near-future cultural design environments within the technology realm. Through diverse visions of possible future scenarios by using design as a medium, speculative practice inspires thinking, raises awareness, examines, provokes actions, and has the ability to provide creative alternatives needed in the world today.
Its discursive social motivation can be seen in the various imaginative articulations created by the design company Superflux Lab. Through various design artifacts and installations, Superflux Lab have repeatedly augmented classic design and design disciplines into the practice of design fiction to explore the ramifications of the way people will think, communicate and act in the decades to come. Superflux design practice “work[s] at the intersection of emerging technologies and everyday life to design for a world in flux,” where responsible design explores the uncertainties of the present and requires thinking ahead as a lens to see implications for the future.
More specifically, the Drone Aviary Project by Superflux is an important design fiction example that provokes a discussion around social, cultural and ethical implications of drone technology in the future urban landscape and mobilities design. The studio has built a fleet of of five unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), designed to be autonomously deployed and used in cities for surveillance, traffic control and (even) advertising. The accompanying short project film interfaces this novel mobility platform with urban dynamics from the perspective of drones. It consists of footage shot from various drones designed for a different purpose as they fly through London, scanning people and objects and capturing data. Speaking in an interview with the web-based Center for the Study of the Drone, Superflux Lab’s co-founder Anab Jain referred to their design fiction work on the Drone Aviary project as “a representation of a wider interest in thinking about how we might live with such technology in the near future ... our intent is to raise questions about who owns airspace and what a civic space is when it comes to airspace ... it’s this sort of vertical geography, how do you dig into that, how do you design it, what is its relationship to the rest of our built environment”.
Despite the fact that only a small number of such projects might come into existence exactly as envisioned, the relevance of continuous social discussion through these design artifacts, diegetic prototypes and interaction becomes even more desirable. This not-so-far-reaching future-oriented design approach leads to various situational interpretations of the uncertainties in our possible everyday life, where drones are used to continuously monitor public spaces. From the perspective of a situational understanding of emerging technologies, my thoughts echoe a similar need of applying design fiction discipline to illustrate the world of self-driving vehicles and its public policies.
Design Fiction. Design fiction is a critical design discipline that is synonymous to a new wave of creative practices such as ethnofuturism, science fiction prototyping, diegetic prototyping, anticipatory ethnography, western melancholy, speculative design and others. These disciplines, as expressed by the designer James Auger, “remove the constraints from the commercial sector that define normative design processes; use models and prototypes at the heart of the enquiry; and use fiction to present alternative products, systems or worlds”. Such creative processes can be a powerful tool to encourage designers and users to believe that technological change, such as self-driving cars, is plausible and probable.
In practice, design fiction is a tangible extension of speculative design concept that allows designers to prototype physical objects, reflecting on how they envision the future to be. Although its origins are unclear, the earliest use of the term appears to be by Bruce Sterling, a Hugo Award-winning sci-fi writer, in his book Shaping Things in 2005, where he describes design fiction as something similar to science fiction. More recently, Sterling offered a formal definition, as “the deliberate use of diegetic prototypes to suspend disbelief about change”. It is both a discipline and a method—a designer travels in his/her mind to imagine an object, gives it a tangible form and then constructs a narrative by “placing the object in a new world” for his/her audience. Therefore, design fiction hinges upon a ‘diegetic prototype’, along with the context a designer choses to present it within ‘cognitive estrangement’ cues to the audience, or cues that facilitate temporal break in one’s perception of current time and place.
Diegetic Prototypes. David Kirby, a professor of science communication studies within University of Manchester’s Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine, used the term of diegetic prototype to “account for the ways in which cinematic depictions of future technologies demonstrate to large public audiences a technology’s need, viability and benevolence”. Similar to props used on stage or on screen, the diegetic prototype can be thus interpreted as an element of design or object that seemingly exists within the created fictional world the audience is experiencing. Julian Bleecker, a researcher and product designer-engineer, argues that traditional prototypes are merely a representation of a general concept, they represent “coherent functionality, but they lack a visionary story about what makes them conversant on important matters-of-concern”. The diegetic prototype, on the other hand, is a functional piece of technology within a fictional world—it is far superior in its ability to help craft more immersive stories than a regular prototype and design an alternative present. But while it may be easier for one observer to suspend disbelief by immersing oneself into the designer’s work of fiction than another, the entire framework of the presented design elements must follow logical flow in order to be effective—even if a certain technology concept does not yet exist, it has to be logically framed within a set of governed logical principles and perceived as possible.
Through immersive user experience concepts and rendering them tangible for the audience, design fiction can be regarded as a thought-experiment in creativity, freed from the constraints of reality and intended to change the way designers think about today’s world and tomorrow’s. As such, it embodies the essential foundation of modern design philosophy: crafting coherent narrative elements to invoke a meaningful concept in an emotionally human context. These practices—design fiction, speculative design, critical design—allow the designer to probe, explore, and critique possible interactions of its audience with future products and services, exposing the social, environmental and ethical implications of emerging technologies in the process.
Design Fiction Practices within Self-Driving and Mobility Technologies
With the current scale and complexity of emerging technologies, now, more than ever, we are already living in the future—augmented/virtual reality, 3-D printing, artificial intelligence, bionics, reusable rocket boosters, and electric cars among others—this development is unequivocally reflected in the increasing preeminence of design elements as envisioned by science fiction, discussed and presented in conferences, journals and research papers about design fiction, speculative design, and critical design. To envision these technologies, some of the largest companies also frequently sponsor lecture series in which sci-fi creators give talks to design teams and even actively hire sci-fi writers to create concept narratives about potentially marketable products. The ability to construct discourses around near-future technological ramifications is instrumental to the practice of design fiction. And while design fiction has been broadly used as an emerging practice by corporations and research communities engaged in interface and HRI design, with its explicit focus on the future, there is still much to explore within the design fiction domain—in particular, how it can be adopted for interaction design within a particular technology application of self-driving cars.
Speculative design narratives have plenty of sources of inspiration in science fiction and imaginary worlds—cars have been driving themselves in literary and cinematic science fiction for many years. Blade Runner (1982), Minority Report (2002), I, Robot (2004) among many others depict cars that required no human operator. In 1982, Michael Knight, a relentless crime fighter in the TV series Knight Rider, drives around in Knight Industries Two Thousand, or KITT, an artificially intelligent and self-conscious Pontiac Firebird Trans-Am. 1990’s Total Recall depicted the now infamous Johnny Cab, a fully autonomous taxi featuring a robotic head and torso in the form of a 1950’s style bus driver that ushers a protagonist while conversing and whistling tunes. But what once was considered the realm of science fiction, autonomous vehicles driving in the urban and rural environments are getting closer to become a reality.
Design Fiction and Emerging Mobility Technologies. Thus far, little has been explored on the application of design fiction in the technological sphere of self-driving cars and interaction design. In 2009 however, Near Future Laboratory (NFL) used the practice of design fiction to create the Quick Start Guide—the user manual diegetic prototype for a fictional self-driving vehicle from the near future—to provoke a conversation on how interaction design could meet the new challenges posed by self-driving vehicles with much larger and complex ecosystem. Quick Start Guide is an imaginative manual of a future self-driving car system, outlining the principles of owning and operating such vehicle. Over the course of design fiction process, the designers constructed and imagined key systems of such vehicle, envisioning how they would interact with its user and the logical steps for their use. More specifically, according to its designers’ vision, the manual highlights what one’s spatial and situational senses would look like once the user interacts with the car or without it.
By using the Quick Start Guide format as a design fiction diegetic prototype, this approach provided an opportunity to raise the discussion around specific points of interaction concern without addressing larger questions of technical feasibility. For example, in the FAQ section of the document, the question “Is there a published fee structure for timed-parking?” indicates that sending your autonomous vehicle as a part of the ride-hailing service to streets and highways costs less than parking it throughout the day—suggesting new thinking around the opportunities reutilizing the sheer amount of urban space used by parking garages and curbsides today.
Moreover, it raises questions around new definitions of “primary rider” and one’s personal liability as “owner-operator” towards third-party riders who “may use/lease/rent your vehicle” after it was sent off, setting up a discussion around regulatory framework one would face in owning and operating a self-driving car (“By assuming your position as primary rider you assumer liability for the vehicle and other passengers in the vehicle in correspondence with federal law”). The team indicated that the Quick Start Guide “brought to life experiences in a very tangible, compelling fashion for designers, engineers, and anyone else involved in the development of a technology” and that “this approach leads to better thinking around new products”. It is apparent that adopting the practice of design fiction was useful to create a partial yet compelling vision of what life in the self-driving future could be like, questioning designers’ preconceptions about the role that self-driving vehicles could play in the future.
Design Education and Expanding Creativity Sphere
Design fiction, as a practice that focuses on imaginary realities and conceptual storytelling, can be seen effective form of inspiration, but one that raises broad questions about the nature, purpose and teaching of design as a creative practice in education. In 2013, MIT Media Lab created a Design Fictions group led by Hiromi Ozaki, the British-Japanese designer known as Sputniko!, to explore the tangible benefits of such speculations. The Design Fictions Group has been investigating how to provoke imagination about the social, cultural, and ethical implications of new technologies through design and storytelling—evolving the role of the modern designer and extending the definition of classic design. Designers at the Design Fictions Group are taught to continuously challenge themselves as they learn and draw from disciplines beyond the reaches of their past experience or understanding. Engineers and designers at the group are encouraged to work on projects that can’t be framed under traditional classic practices, intentionally attempting to stretch the definition of design and creativity. As some thoughts and ideas shrink the space of what's possible (no way!) and some make it larger (what if?), design fiction has a natural bias towards the latter.
Employing design fiction to explore a wide range of human-centered interactions with autonomous vehicles is becoming an important field of both practice and research, encompassing product design, technological interfaces and social behavior. For the designers engaging in critical design thinking and working on emerging self-driving technologies, exposing the concept of fictional narratives and evolving them into meaningful diegetic prototypes proves to be a successful and useful approach. By positioning and examining self-driving technology in the context of near-future everyday life, designers are able to engage in a constructing dialogue of its effects between interaction design, functionality and social norms.