Frontiers, Fringes and Farmification
In the recent years I've found myself to be a source of great amusement for people in the dizzying world of 'innovation'. I'm often surrounded by clusters of venture capitalists, digital platform developers, technology lawyers and start-up accelerators begging me to once again explain what I do so that they can enjoy their friends' startled looks. Making light of this unusual field is okay. I'm not a fan of hype and over-expectations. Still speculative design has more to offer than sheer entertainment.
Speculative design generates proposals that, rather than problem solving for our current state, which is much of the focus of traditional design, look to digest the large, complex and ambiguous issues related to our futures. It uses rigorous research to first understand and then rewire different information, experts and emerging technologies to turn these complexities into understandable narratives that allow a kind of design for debate. The outcomes intentionally trigger a user to go beyond traditional need, solution, and consumption, and to question, consider, and speculate. In this way changes and findings that would normally seem irrelevant or overwhelming are teased out into scenarios, objects and services. This is achieved by breaking down unfathomable issues and making them more emotionally approachable. The results are 'cultural prototypes' in a way.
The goal of these projects is to provoke our ideas about the future in a way that is more immediate and tangible, and less heroic. As society grows more sceptical of sweeping political announcements, imaginary utopias and one-liners, the practice has evolved to become increasingly concerned with developing believable memes. Many of these projects use real-life markets and products already familiar to us. In a technology-driven culture where we are outsourcing many of our malleable memories to into a world of hyper-documentation and data accuracy, practitioners face a challenge when looking to maintain the suspension of disbelief. The aim is to avoid clichéd symbols so that we can push grandiose aspirations of science and technology into a world where we can rationally explore our frivolous desires, a world far beyond simply jumping to resolve our current basic needs.
Where is design taking us?
There is a need for a set of experimental ideas to close the distance between a dauntingly unreachable ideal and present society. Rather than presenting far-fetched flights of fancy, much of the work in speculative design is on fine-tuning scenarios for believably mundane situations. After years of asking 'where is design taking us?' these projects finally invite us to participate in dialogue about the "possible, probable, and preferable" for our futures.
The desire to effect social changes in behaviour has led me to initiate a series of lessons from people outside the mainstream community - the fringes. As traditional spoon-fed marketing techniques and mass production methods become saturated, attention has increasingly been turned towards 'penetrating' the fringes of our communities. Our outlook and approach to this has predominantly been for the use of direct consumption, with early references on how the fringes or extreme users have "adopted" technology as far back as 1957. Working with the fringes is intended to broaden our options for how a future that involves the fringes can be achieved. It makes a statement about how new scenarios with extreme communities can become mutually beneficial as opposed to parasitic or exploitative. The projects combine ethnography, design strategy and the public perception of our technological trajectories to create platforms of engagement that challenge the way we look at our futures. Through this method, I found a space in speculative design that used the 'problem-solving' aspects of traditional service design to persuade people to ask more questions. My aim to refine a technique for making designs that can unfold a large quantity of different strands of research, opinions and potential actions has led to me to live in a joystick factory in China.
The vertiginous waves of production renewal have created an emerging group of people being pushed to the fringes. How our products are manufactured is really a very secretive process. We are starting to develop an awareness of the material and ecological costs of the items that we use, but there's a huge part of how they are made that is still hidden. The recent events at Foxconn have drawn more attention to this, but before I launch into the story about the joystick factory, here are three examples from China of how the story of manufacturing affects consumption:
- In 2011, a luxury Italian furniture company called DaVinci caused outrage from their Chinese customers when it was exposed that their 'imported' products were, in fact, made in China. "By spending a day in the bonded zone, the furniture changed from being classified as 'domestically produced' to being labelled 'Italian-made'."
- Since 2005 reports of fake chicken eggs have continued to emerge from Chinese journalists. According to Tsinghua, the cost of making a fake egg is about $ 0.03 US, just $ 0.01 cheaper than a real egg. The craftsmanship involved in combining resin, pigments, paraffin, gypsum and calcium carbonate to resemble a real raw egg is undeniably impressive. The power of manufacturing them on a large scale means that even replicating the cheap, modest egg could be profitable enough to risk the consequences.
- The village of Dafen produces 60% of all of the world's oil paints. The process of forging a famous painting has now become a tourist attraction, which allows painters to derive value from the production process - even if that process involves copying a famous painting. (Ironically Dafen's success has led other villages to start producing their own 'fake Dafen fakes'.)
How do Eastern factories react to the fast pace of innovation cycles in the West?
To answer this question, I lived for a time in a joy-stick factory in Shenzhen, the largest manufacturing base in China. We tend to view Chinese factory workers as a working mass. We often hear about the impressive scale of production, which prevents us from relating to the workers as humans. When journalists write about factory salaries they are describing these workers in terms of economic values. From my work with the fringe I noticed that our focus on sensationalist extremes makes the workers difficult for us to relate to on a human scale. So I plunged myself into their mundane lives, sleeping in their dorms, eating in their canteens and watching their soap operas.
These joystick makers are migrant workers, meaning that they are farmers who have left their lands behind. They could just as easily teach us how to grow corn as how to assemble a joystick. These workers used to produce food for themselves and others, but now by migrating into the factories, these producers have become consumers.
Who's making all the food now?
China imports huge amounts of food from all over the world. The trade in pig's ears, tails, stomachs and other offal from the United Kingdom to China is estimated to be 50 million pounds sterling per year. This is a nice story about turning waste into a business opportunity, but depending so heavily on importation is not a sustainable way to feed the largest population in the world. China is importing record amounts of grain. In early 2012, it was predicted that China would import "28 million metric tons by 2015-2016", impacting the price of food for the global community.
The era of iPhones, iPads and games that don't use joysticks, like Kinect, marks the end of the peripheral market.
The technology industry has completed many studies of the gaming world. Gamer network systems, psychology, and physiology are well documented, which has resulted in the much-hyped term "gamification". Yet despite the huge social impact of our game-consuming societies, we really don't know much about the world in which they are made. The most pressing issue for this joystick factory community is the fact that people have stopped buying joysticks. The era of iPhones, iPads and games that don't use joysticks, like Kinect, marks the end of the peripheral market. Theses factories are facing difficult decisions and the workers, who have invested time and energy building relationships, will lose their jobs and the roofs over their heads, as well as their friends.
These are people have been designed away by technology
Presented with this information, the factory owners and workers came to understand the danger of focusing the entire workforce only on manufacturing and helped me run an experiment to introduce a transition period. We agreed that part-time farming scheme could be a financial buffer in difficult times that would increase the longevity of the businesses. Having owners invest time in building up the new enterprise would help the community remain alive through the cycles of a product. For workers, part-time farming stabilizes their community and addresses their issues of alienation from their origins. Farming is less alienating than manufacturing because the producers directly consume the fruits of their labours locally, whereas in factory manufacturing the producers can generally not afford their own products. We started off with the abandoned lands just down the road. Other factories also became interested and began asking questions. We even had offers to sell the 'products of the part-time farm' back to the eateries in the street of snack vendors. You could call it kind of farmification of the manufacturing process.
The farmification of the joystick factory allowed the migrant workers to gain control over their future lives with respect to their past values by proposing to encourage debate for all stakeholders, workers, owners, farmers, governments and internationally consumers. This process can make all of us aware of the threat to such communities each time the latest tech fad catches our eye.
Farmification provokes a change in our expectations from our food and manufacturing systems by linking the impact of two separate cycles. When I first proposed farmification, I was quite literally laughed out of China. But in less than a year, Chinese iron factories being affected by the property bubble have started their own farmification efforts by raising pigs. Some of the manufacturers are so large that they can't just close down, so part-time farming has become a very practical response rather than something to simply opt into. This movement was viewed with mixed feelings from the Chinese public, many of whom still view agriculture with prejudice. On a personal level, I absolutely agree that the notion of 'reverting' to agriculture disempowers workers. The next steps would be to integrate the new industrial lifestyles and skills that these workers have gained to hack into farming, and decode the lifestyles and the social connotations associated with both traditional and factory farms for a potentially new relationship between industrialization and agriculture.
How do we maintain our responsibility to the memes that we have introduced as speculative designers? Often in design the next challenge is putting these findings to work at a policy level. One possibility in manufacturing would be to introduce a 'responsible live-work balance' standard for products, similar to the 'free from animal testing' labels that we've become accustomed to as consumers. This is, however, a very paternalistic view of our relationship to the manufacturing process. Although my approach uses immersive field observations to create functional solutions, the goal of this research isn't to dictate what "good practice" should be. With farmification, I'm making a design suggestion that would invite more potential alternatives by making the issue more approachable.
Now that we've rewired the systems and tangibly witnessed the interconnectedness of food and technology networks, we need to incite the public to push beyond the current status quo. As one of the practitioners working in the spectrum of the future, I'm emboldened to conclude that it is not enough to simply ask and wonder. We need to use insight to provide example, research to build logical but unexpected connections that inspire more people to activate a behaviour change, and become more critical of our industries as well as ourselves.