United Microkingdoms: A Design Fiction

by agwelch

[Feature interview from New Design 104]

Pioneers of ‘speculative design’ Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby have formed a vision of a future England through the lens of its various transport systems

Technocrat totalitarians the Digitarians navigate a tarmac landscape in self-drive pod-cars; the Communo-Nuclearists shut themselves away on a three-kilometre train; in the South West the Bioliberals drive cars fuelled by anaerobic digestion as part of a lifestyle in symbiosis with the natural world; whilst up North the Anarcho-Evolutionsists ‘bio-hack’ their own DNA, taking evolution into their own hands.

Digicars (Photo credit: Luke Hayes)

Digicars (Photo credit: Luke Hayes)

This is the future according to Dunne and Raby. An England devolved into four self-contained microkingdoms, each with its own worldview, political system and transport infrastructure.

A corner of London’s Design Museum has been commandeered to display artefacts from these hypothetical civilizations. We see models of the Communo-Nuclearists snake-like living train alongside the collective bicycle of the Anarcho-Evolutionists – a Festival of Britain for a pre-apocalyptic future.

A nation divided (Photo credit: Luke Hayes)

A nation divided (Photo credit: Luke Hayes)

Inspired by dystopian fiction, thought experiments, and industrial design thinking, the exhibition uses transport systems as a way of challenging assumptions about how products and services are made and used. For example, the Digicar, preferred method of transport of the Digitarians, is technologically a development of the electric self-drive vehicles that are being pioneered today. However, in the free-market libertarian world of the Digitarians, the Digicar has evolved into a vehicle for navigating space and time, tariffs and markets, within an infrastructure where every metre of road surface and every second of access is capitalized.

Dunne and Raby, that is Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby, is a long-standing industrial design partnership well known for its interest in critical thinking and the use of design as a catalyst for debate about politics and society. He is professor of Design Interactions at the Royal College of Art; she is professor of Industrial Design at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna. Together, in United Microkingdoms: A Design Fiction, they have conceived an exhibition that balances futurism with some of the more traditional aspects of design practice (such as model making).

Biohacked. The Anarcho-Evolutionists  (Photo credit: Luke Hayes)

Biohacked. The Anarcho-Evolutionists (Photo credit: Luke Hayes)

Through the summer Dunne and Raby’s though-provoking exhibition runs alongside the Design Museum’s flagship show Extraordinary Stories about Ordinary Things, an exploration of key designs (think the Anglepoise lamp, road signage, telephone boxes) that have shaped modern life. The juxtaposition is interesting: on the one hand, with Extraoridnary Stories, we have an exercise in canon making; with United Microkingdoms we have design as starting point – a tool with which to think about the future as opposed to organize our understanding of the past.

At the launch of the exhibition, New Design got the opportunity to speak to Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby, the imaginative force behind United Microkingdoms.

Living nuclear train

Living nuclear train

New Design: What was the starting point for this exhibition?

Anthony Dunne: Deyan Sudjic (the Design Museum director) wanted to show some of our work and we thought it might be more interesting if we could do an experiment and try out some new ideas – a prospect about which he was very enthusiastic. We’ve been working with speculative design for a while now, trying out different techniques, and we felt that this time we would like to zoom out and look at bigger issues and we were very interested in whether you could talk about big ideas through small objects.

Conventionally in a museum you are looking at artefacts from other cultures and are starting to piece together the worlds that they must have lived in. We wondered whether we could do the opposite and encourage people to imagine and speculate different futures by looking at artefacts from those imaginary versions of England.

ND: To what extent have utopian/dystopian fiction and philosophical thought experiments influenced this exhibition?

AD: A big influence certainly. We are inspired by the way that writers and thinkers approach imaginary places. There was one set of books in particular, the Solutions Series published by Sternberg Press in which writers re-imagine existing countries, that was particularly influential. Our thinking was whether we as designers could do this through a design language.

Fiona Raby: The texts we looked at were quite diverse, some were realistic and others very fantastical: we play with the space in between.

ND: ‘Speculative design’ is a term often associated with your work. What role do you see the designer having in shaping the future?

AD: One of the things we are trying to move away from is the idea that the designer can shape the future. Rather we want to ask how we can use design to spark discussion about different futures. Our goal is to use design as prompt and provocation to generate debate amongst experts and amongst the public about what are desirable and undesirable futures. We are good at picking up on people’s hopes, dreams, and anxieties and making sure those are brought into the discussion.

ND: Was there a particular reason that you chose to focus on transport systems as a way of imagining the future?

AD: Yes, in the 20th century the car in particular has come to represent ideas of dreams, individuality, and freedom (especially in America). We thought we could look at different dreams and nightmares. Essentially, people can relate to transport. Even if you just present the objects, you have to think about the broader infrastructure (whether it be road or rail) thus allowing the designer to hint at a bigger system through a smaller object.

FR: We don’t see these visions as either dystopias or utopias – each region presents a dilemma within it – it’s all about trade offs. There are some things you might be seduced by and think a great idea but when you dig a bit deeper you might realise it could be a terrible idea. We’ve tried to balance contradictory ideas; I think that’s the space we are in at the moment, one of complexity where things are constantly contradicting each other and there isn’t a clear direction. That’s somewhere that design can help open the discussion.

AD: In this case, it is not about looking at better transport systems, but more about exploring values and belief systems. Looking at the Communo-Nuclearists’ train, literally it is a moving landscape, but what it stands for is a moving population. A community that has its own energy source and cuts itself off from everyone else – is that something that we want to discuss? Debate is dramatized through a train design.

Digitarian traffic

Digitarian traffic

ND: One half of this project is based in science fiction and futurism; the other is rather traditional in its use of model making. Was this a conscious duality?

AD: I think props are interesting. In architecture there is a long history of using the architectural model in all sorts of interesting ways. In design, the model still takes on a very functional role. In this project we want to liberate the model so that it can start to talk about other issues. Here models are telling stories and hinting at possible futures.

FR: Also they help to make tangible some of the abstract ideas so they are all compressed into a sort of physical trigger for the imagination.

ND: Did this project involve any collaboration with other designers?

AD: We collaborated with different designers in different ways. The actual designs of the transport systems were ours, but the animation was done by one of our graduates, a graphic designer did the graphics and another set of RCA graduates did the physical design. There were a lot of different people chipping in in different ways.

Bioliberal transport  (Photo credit: Luke Hayes)

Bioliberal transport (Photo credit: Luke Hayes)

ND: How and why does the gap between what we imagine the future will look like and what becomes reality exist?

AD: It’s hard to imagine the unimaginable. As humans were are limited as to what we can conceive, whereas the forces shaping the future are out of our control.

FR: I still think that some of the products we have now are pretty amazing. What worries me is just how dependent we are on certain products and technologies; I am addicted to my phone, the network and the cloud.

ND: How do you hope visitors will react to this project?

AD: The hope would be that people might see that design doesn’t just have to focus on manufacturing and business but can serve a more imaginative purpose. It would be really nice if visitors who aren’t necessarily ‘design people’ took that away from the show.

FR: We want to contribute to debate in a way that fiction can’t. Can design create another discursive space to discuss the future?

United Microkingdoms: A Design Fiction runs at the Design Museum, London until 26 August 2013. www.designmuseum.org

You can learn more about the four regions and their transport systems at a dedicated interactive website: www.unitedmicrokingdoms.org