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Speculative Design in Real-World Laboratories: A theory of play and fantasy

Format: Workshops, RSD13, RSD13 Programme, RSD13-Workshops, Topic: Methods & Methodology, Topic: Socioecological Design

Sunniva Münster

The workshop explores the meaning of play and playful methods in speculative design for sustainability. It explores the concept and theory of play and fantasy as a tool to create speculative design futures in contemporary societies. It presents a case study in a real-world laboratory where speculative design methods were utilised, and related theories form the basis for a theoretical discussion on play and speculative design for urban transformation. The workshop aims to facilitate cross-disciplinary exchanges of ideas by encouraging participants to draw parallels between the theories and methods with practice. Experiementationthrough gigamapping and group discussions are facilitated through guided questions to explore speculative design and scenario building.

Through theories on play and speculative design and by discussing these by using gigamapping (Sevaldson, B. 2022) as a tool for visual thinking and dialogue, the workshop aims to heighten awareness of play and speculative design and how they can contribute to socioecological systemic change and urban futures narratives. The research intended to develop a collection of speculative design tools that challenge ideas, systems, products,  and spaces, along with the theoretical traditions within product design education.

KEYWORDS: play, speculative design, design for dialogue and debate, real-world  laboratories, urban futures, narratives, meta-communication, gigamapping, systemic  co-design

RSD TOPIC(S): Methods & Methodology, Mapping & Modelling, Society & Culture, Socioecological Design


Sunniva Münster, PhD Candidate, Oslo Metropolitan University, Department of Product  Design,

The workshop results and content may be used, published, or shared for the purpose of research.

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Workshop description

First, the concepts of play and speculative design are defined, and a presentation and analysis of a case study in a real- world laboratory in Oslo,  Norway. Next, we propose that we can probe and build better future scenarios with concepts of speculative design and design fiction starting with ‘What if’’ scenarios and by developing initiatives/seeds of good Anthropocene’s in real world-laboratories.

The workshop is meant to open for critical reflection about the values that the theories and methods embody in creating socially- and ecologically-urban futures. It concludes with a discussion on the learning experiences that theories on play, fantasy and speculative design can have on product design education and system-oriented design. It looks beyond the objects and spaces themselves into products as playful interfaces and at the social, ecological, and cultural experiences and the future urban transformative implications they mediate.

The workshop aims to create seeds of change for sustainable transformations in urban space. Participants are presented with resources and reading material that can help them explore play, speculative design methods (Dunne &  Raby, 2013; Auger, 2013) and system thinking (Meadows, D.  2008) in further detail. By exploring and introducing the concept of Bateson’s play and fantasy (Bateson, 1972) as a tool to create speculative design futures in contemporary societies, a critical fact for Bateson was that every message could have a meta-communicative element and that each message held meta-communication information about how to interpret other messages (Bateson, G. 1972). Meta-communication is thought to be a characteristic feature of complex systems (Sevaldsson, B. 2022).

A methodological toolbox

The workshop explores the meaning of play and playful methods in speculative design for sustainability.

Critical Design, popularised by Dunne and Raby, uses design artefacts as an embodied critique or commentary on consumer culture. Both the designed artefact—and its subsequent use—and the process of designing such an artefact cause reflections on existing values, mores, and practices in culture (Dunne, 1999). Critical design is critical thought, and critical thinking is translated into materiality. It is about thinking through design rather than through words and using the language and structure of design to engage people.

Speculative design thrives on imagination and aims to open new perspectives on wicked problems (Dunne, 2013; Blaasvær & Sevaldson, 2019; Mitrovic, 2015), 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 function as catalysts for collectively redefining our relationship to reality (Dunne & Raby, 2007).

Design fiction is a form of speculative design (Dunne, 2001) that uses storytelling and design to create fictional worlds and design scenarios that can explore the future outcomes of, for instance, technology and societal trends. It often involves the creation of prototypes, mock-ups, and other design artefacts that serve as a visual representation of an imagined future. The researcher and educator Ramia Mazé says there are three different approaches to critical design practice: the first sees designers reflecting on and critically questioning their design practice; the second approach is based on a macro-perspective, re-thinking the design discipline as such, and in the third approach, the design discourse is directed towards broader social and political phenomena. Mazé points out that these approaches are not mutually exclusive, as they often intertwine and supplement each other in practice (Auger, 2013).

Workshop structure

This is an in-person workshop that has a maximum of 20 participants and is 2 hours in duration. The workshop introduces a case study (Lazar, 2010) where speculative design was utilised and makes the origin for presenting relevant theories,  followed by a theoretical discussion on ‘Play’ and speculative design for urban future transformative implementations. The workshop presents a case with a playful approach to Real-World Laboratories (RwLs), which are targeted set-ups of a research ¨space¨ in which scientific actors (and actors from civil society/citizens) cooperate in the knowledge production to support a more sustainable development of society  (Schneidewind et al). Most discussions on real-world labs focus on co-design processes, but there is a knowledge gap on the structural dimension in the field of literature. The cooperation with participants in these RwLs allows them to access large-scale and “hidden” data collected in situ, providing innovative potential for knowledge production (Harloe & Perry, 2004).

Seeds of a good Anthropocene makes the epistemological view by proposing that we can develop better scenarios by starting with wicked problems (Sevaldsson, B. 2022),  innovative ideas, and transformational projects. We call such concepts Seeds of Good Anthropocene. Seeds refer to current positive and inspiring social, technological,  economic, or social-ecological initiatives that hold the potential to shape a more prosperous,  just, and sustainable future. These initiatives, at least in prototype form, represent a diversity of worldviews, values, and regions but are not currently prominent (Bennett et al., 2016).

Participants are divided into groups after briefly describing the topic and theoretical background—play, speculative design,  and systemic design for sustainable transitions.

  1. In the first phase, each group discusses play and related practices by identifying the metacommunicative elements of practices or narrative systems.
  2. In the second phase, groups explore seeds and scenarios and analyse the communicative messages, relations, and dynamics between the practices.
  3. The final phase is followed by short presentations by each group to share highlights and have a general discussion.
  4. The session ends with a general discussion and feedback from the participants.


5 min—Opening

10 min—1st phase: Introduction—This is play

30 min—Groupwork on play and speculative design

10 min—Presentation and discussions

5 min—Break

10 min—2nd phase: Presentation ‘Seeds and scenarios’

30 min—Group work on seeds and scenarios. Giga mapping session. 10 min- Presentation and discussions

5 min—Feedback

Learning objectives

Participants are presented with a methodological toolbox, resources, and literature that can help them explore play, critical and speculative design, real-world laboratories, systemic co-design, and the seeds of good Anthropocene in further detail.

The workshop’s goal is to explore ways to imagine future scenarios and transformative future implications through play and speculative design methods, creating seeds of systemic change for urban transition/transformations. These activities help participants develop a toolbox based on these theories and methods.

The workshop concludes with a discussion on the learning experiences that theories on play, fantasy and speculative design can have on product design education and how they can contribute to systems-oriented design, looking beyond the objects and spaces themselves into products as playful (systemic) interfaces, and into the social, ecological,  and cultural experiences and the urban transformations they mediate. The research techniques and devices enable playful speculative methods and the epistemological and ontological status of these forms of inquiry.


Auger, J. (2013). Speculative design: Crafting the speculation. Digital Creativity, 24(1), 11–35.

Bateson, G. (2000/1972). Steps to an ecology of mind. Chicago: University of Chicago  Press

Bennett, Elena & Solan, Martin & Biggs, Reinette & McPhearson, Timon & Norström,  Albert & Olsson, Per & Pereira, Laura & Peterson, Garry & Raudsepp-Hearne, Ciara &  Biermann, Frank & Carpenter, Stephen & Ellis, Erle & Hichert, Tanja & Galaz, Victor &  Lahsen, Myanna & Milkoreit, Manjana & Martín-López, Berta & Nicholas, Kimberly &

Preiser, Rika & Xu, Jianchu. (2016). Bright spots: seeds of a good Anthropocene. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment14. 441-448. 10.1002/fee.1309.

Blaasvær L., Sevaldson B. Systems-oriented design as a democratic process design technique. Proceedings of Relating Systems Thinking and Design, RSD8.

Dunne A. (1999). Hertzian Taleselectronic products, aesthetic experience, and critical design. RCA CRD Research Publications.

Dunne, A. & Raby F. (2013). Speculative everything: design, fiction, and social dreaming.  The MIT Press.

Harloe, & Perry, B. (2004). Universities, Localities and Regional Development: The  Emergence of the «Mode 2» University? International journal of urban and regional research, 28(1), 212–223.

Lazar J., Feng J.H., and Hochheiser H. Research Methods in Human-Computer  Interaction, 2010 (John Wiley & Sons, Chichester).

Lin, Zijun, Villari, Beatrice and Sevaldson, Birger (2021). Towards Speculative Services for an Inclusive Society: Understanding the relationships between systemic-, service- and speculative design. In: Proceedings of Relating Systems Thinking and Design (RSD10)  2021 Symposium, 2-6 Nov 2021, Delft, The Netherlands. Available at

Meadows, D. (2008). Thinking in Systems: A Primer; Chelsea Green Publishing: Chelsea,  VT, USA.

Mitrovic, I. (2015). Introduction to Speculative Design Practice (Issue May)

Schneidewind, U., Augenstein, K., Stelzer, F. and Wanner, M. (2018). Structure matters:  Real-world laboratories as a new type of large-scale research infrastructure. A  framework inspired by Giddens’ Structuration Theory. GAIA – Ecological Perspectives for Science and Society, 27, S1: 12-17. (Online, open access) (DOI): 10.14512/gaia.27. S1.5

Sevaldson, B. (2022). Designing Complexity: The Methodology and Practice of Systems  Oriented Design. Champaign, IL: Common Ground Research Networks.  doi:10.18848/978-1-86335-262-8/CGP.

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Citation Data

Author(s): Sunniva Münster
Year: 2024
Title: Speculative Design in Real-World Laboratories: A theory of play and fantasy
Published in: Proceedings of Relating Systems Thinking and Design
Volume: RSD13
Article No.: pre-release
Host: Oslo School of Architecture and Design
Location: Online
Symposium Dates: October 12–26, 2024
First published: 12 July 2024
Last update: no update
Publisher Identification: ISSN 2371-8404