Unexpected Futures EMEX 2021 Online Course - Emerging Media Trends


This document has been compiled to support students studying BA Media Studies at the University of Lincoln and those participating in the Erasmus+ co-funded programme EMEX (Emerging Media Exploration). Grant number: 2018-DE01-KA203-004282.


Unexpected Futures was an optional brief for the 'Emerging Media Trends' course that ran in March/April 2021. Unexpected Futures adopts a speculative design approach to address the possible social, political, environmental, and technological factors that might impact the media culture of the year 2050. The output of this course was the development of a potential future scenario in the form of an experienceable concept-visualisation/interactive prototype that can provide a discursive space for the audience to understand and feel the circumstances of the future.


Speculative Design seeks to raise awareness and debate of social issues by creating fictional scenarios that challenge assumptions, preconceptions and expectations about the role of objects in everyday life. Speculation is positioned as a method of social and cultural critique by designing hypothetical or imaginary appliances that address the potential impact of technological change in the world. Speculative design adopts a critical theory-based approach that draws from art, design, architecture, photography, computing, futurology, political theory, the philosophy of technology, and science fiction.


Speculative design has been popularised by Anthony Dunne & Fiona Raby. They use design as a medium to stimulate discussion and debate amongst designers, industry and the public about the social, cultural, and ethical implications of existing and emerging technologies. Their book, Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction & Social Dreaming (2013), proposes a kind of design that is used as a tool to create not only 'things' but 'ideas':

  • Speculative Design/Critical Design is not a prediction of the future. Rather, it creates a narrative of possible future realities to help us questioning the possible implications on the present: on society, on the economy, on business and so on.
  • Speculative Design/Critical Design does not solve problems, it finds them. Design becomes a means to search for problems to approach. The role of technology is rediscussed to face its implications rather than its applications.
  • Speculative Design/Critical Design does not create innovative products. It rather creates imaginary and fictional worlds that allow us to reconsider our world. It questions ideas and assumptions on the roles of products in our lives.
  • Speculative Design/Critical Design does not talk to consumers. It moves from the needs and wants of the market to focus on a broader social context. It creates artifacts to think on and with, not to be purchased.

Technological Dreams Series: No.1, Robots (2007)

This project queries the role of robots in the future. “These objects,” note Dunne and Raby, “are meant to spark a discussion about how we’d like our robots to relate to us: subservient, intimate, dependent, equal?”

Protoform 2050 (2009)

This project imagines the year 2050 as one of increased urbanisation and population, limited natural resources, climate challenges and digital-biological integration. Presents a range of design scenarios envision the sustainable cultivation of renewable resources. In Foragers, Dunne and Raby address over-population and limited resources by designing a range of prototypes for synthetic bio-technologies that would enable people to consume alternative sources of nutrition in order to survive.

United Micro-Kingdoms (2013)

This project imagines the future of the United Kingdom as divided into four super-shires inhabited by Digitarians, Bioliberals, Anarcho-evolutionists and Communo-nuclearists. Each county is an experimental zone, free to develop its own form of governance, economy and lifestyle. For example, Digitarians depend on digital technology and all its implicit totalitarianism — tagging, metrics, total surveillance, tracking, data logging and 100% transparency. Their society is organised entirely by market forces; citizen and consumer are the same.

Michael Burton & Michiko Nitta

'Algaculture' designs a new symbiotic relationship between humans and algae. It proposes a future where humans will be enhanced with algae living inside new bodily organs, allowing us to be semi-photosynthetic.

'Republic of Salivation' addresses potential food shortages of the future. This installation art-piece, which exhibited at Stroom Den Haag in 2012, presented a fictional scenario where food is rationed by the government based on the the emotional, intellectual and physical demands of different jobs.


Speculative design is a practice of creating imaginative projections of alternate presents and possible futures in using design representations and objects” (Carl DiSalvo, 2012)

Design here is considered a means of speculating about how things could be - to imagine possible futures. Using the 'futures cone' approach can help a speculative designer to map out the 'possible’, ‘probable', 'plausible' and 'preferable' directions of the future.

This approach can be a useful method for reflecting on the present by addressing what we do and do not want to see in our future as a society. In doing so, speculative design aims to move beyond typical utopian and dystopian visions of the future that have become popularised within our media culture.


Design fiction is a method of critical design that uses fictional and narrative scenarios to envision, explain and raise questions about possible futures for society. It adopts a speculative approach to design in order to create a story-world or conceptual scenario



Design fiction uses 'diegetic prototyping' as a discursive space to explore speculative scenarios. Diegetic prototypes exist as fully functioning objects in the story-world, acting as ‘performative artefacts’ by normalising hypothetical technologies and contextualising the social sphere of the narrative. This approach has become common-place in science-fiction, as well as for visualising user-interaction with imagined technologies.


Critical design processes can be employed across a range of contexts to draw attention to contemporary challenges and speculate how technology could be used to benefit society in innovative ways. Critical and speculative design provide a practice-based approach for developing thought-provoking responses to a range of technological, cultural, aesthetic, ethical and political issues in contemporary society:

  • The ubiquity of information systems
  • Artificial Intelligence and Human-Computer Interaction
  • Algorithmic computation
  • 'Internet of Things' and 'Smart' tecnology
  • Sustainability and the ecological impact of design
  • Synthetic biology, Biotechnology and Genetic Modification
  • Surveillance, data-mining and control

Examples of Contemporary Critical Design




Some additional resources on design fiction & speculative design:

Created By
Martyn Thayne