Phil Balagtas on Speculative Design


Phil Balagtas is Design Director at GE Aviation. He is also founder of the Primer Conference, a "gathering of designers, strategists, thought leaders, architects, and educators to share their work and processes to prime us for the challenges and the opportunities the future may hold."

The California College of Arts graduate started his design career in 2004 at the National Science Foundation where he designed the groups special reports. In January 2017, Alisan Atvur (AA) spoke with Phil (PB) about speculative design, its role in the workplace, and the 2017 Primer Conference.


AA: Let's start with the basics: what is "speculative design"?


PB: I get the same question in different ways, and there are so many definitions and terms used interchangeably, so we [the Speculative Futures meetup group] tried to cling on to one a year and a half ago. We call it critical design as it is critique of various future scenarios that we, as a species, may face in the future. When I use it either (speculative design or critical design), I am referring to any design that imagines a potential future and results in objects or artifacts which are created for or created by the evolution of cultures, economics or values.

Critical Design uses speculative design proposals to challenge narrow assumptions, preconceptions and givens about the role products play in everyday life. It is more of an attitude than anything else, a position rather than a method. There are many people doing this who have never heard of the term critical design and who have their own way of describing what they do. Naming it Critical Design is simply a useful way of making this activity more visible and subject to discussion and debate.

AA: What ignited this interest in critical design?


PB: I learned about critical design in grad school at the California College of the Arts, where I learned about the critical designers Dunne & Raby. I think the work they are creating is profound because their artifacts illustrate how design impacts us socially and culturally.

Dunne & Raby 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.

PB: What we are doing is not meant to be a movement. I just want to talk about it, and I want others to think about it. When I began to organize the Primer Conference, I realized there are people who are seeking this discussion.

The 1st Primer Conference will take place in San Francisco February 24-26, 2017.

The 1st Primer Conference will take place in San Francisco February 24-26, 2017.


AA: What is the output of the critical Design process?

PB: It helps to use examples of critical design, such as design fiction pieces which tell stories of the future. For example, Corning makes a series of videos called "A Day Made of Glass" which presents visions of how the future may look with technologies that aren't available now but will be available. Apple released a film in 1987 where they envisioned a future with a product called the Knowledge Navigator, which envisioned how the way we learn and research ideas would be dramatically different because of technologies which would develop but were not available at that time. Intel produces similar videos which visualizes how life, transportation and communication will be different as a result of designs which will come from currently non-existent technologies. Fisher Price released a video on the future of parenting. These are examples of organizations forecasting experiences that could materialize in the future.


AA: But isn't all design inherently speculative?


PB: You make a good point. Cameron Tompkinwise proposes a similar point in an article entitled Just Design. We use the term for the purpose of having the conversation about the implications of design, not to limit the field of design. This topic gets so much debate, which is why I like it. No matter how you categorize it [critical design], the work is good for our society , and we should be doing it.

Every time you qualify design with, or add design to, some other quality or practice, you are claiming that design does not already do that.
— Cameron Tompkinwise

PB: Furthermore, there are different degrees to which the "speculative" part of the design can be a priority. For example, one especially speculative design project was conducted by the government of Dubai. They created an organization to look at future technologies, which included explorations of human exoskeletons, brain augmentation technologies, construction robots and future medical treatments which could be used in the next 5 years. For this work, this design project is an effort to learn from the public whether of not they accept it and why.


AA: How do you integrate speculative design into your work?


PB:  When I use it at GE, I don’t call it speculative design. It has a name already, and it's called "vision, strategy, and foresight." This goes back to my point about not being married to a specific definition or a term. My team members use the terminology that the business can acclimate to, and we execute the work in a way that allows it connect to an organization's business goals.

For example, for future of airport projects, we had to create a vision, and then we had to back-cast it to work back to the present. It's a common framework which includes asking questions such as "what are the phases to achieving this?" and "what is the infrastructure that can make this happen?" As you can imagine, it become more than a new app. In speculative design, we aren't being predictive, we are being preemptive.


AA: What can attendees of the Primer Conference expect to learn?


PB:  It's two full days of content (Saturday and Sunday) with an open event on Friday. Saturday is a full day of speakers and Sunday consists of 3 workshops teaching frameworks. Our speakers and workshop leaders include a senior designer from IDEO, a professor from the Rhode Island School of Design, an interaction designer form Cooper, as well as speculative designers from across the globe, including 2 people from Mexico who will speak on design futures in Latin America. 

Taipei, Taiwan, October 2016

Mike Wu and Arthur Yeh invited me to Taipei City to speak at the 2016 Dechnology Forum. My week-long visit to Taiwan gave me a deeper understanding of just how bustling and active the newly-appointed "world design capital" really is.



My (Limited) expectations

Before my week in Taipei city, my knowledge of the design scene in Taiwan was limited to my friendship with Taiwan-born designer  Hung-Hsiang Chena former creative director of Asus. I knew of Asus in my childhood for the exceptional build quality and their respect among the tech community, but it wasn't until my relationship with Chen that I realized its Taiwanese roots, along with other companies such as TSMC, Acer, BenQ, D-Link, Foxconn, and HTC.  



Finding my way In Zhongsgan

After depositing my luggage at Mai Hotel, I roamed the streets of the Zhongshan region while waiting I waited for exhaustion and jet lag to overpower me. However, the city was adequately equipped to keep me awake. Despite the consistent rains and limited availability of English signage, I navigated through the street kitchens, stylized storefronts, and busy sounds of a city that was never quiet.



Dining with the community

From Left to Right: Tenniel Liu, Tina Wu, Diane Shin, Alisan Atvur, and Mike Wu.

On Sunday evening, I met with my host from the Industrial Technology Research Institute and 5% Design Action for dinner at Solo Trattoria, a Taiwanese favorite known for it's Taiwanese-inspired Italian cuisine. We discussed how service design was becoming an increasingly important part of the Taiwanese design practice. In the process, we discovered that Diane Shin (one of the founders of the Taiwan Chapter of the Service Design Network) also knew Chen.


DAY 3:


Prior to my arrival in Taiwan, I scheduled a meeting with Henry Chang, founder of Gearlab.  His award-winning consultancy and sports gear manufacturer that prioritizes sustainability without sacrificing quality, and these values show in their portfolio of work. After a traditionally, carb-heavy breakfast at a local cafe, Chang introduced me to some of his team's public work. What was most impressive was his positivity, resourcefulness, and gentle demeanor. If he was a reflection of a typical designer in Taiwan, then I'm honored to have learned more about such as vibrant community. 




DAY 4:


The 2016 Dechnology Forum’s diverse speakers lineup included


From right to left: Dr. Roberto Verganti recieves a tour from Chih-Shiang (Mike) Wu, deputy manager at ITRI.


Having attendees multiple design conferences a year for nearly a decade, I was impressed by the organization and experience of the Dechnology Forum event. Simple conveniences (such as live translation for 3 languages, well-made food, flowing coffee and fast wifi) made the event easy to enjoy. However, it is the attention to detailed visual environment communication that impressed me most: it had a museum-level attention to storytelling. The hallway seen in the photograph showcases the forum's output and contributions over the years. In a matter of minutes, I absorbed a rich history of innovation without requiring a tour guide (although Mike was happy to oblige).


Post-conference conversation

Following the educational event, I was ready to meet old friend and recognized service design expert Arthur Yeh, Director of Service Innovation and Design Innovation at the Service Science Society of Taiwan. In a classically nerdy fashion, we reminisced about the opportunities for improving design education, recent examples of impressive consumer electronics, and case studies of exceptional service-oriented companies that could be found in Taiwan, such as the Dandy Hotels.



DAY 6:

TAIPEI, the 2016 World Design Capital 

The final day in Taiwan was the busiest and most energizing, an energy shared by other designers in Taipei.  In 2016, Taipei was awarded the distinction of "world design capital," a distinction awarded by ICSID to a new city every two years.  Taipei's bid video for the distinction details Taiwan's unique history in industrial design and technology. I spent the morning observing various examples of social design initiatives intended to improve the livability of the city, such as the Pipr project by REnato Lab and nbt.STUDIO.


Visiting ITRI Headquarters

My last stop was a visit to ITRI headquarters in Hsinchu. I was fortunate to tour their gallery of recent technology breakthroughs, such as the brilliantly intuitive fluid driven emergency lighting concept which assists fire fighters in dark environments and their flexible, sheet-like speaker. Even their older inventions, such as the 2011 FleXpeaker (a <0.1 cm sheet capable of generating of high-quality sound) were still quite impressive.





I left Taipei with a respect and appreciation that extends past motherboards and consumer technology. The community is showcasing talent in service design that leverages cutting-edge technology breakthroughs. If this community continues to invest in design (both service and industrial), I feel we may come point to Taiwan as a case study of how design physically and systematically can transform a city for the better. 


Evolving Business with MBA Graduates and Designers

Below are some of my favorite quotes from some of my favorite articles on business and design.

The Business of Design

"when confronted with a mystery, most linear business types resort to what they know best: They crunch the numbers, analyze, and ultimately redefine the problem "so it isn't a mystery anymore; it's something they've done 12 times before," [Roger] Martin says. Most don't avail themselves of the designer's tools -- they don't think like designers -- and so they are ill-prepared for an economy where the winners are determined by design."

Reinventing the MBA: 4 Reasons to Mix Business with Design Thinking

"managers need to become designers to succeed in the next era of business."