Masterclass #3: Nicolas Nova on design fiction

Nicolas Nova is an ethnographer and design researcher, working both as co-founder of The Near Future Laboratory, a design fiction consultancy based in Europe and California, and Associate Professor at the Geneva School of Arts and Design (HEAD – Genève). His work lies at the intersection of social sciences, digital technologies, and design. Yesterday, Nicolas held our third Masterclass of this edition.

This Masterclass aimed to give an overview of the topic of design fiction. In a simple definition, design fiction is the representation of future scenarios through fictional objects, products, or services as if they already existed or had occurred so we can learn how to innovate and create new opportunities. To do so, design fiction uses methodologies and tools of design to create diegetic prototypes, the “fictional objects” which aim is to highlight threats and opportunities, foresee future implications, and foster a discussion about a specific future scenario. From a certain point of view, diegetic prototypes are not a ‘real product’ and they ‘don’t solve problems’. But, on the other side, they’re different from the outputs of the traditional research, science-fiction, or speculative design: they’re not just powerpoints or books, nor they live only in museums and exhibitions. Thanks to different case studies, Nicolas showed us how they are “real” in the impact they have once exposed to clients, potential end-users, citizens, and so on. But they are also “fictional” because of their core anticipating elements: near-future technologies, social changes, new habits. Usually, the design fiction archetypes are shaped as something very familiar to us, present-day people, but with some elements coming from a possible future scenario. This familiarity helps us to understand, empathize, and interact with those archetypes coming, let’s say, from the future.

It’s crucial here to clarify that there is not only “one future”, always depicted more like a utopia/dystopia rather than a potential reality: in more or less than the 70% of science-fiction products, mass media pop culture, or advertising campaigns, the future is one and clear, and it is the best we can imagine. This is not plausible and is not what design fiction looks for. Design fiction thinks about “the future” as something that’s not happened yet, as a moving target, and as plural. In other words, there’s not a single future, but different (possible) futures. The designer working on a design fiction project should be able to capture the weak signals that already exist in the present to anticipate all the aspects of a possible future scenario, from the best implications to the worst ones. Here’s an important common element with the science-fiction world: ‘A god science-fiction story should be able to predict not the automobile but the traffic jam’ (F. Pohl).
In the end, Nicolas answered simple but very important questions: ‘Why should we observe the future?’, ‘Why speculating about it?’ In other words, ‘Why design fiction?’. As we learned:

– it can help the innovation process: thinking about new possibilities to inform and anticipate new products and services;
– it can also deal with new organizational culture and society, with ‘What we will and should become’;
– it’s able to build a vision, to communicate it, and to discuss it;
– it can also build a path towards this vision by setting priorities for today which can make a preferable future attainable.

Thanks once again to Nicolas Nova for his precious lecture and to our mixed audience of students and external professionals. Masterclasses keep inspiring.

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