Markéta Dolejšová, Tereza Lišková
Over the past few years, critical speculative design has transformed from an underground to a more mainstream design research domain. Besides speculating about the possible futures of existing sociotechnical systems through design fiction imaginaries, critical speculative designers began to generate pragmatic design solutions applied in a real-life context [1,2,3]. This shift has prompted us to probe the possible uses of speculation in socially aware service design and to respond to the recent call for more holistic, situated, and experiential service-design approaches .
StreetSauce (www.streetsauce.cz) is a street-food bistro run by homeless women who serve carrot “hot dogs” with specially designed narrative sauces made of their own life stories. The sauces are created in an online cookbook (www.opensauce.cz) that enables users to input various texts and convert them into personalized sauce recipes by means of network text analysis (Figure 1). The actual edible sauces function as speculative design artifacts, metaphorically embodying the possible flavors of homeless life that can be tasted by bistro visitors (Figure 2). Through running the bistro, the homeless women have a chance to engage in a meaningful day-to-day social activity and perform their creativity as chefs, which can result in their emotional as well as material support.
|Figure 1. The StreetSauce principle and an “outsauced” story of Ms. Růženka.|
|Figure 2. The StreetSauce bistro: Carrot hot dogs with narrative sauces served by homeless chefs.|
The StreetSauce project started as a collaboration between Cancel356 (www.cancel356.cz), a Prague-based hacklab co-founded by the authors of this text, and Homelike, an NGO that provides social support to homeless women (http://jakodoma.org). The project employs food as a familiar multi-sensory material to create playful interaction between people from different socioeconomic backgrounds. Through this playful human-food interaction, StreetSauce aims to demystify some common stereotypes and misconceptions about homeless people and create a space for casual conversations.
Instead of emphasizing that the chefs are in need of help, the bistro portrays them as active individuals capable of performing physical and intellectual labor in a responsible manner.
Homeless people are often not able to effectively communicate their needs, as they do not get a great deal of attention from influential public figures such as politicians or celebrities. Female homelessness is a particularly sensitive form of this social exclusion: While homeless men are sometimes seen as adventurous and driven by a deliberate frugality, homeless women are often condemned as failed individuals incapable of fulfilling their social roles as mothers and caregivers . This has been the experience of the nine StreetSauce chefs whose life stories we aim to highlight and make more “digestible” through the colorful sauce design.
Over the first three years of its existence, StreetSauce has become an established service and a well-known curiosity on the Czech food scene . Here we will share some findings from an ongoing design research study conducted at the bistro to offer critical reflections on how speculative methods are put to work in the project. While focusing on the forms of knowledge and experiences that speculation helps to generate, we address the following questions: What are the challenges and opportunities of speculative design methods in the advancement of socially aware service design? What kind of knowledge can speculative design research inquiry reveal that cannot be revealed through other forms of inquiry?
So far, service designers have employed speculation mostly to envision possible future services through prototyping, scenarios, or future forecasting . StreetSauce takes a different approach: Instead of navigating to a future imaginary, it puts speculation to work in the everyday world, aiming to create a space for real-life interaction and engagement. The StreetSauce bistro is not a speculative service in itself; rather, it is an actual service built around specially designed artifacts embedded with speculative meanings that can be consumed—both literally and figuratively—by the participants (Figure 3). The latter requires a deliberate suspension of disbelief and the conscious creative engagement of both chefs and bistro visitors, who are encouraged to interact over the narrative sauces.
|Figure 3. The edible storytelling sauces enable bistro visitors to taste the possible flavors of homelessness.|
The speculative element is an essential part of the project, which aims to go beyond the usual scope of social services supporting homeless people (e.g., soup kitchens, Food Not Bombs, or various re-socialization programs). Rather than creating a charity in which the rich help the poor, StreetSauce wants to reverse the stereotypical socioeconomic dynamics: At the bistro, it is the homeless woman who provides food to the visitors—most often homed people. Furthermore, the StreetSauce food has “designerly” qualities that are handcrafted and “narrated” by the chefs themselves as a result of their creativity. Instead of emphasizing that the chefs are in need of help, the bistro portrays them as active individuals capable of performing physical and intellectual labor in a responsible manner.
In this sense, it is essential to perform the speculative StreetSauce service in the actual real-life context and enable face-to-face interaction between chefs and bistro visitors. Presenting the bistro as a design fiction concept enabling vicarious engagement, or as a scripted enactment performed by recruited actors , would be counterintuitive. Instead, we decided to perform the speculation together with the homeless women and previously unrecruited members of the general public, who are all involved as “everyday stakeholders” of the addressed issue. This experiential speculative approach to designing for socially aware services is at the center of StreetSauce as a research-through-design project.
With the help of the Homelike organization that facilitated contact with the women, we initiated a research study consisting of participant observation at nine StreetSauce events in Prague, an online questionnaire sent to bistro visitors (n=32), and follow-up interviews with the participating chefs.
The extravagant bistro attracted both positive and negative attention from passersby. Those who came closer to learn more about the bistro concept were most often willing to order the food and spend some time talking to the chefs (Figure 4). The casual conversations usually evolved around the speculative flavors of served sauces (“This is sweet! Well then I guess your story has some sweet moments too?”), which helped to break the ice and created a friendly, relaxed atmosphere. While reflecting on her experiences from the bistro, chef Eva mentioned, “At first, I was nervous to talk to all the people, but then I realized we are `playing the same game’ ... I mean, it is so silly that you cannot be nervous.”
|Figure 4. Conversations at the bistro often evolve around the speculative flavors of chefs’ sauces.|
Although the conversations sometimes stayed within the not-so-serious bounds of “silly” chats about the connection between the flavors of a chef’s sauce and her life, more often they developed into longer and more in-depth dialogues. These usually involved visitors’ curiosity about various practical aspects of being homeless (e.g., where can you go to sleep, eat, bathe, have sex, or charge your phone if you live on the street?), as well as more personal themes, such as the chef’s past and present family arrangements. Chef Helena recalled her conversation with a young mom with whom she, as a mother herself, shared some ups and downs of motherhood. In her words, this made her feel “like a normal person, at least for a moment.” This mutual sharing of personal stories and practical knowledge created—however briefly—a space for empathetic engagement unconstrained by participants’ social statuses. Some visitors even wrote their story into the online cookbook to generate their own recipe (you can make your own recipe too at www.makesauce.cz). This prompted our idea of inviting those people to actually cook their sauce and bring it back to the bistro next time, to exchange their stories in edible form. We have also created our own sauces based on our personal stories that we now occasionally serve at the bistro together with the chefs. Thereby, we aim to mix the stories of both homeless and homed people involved in the project and let everyone taste the possible differences (or lack thereof).
Some of the StreetSauce chefs were pleased that working in the pop-up bistro enabled them to travel, explore new places, and meet new people. On our train trip to show the bistro in Košice (Slovakia), Eva mentioned that it was nice to leave Prague for once, and “get on a little adventure.” During another StreetSauce trip to Brno (Czech Republic), Růženka was even joking that her boyfriend (also homeless) was getting jealous of her, as she was getting to know more people and becoming “all fancy and popular.” Besides offering this emotional and social support, the majority of bistro visitors usually left a financial donation in exchange for the food they ordered, which the chefs appreciated as a good source of income. However, this material support is essentially different from common charity campaigns and rather than a product of mercy, it is an expression of respect for the chef’s labor.
At the same time, not all reactions to the bistro were warm and positive. Although the feedback gathered via the questionnaire shows that the majority of visitors were pleasantly surprised by the chefs’ casual appearance, some visitors were hesitant to taste the food while not-so-silently expressing their skepticism about its hygienic standards. These occasions were seemingly painful for some of the chefs. For instance, Růženka mentioned that although the work at the bistro makes her day “a little happier,” it will never change what people actually think about her. In this sense, the use of food—an item highly charged with personal values and lifestyle preferences—to create engagement between members of different socioeconomic populations might seem counterproductive. The role of food in interaction design objects thus remains ambiguous: On the one hand, working with food does not require much expertise and is easily accessible to the general public; on the other, the actual consumption of these objects requires participants’ trust and a greater suspension of disbelief than interaction with other less-invasive design materials.
As an actual social service built around speculative design artifacts, StreetSauce has had both positive and negative impacts on the participating publics. The speculative sauces functioned as a convenient conversation starter that enabled the playful and empathetic engagement of people from different socioeconomic backgrounds. At the same time, this engagement was limited in time and scope: Although the chefs appreciated that the pop-up bistro made their day “a little happier,” they remained skeptical about its actual effects on their personal lives and social standing. The questionnaire revealed that visitors who came to the bistro with a marginal awareness of issues around female homelessness gained valuable knowledge; however, most of them also said they did not plan to be actively engaged beyond their bistro visit. Only those who were already involved in Homelike’s activities and/or related social work were willing to be actively engaged with the issues also in the future. That said, StreetSauce appears to serve only as a partial contribution to Homelike’s activities, rather than as a stand-alone socially beneficial service.
Instead of trying to solve the problematic existential situation of the homeless women involved, the StreetSauce project aims for a playful interaction and support beyond the scope of usual charity help. Still, the playful bistro engagement has raised certain ethical issues. First, there is a risk that the “silly” conversations about the hypothetical flavors of homeless life might divert visitors’ attention from the actual—no doubt serious—issues around female homelessness. In other words, the playful interaction prompted by StreetSauce might well result in a false notion of homelessness as a fun and easy life situation. Second, as a speculative service performed on the street, with real people rather than through personas or scenarios developed in a research lab, StreetSauce has actual immediate consequences for those who are involved. The impromptu, unscripted nature of the project makes it hard to control for situations that might be potentially harmful to the participants. An example would be the negative reactions from some visitors concerned with the cleanliness of the StreetSauce food—and by extension the cleanliness of the people who made it—which for some chefs was painful.
These ethical issues call for a careful design planning to minimize potential risks, while at the same time avoiding unnecessary determinism. Designing toward a greater sense of control should not compromise the potential for chance and ambiguity embedded in the project, where the primary aim is to generate new and often surprising interactions in mundane street settings. The risks associated with the unscripted and sometimes unpredictable course of the StreetSauce speculation are in many ways aligned with the unpredictable dynamics of everyday life, especially when lived on a street. In this sense, speculation (according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, “ideas or guesses about something that is not completely known”) seems to offer a suitable method to stimulate empathetic engagement with and among individuals for whom uncertainty is a “daily bread.”
The speculative component of the bistro generated immediate real-life experiences that were in some way meaningful to all involved parties: Along with the playful narrative sauces, some chefs have overcome their initial shyness and become more confident when interacting with bistro visitors. On the other hand, visitors got a chance to know homeless people in a new light, as “normal,” decent, and approachable individuals. Finally, the impromptu speculation performed at the bistro, with all the surprise moments involved, generated valuable feedback that helped us to navigate the gradual iteration of the design and make better sense of StreetSauce as a design research project. Although we realize that these insights are not yet solid enough to yield any firm conclusions, we suggest that if performed sensitively, speculation can offer a useful instrument with which to explore new, playful, but at the same time productive approaches to socially aware service design. We believe that, as a form of practice-based inquiry, speculation can function as a way to advance service design methods reflecting the processual and often unpredictable character of the world.
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Markéta Dolejšová is a Ph.D. candidate at National University of Singapore writing her thesis about design research through edible speculation. She has initiated several food design projects, including HotKarot & OpenSauce, Fermentation GutHub, and Food Futures Salon. email@example.com
Tereza Lišková is editor in chief of Material Times magazine and a founding member of Cancel356 group, with whom she designed the HotKarot & OpenSauce project. She is a co-author of the “Made by Hands” series focused on the combination of new technologies with traditional techniques and methods of production. firstname.lastname@example.org
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