Cultivating activism with speculative design

Authors: Richmond Wong, Nick Merrill
Posted: Fri, December 18, 2020 - 4:29:36

As design researchers, we love our speculative methods—methods for imagining possible futures—and opening them up to discussion and critique. But what good do they do? Designing speculative futures to discuss values, ethics, safety, and security can feel naive, as fellow researchers are being dismissed for doing the work of ethics.

We want to believe that to imagine possible futures is to be able to change them: to surface discussions of social values and ethics so that we may imagine worlds to work toward (or avoid). But, as prior work has observed, who gets to speculate matters a great deal [1]. Of course, scholarly production of speculative artifacts has its place. But can it make change—lasting change—on the ground?

Our past work has used speculative designs—creating fictional products, headlines, and scenarios for others to react to and play within—to surface discussion and consideration of values, ethics, and alternative notions of security or safety [2,3]. We envisioned these as techniques that could be adopted within existing product design practices. 

In a (perhaps subtle) shift, we discuss the role speculative methods may have in fostering activism and dissent, particularly among so-called rank-and-file tech workers such as designers, UX professionals, and engineers.

This concept is not without precedent. Turkopticon, a platform for organizing Mechanical Turk workers, has created lasting infrastructures for workers mobilizing on the platform [4]. Prior work has also involved activists in speculative practices; Asad et al. had activists produce prototypes that expressed their particular needs [5]. In some of our own prior work, we describe infrastructural speculations: a call to use speculative design techniques to center systems of power and imagine alternative ones in our speculative work—questions that are often relegated to the background when speculating about technology and use [6].

We’re motivated by the desire to produce critically oriented practices that can become part of a lasting infrastructure among tech workers—a practice for critiquing technology as common as think-alouds or user personas are for building them. In the midst of widespread public skepticism of technology companies, and a fair share of tech-worker-led dissent and activism (via letter writing, walkouts, and other forms of organizing), there is an opportunity to identify, describe, and discuss points of dissent and refusal of “business as usual.” Speculative methods allow us to imagine, construct, and communicate alternative social relationships and configurations of power. So a critical, speculative method could, with groundwork, become an industry-wide practice for fostering such dissent. 

Yet, as Timnit Gebru’s recent dismissal from Google, and broader dismissals of activist-workers (many of whom are PoC, women, trans, and nonbinary) across technology companies illustrate, fostering dissent among tech workers requires more than new speculative techniques. It requires social and organizational change; it requires solidarity among workers. Even if someone comes armed with worthy critique, without worker organizing, their analyses can be met with outright hostility. 

We are excited to see the development of new tools and methods for surfacing questions related to values, ethics, bias, and more, often combining speculative methods with approaches such as design fiction, value sensitive design, or participatory design. But many of these interventions—including our own, at times—have abstracted away social issues crucial to the potential adoption and use of these tools: questions of workplace power, the precarity and risk involved in organizing or critiquing, and who carries the burden of that precarity. Our work, which centers structures of economic power and capital, has not engaged deeply enough on how these forces shape the adoption of our practices.

What can speculative practices do for activism? We approach this question humbly. Design, even with a critical orientation, cannot “solve” technology’s problems without touching the social and political structures within which these technologies, and their development, are entangled. Speculative design alone will not save us. Simply raising conversations will not necessarily lead to change. Without an underlying political commitment, we risk that speculative work gets re-appropriated by the systems we attempt to critique [7]. Worse, we risk ignoring the hard groundwork already done by activists, union organizers, and people working in local communities to advocate for more fair, just technical practices.

As we look toward our future work with these practices, we ask ourselves: What pragmatic and tactical work can speculative practices do today to help workers, activists, educators, and organizers already working on the ground to achieve their goals? And to help people who are beginning to ask critical questions become more inclined toward activism?

Our new challenge is to use speculative design to create methods difficult for corporations to co-opt, perhaps methods that take place outside of the corporate world. Even the dystopian visions of speculative methods are seen by some as the next disruptive product. 

Toward these ends, and building on the work of colleagues and co-conspirators, we suggest: 

  • Changing when/where speculative design is done. Deploy speculative design outside of work contexts. While user-centered design methods take place in contexts of work, speculative methods for critique should take place in contexts of organizing and activism.

  • Changing with/for whom speculative work is done. Create speculative designs with and for more targeted activist audiences, rather than defaulting to sharing them broadly for general public discussion. Activists are one audience. But speculative work can also make the comfortable, such as the C-suite, uncomfortable. These audiences should not be ignored either.

  • Changing what speculations are about. Shift speculative designs away from easy-to-reappropriate imagined products toward depicting futures through other forms

This process is easier described than enacted. Making the methods, then mobilizing them, takes significant work, and academics will need to work with activists on the ground. Our goal in sharing these reflections is to inspire students, researchers, and practitioners to join in doing that work; to expand and (re)orient speculative methods to further justice and activism, joining existing critical perspectives on design methods [8]. Speculative methods have the capacity to inspire meaningful change, meaningful dissent. We hope our critical self-reflection will spark interest in building reusable, dare we say dangerous methods for fostering activism and dissent. We hope these questions will help our community build them.

* Both authors contributed equally to this piece. 


1. O’Leary, J.T., Zewde, S., Mankoff, J., and Rosner, D.K. Who gets to future? Race, representation, and design methods in Africatown. Proc. of the 2019 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 1–13; 

2. Merrill, N. 2020. Security fictions: Bridging speculative design and computer security. Proc. of the 2020 ACM Designing Interactive Systems Conference, 1727–1735;

3. Wong, R.Y., Mulligan, D.K., Van Wyk, E., Pierce, J., and Chuang, J. Eliciting values reflections by engaging privacy futures using design workbooks. Proc. of the ACM on Human Computer Interaction 1, CSCW. 2017; 

4. Irani, L. and Silberman, M.S. 2014. From critical design to critical infrastructure. Interactions 21, 4 (2014), 32–35; 

5. Asad, M., Fox, S., and Le Dantec, C.A. Speculative activist technologies. Proc. of iConference 2014; 

6. Wong, R.Y., Khovanskaya, V., Fox, S.E., Merrill, N., and Sengers, P. Infrastructural speculations: Tactics for designing and interrogating lifeworlds. Proc. of the 2020 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 1–15; 

7. Wong, R.Y. and Khovanskaya, V. Speculative design in HCI: From corporate imaginations to critical orientations. In New Directions in 3rd Wave HCI. M. Filimowicz, ed. Springer, 2018, 175–202; 

8. Schultz, T., Abdulla, D., Ansari, A., Canlı, E., Keshavarz, M., Kiem, M., Prado de O. Martins, L., and Vieira de Oliveira, P.J.S. What is at stake with decolonizing design? A roundtable. Design and Culture 10, 1 (2018), 81–101; 

Posted in: on Fri, December 18, 2020 - 4:29:36

Richmond Wong

Richmond Wong ( is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California Berkeley Center for Long-Term Cybersecurity. His research focuses on how technology professionals address social values and ethical issues in their work, and on developing design-centered methods to surface discussion of ethical issues related to technology. [email protected]
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Nick Merrill

Nick Merrill is a researcher at the UC Berkeley Center for Long-Term Cybersecurity, where he directs the Daylight Lab. He is interested in the social process of threat identification: how and why people identify particular security threats, and who gets to do so. [email protected]
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