Imagining the Future of Foods Through Speculative Design


Food futures are relevant to the Sustainable Development Goals 2 of zero hunger, 3 of good health and well-being, and 12 on responsible consumption and production. Other than conventional food production, trends in food track the rise in synthetic food development. However, the consideration of future food should go beyond its production – one should consider as well, how and why of consumption. This paper presents a study that aims to apply speculative design to create future food using digital technology. A web-based Future Foods Creator app has been developed to test the use of digital technology to implement speculative design. The app was launched and tested by 15 participants at an exhibition as a proof-of-concept demonstration.

Keywords-speculative design, art-science, future of foods, SDGs

1. Introduction

The project was developed as a result of an idea that was formulated during a participatory-speculative design workshop in April 25, 2018 that involved the participation of 15 stakeholders in all areas of ageing-related research and services. Food and nutrition were among the provocative issues that were discussed during the workshop, and the decision to create the app was the result of that inspiration. The app was launched during a Making and Doing Exhibition as part of the Society for the Social Studies of Science (4S) Meeting in Sydney on August 28, 2018.

The future of food is important because of its relevance to the Sustainable Development Goals 2 of zero hunger, 3 of good health and well-being, and 12 on responsible consumption and production. The future of food is no longer about the development of GMO or lab-grown synthetic meats (Kleeman 2018), or even about latest food trends (raw foods, slow foods, etc) – rather, it is as much about how and why we consume, and what draws us to consume the foods, as in the food product itself. The consideration of future food here also includes a consideration into the forms and presentation of foods, from those with long-term impact and to those that will fade as the fad dissipates.

This paper will consider speculative design as an approach that culminated in the development of the Future Foods Creator. The second section will provide the conceptual background on speculative design append its applied philosophy. The third section will briefly discuss the process underlying the Future Foods Creator design from the storyboarding to the coding. Section four will report on the results and outcomes of launching the Future Foods Creator, with section five briefly discussing future possibilities for the app.

2. Speculative Design as Art-Science Approach to Designing the Future

Design is a process of fabrication and invention, one that could translate different concepts coming from different knowledge fields into a coherent narrative with material outcomes; such outcomes range from problem identification to solutions prototyping. These material outcomes also include making space for what one may not have anticipated or known and including preparing for the possibility that the outcome of the design may not always translate into the intended and envisioned.

Design is a methodology, a practice of form, that could marshal together logic, precision, lateral-thinking, philosophical provocations, and narrative construction. The understanding of design process involves understanding the logic of how different parts, even if they don’t belong to the same systems or ontology, connect. Developing an understanding of more general strategies and characteristics underlying a design process allows one to circumvent the unknown or hidden (also known as the blackbox) to reverse engineer the present to backcast between a projected future and the present, before extrapolating towards possible/plausible futures. Circumventing the unknown does not dismiss what is not knowable or not-yet-knowable. Rather, it is about using what we could know to speculate or predict on what is outside present knowledge capacity by projecting from the logic of the known. In the case of engineering design that is derived from technology that had been successfully implemented as the result of the successful operationalization of an underlying science, extant knowledge can prevail.

However, when it comes to projecting from extant scientific epistemology, there lies a possibility for a knowledge structure to be completely disrupted and falsified. Therefore, it is important for designers, regardless of which knowledge fields they are operating from, to look beyond their present problem to conjecture how external changes could produce not-yet-existing issues. Reeves et. al (2016) talks about the typification that emerges from the categorization of existing knowledge stocks where the expectations of the future are usually formed, although they acknowledge that the future is open and unstable, and that more data must be collected to improve forecasting. On the other hand, pragmatic projections underlie the determination of the designable.

Speculative design incorporates interdisciplinary forms of speculative practices in a design narrative; the practices range from designing not yet available scenarios to experimenting with new techniques, either through the design process or from bringing together different knowledge practices that create the foundation to a new knowledge or technology. There is novelty in speculative design; nevertheless, that novelty is constituted less by the approach being new or unprecedented, and more by the unexpected outcomes such an approach could produce. Incorporating speculation into the creative process goes from reconstituting what we thought we knew or understand about the status quo, to imagining a condition, technology, and interaction that could have been inspired out of reconsidering present impossibilities. In considering these impossibilities, it is crucial to consider whether such possibilities/impossibilities are due to ontological or epistemological obstacles, or inviolable constraints imposed by the laws of nature.

As speculative design is a transdisciplinary research methodology that contain within them, direct and indirect counterparts in the form of creative prototyping (Graham et al 2014), studio laboratory (Salter et al 2017), critical design (Neeley and Montgomery 2016, de Oliviera 2016), adversarial design (DiSalvo 2012), it is much more than creating a solution or even a range of solutions – it is also about predicting possibilities that could arise from these solutions, including outcomes that are not intended by presumed solutions. Unintended outcomes are not necessarily caused by poor design methodologies – rather, it is the consequence of having a design interact with a very complex environment or ecosystem. When a participatory component is added into the mix, the design brings together co-designers with different backgrounds, expertise, lived experiences, and belief systems to collaborate on designing problems and accompanying solutions to the problems.

Some of these co-designers are citizen designers with no professional training in design. This lack of training does not impede but could add to imagining possibilities that are not encumbered by minor technicalities. That undergirds the thought and intent behind the Future Foods Creator we have developed, which begun as an idea conceived from a participatory design workshop that is part of a series of workshops aimed at provoking participants to venture into unfamiliar territories. Facilitators of these workshops are fully aware that that each participant has varying degrees of knowledge when it comes to latest technological trends. Moreover, what an individual conceived of as a preferable future for one may not translate into being preferable, or even sensible, for all. In addition, the aspiration to novelty in speculative design is not about competing to come up with an unconsidered idea– rather, the point of speculation in advancing novelty is to create a space for destabilizing and displacing existing biases and expectations so that no further constraints are imposed by the individual limitations or extant expertise.

Designing for a plausible future scenario is not merely about developing solutions; rather, it starts from problem creation through an iterative process of formulating a problem statement. Problem creation starts from identifying what constitutes the nature of a problem, and the narrative as well as characteristics of the problem. Given that design-solutions involved the targeting of socio-technical problems, one will have to differentiate the social from the science/technological while setting out how each side is bound to the other. Problem creation is a process of scenario construction to negotiate how the problem may transform over time, and how its relevance could take on a different dimension due to interactions internal and external to the problem’s ecosystem. It is also a process of building priorities so that the development of solutions could be concentrated on core concern of the problem.

When speculative design is deployed to the Future Foods Creator design, it has the dual role of influencing the construction as well as content of the app – both construction and content could be open to co-designing input from non-primary designers, as well as possess the possibility of being turned into a toolkit for churning out new and not previously considered possibilities. There are speculative characteristics to the digital platform as interactions that take place on them could produce emergent situations whereby human behavior could never be constrained, especially since hacks and exploits could be uncovered along the way. Therefore, the inclusion of speculative design allows apps to engage in the act of prototyping on the go.

2.1 Designing the Future Form of Food

Speculative design has been used to construct narratives on food cultures, such as in the development of new forms and practices of agriculture through the deployment of interaction design. According to DiSalvo (2012), food cultures represent a lively site of invention and reproduction of culture through design.

The case of the Future Foods Creator presented here, at its current developmental phase, is focused on soliciting input on the aesthetics of foods that had little to do with the nutritional content of the food. Even at this stage, the planning stage of the app development requires an accounting for known food types and forms, the manner of food preparation and packaging, dietary preferences, and eating habits. A more sophisticated version of the app would require an understanding of the fluidity of these categories and the subjective actions of the users despite the constraints imposed by the rudimentary form of that app.

The food app uses the format of a visual multiple-choice format to get users to experiment with various combinations although the designers of the app are aware that the choices may as much represent the curiosities of the users as their preferences – both choices are opened to further studies by psychologists and behavioural economists. At this point in time, there is not much data to go by in term of what the present app has collected, and we hope to spread its use further. But data collection is not the point of this paper.

2.2. Web-app based Speculative Design Approach

To the best of our knowledge, there is current no similar food app in the market that allows participative food creation, let alone creation of future food. Web is a good platform to allow potential participants to give their input based on the multiple-choice questions without the limitation of time and space. The Web can also provide presentation of future food with visuals and audio. Participants will be able to imagine what kind of food they are about to create by looking at the incrementally designed food prototype.

Figure 1: From problem creation to initial prototype



Figure 2 Process underlying participatory-speculative design in the app design

 3. Storyboarding the app

This section will provide a critical description on the scripting of the app, starting from consideration of the intention for the app right to the coding. The app aims to understand consumer eating habits and preferences through a series of structured questions that had been designed to appeal to the visual of the users. But to get to the final version of the app, a process of building a storyline for delineating the intention of the app is involved. The endgame: to present a case of future food that is co-designed with those who will consume them, and whose lived experiences as consumers could potentially change the manner in which food are prepared to be more appealing to consumers while encouraging the consumption of better-quality foods. Of course, there is still some way to go to get to that point.

3.1 Developing the narrative of the app

Figure 3: Iterative Design Solution-Building

From its inception in a brainstorm to its initial prototyping phase, the app was developed with the intention of investigating food cultures that are tied as much to the personal as to the communal. The narrative script is designed to allow the gradual creation of food, which begins with ascertaining the dietary habits of the user, before building towards how the users could choose to consume the food of choice. The script was designed with feedback from a psychologist and with the assistance of a digital visual designer. The structured questions produce outcomes that build on the outcomes of the previous questions – the user is then shown the result of the choices made. The app also has a function that allows the user to evaluate the creations of other users as part of the process of consolidating data on how individual users in situated locations experiment with their dietary and food habits.

 3.2 Building the app’s structure

For the purpose of allowing participants to create a future food based on pre-selected criteria, a web-based Future Foods Creator app is developed as a proof-of-concept. The Future Foods Creator provides 7 questions that leads to a final future food “prototype”. The Future Foods Creator is developed using PHP, HTML, with Javascript and Cascading Style Sheet (CSS) deployed for interactive effects that aims to provide the participant with a more intuitive approach towards the type of future food they could create. The questions are designed to be simple and straight forward. The use of visual and audio queues aims to assist the participant to picture given possibilities of a criteria as he/she moves through the questions. After answering the final question, the participant is presented a final product of all the answers provided – this is when we present the final future food prototype.

The Future Foods Creator not only allows the creation of possible future food. There is also a “Rate a Future Food Prototype” option. A participant is encouraged to continue with the rating of his/her own new creation after it is presented. He/she is also able to rate a future food creation from other participants. The app does not only serve as a prototyping tool but also a rating tool.

 4. Results and Outcome

The Future Foods Creator app has been introduced during the Making and Doing session organized by the Society of Social Studies of Science in 2018. During the session, 15 participants used the app to create their future food. Only 5 out of all took part in the rating part of the app. Due to the small number of participants, the trend of future food cannot be determined at this moment. From the rating, however, we observed that most of the participants described their food creation as “fresh”, “alive” and “smooth”. At this point, it is not yet possible to confirm whether the choices are made as a matter of curious experimentation or do they represent the real preferences of the app users. Nevertheless, the implementation has served its purpose and can be used for further tests with new participants.

5. Going Forward

We hope to collaborate with dieticians, nutritionists and culinary experts to move into the next phase of the project so as to develop deeper layers of structured choices, then build the project into the next phase, which could include the launching of mobile app versions. This would of course require a larger proof of concept testing, involving more participants from multiple backgrounds, including the designers themselves. To make the app self-explanatory, we also intend to include a guidance video to go with it, although this would probably be after the app has attained sufficient level of sophistication.

The current design and presentation of the questions, including the visuals and audio, can be further improved. More importantly, an analytic function is in store in the next phase of the app to provide the users with a display as well as analysis of food creations.

6. Conclusion

Finally, speculative design has the potential not merely for designing to present problems but also for anticipating new problems that could arise through the process of co-designing outcomes that are iterative and never conclusive. The process of building scenario narratives is important to putting the creation of problem on equal ground with the design of solutions. The use of digital technology may bring advantages to the process of co-designing. Putting the process as an online web app may allow users to design via visuals and audio shown to the users. This paper presented the ideas to explore using web app to enable speculative design of future food creation. An app was developed to demonstrate the concepts and ideas in the Making and Doing Exhibition in Sydney as a proof of concept.


We would like to thank our participants for their valuable input. This research is funded by Lancaster seedcorn fund awarded to E. Tsekleves and M. Yong (SB-2018-SST-DOP-01), and Sunway Internal Grant to C.Lee (INT-2018-SINDS-JCI-01).We would like to acknowledge the feedback to the Future Foods Creator during its developmental stage as provided by M. Yong. We thank our digital illustrator, Sheryl Ching, for her contribution in the visual aspect of the Creator. We take this chance to thank the rest of our team: E Tsekleves, J Hwang, and S Giga for their collegiality in the course of running the ImaginAging project and the labour they had invested that made the development of the present work feasible.


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