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Primer 2017: A Speculative Conference

Drawing a crowd of designers, educators, futurists, and social innovators, Primer2017—the first dedicated speculative futures conference—opened in style at the grand Grey Area theatre in the Mission district of San Francisco.

Organized by Phil Balagtas, the founding member of the San Francisco based Speculative Futures meet-up, the two day conference promised a range of presentations and workshops from designers, strategists, and educators who are ‘using speculative and futures design thinking as a tool to create strategies for addressing the evolving world and the emerging technologies and issues that are unfolding within it.’

Founded in 2015, the Speculative Futures meet-up has attracted many followers from the Bay area (now with a growing membership of more than 900), and another chapter recently opened up in Austin. In addition to providing a platform for speculative design discussions, the meet-up has run various training workshops keen to demonstrate and implement the benefits of futures design methods and strategies to the fast-paced tech-focused corporations in the Bay Area.

Based on the theme of Emergent Pathways, the conference aimed to forge connections between fields and disciplines. It began by opening up a casual debate around terminology between advocates of the terms speculative and critical design and those who prefer the term ‘design fiction.’

Although wide ranging and broad, this conference was the beginning of a very much needed platform for open discussion and critique around the global and local impacts of speculative design and futures thinking in commercial, educational and cultural practices.

In the current political climate, all culture-providers—including designers—are considering their role. With cultural funding on the chopping block, the effectiveness of practices that foster curiosity and enquiry in the public is a vitally important topic.

Those able to join the opening party at Parisoma were treated to a selection of short presentations called “lightning talks,” including those by Joseph Kappes of Cooper and RCA professor and speculative designer J. Paul Neeley. Neeley introduced nightnight.??? , a website plugin that turns your website off at night, encouraging you to log off and sleep—a spin off product from his happiness optimization company, Masamichi Souzou.

To set us up for a full day session of back-to-back speakers, the doors opened early for breakfast networking fueled by infamous power foods Soylent and Kind granola bars.

Visitors conduct a job interview for 2035 with the HyperMind supercomputer. Image from Christian Ervin’s talk discussing the Museum of the Futures Machinic Life exhibition at the World Government Summit in Dubai implemented by Tellart for the Prime Ministers Office, UAE.

We kicked off the opening session with some techno utopian visual candy of Tellart‘s futures work for the Prime Minister’s office of United Arab Emirates and their Museum of the Future initiative, entitled ‘The Future Is Dead, Long Live the Future.” Design director, Christian Ervin shared insight into Tellart’s futures thinking principles and gave an overview of the range of interactive prototypes and immersive scenarios built for the Museum.

Range of futures techniques implemented by Tellarts during the production for UAE’s Museum of the Future initiative

Other conference highlights from the day’s presentations include one from Paolo Cardini, an associate professor of industrial design at RISD, who introduced his Souvenir From the Futures initiative—a more inclusive workshop approach to speculative design exploring ways to refocus the creation of objects and futures from a global perspective.

Paolo Cardini’s questions the western idea of the future and how to reformulate our assumptions for a more inclusive social critique. His futures workshops in India and Iran encourage participants to construct their image and understandings of the future outside of external influences with the help of local crafts people.


Image from Paolo Cardini’s Deglobalizer project showcased during Design Days Dubai in 2014 . An IKEAHACKING project where global standard designed objects and local handcrafting converge to a common recognizable hybrid.

Beverley May of The Concepts Lab shared her process of combining user centered design thinking with various futuring techniques to design the future dashboard of an autonomous vehicle. Andrés Valencia, co-founder of Change Innovation, inspired us all with his plan to create a more socially engaged design resistance in Guadalajara.

Andres Valencia’s shares a series of stills from Mexico 2000 (1983) The first satirical sci-fi he saw set in a utopian alternative future of Mexico where everyone is healthy and eating fruit, politicians wear traditional costumes and police officers are also friendly tour guides.

After a lunch break, the talks turned towards the architectural fictions by Jason Kelly Johnson, a critical overview of why ‘speculative design works by not working’ from James Pierce, and insights into the role of VR research on social rituals and immersive ideation spaces for Steelcase by Scott Fisher & Joshua McVeigh-Schultz

Theater of Lost Species digital menagerie project from Jason Kelly Johnson’s Future Cities Lab


James Pierce shares his concrete encased Obscura 1C Digital Camera. Part of his counterfunctional thesis exploring how speculative design intentionally creates friction along the way to pragmatic design solutions.


In-world VR ideation space from from Joshua McVeigh-Schultz’s current work to envision the future of industrial design through a partnership with Steelcase’s Futures of Work group.


The final session ended with two compelling approaches to design and futuring from two very different practices. With her collection of morbidly curious, tantalizing and graphically disturbing ‘Simulating corpoREALITIES’, transdisciplinary designer Agi Haines shared her fascinating research and experiments exploring the body as material for speculation. Her presentation explored ways the human body might use emerging technologies to adapt to an ever changing world with design proposals, including bioprinted hybrid organs using cells from various non-human species, and transhuman designer babies evolved to adapt to a changing climate.

Design Interactions graduate and PhD researcher at Transtechnology Research, Plymouth University., Agi Haines shared her Simulating corpoREALITIES talk discussing work focused on the design of the human body.


Image from Agi Haines Transfigurations project depicting designs for potential body enhancements that have been surgically implemented to benefit the child in a changing climate. In this instance extending the skin on the scalp to increase surface area for faster heat dissipation.


An inflatable drone that learns to adapt to its space with a built in artificial neural network based on Agi Haines’ brain data from her Drones With Desires project.


The final keynote came from Carmen Aguilar y Wedge and Ashley Baccus-Clark of Hyphen-Labs and their head spinning NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism NSAF Not Safe As Fuck project. Created by and for women of color, and situated in a multi-layered possible future “neurocosmetology lab” where no groups are excluded, Hyphen-Labs presented their scientific research combined with a series of speculative design products, such as camera earrings that can record police altercations, camouflage fabrics and dichroic visors that prevent facial recognition, and transcranial hair braid electrodes to stimulate an increased flow of concentration.

UV Beams is the foundation to a range of speculative products ideas generated by Hyphen-Labs. Perplexed by the eurocentric sunscreens that leave white residue on darker complexions, they generated their own clear, matte sunblock formulation for skin with high melanin content.


Octavia are a set of hair braid transcranial electrodes speculative product from Hyphen Labs NSAF ‘neuro cosmetology lab’.


Range of speculative products from Hyphen Labs NeuroSpecualtive AfroFeminism project on display at the Primer 2017 conference. Image Credit: Primer.

In addition to the series of talks, the Primer conference exhibited a small range of works by visiting speakers and students of design from California College Of Arts, and hosted a series of three workshops conducted by Scott Paterson of IDEO, Jose de la O of Cooperativa Panorámica and J Paul Neeley.

Title image comes from Christian Ervin’s talk at Primer2017 in the magnificent Grey Area theatre describing Tellart’s tangible futures approach to generating high-fidelity theatrical scenarios. Image credit: Primer

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