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The Role of Fiction in Experiments Within Design, Art & Architecture

Autor:   •  February 22, 2019  •  2,398 Words (10 Pages)  •  100 Views

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will look exactly like humans – so much that we can fall in love with them? (Blade Runner, 1982) What if the Earth will get too polluted to live on – and we will have to build new cities elsewhere in the universe?

(WallE, 2008).

Design fiction raises the question of how what-if scenarios set up conditions for experimenting with and prototyping of possible futures in design practice as well as in design research. To answer that question it seems fruitful to inquire into the relation between fiction and experiments. How to prototype the future through experimentation?


Experimentation is an essential human skill useful for understanding our images of reality and the validity of scientific theories about the constitution of the world.

Experiments played a crucial role in Galileo’s rejection of Aristotle’s law of gravity. Also the works by for example Newton, Einstein or Leonardo da Vinci were based on experimental approaches. Experiments are central for many sciences, yet, we know very little about the role of fiction in these experiments. Fiction is not restricted to some whimsical ideas of the authors mind. A “wormhole”, which is a concept in Einstein’s theory of relativity (the correct scientific label is the ‘Einstein-Rosen Bridge’), is as fictitious as the notion of “cyberspace” in William Gibson’s novel


However, the purpose of using fiction in experiment in natural science is different from design, art and architecture. Here experiments are carried out with the goal of verifying, falsifying, or establishing the validity of a hypothesis (Koskinen et al., 2011; Steffen, 2012). The experiment can thus be seen as a method of testing - with the goal of explaining – a scientific view of how the world is.

In design, art and architecture the experiments take on a different role. In these practices the experiment is used primarily to construct images of future realities or opportunities in contrast to present realities. In design practice experimentation can serve a range of functions, for instance (i) trying out ideas about how to shape the future into a preferred state (Simon, 1969); (ii) criticising how capitalist interests, technology or design ideology constrain our everyday life (Dunne and Raby, 2001; Dunne, 1999); (iii) as a central tactic in urban interventions for promoting social change (Markussen, 2013). In design research and artistically inclined research practices, experiments typically serve an additional purpose, namely that of shedding light on specific research questions (Brandt and Binder, 2007; Niedderer and Roworth-Stokes, 2007). For instance, in Auger & Loizeau’s Audio Tooth Implant experiments were used to explore a post-humanist future where the human body has been augmented through technology. But they were also addressing a design research question: What are the ultimate consequences of shrinking mobile technologies?



It is through the experiment that designers, architects and artists can explore critical questions, or address particular phenomena or aspects of our lives, investigate problems or remove problems. Sometimes these experiments lead to a better world, a higher quality of life. Sometimes they seem to do the opposite: create new problems. This paper will not evaluate this aspect of the experiment. Our aim is instead to increase knowledge of how fiction can be used as part of experimenting in design research. We believe that the best way of gaining this knowledge is to start by analysing how fiction is at stake in 6 selected case projects. By ‘fiction’ we do not understand that which is non-real. Rather we find it seems more meaningful to operate with a continuum of fictionality, which design fictions can embed either conceptually or materially. At one end of the scale we would have the purely speculative realm of design proposals that never sees the living daylight. At the other end, design fictions materialized to various degrees in the form of working prototypes, para-functional objects, or even entire cities. Rather than characterizing fiction in terms of existence, we find it more meaningful to understand fiction according to two opposite aims of constructing them: utopia and dystopia.


Utopias have existed since the beginning of humanity. The first writing known is Plato’s book The Republic dating back to 380 B.C., and much later Thomas Moore’s Utopia from 1516. The questions spurring the construction of utopias are timeless: How to make the world better? How can we be living differently, with different economics system, scientific progress, human evolution, different political aspect – and perhaps new values?

An utopia can be defined as an ideal community or an imaginary society or place that contains highly desirable or perfect qualities. Qualities that make us feel good and happy. An utopia is therefore often a highly pleasant place, a positive place, a place that makes us feel comfortable. Utopia is also the place of freedom – a place we can fully enjoy, have fun in and relax in. A dystopia is, like utopia, an imaginary society or place – set in a speculative future, characterized by elements that are opposite to those associated with utopia. Dystopias contain qualities that make us feel uncomfortable or bad; that gives us the feeling “that we shouldn’t be there”. A dystopia is a place in which people live dehumanized or fearful lives, in which everything seems unpleasant or uncanny (as we know it from many science fiction films). Dystopias contain – directly or indirectly – a critique of our society – as it is today.

The boundary between utopia and dystopia is not clear-cut, as the reader will experience through our pool of examples, many projects includes both utopian and dystopian qualities. That is, they involve utopian

qualities – but are at the same time critical. The question is: critical in relation to what? What types of fiction do they represent?

Design Fiction whether in the form of utopian or dystopian experiments deals with the imagination and materialization of possible futures. But what is the role of fiction in these possible futures? We are aiming at developing a more detailed understanding of the role of fiction in design experiments by using the following 5 criteria: (1) “What if”-scenarios


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