How can schools best be organised to prepare students for the rapidly changing world they are set to enter? Joe Lindley (Highwire, Lancaster University) and I opened the doors of the ‘Near Future School’ to 12 pupils from Manchester Communication Academy to explore a new, participatory method – design fiction – to engage with this question.
Design fictions are speculative accounts of preferred futures that are a little bit science fiction and a little bit science fact. The purpose is to propose new ideas, products or scenarios and then ‘prototype’ them by asking people to write stories about what would happen if, for example, their teacher was replaced by a robot that would be able to always recognise, respond to and reward in a fair way to what they wanted and what they did? The purpose of the design fiction, especially employing ways of thinking about the future – such as the future mundane where the future is as everyday and partially annoying and broken as the present – to develop and engage with ideas in relation to the granular and unpredictable dynamics come together in the complex and crooked fibres of social life.
The new and innovative dimension of the project is that we are working with pupils to co-produce design fictions, with the aim of developing a participatory process that enables young people and adults to envision and more towards preferable educational and social futures.
To facilitate the process we developed a series of activities and paper-based prompts to get the pupils to, one, think of things they like and dislike about their school, then they created characters that populated the story world, then to create ideas for scenarios or products they find interesting (making their school better or worse) and then write stories to locate these prototype ideas in a story world. The purpose of locating the design idea in a story world is to consider how people might interact with the new product or service.
My favourite idea that someone came up with was a wind-up drone that would be wound-up and fly around shouting insults at people to wind them up in turn. There were however a lot of sensible ideas where the pupils were trying to figure out ways that bullies would be found out, that their hard work would be recognised and rewarded, and perhaps above all that they would be listened to. Interestingly, the class teacher also wrote a story where the teacher would have what the students wanted into her head but it was impossible for her to respond because they all wanted different things. In this she was using a design fiction to communicate to her pupils the extant, systemic and near impossible challenges that teachers face on a daily basis – on trying to please everyone.
We’d like to thank Paul Bason and Hayley Walsh from Digital Innovation (‘The Shed’) for hosting us and making the day possible. And props to Nic Whitton!