speculative everything

We took a deeper dive into the definitions of Speculative and Critical Design, using the text Speculative Everything by Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby as a launchpad for our discussion.

Speculative Design...

Creates not only things, but ideas
Is a forward-thinking process
Has a message that is as important as the product itself

On the most basic level, [Critical design] is about questioning underlying assumptions in the design itself, on the next level it is directed at the technology industry and its market-driven limitations, and beyond that, general social theory, politics, and ideology.
— Speculative Everything, p 35

Examples of speculative design from Speculative Everything by Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby.

design considerations


How will your users interact with the product?
What does it mean to release it to the Open Source / DIY community?


How will your project be realized? Crowdfunding? Partnerships? Expertise?


What story will you tell people to justify this product?
How will you describe the consequences or practical and social benefits?


What is the intention behind the product?


What set of values is the product promoting or demoting?


What are the consequences of this product's existence? 
What are the ethical implications?
What does it mean to introduce a genetically modified organism into nature?

Designers make a contract with the society to produce something that addresses a need or want. There is an implicit mandate that our stuff needs to find a place in their daily lives.
— Orkan Telhan

A thought exercise comparing products with similar goals can help us understand the tradeoffs involved in critical design.
(From left to right) The Radio in a Bag, the boombox, the sixties radio, and the iPod all have the goal of allowing their users to listen to music. However, each product represents a unique, critical solution to this end goal. We compared and contrasted the four music listening devices on metrics such as component visibility, music quality, and price. These metrics help us understand the differing sets of values underlying each design. For example, the Radio in a Bag provides a completely transparent interface between the user and the machine, maximizing component visibility. In contrast, the blaster boombox starts abstracting components into functional groups, represented as buttons to the users. The sixties radio and iPod further abstract technical components, valuing simple interfaces.

All good design is critical.
— Speculative Everything, p 35

The product comparison helped us to understand that every engineer designing the next generation music-listening device is inherently critical of the previous generation. Each design challenges the previous values of the last product. 


project proposals

The four teams presented their first proposals for the biological design project, then opened the floor to critical questions from the rest of the class

  1. Bacter Bear
    MFC packaged in a Teddy Bear, the classic interactive playmate toy
  2. Chitin Camera
    Camera constructed from Chitin, the protein in insect and mollusk exoskeletons
  3. Bio Tiles
    Modular tiles with a custom, respirating microbiome to improve urban environments degraded by transportation
  4. World Wide Web
    International sculpture installations by GMO Spiders


microbiome of the built environment

In the lab, we prepared swab samples taken from the built environment for amplification and analysis next week.
Before swabbing, we learned about some of the technologies that have revolutionized the field of microbiology in the past few decades. In the past, microbiologists would culture microbes, resulting in a microbial signature that was not representative of the natural world. Often, these cultures would be dominated by fast growing species, which includes many pathogens.  This process of culturing microorganisms gives lots of information about the organism, but to date it is estimated that only about 1% of all microbes in nature can be grown in the lab.  

Now, next generation sequencing technologies allow microbiologists to take samples from the natural environment, then replicate and analyze genetic information taken directly from microorganisms in their natural habitats. This allows researchers to explore a greater degree of microbial diversity than is possible using standard cultivation dependent approaches.  This technology led to the development of metagenomics (also known as environmental genomics), the study of uncultured microorganisms from natural samples, via the following steps:

Visualizations produced by the QIIME bioinformatics pipeline.

Visualizations produced by the QIIME bioinformatics pipeline.

  1. Sample collection and DNA extraction: Samples are collected from the environment and the DNA extracted in bulk from all the microorganisms present in the sample. 
  2. Replication / Amplification: PCR can produce thousands to millions of copies of a particular DNA sequence that is used to ID each microorganism. 
  3. Verification: Gel Electrophoresis is used to verify that the PCR was successful
  4. DNA Sequencing: High throughput sequencing platforms are used to give a read out of the nucleotide sequence of each PCR product. 
  5. Analysis: Computational bioinformatics tools such as QIIME can help us analyze the microbial signatures of these samples

Microbes are everywhere. Mircrobiologists are moving away from only studying the microbiome of the natural world, they are taking samples from the built world, our urban environment. There is also an expansion in the types of microbes that scientists are focusing on. Instead of simply looking at pathogens and other organisms that damage structures or detriment living conditions, they are exploring the overall biodiversity of these new environments.

Diversity can be quantified by:

  1. Richness: the number of different organisms present in a particular environment
  2. Evenness: the measure of relative abundance of the different organisms making up the richness of an environment

the DNA Extraction lab protocol (summarized)

  1. Prepare the Sample
  2. Lyse the Cells
  3. Remove Inhibitors
  4. Bind DNA
  5. Wash
  6. Elute

All of these steps were done using the MoBio PowerSoil DNA Isolation Kit, in preparation for the PCR process next week.
We look forward to seeing the results, the microbial signatures of our swab samples! Students took samples in a variety of places, from phone booths to public keyboards to shared kitchens.


The Earth Microbiome Project : attempt to characterize global taxonomic and functional diversity of microbes across the planet and mankind
QIIME : an open-source bioinformatics pipeline (developed in part by researchers at Penn!)
PCR: an animation to illuminate the technique of the Polymerase Chain Reaction

"Microbiomics: the next big thing?" by Lisa J. Bain
"Urban Microbiomes and Urban Ecology: How do microbes in the built environment affect human sustainability in cities?" by Gary M. King