‘Dear Diary;

As I was heading off to work today on my self-driving bike, I accidentally brushed a pedestrian’s shoulder. It was the most magical moment of my existence. I miss that physical contact.’

This is one of the ‘letters of the future’ that were the starting point of the 11 hackathons during which over 150 Lebanese design and architecture students investigated, in a playful manner, the effects of technology on future human needs. The outcomes are presented as part of the Speculative Needs XOXO exhibition, initiated by the MENA Design Research Centre and on show at Beirut Design Week this year, which – as its overarching theme – poses the question: is design a need? 

Eat Yourself, which feeds the body directly from harvested nourishment

As we walk around the ‘conversation pieces’, which hover between reality and fiction, the exhibition’s curators Tatiana Toutikian and Hind Chammas explain the speculative futures which the objects – ranging from a tolerance compass to flesh coins – represent.

How are you answering the question ‘Is Design a Need?’ through your exhibition?

Tatiana Toutikian: What’s interesting about this year’s Beirut Design Week theme is that it’s already self-critical. The question advocates critical design. In the preparation for the Speculative Needs XOXO exhibition, we turned the question around a bit and asked ourselves: what do we need design for? As design is being commercialized, people have to design for other people. But what if design acts more as an autonomous entity? Like art, which can stand on its own.

The FOMO* Breather informs you of nearby social events, then provides a supply of oxygen in case of panicked hyperventilation. *FOMO is an abbreviation of Fear Of Missing Out, a common occurance among young people in the age of social media

This opens up the possibility of using design as a tool to explore future scenarios. We explore topics that are usually considered dark subjects by designers and as a result don’t get talked about. Think body mutation, cybercrime and increased surveillance.

Hind Chammas: We are inviting designers to be more aware of the power and impact their designs and creations have on our society. We encourage them to be more active in shaping the future. It’s something they can do as designers, but at the same time it’s a huge responsibility.

DNA Weddings – guests give the gift of their own DNA to improve the happy couple's reproductive prospects in an increasingly competitive world

Is critical design thinking part of a design education in Lebanon or was the approach completely new for the participating students?
Tatiana Toutikian: We both studied abroad in Europe. In Finland, where I studied, design thinking was very present. Here in Lebanon design education is very segmented into disciplines. Through the workshops we organized, we want to introduce new ways of design thinking. It’s already happening a bit at universities, but never in terms of fiction. We tried to develop this new approach and create a framework that students can use in the future too.

Hind Chammas: We created our own method. Instead of simply telling a student to think of the repercussions of technology, we use fictional letters from the future, saying things like: ‘I’m in my bathroom and I can’t get out because my house is surveilling me all the time. What do I do?’ Then they start to think within the scenario.

The exhibition is divided into three themes: Body Mutation, Digital Omnipresence and Human Glyphs/Glitches. How did you come up with these?
Hind Chammas: We chose these topics because they are quite problematic. Promising and worrying at the same time. They are related to current events and developments, so the students could relate to them and work naturally with them. Even though they represent speculative fiction, they are still rooted in reality.

Face Brace, a Human Glitches project

Face Brace rehabilitates socially awkward smartphone users by training them to make eye contact 

Kind of like Netflix’s sci-fi anthology series Black Mirror?
Tatiana Toutikian: Exactly. The letters represent fictions that aren’t actually that far away from reality. Scientists are already working on genetic manipulation that could for example alter the DNA of an embryo to give the child blue eyes. And at the same time design is increasingly democratized, allowing people to 3D print customized products at home for instance.

What if these phenomena would come together and allow people to modify their bodies with a simple home kit? The Eye Kit, a simple home kit, simplifies the procedure of altering or engineering the genetic material of human eyes for non-medical people. It’s fictional, but raises discussion about the implications of certain innovations. What if they were used in a different context?

Eye Kit, a Body Mutation project

What about the rise of social media?
Tatiana Toutikian: It’s affecting human interaction a lot. We are enhancing our ability to look our best on our online profiles but not in real life. Instagrammers are getting paid because they look good. What if this system would be integrated in our offline lives? If you could pay with your looks? Imagine walking into a restaurant and the waiter first compares your face with that of the perfect specimen, and your bill would be affected by its results. That’s what Beauty Currency explores.

Hind Chammas: We are also getting more and more socially awkward because of our smartphone usage. We have difficulty looking people in the eye. The Face Brace retrains the eyes again, commenting on our current behaviour in a funny way.

Tatiana Toutikian: Apart from social media, services like Spotify and YouTube caught the students’ interest. One of the objects comments on the prediction models these services use. They give you recommendation after recommendation, all based only on your previous behaviour. You can never get out of what they recommend for you. We showcase an idea for a watch that can pick up data from other living beings, like dogs and cats. Offering a way to trick the prediction models.

Confused Predictions, a Digital Omnipresence project

Confused Predictions allows users to collect data from other living things to confuse prediction models that attempt to box-in user behaviour

And other exhibits deal with more serious issues, sometimes even hinting at the political.
Tatiana Toutikian: Yes, we also let the students think about the repercussions of surveillance for example. We already have surveillance cameras everywhere in our cities. In the future, video surveillance and city-wide Wi-Fi networks combined might result in the government regulating certain movements. As our houses get smarter, commercial businesses will collect data on your private and personal information. Put a Virus In It is a hacker device that can trap certain data, creating blind spots within your house.

Do you believe these projects could ultimately enhance our future reality?
Tatiana Toutikian: That’s the thing about critical design. It’s not just saying this is good, that is bad. We are providing alternatives that are provocative yet funny, but most importantly triggers discussion.

In a world where hormones=feelings, the Hormone Martini allows us to make cocktails out of emotions extracted from the human body 

Speculative Needs XOXO is a design-fiction exhibition at Beirut Design Week from 19 – 26 May 2017.