Transmedia Stories: Narrative Methods for Public Health and Social Justice

Speculative Design

The future, a purely virtual space, is a political frontier sorely in need of both decolonisation and democratization.

— Stuart Candy

Design makes futures. What designers make becomes the futures we inhabit.

— Cameron Tonkinwise

I use Afrofuturism to get students to talk about their future. [Many people] have a difficult time seeing a future. For some reason, the future is a blur, as if they live in the land where time stands still.

— Colleen Coleman (in Afrofuturism)

“Design” is one of the most frequently used words in the twenty-first century. People speak of industrial design, graphic design, web design, experience design, and many other areas. Yet design is much more than a series of professional or disciplinary areas. If we follow an individual’s life trajectory in the historical moment of the 2020s, we find design visible in clothing and wearables, material products, transportation services, communication systems, entertainment media, interior environments, home furniture, and computational interfaces that are part of daily interactions. During the early twenty-first century, especially with the astronomical rise of Big Tech, design has developed into a fundamental way of thinking. The concept has become ubiquitous, perhaps overused, and continues to proliferate definitions. Generally, design names the use of creative techniques to solve problems, frequently for customers or users. Unlike the realm of fine art, design proposes an instrumentalization of aesthetics to particular ends. As a way of thinking, Sasha Costanza-Chock argues, design is “neither primarily deductive or inductive, but rather abductive and speculative.” As opposed to the movement from general to specific conclusions, or vice versa, “abduction suggests the best prediction given incomplete observations.” Moreover, “Design is thus also speculative: it is about envisioning, as well as manipulating, the future. Designers imagine images, objects, buildings, and systems that do not yet exist” (15). Of course, other domains — as diverse as science fiction, scenario planning, and financial trading of futures contracts — also concern predictions about, speculative engagements with, and modulations of the future. Such domains often approach the future as a large-scale problem for thought. By distinction, as Cameron Tonkinwise observes, design is a distinctly material practice that “is unique for focusing on everyday things of use, handlable equipment and furnishings, whether those are products, communications or environments (up to the scale of interiors).”

If futurism is already at least implicit in all design, this element receives even greater emphasis and detail in a constellation of alternative design philosophies. Some of these rubrics include “critical design” (Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby), “tactical media” (Rita Raley), “adversarial design” (Carl DiSalvo), “design justice” (Design Justice Network), “design for the margins” (Ceasar McDowell and Melissa Y. Chinchilla), “design fiction” (Bruce Sterling and Julian Bleecker), and “speculative design” (Anthony Dunne). Even with various overlaps, these approaches all emphasize the political and collaborative potentials of design, especially as they can shape habits, alter perceptions, and support social change in the future. For example, focusing on formal properties and impacts, adversarial design foregrounds “contestation and dissensus as fundamental to democracy” in distinction to “practices of deliberative democracy that privilege consensus and rationality” (DiSalvo 4). In distinction to civic engagement that increases information about politics or promotes political action, this approach uses the design of objects to raise questions about key political domains. Another approach, design justice, “rethinks design processes, centers people who are normally marginalized by design, and uses collaborative, creative practices to address the deepest challenges our communities face” (Design Justice Network) as they move into the future.

This chapter draws implicitly from several alternative design practices but focuses most directly on speculative design. Instead of proposing concrete solutions or even predicting the future, speculative design, in the words of designers Dunne and Raby, explores “the idea of possible futures and using them as tools to better understand the present and to discuss the kind of future people want, and of course, ones people don’t want” (2–3). In other words, speculative design uses design techniques to imagine alternative social and political futures. Even as this chapter celebrates aspects of speculative design, I acknowledge that this approach has historically still often privileged the technological imagination over structural inequality and racial injustice. At the same time, artists and designers have increasingly challenged this approach by putting this method in conversation with ideas taken from critical race theory, gender and sexuality studies, and activist practice. This ambivalence fuels the arguments that follow.

The core case in this chapter is the second year of the Transmedia Collage project, which we named “South Side Speculations.” This program took place from 2018 to 2019. This work sought to disrupt dominant narratives about “the future” as a monolithic concept that often comes from technologists and policymakers. In order to garner a more heterogeneous and plural vision of alternative futures, we asked high-school-aged participants to use historical and media work to lay the foundations for speculative narratives about the possible futures of their neighborhoods. Over three weeks of daily workshops, we asked: what will the future of Chicago look like? And more importantly: how do we want the future of the South Side of Chicago, in particular, to look? Inspired by sources ranging from speculative design as a method and Afrofuturism as a genre, we worked with youth to create short films about the futures of the South Side of Chicago. The process yielded a bottom-up futurism: an imagination that unfolded not at the more abstract “global” scale or the isolated “individual” scale, but rather at the “neighborhood” scale that is both communal and concrete. Instead of claiming to solve problems, the intergenerational group of youth and adults sought to find, stage, and make problems of the future in order to inhabit the many complexities of the present. This chapter includes a detailed account of the workshop curriculum with granular exercises, production images, the resulting speculative short films created by the youth participants, and information about how they were exhibited for the public.

graphic section header: speculative design

Before delving into the curriculum and processes of South Side Speculations, it is worth briefly elaborating the contexts and techniques of speculative design. Decades before this design technique was proposed and elaborated, futures thinking had already moved from the realms of fiction and entertainment to the mainstream of Cold War policymaking. One of the most influential futurists of this period was military theorist Herman Kahn, famously the real-world inspiration for the titular character of Stanley Kubrick’s satirical film, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). Kahn’s books On Thermonuclear War (1960) and Thinking About the Unthinkable (1962) defined futures studies as an academic discipline and introduced it as a key framework for military and political scenario planning. In the 1966 piece “A Methodological Framework: The Alternative World Futures Approach,” Kahn coined the term “alternative world futures” (181). He identified two key techniques, “scenario” planning and the “war (or peace) game,” which are drawn from the nuclear crisis but could he useful “for a much larger range of contexts — in fact, for the study of international relations generally” (194). Elsewhere, in the 1967 piece “The Objectives of Future-Oriented Policy Research,” he argues against the perspective that “too much imagination” might bring the “risk of losing ourselves in a maze of bizarre improbabilities.” He adds, “it has usually been lack of imagination, rather than excess of it, that caused unfortunate decisions and missed opportunities” (157). While the nuclear bomb introduced a new epistemology for thinking about global futures, such thinking has continued with the rise of big data methodologies and new global problems such as climate change (Masco). Especially after the attacks of September 11, 2001, the United States has also employed various forms of futures thinking to institute a paradigm of preemption and preparedness (Grusin; Thomas).

Though the Cold War scenario planning approach to the future is important to understand, it stands in distinction to the later orientation of speculative design. The term “speculative design” was introduced in the 1990s by Anthony Dunne and then developed with Fiona Raby. Together, they argue that futures should not be a “destination” or objective, as they are in Cold War futures thinking or the market-based futurism celebrated in Silicon Valley, but instead “a medium to aid imaginative thought” and speculation (Dunne and Raby 3). In other words, speculative design is noninstrumental and often nonfunctional, focusing instead on aesthetic, ethical, and political thought via processes of making. Traditional design has a built-in optimism about solving problems via technology and planning. Instead of problem solving, speculative design emphasizes problem making: “This form of design thrives on imagination and aims to open up new perspectives on what are sometimes called wicked problems, to create spaces for discussion and debate about alternative ways of being, and to inspire and encourage people’s imaginations to flow freely” (Dunne and Raby 2). In other words, speculative design can be understood as a mode of and method for thinking.

Whereas imagination is a finite quantity for Kahn — a predictive ability of which one can have “too much” or a “lack” — for Dunne and Raby, it is a productive capacity that can be used for worldbuilding. Unlike Cold War era predictive approaches to the future, speculative design posits, as Stuart Candy puts it, that “the future does not exist.” At the same time, “futures (a narrower designation than Gilles Deleuze’s ‘virtual’) are most assuredly real, in the sense that ideas, narratives and images of the future are a deeply powerful, productive force in our lives” (42). The creation of possible scenarios or visions of the future does not have to do with pinning down the future as it will be, but in expanding perception and bringing new possibilities into existence. Even if we move beyond military or policy projections, other approaches to the future focus more on preparation and classification. Take, for instance, Jim Dator’s “four generic alternative futures”: continued growth, collapse, discipline, and transformation. This scheme categorizes future scenarios. Instead of rejecting this classification, Candy argues that we need not see them as absolute genres but as generative opportunities for materializing better futures. As opposed to specific high-level trajectories, he builds on futurist Roy Amara’s even broader rubric of “possible,” “probable,” and “preferable” futures (Candy 31), which serve as guiding principles for imagination. Even with the support of these categories, speculative design operates more as a way of thinking and a creative process than an end in itself.

Alongside imagination, an important problem that speculative design addresses is experience. Namely, if the future does not exist, how can we have an experience of any possible future? Candy calls this insurmountable chasm the “experiential gulf” which names “the gap between this advance representation, or ‘premediation’, and the lived experience to which it is supposed to correspond” (73). Unlike conventional representation of the past or present — which admittedly involves its own forms of imagination and constructivism — futures are entirely virtual, if also actualizable in some form. Even without recourse to experience, however, it is possible to design potential futures. Though speculative design might sometimes be inspired by data, it privileges storytelling, affect, and imagination as alternative routes to determining values and making decisions about the emergence of any given future.

Even with certain methodological continuities between military and artistic forms of futures thinking, it is important to emphasize their differences in scale. The applications of speculative design are less global, technocratic, and instrumental that the aspirations articulated by military theorists such as Kahn. As I noted earlier, in general, design is a material practice that focuses on ordinary interactions with objects, people, and environments. Similarly, speculative design does not aspire to be a large-scale enterprise of social engineering, as in state-supported applications to nuclear deterrence in the twentieth century or climate change in the twenty-first century. Moving beyond the art world, Candy advocates “the eventual prospect of a cultural shift in which futures-oriented thought or foresight has been more systemically integrated and is used on an everyday basis” (8). From a pedagogical perspective, futures thinking can be “cultivated” via design methods that make futures present not only to experts, but to anyone who practices and refines this literacy (133). This everydayness of speculative design is precisely what our team sought to foster through the South Side Speculations project, which focused on the scale of the neighborhood, as opposed to something grander like a city, state, nation, or the Earth. Before describing how we concretely implemented futures thinking through a speculative design curriculum, I first want to consider what this technique might mean when taken from a general process to a practice undertaken by Black and brown youth specifically.

graphic section header: black and brown speculative design and future orientation

In the longer history of writing about scenario planning, speculative design, and possible futures, especially in the United States, one more commonly sees black swans than Black (and brown) people. One reason for this has to do with structural inequality that has put white people, and especially white cis men, in positions of privilege, power, and expertise from which they have greater perceived legitimacy to imagine possible, probable, and preferable futures. This is particularly true when it comes to state-sponsored or corporate futurism, but even the differently institutionalized fine art scene, with its network of universities, museums, and festivals, has supported white perspectives about the future and narrowed the scope of its imaginative horizon in other ways. If we accept that there is no single predetermined future, we must also acknowledge that the future looks different depending on one’s position and embodiment in the present. For this reason, futures thinking cannot focus exclusively on possible scenarios, but must also speculate about possible subjectivities and people in different futures. To put this plainly, historical developments have profound implications on everything from individual identities to collective cultures, and this must influence how we project history forward.

In a more general sense, design is not fundamentally opposed to the status quo, but often reinforces inequality. As Costanza-Chock puts it, “design (of images, objects, software, algorithms, sociotechnical systems, the built environment, indeed, everything we make) too often contributes to the reproduction of systemic oppression” (xvii). For example, the racial inequities of digital technologies are evident, and now broadly discussed, in everything from cameras that are optimized for white consumers and distort the skin color of Black and brown people to facial recognition technologies that incorrectly identify Black and Asian faces. Even prior to forms of technical and algorithmic bias, however, we see discrimination built into dominant imaginations of possible futures. For instance, over several decades, future dystopian and apocalyptic visions have arguably far outnumbered utopian or less extreme futures. As Tonkinwise observes, “It is morally repugnant that the worst things white people can imagine happening to them in some dystopian future are conditions they already impose on non-white people.” In other words, when insufficiently informed by history, context, or difference, future scenarios can and do reinforce the status quo. This is not to say that thinking about the future is inherently racist or problematic. In fact, as Candy suggests, “a decolonised future is not, therefore, an empty space…. we cannot successfully decolonise the future by refusing to think about it” (144). Such thought, however, benefits from striving to avoid generic clichés, inherent biases, and limited representations.

To be clear, despite a repeated colonization of the future across various futurist techniques and applications, futurism practiced by people of color, including by Latinx and indigenous futurists, also has a history that precedes the twenty-first century. In the context of the South Side Speculations project, we drew from all of these traditions, but most substantially from the Black imagination, in part because the majority of our participants were Black youth. Within Black futures thinking, we see a rich, if still understudied, history that most famously includes earlier science fiction literature such as Martin R. Delany’s Blake, or the Huts of America (1859) and W.E.B. Du Bois’s “The Comet” (1920). These developments continued with widely celebrated Cold War era science fiction by writers such as Octavia Butler and Samuel Delany, as well as popular twenty-first-century speculative works by N.K. Jemisin and Colson Whitehead.

At the level of genre, one major exception of a systematic attempt to imagine Black futures prior to a greater expanse of twenty-first century elaborations is Afrofuturism. As Ytasha L. Womack explains, Afrofuturism  “combines elements of science fiction, historical fiction, speculative fiction, fantasy, Afrocentricity, and magic realism with non-Western beliefs. In some cases, it’s a total re-envisioning of the past and speculation about the future rife with cultural critiques” (9). This diverse genre includes the music of Sun Ra, the photography of Renee Cox, the painting of Jean-Michel Basquiat, and the novels of Nalo Hopkinson. Though Afrofuturism began as a more coherent aesthetic in the 1970s (the actual term was coined in in 1993 by Mark Dery), the influence of this aesthetic movement continues into the present with the work of musicians such as Janelle Monáe, novelists such as Tochi Onyebuchi, and films such as Marvel Studios’s Black Panther. Far from a dogmatic or limiting aesthetic, Afrofuturism has inspired fresh departures and complications, including directions proposed in Martine Syms’s polemical “Mundane Afrofuturist Manifesto.”

Though Afrofuturism loomed large in the South Side Speculations project, we were inspired by the prospect of more than alternative futurist content. Our attempt, which I will describe in the next section, sought to combine the methods of speculative design with the specific concerns of futurism practiced by people of color, including but not limited to Afrofuturism. A major part of innovating upon process, alongside content, had to do with drawing from approaches such as the critical pedagogy I describe in Chapter 3 and a design justice approach that privileges collaborative and bottom-up imagination to expert knowledge and top-down imposition of futures. Instead of a mere exercise, we see this form of collaborative and distributed speculative design as integral to preferable futures characterized by greater equality and justice.

It is important to emphasize, however speculatively, that the exclusion of Black and brown futures from mainstream futures thinking in the United States is not simply a theoretical point, such as one made by some literary critics, about necessary expansions of the canon. To be sure, representation is an important dimension of the problem and already a practical one given the greater difficult by artists of color to make a living with their work. At the same time, there is an additional pragmatic concern that motivated our intervention. Drawing from Dutch sociologist Fred Polak, Candy contends that “the health of a society’s image of the future could serve as an index of its prospects,” (28). If this theoretical point has merit at the scale of an entire society, then there is also a crucial individual and collective level at which a sense of the future might have concrete health impacts. I have learned to incorporate health into speculative design through collaboration with my colleague, Ci3 founder and medical doctor Melissa Gilliam, whose work as a researcher in sexual and reproductive health, especially among youth of color, has emphasized the idea of “future orientation.”

Future orientation, a concept with a substantial research literature in psychology and applications in fields such as public health, refers to the conscious sense, attitudes, and aspirations that people have of their future trajectory or development  (Trommsdorff; Nurmi; Bandura; Seginer). This research focuses on how people represent and self-report their future models, including “setting goals, planning, exploring options and making commitments that guide the person’s behavior and developmental course” (Seginer 272). The literature suggests that a deliberate orientation toward one’s future becomes the most crucial during moments of life change, especially during early adolescence when youth might be more likely to experiment with drugs and sex, set academic and career goals, and transition gradually to adulthood (Greene; Rutter; McCabe and Barnett). The core of the existing research suggests that adolescents who imagine their future selves, develop a positive self-image, and plan for their future have better life outcomes than youth who do not (Harter; Hoyle and Sherrill; Jackman and MacPhee). In addition to influences by parents, peers, and community, future orientation is a key socioecological factor of someone’s lifelong health and well-being.

For a long time the study of future orientation focused on middle class white adolescents, with little research about low-income youth of color. Given social and structural inequalities, African American youth, in particular, are disproportionally likely to live in low-income neighborhoods and to have encountered violence, from assault to murder, in their neighborhoods (Gaylord-Harden et al.; Self-Brown et al.). More broadly, youth of color have a far higher likelihood of experiencing poverty, unsafe neighborhoods, low quality health care, underperforming schools, transportation difficulties, minimal access to healthy foods, and other factors that impact their health and well-being. Initial research about future orientation among BIPOC youth suggests that it is an important health factor, especially during adolescence. For example, as Kristen McCabe and Douglas Barnett note, more recently, “Several studies have found that children and adolescents who are raised in high risk environments, but who maintain positive expectations for the future and engage in future planning, are less likely to experience psychological and social problems later in life than those who do not” (McCabe and Barnett 63; also drawing from Werner and Smith, and Wyman). Moreover, another study found that “future orientation moderated the relationship between violence exposure and delinquent, but not aggressive, behaviors” (So et al.).

The artistic approach to possible futures practiced in speculative design and the empirical and theoretical understanding of future orientation developed in psychology research may appear fundamentally distinct — and indeed these two terms rarely enter into explicit discussion with one another. Yet as James L. Hollar has asked, “Does how we ask students to ‘think about your future’ reinscribe the culture-of-poverty and deficit-thinking notions that find students of color as lacking a future orientation?” (3). More importantly, and in a less rhetorical register, what are the more enabling questions and precise frames that can encourage youth of color to develop fuller future orientation, both for themselves and the society in which they find themselves? Since 2011, the work I have been involved with at the Game Changer Chicago Design Lab and Transmedia Story Lab has suggested that design tools, while far from a panacea, can be used as interventions to bolster the future orientation of adolescents. Over the years, we have created numerous narrative prototypes and games specifically directed toward youth of color and aimed to cultivate thinking about the future. These have included media ranging from a board game about unplanned pregnancy and its impacts on one’s future (Baby Town) to a science fiction alternate reality game focused on STEM pathways and future selves in the transition from high school to college (S.E.E.D.). To show how we channeled methods of speculative design and future orientation into a concrete intervention, I now turn to the core case of this chapter: South Side Speculations.

graphic section header: case: south side speculations


South Side Speculations was the second part of an Andrew M. Mellon Foundation funded collaboration between the University of Chicago’s Transmedia Story Lab (TSL) and the University of Illinois at Chicago’s History Moves (HM), which I described in the previous chapter. While that earlier program focused on the histories of the South Side of Chicago, this extended workshop focused on its futures. Since I already described the general framework and recruitment approach of the overall project in the previous chapter, I will focus on the details of this specific curriculum and its outputs here.

To summarize, South Side Speculations brought together a small group of 14 young people for an intensive three-week program to imagine possible futures for the South Side of Chicago. Youth studied Afrofuturist films and speculative media created primarily by creators of color. They also drew from the expertise of media scholars and makers at the University of Chicago. The shared works that they studied became the basis for imagining futures at the local scale of neighborhoods in which youth lived across the South Side of Chicago. Through a series of hands-on speculative design workshops, youth imagined both possible and preferable futures. In the final week of the program, they created five short films that capture near-future visions of their neighborhoods.

Before describing the specific curriculum and use of speculative design, it is worth emphasizing two primary principles that guided our organization of this three-week program. First, we focused our speculative energies at the level of neighborhoods. Though there are numerous global and national U.S. futures that we could have tackled, we identified the level of the neighborhood, including individuals, families, churches, and other community organizations, as comparatively unexplored. By focusing on a smaller geographic and social zone, we were able to emphasize situated knowledge and youth-driven interest areas instead of some ideal of universal knowledge. Pragmatically, this also meant that the youth could imagine futures of their own life worlds. Zeroing in on the neighborhoods represented by our participants, we focused on the Englewood, Greater Grand Grossing, North Lawndale, Washington Park, and Woodlawn neighborhoods of Chicago (the last of which both one of my collaborators on this book, Ashlyn Sparrow, and I live in).

Second, in modeling and practicing speculation about possible futures, we pushed against extreme visions of either dystopia or utopia. As Candy has observed, “future-oriented thought resorts all too easily to the shopworn binary of utopia/dystopia, stories about future worlds which are simplistically characterised as ideal or nightmarish places to end up” (23). In place of these hyperbolic limits of the spectrum of imagination, we instead opted for what science fiction author Bruce Sterling has called a “middle distance” that sits “between apocalyptic politics and Nerd-vana” and works out how the construction of futures is “taken on board, by smart people, at street level” (“The State of the World”). While we were not always successful in steering youth from these more familiar extremes, this sense of ordinary futurism guided many of our presentations, discussions, and design exercises across the three-week program.


graphic section header: workshop to bridge past and future


The core of South Side Speculations took place across a continuous three-week period in July 2018. However, prior to that curriculum, on August 26, 2017, we also ran a day-long workshop for students who had participated in the Transmedia Collage program (which I describe in Chapter 3) in summer 2017. The purpose of this workshop was to work with the group of young people to bridge the material from the historical program of 2017 with the speculative future-oriented program of 2018. At the start of this session, participants reflected on all they had produced together and to think about how an exploration of the historical past can be a foundation for imagining futures in a more granular and detailed fashion. This workshop began with a brief overview of design as a creative practice geared to both problem solving and problem making with others.

In the previous Transmedia Collage workshop, youth had already conducted significant oral history research and created fictional characters who operated within narratives that articulated the social, political, economic, and cultural climates of a specific time and place in Chicago’s history. Building on this foundation, youth began a design process that brought their fictional historical characters into the present or near-future by asking them to consider how these people would navigate the challenges of the past as they aged and moved forward with their lives. Using creative writing and design techniques, they constructed “personas,” situated them in “scenarios,” and imagined how these situations might unfold over time. In the span of 90 minutes of focused creative work, three groups of young people (the Text, Image, and Sonic teams) generated narratives and created basic prototypes that grounded those stories in material practices. Each object was based in the imagination of a future or an otherwise grounded within the historical moment of their narratives.

As opposed to the earlier historical transmedia collage exercise from the previous workshops, teams now had to actually create a material prototype or model of their speculative object. These objects did not necessarily have to belong to the genre of science fiction but had to suggest an alternative historical development. Teams worked together to expand their Transmedia Collage narratives through speculative objects. First, the Text team, who set their story in the 1980s, speculated upon a diary-turned-memoir that their protagonist Matt produced while in prison. As a vehicle that advanced their narrative, the book would have become a catalyzing object in community organizing as the author ascended in prominence and impact as a local teacher and mentor. Second, the Image team, who told a story about the 1995 Chicago Heat Wave, proposed an inventive public communication system comprised of inflated, floating screens that would immediately alert the entire city in the event of emergencies and natural disasters. The group’s presentation of this concept led to critical discussion on the relationship between authorship and audience in legitimating or challenging power structures within the city. Third, the Sonic team, who had a story about 1940s Bronzeville, produced a concept for a line of handkerchiefs called “BLAC PPL.” The handkerchiefs would have been produced and designed by their character Gus, merging contemporary fashion motifs with hidden messages or symbols espousing a “for us, by us” attitude appealing to community pride.

In addition to the speculative design work in this workshop, we included three guests: Natalie Y. Moore (WBEZ reporter and author of The South Side: A Portrait of Chicago and American Segregation), Joe Nelson (Chicago muralist and visual artist), and Matthew Wizinsky (designer and researcher from University of Cincinnati). First, Moore discussed the importance of using audio media and journalism as a means of historical and cultural remembrance. Second, Nelson reinforced the importance of using artistic expression as a means to foster and expand community. Finally, Wizinsky introduced our intergenerational group to the general premises of speculative design at the scale of the human body and an experience in prototyping. Building on this work, he helped us plan the curriculum for the South Side Speculations project. Together, these guests served both as guides for the student design process and as models for career pathways linked to the areas of oral history, visual art, and speculative design that represented our shared methods.

graphic section header: curriculum

Following the one-day workshop, the core of South Side Speculations took place for three intense weeks in July 2018. The first week focused on a formal introduction to science fiction across media and speculative design theory. The second week shifted to a hands-on workshop format organized around speculative design techniques. Finally, the third week moved into practical planning and production of speculative short films, with post-production and exhibition opportunities following the core of the program. The decision to organize our speculative design around film and moving image artworks allowed us to engage students within an image culture that was familiar and interesting to them. Film also gave us an opportunity to incorporate other kinds of designed objects, including speculative props and costumes, and to do so in a collaborative team-oriented framework, as opposed to the individualistic focus of certain fine art disciplines and media. In addition to describing this curriculum, the following section includes sample exercises that we used across the workshop.

graphic section header: week one

In Week 1, we began by thinking through science fiction as a genre that takes different medium-specific forms across literary fiction, film, music, and video games. As we only had one week for this introduction, there was no way to cover even a small fraction of the history of science fiction. Given these constraints, and our chosen emphasis on a futurism of the South Side created by Black and brown youth, a consistent through-line for this week brought us back to the genre of Afrofuturism. Coming into the summer, the only Afrofuturist work that most participants were aware of was Marvel Studios' blockbuster film Black Panther, which had its theatrical release a few months prior in February 2018. The contemporary status of the film, and the fact that it was a huge commercial success (ultimately grossing $1.35 billion worldwide), including among Black viewers, contributed to it as a work we all held in common.

In addition to the starting point of Black Panther, we screened shorter speculative moving picture works that were conducive to watching and re-watching in our limited time together, allowing us to focus on discussion. For example, we screened short contemporary music videos, including Flying Lotus’s “Until the Quiet Comes” (2012), Shabazz Palaces’ “Forerunner Foray” (2015), and Janelle Monae’s “Many Moons” (2009) and “Dirty Computer” (2018). We also screened short films, including Why Cybraceros? (Alex Rivera, 1997), Pumzi (Wanuri Kahiu, 2009), Afronauts (Frances Bodomo, 2014), and Love Letters to the Ancestors from Chicago (Ytasha Womack, 2017).

Across these works, we thought about the genre affordances of science fiction in general and Afrofuturism specifically. Much of the discussion about these films had to do with their speculative aesthetics. We sought to track how each music video or short film imagined a future that was not simply an extension of the present. In particular, we thought about how each artwork captured a future that looked, sounded, and felt other in a way that defamiliarized but also engaged the present, without resorting to genre clichés or familiar tropes. Alongside conversations about speculative content, form, and style, we also attended to the medium specificity of film production in order to introduce the kind of practical thinking that would serve the production of the short films that the youth would be producing in the third week. Through shared analysis, we attended not only to the narratives or worlds of each film, but also their components of film grammar, including mise-en-scène, costume, makeup, lighting, cinematography, color, shot distance, camera movement, editing, and sound. In other words, even as we reviewed works across media, we also called attention to the medium specificity of any particular artwork and how it used the affordances of that medium to render its vision of a possible or preferable future.

Alongside lectures, discussions, and screenings, we also took part in several exercises a day that were meant to limber up the thinking of participants and to prepare them for later speculative design project. As a concrete sample, I include a few of the exercises, each of which included note-taking and an opportunity to share with the full group here:

Speculative Character Creation

Imagining Apocalypse

Imagining Utopia

South Side Futurism

Design an Invention

South Side Speculations was oriented toward critical making more than the kind of analysis that might be the focus of traditional humanities courses, including seminars in cinema and media studies. For this reason, while we started with close readings of speculative works, these exercises served to develop and sharpen the futures thinking of participants. Even so, these exercises still operated largely in the realm of thought experiments.

graphic section header: week two

In Week 2, we moved into the material space of hands-on speculative design work. To prepare students for their eventual futurist activities, we presented them with a number of content areas and social issues, including the futures of police and prison abolition, segregation and housing, political resistance and protests, public health and reproductive justice, and community activism. To offer an example, one of the areas we elaborated upon was public health and reproductive justice. Early in the second week, we brought in medical doctor Melissa Gilliam who discussed her research and introduced a socio-ecological framework for thinking about health at individual and community levels, including through the concept of future orientation that I described above. The idea was not to constrain the imagination through top-down expertise, but to learn about a content area from an experienced practitioner en route to youth-driven futurism. This kind of brief introduction to a topic area left students with new concepts, vocabulary, cases, frames, and inspirations for thinking through futures scenarios.

The core of the shared work in this week was led by Matthew Wizinsky, who is a designer and professor at the University of Cincinnati. Even as the substantial final projects would take us back to film production, this week focused on design of objects, including ones that could serve as props or costumes in our final short films. The design process asked participants to ground their speculations about the future in observable social, cultural, and political trends in the present. In this way, they paired contemporary issues with new technologies, in order to explore both desires and anxieties about possible futures. Wizinsky brought in stickers of key objects or design scenarios that already suggested interventions into an area such as food and water (e.g., app-controlled hydroponics), mobility (e.g., energy-harvested sidewalks), or social technologies (e.g., home robot companions). Small teams would choose their favorite designed object or scenario and then answer a series of questions about its trajectories and implications, including:

No matter the selected object or scenario, these questions could not be answered without some preliminary research. Answering some of these questions also showed participants what it means to consider any speculative technology or scenario from multiple perspectives.

Next, youth moved from analyzing existing designs to generating their own. By asking questions about the hopes and fears that inform any designed object, participants were able to imagine a “What If?” scenario in which one systemic feature was different. They began to tell stories about these alternative scenarios and channeling them through a particular type of protagonist, including a married couple, an adolescent homeless person, a political refugee, or a billionaire. Following this stage, participants were ready to imagine their own near-future scenarios. Sticking with the core issue with which they began, teams speculated about what kind of world might result from social shifts prompted by their “What if?” scenario. At first, we asked students to focus on extreme dystopian and utopian scenarios in which an area such as food and water deteriorated or was resolved. Ultimately, however, we asked participants to imagine a hybrid world that would generate new ways of being, eating, working, communicating, socializing, finding solitude, relaxing, falling in love, and more. Based on this work, participants ended the week by selecting a topic and speculative technology that would serve as the basis for their short films. The three core topics were infrastructure disparities, access to health and wellness resources, and discriminatory police actions. In a workshop format, the youth crafted characters and storyboards that might bring this speculation to live.

graphic section header: week three

Finally, in Week 3, we moved into film pre-production and production. The goal was to make speculative short films that took the form of advertisements about “future” objects and spoke directly to the futures of South Side Chicago neighborhoods. The form of an advertisement was familiar to participants, sufficiently short in duration to be achievable within our limited schedule, and open to the telling of short narratives. At the start of the week, teams completed film storyboards and presented them to an outside guest, storyteller Marquez Rhyne, who joined us for a feedback session. Additionally, a University of Chicago PhD student in the Department of Cinema & Media Studies, Gary Kafer, introduced important film production concepts and tips en route to the eventual filming process that he also helped to oversee, and Heidi Coleman, a University of Chicago faculty member in Theater & Performance Studies, ran a short acting workshop. The beginning and middle of the week was also spent in pre-production, determining a shooting schedule, finalizing scripts, gathering costumes, locating or building any necessary props, and rehearsing scenes. The latter half of the week was spent filming, discussing rough cuts, discussing the post-production timeline that would exceed the parameters of the three-week workshop, and reflecting on the overall experience.

graphic section header: post-production and video outputs

The core of the post-production was undertaken by Transmedia Story Lab’s audio-visual production manager Ireashia Bennett and assisted by other members of the South Side Speculations team. Even with intentional editing, we understood these projects to be valuable, first and foremost, as records of a speculative process, instead of polished final works, which would have required a longer workshop duration supported by greater resources. None of our participating youth had prior experience with film production, so these were early experiments created on an accelerated timeline. In this section, I offer a short summary of each short film created by each of five teams, followed by the final cut.

Homepod and Saiyan Wood Answers Woodlawn

1. Homepod
Created By: Symone Pettis, Daniel Barrera, Yousef Lagundoye, and Carlson Ayanlaja

“Home Pod” is an advertisement that promotes a modular housing system that promotes equitable housing access for all Chicago South and West Side residents. The designers of this project thought critically about how structural violence, such as redlining and housing discrimination, created barriers to housing, preventing residents from home ownership and generational wealth.

2. Saiyan Woods Answers Woodlawn
Created by Larry Julien and Kaya Thomas

“Saiyan Woods Answers Woodlawn” is a short political campaign for Saiyan Woods, a drone safety advocate. Set in 2048, drones are widely used throughout Chicago. However, some drone corporations target marginalized communities like Woodlawn and distributed faulty and unstable drones that ultimately harmed residents. Saiyan Woods is a Black political candidate who wants to use political action and laws to dismantle problematic drone practices in the city.

Community Healing Pair and Blui Health Drone

3. Community Healing Pair
Created By: Asha Edwards and David Bonsu

“Community Healing Pair” is an advertisement that introduces wearable technology that addresses community harm, accountability, and healing. This team imagined a technology that leads the user to community resources and transportation, helps combat interpersonal and police violence, and provides urgent local and global news.

4. Blui Health Drone
Created By Miriam Lagundoye and Omar Olugbala

“Blui Health Drone” is an advertisement that introduces the mobile health drone named Blui. This drone assists Chicago patients in rural or hard-to-reach areas by delivering medical help during crises and helps contribute to equity in healthcare.

Clones and Protective Wear

5. Clones and Protective Wear
Created By: Lauren Johnson, Shurri Peterson, and Nia Nobles-Vincent.

“Clones and Protective Wear” is a short narrative film that follows a scientist father and his son. The father creates a machine capable of instant cloning that will protect his son from police brutality.

While these short narrative advertisements represent some of the primary outputs of the South Side Speculations program, we could instead have focused on other media, from painting to game design. Regardless of medium, an important benefit of the project-based approach is that it focused youth energy on a specific outcome, even amidst an admittedly accelerated interdisciplinary curriculum.

graphic section header: exhibition

The final portion of South Side Speculations happened several months after the completion of the formal workshop. Following these weeks together, we began to look for ways to amplify youth voices and to share their speculations and short films with the very communities to which they had applied futures thinking. The South Side Speculations exhibition premiered as a six-week show and public program, running from January 18 until March 1, 2019, at the Arts Incubator: a space created by Black artist and my University of Chicago colleague Theaster Gates in order to promote community-based arts projects and exhibitions, especially among artists of color. Subsequently, from April 4 until June 28, 2019, the exhibition itself moved to the African American Cultural Center Gallery at the University of Illinois, Chicago. This exhibition displayed various designed objects such as the Blui Health Drone, costume pieces such as masks from a future version of the South Side, speculative collages, and the finished short advertisement films.

Perhaps even more important than the exhibition was a public program that put young people in conversation with community members, Chicago-area faculty, and artists. To convey the range of topics and participants, I will reproduce the overview of the four public events here:

1. Speculating the Past: A Panel on Intergenerational History
Thursday, January 24, 6-7:30pm

Guest speaker: Elizabeth Todd-Breland, assistant professor of history (UIC), author of A Political Education: Black Politics and Education Reform in Chicago since the 1960s. Also featuring community elders who participated in oral history interviews from Year 1 of the Transmedia Collage historical project

Description: The past is never static, but also open to reimagination. Featuring youth participants and community elders from the Transmedia Collage program, alongside guest scholars, this panel will ask how historical research can open up new ways to reexamine the social, political, and economic changes that affect our lives. Through intergenerational dialogue, we will explore how building community over time can help us better witness the historical experiences that shape our present.

2. Speculative Design Makers Session
Saturday, February 9, 11am-12:30pm

Facilitator: Ireashia Bennett, photographer, multimedia artist, filmmaker, and audio-visual production specialist for the Transmedia Story Lab at the University of Chicago

Description: This workshop will introduce the basics of speculative design and how we might use it for social justice. Participants will conceive, develop, and make objects that they would like to see in their communities in the near future. Rather than purporting to solve individual and communities' injustices, these objects will find, stage, and make problems of the future so that we might inhabit the many complexities of the present.

3. Speculating the Future: A Panel on Afrofuturism
Tuesday, February 12, 6-7:30pm

Guest speaker: Ytasha Womack (producer, director, and author of Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci Fi & Fantasy Culture)

Description: What futures do we imagine for Chicago’s South Side? Featuring youth participants in the Transmedia Collage program and guest scholars, this panel will ask how Afrofuturism can serve as a time-bending model for redefining what tomorrow may bring. We will explore how sci-fi and speculative fiction enables us to foster social change, reexamine hierarchies of race, and enable forms of self-expression for people of color.

4. Speculating the Now: A Panel on Healing Justice
Thursday, February 28, 6-7:30pm

Guest speakers: Audrey Petty (writer, educator, and editor of High Rise Stories: Voices from Chicago Public Housing), and Jacqueline Stewart (professor of cinema and media studies at University of Chicago, director of the South Side Home Movie Project, and author of Migrating to the Movies: Cinema and Black Urban Modernity)

Description: How can speculation help us to envision alternate ways of responding to the violences endured in the contemporary political moment? Featuring youth participants in the Transmedia Collage program and guest scholars, this panel will explore how a climate of structural violence has impacted the health and well-being of Black and brown young people and their communities on Chicago’s South Side. Together, we will consider the historical traumas that extend into the present and how we might collectively reimagine our relationships in order to build a future world with liberatory potential.

These events were not an afterthought but a continuation of the energy we had conjured together during the earlier workshop, now extended to a broader public. Across these events, youth who participated in the South Side Stories project joined adult guest speakers and facilitators on stage for questions and dialogue. This opportunity initiated intergenerational dialogues among youth, adults, and community elders in the audience. These events also gave the youth an opportunity to own the speculative design experience they had cultivated during the weeks of this program and hopefully to take it back with them to their neighborhoods.

graphic section header: coda: there are black people in the future

On May 26, 2020, in Minneapolis, we saw the beginning of national protests against the brutal killing of George Floyd by police officer Derek Chauvin (who was found guilty approximately a year later on April 20, 2021). Though the event of these protests began with a single case, it quickly encompassed other Black people who had been and continued to be murdered by the police, including Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, Rayshard Brooks, and many others. Spreading from the United States, these protests against police brutality and racial discrimination subsequently spread throughout the world that summer to call for justice.

The work and production of South Side Speculations took place several years before these events, largely in 2018. During these sessions, students focused on some of the same issues that came to occupy national and international attention, including police and prison abolition, political resistance and protests, and community activism. I spoke with several people who had seen the project exhibition or public discussions in 2019, and who later expressed wonder at the prescience of the participating youth who had taken up these issues two years prior to these worldwide events. From one perspective, this foresight was indeed remarkable, as the youth had explored the histories and futures of many of the issues that had come, two years later, to take political central stage. At the same time, what may have appeared as a new development regarding racial justice or defunding the police to many white Americans has been a central concern to Black Americans, and people of color more generally, for as long as the United States has existed. For this reason, past experience and historical consciousness made the need for a different future more evident and urgent to the young people in this program than perhaps to many undergraduates at a private institution such as the University of Chicago, where I usually teach.

In their introduction to the collective artists book, Black Futures (2020), Kimberly Drew and Jenna Wortham proclaim, contrary to Western linear models, “There is no past, present, or future, nor is there a beginning, middle, or end” (xiii). This intermingling of temporalities and nonlinear approach to history is one that is taken up by Afrofuturism as well. Though this book divides out the Transmedia History and South Side Speculation projects into two separate chapters for methodological and heuristic purposes, these workshops were in fact parts of a single project for the organizers and several participants. As we found through this process, inheritance, tradition, and history can be as unfamiliar or defamiliarizing as that which is yet to come. The two are also inextricably interrelated.

For our working purposes, our team even conceptualized a "double cone" that Matthew Wizinsky then illustrated. We subsequently discovered an earlier counterpart to this model conceived by Charles Taylor (1990), which included both a cone of plausible futures and a cone that extended into the past. Through the double cone, we sought to emphasize, for our participating youth, that both futures and pasts are speculative, uncertain, and narrativizable. For example, by using oral history methods, youth began to encounter the ways that historiography faces challenges about how the past might be ordered and narrated. Particular historical events on the South Side of Chicago raise questions about cause, correlation, chronology, and interpretation. This set of challenges became particularly concrete to the youth participants when they moved from gathering interviews with community elders to creating their own historical fictions about the pasts explored through those dialogues. While speculative futures included scenarios of probable, plausible, possible, and preferable futures, speculative pasts incorporate mainstream monumental histories, untold or forgotten events, cultural histories, mythologies, historical fictions, and counterfactuals. This double cone sought to mark that multiplicity. Moreover, this model introduced greater agency insofar as it suggested ways that both futures and pasts can be transformed in the present.

I would like to conclude this chapter by arguing that what our youth participants did through both their historical collages and their speculative future short film prototypes was nothing short of transforming both past and future. Certainly, narrative genres such as historical fiction and science fiction perform this kind of work, sometimes even for mass audiences. But the depth of the intervention we witnessed youth engaging in was distinct from those kinds of texts insofar as their critical making process exceeded exposure to someone else's representation. Beyond reading a novel or watching a film, youth undertook the historical research, technical training, and collaborative process to bring new pasts and futures of their South Side of Chicago into existence. Perhaps most important to this process was the creation of histories and futures that focused on Black and brown people. In 2013, inspired by Afrofuturist writer Florence Okoye, Alisha B. Wormsley began using the phrase “There are Black People in the Future.” This statement is one not merely of hope but of prescriptive oracular insistence in the face of past horrors and present inequalities that Black people have faced. As Wormsley observes, “the reality that Black American neighborhoods are struggling to survive” in the present day can be described as “apocalyptic” (46-7). To put this another way, apocalypse or dystopia are not (merely) conditions of possible futures, but also of a history that might better be understood through the lens of genres such as science fiction or horror than of realism. Yet, if we can follow Cameron Tonkinwise’s second epigraph to this chapter, then “design makes futures.” The young people with whom we worked tapped into their past experiences and present sensitivities to imagine such futures and, notably, some of them subsequently came into existence. Moreover, their very commitment to these collective speculations reinforces the conviction that there are, in fact, Black people in the future. These visions see Black people not only surviving but also thriving in that future. To all of us participating in these workshops, that version of the future is not only possible and plausible but also preferable and must therefore become a priority.

Works Cited
Full Project Team

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