Envisioning the future of work through Design Fiction

Jeremy Lamri
13 min readFeb 10, 2024

What really awaits us at work in 20 years? Robots working in our stead, or everyone telecommuting from a deserted island? Imagining realistic and credible futures can seem much more complicated than it appears, as there are many parameters to consider when thinking about the evolution of a system. And this is where design fiction proves more than useful. With Design Fiction, we do not just dream about the future, we build it. Dive into a systemic tool capable of helping us think about futures that don’t make us want to look back.

Work: a concept in full mutation

The world of work is in full turmoil, and several forces are shaping it in unprecedented ways. First, there’s automation and artificial intelligence promising to revolutionize every sector. From repetitive tasks to complex decisions, technology is ready to take over an increasing part of our work. And that’s not even mentioning blockchain or virtual reality… This raises a crucial question:

What will we do when machines do the job better than us?

Then, there’s telecommuting, which took an unexpected magnitude with the Covid pandemic, challenging the very idea of the office. This major change affects everything, from corporate culture to urban planning. We’re talking about cities where central offices have become obsolete, replaced by shared workspaces scattered in residential neighborhoods or even exotic destinations.

Work is also redefined by the skills economy and fragmented careers. People no longer seek a job for life but a series of experiences and learnings. This model presents both unprecedented freedoms and significant challenges in terms of job security and social protection. Sustainability and meaning at work are also gaining increasing importance. New generations want work that aligns with their values and contributes positively to society and the environment.

Working in 2040 will certainly not mean the same thing as today. But to prepare this world rather than endure it, we still need to project ourselves realistically. The future of work is not set in stone; it is still to be written, and Design Fiction is one of the most powerful pens at our disposal. So, say hello to your new best friend: Design Fiction.

What is Design Fiction?

Design Fiction is a creative and critical method that uses speculative narratives and prototypes to explore and debate possible futures and their social, cultural, and ethical implications. The approach of Design Fiction finds its roots in several disciplines and practices, extending over decades of creative and critical thinking:

  • Science fiction: For a long time, science fiction has explored alternative futures through narratives and visualizations. From writers like H.G. Wells and Isaac Asimov to movies and TV shows, science fiction has always posed questions about humanity’s potential futures.
  • Speculative design: In the 1990s and early 2000s, thinkers like Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby began to articulate a design practice that goes beyond solving immediate problems to consider possible futures. They called this approach speculative design, the precursor to what is now called design fiction.
  • Academic influence: Institutions such as the Royal College of Art in London began integrating these ideas into their curricula, forming a new generation of designers to think beyond the present.

The term “Design Fiction” itself was popularized by Bruce Sterling, a science fiction author and critical thinker, in the late 2000s. Sterling emphasized the importance of creating diegetic prototypes — objects that tell a story about themselves in a speculative world.

The fictions created shed light on ethical, social, and emotional questions often overlooked in traditional analyses. How, for example, would the disappearance of offices affect our need for social interaction? What support systems should be put in place for workers in a highly volatile gig economy? Think of it like a Black Mirror, but not necessarily black!

By adopting a proactive posture through Design Fiction, we are no longer mere spectators of the future of work; we become its co-creators. This method doesn’t provide ready-made answers but broadens our understanding and stimulates our imagination. It encourages us to think not only about what we need to prepare to face but also about what we aspire to create.

Pioneers of Design Fiction

Design Fiction didn’t emerge by chance. Avant-garde thinkers and leading institutions have developed innovative approaches to address the challenge of thinking about possible futures in a structured and rigorous manner. Among them, Dunne & Raby, Julian Bleecker, and the Near Future Laboratory, as well as the Royal College of Art, stand out for their significant contributions. Their pioneering work in the field of design fiction offers unique perspectives and methodological tools to envision, question, and actively prepare for upcoming transformations in the professional world.

Dunne & Raby

Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby are central figures in the world of speculative design and Design Fiction. Their work is characterized by an approach that does not just solve existing problems but seeks to open debate and question future technological and social directions. They create objects and scenarios that exist in hypothetical worlds — tangible “what ifs” that invite reflection. Their approach is strongly rooted in social critique and exploration of human values, often in contrast to technology-centered trends.

The work of Dunne & Raby encourages businesses, policymakers, and individuals to think beyond obvious trajectories and question the broader implications of technological choices. In the context of the future of work, their approach can inspire more critical and creative thinking on topics such as automation, workplace surveillance, or the balance between professional and personal life. Their method helps envision not only how work might change but also how it should change to foster a more desirable future.

Julian Bleecker and the Near Future Laboratory

Julian Bleecker and the Near Future Laboratory offer a method known as “Design Fictional Inquiry.” This approach relies on creating “diegetic prototypes” — objects that tell a story about themselves in a speculative world. The idea is to produce artifacts that seem so real and integrated into their narrative context that they invite viewers to deeply reflect on the future worlds they represent. Design Fictional Inquiry is a powerful way to explore the social, ethical, and political implications of new technologies before they hit the market.

In the context of the future of work, Bleecker and the Near Future Laboratory’s framework can be used to create tangible experiences of the future of work. This can include prototypes of new work tools, scenarios on the evolution of workspaces, or narratives on the daily life of future workers. This method allows highlighting aspects often neglected in technological progress, like emotional implications, changes in social relationships, or issues of power and control.

The Royal College of Art

The Royal College of Art (RCA) in London has been a pioneer in integrating speculative design and design fiction into its teaching. Their program aims to equip students with the tools and critical thinking necessary to explore and question the future. Students learn to create scenarios, artifacts, and installations reflecting possible futures, focusing on cultural, social, and ethical implications.

The RCA’s approach has a significant impact on training new generations of designers. These designers graduate with a deep understanding of how their creations can influence the future. They are trained to be critical thinkers and visionary creators, ready to tackle complex issues such as those associated with the future of work. By integrating design fiction into their practice, they can make significant contributions to how we envision and plan workspaces, tools, and cultures of tomorrow.

École des Ponts

The d.school Paris Project at the École des Ponts is a specialized cell on design thinking. It makes sense that experts from this cell gradually became interested in the approach of Design Fiction, to the point of offering a two-day training on the subject. Although not a specific method per se, it has the merit of being one of the first recognized French representations of the Design Fiction approach.

The Tomorrow Theory way

You saw it coming from miles away, and you were right. A studio specializing in the future of work and HR, like Tomorrow Theory, for example, must master Design Fiction. But even more, it must adapt Design Fiction specifically to the challenges of the future of work and HR! That’s what we have been working on with the Tomorrow Theory team since our creation in 2022. Nearly two years later, we are happy to have concluded our model F.U.T.U.R.E.S., dedicated to Design Fiction for the future of work and HR.

After these two years of research, work, and trials, we have finally concluded our own model of Design Fiction. The result? A systemic model consisting of 42 parameters, each with 5 possible sub-scenarios. In total, there are 210 options that can be combined to create the fabric of a possible future for work, HR, and their organizations. Adding three additional “shade” parameters — the sector of activity, granularity, and the market position of the organization, it becomes possible to contextualize the obtained framework to make it specific to a particular organization.

In a Design Fiction workshop, there are therefore 42 sub-scenarios to choose (for the 42 parameters), and the 3 shade parameters to be filled in. From there, generative AIs take over, to propose 3 coherent synopses. After a critical analysis of the proposals, it becomes possible to create a complete, detailed, and strongly contextualized fiction.

The 42 parameters are organized into 7 dimensions within our F.U.T.U.R.E.S. model:

  • Frameworks of global change: The macroeconomic, demographic, political, and environmental factors that redefine the foundations of the global landscape and influence all other aspects of society.
  • Users and consumers dynamics: The trends and behaviors of individuals and consumer groups, including their expectations, preferences, and the way they interact with businesses and technologies.
  • Technological advancements and impacts: The rapid evolution of technologies and their integration into society, the economy, and daily life, as well as the implications of these changes for individuals and organizations.
  • Utopian and dystopian prospects: The idealized or pessimistic visions for the future of society and organizations, used to envision and plan against various possible futures.
  • Resilience and adaptive strategies: The capabilities and methods an organization develops to survive, adapt, and thrive in the face of unexpected changes and challenges.
  • Economic models and strategies: The frameworks and approaches that guide value creation, growth, and financial sustainability in a changing world.
  • Societal influence and ethics: The role of businesses in society, including ethics, social responsibility, and how they influence and are influenced by social norms and civic movements.

The F.U.T.U.R.E.S. model offers a comprehensive and systematic grid for anticipating and understanding the transformations of our world. At the crossroads of economic, social, and technological sciences, it allows identifying the levers of change and the dynamics at work, from macro-economic trends to individual consumer behaviors.

Example of a Design Fiction story

Framework

  • Title: Quaternary Horizons: The Banking Awakening
  • Temporal framework: 2040, Paris, France
  • Framework: F.U.T.U.R.E.S. (45 parameters)
  • Focus: evolution of the banking industry in France

Summary of major assumptions

In a prospective future of the banking industry, we observe a synergistic convergence between macroeconomic requirements and social imperatives. Financial institutions have evolved to embrace a digital and dematerialized economy, shaped by disruptive technological advancements and changing demographics. They respond to increasingly savvy consumers demanding personalization and data security.

Technological advances, especially in artificial intelligence and quantum computing, are integrated ethically to enhance security and optimize financial services. Banking organizations have become resilient and adaptable entities, capable of innovating during crises while maintaining sustainable and inclusive economic strategies. Their societal role has increased, taking into account corporate social responsibility and aligning with rigorous ethical standards to promote greater equity and social justice within the communities they serve.

Story summary

In 2045, Banque Nouvelle Vague (BNV), a leader in the French banking sector, represents the archetype of the modern financial institution. After the crisis of 2030, BNV reinvented its operational model, focusing its strategy on transparency, personalization, and responsible innovation.

In BNV branches, clients are greeted by AI-enhanced advisors capable of providing ultra-personalized financial advice. The counseling spaces are living places, combining cultural cafe and interactive technologies, where clients can learn about financial management and test sustainable investment solutions.

BNV’s biometric technology allows clients to perform transactions in the blink of an eye, while back-office systems, supported by quantum supercomputers, continuously work to optimize investment portfolios and minimize risks.

BNV has bet on ethical innovation, developing a “social conscience” algorithm that assesses the environmental and societal impact of each investment. This bold choice has attracted a new generation of eco-conscious clients and strengthened the bank’s position on the international market.

BNV employees benefit from a comprehensive wellness program, including meditation sessions, flexible schedules, and telecommuting opportunities, embodying the vision of a banking industry that values human capital as much as financial capital.

Thus, BNV does not just survive in the landscape of 2045; it thrives by presenting itself as a pillar of the quaternary economy, where knowledge, skills, solidarity, and sustainable development are the currencies of tomorrow.

Challenges, limits, and future of Design Fiction

Design Fiction, as a method of foresight and innovation, offers fertile ground for experimentation and reflection on possible futures. However, it does not escape its own limits and challenges. One of the main obstacles lies in its speculative nature, which can sometimes lead to futuristic visions disconnected from current or future realistic constraints. Moreover, anchoring narratives in contemporary concerns can sometimes limit their ability to destabilize or question predominant trajectories. Design fiction scenarios are also often reflections of their creators’ biases, significantly limiting diversity and inclusivity.

But if there’s one challenge to address for design fiction, it’s that of measurable impact. How to effectively assess its influence on actual innovation or political decisions? It must also find a balance between imagination and credibility, to inspire without losing sight of ethical and practical implications.

As for the evolution of the field, we can anticipate that design fiction will gain sophistication. With the advent of new technologies like AI and VR, it is likely that these tools will be increasingly integrated to create immersive and interactive experiences. To let you in on a secret, this is one of our major investment areas at Tomorrow Theory for 2024 and 2025!

Design fiction could also become a democratized tool, used not only by designers and businesses but also by educators, policymakers, and the general public. By pushing the approach a bit further, it could contribute to a culture of engagement and civic responsibility toward common futures.

Conclusion

Attempting to anticipate the future is an exercise as fascinating as it is essential, especially when it comes to envisioning the work of tomorrow. Design Fiction, as a lens into possible futures, proves to be an exceptionally relevant and powerful tool. It is not just about projection or speculation; it is about actively shaping visions of what our professional reality could be.

With all the changes we are experiencing, the speed and the intensity with which we must confront them, Design Fiction positions itself as the architect of narratives, building bridges between the present and all possible futures. Each of these futures is like a systemic exploration, where each hypothesis contributes to constructing a future that is waiting to be thought about, questioned, and ultimately designed.

The choices we collectively make today determine the world in which we will live tomorrow. It’s better to make these choices consciously and responsibly, considering their potential impacts. And what about you, where do you stand in your vision of the future of your organization?

Bibliography

Auger, J. (2013). Speculative Design: Crafting the Speculation. Digital Creativity, 24(1), 11–35. https://doi.org/10.1080/14626268.2013.767276

Bleecker, J. (2009). Design Fiction: A short essay on design, science, fact and fiction. Near Future Laboratory.

Candy, S., & Dunagan, J. (2017). Designing an Experiential Scenario: The People Who Vanished. Futures, 86, 136–153. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.futures.2016.05.006

DiSalvo, C. (2012). Adversarial Design. MIT Press.

Dunne, A., & Raby, F. (2013). Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction, and Social Dreaming. MIT Press.

Grand, S., & Wiedmer, M. (2010). Design Fiction: A Method Toolbox for Design Research in a Complex World. Proceedings of the DRS 2010 Conference: Design & Complexity.

Hales, D. (2013). Design fictions an introduction and provisional taxonomy. Digital Creativity, 24(1), 1–10. https://doi.org/10.1080/14626268.2013.767277

Lindley, J., & Coulton, P. (2015). Back to the Future: 10 years of Design Fiction. Proceedings of the 2015 British HCI Conference, 210–211. https://doi.org/10.1145/2783446.2783592

Sterling, B. (2009). Design Fiction. Interactions, 16(3), 20–24. https://doi.org/10.1145/1516016.1516021

Wakkary, R., & Tanenbaum, K. (2015). A Sustainable Design Fiction: Green Practices. ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction, 20(4), 1–34. https://doi.org/10.1145/2702123

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[Article written on January 7, 2023, by Jeremy Lamri with the support of the Open AI GPT-4 algorithm. Images generated with Adobe Firefly].

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Jeremy Lamri

CEO @ Tomorrow Theory. HRTech & EdTech entrepreneur, researcher and author. Find me on https://linktr.ee/jeremylamri