Design Fiction

In September 2013 I delivered a lecture at the Open Book Festival in Cape Town titled ‘Design Fiction’, in which I explored design (especially designed objects) as a story-telling medium. From the festival programme: “Contemporary design projects are often a form of story-telling, used to communicate narratives to users and audiences. Ralph Borland explores examples of where design, for better or worse, acts as a form of fiction that is sometimes at odds with its intended purpose”.

I opened my presentation with a photograph of ‘Blikkiesdorp on Ocean View Drive’ – the architect Carin Smut’s home in the upmarket area of Seapoint in Cape Town, which was graffitied with a disparaging message (since lovingly preserved by the architect) because of her use of corrugated iron in its design. ‘Blikkiesdorp’, literally ‘tin can town’, is a reference to a bleak shanty town on the outskirts of Cape Town. I used this anecdote as a talking point around how even simple materials can have strong communicative and symbolic properties, and particular connotations for viewers – here residents were unhappy about a ‘shanty town’ material used in an upmarket area.

Blikkiesdorp on Ocean View Drive

Blikkiesdorp on Ocean View Drive

I moved from there through a range of examples of objects which can be ‘read’ in particular ways – like our propensity for seeing faces in objects – through the role of objects in narratives (knives in Cormac McCarthy or Borge’s work for example) and objects deliberately designed to be characters in a wider story (such as critical designers Dunne & Raby). This set up a discussion of the role of ‘objects in development’, the subject of my PhD thesis, centred around the PlayPump.

Provocative Technology

I recently reread some writing I’d produced about the term ‘provocative technology’ in the first year or two of my PhD, reproduced below. Supported by other references to the term, I define provocative technology as an object or tool which has functions for the user but that also challenges the contexts of its use, and provokes questions and debate in wider audiences.

At one point I was going to make my PhD about provocative technology, identifying examples across disciplines and contexts and defining its principles. This turned out to be too broad a topic, and I shifted my attention to analysing examples in the field of ‘design for development’, the field which seemed to have perhaps the most real world impact, using perspectives from other disciplines where I’d identified provocative technologies, such as critical design and interventionist art, and science and technology studies.

The term sunk into the background of my PhD, but I still kept it as a useful term to refer to a set of characteristics across a range of practices (and as a particular way of looking at objects). I used the term again recently for a course I taught at the Cologne International Institute of Design (KISD) in 2012. I used it to describe my selection of objects (as ‘Political Art and Provocative Technology’) for my exhibition ‘Sideshow‘ at the Nextwave Festival in Melbourne, Australia in 2006. And I’m working on an idea for an exhibition at the moment that will explore it further.

From my notes:

Provocative Technology 2007 (redux 2013)

The subject of my research is ‘provocative technology’; in business, the term can refer to technologies which have the potential to be ‘disruptive’, overturning incumbent technologies and systems; for certain designers, academics and technology producers it describes a type of tool or technology which intervenes in, interrogates and communicates the social, political or economic contexts of its use. This purpose can be intentionally designed for, or read into objects.


In order to define the term ‘Provocative Technology’ for my research, I searched for and analysed documented uses of the phrase as applying to a field of practice. The result is this ‘etymology’ of the term.

The term ‘provocative’ is sometimes used in business and technology contexts to describe a technology with the potential to significantly impact markets or existing technologies[1], or colloquially in broader public contexts to indicate the possibly disruptive social or ethical implications of a new technology[2]. While retaining some of these meanings,  ‘Provocative Technology’ is also used in a narrower way to describe a specific, emerging field of practice. These instances of use include:

Professor Krzysztof Wodiczko refers to the the mobile shelter for homeless people he designed as a ‘provocative technology’ in an interview in ‘The Interventionists’ (2003, MIT Press). Professor  Wodiczko is the director and founder of the Interrogative Design Group (IDG) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). His definition of ‘interrogative design’, his field of practice since the mid-1980s, contributes to a definition of provocative technology. In the IDG’s ‘Statement of Purpose’, he imagines a tool or technology which reveals the circumstances that necessitate its use:

A bandage covers and treats the wound while at the same time exposing its presence. Its presence signifies both the experience of pain and the hope of recovery. Is it possible to further develop such a bandage as equipment that will communicate, interrogate, and articulate the circumstances and the experiences of the injury? Could such a transformed bandage address the ills of the outside world as perceived by the wounded? To see the world as seen by the wound! [3]

Rebecca Hansson and Tobias Skog of the PLAY Research Group, Interactive Institute in Sweden stated their intention in 2001 to produce concepts and prototypes under the title ‘Provocative Technology’, in which their ambition was to “create artefacts which can be used as a starting point when discussing, for instance, ethical and moral issues regarding the design and use of information technology. We also want to provoke users of those artefacts to reflect upon and become aware of certain issues, and perhaps to persuade them to change their views or feelings.”[4]

A term also used by Hansen and Skog is ‘persuasive technology’. Stanford University advances the term through their Persuasive Technology Lab which “creates insight into how computing products — from websites to mobile phone software — can be designed to change what people believe and what they do”[5].

Provocative technologies are more open-endedly informative or communicative than specifically persuasive, and are not limited to human-computer interaction (HCI). Their mode of action can be antagonistic, as alluded to in the next text.

Brooke Foucault, Pheobe Sengers, Helene M. Mentis and Devon Welles explored “the potential usefulness of disturbing, uncomfortable systems, demonstrating that provocative technology can have a positive effect on social relationships” in their paper ‘Provoking Sociability’, presented at CHI 2007. They wrote:

For obvious reasons, HCI design has primarily focused on the goal of creating systems that are comfortable and pleasing for human users. The recent push into emotion in HCI, likewise, has focused on enhancing positive affect and reducing negative affect. Nevertheless, some researchers are questioning the focus on the positive and pleasing, suggesting that this leaves out important dimensions of human experience that HCI needs to take into account or perhaps even support.

One of the most influential arguments for this new focus stems from Dunne and Raby’s formulation of design noir. They suggest that electronic product design has been focused too exclusively on sanitized versions of human life and behavior and argue for the inclusion of “darker,” more genuine human needs in the design of technology. As they elaborate, “an occasional glance through almost any newspaper reveals a view of everyday life where complex emotions, desires and needs are played out through the misuse and abuse of electronic products and systems.” Yet, “the range of emotions offered through most electronic products is pathetically narrow.”[6]

Dunne and Raby are Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby, designers and academics (with the Computer Related Design (CRD) Research Studio at the Royal College of Art, London). Their description of their use of “products and services as a medium to stimulate discussion and debate amongst designers, industry and the public about the social, cultural and ethical implications of emerging technologies”[7] contributes to our definition of provocative technology, as does the idea that technologies could be designed to antagonise our social-technological terrain in order to reveal valuable information about it. [At this stage, in 2007, I don’t think I’d yet read much of Dunne and Raby’s work. I ended up referring to it quite extensively in my thesis after reading ‘Hertzian Tales’ and ‘Design Noir’ – RB 2013]

William J. Mitchell., Alan S. Inouye, and Marjorie S. Blumenthal edited the book ‘Beyond Productivity’ (2003) for the National Academy of Sciences, USA. In the chapter titled ‘The influence of Art and Design on Computer Science and Development’, the term ‘provocative technology’ is used in the description of a project to “confront users with negative aspects of technology” (surveillance), though “users who saw the “product” demonstrated in an ostensibly commercial presentation were surprisingly enthusiastic”.[8]

The chapter describes a field of practice they term ‘information arts’, a cross-disciplinary art and science collaboration which uses “artistic practice to manage and interpret information at the cusp of technological and scientific research.”[9] Information Technology and Creative Practices (ITCP) looks to the artist as a mediator, between the science and technology establishment and the public, for example. This management, interpretation and communication of information around technological and scientific research we can also define as a possible feature of provocative technology practice. The role of the artist in provocative technology is expanded on later in this report.

The Disruptive Design Team (DDT), the research group within the department of Electronic and Electrical Engineering at Trinity College of which [was] a member, has referred to ‘Provocative Technologies’ as one of the topics members focus on since the group’s inception in 2003:

The focus of the research group is to challenge traditional ideas of connectivity, connection, communication and sociability through the creation of installations and applications that subvert uses of technologies and create situations for questioning. The research students are engaged in a wide range of projects that focus on topics such as Urban Public Space Art, Provocative Technologies & Interactive Spaces, Urban Wearables, Urban Narratives and New Media & Feminist Methodologies. A multi-disciplinary approach to these topics is taken. There is an emphasis both on developing theoretical ideas and on creating and building work to progress ideas.[10]

Creating ‘situations for questions’ is a feature of provocative technology as a design practice; as is the challenging of traditional ideas about the use or meaning of technology through creating work.

[1] ‘Fed-Watcher Extraordinaire David Gitlitz Joins MetaMarkets Think Tank’, Business Wire, July 17, 2000

[2] ‘Stem cell research: Breakthroughs and controversies’, in The Jewish Standard

[3] The Interrogative Design Group, MIT, 2002 (now changed)

[4] ‘Provocative Technology’,

[5] Persuasive Technology Lab, Stanford University

[6] ‘Provoking Sociability’, CHI 2007

[8] Mitchell, W. J., Inouye A. S., Blumenthal M. S., Ed. (2003) Beyond Productivity: Information technology, Innovation and Creativity. USA: The National Academies Press Chapter 4, p.9

[9] Mitchell, W. J., Inouye A. S., Blumenthal M. S., Ed. (2003) Beyond Productivity: Information technology, Innovation and Creativity. USA: The National Academies Press, p.2 Chapter 4, p.9

[10] Disruptive Design Team website,

Peter Morgan receives award

C-type pump

Dr Peter Morgan with a prototype for the C-type Zimbabwe Bush Pump in his garden in Harare, 2010

Zimbabwean scientist Dr. Peter Morgan, whom I interviewed for my PhD research, has been awarded the Stockholm Water Prize. Dr. Morgan redesigned the appropriate technology icon the Zimbabwe Bush Pump, and was celebrated as ‘a feminist
dream of an ideal man’ by Marianne de Laet and Annemarie Mol in their seminal science and technology studies paper on the Bushpump, ‘The Zimbabwe Bush Pump: Mechanics of a Fluid Technology‘ (2000). You’ll have to read their paper to contexualise that remark!

Article below from (thanks Dad!)

Ray Choto

WASHINGTON, DC — A Zimbabwean scientist is this year’s Stockholm Water Prize
recipient for his innovations in safe sanitation and clean water supplies.

Dr. Peter Morgan, a former civil servant with the Ministry of Health, will
receive his prize of $150 thousand and a crystal sculpture at a ceremony in
Stockholm during World Water Week in September.

Some of Dr. Morgan’s innovations adapted by the Zimbabwe government include
the Bush Water Pump, the Blair Ventilated Pit Latrine and the upgraded
family well, used mainly by rural communities. The 70-year old researcher
says the technologies he designed are also being used in other African
countries. For each of his technologies, Dr. Morgan says he developed a wide
range of training and educational materials to help communities install and
maintain them without expert supervision.

Dr. Morgan calls the award an “honour” not only for him, but for all the
people of Zimbabwe.

“I think it means the recognition to me personally,” Morgan said. “It means
the recognition of perhaps most of my lifetime’s work, which has been
dedicated to this area. For the country I think it’s important to many of
my colleagues here within the [inaudible] community and within the
government have told me that it means a lot to Zimbabwe, as well, to be
recognized for the work that we have done in this country to actually push
the state of the art forward.”

Dr. Morgan is a naturalized Zimbabwean. He was born in 1943 and educated in
England where he graduated with a Ph.D. in marine biology. He worked as a
chief research officer at the Ministry of Health’s Blair Research Institute
in Harare, now called the National Institute of Health Research. In 1991,
he was awarded member of the Order of the British Empire (OBE). Dr. Morgan
has received many other awards and distinctions, including the International
Inventors Award, the AMCOW Africasan Award for Technical Innovation in
Sanitation, and the Rural Water Supply Network Award for Lifetime Services
to Rural Water Supply.

The Sweden-based Stockholm prize committee, which has selected a winner
every year since 1991, says Dr. Morgan was chosen for what they called his
“unwavering commitment to inventing low-cost practical solutions to provide
access to safe sanitation and clean water to millions of people worldwide.”
The Director of the Stockholm Water Prize, Mr. Jens Berggren, says making
the selection was not easy, but Morgan’s work was special because its
beneficiaries were the poor.

“I think the [inaudible] nomination committee was really impressed that he
has done over the past 40 years,” said Mr. Berggren, “sort of effortlessly
supporting the lives of poor people out there by designing and inventing new
solutions for—especially poor people’s—access to good sanitation and good,
clean drinking water.”

According to the committee’s website, the purpose of the award is to
recognize what it calls the world’s most visionary minds for driving “water
development forward.”