Speculative futures: Questioning nanotechnology and sustainable development through industrial design pedagogy



Design Education Strategy
Product & Industrial Design


  • 4IR, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, speculative design, sustainable development


The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) is rapidly blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological worlds through advances in artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, and other technologies. While Industry 4.0 is transforming our future realities, it is essential not to lose sight of human needs and basic human rights. Development must balance social, economic, and environmental sustainability, which is why designers need to engage with ethical considerations and social realities. One example of a technology that has both potential benefits and ethical threats is nanotechnology. Nanobots, machine versions of bacteria or viruses, can perform pre-programmed tasks autonomously at the atomic level. While nanotechnology has the potential to address inequalities, climate change, and diseases, it also poses ethical threats to society. Higher education programmes must prepare students for these ethical conundrums, especially in a rapidly changing industry driven by technology.

Speculative Design (SD) is a way to engage students in the future implications of the relationship between science, technology, and humans. It proposes provocative future scenarios that spark debate. In order to prepare students for the changing industry driven by technology, an undergraduate project explored the use of AI as a tool in speculative design. Students imagined advancements in nanotechnology linked to a specific SDG and proposed provocative future scenarios through a realistic magazine-type advertisement. The project aimed to balance technological progress with social, economic, and environmental sustainability and prepare students for ethical considerations and future implications. Through SD, students critically explored and reflected on social challenges and opportunities, a shift in approach to design education that emphasises speculative and theoretical exploration and reflection compared to traditional skills-based methods.

This paper reports on the project outcomes, student reflections, and key findings. Furthermore, it emphasises the importance of balancing technological progress with social, economic, and environmental sustainability and engaging students in ethical considerations and future implications through SD. The research paper argues that the integration of SD in industrial design pedagogy has the potential to foster a critical and reflective approach to design practice that is essential for addressing the complex challenges of sustainable development in today’s world.


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