Applying PESTLE Analysis to generate supportive fiction for Speculative Design

Applying PESTLE Analysis to generate supportive fiction for Speculative Design

Thermal Epidermiplasty, Transfigurations (2013) Agi Haines www.agihaines.com
Photo used with kind permission from Agi Haines

In this post I use PESTLE analysis as a method to interpret and envisage the world in which Agi Haines’ speculative design work, Transfigurations, may occupy. It will be demonstrated how PESTLE analysis enables audiences a deep connection to speculative design work and enable the work to extend its impact upon the viewer. In the case of Haines’ Transfigurations project, we use PESTLE to speculate on the hopes and struggles transhumans may encounter, and the world they live in.

PESTLE analysis provides a reliable method to help understand external factors and provide a broad context to what may influence design outcomes and therefore provide direction to solutions. 

A speculative design work is an object that designers and / or  artists create to provoke thought and discussion. The object explores the possible and probable through asking ‘what if?’. In this space objects can safely push extremes; ideas, morals and ethics, applications of technology and other aspects of society, to provoke emotional and intellectual reactions. In much the same way as science and speculative fiction authors do. Audiences can ponder their own reactions to the sort of world these objects inhabit. Is it a world I want? If it is, how can I strive for it? If it’s not, how can I avoid it? Often our reactions are not so black and white but are nuanced in the subtleties and multi-layered provocations of the work.

An unfamiliar object on its own can be hard to decipher. In isolation it can become more of an artwork to be admired or repulsed by, by its aesthetic alone. By being armed with an external context or at least the means to formulate one, viewers are able to frame the object and consider it on a much deeper level of understanding.

Here’s a simple introduction to PESTLE analysis. PESTLE is an acronym for; Political, Economic, Sociological, Technological, Legal, and Environmental. There are similar acronyms that cover the same sort of territory like; STEEP and TEEPSE, which includes ethical considerations. Generally applied to problem solving and forecasting requirements. However, when we are presented with a solution or an artefact from a possible future, as in the case of speculative design work, we should be able to unpick how and why this work is presented to us and how we respond to it; despite of how much or how little additional information is provided to us by the designer or artist.

An artefact from the future does not live in isolation. It exists in its reality and is a product of its environment. When we approach this object and we the audience endeavour to fill our knowledge gaps to understand it through its associated environment, we create a stronger case for its actualisation and can look anew upon ourselves.

This is my first  attempt to use PESTLE for this type of unpacking of a speculative design work. However, it is my assertion that it can be used successfully as a tool for interpretation of these types of projects, and to help designers and artists position ideas for their own speculative design work. We will find that by considering each of the aspects of PESTLE we can create a fictional world that Haines’ work could comfortably reside in.

Agi Haines Transfigurations project (https://www.agihaines.com/transfigurations)  is provided with the following text:

The human body consists of practicable elements that can be easily manipulated and engineered. Through surgical procedures our bodies can be stretched, shifted and sewn, yet still be functional. What then would stop us searching for a higher level of function than we have now? Especially if it may have the potential to benefit the younger, more vulnerable and more malleable generation?

‘Transfigurations’ depicts designs for potential body enhancements that have been surgically implemented. Each modification is put in place to imagine how these techniques could ‘solve’ a potential future problem for the baby, ranging from medical to environmental to social mobility issues, but at what physical, mental, social and economic cost?

The fictitious range of speculative transhuman procedures span believability, necessity, desirability and fear in dealing with environmental challenges to come. In the wake of technologies leading to the “designer baby” this project reveals that modification, particularly of children, is not new, and techniques today may achieve what we believe to only be alterations of the future. The feedback since the production of these sculptures has shown that decision making in healthcare, particularly when it involves vulnerable parties is incredibly complex and sadly rarely accessible to everyone.

Thermal Epidermiplasty, Transfigurations (2013) Agi Haines www.agihaines.com
Photo used with kind permission from Agi Haines

Thermal epidermiplasty
Extending the skin on the scalp increases the surface area for faster heat dissipation. With the increase in global warming this child would be able to withstand working in high temperatures due to the higher number of veins near the surface of the skin.

To be clear, the following interpretation is entirely my own and is intended to work as a fiction to Haines’ Transfigurations project, to assist in interpreting her work.

Let’s reexamine the photos. The lighting is crisp. The bedding and clothing are perfectly white; no personality, no colours. The babies are looking at peace and in a very healthy state. We could be viewing a baby in a well funded hospital. The photos themselves may be for documentation or clinical reporting requirements which may explain the lack of warmth in the environment. More sinisterly, we could also be viewing infants in some sort of experimental lab. The barriers around the babies seem more for display than for incubation or protection.

If we are indeed looking at the nursery of a hospital of some near future, the procedure must be legal and open. Yet, we are here viewing what appears to be documentary or reporting photos so there might still be some novelty and newness around this process as well.

Therefore, we can consider: How have these transhuman procedures been made legal? How were the ethical and moral issues addressed? Was there a tipping point that swung public opinion to be pro-transhuman? If we consider how problematic public discussions are on abortion and euthanasia around the world, how would the politics play out globally for transhuman procedures? Particularly as we’re dealing with patients that are unable to participate in the decision making process.

Political

Now let’s jump down the rabbit hole with this hypothesis: Moral and ethical issues have been dealt with through legislation allowing for these transhuman procedures to move ahead in an open and transparent manner. This was made possible through overwhelming government lobbying from pharmaceutical companies that supply associated biotech and medical technology, medications and treatments. Yet this would not be sufficient. Additional lobbying support was acquired through partnering with other industry heavyweights: mining and agriculture. Industries who will benefit from an agreed annual quota of transhumans whose parents have accepted substantial advanced payment in return for their child’s 12 years indentured service to the paying company.

This has lead to a sociological creation of transhumans groups based on the necessity of the procedure; one group whose modifications have been done for aesthetic, athletic, or other social aspect, a second group who have been transfigured due to illness or injury, and a third group whose parents were paid by industries for an effective, enhanced slave when they reach 13 years of age.

The successful lobbying created this unsought for third group. However, without the lobbyists the legal hurdles to get legislation through government would not have happened and transhuman procedures would have been kept illegal and out of reach for all but the terminally ill or injured.

Economic

Economically these operations and subsequent after treatment care are incredibly expensive. Prices have come down since the first procedures of 12 or so years ago, as technologies and techniques improve, but they are still out of reach for most.

Parents who are in financial difficulty are able to receive a substantial lump sum payment from approved organisations who will claim guardianship of the child once they reach 13 years old. After which they become property of the company until they reach the age of 25 and released from the contract. From the age of 13, the company will manage the completion the child’s education with a focus on their allotted need / speciality within the company.

Once released from the contract transhumans are then free to keep working as salaried staff for the organisations or to pursue other interests. – so far, we are only now witnessing the first generation being brought into the owner organisations and starting their company directed education. Time will tell how this process will unfold.

There are many unresolved concerns around companies that become bankrupt or cease trading. Among these concerns is the question: If a transhuman is indentured and the company collapses is the transhuman treated as an employee or company asset?

There has been the creation of mid-tier loan providers who match unvetted companies to receptive parents. These loan providers operate in a shady grey area of the law as the companies have not been approved by appropriate processes and bureaucracies.

Parents who elect the transhuman procedure for other reasons such as enhancements for athletics or social status concerns, must pay for the procedure and after care entirely. Private health insurance will only consider transhuman modifications when the child’s life is critically threatened through illness or injury.

Sociological

At the time of writing the procedures are still fairly new, only 12 years or so since legislation was passed making the procedures legal and available; and we are only seeing the first wave of transhumans reaching their early teens.

Anthropologists have been studying the children over this period to see how they react to society and how society reacts to them.

There have been, understandably, some issues of integration particularly at school. Children are generally known to pick up on any differences amongst themselves and to exacerbate the difference through name calling, bullying and intimidation. All of which have been observed from non-transhuman children upon transhuman children. Bias from teachers and carers both for and against transhumans have been witnessed also. Transhuman children have been seen to group together and are a massive emotional support for one another. Among the transhuman group there was no observable separations or conflict between the elected procedures, illness related or company-purchased transhumans.

Conversely parents of transhumans did have group divisions observed. Noted this separation was concluded to be the result of perceived social standing rather than directed at the children themselves.

Further unknowns are how these transhumans will integrate into communities as they enter the workforce.

Additionally how will the transhumans leaving their indentured service to their companies readapt. We will only find out these answers in 13 years time.

Technological

Since the beginning of transhuman procedures there have been ongoing advancements in the field. Teams and countries are forever pushing themselves and boundaries, helped along by cash injections from pharmaceutical and industry bodies and ostentatious award ceremonies.

One transfiguration specialist group in the UK, led by surgeon, Dr. J. Eyre*, have had a number of their athletic enhanced transhumans breaking performance records.

A true believer of transfiguration, Dr. Eyre performed a self transfiguration procedure upon her hands using a programmed robotic surgeon assistant. She enhanced the dexterity of her hands (enabling her fingers to bend, flex and grip in any direction). Needless to say the hospital she works for has been most supportive and enthusiastic about her surgical phalanges enhancements.

Legal

In several countries, including the UK, US and Australia, religious bodies have been trying to challenge the legality of the legislation that permit transhuman procedures. Though not arguing on theological reasoning against surgically enhancing humans; there have been some short term wins based on arguments that focus on the morality and ethics of operating on vulnerable patients who can not make crucial, self-determination decisions for themselves. However, so far globally, these wins have been overturned upon appeal, in higher courts across all jurisdictions. The actual and foreseen benefits of transhumans far outweigh the concerns presented.

Non compliant companies and groups seeking to circumvent the appropriate vetting process by soliciting 3rd party loan providers have been rising. These groups seek to take advantage of financially stricken parents around the world and coerce transhuman procedures on their children, either through payment or forms of intimidation.

There have also been an increase in underground and experimental procedures on stateless babies in several nations. It is unclear who may be behind these developments; but so far evidence is pointing to large multinational medical technology companies seeking to develop new procedures.

Environmental

Of the more than 3000 transhumans created over the last 12 years, only around 20% have had the procedure for environmental reasons. However, when examining the data there is a steady increase of procedures year on year for environmental reasons. It stands to reason, as knowledge of the types of enhancements available and the technologies improve as well as the worsening environmental situation it is foreseeable that requests for transfiguration procedures to endure extreme environmental situations become normalised.

At the same time company acquired transhumans are being tailored to excel in specific environmental conditions. Examples disclosed include transhumans for palm oil plantation work in the tropics, cobalt and lithium mining in desert regions. There have been rumours of a transhuman procedure that added gills to a patient for underwater work but so far this has not be substantiated.

Conclusion to the PESTLE application to Haines’ Transfigurations speculative design work.

This exercise of exploring possible PESTLE attributes to Haines’ work rewards us with a much deeper appreciation of the potential world this baby might grow up in. Unresolved tensions of unknowing of the transhuman in the photo will be sent to a company when she reaches 13? Or will she be a star athlete that is able to dissipate heat far more readily than her opponents? Even, perhaps, she’s stateless and no one knows what fate awaits her.

This exercise demonstrated how PESTLE can be used to unpack a speculative design project like Agi Haines’ Transfigurations project.

Unlike the use of PESTLE for business decisions or for problem solving, where each aspect of PESTLE is grounded in reality, research and interview responses. PESTLE used here is purely for fictional exploration restricted only by the interpretation of the designer’s work.

This post is not suggesting that designers and artists spoon-feed their audience with a full rendered fictional world to support their projects. This would stop audiences thinking for themselves and I feel this is the absolute opposite of what this type of work is trying to do. However, audiences armed with a method to unpack speculative design work will come away with a far deeper and meaningful experience and perhaps enable these projects to extend their impact.

Notes

* Dr. J. Eyre is not a real person. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is not intentional and purely coincidental.

Though not directly quoted or referenced in this post, Margaret Atwood’s book, In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination, added to my approach and thinking when considering speculative design.

Thanks to Agi Haines for allowing me to reference her Transfigurations project for this post. Please visit her site for more information.

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