The Speculation Studio is about YOU harnessing the power of writing short-form speculative fiction to build personal and business creativity. Try it out: read Today’s story; write your 100 word story; read our speculation. For details of our workshops and free book, explore About The Studio. You can also subscribe to the Substack digest here.
He started when he was a student. Not great money but easy and flexible and, heh he got to ride his bike. Not as glamorous as the couriers of the past but something. He continued after he graduated, partly because he couldn’t get a “proper” job as his dad called it but also because the community had been fun in the early days. Everyone stopping for a roll up and a chat between calls. He remembered those days as he rolled to a stop and got his Rizlas out. It was quiet. Just the wheelie bins as he called them.
Help, I can’t write…
The blank box. just 100 words. It’s scary. But remember, it’s the process of speculation that matters. The key is to START:
S is for SIGNS or objects: I go into this in more detail in my book, but one way to start writing is to look at the things in news stories as SIGNS and OBJECTS. The latest VR headset, the new AI chatbot, the influencer can all be seen as OBJECTS: human and unhuman actors in the world and in your story. Similarly ‘cancel culture’, ‘eco-anxiety’ or ‘climate change’ can be seen as SIGNS: trends or movements in the world and in your story. As a speculator you can see what you can imagine and learn by connecting or clashing these different objects and signs. Characters in your story.
The power of speculation lies in treating all the objects and signs, all the across on our stage as worthy of your attention. Human actors are important but so is the algorithm that sorts their newsfeed. Big structures of capitalism are powerful but so is the cultural practice of scanning a QR code.
TIP: Find two or three objects and signs at different scales (human, software, hardware, culture and structure) and see what happens when they meet.
T is for TAKING your characters for a walk. You are a flâneur, wandering the streets of your imagination. As you head down a new pathway and see new objects or actor-objects connect, you find (out) new things. Take your human or unhuman character and put them somewhere or have another sign or object interact or connect. Have your human Object pick up a coffee cup; have the AI actor-object talk to the pencil; have the door open; have the pulse rate soar.
There are no wrong turnings, no journeys that will not teach you something. And always remember, you don’t know what the destination (denouement) is. You don’t even know if there will be one. And it doesn’t matter if there is or there isn’t. It’s the speculative wandering that’s the value.
TIP: Head down a slightly odd looking street. Collide two actor-objects that wouldn’t normally connect. Collide the pram and the music; bump the old lady into the bus shelter; connect the church to the latest porn craze.
A is for remain AGNOSTIC. It’s hard not to decide that you’re going for a utopian or a dystopian story at the start. Just as the genre of the story will emerge as you write, so will the feel. You might discover as you write that the surveillance technology you thought was evil could liberate your character, that it had utopian dimensions. Similarly you might find the new progressive political culture your character engages with has darker dystopian implications and possibilities.
Let the story develop alongside the characters. See what dimensions and issues emerge. How they play out and balance is something your story will tell you, but the point is, you’ll get a better story and more importantly you’ll discover more by remaining agnostic, at least at the beginning.
TIP: Try changing your politics. Write as a conservative or a liberal and see what happens.
R is for RELATE to your characters. Empathise with them, maybe even like them. You’re only with them for 100 words. You’ll find out more about them and how they collide with the the other characters in the story if you have a relationship with them at the start. This applies to unhuman characters as much as human ones.
Try a bit of judicious anthropomorphism. Giving an unhuman thing a bit of a “soul”, a vibrancy as Jane Bennett calls it, is giving the unhuman actor-object a bit of respect, relating to it. Easy with an AI but you can give a wooden table a history that gives it a life and a role in your story. Maybe it was once the start of childhood den or a shelter in the war or the scene of a less-than-romantic dinner.
TIP: Give one of the OBJECTS or SIGNS in your new story a backstory.
T is TURN and surprise (yourself). One of the joys of flânerie, just going for a walk, is the surprise turns. Wandering and then turning down a new alley can lead to new discoveries, new areas of the city, new views. The Turn is more than a plot twist. Plot twists are great but they have an aim, to surprise the reader of course but also to provide some conclusion or satisfying ending. They are story rather than character-centered. The Turn in speculative fiction is designed to do the opposite, to refuse conclusion, to deny an ending, to reject a final truth.
Your Turn might come as you change your view of a character – maybe the seemingly powerless child take control of her life; maybe the algorithm displays a vulnerability. It might come as two actor-objects collide – maybe selfie-culture leaves the shopping Mall and arrives at the Church. Your Turn might start the story or end it. The thing is that the Turn is often where you surprise yourself: where speculation opens up new insight.
TIP: Just start writing and let the Turn appear rather than aiming for it. Let your story be boring.
The last week in The Studio
Install the App
The Speculation Studio is not about my stories, it’s about yours. It’s about using speculative fiction as a way of engaging critically and creatively with the world. So, practice speculation regularly: write here, write now.
The easiest way is to install The Speculation Studio as an app (technically a Web App).
Go to your Browser menu (Three dots top right) and click on Add to Home Screen or Install App. You’ll then see The Speculation Studio on your Home Screen. Click on it just like you do with any app… regularly 🙂
In your Browser, Click on the Share Icon. Click on Add to Home Screen. You’ll then see The Speculation Studio on your Home Screen. Click on it just like you do with any app… regularly 🙂
The Speculation Studio is about harnessing the power of writing speculative fiction for building creativity and innovation in a business. We have a book, playing cards and run workshops and coaching.
What is speculative fiction?
Speculative Fiction is about imagining, in this app’s case, in exactly 100-word stories. Speculative fictions look a little into the future as a way of exploring current questions around technology, culture, society and power. Sometimes dystopian, occasionally utopian and, when they are at their best, oscillating between the two, they provoke the viewer into seeing and thinking differently – opening new imagination spaces through stories. But you don’t need a film crew and Black Mirror budgets to create speculative fictions nor benefit from the power of imagining and writing them. You just need this app.
Just do it:
1. Every day, open the Speculation Studio app
2. Read today’s news story (or any other story you find)
3. Scroll to the text box and write a 100 word story. Start with What if..? Note, you won’t see a Save button, because you can’t. The point is the writing…
4. Sit back and think about what you discovered.
Speculating is a verb. The power of speculation is in the imagining, the thinking. The story may be great or not-so-great. The point is that the very process of taking 15 mins and 100 words to think differently is valuable. Speculating through fiction is a power full process regardless of the quality of the story it produces. It is the journey the ‘author’ goes on as she writes her story that provides the value. As she follows her characters (human and unhuman) she exercises her imagination and creativity, but she also prototypes possible futures and thinks critically about those futures. Her story may change her reader but it inevitably has changed her. Regular speculation practice is good for you and good for your business.
We don’t daydream enough. It’s another one of those childish things we put aside or are made to leave behind. It’s seen as escaping from reality rather than looking at reality in a new way. It’s wasting time we are told rather than investing time. It’s process with no product. It’s Ferris Bueller and Walter Mitty: likeable, diverting but hardly productive. Speculative fiction is part daydream, part science fiction and I argue, vital for a business focused on the here and now. The practice of speculative fiction is a discipline of imagination, creativity, prototyping and critical thinking that business people need now more than ever.
Every time the Speculator works in her Studio and follows the story where it leads, she is of course being creative but it is important to widen out our understanding of that term. The devil on her shoulder is busy whispering: “You’re not a creative writer! That’s not a creative story!” Maybe not. But she is being creative in a wider and more important sense. As she follows her characters through the What If..? world she has set in motion she is imagining new possibilities, discovering new things about the future but also about the now. She is creating a new way of seeing. She is refreshing her imagination and vision. She is creating a new her. The creativity lies in imagining the scenario, the relationships, the speculative realities. The creativity comes in the process of imagining and seeing what that does to her way of approaching other, present realities.
Every speculation is an exercise in prototyping. Again the emphasis here is on the verb not the noun, the ing not the thing. As the current vogue for design thinking sprints has emphasised, the power of prototyping comes in the process the team goes through, the learnings for the business come in no small part from the iterative design thinking. Writing her What If..? fiction, our Speculator is iteratively prototyping, making unfinished but profoundly important mock-ups of the future. Some of them might become more fully formed or emerge as a product, service or business element but the real work has been done in the making, the speculating. Every decision she makes about where to take her character next; every choice of scenario and encounter explores a new reality and uncovers a new set of issues. Just like mocking up a new app with a paper prototype, playing with words, trying out different narratives tells her more and more.
Those discoveries about the business, its place in the world, the wider context or society and culture are often critical and challenging. That is because we don’t often prototype and imagine. When we do, we see issues. Creativity and critical thinking are flip sides of the same coin. Critical doesn’t have to mean negative. While many speculative fictions skirt around the edges of dystopia, the thinking that emerges from writing them doesn’t always have to be dark or attacking a technology or a trend. An optimistic exploration, a story celebrating a possible future can still stimulate critical thinking as the Speculator discovers what that future is, what the nature of that celebration is and why it feels optimistic. Such self reflection and deep consideration is the sort of critical thinking that we have so little time for and businesses so sorely need at the moment.
There’s a lot more on all this in my book: What if..? Speculative Fiction and Imagining Business. Available in print and eBook on Amazon or below, if you don’t mind reading on your app.
What if..? Speculative Fiction and Imagining Business is available in print and on Kindle at Amazon or free to download here.
The book is part an exploration of the power of speculative fiction to empower business to address the complex realities, challenges and opportunities they now face; part how-to guide and, frankly, part polemic calling on us to be more creative in our thinking.
Designed to encourage and enable anyone to take up a pen, pencil or keyboard and imagine “What if..?” as a way of creatively but strategically engaging with emerging technologies, cultures and audiences, the book stands alone as a framework for understanding and mapping those complexities through an object-oriented analysis drawn from my PhD.
Part One: In which we get to know speculative fiction. An overview and argument for the power of speculation.
Part Two: In which we discover why now is a good time for speculation. Using Voice as a case study, an object-oriented look at our current situation and why speculation helps us map it and work within it.
Part Three: In which we get down to speculating. Some guidance on writing short-from speculative fiction.
Part Four: In which we discover what we’ve discovered. A plan for how to make the most of the speculating you’ve just done, bringing the lessons back to the business.
Plus, selected speculative fictions and the lessons they uncovered.
In 2023 I published a second book – a collection of the (almost) daily object-oriented speculative fictions I wrote throughout 2023 together with stereo photographs of other objects.
The book is available on Amazon or for free as a PDF here.
I set up The Speculation Studio because I believe that we need new ways of thinking about the present situation and the future. We need to take a moment to step back from the day-to-day demands of running our businesses to imagine. We need to see the world in new ways if we are to make the best sort of strategic decisions.
The Speculation Studio offers workshops and coaching designed to give you and your team a space and the tools to take that step, to imagine and to think creatively. Each of the Workshops uses the Speculation Studio Cards and takes attendees through the idea of speculative fiction, the concept of actor-objects as a way of seeing the world and their business and then through a series of creative 100-word writing practices and reflections, I help attendees explore their business and business challenges through speculation.
the Starting Speculation Workshop
Do you just want to get your team out of the day-to-day, rediscovering the creativity and passion that brought theme together in the first place? The Starting Speculation Workshop offer an introduction to the practice of speculation.
the Kick-off Workshop
Is your team about to start on a new project, maybe with a new client. Why not get everyone together – including the client – and speculate a little into the future, take some of the actor-objects that will be in play for a walk and see what you can imagine, what new questions and ideas arise?
the Plateau Workshop
Has your team reached a plateau? Has the initial hockey-stick growth in ideas and imagination begun to level off. Why not get the team away from the day-to-day to spend time re-finding their creativity through speculation?
the Crisis Workshop
It might not be a major crisis but every project, business and team runs into challenges. Why not take the focus off the immediate problem and het your team to rediscover their creativity and imagination and approach and then revisit the challenge from a new direction?
the NPD Workshop
Speculation doesn’t take the place of design thinking but it can provide a creative and future-facing foundation for that design sprint or ideation programme.
the Workshop Programme
As I explain in The Book, speculation is not a one-off, it is a regular practice. After the first, kickstart workshop, you can enrol your team in the Speculation Studio Workshop Programme. Each week, members are supported in speculating using The Cards and, as their speculation skills increase, other objects more closely related to your business. Through regular supported writing and reflection activities through The Speculation Studio app, members build speculation into their work and your business.
Each Workshop and Programme is tailored to each business. Workshops can be built around the existing Speculation Studio Cardds or we can develop a bespoke set of cards just for your business, your issues or your challenges.
Let’s talk and see how The Speculation Studio can help you and your team.
The cards are a simple set of standard playing cards (if you don’t want to speculate, you can always gamble). The four suits are three different sets of characters you’ll use in your story plus 13 Reflection Cards which you’ll use to creatively think through what you have found out through your speculation
Hearts: The Signs
These Cards provide either details of a specific technology or trend: a sign of the changing world. One Sign Card might give you details on a new technological development another might ask you to think about the latest Gen Z craze. The Signs are the first component of, or character in, your story.
Spades and Clubs: The Objects
These cards provide the second thing to work with in your story. These cards provide your story’s protagonist (hero or anti-hero). The Spades are the digital objects. These can be software or hardware things: maybe a social media recommendation algorithm or a wearable device. The Clubs are the living actors in your story: the human and cultural characters. Maybe a single mum or online gaming culture. Together these Cards give you a panoply of human and unhuman objects (what in The Speculation Studio Book and in The Speculation Studio Workshop we call actors-objects). There are a couple of blank cards too. Here you can add your own business or product or service or brand value or purpose or anything else that you want to story-tell with.
Diamonds: The Reflections
As you’ll see in The Speculation Studio Book and at The Speculation Studio Workshop the power of speculation comes in thinking with the objects in your storytelling, the practice of imagining. These cards give your frameworks and prompts for thinking about what you have done, where you have been and what you have found.
The more we can imagine the near future, the better our chance of steering it in a positive direction.
If you want to use the cards you take one Signs card, one (or more) Object cards and one Reflection card. Then you speculate. You tell the story in exactly 100 words and as you see where the story takes you, you discover. And just so you don’t let the devils back onto your shoulders, there’s a timer. A full run down of the process appears in The Speculation Studio Book.
The Cards, like The Book are free to all participants in a Speculation Studio Workshop but if you want to buy a set of Cards without attending a workshop, talk to me.
the Digital Objects
the Human Objects
Who’s behind all this?
In a hundred words, obviously
I’m dr Paul Caplan. I’ve been a journalist, photographer, teacher, trainer and consultant. I took businesses and magazines including Marketing Week online during the dot com bubble, advised charities and UK government departments including the NHS and the RAF on conversation strategy in the Web 2 bubble before getting a PhD and then running a Masters degree training NewGen creative-strategists for the advertising and media industries. As we enter a new tech bubble, I believe that critical and creative speculation is our best defence against the hype and best hope of building a sustainable future for our businesses and society.