Exploring the future of humanitarian work through Design Fiction


Imagine, it is 2035 and the West coast of India got hit by a storm called Lata. How would humanitarian workers deal with the aftermath of the storm? The travelling exhibit HUM2035 shows different scenarios on what this might look like. The project by design consultancy Quicksand explores the future of humanitarian aid in India, intended to question our respective understandings of humanitarian aid and its place in a global landscape. STBY contributed to Quicksand’s HUM2035 pop up exhibit at the Barbican Centre in London, by examining possible futures through the lens of design research, and supporting the framing of the design fiction narrative.

Design Fiction was used to explore what the future of humanitarian work in India could look like in 2035, and how aid communities would come together to tackle these challenges. The story of HUM2035 is narrated through the lives and work of the future humanitarian workers as they navigate the crisis in local contexts with new services and technologies. These future humanitarian roles include the upskilled well-digger aiming to provide clean water amidst threats of water-borne disease, and the frontline health worker providing in-person and online emergency care. 

Research into the existing humanitarian sector and interviews with experts conducted by Quicksand helped frame the problems to be addressed with future-thinking and future-making, without overlooking important social and cultural values. These big challenges were unpacked in collaborative workshops with the National Institute of Design in India, and several academics, artists and technologists. Prototypes were designed and produced by Quicksand in India, and a contribution was made by London-based research studio Hetco. 

Engaging with objects representing skilled labour of the future

The HUM2035 pop up exhibit could be visited last April at the London based art centre Barbican. Visitors were invited to engage with the objects representing skilled labour of future humanitarian workers and immerse themselves into these new environments through VR films. During the exhibition, an interdisciplinary panel featuring speakers from Quicksand, STBY, the Barbican, other researchers, designers and humanitarian sector experts discussed the context this project emerged from, and how design tools can be employed to imagine scenarios and build future worlds. The panel concluded that we need more spaces where both design and humanitarian perspectives can collaboratively understand and address humanitarian relief challenges of the future. 

Visitors could look at different scenarios that explore themes like the purpose of upskilling and questions around employment when facing displacement, the use of mobile-based and digital services encouraging multidisciplinarity across sectors. Quicksand designed these future scenarios to explore not-so-distant challenges within Indian communities by materialising new technologies into an imagined context. 

Imagining possible futures through Design Research 

Why use Design Fiction to explore what humanitarian work could look like in the future? Design fiction is a design practice used to imagine possible futures and it became the vehicle for the story of HUM2035. Design fiction is not a methodological tool alone, it is also a critical tool for discourse using storytelling to construct a narrative through which to provoke and question. In design, such a tool can provoke dialogue about alternative trajectories that can impact our near future. 

A future framed outside the boundaries of today’s worldviews, turns a critical eye towards complex challenges with a “reflection of the contingencies of our world today, and of the practices for creating, imagining, and materializing new worlds” (Grand & Wiedmer, 2010, p2.) Design Fiction navigates uncertainty with visions of how the world could be, with its conflicts, implications and consequences, and those affected by them. Designers share a collective responsibility of considering what the future should look like and who gets to have a say in shaping it. If that future is closer than we think, are we ready for it?

Read more about this project here [https://futureofhumanitarian.work]

Images by Quicksand.


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

Grand, S., & Wiedmer, M. (n.d.). Design Fiction: A Method Toolbox for Design Research in a Complex World.


How to not become (too) cynical

As design researchers at STBY we are dealing with lots of complex issues and data. We are diving into root causes, problem areas and, luckily, also…

Where do you live on Dollar Street?

Are you bamboozled by the daily pandemic statistics of your country? Or have you even tuned out? These numbers are designed to be super clear, and…

Beyond Human Centred Design

COVID19 has given the world the time to rest, and the opportunity for us to rethink the way we live. It has also revealed how inseparable we are with…

Let’s Talk Maps and Mapping

Interested in mapping services, ecosystems, stakeholders and beyond? Join us as we explore how other disciplines approach mapping and what we can take away as design researchers and service designers.

The Subspecies of Design Researcher

As a design research agency, STBY has worked with design researchers of many shapes and sizes. While the role of ‘design researcher’ becomes more common and recognised as a formal position in many different types of organisations, it’s worth reflecting on how we all work and the unique skills and attitudes needed in different settings.