Speculative design with MSF

In collaboration with our Indian REACH partner Quicksand, we helped Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) to rethink their role as a global organisation within the future landscape of humanitarian work. At their international strategy meeting ‘MSF Co-days’ that took place in Amsterdam, we used speculative design methods to explore medium to long term strategies for the humanitarian medical organisation. 

Envisioning MSF futures

For the MSF Co-days, Quicksand and STBY prepared and co-facilitated a workshop in which we used design fiction, speculative design and mixed-media storytelling to envision imaginable MSF futures. For the purpose of the workshop, the year 2035 was used as a reference to imagine the future. Through collaborative group work, the participants explored and co-developed speculative scenarios with components aligned to the current strategic plan.

Future worlds as starting points

Each group started with one of four presented ‘future worlds’ and imagined a future scenario for their organisation to successfully operate in this context in the year 2035. Each group had to discuss and explore how MSF could evolve to exist in this future world. They had to think through what this road would look like while using  model making materials and other prompts to trigger their imagination. 

Fundamental issues for the future of MSF

During the joint conversation at the end of the workshop, the leadership team expressed their amazement about the way we managed to get everyone to focus on the future of 2035. The present, for once, was pushed to the background, still present as an important reference but not leading in the conversations. The stories about the future of humanitarian work that we co-created with some of MSF staff, set everyone free to talk about fundamental issues for the future of MSF within minutes. The MSF leadership team expressed gratitude to everyone for their contributions, and to Quicksand and us for creating the setting to make this happen.

Looking at future horizons together

Our session was very unusual for MSF. Everyone at the organisation is very much used to addressing the problems of today, from shortages of medical equipment to deciding on deployment of people. Looking ahead with staff is something the leadership team would like to do, but has been very difficult to accomplish. Even when meetings are set for this the emergencies of the day are brought up by MSF staff rather than looking at future horizons together.

The future of humanitarian work

The engagement between MSF and Quicksand is part of an ongoing conversation on the future of  humanitarian work that started in 2019 when Quicksand exhibited HUM.2035 in the Barbican Centre in London. HUM.2035 speculates on the future of humanitarian work in India. STBY contributed to Quicksand’s pop-up exhibition by examining possible futures through the lens of design research, and supporting the framing of the design fiction narrative. The speculative design activities at the MSF’s Co-days in Amsterdam were a compelling follow up on our joint interest and activities together with Quicksand on the future of humanitarian work.