Participatory speculative design for mental well-being




Speculative Design


Jens Hulteberg + Vendela Stenson (Principals), Mafalda Samuelsson-Gamboa at Chalmers University of Technology and RISE Research Institutes of Sweden

PEP is human-centered speculative design inquiry situated in a larger-scale research project led by RISE Research Institutes of Sweden on behalf of the Stockholm Regional Council: a digital platform to promote mental well-being and health.

The aim of the project at large is to provide a well-structured, high-quality, scientifically-substantiated set of informative and supportive services for mental health and well-being. Starting with young people aged 13--25 in the Stockholm Region, its long-term goal is to scale to the national population of all ages.

PEP originated from an inquiry on the habits of young people's daily technology use and its consequences. To augment and diversify the predominantly user-centered, product-focused, problem-solving approaches already present in the project, and to provoke and enrich relevant discussions, we recruited speculative design methodology: a promising approach towards unknowns of the future, and a promising way to reach out to young people in a manner that piques attention and interest.

Our process synthesized human-centered and speculative design approaches: we developed speculative concepts based on data from user research.

Through interviews and co-design workshops with young people, and conversations with psychologists, we found that:

  • Smartphones are by far the most prominent and problematic technology class for our target group.
  • Topics of mental health, technology, and social interactions are entangled.
  • The dominant vision for the future among young people is pessimistic. Central topics: climate change and environmental decline.
  • Despite complications and pessimism, young people embrace technology: tech-critical, but not tech-negative. They desire a healthy relationship with technology, rather than divorce.

Numerous speculative design concepts were developed from this research, culminating in PEP (Personal Electricity Production): a complex wearable that harvests body heat to generate a personal supply of electricity.

Our "methodological innovation" fusing human-centered and speculative elements was successful: our audience showed heightened engagement with the topics we meant to call attention to; and appreciated elements of the speculative approach as we expected.

Early Stage Concept: Digital Jammer
Early Stage Concept: Digital Jammer
Early Stage Concept: Communal Computer
Early Stage Concept: Communal Computer
Early Stage Concept: Data Urn
Early Stage Concept: Data Urn
Early Stage Concept: Electric Clothing
Early Stage Concept: Electric Clothing

Selected Results

Jens Hulteberg & Vendela Stenson (2021). The PEP: Creating and evaluating a user centered speculative design that aims to trigger discussion around the consequences of technology on mental health. Master’s thesis submitted to the joint Department of Computer Science and Engineering at Chalmers University of Technology and University of Gothenburg.