Speculative Design Workshop, Somerset House

Following Invisible Lines: A speculative design workshop for GNSS futures

We use GPS every day, but how much do we know about the satellites and systems which make it work?

In this half day workshop we used Speculative Design to explore the back end of Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS). In Speculative Design we create objects and services for different possible worlds, thereby critiquing the ways they are used today. In the workshop, participants responded to a design brief for a fictional, GNSS-themed scenario.

We are currently planning future workshops for 2017.  Participants don’t need any experience in design to join the workshop, just an open mind and a willingness to explore and collaborate. The workshops intend to get people thinking about ways the technology could go in the future and, through that, give us a deeper understanding of what is happening in the present.



After 2030, rising global tensions around international trade and access to resources had begun to threaten scientific and infrastructural projects that required cross-border collaboration. GNSS systems were not immune to these problems, despite being extremely important to the global economy. After a series of political incidents, in 2035, China, Russia, America and the EU announced that they would encode the signals broadcast from their GNSS constellations. From that date forward GNSS locative services would not be available except to users who had the ability to decode the signals. The encoding took place in both the signals, and the almanac of satellite positions, making it very difficult to crack. Decoding technology would only be available in the system’s country of origin.

We asked participants to make an artefact or scenario that could exist within this world.


Our three groups produced distinct proposals for fictional objects and services. One suggested that, in a world in which GPS services are heavily disrupted by political conflicts, we could develop an object which would attach to our bodies and allow us to feel the earth's magnetic field. They were inspired by birds' innate ability to navigate during migration. They turned a dystopian vision into a utopian one, proposing a type of navigation jewellery which we would all love to wear.

Another group were inspired by Gambiarra, a word for infrastructure hacking in Brazil. Again, inspired by the natural world, they offered a vision where bees distributed location information from centralised hive-antennas. The third group explored how tourism services might work in this scenario, imagining an open market for the use of different GNSS systems with a comparison of the risks and advantages that using a different system away from home might entail.

These designs were not intended to be something which can be prototyped or built, but rather as a way of thinking through the issues around and potentials for a technology which participants often used, but rarely engaged with. In our evaluation discussion they described it as a fun, engaging and thought-provoking exercise, which helped them focus on the macro-situation rather than design-minutiae.