Future of Waste: Speculative Approaches to Technotrash

Posted on Mar 8, 2021

a pile of broken old computers reaching up into the sky

“Trash carries dystopia within” - Maite Zubiaurre

The Future of Waste is a workshop for imagining no-waste futures, dystopian and otherwise.


Why Technotrash?

In technology-adjacent sustainability circles, often (not always!) the futures in which humans have solved their great ecological crises - garbage, energy, climate change - are depicted as a utopia at best and as a slightly better and more equitable version of the present at worst. This workshop works from a different set of assumptions. Rather than imagine sustainable models that, if adopted now will build a utopic future, we start by imagining a future in which either ecological devastation, political collapse, or the like forces sustainability by leaving no other options. The goals of this are twofold. The first is to explore the idea that sustainability is inevitable: either we adopt it now or we are forced to. Can we as various tech practitioners find some inspiration in the “too late” models of sustainability that help avoid the scenario in which they are needed? The second is to problematize the utopic goals held by many of my fellow sustainability advocates. Is a sustainable future necessarily equitable and just? How can we make sure that it is?

This workshop specifically focuses on high tech trash because of the precariousness of the systems that create it, the importance of technology in the functioning of contemporary life, and their place in the teleological myths of utopic progress. The technology industry relies on a business model of constant innovation and planned obsolescence, a model that depends upon both a global supply chain of parts and scarce materials and a global infrastructure of waste management, which moves toxic high tech trash to areas where it can be isolated, treated, and downcycled. Both of these systems are ecologically devastating and unsustainable. Moreover, these systems are precarious, dependent on geopolitics, legal frameworks, and a variety of complicated logistics infrastructures. And if (when?) they fail, the ramifications for social and political orders will be drastic and unpredictable.

The Workshop

Time to have a lot of fun!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

In this workshop, we will look at several contemporary technologies and work collaboratively to reimagine their design for a future in which these global systems can no longer be relied upon. The designs should be as weird as they need to be, realism is encouraged but not necessary. All that designs require is an in-fiction justification. They can be global, regional, or local in scope and distribution, there’s no need for universal solutions but no need to hold back either. If you are able to draw it that would be fun but it is not at all necessary. Participants will work in small teams to develop their speculative designs, with each team showcasing their favorite new products to the group at the end.

The schedule:

  • Introduction - 6 minutes
  • Breakout rooms - 35 minutes
  • Introductions - 6 minutes
    • First design - 9 minutes
    • Second design - 9 minutes
    • Third design - 9 minutes
    • Deciding what to present and who presents - 2 minutes
  • Sharing designs - 16 minutes
  • Final thoughts - 3 minutes

For introductions say your:

  • name,
  • pronouns,
  • location,
  • what you do in life, briefly

Here are some guiding questions for the design for inspiration:

  • Is it a product or a system?
  • What is it made out of?
  • Where are its components sourced?
  • How is it distributed?
  • Who gets access to it?
  • How is it manufactured?

When presenting your design:

  • Briefly introduce your scenario and any embellishments your group added
  • Describe your design and how it fits into the society of your scenario

Breakout Room Notepads

Each breakout room is assigned a notepad on which you can write notes and collaborate on your designs. Each notepad has its scenario attached

Jumping Off Points to Further Work

If the design exercises really piqued your interest, I recommend researching how the type of design work we did today gets done in industry, by reading about life cycle assessment. A good starting place for a book is Cradle to Cradle by Michael Braungart and William McDonough.

If waste in general is interesting to you on an academic level and you aren’t already involved in trash research, I recommend exploring the discipline of discard studies.

If you enjoyed the scenarios and are interested in the art and artifice of scenario planning, MIT Sloane has a comprehensive introduction on the discipline. It’s mostly used in corporate strategy and consulting, but is a useful tool for anyone interested in speculating on the future.

If you want to see speculative design practiced in its professional context, the book Speculative Everything by Dunn and Raby is an authoritative genre-defining source.

If you are interested in sustainability activism around waste, I recommend finding or starting a group in your local context. In New York City, where I live, there is Trash Club. As a non-professional activist, working locally is more personally rewarding than working in a global or national context. If you are or want to be a professional activist I have no advice, but my heart goes with you and I wish you luck.

Other Book Recommendations

If you had a good time at this workshop in any capacity you might like any of these following books, loosely organized by least to most academic: