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Ayaz Basrai: Mapping the future allows us to choose a preferable future

At the INDI Design conference in Pune, Ayaz Basrai of The Busride Design Studio introduces the emerging field of speculative design

Ayaz Basrai at the INDI Design Conference in Pune, presenting new inquiries in speculative design. Photo: INDI Design
Ayaz Basrai at the INDI Design Conference in Pune, presenting new inquiries in speculative design. Photo: INDI Design

Last week, INDI Design, a Pune-based studio led by Sudhir Sharma, organized the third edition of India’s Best Design Awards . Held at the Hilton Conrad hotel in Pune, it was a day-long conference, and hosted presentations and conversations among people from diverse design practices, including educationists, designers, architects and advertising professionals.

The day ended with the ceremony that felicitated the best design studios; a jury-led process considers studios from across the country and arrives at a winning list based on several criteria.

Among the many speakers at the event was Ayaz Basrai, founder of The Busride Design Studio, which he runs with his brother Zameer Basrai. The Basrais have designed interiors for some of Mumbai’s most iconic restaurants: Café Zoe, with its expansive skylight, Bombay Canteen, with its reinvention of heritage, classics like Smoke House Deli, and, most recently, O Pedro, a Goan restaurant in Mumbai’s Bandra-Kurla Complex area.

That, however, is only a part of their portfolio. After working for 10 years from their office in Mumbai, they moved to Goa in October last year. At the design conference, Basrai took the stage to talk about the new direction in which the studio is headed: speculative design.

This growing field involves imagining possible contexts set in the future, is led by data and technology, and rooted in ethical and social considerations. The term is often used interchangeably with “critical design" and “design fiction", and an adventurous community of technologists, computational architects, and digital craftspeople the world over are dabbling in it.

At the risk of offending designers working in this field, it’s tempting to liken them to science and fantasy fiction writers. But as Basrai presents—not projects—“inquiries" that their studio is now pursuing, he brings the conversation back to why it’s critical for designers to consider future contexts in more progressive ways. Edited excerpts from an interview:

When did the change of location as well as design direction occur?

In the process of working on our F&B (food and beverage) projects, and other urban interventions like the Bandra Project (ongoing interventions for the betterment of the Mumbai neighbourhood), a lot of the inquiries that emerged couldn’t be sustained simply because we never had the time to take them further. About a year and a half ago, we decided to free our mind space to explore other tangents.

As for the move to Goa, we’re in start-up mode again, feeling our way around this new territory. I have a two-year-old son. Seeing him running around on the beach, all our doubts about the move are put to rest.

‘Digital Grotesque II’, an architectural grotto by Michael Hansmeyer at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Photo: Michael Hansmeyer / Benjamin Dillenburger

Tell us about some of the projects you’re working on now in the field of speculative design.

We’re currently keeping it outside the client domain because that tends to take the inquiry away. We’re self-funding till we know where it’s going, till we have a manifesto. We’re referencing a lot of Dunne and Raby, Rem Koolhaas, Archigram from the 1960s, but considering how to contextualize it and bring it into the public domain with smaller, more relevant projects.

We’re working with the St+art Foundation and doing an intervention in Dharavi (Mumbai), to create floating architecture which is tethered to the ground. It’s like pieces of art that are lying on the ground and they float up if the area floods, and become an impromptu gangway. As a group we’ve decided to pick two areas to focus on: the future of cities and the future of craft.

One of the inquires we’re following seriously is to map the year 2035. Selected primarily because it’s not too far into the future and can be visualized with a lot of data that already exists (on climate change). Imagine it to be a framework that we’re trying to populate, to put it up online and make it open source for people from different backgrounds to add to: what’s happening in fashion, in medicine, in culture, in art. The idea is to be able to map that future now. It is to consider what kind of future we want to inhabit. And I say this with enough self-doubt because the idea of future speculation is tricky. None of us can confidently say what the future would be like.

To define it simply, you’re not creating or designing an object, but thinking of the possible context that you might have to design for in the future?

Most definitely. Today sugar kills more people than road accidents or terrorism. In 2012, about 1.5 million people died of diabetes (according to Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow). That’s crazy. So you’re eating your way to extinction. Where are we putting our resources? We are data worshippers in a way. If one is able to leverage data and to see where trends are going, then one can shape public imagination. Like what has Elon Musk done? He has single-handedly created a fascination for the exploration of space.

Why map the future or speculate about it when it is so unpredictable?

The idea of mapping the future is to be able to choose a preferable future, not just a techno-deterministic future where technology is everything. It allows us to be better prepared. If we were to learn from the flooding disasters in Bombay, how does it change our design of public spaces?

If nothing else, it has left us with a sense of cautious optimism. It’s easy to be cynical with the current political climate. As designers, we can’t lapse into that. We’re not crazy sci-fi writers visualizing utopias and dystopias. We’re people who are creating these utopias and dystopias. To be cautiously optimistic, we feel, is a good place to be.

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