"How is a mantra any different from my obsessive patients who can't stop saying 'shit-shit-shit'?", asked a professor of clinical psychology at the Harvard University from Daniel Goleman, who wanted to study the impacts of meditation that uses a mantra on behaviour and traits of meditation practitioners. At the same time, in 1974, his colleague Richard J. Davidson announced his plan to focus on meditation in his dissertation. 

"We had a big idea", Goleman and Davidson now write. "Beyond the pleasant states meditation can produce, the real payoffs are the lasting traits that can result."

The Department of Psychology at Harvard had barely recovered from the scandal that had taken over only some years earlier – that of Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert letting Harvard undergraduate students experiment with psychedelics. Despite being in the midst of the deepest hippie era, Goleman and Davidson's ideas were considered a career-ending move. Their hypotheses were considered little more than a hippie fantasies.

Back in the mid-1970s, research methods and technologies to study the effects of meditation were scarce. Both Goleman and Davidson admit that the first researches they conducted were somewhat flawed in design and methodology. For the next 40 years, both worked on topics and researches touching or leading to research on meditation. Only in 2017, they were able to bring their story and research into a book, 'Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body'. Development of research technologies and changing zeitgeist had enabled their fantasy to become a researched mainstream practice – now with evidence that meditation can also, in addition to momentary relaxation and increased concentration, empathy and compassion, create lasting changes to the traits of the practitioner. Also mindfulness-based stress reduction technique, based on meditation techniques and initiated by Goleman and Davidson’s Harvard colleague Jon Kabat-Zinn in the late 1970s, has spread around the world from wellness studios to workplaces and hospitals, in which it is used to partially replace pain medication. The research continues, now with hundreds of new-generation scientists getting their heads to it.

In the 1970s, Goleman and Davidson’s hypothesis may have seemed to fly high enough as to be considered a fantasy – “an idea with no basis in reality”, as Oxford Dictionary defines fantasy. But, the same prestigious source also states fantasy as “the faculty or activity of imagining impossible or improbable things”, and Merriam-Webster as “the free play of imagination” and “chimerical or fantastic notion.” 

The origin of the word might illuminate another perspective to the word – that of a vision. The late Greek work phanesthai, which referred to ‘to imagine’ or to ‘have visions’, relates to words phaos or phos meaning ‘light’, and phanein meaning ‘to show’ or ‘to bring to light.’ This approach to the word can be seen closer to a vision than a fairytale fantasy.

Both vision and fantasy require an ability to reach and see beyond reality though, towards something out of reach. Directly and indirectly linked to the meditation example above, fantasising, dreaming, imagining or envisioning require freeing the mind from the immediate reality, into possibilities and alternatives. The ability to look beyond the immediate to come up with new perspectives is also one of the prerequisites of creativity.

It can be – and is – debated whether design should be for looking for solutions and proposing alternatives, or criticising and raising questions. Speculative design or design fiction tend to turn towards the latter by envisioning and visualising worlds, environments and products that could be – or shouldn’t be. 

Here lies the power of design: visualising, prototyping and making the vision visible and tangible enable effective communication and familiarisation of the vision to a variety of interest groups or the wider public. Alluring visualisations – of visions, be they utopias or dystopias – can also make the ideas acceptable, even desired, even when the fantasy was never meant to become reality. Who is to decide that a designer’s critical, speculative vision doesn’t become someone else’s goal or hypothesis? Science fiction or design fiction is becoming reality sooner than we think.

In a book 'Studio Time – Future Thinking in Art and Design,' (2018) by Z33 Research and co-edited by Jan Boelen, Ils Huygens and myself, British designer Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg shares an example of her speculative designs in the field of synthetic biology. In 2009, she and designer James King ran a workshop for undergraduate students at the University of Cambridge. The aim of the workshop was to create an imagined, fictional product from the year 2039. They imagined and visualized a future probiotic yoghurt containing bacteria to test for chemical diseases in the gut; a certain disease would colour the faeces a certain colour. Called ‘E. chromi Scatalog’, the outcome was a physical briefcase containing models of coloured poo. At the time, this visualised outcome was shocking to some of the synthetic biologists Ginsberg and her colleagues showed it to.

Only five years later, a research in which scientists involved programmed bacteria to trace chemical signals in the guts of mice, came out. In October 2017, Ginsberg tells having met a scientist who has been involved in developing a real-life bacteria-detecting probiotic that produces coloured poo. What was created as a critical reflection of a product from 2039, is becoming reality before the year 2020. 

It is fascinating to see where the increasing debate about design ethics – perhaps especially in speculative design – will end up to. Both a hypothesis that is considered a utopia, or a visualised dystopia that becomes a hypothesis, can become reality. Every fantasy and vision creates a piece of a future world by envisioning parallels, alternatives and new perspectives, and familiarising audiences to them. Every vision is a proposal of what could be. 

In both cases however, if it can’t be imagined, it can’t be reached. Without an “I have a dream” said aloud, a fantasy or a dream will never become reality. What kind of a future do we desire?