Aquaforum is an online marketplace for water, set ten to fifteen years in the future in a drought-prone city.


Interaction Design & Speculative Design


University of Washington,

Professor Dominic Muren

An Online Water Marketplace of the Future

In this studio (UW Winter 2018), we explored how automation might have an impact on problems that will arise in the future. The first few weeks were spent exploring various aspects of automation—how it has been used for thousands of years, how other species automate, etc.

Objective: How might we use speculative design to solve resource crises in the future? Growing populations, new uses of land, and extreme weather patterns are putting a strain on resources. This issue is only set to grow more complex, especially as our lives are increasingly more automated in a world that expected to become more unpredictable. As with a lot of speculative design projects, there is no set problem/solution for this project, but rather an exploration of an issue.


World Building

In speculative design, it is essential to design not for how the world is now, but how it could be. To bridge this gap, our class thought about current issues, events, political climates, technological advancements, etc. and how things would have evolved 10-20 years down the road. For my project, I thought about how Cape Town was facing Day Zero (when the city would run out of water for its residents) in the winter/spring of 2018. I analyzed one trend seen in the citizens of Cape Town: people were adopting unwashed hair as a statement of pride that pointed to their lack of personal water consumption. This led me to think about how our technology allows us to measure our energy consumption—most commonly through devices like Nest. Devices like Nest allow us to automate our homes in a more efficient way and I chose to see this as an emerging trend in how we will continue to automate our personal activities. With Cape Town’s Day Zero as my current event, personal awareness around consumption as my human value, and home automation as my technological trend, I was ready to play with the idea of what these issues might look like in a U.S. city fighting drought 10-20 years in the future.

Day Zero: This didn’t come to be, but what if it had? A city with a huge income inequality gap coupled with a lack of a needed resource is a recipe for disaster. Other vulnerable cities who saw this swiftly adopted strict water-usage policies.

Awareness of Consumption: Based on current trends, controlled consumption of products and resources will be seen as a status symbol. Currently the biggest wasters of water resources during droughts are publicly shamed (Google ‘celebrity green grass during drought’ for more insight into this) but in the future, we might go beyond shaming and prioritize low consumption.

Home Automation: Every aspect of our consumption will be monitored—especially water consumption in high-drought areas. This has become useful for detecting leaks that otherwise would go unnoticed until higher water bills appeared, but also affects personal water consumption. Because everything is monitored, drought-prone cities put a cap on water usage per household.

World Rules: For the world to enable speculative design, there must be rules to abide by.
1) Our consumption is monitored and we have agreed to a daily allotment.
2) The unused allotment from the day before can be rolled over to the next day.
3) Residents are allowed to do whatever they want with the water.
4) Usage is monitored through Nest-like objects that connect to our faucets.
5) Citizens have 6-9 months if they want to store their rollover gallons in their neighborhood's tank before the system starts over and zeroes everyone out.
6) Finally, the citizens who use this system are local residents with addresses in the affected area.

Opportunities for Design: Opportunities arise from working within the rules, or finding ways to subvert them.
1) Nests and other devices have allowed us to review our consumption currently, but reviewing and being aware of it instantly are very different things. With the allotment, the need for instant awareness is more pressing.
2) What do people do with their excess water if they don’t need it? Do they hoard it? What do people do if they happen to need more water that day?

You can go crazy going into the details of the future world you are creating, but a small time frame forced me to get to the design portion of the project. I wanted to explore ways of making consumption visible, how people would use the limited freedoms regarding the resources they were given, and how there might be a way to insert some human-ness into a system that is so automated.


With that in mind, I first thought about the visible vs. reviewable issue and how that might be more effective as a smart mirror. This enables people to see their consumption as they make it.
Making consumption visible vs reviewable.
Of course, there's always room for more reviewable information. I thought a section for Aquaforum should be at the end of the reviewable information, reminding people that this marketplace is an option after they know their consumption habits.
I chose a cryptocurrency to represent the money being exchanged in Aquaforum.
This picture better illustrates how people can have a rollover supply without actually having to store the water themselves. Storage tanks would be distributed throughout neighborhoods to serve many households.
I thought about how the Request option in Aquaforum would function. We currently send money to various people or organizations on the internet and in this future scenario we might also send water. This video illustrates a neighborhood garden requesting water from the nearby residents.
Residents can receive a request (perhaps from organizations they opt into) and choose to donate their water.


Automation can hide things from us (especially consumption). I sought to show how a future that can seem somewhat dystopian in its automation can still have fruits of human interactivity. The beauty of speculative design is that it can make us see some of the issues of our current world in a new light. This project made me look at some of the habits I had unconsciously formed within the automated aspects of indoor plumbing systems. It made me think about how the concept of money has lost its physicality in our current time and how other resources might have the same fate. Most importantly, I learned that there is a human quality that is lost the more we automate, and there is a chance for human interactivity to be inserted into an array of systems.