The designification of futures: Emergent practices in the construction of economic fictions
Other conference contribution, 2023

In his programmatic call for the study of the role of ‘fictional expectations’ in the constitution of market futures, Jens Beckert (2016; 2021) contends that collectively held narratives of what the future will be like are crucial to economic activity because they produce expectations that ultimately enable the coordination of collective action. Economists have studied expectations in their own way, assuming that markets are good predictors of a future which can largely be forecasted through calculative operations. Under Beckert’s sociological eye, however, these expectations are recast as more indeterminate, due to their playing out against a backdrop of fundamental and relentless uncertainty that renders calculation more equivocal than economists tend to assume. Thus, for Beckert (2016), the key characteristic of expectations is that they are anchored in fictions, in imagined future states rather than  reliable predictions or actual knowledge.

In anthropology, Laura Bear (2020a) has put forward a similarly programmatic call for the study of future-oriented modes of speculation. However, following from Bear’s (2015) work on capitalist divination, this approach charts a somewhat different route to the study of future-oriented practices of the contemporary economy. Borrowing from the anthropological tradition of studying divination, Bear (2020a) suggests that the study of capitalist  speculation, particularly after the financial crisis of 2007-2008, holds promise to move beyond previous communicational models - as well as performativity models - which have become integrated into contemporary modes of exercising economic power, enabling and legitimizing dynamics of capital accumulation.

This paper aims to build on Beckert’s and Bear’s respective work by pointing to a set of emergent practices and devices in the construction of futures in organizations. In particular, the paper will focus on design-oriented approaches which have recently spread and drawn considerable interest in business settings. This is constituted by an exploration of two instances of such designification in the fields of strategy and entrepreneurship, looking respectively at how design has influenced strategy practices within established firms and entrepreneurial practices within start-up companies. The paper contends that the expansion of speculation in economic life following financialization – understood as a structural shift in patterns of capital accumulation toward the financial sector – marked an alteration in economic actors’ relation to uncertainty from something to be mitigated and (partially) predicted to something to be embraced and instrumentalized, thus paving the way for the designification of future-making practices in business settings. As the incarnation of an ideal of creativity (Reckwitz, 2017), design promises an alternative mode of engagement with futures by creatively accessing uncertainty and generating affects (Brasset & O’Reilly, 2015) – a mode of engagement, then, no longer tied to a pretense of calculability and economic

As such, the paper specifically complements Beckert’s (2021) account of firms as “engines of imagination” in the context of fundamental uncertainty, while drawing on Bear’s (2020a) insights on the importance of speculation for understanding (and critiquing) contemporary economic life. It does so starting from the observation that the devices of imagination that Beckert identifies (i.e., strategic planning, capital budgeting, technology projections, marketing, business plans) can be tied to a somewhat dated managerial paradigm in which uncertainty figures as a condition to be mitigated or subdued through credible predictions. This managerial paradigm emerged pre-financialization, under relatively stable conditions of economic growth and certainty in the West, over the second half of the twentieth century – a period characterized by an optimistic faith in the future. The devices highlighted by Beckert are imbued with these assumptions, holding on to a pretense of reliability and accuracy typically associated with rational calculation; that is, such devices were conceived to deal with uncertainty by producing (partial) certainties, however fictional they may be. Yet, the expansion of speculation along with its requalification of uncertainty as tool and opportunity, has prompted the designification of some of these devices, generating new forms of speculative labour which the paper seeks to elucidate.

The purpose of the paper is therefore three-fold. First, it places scholarly attention on emergent design-inspired practices and rationalities that contribute to the future-making of the business firm. Secondly, it locates these emerging practices in the context of the Beckert’s (2021) schematic of intra- and extra-organisational devices and practices. Thirdly, in mapping these emerging practices onto the respective approaches of Beckert and Bear, the argument also contributes to the general discussion within economic sociology and economic anthropology about how to conceive of contemporary capitalist speculation.

fictional expectations

capitalist divination

Laura Bear

Jens Beckert




Ulises Navarro Aguiar

University of Gothenburg

Karl Palmås

Chalmers, Technology Management and Economics, Science, Technology and Society

7th Interdisciplinary Market Studies Workshop
Edinburgh, United Kingdom,

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Centre for Management of the Built Environment (CMB), 2022-09-01 -- 2023-12-31.

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