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Designing futures

by Matthew Willcox

Space ship
Designing for the now near and next

The future isn’t what it used to be. In the past change was slow, as societies developed and advanced, our ability to innovate accelerated. Despite the odd hiccup along the way, each new discovery and breakthrough has added to the pace of change

In today’s fast moving world, the sense that the future keeps crashing into the present is almost palpable. We live in truly amazing times where the gap between imagining something and creating it seems to be shrinking by the day.

The crazy thing to try and wrap your brain around is that this rate of change is exponential. (You can read more about Google Chief Futurist Ray Kurzweil’s ‘law of accelerating returns’ and its implications here.) What this boils down to is the time you have to make sense of the “next big thing” before the “NEXT BIGGER THING” comes along is always shrinking. Always.

If only there was a way to help you think ahead of the curve and prepare you for what’s to come.

How design can help

First up, let’s be clear I’m making no special claim on design’s ability to predict the future. However, what I can predict is that applying some of the processes and principles below can help you not only prepare for, but start to shape what might come next.

Always lead with the need (not the tech)

While it’s tempting to get swept away by the promise and hype surrounding the latest new technology, your focus should remain on the need you’re addressing. Bringing existing customers and users into the process and drawing on previous research can help frame the need and anchor it in reality.

Think in terms of now, near and next

Now applies to technologies and approaches that are well understood. This is the domain of best practice and established ways of doing things that we know will bring results today. Now is important but we should never rest there.

Near is the cutting edge, where emerging technologies, approaches and social shifts are starting to crystalise at the fringes. This is where tomorrow’s ‘now’ lives and where you need to be experimenting.

Next is at the extreme edge of what’s possible or imaginable. Making big bets on what will eventually emerge this far out is impossible. This is where making multiple little bets and growing connections beyond your own industry and area of expertise is the best strategy.

The future will be as mundane as it is spectacular

“The future will include spacecraft, artificial skin and self-driving vehicles, but it will also include garbage, staplers and milk. It will be, in a very real sense, mundane."

So reads the introduction to a recent talk by British industrial designer, futurist and film maker Nick Foster. One of the points he makes is to avoid the trap of only imagining for an idealised ‘hero’ protagonist or moment and to bring to life the experience of the everyday.

“The real skill of creating a compelling and engaging view of the future lies not in designing the gloss, but in seeing beyond the gloss to the truths behind it. As Frederik Pohl famously said, ‘a good science fiction story should be able to predict not the automobile but the traffic jam." Nick Foster The Future Mundane - Oct 07, 2013

Think in systems not silos

Thinking in systems encourages engagement with stakeholders and drivers of change outside of the usual suspects you might default to. It can open up new areas for experimentation and provide you with access to fresh flows of knowledge.

It also forces you to consider the nature and impact of your product or service in a wider context. How will your future services and products make a positive impact on people, society and the environment? What impact will sudden shocks or subtle shifts over time have on your business, customers and suppliers? Most importantly, you can start to trace a line back from this future vision to what you need to change today in order to increase the chances of reaching it.

Make it fun

Introducing an element of play into the process can make a huge difference. Tools such as card decks, workshop activities and serious play can help free up thinking, unearth assumptions and encourage the creation of diverse scenarios.

By bringing scenarios to life through the physical act of role playing and model making, you can unleash additional levels of creativity and imagination.

It’s a team sport

Encouraging participation from a diverse group of people helps to account for biases and ensures you’re open to as wide a set of perspectives and ideas as possible.

Whether it’s creating the conditions for collaboration at the scale of a small group, large crowd or city depends on the scale and ambition of the project.

Lastly, fake it till you make it

Putting an early prototype into the hands of users to elicit feedback can help supercharge the design process and ensure you’re not trapped in your own view of what the ideal solution might be.

Bringing future, speculative concepts into the present can have the same effect. Making something tangible allows us to interrogate our assumptions and explore the wider implications through play, experimentation and narrative.

Prototypes can be as lo-fi as something made from paper and cardboard, and can help trigger conversation in workshops and in testing with users. At the other end of the scale sits the polished video, VR or physical experience. Here your prototype can signal intent to a wider audience and act as an attractor for potential collaborators who share your future vision.

According to the Danish proverb, ‘prediction can be hard, especially about the future’ and I can’t promise that any of the techniques and links above will make predicting the future any easier. What they can do though is help cultivate a future-curious attitude that increases the chances that the next future to come crashing into the present, is one that you created.

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