Design Thinking Meets Futures Thinking

Design Thinking Meets Futures ThinkingThe business world has been quick to try and implement design thinking in hopes of stimulating sweeping organizational change and innovation, only to abandon it and return to old practices when it doesn’t “work.” Is design thinking nothing more than a poorly defined gimmick, or are people just missing the big picture?

Perhaps a part of the problem is that design thinking is more than just a set of tactics to be carried out, but rather a new ecology of mind. While grounded in business-minded rationality and operating within a defined set of constraints, it also contains an emotional/intuitive component that is often lost upon the more traditional thinkers. What this aspect requires is a capacity for switching between multiple perspectives and the ability to understand the world and our relationship to it, and within it, in a different way. Though there are many methods than can help develop this skill, I’d like to discuss an approach that may be unfamiliar to some: Futures Thinking.

What is Futures Thinking?

Futures thinking, or foresight, is a set of principles and practices that can be applied to solve complex problems. It combines data and trend analysis, pattern recognition, intuition, and imagination to envision desirable and sustainable paths of action. Just as Tim Brown distilled the design thinking process to : inspiration, ideation, and implementation, futurist Jamais Cascio described the futures thinking process as: Asking the Question, Scanning the World, Mapping the Possibilities, and Asking the Next Question. It’s an iterative process which helps you consider a range of possible, probably, and preferable outcomes. It’s not predicting the future, but rather taking a structured approach to understanding the potential impacts of today’s decisions and actions.

Frank Spencer of the foresight strategy firm KedgeForward explained the relation between design and futures thinking this way:

“When we think about design, whether in terms of aesthetics or functionality, there is an embedded understanding of its ability to impact not only the present emotions or actions of those who come in contact with it, but also their long-term view of everything from political thought to social evolution – even having the power to shape the ‘big picture’ views of entire cultures or generations. For this reason, Design Thinking is a close cousin to Futures Thinking, and really requires a foundation in the dynamics of the latter to be most effective in reaching its full potential as a tool for creating in our age of uncertainty and complexity. Futures Thinking develops the long-range outlook that is necessary for the type of design that is needed for life in the 21st Century: adaptive, resilient, and transformational.”

Asking the Question

As Cascio put it:

“Futures thinking is rarely just a free-form “what will the future look like?” — in nearly every case, the exploration into different possible futures comes from a narrow concern. Sometimes that concern is about strategic choices a company needs to make, sometimes it’s about potential changes to an operating environment, and sometimes it’s about gaining a better understanding of emerging markets, competitors, and/or stakeholders.”

In terms of the design of products or services, it’s a good idea to ask the question on a few different time scales. Not only is it important to think about the immediate implementation of a design solution, but also the longer term behavior you’d like your design to inspire, or the global issue you’d like to alleviate or solve. How will your design impact people tomorrow? In 10 years? In 20 years?

Also, framing the question in alternate ways allows for a greater range of possible answers. Even the terminology used will open different creative thinking paths. For instance, asking a questions in terms of its service to the “organization” and “stakeholders” may encourage a different direction than a question about “designing interactions” and “facilitating trust.” Allowing for different language to be used helps to create a bridge between rational and emotional thinking.

Scanning the World

Once a question is formed, you can begin looking at the big picture drivers of change that will shape how you come to your conclusions. In the field of futures studies, this is called environmental scanning. It’s a strategic approach to acquiring information in order to stay current on events, emerging trends, and external factors that could influence or impact your decision making process. Futurists use the acronym ‘STEEP’ as a way to think about the large scale systems at play (Social, Technological, Environmental, Economic, and Political.)

Scanning is essentially a process of discovery. The web has made it easy to access news sources that cover a wide range of subjects and provide diverse viewpoints, and tools like RSS feeds and social bookmarking services help streamline the process. There’s also the opportunity for idea exchange on real-time global communication platforms like Twitter. Though it takes time to sift past the superficial layers of marketing and spam, Twitter is a powerful tool for connecting with like-minded individuals in your field, respected experts, and potential collaborators. The format is short-form (only 140 characters), but quick ideas or insights around a topic can be exchanged, allowing you to consider multiple perspectives while pursuing the answers to your question.

Mapping the Possibilities

Coming up with innovative solutions to complex problems is as much of an art as a science. This is the stage of the process where design thinking and futures thinking overlap, with practitioners from both fields engaging in brainstorming, visioning, and concept mapping to help construct and arrange ideas in new ways. While futurists use a variety of tools and techniques for creative thinking, at the core of futures thinking is the notion that there is no one determined future. We explore alternative futures through scenario development, and then design for the most preferable future now. KedgeForward provides an overview of the evolution of the procedure as follows:

“Scenario Development has been one of the more popular tools for helping organizations to think in terms of future outcomes when designing products or strategy, entering the mainstream of business methodology through the work of Pierre Wack at Royal Dutch Shell in the 1970s. Since that time, Foresight professionals have expanded the Futures Thinking toolkit to include a wider range of methods, directing the design process toward greater creativity, and examining multiple alternatives that can lead to unexplored ideas – the hidden gems that are sought after in Design Thinking. Not only have practitioners created new ways of using stories to uncover unforseen possibilities, but a host of methods have arisen that help social and organizational leaders to look at the world through a holistic, systemic, and transdisciplinary fashion. These tools create an environment that is conducive to new ways of thinking about the future before attempting to engage the Design Thinking process: how it might unfold, how to recognize opportunities and breakthroughs in business and social innovation before they arrive, and how we can internationally design the future in order to reach the aspirational changes we envision.”

It is often suggested to create a minimum of three alternative future scenarios: preferable, probable, and possible. These could range from an optimistic ideal version, a pessimistic disaster scenario, or a future that is not that drastically different from the present. In any case, fleshing out the conditions of these three environments is a very powerful mechanism for clarifying shared visions of the future. By thinking about the large scale trends that influence the workings of a globally interdependent world, insight into human interaction and communication, values, and behaviors is revealed. How do the people think and engage with one another in these future worlds? What tools do they have to facilitate interaction? How do they navigate through their environments?

Asking the Next Question

When thinking about these alternative futures, how did you leave your mark? Did your design impact how these futures came to pass? Was your product or service just a temporary fancy, or was it a disruptive innovation that changed the way people live?

This process may have opened some doors to thinking about design beyond an immediate attempt to solve current problems, and instead seeing it as an opportunity to affect long term change in the world. The iterative process can now begin again, returning to the original question, equipped with these three scenarios.

What barriers stand in the way to implementing a game changing design? What paths can you take now to create a preferable future?

Become a Fearless Futurist

Futures Thinking, like Design Thinking, is more than a set of simple tactics that can be implemented overnight. It’s a new way of thinking, which takes time to grow, adapt, and evolve. It requires practical research and analysis, collaboration with diverse groups and ideas, and a commitment to challenge one’s assumptions about the world we live in and the world we want to create.

As designers and architect of the future, we have an opportunity to play a powerful role in constructing reality and improving humanity’s experience on this planet. If the focus is only on a short term profit margin or a fad or shiny new object, it will be an opportunity lost. Design can be reactionary, responding only to current conditions, or it can be visionary, by presenting solutions to problems yet undefined. We are at a pivotal point in human history, where “how things work” is being redefined across the board. By acknowledging this, focusing, and setting clear intentions, we have the potential to explode into a 21st Century Renaissance. I am curious to see what will happen when artists and designers choose to step up to the plate and lead us towards a future characterized by innovation, functionality, and aesthetics.

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Venessa MiemisVenessa Miemis is a Media Studies graduate student at the New School in NYC, exploring what happens at the intersection of technology, culture, and communication. Connect with her at and on Twitter @venessamiemis.

Venessa Miemis




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