People from the future
If the unprecedented events of last year have taught us anything, it’s that you never know what is coming around the corner.
Yet design really needs to think about the future and prepare for it, because the work we’re doing now is going to exist and have relevance down the road.
To begin the year, our first Virtual Smart Salon of 2021, People From the Future, brought together four panelists, who have both corporate and academic backgrounds and spend a lot of time thinking about what’s to come. In our conversation on a January evening, we explored the ways designers imagine things beyond the reality of the moment, how they translate their findings into tangible actions, and why it’s important to listen to a diversity of voices.
Jen Brace works with a team to help bring global trends and insights from social, economic, environmental, technological and political arenas into the conversations at Ford.
Yihyun Lim explores the methods and tools for designing humane technology through value-driven design and prototyping; she is also co-founder of D.Fluence, a design research studio based in Cambridge.
John Miranda is responsible for market and technology trend sensing, uncovering strategic opportunities and gaps, and shaping investment decisions across Intel’s Data Platforms Group Business Unit.
Elliott P. Montgomery is a design researcher, strategist and educator focusing on speculative inquiries at the confluence of social, technological and environmental impact; he is also co-founder of The Extrapolation Factory, a design-futures research studio based in Brooklyn.
Here are the key takeaways from the evening’s conversation
It’s not about predicting the future, but helping prepare for it
Because nobody really knows what the future holds, designers can help clients imagine different scenarios and outcomes, so that “regardless of what future actually does comes true, you are ready,” said Jen Brace, Global Futuring manager of Ford Motor Company. Scenario planning involves exploring different versions of the future from social, technological, economic, environmental and political perspectives and “figuring out what they mean—and how your product would survive in this world,” she added.
For Yihyun Lim, lead, MIT Civic Design Initiative, future forecasting is about “designing a vision experience” to stimulate a discussion about what possible futures may be out there. These often concern such evolving technologies as AI and pervasive sensing, their impact on a company’s products and services, as well as the human experience of interacting with them. For example, she worked with Signify on a city of the future project and the role of lighting to create ‘caring’ urban experiences.
In a similar way, John Miranda, Strategy Office, Data Platforms Group, at Intel Corporation, likes to “paint possible futures” for internal stakeholders in ways they haven’t thought about before. “They say, Tell us what we’re missing that I’m not seeing that’s going to hit my business,” he continued. This will help them navigate potential pitfalls as well as identify opportunities.
Look for signals, patterns, trends and events and then connect the dots
Designers utilize different methodologies to imagine the future. They scan blogs and social media, aggregate data, crowdsource information, and survey patent and academic activity. Then, as John Miranda puts it, designers “harvest the harvesting” to determine what’s “resonating the strongest or picking up speed, and narrow the list to what matters the most.” An example? When he noticed that the new MacBook Air touted its green credentials, thereby signalling the importance of sustainability to Apple.
Elliott P. Montgomery, assistant professor at Parsons School of Design, searches for signals—specific recent events—that might build, magnify or continue to disrupt in some way to reach scale and become a trend. That way, “we can see possible changes before they’re visible as trends and get the earliest view of what a future might look like.”
Besides signals and trends, Yihyun Lim interviews researchers in academia “to give us a glimpse into the trajectory of technology so we can imagine its possible applications in products, services and experiences.” For her part, Jen Brace at Ford focuses on identifying shifting values, behaviors and attitudes and how they are impacting people, and connecting the dots between those changes to determine emerging trends.
To imagine the future, examine both the past and the present
Looking back in time is a good way to map what lies ahead. Jen Brace mentioned one useful tool is to build a timeline referencing trends going back to 2000 and then projecting 5 or 10 years from now. To get buy-in from stakeholders, “continue the storyline and then ask, what would have to be true for this to happen, to enable a future like this?”
Intel’s John Miranda uses the phrase “transmission of presence,” to describe understanding the present, especially in the age of COVID-19, and how to use that information to extrapolate the future. For him, the question to pose might be, “This is what we’re doing now, and if you were to redo Zoom or Skype from scratch, how would you re-imagine it? Would it be the way it is today?”
Elliott Montgomery takes this idea a bit further. “Your historical timeline could very well be thousands of years in the past,” he proposed, “or if you’re looking at a new fast fashion line, six months ahead.”
Stretch your imagination—even if it sounds ridiculous
Montgomery likened our imagination to muscles that must be regularly exercised, often to the point of discomfort. “If what you’re imagining doesn’t seem ridiculous, it’s probably not a very useful image of a future,” he argued. One exercise is to imagine an object you would find in a Dollar Store in 2050, and ask, “What does it look like, and what does it say about society?”
Yihyun Lim agrees about reaching for the ridiculous. But she added that you also need something tangible—a physical artifact or an interactive prototype—that you can put on the table. “It has to be something you can touch and feel and see and react to, and that also helps alleviate levels of skepticism,” Lim continued.
Such skepticism can lead to missing something big—for example, how Intel famously missed the mobile phone business, recalled John Miranda. “I can’t believe we didn’t see that,” he said. So along with the future forecasting successes, you have to recognize the flip side—“what you might have talked about but failed to activate.”
A diversity of voices will help democratize future forecasting and as a result, enhance human-centered design
Montgomery recommends getting out of your filter bubble in order to democratize the way we tell stories about where we’re headed. All too often, he explained, “We get in these spaces where we’re hearing the things that we’re already thinking.” Instead, he aims for “participatory futuring,” in which multiple perspectives—technological, economic, sociological and ecological—are all taken into account.
Jen Brace says this type of diversity adds richness to the conversation and can lead to much stronger perspectives about the future. At Ford, “We lean into different age groups and generational cohorts and make sure those are represented…and their values displayed.”
John Miranda agrees, noting that Intel makes sure future models represent many different voices—especially when it comes to AI, which is often based on Western-generated data that can skew results. “This highlights the importance of encompassing a diverse set of perspectives, especially for a global company,” he said.
Much of the work of future forecasting depends on narrative storytelling, and since the pandemic, Montgomery says he’s been working more intensely with smaller groups, and for longer periods of time, to better soak up their ideas. During these workshops, he noted, “Something pops up and we build and build on it and before you know, it becomes this really beautiful tale of a possible future.”
Analyze the present—and the past
To help forecast the future, it’s critical to understand not only what’s happening today but also trends going back decades. Build a historical timeline that continues this story from the past and projects 5 to 10 years ahead.
Identify signals and trends
Connect the dots between patterns, events, new technologies and the like to figure out what’s resonating the strongest or picking up traction. To bring skeptics into the conversation, ask them to consider what would need to be true for this to happen in the future.
Exercise your imagination ”muscles”
Imagine future scenarios that may appear to be ridiculous today or even cause discomfort, but offer a glimpse into what may come. At the same time, include something tangible to touch, feel, and see—a prototype or physical artifact—for people to react to.
Leave your filter bubble
Practice “participatory futuring” by seeking input from different age groups and generational cohorts to ensure that diverse values are represented and heard. Also take into account the technological, economic, sociological, and ecological implications of the future you are modeling.
Jamie Munger, Strategy director
Yodai Yasunaga, Visual designer
Danny Dang, Interaction designer