Stuart Candy, one of the pioneers of popularising the intersection of Futures and Design methodologies, writes; ‘Amid pervasive uncertainty and accelerating change, one of our great challenges, and opportunities, is to make high quality engagement with the yet-to-be, more widespread’ (Candy 2018).
From the words of Sandjar Kozubaev; ‘Temporality has always been a key part of design because designers devise ways to transform a current situation into some future one. However, in recent years, the intersection of two trajectories [speculative design and futures studies] has made the use of design to investigate the future even more productive, opening possibilities for new design practices’ (Kozubaev 2018).
I’ve taken some of these words to heart and wish to contribute to Candy’s push to make the inclusion of Futures more widespread in Design practice. And delve into Kozubaev’s intersecting realm between Futures, Design and Speculative Design (see Modified Mapping of Design Futures graphic below). But it needs to be more than this too. We are too entrenched in Design practices to see clearly the constraints of design processes and the designed objects we create. Philosophy can help us understand these design systems and ourselves as designers in new ways.
The original objective for this project was to shine a light on Futures Thinking for Humanitarian1 Organisations from a Designer’s perspective. However, during the course of my research it has become apparent that though this is of great need, there is opportunity to address a wider audience of designers looking to include Futures Thinking in their practice regardless of their field.
There are great challenges ahead in the chaotic world around us. Let’s bare our senses, flex our minds, crack our knuckles, and be ready for the opportunities to steer the right course into the future. The more common Futures Thinking becomes in our society the better off we will be in creating improved, sustainable solutions.
Modified Mapping of Design Futures
The above image illustrates the area I’m investigating in this research; attempting to demonstrate, and hopefully popularise the opportunities of Design Thinking at the overlap with Futures Thinking.
You will notice in my research I avoid labelling this focus area Design Futures. This is a conscious decision to not label this exploration. Once labelled it is open to definition, misinterpretation and boundaries. Once defined it loses its ability to be an open area of investigation that can be melded to your needs, and there may be concern of not following predefined ‘rules’.
The dire need within the Humanitarian sector for new ways of thinking, this intersection of design and futures could help find a way forward to better strategies, organisational restructure, funding innovation, and disaster response.
Designers employ various methods to explore the recent past to understand the problems and opportunities of the present for tomorrow’s solution. The complexity and interconnectedness of today’s problems need additional ways to look at the issues of today to take advantage of the opportunities present. Futures Thinking methods offers a different view point; it allows us to plan from the future (Burke and Kent 2018). This blog has been created to encourage designers to create a coherent image of the future to provide valuable insights into today (Toffler 1971).
The realm of Futures are not just about journeys into the weird and wonderful. Futures methods build individual’s and organisation’s decision making capability, and resilience to change and unexpected scenarios.
Where did that exciting future go?
30 years and more prior the year 2000, we had big dreams of a technological bright future; propelled along by Toffler’s 1971 Future Shock, which brought thinking of the future to the mainstream. Since 2000 we seemingly have, collectively, lost the will and the desire to foresee the future as we once did. That excitement of the 3 decades from the 1970s has gone. Michael Chabon, writing for Details in 2006, reflects on his own excitement and optimism of his childhood; of all the potential the future will hold 30 years ahead to 2000. Juxtaposed with his own 8 year old son’s vision of the future in 2006, in which his son even questions our species’ survival (Chabon 2006).
Bombarded with negative and dire warnings of our imminent futures in the media we consume, can make us feel overwhelmed and helpless to take steps creating solutions and envisaging a positive future.
Today we can witness youths’ ongoing despair sweeping the globe with worldwide climate protests over consecutive and concurrent governments’ inaction. How can we turn this energy into positive strategies to revitalise positive futures.
We need to take steps in envisaging a positive future. But we also need to be mentally prepared and agile in approach for the serried events that are likely to accompany a rapidly changing climate.
Nevermore have we needed to use-the-future to be enable us to take the right steps today to avoid the worst of the future, to make the best possible future attainable. This is even more important for the future of vulnerable communities, ecosystems and species. With worsening, more frequent and complex conditions from climate change affecting all of us, the most vulnerable will be most at risk. This dire situation has been recognised by platforms opening up like HumanitarianFutures.org which continued on from the Humanitarian Futures Programme (HFP) (Burke and Kent 2018) at King’s College, London (2004 to 2016).
‘The Leader required to meet the challenges of the future should dare to be speculative, a mentor and a listener’ (Burke and Kent 2018).
FHbD looks into Mindfulness practice, to explore contemporary understandings of mindful listening, openness and mental resilience in Leadership. A practice that enables awareness of our thoughts without being distracted by them. It improves skills in mindful listening and self-awareness. It helps to be alert to bias; our own and others. In principle, Mindfulness practice should improve leadership acts particularly in culturally sensitive, diverse, and complex scenarios. To examine Mindfulness this project will include blog posts focussed on the subject, what role it may play, and how it may enable us to improve decision making, and investigate the overlaps with Futures Thinking and Design Thinking practices.
This blog will focus on 4 key subject areas:
- Research and investigations into Futures Thinking’s application in the Humanitarian sector
- Philosophical reasoning for understanding Design Processes in Research and Practice
- Discussions around Futures Thinking and Design Thinking
- Designers incorporating Futures Thinking into their work
- Research and discussions on Mindfulness, Leadership, and Design and how the disciplines combined benefit outcomes
Taken together these areas of research and discussions consider what the future of design may look like, and with whom and how that may happen.
The research will also help designers gain a broad understanding of Futures Thinking, and introduce concepts of contemporary philosophy, where they can continue their education on the subject, and how to apply it in their practice or organisation.
Who is the target market for this blog?
The site has been created for the curious designer, that suspects there are more methods they can adjoin to their current design practice to deepen research, reframe and re-lens problem areas, and help make their solutions more forward looking, inclusive and sustainable.
The information on the site is suitable for anyone that finds themselves in roles of problem solving. At its conception, this site was originally targeted at designers that are working in strategic roles who wanted to know more about Futures.
Designers may also find the resources and posts on speculative design, artefacts from the future, and other future oriented prototypes inspiring.
The writing style is academic, though on occasion more approachable. The range of topics will hopefully open up Futures Thinking to a wider audience; including those that are seeking to engage Futurists as facilitators.
The need for this blog
As designers are finding themselves in more strategic and facilitatory roles in organisations, government, and non-profits, within the framing of more complex and interconnected problems, there is a need for a knowledge repository that unpacks Futures Thinking for designers and to demonstrate how Anticipatory Systems can be brought into Strategic Design Thinking methods.
There is also a component of organisations adapting aspects of Design Thinking for their strategic needs, and part of their adaption of Design Thinking should include methods from Futures Thinking.
An online survey undertaken by FHbD showed that 66% of designers haven’t had any, or only occasionally, used Futures Thinking in their practice. However, over 85% indicated they wanted to learn more about the subject. Perhaps not surprisingly, 80% of respondents indicated they would learn Futures Thinking by searching Google. which shows there’s a need for collated and curated information on the subject rather than learning via diasporic sites.
Survey response: What steps would you take to start learning about Futures Thinking?
Through the life of the site there will be a variety of research techniques employed.
FHbD sets out to investigate the overlap of several subject areas; Futures Thinking, Design Thinking, Humanitarian Scenarios, and Mindfulness, through researching topics and interviewing industry leaders.
Primarily research will be undertaken through reading academic papers, journals, news articles, conference papers, associations, recorded presentations and interviews, as well as published books.
A number of potential interviewees have been reached out to. These will be either through recorded audio visual interviews or through written Q&A.
Another method I am utilising is brief anonymous surveys created through Google Forms. These surveys are designed to gauge bigger industry attitudes and knowledge of subjects rather than deep individual knowledge.
It is my vision that FHbD will be a repeatedly useful resource for designers to learn about Futures Thinking to enable them to create better outcomes in their fields.
This project makes the case for designers to become users of Futures in their practice. Future Human by Design has shown that the accelerating complexity of our world and the problems designers are facing, designers will need an anticipatory mindset and to be able to apply the additional tools at their disposal to make the best of the present.
The study also has shown steps, given insights from practitioners, and resources that designers can start developing the skills and language needed to use-the-future.
Furthermore, research into Mindfulness and its proven success in fields of emergency services, social workers and health workers have shown that people dealing with extreme, uncertain, and complex scenarios benefit greatly in improved mental resilience and performance. Design Leaders dealing with complexity, moral ethics, and diversity stressors should also be able to use Mindfulness practice to overcome obfuscating factors.
In the theme of Mindfulness, the words of Blyth and Kimbell (2011) ‘Designers should be willing to examine themselves as agents in a change process and uncover their own values, motivations and commitments and begin to see how this shapes how they frame and reframe issues.’
This is not the conclusion
As they say this is the end of the beginning. There are many more journal papers, exhibitions, speculative designs, design firms and individuals that deserve exploration and consideration of their approach in this intersection of participatory problem solving methodologies. Particularly the work of Stuart Candy who has been on the forefront of this amalgamation of disciplines. But for the sake of this assignment a line had to be drawn and this project submitted.
28 September 2019
(Updated 27 July 2020)
1. This site considers Humanitarian is not simply putting humans welfare first but considering humans as part of the world’s interconnected biosphere of which we are but one part.
BLYTH, S. & KIMBELL, L. (2011). Design Thinking and the Big Society: From solving personal troubles to designing social problems. London: Actant and Taylor Haig.
BURKE, J. & KENT, R. 2018. Humanitarian Futures Toolkit. HumanitarianFutures.org: Humanitarian Futures.
CANDY, S. 2018. Gaming futures literacy: The Thing From The Future. In: MILLER, R. (ed.) Transforming the Future: Anticipation in the 21st Century. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation.
CHABON, M. 2006. The Future Will Have to Wait. Long Now [Online]. Available from: https://blog.longnow.org/02017/01/06/chabonclock/.
KOZUBAEV, S. 2018. Futures as Design : Explorations, Images, and Participations. Interactions. ACM.org: ACM.
TOFFLER, A. 1971. Future Shock, Bantam Books.