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Futures Thinking: A Mind-set, not a Method. Embedding futures thinking within design practices

Design practices are becoming increasingly future-focussed, reflecting the complexities of the design challenges that we face. Futures thinking can offer us tools and methods to help with this, but more than that, it might offer us a new way of seeing the world that we design for.

Service designers operate within a user-centred world, where design challenges are driven by human behaviours, attitudes, needs and wants. However, people are always changing; they are shaped by the socio-cultural, technological, political and economic influences of the surroundings they live in. Some of these influences might be predictable or obvious, such as the reduced possibilities to live and work abroad for UK citizens, following their country’s departure from the European Union. They might also be unexpected or subtle, such as changes in online social behaviours following a privacy scandal involving a tech giant.

User-centred designers are masters of researching and understanding the ways in which people behave right now, but design challenges are often complex, everchanging, and rarely do they only exist in the ‘now’. We argue that designers tackle challenges best by considering not only how people behave now, but how external influences change these behaviours and needs over time. In contexts where the pace of change is increasing, service designers must respond by thinking in even longer terms. By exploring futures thinking, designers can create services that are more resilient to potential change, and may even take an active role in shaping the change that affects them. As Douglas Rushkoff stated during a recent talk at FutureFest 2018, “The word ‘future’ should be interpreted as a verb, not a noun.” It can be used to describe not only a place in time at which we arrive, but the process of proactively shaping change. (1)

What is futures thinking?

Increasingly, future-oriented practices are influencing the design disciplines of today. ‘Foresight’, ‘futurism’, ‘futurology’, ‘anticipation studies’ and ‘futures thinking’ (sometimes ‘futures’ for short) are terms that are often used interchangeably to describe the practice of thinking about the future in a structured way, and the methods and approaches that are used to do so. For clarity, we like to use ‘futures thinking’ when discussing this.

However, futures thinking is by no means a young practice. Throughout the 20th century, it was concerned with anticipating the future, for use within post-war political planning or as inspiration to the science fiction writers of the era, such as H.G. Wells. In recent years, the practice has shifted its focus away from predictions of the future, known as forecasting, toward the critical exploration of future possibilities, known as foresight.

While it is still not formally defined or well established as an academic discipline, there are maxims that are commonly agreed upon. “You can’t know the future” is one of them. In other words, futures thinking looks beyond the scope of ‘probable futures’ to examine the full realm of ‘possible futures’, with the goal of identifying unforeseen opportunities or de-risking propositions. It seeks to unpack the question of “what could happen?”, rather than attempting to answer “what will happen?”.

Futures thinking is primarily concerned with systemic factors, and is less concerned with immediate problems. It recognises that everything is interconnected, and that in order to make meaningful and long-lasting impact, one must understand and intervene in the overall system rather than addressing only individual elements. If we applied this approach to a project about meditation, for example, we would also consider adjacent subjects such as mental health, self-help, work performance and online self-image.

Where futures thinking and Design Thinking meet

Many designers who already practice futures thinking do so by applying it as a tool or method to be deployed at certain stages of their design process. In some cases, foresight has been used before the design process even begins, as a provocation to rouse the team and encourage new, creative thought. (2) In these instances, futures thinking is viewed as supplementary to the design process, but not baked into its methodology or mind-set.

We challenge this notion of futures thinking as a method or tool to be deployed by designers and argue that it delivers more meaningful impact when built into design as a mind-set. We believe that futures thinking is an approach with a set of principles that can be integrated into design methodologies from start to finish.

Futures thinking as a mind-set for design

The methodology that we have crafted introduces the divergent, exploratory mind-set of futures thinking to the outcome-oriented mind-set of design. This helps us answer both the long-term question of “where do we want to be?” as well as the short-term response to “so what do we do next?”.

Meanwhile, design expertise helps us communicate the abstract future concepts that we envision. Illustrating a possible future scenario through a visual or physical artefact is significantly more powerful than describing it through language alone. This helps our clients, users and project stakeholders better empathise with the human experiences that might exist within the described future scenario.

In blending design and futures approaches, we embed principles from futures thinking into our design practice, two of which we will discuss here in further detail. From start to finish, throughout project scoping, research phases, fieldwork, synthesis, testing and refining, we:

1. Take an interest in the possible, and not only the actual

This principle manifests itself at several points throughout any given project. In early research phases it may involve looking to fringe users to define weak signals of change, while in user engagements we might use conversations of possible or preferred futures to help uncover and unpack people’s deep beliefs and aspirations. In client strategy sessions we might challenge stakeholders with visions of futures that are outside of what they consider ‘probable’ in order to inspire them to pursue new opportunities.

2. Understand the changing system

We view people, services, products and organisations as part of a constantly changing system. They are not isolated elements, but are interconnected, and are part of a system in which elements are always changing and influencing each other. This understanding of the changing system is not, and cannot be, built solely through a series of methods and project activities. It is conceived as a mind-set that is deeply ingrained, affecting the very way we interpret our observations of the world. Again, this principle has different roles to play in different stages of a project, from identifying the unexpected consequences of developments in fields adjacent to a particular project’s subject matter, to building an understanding of the many socio-cultural, technological, political and economic factors that might have an impact on a designed project outcome over a period of time.

The value of futures as a mind-set

By adopting these futures thinking principles within our design methodology, we have derived values that we believe are also applicable to the work of service designers. These include:

1. Building an understanding of the changes that are shaping the behaviours and needs of the people that we design for and with.

2. Building resilience into our designs by considering the unexpected consequences that might affect us in the future.

3. Using possible future scenarios to communicate and share our own, and our collaborators’, visions. This forms and strengthens our culture with clients, audiences, and each other by helping us share complex or abstract ideas.

A physical artefact created to communicate a possible multicurrency future to Hitachi EU.
Lewis Just and Santini Basra in collaboration with the Glasgow School of Art.

For service designers who are new to futures thinking, and for those who might have already experimented with its methods or principles, it is our hope that futures thinking will become more regularly embedded, as a mind-set, within design practices. While the discrete use of futures thinking methods or tools is valuable, we believe that embedding the mind-set of futures thinking within a design or innovation team provides more impact.

Just as human-centred and service design mindsets have become the norm within our current design practices, the principles of futures thinking can help shape and refine our ways of seeing the world. Of course achieving this takes experience, but we believe that by taking time to explore and experiment with its principles, futures thinking can transform our design processes and working cultures.