Design for the futures, as designing for present time is not enough!

What means designing for present times?

As a Service Designer and Customer Experience Architect I am constantly getting project requests touching challenges that meant to solve issues of the present times. In this context I always look at today's world trying to find insights from near past that allows me to conceptualize services / products for the immediate future.

Figure 1: Designing for present times

Where are My Futures?

Its been a while since I first time get in contact with the Futures Thinking. I was inspired by dear friends Minna Koskelo and Anu Nousiainen to get out of my comfort zone as Service Designer and try to think holistically about complex challenges of today's world we live in. Many describing those as "a post normal times" where ambiguity, volatility or uncertainty are the drivers, and for such a world is more than important to foresight and analyze what might happen in the future!

Figure 2: Post normal times

During past years I learnt a lot about the futures, futures thinking and futures studies. I learnt that there is no one future and the futures can be categorized and described in many different ways as we can look at:

  • Default futures which are communicated as an option, normalized, where inputs and feedback is not primary thing.

  • Used/borrowed futures where ideas are constructed by other people and adopted by us.

  • Disowned futures which are ignored by us, to which we do not pay enough attention.

  • Alternative futures created using scenarios to show alternative possibilities.

  • Models of social change which are influences and patterns from social environment around us.

Figure 3: Futures categories

It had significant impact on decisions I took in my private and professional live and it opened my eyes on various aspects that we could take more seriously in Service Design area. As Futures Thinker I started questioning, investigating the ideas & consequences of the decisions and designs I made, and look the same time for possibilities and alternatives to enrich those designs with futures aspects.

How can we design for the Futures?

Designing for the futures has a bit different approach comparing to design for present times. In a nutshell, you are working with changes trying to investigate, structure and evaluate those. You are first considering past times with possible long history outlook, looking at weak signals of change or manifestations today, exploring the driving forces of trends that they've become. Then you forecast opportunities and create out of those possible futures scenarios for which you design your services / products.

Figure 4: Futures Thinking

The goal of design for the futures is to inspire to think in a big scale (system thinking), look holistically at the social, economic, political and even environmental factors to create scenarios and ideas that have tangible outcomes generated by the design.

Is it simple? Not always. The truth is that there is no one way to do it. Many experts from the field having an approach of learning by doing. Therefore there is a difference when you look at Futures Thinking and Future Studies run by various universities around the world, and that has to be well understood.

Figure 5: Futures Thinking vs. Futures Studies

How can we apply Futures Thinking in Service Design?

I consider Futures Thinking as one of the approaches on Human / User Centered Design framework. Despite the methodology we use and agree on it's still just an approach that can be modified or updated by anyone.

Figure 6: Futures Thinking vs. Service Design vs. Human / User Centered Design

If you think about applying Futures Thinking in this context it has to happen as I called gradually. It's because many organizations still did not grasp Design Thinking well enough and introducing Futures Thinking might bring more complications. Therefore I am proposing two steps process how to get there: Semi - Futures Thinking process where Futures Thinking elements are injected to Design Thinking process, and Futures Thinking implemented together with Design Thinking

Figure 7: Futures Thinking as a part of Service Design

My dear friends Minna Koskelo and Anu Nousiainen created a framework that covers well the second approach aspects. It's called Futures Fit 3S framework and more about the application of it you can find here.

Figure 8: Futures Fit 3S framework, M. Koskelo & A. Nousiainen

For me as a Service Designer working in complex corporate environment where even Design Thinking approach is a challenge to implement, the most interesting one is the Semi - Futures Thinking process I will explain below.

Semi - Futures Thinking process in action

I spent some time to explore the possibilities and uncover the challenges related to this approach, specifically foresightfulness. After doing some use research and test on small amount of users it fast became clear to me that I should consider only 3 areas at first:

  • Gathering signals about the futures

  • Interpret signals into actionable foresight's

  • Realize desired futures

Figure 9: Futures Fit 3S vs. Semi Futures Thinking approach

Thus, I focused my actions to figure out which of the elements in the area would bring immediate value to the Service Design process run in our organization. After doing some field & latest literature / website research I realized that I should base my approach on 4 elements which I called:

  • Backcast to Futurize

  • Spot to Aggregate

  • Ideate to Forecast

  • Evaluate to Disrupt

1. Backcast to Futurize looks at data points in the past analyzing how users realities, behaviors and preferences are evolving. This should gives directions for the futures.

Figure 10: Backcast to Futurize

2. Spot to Aggregate looks on unusual signals & phenomena's and their appearance, analyzing driving forces, implications to the future and application of those in organizations' domains.

Figure 11: Spot to Aggregate

3. Ideate to Forecast looks at the changes getting to mainstream, what needs to happen to make it there, what are the area that potentially will be transformed and which of those will become obsolete.

Figure 12: Ideate to Forecast

4. Evaluate to Disrupt looks at signals of change that might impact the futures, what are the interesting opportunities that might come out of it on intersections of various services & products, and what is the impact on so called critical users (forerunners).

Figure 13: Evaluate to Disrupt

What's next to be done?

The application of Futures Thinking needs to be started by educating people what is that and actually how it conforms to currently known approaches. It's important that in corporate environment they understand the value which it brings and opportunities that might arise after implementing it. Secondly, we, Futures Thinkers should concentrate on defining right mix of methods and tools to be used during workshops. Thirdly, we have to design workshops scenarios and align those with Service Design approaches. There is still long way to go, but effort is worth each minute spend on it. Let's design our futures right here and right now. Only we are able to shape our futures!

I will continue to work on the subject and hopefully have first real applications in projects. I am looking forward to cooperate with others on the subject and hear from your more on your experiences from it? Share it with me, challenge me or even constructively criticize. I am seeking to find your opinion!

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