With digital technologies requiring a speed and breadth of impact which leaves little room for risk, how might we start proactively considering the relation of our present work to future outcomes?
Today as designers, we are not only responsible for helping our clients shape propositions that are valuable for end-users, but also ones that are competitive and sustainable in delivering that value. Part of this responsibility means anticipating the potential ripple effects of what we are building and how success could be compromised today and in the future. So get your crystal ball out, zip up your space suit and let’s get ready for time travel.
Not so fast. Exploring how a project might develop from a future lens can be challenging because speculation means we have no hard facts. So, when imagining future scenarios, we often fall into our creative echo-chambers, become hyper-fixated on certain trends, start to group-think and miss blind spots, blank under pressure, generate predictable storylines (we’ve all nodded along to sci-fi tropes) or overthink the infinite possibilities and find ourselves in a futures black hole. Not to mention that human-centered design approaches encourage us to focus on the needs of the end-user (which are likely to be immediate needs) and it is not always intuitive for us to consider the consequences of what could follow.
So what can we do? Here at Futurice, speculative improvisation is a playful technique we like to use to co-build and explore future scenarios with our colleagues and teams. In a ping pong style, we travel down a timeline to the future, passing a ball around, with a colleague simply saying “and then by the year , this happened …” and so on. Here’s a little sample:
Usually we find that the stories ebb back and forth between utopian and dystopian exaggerations - but it is precisely these exaggerations that can help us to identify what matters most. For example, when we ran this exercise exploring the future of a fictitious preventative healthcare startup - which by 2030, had transformed into a marketplace of health data - principles such as inclusivity, privacy and control clearly emerged in importance.
Travelling into slices of imagined futures can help us to start flagging major pitfalls and opportunities that might unfold. Dramatised scenarios can help spark meaningful conversations with our teams, pushing us to consider the wider ethical implications of what we are doing and informing high-level, guiding principles for how we wish to design and build today.
Recently, speaking on the topic at the “Humane Tech” Meetup here in London, Luca Acito and I discussed the importance of taking the time at the beginning of projects in order to define guiding principles that can be mined from a future lens.
Drafting guiding principles that consider a longer timeline, can help us to reduce risk, align teams around a common vision and act as a north star in moments where we navigate through complexity and ambiguity. Guiding principles can also help us “future-proof” product and service propositions, as teams consider what it will take to keep up with anticipated changes in needs, behaviours and norms - from both a user and market perspective.
What might these principles look like in practice? Here at Futurice, we have already released a few, including “Design Principles for Children’s Voice Services” and “The Futurice Principles for Ethical AI”. Both are sets of high-level principles that teams can refer to when working with specific technologies.
So if you have 20 minutes to spare and an open attitude - give it a go!
And for some parting thoughts - you might be wondering why we’re calling it speculative improvisation. Well after stumbling into an improvisation class in Shoreditch, I was inspired by the wild stories generated amongst a group of complete strangers - and that’s when I thought this sort of exercise could add value back at the office.
Why the improv technique might work so well with futures?
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