An Introduction to Futures Design

Published by Boardroom Labs on

An Introduction to Futures Design

The future echoes through the present

Imagine we’re on an island in the middle of the ocean. We’re stranded, unfortunately. As we take in our new (hopefully temporary) home, we notice trees and crabs, and water lapping at the beach. If we wait long enough, we’ll begin to detect deeper patterns, like the tides, weather, and regional food chain. If we could look deeper still, we’d notice geological activity and plate tectonics reshaping this landmass and long-term shifts in ocean currents changing the local climate. 

We’re constantly surrounded by these signals, the long-term trends they form, and the deeper drivers of change shaping them. However, while in the physical world it may be obvious, they’re much harder to detect in our human world.

As an example, let’s think about COVID-19, which is pretty topical these days. The signals behind COVID-19 are case counts and viral spread, the trends are the variants and vaccine distribution patterns, and the drivers are globalization and urbanization. If you were paying attention, you could probably see something like COVID-19 coming. But the thing is, people did. Yet, here we are having just celebrated our second COVID-19 holidays. Why? 

There’s a glut of foresight reports out there these days. Here’s one set in 2050 by ARUP on planetary health and social conditions. I think these reports and perspectives have their place. But it’s not enough to simply be aware of negative possibilities.

How do we design a better future?

This question may seem abstract but it’s incredibly important. In Survival of the Richest techno-humanist and author Douglas Rushkoff was asked to speak at an event to ultra-wealthy investment bankers. Their overwhelming concern was how, after The Event (i.e., a societal collapse precipitated by environmental degradation, machines, or pandemic) they could escape, like through colonizing Mars, reversing ageing, hiding in underground bunkers, or digitizing their minds. Despite their wealth and power, these bankers are victims of the future.

Let’s imagine two futures, one positive and one negative. For inspiration I’m going to draw from Peter Frase’s Four Futures: Life After Capitalism:

  • In the first world, automation and economic abundance have freed most from the necessity of work to meet survival needs. Creativity and personal fulfillment flourish, while clean energy and moral courage promote egalitarianism, justice, democracy, and discovery.
  • In the second world, a limited group of elites own the majority of essential resources, such as the software powering the world. Some work and fuel the economy, but most stagnate and starve.

For 99% of us, the first world is better. Yet, there are seeds of both futures growing today. For instance, corporate oligopolies and activists vying for our climate future.

Between utopianism and nihilism lies politics

There are many forms of change in society, including economic, social, scientific, and political. There are also many forms of change-makers, including inventors, entrepreneurs, scientists, activists, artists, engineers, politicians, and philosophers. I believe there is a practice uniting these many forms and folks, called Futures Design.

Futures design is the design of products, companies, and movements that shape a better world. Futures designers realize future states in which a more prosperous, resilient, just society exists. Futures design can be as small as a product improvement or as big as a social revolution. Futures design holds that there are many possible futures ahead that only become singular in the present. Further, that we all continuously shape the future through our actions, and inaction and apathy.

Futures design is intensely egalitarian

We’re all immensely powerful even if most don’t realize or knowingly act on their power. Consider money for instance. It’s physically just fibres, plastic, and ink. Yet, we all believe in it as a store of value and so it is. What if we all collectively believed in actualizing a just, democratic, ecologically healthy future?

Futures design is participatory and involves groups of people seeking positive collective outcomes. It’s also home to anyone seeking to shape a better future, whether in government, nonprofits, NGOs, startups, volunteering, or within grassroots or community movements. We’ll all live in the future and so we’re all equally responsible and beneficiaries of it.

Futures designers are leaders and changemakers

Most changemakers are focused on the how. Engineers are concerned with materials and properties or entrepreneurs with funding and adoption. For futures designers the how is secondary. Instead, they might ask what sort of futures are possible and best for these stakeholders? Where is this future located relative to where we are now? What must be true for us to reach that destination?

Futures designers can be immensely powerful and of service in many contexts and situations. They can help:

  • corporates and venture studios to identify, design, launch, and scale new sources of value for clients or customers.
  • governments understand and serve their constituents in the short- and long-term.
  • build actionable perspectives as thought leaders and strategists.
  • serve communities from within through empathy, compassion, and morality.
  • understand and realize the potential impact of new technologies, knowledge, or other discoveries.

Future designers can come from many backgrounds, but they tend to have skills in three core areas: design, futures, and systems.

  • Design Thinking: Realizing outcomes that serve diverse human needs (i.e., entrepreneurship, business design, activism).
  • Futures Thinking: Discovering and navigating the range of potential futures ahead (i.e., strategic foresight, politics).
  • Systems Thinking: Understanding levers and interactions in a messy, volatile world (i.e., research, engineering, philosophy, art).

We all practice futures design, whether it’s at work, volunteering in our communities, raising children, starting businesses, or merely enjoying ourselves. Anything that brings about a better future for ourselves and others is futures design. Or as I like to put it: People Change the World.

This is just the beginning…

This is the first article in the Lead The Future series, which will continue exploring the design of products, companies, and movements that shape a better world. In upcoming articles, we’ll focus on how each of us can be changemakers and what it means to build a better future, together. Would you like to be notified when the next article’s launched? Subscribe to the Boardroom Labs’ newsletter in the sidebar.