The Principles of Futures Design

Published by Boardroom Labs on

The Principles of Futures Design

From 100-Year Design to Mindful Organization. The foundation of designing the future.

What are the most important things to focus on when we seek to elicit change in a systematic, ethical manner? For an engineer, it might be patience, precision, and collaboration. For a lawyer, perhaps honesty, reasoning, and knowledge. Every discipline or domain will have a unique set of best practices or principles that speak to how to best operate. Principles are inherently abstract but they are immensely important. Let me explain.

In 1937, a US Congress report introduced the concept of GDP. GDP quantifies and compares the wellbeing of various societies. GDP informs decision-making at every level and creates the monetary policy, “keep the economy growing, and everything will be fine.” From GDP and subsequent thinking by academics like Milton Friedman society arrived at the notion that perpetual corporate growth is desirable and the responsibility of executives. Most companies want to grow 10% per year. In 2018 Apple made roughly $265 billion. For Apple to grow 10% annually it must find $26.5 billion in new revenue. That may seem like a small number, but it’s more than the GDP of Moldova an Eastern European country with a population of 3 million. Apple must grow by over 3 Moldova populations per year (or the equivalent production of about 10 million people) to meet expectations. For comparison, Apple has 132,000 employees.

As Adam Winkler explains in We The Corporation corporations aren’t inherently evil; they just achieve the objectives we define for them, which is usually maximizing profits and growth. As Donella Meadows lays out in her seminal Limits To Growth climate change and the environment’s degradation are symptoms of limitless growth. Earth has a finite number of resources, including breathable oxygen, natural life, inhabitable space, and drinkable water, which we are overconsuming. We’re sacrificing the future for a profitable present. Thus, the principle of GDP has contributed to a world facing runaway growth and subsequent climate collapse.

Principles are immensely important for every discipline and domain. As an emerging discipline, futures design doesn’t have clear, codified principles. In this article, I’ll offer an idea of what I think the six principles of futures design are. They are merely an idea and I welcome any feedback as we continue growing this discipline.

(1) 100-Year Design

The ancient Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) have a philosophy called the Seventh Generation Principle, which means that the decisions we make today should honour three generations past and create a sustainable world for three generations into the future. Roman Krznaric further explores this idea in The Good Ancestor. Imagine the world of 2122. What will people think, feel, act, do, and say? Where will they live? What will their environments be like? How will they communicate? While we can speculate, a future so distant is inherently unknowable. Yet, those people will need to engage with a world we laid the foundation for. Much like how today we live with the world created by the Industrial Revolution, WWI and The Great Depression. As Giles Hutchison and Laura Storm explore in Regenerative Leadership, we must design for the inhabitants of a world that’s 100 years away.

(2) Empowering Leadership

Every person has the capacity to lead. Yet, leadership isn’t inevitable. For reasons of circumstance, discrimination, inequities, and access many are never able to exercise their capacity. A core principle of futures design is investing time, energy, and resources into including and empowering those impacted and impactful on a design area. It’s more than co-creation, which is inherently designer-led towards mobilization and empowerment. As any grassroots activist will acknowledge, mobilizing people is exhausting. People are frustrated and often victims of the traumas, exclusions, and challenges of the modern world. They may feel their vote, work, or other actions don’t matter. In poet Christina Rossetti’s Amor Mundi (love of the world) she describes that you can’t love without working at it or being “distracted by the velvet flowers.” That while “the downhill path is easy, there’s no turning back.” Lifting up those around us and leading together is hard but it will always be worth it.

(3) Theory & Practice

In 1859 Charles Darwin published On The Origin of Species. He laid out how organisms are in a continuous state of evolution driven by their genetics and environments. Similarly, organizations continuously experience change in their ecosystem, which they respond to or fall behind. However, the future is inherently unpredictable. Instead, we must continuously create, test, and learn how to best navigate change. We must embrace emergence, uncertainty, and possibility while adhering to the constraints of reality. There’s never perfect, just better.

(4) Systemic Justice

In 2017 400+ lawyers, psychologists, architects, and other experts gathered to co-develop The Montréal Declaration For Responsible AI. It’s a powerful example of bringing people together to address challenges before they become crises. Technology, like the future, is a choice we collectively make through our action and inaction. No one individual creates it, rather it’s built from big and small investments, speeches, votes, stories, and more. Thus, we all bear the responsibility for systemic inequalities and injustices, like racism, xenophobia, intolerance, and wealth disparities. A key principle of futures design is recognizing and designing to create justice, democracy, progress, and prosperity for us all.

(5) Radical Transparency

In Ray Dalio’s Principles he explains how at Bridgewater, the world’s largest hedge fund, employees can access everything from financial records to executive meeting minutes. However, transparency is more than merely making information available. Consider the terms and conditions we all routinely skip. While the information is available, it’s obfuscated by volume. Making information not just available but accessible is important. As is modifying and democratizing practices, learnings, and tools. Radical transparency means telling the truth, even when it’s hard or we’ve failed. Dalio put radical transparency into practice with his 2019 missive on why capitalism, the system that made him one of the 100 wealthiest people on Earth, needs to be reformed.

(6) Mindful Organization

Frederic Laloux’s Reinventing Organizations offered a radical rethinking of how purposeful organizations should exist in the 21st century. Teal Organization, alongside Holacracy, Requisite Organization, and the Viable Systems Model offer a stark reimagining of how organizations should function. Hierarchy is replaced with fluid, human-centered structures intended to help people collectively actualize a shared purpose. Futures design inherently involves scale, which means organization. Thus, it’s important to draw on more meaningful, purposeful forms of organization to ensure our principles aren’t lost.

Building a North Star

Every organization has a North Star or a shared purpose and vision that unites them and drives action. A purpose is a product of principles in action. Thus, it’s important to share what it might look when they these futures design principles are put into practice. Throughout the Lead The Future series, I’ve been using Boardroom Labs as a way of highlighting how futures design can look in the real world. In that vein, here’s Boardroom Labs’ North Stars. At a high level, we build significant new value by solving complex global problems. Our universal guiding metric is new revenue generated for our ventures and clients (as a proxy for positive social impact), without compromising on our values, while serving people and the planet.

If we operate true to our principles, here’s what we hope to achieve:

Get in touch and let’s put these theories into practice together.

This is the eighth article in the Lead The Future series, which will continue exploring the design of products, companies, and movements that shape a better world. Would you like to be notified when the next article’s launched? Subscribe to the Boardroom Labs’ newsletter in the sidebar.