The Value of Futures Design

Published by Boardroom Labs on

The Value of Futures Design

Pilots, experiential futures, and shaping a better world.

Life is experienced as a continuous present. Thus, when we talk about the future, it’s always as a distant, abstract concept. For instance, climate change will make the Earth’s average surface temperature higher with further impacts on humidity, volatility, currents, soil, and ice. Yet, most of us won’t directly experience most of that. For instance, where I live in Toronto, Canada we’ve had a wetter winter with much less snow. Of course, that’s only so far and climate change most directly impacts those without the means to escape it. The point is that we only ever experience the future as an idea in the present. So what is the value of designing the future then? Wouldn’t it be more meaningful to focus on the here and now? Or as Alissa Wilkinson puts it in A Syllabus For a New World, “what fool would make plans for the new year, having lived through the past two? Isn’t that setting ourselves up for more misery?”

It’s a valid question. Consider the idea of future generations (i.e., humans that aren’t alive yet but that will be). We know that unless we act in a cataclysmic manner that humans will continue being born and those humans will have needs and expectations. Where do those unborn individuals fall on the scale of our moral obligations compared to people suffering today? Let’s explore. There are two lenses to look through for why futures design matters: one economic and the other more systemic.

First, economic. Most organizations, including governments, perpetually react to the present. Imagine you’re walking through the woods. If you don’t have some destination in mind, you’ll end up meandering or overreacting to obstacles. Most organizations have financial expectations about the future (i.e., increased revenue and profitability) but those are merely symptoms of other realities, like having more customers or efficient operations. Futures design offers a view of the road ahead and what possible destinations might exist for an organization along it, which allows us to strategize routes and goals. Further, most organizations see investments into the future as the most risky, despite them offering the most opportunity. Every business faces change in the present that will eventually disrupt its current offerings. Yet, if they abandon their current offerings they can’t fund future opportunities. Further, if they invest in future opportunities they may be the ones to disrupt today’s business lines and cause their own decline. This innovators dilemma is addressed by McKinsey’s Three Horizons of Growth model, which has been an extremely influential business tool for the last two decades. It tells business leaders that there are three horizons to their business, which balance present performance with future opportunity and they must manage a portfolio (with a 70-20-10 percent allocation) across all three.

Second, systemic. Consider education. Aside from perhaps keeping children occupied, school doesn’t have any immediate benefits in the present. Rather, it’s an investment (and a very good one) into the future. But investing in education only makes sense if we believe 1) that the future exists and 2) that we can shape it by our actions today. Yet, aside from some grumbling about taxes, few doubt that we should continue educating people and that widespread access to education is a very good thing. There are many more systemic decisions like education woven into the fabric of society, such as sustainability, the arts, and the sciences. Our modern world is built on the efforts of people who trusted that tomorrow could be better than today. Many may recall the Stanford marshmallow experiment, where children who could wait to eat a marshmallow would get an extra one later. This test of one’s delayed gratification supposedly predicted future performance. However, it was later debunked and found that socioeconomic status was the true predictor. Poverty (and thus scarcity) forces people to opt for short-term rewards out of fear or need. Futures design cultivates a belief in the abundance of the future. That if we take meaningful action today tomorrow can be better and it’s worth it.

“The world we build tomorrow is born in the stories we tell our children today.” —Johnathan Sacks

Futures design matters. But why invest in it? Why utilize time, money, or other resources in service of designing for that which does not exist (yet)? Aren’t there more meaningful problems to tackle today? Put simply, futures design offers three key value propositions: a telescope, smoke detector, and vaccine.

Imagine you’re a pirate captain out to sea. Knowing the Earth is round you know that the higher you go, the further you’ll see. So you build a small resting place at the top of one of your masts and have someone shimmy up to it. Up there, they can see quite far but it’s fuzzy. They use a small optical trinket, a telescope, to make sharpen and comprehend the otherwise fuzzy, grainy sights in the distance. Perhaps they see a military vessel or land ho. In any case, the early warning of what is and isn’t ahead gives you a chance to adjust your course, stage an ambush, make plans, or any other preemptive action. It’s especially powerful if you have a taller mast or more powerful telescope and can see even farther than any other vessels around. Like the crow’s nest of a pirate ship, futures design can help us see farther and articulate what’s ahead first. For different organizations, that might mean anticipating investment areas, before the investment opportunity sails or how to meet our customer’s needs before they become frustrations. When I wrote VoiceTech 2030 for OMERS Ventures it was an example of using a telescope to look ahead.

However, telescopes only work if we’re looking in the right direction at the right time. Further, we also need to be able to detect and understand what we’re seeing in the scant moments we’re seeing it. Perhaps that brown blur is an island, or another ship, or just dirt on the lense. No matter how sophisticated or vast an organization’s sensemaking capacity is, it’s impossible to look everywhere at once. What we also need is a smoke detector. Something that can alert us to the presence of otherwise undetectable but dangerous gas. With futures design we can build smoke detectors that alert us when risks or opportunities pop up in different areas. When Microsoft built the SideWinder controllers in the 1990s, that was a form of smoke detector that helped them monitor developments in the game space. They would later launch the Xbox in 2001.

Smoke detectors are very helpful at alerting us to unseen risks or opportunities. But what if there’s actually a fire and not just something cooking on the stove? We need to be able to escape or put it out. In other words, we need a vaccine that ensures we’re prepared when we face whatever the future has in store for us. Vaccines increases the odds that if we do get sick, the damages will be minimal. Alternatively, we may never get sick at all, when otherwise we may have gotten very ill. Finally, like insurance, they give us the confidence to act in the present knowing that if something happens we’re covered. When PepsiCo bought Sodastream in 2018 they were vaccinating themselves against the possibility that seltzers and low-cal carbonated drinks would disrupt soft drinks. Or when Tyson Foods bought a stake in Beyond Meat and later launched their own plant-based meat line Raised & Rooted.

“One who picks fruit is forgotten quickly, but one who plants trees is remembered enduringly.” —Matshona Dhliwayo

While futures design offers us a telescope, smoke detector, and vaccine for the threats and opportunities of the future, we don’t necessarily build those things. Instead we build two things: experiential futures and pilots. An experiential future is any form of narrative, artifact, experience, or installation that somehow envisions a possibility that does not yet exist. Strategic foresight reports, immersive installations, and science fiction novels — all are a form of experiential future. Experiential futures help stakeholders to envision and engage with possible futures and take action accordingly. Whereas pilots are any action we take that we believe will lead to a certain future. In essence, an experiential future is the knowledge and a pilot is the response. A strategy is a form of pilot, one where we test whether certain individual or organizational actions will lead to a certain outcome. Exploring a new product area or technology, like vertical farming or artificial intelligence is a form of a pilot. Many futures design processes will lead to both outputs. Imagine a report on futures drivers and trends with accompanying strategic analysis and then some innovation projects to test different ideas that came from this process.

Not every futures design process or challenge will merit both. Sometimes we just want to build a telescope into a certain focus area and so we build an experiential future. In other cases, we may already believe we know what’s ahead and we want to pilot various value propositions to see if we’re right. Both are important in different contexts and they are mutually supportive. Knowledge without action is performance art and action without knowledge is hubris (and dangerous).

With futures design, we can thrive in the face of emerging technologies and societal shifts, spot viable upcoming investment areas, and anticipate the needs of our stakeholders and society. When you’re next considering how to best lead the future, ask yourself: do I need a telescope, smoke detector, or vaccine? And if so, should I design an experiential future, pilot, or both? There’s also building capabilities as well, which are the capacity to create future outcomes. Typically, capabilities are a secondary but very valuable outcome of building experiential futures or pilots.

This is the seventh 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.