Foresight & Futures

Meeting at the Intersection of Futures and Design

By Sandjar Kozubaev

Over the last few years, the practices of strategic foresight (i.e. thinking about the future) and design (e.g., imagining and creating new products, services and experiences) have been intersecting in new and interesting ways.

While decades ago Nobel laureate and multidisciplinary scholar Herbert Simon defined design as being about transforming the current situation into some preferred future, today there is a more concerted effort on the part of many designers and researchers to think critically and creatively about the future. This can be observed in many sub-fields of design including design research, participatory design, design for human-computer interactions (HCI) and many others. HCI has been especially interested in speculation as a productive mode of research.

Case in point, the Association of Computer Machinery’s (ACM), the world’s largest educational and scientific computing society in the world, hosts conferences around the globe and publishes advanced research in computing for scholarly communities and the general public. In March/April 2018, ACM dedicated a special section to Design Futures in their globally circulated Interactions magazine. I had the honor of contributing my thoughts along with other esteemed contributors. Here’s a brief look at each article:

(Note that a subscription or payment is required by ACM to view the full text of the articles.)

“Futures as Design: Explorations, Images and Participations – in this article I explore the historical relationship between futures studies (also known as strategic foresight) and design. Futures studies has been delving into design as way to communicate insights about potential futures through objects, interactions, experiences and even performances. At the same time, designers are taking up tools from futures studies, such as scenario planning, weak signal analysis and others to create more compelling ways to engage and inform their audiences about uncertainties of the future. In this article, I discuss some recent examples both in futures studies and design, and chart possibilities of how designers can engage the public to imagine alternatives to the present.

“Can we look to science fiction for innovation in HCI?” – by Daniel Russel (Google) and Svetlana Yarosh (University of Minnesota), explores how science fiction (sci-fi) contributes to our imaginations about what technology can do. They are careful to note that sci-fi is not about prediction but about imagining alternative worlds, which is what we typically do in professional futures. At the same time, they caution us about the limitations of sci-fi in setting unrealistic expectations or creating literal tropes that constrict our imagination.

“Afrofuturism, Inclusion, and the Design Imagination” – by Woodrow Winchester (Robert Morris University). Afrofuturism is a term that refers to, among other things, a cultural movement and philosophy that explores and re-examines past, present and futures of African/African American engagement with technology. The movement existed since the middle of the 20th century, but has been gaining renewed momentum in recent years. One of the most significant recent cultural milestones in this movement has been the release of Black Panther, an Afrofuturist sci-fi film based on a Marvel Comics graphic novel of the same name. Winchester makes an interesting connection between Afrofuturism and human-centered design (HCD). He notes that Afrofuturism can help design be more engaged with different cultural contexts (how people live, what they care about, and how they view the world) and prevent blind spots, which can ultimately lead to a more inclusive design of products, services and experiences.

What was interesting about working on this project is seeing how thinking about the future can help challenge how we think about the world, and how we represent our thinking in a way that invites others to contribute to the discussion. Often, most of our attention is spent on understanding that one future which would excite us, but what’s really important is to design new ways for our audiences (citizens, customers, colleagues, etc.) to create their own representations of the future so we can widen our perspective.

Sandjar Kozubaev is an Experience Designer and Futurist, one of the leaders of the Sparks Grove Futures Practice. You can find more information about our futures work at www.sparksgrove.com/futures. For more information about futures studies, download our Brief Introduction to Futures.  

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