Prototyping the future
What if people start to share more and more; mobility, living space,...? What if privacy laws are stripped for all European citizens? What if every year we get hit by pandemics, forcing people to shift to home working?
In an uncertain landscape, it’s crucial to have a compass guiding you to your desired destination1. Having a north star — or a clear purpose, mission, vision and a set of values — for your organisation is necessary. It ensures all daily actions and decisions made throughout the organisation still move you in a common direction, even in the face of challenges. But… we cannot predict the future with certainty.
What is future scaping and how can it help?
Challenges and opportunities will pop up along the way, requiring you to reflect on your way of operating and sometimes even question your north star. A shift in organisational strategy can sometimes feel sudden and top-down for a lot of employees. They might ask: “Why is it necessary to change?” We believe future scaping can then be used to build engagement. Future scaping includes both future thinking and prototyping. Future thinking is a muscle that can be trained as a team and organisation: what words do we use to explore the future? Future prototyping is translating this hypothetical thinking into a tangible form making the abstract concrete.
Future scaping is using evidence and storytelling to discover what could be on the horizon2. We spot signs of change (trends) and make informed projections. We can then look at probable, plausible and possible future scenarios3. Probable futures are estimated to happen likely, plausible futures are a bit less sure and might happen. Possible futures are the widest category and detail all possibilities for the future. These scenarios spark conversations in your organisations around what is preferable and what isn’t and could even inspire (desired or necessary) behavioural shifts.
Anybody working for an organisation knows there’s a document or presentation somewhere, listing the core values, mission and vision of the company. This doesn’t always mean people feel engaged with that story. Additionally, for most people, exploring possible futures isn’t part of our day-to-day responsibilities. Somebody else is surely tracking emerging trends and studying the impact on our organisation, right? But more often than not, future exploration isn’t a clearly assigned responsibility or role. And it shouldn’t be: In our opinion it should be a distributed responsibility and culture. So, how do you ensure future thinking is shared, practised and championed throughout the entire organisation?
Firstly, it’s important to understand who your target audience is, both internally and externally. Who do you want to have onboard for your future vision? Exploring possible futures should be an inclusive process, that anybody is able to take part in. This way everybody can contribute to shaping the future for the better. You can for example invite crucial partners or even end users in this process.
Then you can start with future prototyping with these target audiences. We define prototyping as the activity of crafting a tangible version of an idea, early on in the process, fastly and iteratively, in order to test it with its target audience(s). We can apply prototyping not only to new services or digital products but also to any future: a scenario, a vision... These prototypes can take different shapes: a dystopian video (think of Black Mirror) or an immersive installation. How do we make our vision of the future tangible in a co-creative way, evaluate and iterate upon it?
Future prototyping methods: making the future tangible
There are a number of future methods you could use to prototype. We’ll guide you through the process and give you insight into a selection of the techniques used today with some concrete examples. Often you can use a combination of the methods mentioned below. After all, future prototyping needs to fit your organisation and the specific goals you have with your project.
We’ll first define the broader practice of speculative design before detailing two specific applications: future scenarios and physical and immersive installations. Future scenarios are a beginner friendly method to explore the future and this method has a clearly defined process. Using physical and immersive installations has a bigger impact but can be more challenging. There’s no defined process to create it either, making it rather high-threshold. To wrap it up, we’ll talk about how experiments can help ground the future exploration in today’s way of working.
Speculative design: the practice of future exploration through design
In short, speculative design answers the question “What if things were different?” 4 Speculative design can help to imagine the broader implications and impact of our organisation’s actions or future strategy. Speculative design wants to promote dialogue so employees explore potential future values and behaviours.
Still sounds a bit abstract? You can watch an example of speculative design 5 in this video by Superflux, a design studio and research lab. In this project, they explore the friction between an older man living by himself and assistive technology.
After watching the video, you immediately want to discuss growing old in an increasingly technological world. Are the products helpful? And for who: the older man or his loved-ones? If you're an organisation working on assistive technology, it makes you really wonder: what are unintended consequences of our products?
Speculative design can help to infuse nuance in our organisation’s vision as nobody can predict the future. Some terms are used interchangeably with speculative design; for example design fiction or critical design. But semantics should never be the focus, what counts is the impact of these future methods. That said, today we still see challenges to fully incorporate it into organisations’ way of working.
Future scenarios: a low-threshold format with a clearly defined process
Based on your "what-if questions", you can draft future scenarios. These future scenarios help to deal resiliently with uncertainty. It is a tool to shape a desired service in a customer-oriented way, to inspire a vision of the future, to build support within the organisation and especially to determine short-term actions.
You can visit this interactive and animated example of future scenarios made for JAXA, a Japanese aerospace company, by IDEO. The what-if question they worked on was: “The speed and scale of change in our world are unprecedented. As more people relocate to cities, our lives are impacted by urbanisation problems such as pollution, congestion, depopulation of rural areas, resource, and energy deficiencies. What if we could use the sky to provide alternative solutions to these problems, creating more space for living and transportation? What exciting future awaits us?” 6
As you can see, a “what-if question” can start by setting a scene and introducing the trends that inspired the future scenario.
They explored multiple opportunities and wrote a scenario from the point of view of a specific person. This resulted in 4 scenarios around 4 key opportunities: liveable cities, seamless mobility, sustainable resources and safe communities.
In short, these are the steps to build future scenarios:
Together, you prioritise trends or evolutions with a major impact on your organisation.
We visualise these from the perspective of your target groups and employees.
We determine possible actions and look at how you can evaluate them permanently.
The European Commission publishes strategic foresight reports that can inform your trend analysis.7 Even though speculative design and future scenarios can quickly feel like taking a political or activist stance, we see governments using these techniques in Belgium and abroad (for example in the UK2).
Knight Moves facilitated a future scenario exercise for RSZ (the Belgian National Office for Social Security). First, we looked at emerging trends that have an impact on social rights and obligations, prioritised them with a diverse group of stakeholders, translated them into scenarios and looked for possible actions over the course of three workshops.
You can find an example of a scenario for RSZ below: the story of Billie in the platform economy.
We made sure that we chose our characters carefully, ensuring a mix of variables: situation (retirement, unemployment, living together, starting your career), social and personal means (education, social network, financial means), digital skills and confidence in the government.
The scenarios will be used to test any future strategy for products and services on its resilience. If this happens, can this service still run? And if not, what could we do about it? 8
Physical and immersive installations: big impact but higher threshold
There are plenty of examples of physical installations that aim to immerse a target audience in a possible future. You can use video, audio, physical artefacts, spatial design, digital prototypes, role playing...
We were inspired after seeing the Sharing Futures exposition in the Design Museum in Copenhagen9 and decided to explore physical and immersive installations to build buy-in and enthusiasm from the employees at RSZ (the Belgian National Office for Social Security) for the new digital strategy of their organisation.
We created a physical installation to help RSZ spread their future vision amongst their employees. By using storytelling and an interactive prototype, we aimed to create an experience that actively communicates the message and resonates with the audience. In the ongoing months, these prototypes will be used for an exposition in the offices of the RSZ, sparking conversations between employees.
Experiments: grounding the future in today
In the physical installation project for RSZ mentioned above, we also show a clickable prototype of a future digital experience. This prototype was made to evaluate the desirability of a long-term solution and will serve to ignite dialogue with key partners to get buy-in for its development. Prototyping a solution that isn’t feasible (yet) requires good communication and managing stakeholder expectations mindfully.
We believe that it is absolutely key to couple your future prototypes with tangible experiences and experimentation. Try to identify your riskiest assumptions to set up proof of concepts or business experiments. After each experiment you can decide to persevere with a certain idea, pivot or redo the experiment.10 When setting up experiments, we apply the Testing Business Ideas framework from Bland and Osterwalder (2019)11. Together we define the scope of the experiment: the cost, set-up, runtime and its evidence strength.
We helped Resengo, a restaurant reservation tool, to evaluate a new value proposition by running customer focus groups, which helped to prioritise functionalities for both critical or recreational users. This helped Resengo to lay-out their roadmap. Based on learnings out of experiments you can have more informed discussions about the future with diverse teams — and most importantly, go beyond speculating.
Integration in your way of working
The challenge in future methods and future prototyping lies in integrating it in your way of working. We recommend starting small with low stakes, maybe applying it to a very specific challenge before looking at your whole organisation or business model. Ensure you make it a multi-disciplinary exercise, engaging diverse people with different roles, viewpoints and experiences.
Treat these future prototypes not as answers, but as open-ended questions. Not “if we use this new technology, this is what it will look like” but rather “what would we like to happen, and equally if not more important, what do we want to avoid happening”? Inspired narration is a more powerful tool than logical analysis.12
Looking at the future doesn’t have to be scary, you do however have to manage expectations as the goal is not to “get it right.” We are not future tellers. We can be future scapers though, working on our shared resilience in the face of unavoidable change.
Speculative design: A design niche or a new tool for government innovation, Isa Kolehmainen at Nesta
Future Cones, Joseph Voros
3 ways speculative design is democratising our future, Jack Strachan for UX Collective
Uninvited Guests, Superflux, design studio and research lab for Thingtank
Designing the city skies of tomorrow, IDEO for JAXA
Strategic Foresight, European Commission
5-box scenario planning tool; The management Center.
The Sharing Futures exposition in the Design Museum in Kopenhagen
The Experiment Canvas, Design A Better Business (2016)
Testing Business Ideas: A Field Guide for Rapid Experimentation. David J. Bland and Alexander Osterwalder (2019)
Imagining Technology. Jon Turney, Nesta (2013)