Monday, November 17, 2008

Tangible futures

Victor Lombardi is a design strategist, consultant and lecturer, trained in journalism and music technology, and based in New York City. For a couple of years already, in his consulting practice and at his blog Noise Between Stations, he has been tracking the development of what he calls "tangible futures" -- a cousin concept to future artifacts, experiential futures, ambient foresight, and other ideas at the intersection of design and futures thinking that regularly feature here.

Borrowing an idea from my friend's old column at, Mr Rheingold's Neighborhood, I decided to ask Victor four questions via email, which he graciously agreed to answer, after introducing himself...

Victor Lombardi: Stuart, thanks for inquiring about my work. I want to make progress in the world by making technology easier for people, and I try and accomplish that through design, business consulting, and teaching. Lately my focus has been creating educational materials for designers.

SC: How do you define "tangible futures", and what's your history of that idea?

VL: If I remember correctly, the term was coined by Christina Wodtke, a friend of mine. We were partners in a business design consultancy and were exploring ways of helping our clients manage more effectively through awareness of their strategy.

It was around then, in 2004, we saw other firms in our space delivering their recommendations as the proverbial binders of reports, and we didn't think this way of engaging managers significantly changed performance. We saw a lot of fascinating work in the field of futures studies that wasn't on the management radar at all. And we were aware of the work of people like Jeanne Liedtka, from the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia, who pointed out that strategy is too cognitive; it rarely exists outside of our minds. A purely cognitive expression of strategy makes communication and understanding difficult across an organization.

So we started to consider this problem through the lens of our design experience, asking, "How can we help managers *experience* futures and strategy so that it can more substantially be understood, shared, and acted on?" The working definition became: Tangible Futures are the output of applying design-fueled disciplines like visualization, drama, and film to represent futures and strategies.

Around this time we saw others like The Institute for the Future coming to similar conclusions and developing what they called Artifacts from the Future. This was validating for us.

SC: What are your favourite instances of tangible futures in practice?

VL: Here's two historical examples I love. Imagine it's the mid-19th Century and there are no skyscrapers, much less the giant city skylines we have today like in Manhattan where I am writing this. There are a plethora of issues in helping people understand what a future could be like when we live and work high above the ground. Elisha Graves Otis was responsible for communicating a key part of this vision, that riding in elevators could be safe. He accomplished this through performance...

...during P.T. Barnum's Crystal Palace Exhibition in New York, marked the first time Otis demonstrated his "safety elevator." The invention enabled elevators to travel safely up and down by employing a special spring device that locked in place automatically if the hoisting ropes (later cables) broke. Today's elevators, while far more sophisticated and safer, continue to rely on the same principle.

During the Crystal Palace demonstration, Otis rode a lifting platform up an open shaft. When he reached the top the hoisting rope was cut. The crowd gasped, expecting the elevator to come crashing down, but the safety device held fast. "All safe, gentleman, all safe," he announced.


Another facet of this challenge was helping architects, city officials, business owners, and citizens visualize what those buildings would look like, taking into account building designs, materials, and zoning laws. Hugh Ferriss illustrated these structures through dramatic perspectives and stunning lighting effects to communicate both the architectural details as well as the emotional effects such changes would bring.


SC: What role does this kind of practice play in a typical organisation, and how can it perform in an ideal situation?

VL: Organizations who do this now are the ones you already know about. The city planners in places like Dubai who need to plan decades into the future and do so by building physical models and simulations. And it's the companies that have already mastered the tangible aspect of this practice, design-dependent companies like BMW. For example, they recently created a concept car covered in stretchable fabric that allows the car to change shapes...

As opposed to a product development concept that directly influences what is made in the near-term, this sort of vision concept connects the long-term strategy with the attitudes and practices of the organization. As officials from BMW said, "It is in the nature of such visions that they do not necessarily claim to be suitable for series production. Rather, they are intended to steer creativity and research into new directions."

As rapid prototyping tools become more accessible -- from software frameworks to 3D printing to video editing tools -- more people will naturally adopt them to tangibly express futures and strategies. But, as is so common in media today, individuals may widely adopt the practice before organizations do.

SC: Why do you think this concept has emerged now, and where do you see it going?

VL: Rather than re-invent the wheel, I'll refer you to Alex Soojung-Kim Pang at the Institute for the Future who blogged about five ways that their Artifacts from the Future are valuable:

1. artifacts reach some people who don't feel they have time to closely read long reports
2. their tangible, specific nature forces us to think hard about what we really believe
3. thinking about artifacts makes you think hard about the interrelationships of technological, social, economic, and cultural factors
4. the shift to artifacts reflects our own sense that design is going to be a critical strategic skill in the future
5. many of our clients actually make things. They already communicate with each other in a language of prototypes

Many thanks, Victor, for sharing your thoughts with us.

Related posts:
> Object-oriented futuring
> Cheap prototypes, valuable insights
> Design fiction is a fact
> Where futures meets experience design


John said...

This is terrific stuff. I think the essential, often missing ingredient for people is the tangible, observable, experiential side of futures. Since you can't touch/feel/see/smell/taste the future, it is not easy to convey some of the impact of changes we may want to face, or will face, etc.

I'd only suggest you consider going beyond think of the "intersection of design and futures thinking" and perhaps consider that found/tangible futures is the intersection of life and futures thinking. or the Intersection of experience and futures thinking. You've moved out into the streets, so calling it "design" sounds (to a non-designer) narrower than necessary.

Well done anyway,


Stuart Candy said...

John, thanks for your comment.

I very much agree about the experiential dimension being an essential missing ingredient in futures work. But it's growing, and that's in no small measure due to increasing interest and involvement from designers.

The frame/language of design is used here because futures artifacts and ideas are not "found", but quite deliberately made -- even if, ideally, they may *feel* like they've simply been found (and in that sense, like much creative work, the art there consists in concealing the artist's hand).

That is, the words I'm using are partly tags to indicate those conversations in which I would most to take part. The design community has been finding its way to futures thinking, which seems to be part of a broader movement towards a more holistic and ecological -- not just in the environmental sense -- conception of what "design" is about, as in the emerging discourse of "experience design".

So, to speak of my current beat as being "the intersection of experience design and futures thinking" may be more accurate.