Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Bringing futures to Stanford d.school

I recently did a 'mini-residency' at Stanford, aimed at bringing futures concepts and methods into the d.school (aka Hasso Plattner Institute of Design).

Instigating the collaboration was Lisa Kay Solomon, a d.school designer-in-residence; co-author of a leading book on designing and facilitating strategic conversations, Moments of Impact; an alumna of Global Business Network's influential scenarios practice; and a wonderful friend and colleague I first worked with when we were both professors in the Design MBA program at California College of the Arts (CCA) in San Francisco.

Our point of departure was a shared understanding of how design can become more effective in shaping change when harnessed to concepts and frameworks from the futures/foresight field, enabling engagement with more diverse and longer-term possibilities.

The larger project of integrating foresight with design, actively putting the two practices and communities in dialogue, has been central to my work since the mid-02000s (much of it documented one way or another at this blog). It was at the heart of my doctoral project in Hawaii, as a futurist at Arup, as a professor at CCA, and then at OCAD, ArtCenter, and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, as well as many visits and projects with other institutions over the same period.

It's now also central to my day to day at Carnegie Mellon University. Helping emerging designers work with large-scale transitions in mind, we're embedding futures methods into every design program; undergrad, grad, and PhD.

The Journal of Futures Studies (JFS) special double issue on Design and Futures, just published in open access, is another big step in this more than decade-long exchange of design/futures practices.

Lisa sums up the motivation beautifully:

The future doesn’t have to be something that happens to us. By embracing a posture of long-term thinking, new processes that make futures concrete and accessible, and a wider set of practices that collaboratively question, imagine, and communicate new possibilities, we can catalyze a new movement of futures-centered designers to shape a better tomorrow for generations to come. [emphasis in original]

So we worked together over some months to figure out how to make a short visit bring what we hoped would be the greatest value to the widest range of people.

On my first evening at Stanford, we did a deep-dive with some key d.school folks into how futures and design can connect.

Next, I ran a day-long workshop with around 40 attendees from academia, education, nonprofits like the World Economic Forum, and businesses like Salesforce and Microsoft; a mix of locals and participants who flew in for the occasion. We stepped through an intensive introduction to futures concepts and approaches, including The Thing From The Future as a warmup, and centring on the Ethnographic Experiential Futures (EXF) process, co-created with my colleague Kelly Kornet (and recently published in that JFS special issue), as a guiding structure. Riffing on EXF seemed apropos because the framework was partly inspired by and explicitly builds on some important and underutilised futures work –– Ethnographic Futures Research, a pioneering 'anticipatory anthropology' method developed in the 01970s and 80s –– by the late Robert Textor, who had been a professor of anthropology at Stanford.

Teams get used to dropping down the experiential futures ladder using The Thing From The Future, then focus on a single member's future scenario, elicited in more detail using EXF. (Photos: Stuart Candy)

Divided into small groups, each selected one of their number as a "futuree", whose mental model of a future scenario that they deemed both possible and important to consider was then surfaced and elaborated through a semi-structured interview process into a more fully-fledged scenario, which the team then translated or dramatised in a five-minute experiential scenario staged at the end of the workshop. That is, each used design to breathe life into the specific imaginary one of their members. The idea was to give people a chance to practise creating and staging experiential scenarios, starting with a vague imaginative outline and dropping down the experiential futures ladder to specific, concrete and compelling instances of how these futures might look and work in action at 1:1 scale. Processes using this same structure can be –– and have been –– used for concretising images of the future of individuals and groups for all sorts of purposes spanning the political, strategic, therapeutic, educational, exploratory and entertaining.

A fantastic panel of respondents joined us for the workshop's closing chapter, to share in and probe at the participants' experiential scenarios –– Sarah Stein Greenberg (d.school Executive Director), Scott Doorley (d.school Creative Director), Olatunde Sobomehin (Founder/CEO of StreetCode Academy), and Nathan Shedroff (Executive Director of Seed Vault, and in a previous life the founder/director of the Design MBA at CCA where Lisa and I had first met as faculty).

Each working group designs, dramatises and discusses a short experiential scenario based on a future supplied by their randomly selected "futuree", and then the panel responds. (Photos: Stuart Candy)

The day went out with a bang. For the evening event, The Future's Happening, Lisa and colleagues had orchestrated an array of participatory futures-themed activities, attracting hundreds of seasoned design/futures practitioners and curious new initiates from around the Bay Area. We also had a panel discussion, which she moderated, featuring three visitors to the school who each brought different perspectives on how futures and design can come together. Lisa has just published a series of articles emerging from this terrific, far-reaching conversation, each focusing on the contributions of one of the panellists: Olatunde, me, and Long Now Foundation Board Member Katherine Fulton (whom I'd first met years before, on stage, when we were paired up for the Long Now's Long Conversation event).

The Future's Happening was an incredibly exciting and energetic occasion – since then receiving a volume of overwhelmingly positive feedback. Invigorated and encouraged by all this, we are now working on next steps for integrating futures further.

The Future's Happening, an evening with a couple of hundred attendees from around the Bay Area, included hands-on activities as well as a panel discussion. (Top two photos: Stuart Candy | Bottom photo courtesy of Lisa Solomon)

Meanwhile, in a nice synchronicity, David Kelley –– a founder of the d.school and also of IDEO, and as it happens, an alumnus of Carnegie Mellon University –– spoke at our CMU School of Design commencement ceremony last month.

He addressed the graduating cohort on some of the disciplinary 'superpowers' that he sees designers as having in spades: "Painting a picture of the future with their ideas in it"; "being routinely innovative [and] comfortable with ambiguity", and a "holistic, human-centred approach [that] really lowers barriers for other people to come in and collaborate along with us".

The message to the grads culminated with a provocation about these newly acquired superpowers:
Design has moved from the kids' table to the adult table, very recently. ... So my challenge to all of you is, how are we –– how are you –– going to use this new position to make a better world?

This ethics-based call to action is important and timely. It's a message that the design community, fortunately, seems prepared to discuss more and more often; recognition of its powerful, if often under-examined, role in shaping worlds. And the emergence of futures as a transdisciplinary companion to design practice, not just 'thinking', provides a lot of practical ways to answer that call more effectively.

Involved in the futures field since the 01990s, I realised many years ago that it needed to connect to other, more embodied, kinds of practice in order to become truly effective as a cultural force. As I said when Lisa inquired about the background to this hybrid work during our panel discussion:
The beauty of bringing together design and futures methods is that it takes these conceptual infrastructures developed in the foresight field over the last half century, these handrails for thinking differently at a conceptual level, and knits them to the language of materiality, of making things real with design. You bring the kind of top-down of futures together with the bottom-up of design, and they meet in the middle in this glorious way. Each one contains something in its DNA that the other has historically lacked.

It's coming to be much more widely appreciated that futures and design hold a key to aspects of each other's further development, in education and practice alike. And it was very exciting to have this chance to help an influential institution, one that I've long admired, and that has done so much to mainstream awareness of design, take steps in this direction of putting futures in a place where it has potential to do so much good, as a core competency in design education.

Many thanks to Lisa, Sarah, Scott, and all at the d.school and beyond who made this remarkable confluence possible! And here's looking forward to the next...

> Design and Futures, Volume I
> Design is Storytelling
> Bringing futures to the Royal College of Art (02009)
> Strategic Foresight at California College of the Arts (02011)
> Experiential futures at OCAD (02017)
> A Vocabulary for Visions in Designing for Transitions (Carnegie Mellon, 02018)
> Ethnographic Experiential Futures (pdf)

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