Tuesday, November 30, 2021

What is the Value of Futures and Foresight?

The Experiential Futures Ladder. Diagram by author. See articles The Experiential Turn (02016) and Designing an Experiential Scenario (2017) co-written with Jake Dunagan

There has been a tremendous expansion in awareness of and interest in futures/foresight work recently, especially those approaches that intersect with the arts, media and design. Projects and publications, courses and conferences on these topics are flourishing like never before.

As Cher Potter and I wrote in our introduction to the collection Design and Futures in 2019:

Nobel Laureate Herbert Simon famously observed: “Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones”.

Designers and futurists, it turns out, have a great deal in common. This mutual recognition is reaching critical mass as each comes to appreciate how their respective traditions have much to offer to making urgent change in the world, and even more so, together.

It is increasingly acknowledged within the futures studies community that operating with a largely verbal and theoretical bent over the past half century has afforded too little impact on actual future-shaping behaviours. Meanwhile, those in the design community recognise a need to interrogate higher-level consequences — the futures, the worlds — that their products, systems and other outputs help produce.

Part of what bringing design and futures into sustained dialogue does is to allow each field to become more fluent in a second language which is the other’s native tongue.

This was published before the Covid-19 pandemic kicked in, but if anything, already established trends in practice have only continued to accelerate since.

In the past handful of years, diverse organisations — cultural ones like the BBC, multilateral ones like the United Nations Development Programme, scientific ones like NASA JPL, and humanitarian ones like the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies — have embraced experiential futures as part of the very different things that they do in the world. The largest futures event ever held, a Futures Literacy Summit hosted by UNESCO with over 8000 registered participants, took place online at the end of 2020. Also late last year, a collection of us spread around the planet launched the UNTITLED futures festival, likewise staged largely online thanks to the pandemic, but planned to iterate annually through 2030. This month, a show called The Great Imagination opened in Madrid, surveying the history of images of the future (and featuring our experiential scenario NurturePod), and a major exhibition by the Smithsonian Institution, FUTURES, for which I served on the advisory Working Group, just opened on the National Mall in Washington DC. In addition, since last year I’ve been collaborating with the World Economic Forum to help explore the integration of foresight approaches, and especially experiential futures, into their research work, as well as convenings such as the annual Global Technology Governance Summit, held for the first time in April.

It was also last year that the United Kingdom’s RSA (royal society for arts, manufactures and commerce) released a report about “realising the value of futures and foresight” called A Stitch in Time? The authors had reached out to me to ask questions on this topic, and I shared some thoughts in reply. Now, since these kinds of issues are arising more and more––and evaluation of foresight work is also a live topic of conversation among professional and academic futurists––here is the full Q&A.


RSA: What is the value / distinct offer that experiential / ethnographic futures brings? Are there particular settings they work well in, and how do such approaches land with clients, particularly policy-makers––is it helpful, or seen as wacky?

SC: There are a few threads in this first point. I’ll try to tease them out briefly.

The distinctive value of experiential futures practices comes from how they help people connect to potential realities in waiting as more than just as ideas or thought experiments. There’s a one-pager from The Economist here, a recent piece I wrote for the Cooper Hewitt (Smithsonian Design Museum) here, and for more background and nuance, a journal article from Futures, a deep dive into the design of a card game we created as a distillation of experiential futures ideation, and a book-length exploration describing a kind of foundation for these practices.

Ethnographic futures work is about researching how people actually perceive, think and feel about the landscape of possibilities. Ethnographic Experiential Futures (EXF) is a process for bringing the above two traditions together, so it’s really scaffolding for making people’s images of alternative futures (a) legible, and then (b) graspable using whatever means fit the context — immersive experiences, performance, physical futures artifacts displayed in a museum or sent through the mail, etc. There’s a journal article about EXF here, or an earlier blog post with I think more images.

These approaches are by no means intended solely for consumption by “clients” — they can also augment public conversation, with much wider or more open-ended audiences, which has since we started doing this ~15 years ago always been a priority.

The extent to which the interventions reflect or deepen, vs push back on or challenge, the thinking of the people encountering them varies enormously. I think it’s usefully regarded as one of the main design variables; that is, something you make choices about, not at all something preordained, automatic, or identical across projects.

How do you evaluate foresight work? Is it possible / needed / appropriate?

How you evaluate something depends entirely on what you are trying to do with it. I’ve suggested (in The Futures of Everyday Life) that education, exploration, evangelism (persuasion) and entertainment are among the diverse purposes that might attach to different experiential futures projects or interventions. Naturally you’d bring different evaluative lenses to bear on each.

One of the main evaluative questions that I think is too often overlooked is “how does it affect the people doing it?” as opposed to “how does it affect someone else?”

How does futures work (especially experiential futures) evolve in this “new normal” period when our experience of reality is so heightened and visceral?

One move is to create online experiences. For example, we’ve been staging experiential scenarios online based on published visions in the public domain. Recently we created an immersive experience of the world decades after the Green New Deal has passed into law, based on the book A Planet to Win by Kate Aronoff et al; and another experience inspired by CEO Kickstarter Yancey Strickler’s book This Could Be Our Future; one using Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto as a starting point, and so on. This work hasn’t been written up as an article yet but you can see a bit more about it at the page for this event we ran back in April, The Time Machine: An Anthology of Visions (click “View details”).

I’ve also written a piece about lessons from directing a global online game for pandemic preparedness, called Coral Cross, funded by the CDC, a decade ago.

Is the field gaining traction as a result of Covid-19? What barriers do we need to overcome for its adoption as a valuable asset for decision-makers and planners? Do you see specific opportunities opening up?

Since Covid, people now seem to have less trouble coming to the premise that thinking about alternative futures might be useful for their organisation or context. So actually some of the main challenges I see at the moment are not necessarily “barriers to adoption” per se, because there’s a great deal of uptake and adoption — the demand side is healthy.

It’s the supply side that is bottlenecked, so in some ways it may be more a matter of “barriers to skilful implementation”. There are more people wanting to do this work, freshly trained or newly experimenting with it, than there are really good, experienced futurists to help guide them. This means there’s room for legitimate concern about insufficiently supported, under resourced, or hastily executed work delivered in or to organisations that have less experience — and the risk is less robust outcomes in the short term, followed by disappointment, and then some time will pass before they try again and, hopefully, do what they should have done in the first place!

Do you think there are valuable insights from aligning / working with other fields or disciplines?

Futures is by its nature a transdisciplinary field. It always involves engaging with a range of other fields and perspectives, and this is among its greatest and most distinctive strengths, I think, as well as an important part of what keeps it interesting.

Are you teaching this as a stand alone course, or a module for those taking other courses? And do you find that people with a particular mindset or personal attributes are better at this work or adopt it more easily?

In keeping with the point above: I think it’s useful to see futures/foresight as a set of competencies that anyone can learn and use over time, and that cut across and complement other fields. I see great value, and even a civilisational imperative, in distributing futures fluency or literacy more widely throughout our communities and culture, which is part of the long-run orientation that we sometimes speak about in terms of developing “social foresight”.

There’s certainly increasing demand for futures training in many quarters, yes, including students, and our evil plan to normalise or integrate futures thinking as a part of design has come along in leaps and bounds over the last decade. We also work with a real range of organisations in various capacities, from US Conference of Mayors, the BBC, Skoll World Forum, IDEO, and NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, to the Smithsonian Institution, UK National Lottery, Alaska’s Cook Inlet Tribal Council, and so on. Regarding aptitude, people with a cultural fluency or orientation tend to pick it up really quickly. I especially like working with museums and other cultural organisations, because I think they’re among the best avenues to social foresight — getting wisdom into the water supply, so to speak.

What might you wish for in the further development of this field?

Futures work is highly relational. It’s about not just when, but also who, and where you are. It’s not a compliance process you can just step through automatically, checking boxes; much less a product to buy and be done with it. It’s more like dancing. I expect to see more organisations realising they could use a few dancing lessons, and reaching out for help with that. They will have to be prepared to take risks and missteps, though, or how will they ever learn? And it might seem embarrassing at first, but the sooner they’ll do it, the faster they’ll learn and benefit, and maybe even have more fun. By the way, this seems to be happening quite a bit more quickly in the nonprofit and public sectors than in the business world. To generalise a bit, the former tend to be better equipped for, as my friend Michelle King puts it, “learning in public,” while the latter are often concerned about a commercial confidentiality that can really get in their own way. Over time, though, those two different stances, one more open and the other more closed, seem likely to yield the results they deserve.

We’re writing this short provocation report for a lay audience, the intellectually curious, who are unlikely to be experts in this space. Is it possible to identify the two or three things that you wish everyone knew about the field (or perhaps myths you’d love to bust)?

No one, including futurists, can tell you what the future will be. If someone tries to sell you that, don’t hire them.

Folks in the field generally refer to it, almost interchangeably, as futures (oriented around the subject matter) or foresight (oriented around the competency), not futurism or futurology. By and large that’s almost a litmus test of whether you’re dealing with someone who knows the field or not.

Futures is a container or meta-perspective that includes, classically, multiple modalities to address — and we can simplify a bit here, borrowing a classic typology — possible, probable and preferable futures. Each of these conversations inescapably involves engaging different kinds of knowledge, so the practice is bound to be part art (what could happen?), part science (what can the evidence tell us?), and part politics (what do we value; what should we do?) If that seems messy, just look at how messy the world is.

I would be most suspicious of any perspective that pretends complexity can be simply tamed. Futures or foresight offers the necessary structures and spaces to help integrate reality’s mess with the organisational dialogue. Among other things, it’s an orientation to constant learning. As my colleague Jake Dunagan (now at Institute for the Future) and I are fond of saying, “It’s better to be surprised by simulation than blindsided by reality.”


For further reading, here is the full RSA report: A Stitch in Time: Realising the Value of Futures and Foresight.

And finally, just published in the past week by the Copenhagen Institute for Futures Studies is a report looking at how arts and futures work intersect, including the rise of experiential futures practices: Futures Shaping Art / Art Shaping Futures.

Tuesday, April 06, 2021

Exploring Technology Governance Futures with the World Economic Forum

A snapshot from the Influence 2035 experiential scenario

This week, the World Economic Forum is hosting its first ever Global Technology Governance Summit (GTGS), convening some 3000 leading technologists, academics, businesspeople, policymakers and political representatives to discuss the sprawling array of fast-moving challenges in this space.

From privacy breach scandals to the Trumpian rise of batshit-crazy conspiracy thinking, the chaotic gaming of stock prices, to misinformation-fuelled mob lynchings, and the weaponisation of online platforms for campaigns of xenophobia or personal vengeance (the latter was the subject of today's feature story on the New York Times Daily podcast)... These are just some recent examples that spring to mind. The pattern is the point. Countless spot-fires, zoomed out, start to look more like a full-blown conflagration.

Anyone who has paid even the scantest attention to such developments might discern a phenomenon also noted long ago by a founding figure both in speculative fiction and in the futures/foresight field*, H.G. Wells, in a BBC radio broadcast from 01932:

“All these new things, these new inventions and new powers, come crowding along; every one is fraught with consequences, and yet it is only after something has hit us hard that we set about dealing with it.”

To shift from a reactive stance to a more proactive or anticipatory one requires changes that are not just political or institutional in nature, but cultural and psychological as well. This is no less true in relation to technology governance than any other topic. As Wells was arguing almost a century ago, collective forethought is essential –– but broadly, it is not a habit we seem to have cultivated with much care or success.

The GTGS event gets underway today, technically hosted from Japan, but taking place entirely online, thanks again of course to the continuing Covid pandemic.

As it does so, a group of graduate designers in our Experiential Futures (XF) class at Carnegie Mellon University have just launched a special set of digital experiential scenarios –– websites and media from the futures to shed light and open up horizons of the topic to explore.

Each site created by XF participants offers a playful rabbit-hole delving into how the world could look decades from now –– in the 02030s, 40s or 50s –– and a provocatively high-resolution glimpse of how some key issues in technology governance might play out.

The usual caveat bears repeating: experiential scenarios should not, unless they are actually offered as such, be treated as predictions or preferences, but instead approached as possibilities to think and feel with. What new questions, potentials, or vantage points can they help us consider?

The storylines and themes contained in these particular projects all build on and respond to the Technology Futures report published yesterday by the World Economic Forum and Deloitte, which was shared with us in draft last month.


Tech Tea
Tech Tea, a podcast hosted by AI-wrangler Willow and dark web journalist Melanin, focuses on the darker side of the metaverse. Join them as they dive into the recent controversy surrounding powerhouse Global Virtual School.

This podcast from the year 2050 expands on Maiah’s story from the education LEnS of the Technology Futures report.

by Alice Chen, Karen Escarcha, Amrita Khoshoo & Hannah Kim

Influence 2035
Influence 2035 is an event bringing together panelists to discuss the gig landscape. Join us for candid stories from full-time content creators to data providers and robot admins. Click “Attending” on our event to learn more.

This project explores the extreme trends of gig-economy and influencer work appearing in the story of Maple featured in the Technology Futures report.

by Jianzhe Gu, Sanika Sahasrabuddhe & Catherine Yochum

After-Math is a global consultancy committed to helping individuals, teams, and organizations regain independence from virtual influence and data-toxicity in order to rediscover the world around us.

This website for a speculative consultancy in the 2040s synthesizes trends, personas, and artifacts from all four scenarios in the Technology Futures report.

by Adam Cowart & Russell Singer

Wikipolicy is the policy arm of Wikimedia. Our 2032 Year-in-Review Report shows how we manage accountability, transparency, and logics of care in algorithmic and participatory policymaking advancements.

Seeking to right past wrongs, in this future Wikipolicy is headed by Frank, a former technology executive and character featured in the Technology Futures report.

by Rachel Arredondo, Kylon Chiang, Esther Kang & Jack McClain

Outliers Data Talent
Every company is a data company. Outliers Data Talent connects yours with the data providers you need, from providers of biometrics to location history and more. Top providers are booking fast, so reserve your data talent today.

This hypothetical agency builds on the story of Maple / information LEnS scenario, where job-seekers provide a vast array of personal data around the clock to interested companies in exchange for pay.

by M Kuznetsov, Alex Polzin & Maddy Sides


Well done indeed to all these Experiential Futures students! Many thanks to the World Economic Forum's Ruth Hickin (Strategy Lead, Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution) for the opportunity to contribute to the conversation in this way. Finally, much appreciation to our recent guest respondents, Michelle King, Leah Zaidi and Jake Dunagan, for incisive and sensitive pre-launch project feedback. 

We hope these digital experiential scenarios will be of interest and value both to event attendees, and to many others invested in these important topics. If you find them useful, whether individually or as a set, please feel free to share.


Update 06apr21: I had mistakenly recalled the number of event participants as being around 1000; the Forum tells me that the correct number is closer to 3000.

* This is the same broadcast popularised by futurist Richard Slaughter as Wanted! Professors of Foresight.

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Adding Dimensions to Development Futures with UNDP

(Update 28jun22: It was announced today that this project has won at the 02022 Core77 Design Awards in the Speculative Design category! Ceda and I are grateful to Core77 and want to give thanks again to our indispensable collaborators, listed below.)


Last week I helped to launch the United Nations Development Programme's annual innovation event, Istanbul Innovation Days (IID), using an experiential futures process and format created for the occasion.

Back in January, they had come to me with a challenge: how might experiential futures practice be brought to bear for the event's Opening Session? Due to Covid everything was to be run online this year; this kickoff was planned as a panel conversation about global development's futures, live in video chat, with the head of UNDP and invited speakers around the world.

Mission accepted: I proposed to interview all the panelists in advance, one on one, then design and send an artifact from the future to each, to arrive at their homes by the week before the event. After more than a year on Zoom, thanks to the pandemic, my hope was to breathe some dimensionality into our talking-head squares.

Each artifact would draw inspiration from ideas about the future shared with me by the speaker in our pre-conversation, and would try to picture a far-reaching shift in relationships and power, manifested institutionally, affecting whatever we mean when we say ‘development’.

So, what happened? 

Sophie Howe, Welsh Commissioner for Future Generations, the first person in the world to hold that remarkable cross-cutting role, emphasised the critical need for a “holistic view” in governance. I wondered: how might next-level holistic, inclusive decision-making look?

Sophie received a bilingual Welsh/English mailer from Wales’ Parliament of All Beings in 02056, notifying her that animal wellbeing data indicated consent to move to the next phase of Rewilding in her neighbourhood in Cardiff.

Nanjira Sambuli, a powerhouse tech justice advocate from Kenya, when we spoke registered the absurdity of a few Silicon Valley tech bros ruling platforms that mediate our relationships all around the world, noting “the dream to democratise, decentralise” and “take on the giants”.

At home in Nairobi, she received a letter written to her as a Board Member for RECODE Africa (REclaim community, COoperativise platforms, DEvolve governance), with a T-shirt for its 3rd Annual Festival in 02030, after Twitter ownership has been taken over by users & workers.

Roman Krznaric, author of The Good Ancestor, told me about the importance of “political innovation” dealing with the “decision making structures” underpinning development at all levels. So what might such transformational change look like on the ground?

Based in Oxford, Roman received a thank you for serving in the 02032 Oxfordshire Ancestors’ Assembly (modelled on Japan’s current “Future Design” process), and a robe as ritually worn by participants when deliberating the potential impacts of their decisions on future generations.

Marcela Sabino, Head of Innovation at Brazil’s Museu do Amanha (Museum of Tomorrow), evoked a scenario in which we relate to corporate entities as legal persons very differently: “Companies have to be held accountable for what they're doing.” The question becomes –– how?

In Rio de Janeiro, Marcela received a screenprinted poster, one in Portuguese and one in English, advertising the public execution/dissolution of a corporation that in 02036 has been convicted of ecocide by the International Criminal Court.

Achim Steiner, head of UNDP, observed that by the later 21st century what we currently know as the United Nations “will have to be significantly different. . . . But the fact that we will need a governance platform on which to come together is absolutely essential.”

At home in New York, he received a hand-calligraphed copy of “The Words Spoken Before All Others”, aka the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address, adopted in a ceremony at Onondaga Lake as the Opening Invocation for the General Assembly of the United Peoples, on 22 April 02070.

When the day of the panel itself arrived, I had the pleasure of moderating the conversation, with Luciana Mermet, UNDP Resident Representative in Bolivia. The speakers didn't know yet what the others had received, so we had everyone use their future artifact as a portal through which to introduce themselves and their ideas to the conversation.

The Deputy Foreign Minister of the Republic of Turkey, Faruk Kaymakci, also joined the session, as a distinguished “Future Steward”, sharing remarks on and helping draw connections among the perspectives offered.

It’s a minor miracle how it all came together. The future artifacts arrived in multiple locations around the world, our Internet connections held up, and almost 700 people joined in to listen, chat and ask questions. If you're interested, the Opening Session is available to watch in its entirety here:

This was an exciting piece of a much bigger conversation, about decolonising and reimagining development for the 02021 edition of IID. It was also an encouraging way for a new experiential futures* format to add both a third dimension (physicality) and a fourth (direct engagement with time) to a 2D medium. I half-jokingly dubbed the format a "4D Panel", and it would certainly work as a replicable structure –– if anyone decides to give it a go, please get in touch.

The other thing to mention about the format is that it is scaffolded using Ethnographic Experiential Futures (EXF) –– a framework that my colleague Kelly Kornet and I derived from a set of precedents for exactly this sort of purpose –– to make it easier to generate customised projects that pair culturally-specific futures research with design-led experiential outcomes. There's more research in the pipeline, so stay tuned.

This post is a quick one based on a thread shared on Twitter earlier today, and I plan to include more details of the project in a proper write-up in due course. For now, though, much gratitude to the many amazing folks who made this possible.

* * *

UNDP Objects of the Future (4D Panel) –– #IID2021 Opening Session –– Project Credits and Acknowledgments

Co-designer and lead artist:
Ceda Verbakel

Robe co-design and construction:
Lindsay Goranson

Catherine Marsceau

Welsh translation:
Angharad Withers
Sarah Elizabeth Siân Withers

Portuguese translation:
Jacques Barcia

Max Emiliano Gonzales

Documentation photography:
Matt Geiger

Special thanks to the following research informants, advisors and sounding boards:
Jacques Barcia
Ginny Battson
Cennydd Bowles
Jonathan Chapman
Jake Dunagan
Jasper Grosskurth
Jonathon Keats
Michelle King
Peter MacLeod
Sheila Ochugboju
Ollie Palmer
Hannah Muthoni Ryder
Ella Saitta
Wendy Schultz
Sian Sheu
Danny Spitzberg (@BuyThisPlatform)
Maya van Leemput

None of these fine people are responsible for my misunderstandings, errors or other sins

Thanks for generous logistical assistance:
Leonard Kinyanjui (Nairobi)
Sheila Ochugboju (Nairobi)
Siri Krznaric (Oxford)
Kate Raworth (Oxford)
Nina Barbuto (Pittsburgh)
Rich Pell (Pittsburgh)

Thanks also to Jill Chisnell, Trebor Scholz, Brad Towell, and Cameron Tonkinwise

Thanks for additional design explorations to Myrna Rosen and Amrita Khoshoo

Framing by Carol Whitehead
T-shirt production (PIT) by Clockwise.io
T-shirt production (NBO) by Mattel Printing
Shipping by FedEx East Liberty & Monroeville PA

4D Panel members and artifact inspirers:
Sophie Howe
Roman Krznaric
Marcela Sabino
Nanjira Sambuli
Achim Steiner

4D Panel Future steward:
Faruk Kaymakcı

UNDP Innovation liaison:
Milica Begovic

Thank you to Kelly Kornet for co-authoring the Ethnographic Experiential Futures (EXF) framework which scaffolded this project

Thank you to Robin Wall Kimmerer for inspiring the artifact for Achim through her brilliant book Braiding Sweetgrass (see “The Sacred and the Superfund”)

Thank you to John Stokes for kind permission to use the text of the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address. © 1993 Six Nations Indian Museum and The Tracking Project. ISBN 0-9643214-0-8

Extra special thanks to Ceda Verbakel, wonderful partner, fellow traveller, and problem-solver-in-chief

* * *

* Or design fiction, speculative design, etc –– call it whatever you like really –– but know that experiential futures, more recently dubbed design futures in some quarters, has its own genealogy and contours grounded in decades of futures work; lots to dig into for the curious!

Foresight is a Right
> Dreaming together
The Spirit and the Letter
> Design is storytelling
Introducing experiential futures at the BBC
> Ethnographic Experiential Futures article / KBFS / original post
> Syrian refugee girls imagine their futures
> Using the future at NASA
> Bringing futures to Stanford d.school
> Wanted: 25,000 Miles of crime scene tape
Design and Futures open access book / intro to Vol. I