Last Monday, Ed Blake and I, two new members of the FII team in San Francisco, attended a workshop hosted by Forum for the Future, entitled Futures for Innovation.
Forum for the Future, a non-profit based in the UK and newly-expanded into the US, focuses its efforts on integrating strategies for sustainability into the business and governmental sectors of engineering and design. The workshop was designed to be a place to talk about methods for using foresight and futures thinking in order to propel innovation within the realm of sustainability.
Over the course of the first half of the morning, we heard from three different speakers on the topics of design, innovation, and futurism.
Peter Madden, CEO of Forum for the Future, spoke about different foresight strategies and their applications, including long-term trend analysis, horizon scanning, visioning, and scenario development. We learned that ten years from now, 50% of shopping will take place online. Several of the people at my table had no prior exposure to foresight at all: Peter’s usage of examples like this were attention-grabbing, but plausible and accessible, and served as a good introduction to futures thinking.
Jamais Cascio, futurologist, built on Peter’s talk by speaking about futures thinking in the abstract. Jamais noted that humans, unlike many other animals, have the ability to think beyond the present moment and can moderate our actions based on our assessment of the future. Apparently, humans are the only animals that can throw a rock at a moving target; because this involves predicting where in space the target will be at a later point, such a calculation engages the same part of the brain as does thinking about the future. Jamais explained that foresight is far from “fortune telling,” by likening futures thinking to a vaccination by which we prepare ourselves for many different possible future scenarios. Each scenario can be thought of as a variable on one specific “axis”: the future that actually plays out can be located somewhere in the space between these different axes.
Valerie Casey, CEO of Necessary Projects, who has been previously affiliated with IDEO, frog, and Pentagram, put the world of design and innovation in dialogue with the world of foresight. We learned from Valerie to ask better questions, that small interventions often hold large potential, and that sometimes, one idea needs to act as a “Trojan Horse” for another, in order to approach people at their specific comfort zones, and their areas of expertise and interest. Valerie also spoke on the importance of open collaboration, and advised us not to over-formalize our working practices.
At the end of the first half, participants asked a few good questions. One question was about the nonlinearity of the future, and Jamais commented that the interconnectedness of all of the different variables affecting the future caused the future to appear nonlinear. However, he added, the past seems completely linear in our imaginations, but only because we aren’t forced to think about all of the different ways it could have unfolded.
The second half of the morning was an interactive workshop. We split into four teams of about six people each; two groups were assigned a “tech-heavy” future scenario, valuing conspicuous consumption, and two groups were assigned a “prosperity redefined” scenario, valuing quality of life. We were then told to think about either a car or a cup of coffee, and innovate around how we imagined our product to have transformed in our assigned scenario by the year 2025. One group designed a car-sharing program that would better connect people to their neighbors, and another group designed a coffee cup that could virtually communicate vital signs to one’s doctor.
It was interesting to share ideas, and to experience the different ways that each person approached the future, design, and innovation. Like Valerie mentioned in her remarks, I think we have a lot to learn from each other, and only positive things to gain from valuing colleagues with different perspectives.