This week I had the privilege of co-leading an open workshop—along with frequent partner John Willshire of Smithery—for design and innovation group Adaptive Lab in London. Alongside a very fun and provocative day with some of the biggest brands in financial services, media and telecoms, Adaptive interviewed me about the role of foresight as part of broader innovation processes, and the nature of my work. Below is the interview, republished courtesy of Adaptive.
What’s your background?
For the past 12 years, I have worked as a professional futurist, working with large global organizations, ranging from global consumer brands to international NGOs, to governments and cultural institutions, helping them develop and act on clearer visions of emerging trends and dynamics in technology, the global economy, and other important forces in our lives. Prior to this, I spent a decade setting up and leading teams at a handful of research and forecasting companies, working in New York City, Washington DC and London. I’m also a writer, and visiting lecturer at several design and futures programmes.
What does the role of a futurist entail?
My practice, which is also known as strategic foresight, involves several different roles at once. Unlike the popular perception of futurists’ work, strategic foresight involves a structured, grounded approach, blending facts, data and insights with an experienced, creative lens on the world. It involves guiding organizations and people, not toward a single fantastical prediction, but to new ways of seeing the impacts of change on their businesses, or on consumers’ and citizens’ lives.
We give them the tools to look at possible futures to find new opportunities—or threats—and decide how best to act on them. Sometimes this exploration is serious, and sometimes highly speculative, often both. The goal is to explore, to think in new and different ways about emerging futures, and in the process, provide a valuable new frame through which to see the world.
Why do you have an interest in futures?
Personally, it’s how I’m wired. This is how I see and think about the world when I get up in the morning. I’m fascinated by unexpected shifts in the world, by what causes culture to evolve, by how complex systems behave. I have a deep interest in people and what sparks change in their lives, and I spend a lot of time on the street, in R&D labs, and talking to artists, designers, politicians, activists, business people—even the person next to me on the train—finding out what’s going on in their worlds.
I’d add that I think these are common traits with my colleagues and partners as well. We’re never really satisfied with a particular way of understanding things, popular theories or methods. We have an itch to think about what’s around the next corner. These are important traits that keep our work from getting stale, and our ideas also. Hopefully, this comes through in our work.
Why is foresight important?
In a way, this is a question that answers itself. One of the worst things that happens to organizations is that they become reactive, only responding to the next threat, someone else’s big idea, or the most recent boardroom mandate. Foresight is critical to creating space to ask, “What if?” but also to develop a response—before a particular future unfolds. This means finding and assessing opportunities before they emerge, through good research, experimentation and a lot of creativity.
Being driven by a particular product, capability or the strength of a brand can only last so long. You have to anticipate the needs of people in response to the world changing around them. Leading means forging new paths, and those paths only become visible through foresight.
I’m starting work on a short book on this topic that should be finished in early 2016: how to make futures a central part of creating new things. It seems natural to me, but many people find it surprisingly hard at first to get started, and to build this perspective into what they do. Once you understand the basics, it becomes part of the DNA of what you do, and how you see the world.
Can foresight be applied to any sector or business and why?
In my experience, I’ve seen it applied to just about every topic and sector. Anything that has a future benefits from it. A lot of the focus today is on fast-moving sectors, like media, technology, health, and finance, but some of the deepest foresight work goes on in areas like government and education.
Of course, those are longer, deeper questions. Sometimes it’s a quicker, more focused question, like “What will disruptive technology X change what my customers want from me next year?” In a world where digital experiences are pervasive, areas like foresight and user experience design increasingly come together, and can be used to point to new UX challenges before they emerge. In the end, there could be a choice for a small but very important design tweak, or a wholly new platform or channel strategy.
How do you carry out futurology methodology and processes with clients / business?
First and foremost, our work is built on the basis of a decade of ongoing research—paying attention to, tracking and collecting evidence and insights about what’s changing in the world: social behaviors and cultural change, emerging business models, new technologies, political shifts, environmental attitudes, etc. This research is going on all the time, whether a client poses a particular question or not. I’m always looking, reading, talking to experts, and observing the world around me to find signals of change. This is done in a semi-structured way that gives the work rigor, but also leaves room for intuition and creativity.
Sensemaking and synthesis come next. We ask, what new patterns and models are emerging? Is the emergence of a new force reframing the way we think about and act on different trends? In this part of our work, we try to identify and clearly communicate these new patterns, and frame them in a way that makes it easier for important audiences to understand their potential impact.
Going deeper, we use these trends and patterns to form scenarios—narratives that explore the details of what happens when particular futures emerge. These scenarios give us an opportunity to test ideas, strategies, and possibly new innovations that could emerge from different futures. And these could be futures a decade or two from now, or just a few years away.
The last, but increasingly most important, part of our work is prototyping futures—working with people to build simple models of possible products, services and experiences that communicate these futures more broadly. This part of the work is where ideas finally come to life, and everyone from internal teams to the public at large are able to engage with, question, and imagine the possibilities of new futures.
How do you unpack the findings of futures work and how do you go about using these findings to safeguard your business or product for the future?
The big thing here, for me, is making those findings accessible, digestible and useable. We talk about creating “affordances” for particular futures—putting a handle on them so they are accessible by different stakeholders and decision makers. The day of the one-size-fits-all Powerpoint deck or pretty report is thankfully gone. Clients want to engage with futures at every step, participating in the research, getting involved in the synthesis, helping to craft scenarios and exploring through prototyping and other forms of communication.
A big part of why I set up Changeist as a new practice eight years ago, was to push this part forward—to find new ways of making futures valuable and real for clients—to shift the conversation. If a future is important enough to explore, this exploration deserves attention and engagement. Otherwise, why ask the question?
So, we work on ways to make insights and resulting strategy easy to communicate, ready for travel to different audiences in an organization. A future strategy isn’t just for a single group or an offsite R&D lab, but for a whole organization, including its customers or constituents. Sometimes this means laying all of the important parts out so an organization can socialize the insights or remix them in different ways, by making them playful, portable, or provocative. Sometimes this means expressing these futures through stories people can relate to, an average day, or an interaction between two people in a different future. Sometimes this means trying a future on for size through a new experience that can bring it to life around you.
Why is futurology important to innovation, technology and design?
Innovation doesn’t just start with a bright idea for a new business model. The spark comes from somewhere. Most likely, the idea behind an innovation came from coalescing signals in the world around us. By anticipating changes, opportunities that become the basis for innovation become clear earlier, or the means of catalyzing a new opportunity proactively reveals itself. When done well, innovation processes should always make room for sensing the fuzzy signals around us and using them as building blocks.
The same goes for design. Design doesn’t solve problems or create new futures in a vacuum. Whether it’s a new product, package, mobile app, or service model, design works best when it imagines what could come next—a new user need, a new material, a new technology. Having a structured way of building this anticipation and sensemaking into the design process is critical. This is why more design firms, and design schools, are making it part of their practice or curriculum.
What part of a business or department would benefit most from futures insights and why?
Again, this can and should be any and all departments. Strategy, innovation and design are the more obvious examples because these are the parts of the organization explicitly charged with creating new things. But, these functions don’t live in isolation. Marketing, HR, governance, customer service all face the implications of new futures. They should be figured into big explorations of what these futures might be.
Can you give an example of where futures work has made a noticeable difference to a business or product?
People often ask for the “big bang” result of futures research, where a new product or service emerges whole. More often, it happens in a lot of small ways, where different insights and new ideas shape many small parts of a strategy or new product design. It’s about changing the way an organization thinks, as well as producing a shiny new product. Because we are working on problems that are often years out, the solutions find themselves as part of many decisions along the way, or provides support that can help push an existing idea to market.
I’ve just come from a week in Singapore, where the leaders of the country were asking, “How will technology change citizens lives, and what they want from us?” Leading a weeklong lab, with a team of designers, artists and strategists, we built prototypes of futures products and services to explore this question in new ways which sparked new insights at the highest level of government.
Companies like Intel, Ford, Shell and other complex global organizations like them have internal teams of futurists who are helping provide course adjustments all the time, toward new chip designs driven by emerging technical needs, or new car designs that reflect an evolving consumer, or a shift toward more sustainable energy production. Each of these big, long-term bets feed back into shorter-term actions and strategies that make desired futures possible.