Where We've Been, Where We're Going...

Helsinki in January

Due to the (merciless) urging of some colleagues, I'm going to break my own rule and recap 2010 because, well, I'm surprised how many miles the band put on the bus and how many flavors of snow we tasted during the year. It also helps us to look into 2011 and decide what to repeat, what never to say "yes" to again, and which color t-shirts to start screenprinting for the next tour. The following litany is why, when someone asks "What do you do?" it's difficult to sum up in 30 seconds. That's why we just say "we do" and keep moving...

2010: What's my room number?

Having just recovered from ending 2009 in Istanbul, I packed the sweaters and boots and took off to the Baltic and beyond for a fantastic week in Helsinki as guest of the gracious Niti Bhan and Aalto University's Design Factory, where Niti and I put together a full-day workshop of design thinking for the bottom of the pyramid, an issue which caught fire throughout 2010. Between the daily heavy snowfall, crackingly cold temps. arctic BBQs and fantastic new group of acquaintances, it made me remember how much I love the city, its thriving culture of ideas and creativity, and the many friends I have there. That pin goes back on the map—Helsinki in 2011.

Jumping from Finland to Ukraine via Latvia, I was able to take up an invitation from Vika Sjumar to speak at the Filosofic Club of Kiev, again on a bitterly cold night, discussing the elasticity of the future and how past assumptions about growth, development and prosperity are being shattered—replaced with a bottom-up self-sufficiency driven at a local level. Kiev was amazing, not least for being fed well every few hours and show the sites of a dynamic and rapidly changing country. Having been there in the quiet between the election and runoff that saw power shift from West to East, it was a moment to remember how transient things are.

See America in 3 short months

While in Finland the phone rang with some long ethno/innovation research projects that, while they will go unnamed due to client confidentiality, changed the climate picture dramatically, with a lot of good time spent in SoCal, Texas and Florida, with intensive interviewing, focus groups, street research, consumer observation, trends research and a giant boost to Foursquare usage, air, hotel and rental car points overall. One bonus was working with several excellent young, energetic, curious and highly capable researchers just getting their "qual" experiences started. We also got a fresh look at how Americans live, work, play and stay together in tough times, a valuable re-grounding when too much time is spent focused on your own back yard.

Teaching the future to the future

Mid-summer brought yet another new experience, co-teaching the new Futures Institute at the Duke University TIP summer program, along with Frank Spencer and Venessa Miemis. As a new program, the slate started clean, and we and our 27 terrific students managed to fill it several times over. We taught them how to use futures thinking as a toolset to solve man of the wicked problems they will encounter, and they taught us what the future looks like from the perspective of a teen growing up in a world where 10 years feels like 100, where most of our frames of reference seem like past history before they've even settled, and where they will exit their academic careers into a world that is profoundly different than today.

From here, we rolled back on the road to another set of trends projects, ranging from the future of digital consumption in the home to changes perceptions of quality and reliability in a world where luxury becomes more remote, the middle is eroding and the low-end is the new middle. With each of these and other topics we took on this year, the leading edge of change is tracking so quickly that the challenge was how to capture and communicate this shift while not losing footing in the present, or slipping too far forward for relevancy and action. This dance is getting tricker, with new steps all the time, but it's one where I think we excel—balancing the grounded with the speculative, and mapping pathways from one to the other.

Making the future happen more often

Speculation got the upper hand as I accepted an invite from Torch Innovation to give both the Unifinished Business Lecture at Toronto's OCAD U on Design Fiction, and work with new partners Normative Design to bring it to life practically for a workshop in the same city. Lastly, I put my teaching boots back on for a guest spot at OCAD's MDes in Strategic Foresight program for a day with budding foresighters. Drawing from the inspirational work that Julian Bleecker, Jake Dunagan, Stuart Candy and others have done—with a hat tip from Chairman Bruce (or maybe that's a finger wag?)—we are continuing to work with the design fiction concept to find new ways to stimulate creative thinking about design and foresight, one of our reasons for being.

September is for forecasts

In September, we contributed to the just-released A Planet of Civic Laboratories: the Future of Cities, Information and Inclusion forecast project led by Anthony Townsend for the Institute of the Future, honored to be in the company of leading thinkers and researchers such as Adam Greenfield, Carlo Ratti, and Ken Banks. Funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, this is a first of its kind mapping of forces, actors, tools and uncertainties that are emerging as technology trickles into previously unwired corners of the planet, from megacities to small villages. It was one of the highlights of the year, and as an issue that will continue to grow in importance as we enter the next decade, one we will continue to dedicate a lot of time and energy to.

In the same month, we also managed to co-author a take on the future of digital media for the 2020 Mediafutures project managed by our partners at OCAD U's sLab and new Super Ordinary Lab. This set of trends forms the basis of a multistage, multi-stakeholder look at how media is evolving, and what implications this transformation holds for the companies, studios, creators and consumers of these media—from books and magazines to interactive media, film, music and TV. This open-source project is a living platform, which will be used to develop a set of forecasts through roundtables and a Delphi study.

This month we also proudly sponsored the great work of Venessa and her team on the Future of Money project, which she tirelessly researched, interviewed and co-produced for SIBOS in Amsterdam. From a loose collection of ideas discussed at Duke to a short film a few months later, she and her team achieved an impressive feat and opened the door to a larger discussion of the role of money, value, banking and collaboration in the future.

Dinners with friends

October gave us a little time to breathe and attend the Feast in New York City, catching up with friends and looking at how the wheel of social innovation is turning in a year where it is center to the focus on many. October also found me back with my Frank Spencer in Savannah for Geekend 2010, where we cast a critical eye at human evolution through technology, battlesuits and all in the shadow of another fantastic design institution, SCAD. This trip was bookended by two trends expeditions that drove us to cross the US three times in search of weak signals and indicators of change in eating habits, food, wellbeing and social cultures, visiting both havens of food and drink innovation and mass-market consumption icons to see how the American omnivore is changing.

The year came to an easy close working with UNCG's Division of Continual Learning for a little design fiction thinking about how the near future of digital education could unfold, and what tools and innovations could be brought to bear to meet that change.

Oh, and it snowed to end it all.

Coming to a future near you

2011 is already shaping up to be nearly as busy. With a few trusted partners, we'll be branching out to new areas we'll let you know about as they unfold. In the meantime, I'll be joining a panel on the future of advertising is coming up in Washington, DC in mid-February (more details to come), hitting Lift11 just before, and planning new challenges for the return of the Duke TIP Futures Institute in the summer, just to name a few approaching initiatives. We are also planning to head to northern latitudes again, including Canada, Scandinavia and possibly more, for some interesting collaborations on the horizon.

We will also have some new faces on stage, and new instruments to make noise with. We might even dive into the pit from time to time. If you would like us to come play your town, give us a call or e-mail or tweet. We'd be more than happy to. In the meantime, we'll try to make better use of the tour bus to blog it all, so check back often.

White North Carolina Christmas