A New Crop of Futures Thinkers

For the past two weeks, I've been locked away with two colleagues and 28 of the brightest high school students in the US at our second annual Futures Institute as part of the Duke University TIP program. As was the case the previous year, the experience taught me as much as we taught the students—about how young people think about the future, how tuned in they are to their world and everyday environment, how values are evolving, and how they view big global challenges. 

We added some twists to 2010's curriculum, throwing in a closer look at the dynamics and future of open source, more on design fiction, a look at emerging technologies such as personal manufacturing and a heavier emphasis on social innovation and the changing needs of cities. We also had the benefit of an industrial designer among the instructional team who helped students move from ideation to concept to creation smoothly, and new guest speakers representing different faces of applied foresight and innovation.

Over the course of 10 packed days, five teams were taught fundamental foresight tools and methods, and taken deeper into key topical areas such as money, communication and media, energy, governance and health. Each team was asked to focus on solving future problems facing inhabitants of emerging megacities—wealthy and poor alike—including breakdowns in interaction patterns, lack of clean water, need for sustainable power creation, use of the democratic process, and access to financial services. Combining methods and knowledge, each team created a product, service or other offering tailored to their focus area, and spent the last three days in intensive labs moving from scanning to solution, complete with communication design and prototypes. 

The students jumped into the challenge of internalizing these new ideas and applying them in a blank slate environment head first, filling white boards and draining us of paper, post-its and scrambling for Internet access, putting in extra hours to get it done. Each team created a unique, innovative and often surprising solution, all while working with people and ideas they'd never encountered before the first class. "I don't think I'll see the world the same way after this experience," was common refrain in final day discussions with the students. And, as happened the previous year, a number of participants said they would now go home and rethink how they wanted to spend their future—what they want to do with their lives, and how best to apply their newfound knowledge gained from what one student called "free-range thinking". I call that a good way to spend two weeks.