Intro Futurecasting For Product Innovation
I'm in the business of figuring out the future. I don't have any sort of magical clairvoyant skills, there's no crystal ball where I'm trying to predict what happens, I'm not in the prediction business at all. I'm in the business of helping people think through different future scenarios. The future is multiple, the future is infinite, there's all sorts of possibilities out there. Some are more probable than others, some are more preferable than others. There's the future that we want and the future that we don't want. And so the point of futurecasting, sometimes known as scenario planning or forecasting or futurism, is thinking about those futures, what may happen, what could happen, and how do we rehearse for them, how do we prepare for them. We're typically prepared to do fire drills, we listen to that same safety spiel every time we're on an airplane, even if we're frequent fliers. And unfortunately in this day and age, in my office we also have to do an active shooter drill, right...
? What happens if a really bad thing happens. So we're used to rehearsing for these things, but are we really rehearsing for the future of our organization, for the products and the services that we're designing. So let's get into futurecasting, what does that mean, what it is and what it's not, and in this class I'm gonna cover some strategies, techniques, and some creative exercises to really train us to think about the future, to think about time in an elastic way, to think about systems of implications in a way that really help us design the future. If we can't imagine it, we can't design it, and that's why this is about futurecasting for product innovation. So like I said, there are no crystal balls, I don't have any sort of insider information, there's no time machine, but we can build virtual time machines to model different future scenarios to see how that future will feel. How does that future make us feel? How will we act in those futures? Will we resist futures that we don't want to happen, these dystopian futures that we often see in science fiction, whether it's Black Mirror or more dystopian future scenarios, or more utopian futures that help us think about a world after fossil fuels or a post-capitalist world, all sorts of systems that we can explore. So let's define futurecasting a little bit. The future is the product of design, right? The future is something that is a product of all of the choices that people have made in the past and the choices that we're all making now. The aggregation of all those choices will create the future. So there's all sorts of decision points, inflection points in the present that will influence the future. And so if we can model different future scenarios, it helps us work back to the present moment and think about the choices we have to make today and the implications of those choices. Futurecasting is really about training a long-term perspective. In my others classes, we've talked about designed thinking, which is really about doing things in a short amount of time. How can we understand people and their needs and then design products and services around those needs. There's a really immediate feedback loop of iteration. If you're working with agile or lean methods, there's similarly-- you're looking at ways to have these short feedback loops to learn and move forward, which is great in terms of being adaptive and responsive, but it's also really good to balance that out with a longer-term time horizon. And with futurecasting, with futurism more generally, we're thinking about five, 10+ years in the future, even going to longer time periods, 50 years, 100 years. Obviously the further out you get in the future the more uncertainty you will have, but it is helpful to get beyond the current quarter, right? Your current targets and goals of quarterly earnings or of your annual planning reviews and think about things in these broader, decade-long time horizons. As I mentioned before, there is no crystal ball to futurecasting, so it's not about right or wrong answers. Sometimes futurists get it right and they predict what's gonna happen, but we're really not in the business of trying to predict, we're in the business of modeling and then rehearsing different futures, because there's always going to be uncertainty and so we have to be ready for different scenarios and prepare for all of them. Futurecasting is about projecting and preparing for those potential futures, and so that's really why we use this term of futurecasting. If I say forecasting, you might think about the weather forecast, where it's based on all of this data that's aggregated, analyzed, and then the weather person tells you if it's gonna rain tomorrow. I'm not telling you if it's gonna rain tomorrow or 10 years from now. With futurecasting, you think about casting in terms of projection, right? So how do you project futures and make them real. And we'll talk about this later on in the class and you can do that in different ways. Just from creating some sort of prototype or an artifact, that's sort of like a reverse time capsule. Usually with time capsules they're artifacts from the past that are sealed, preserved, and then opened at a certain time. That allows us to travel back in time to see the material culture of that day and age. But can we bring artifacts from fictionalized futures, from possible futures, to our present time and explore the implications of that future to make that future more tangible, to give more urgency to the choices that we're making today. So that's the casting part, the projection part. How do we make something that's distant and abstract feel more concrete and real to really affect our decision making. So it's really about imagining and instigating possible futures. And just to reiterate, it's about rehearsal and not prediction. So my very first job out of college, I lived in Japan and I taught Japanese people English as a foreign language. And so, in addition to the typical fire drills that you have in school, we also had earthquake drills because earthquakes are pretty common in Japan, and I remember that they would bring in this truck. It was like a semi-truck and they would park it in the parking lot of our school, and in the back of the truck there was actually a simulated living room, and then you'd get in the back of the truck and then they would turn it on and there's like different scales in the Richter scale, or they use a slightly different scale in Japan, but they would show different intensities of earthquakes and then the truck bed would start shaking and you would have to rehearse for it, right? You have to duck under the table, you have to turn off the gas, you have to make sure that you're safe. So we're rehearsing for that earthquake. So how do we think about all of these different future possibilities that are relevant to our industry, that are relevant to the current products and services that we're designing and be prepeared to do what it takes for those futures, whether it's to prevent an undesirable future or to make a desirable future happen. So when we talk about the future and the futuristic, there's a lot of tropes, right? So this is some stock footage that I pulled to illustrate the future and there's-- it's almost cliche a little bit, and a lot of this is defined by pop culture, from just watching science fiction and seeing, oh, there's going to be flashing lights, there's going to be interfaces, UIs that are futuristic and look different from what they look now, right? And so science fiction is a really helpful tool in futurecasting, in terms of opening ourselves up to possibilities and even though science fiction writers or film or TV producers aren't in the business of forecasting necessarily, they're not trying to predict what innovations will happen, but they are exploring the implications of that. So if you watch science fiction, if you're a fan of science fiction or read science fiction, you'll notice that there's certain patterns where science fiction authors or shows present innovations, inventions that have actually come true. And so it's kind of an chicken or egg thing, it's back to this point that I mentioned before of if you can't predict it, you can't design it, but if science fiction makes these things seem tangible and seem real, it can then inspire product designers to make those things real, whether it's things like cell phones that are ubiquitous today, or tablets, and all of these things have antecedents in science fiction, sometimes decades before they were possible in mainstream. So why does thinking about the future, futurecasting, matter? As designers, as product managers, it's really thinking about designing in context. So this quote from Eliel Saarinen, who was a Finnish-American architect, is about designing something in context. So in his original quote he talks about designing a chair. If you're designing a chair you have to think about the table that the chair's gonna be used with, and thinking about the table in the context of the dining room, the dining room in the context of the house, the house in the context of the city block, the urban plan, et cetera, et cetera. So that's about spatial context, but also social context. Who's using that chair? Who's using that table? Is it a family? How many people are in that family? Are there kids, are there pets? Do they entertain a lot? So these are all things to keep in mind as a designer if you're designing things, right? These broader contexts. So just as we're thinking about the spatial, the geographic context, and the social context, we can also think about the time dimension, right? So how will this chair, how will this table, how will this room, how will this digital product age with this user, with this family, right? Is it something, is it a dining set that can age with them as they have kids, as they grow older? Is it something that will be trendy right now but then they have to buy a new thing when it falls out of fashion? So these are all time dimensions to think about as product designers and also as futurists. Thinking about that future context and thinking about designing for the future and not just for right now. Another way to think about this in terms of strategic planning is that futurecasting is almost an antecedent that precedes strategic planning, right? With strategic planning, you're coming up with, okay, these are our goals, this is where we wanna get to, and so these are some of the strategies, the things that we're gonna do, to help us get to those goals. But futurecasting helps us understand that there may be different paths to get to those goals, and that the goal is really a moving target. Change in inevitable. You've probably heard of this cliche of time being like a river, right? It's always moving and the world is complex. So other people are making choices, there are natural phenomena. You know, earthquakes, natural disasters, climate change, so that is all going to happen, and then there is human, man-made things that are shifting our world as well. So change is inevitable, but it is also helpful to think about the degree of change, the nature of that change. And that the future is not necessarily linear, right? The importance of futurecasting is also about anticipating and rehearsing disruptions. So if you think about companies that used to be at the top of their game, like Kodak, doesn't exist yet, doesn't exist anymore, but they were at the top of their game when film was dominant for photography. And so sometimes when you're winning you don't see the cliff ahead of you, right? So they were focused on all of this film stuff and digital seemed like a gamble. There was some upstarts getting into this, but they didn't invest in it in the same way as their competitors and as a lot of people stopped buying film, their business declined a lot and they had to go out of business, right? So part of this is also thinking about what happens when there's some new thing. Obviously there are limited resources in any company, in any team, so you can't go chasing every new trend, but it is helpful to be able to anticipate and model what happens if something that's a trend that's emergent becomes mainstream? And so we'll talk about that as well starting with what we call weak signals. Another advantage of futurecasting and thinking about the future is that talking about the future is a little bit of a safety valve, right? In any culture, any team, any organization, there is going to be social norms that constrain the limitations of conversation, whether it's about your product, right? People might be like, oh, that's preposterous, that's completely technically infeasible, I don't know why we're even talking about that, or our competitors are not even on the radar, why are we spending time talking about that? Or even kind of social or cultural things, right? Like, oh, I don't think society is ready for that innovation and norms are real and they're totally legitimate but if we're using the future or this frame of science fiction or future-possible, it gives us a little bit of freedom and permission to talk about things that may not be polite to talk about if we're talking about the present reality. So in politics there's this concept of the Overton window, which was started by this buy named Overton who worked in a think tank in the Midwest, and now it's used to discuss basically what is socially acceptable to talk about in terms of things like economic systems and capitalism, right? Can you talk about post-capitalist ideologies and economic models in polite company? Can you talk about, in the US context, universal healthcare, right? Does that exist in the Overton window of what's acceptable in polite company, what politicians can and cannot put on the table and still get elected or what you can say in front of your friends and not get looked at in a weird way. So we're all bound by these social norms like the Overton window, but if we're projecting into the future, because there's a little bit of a fiction to it, that's not real, you know, having that distance also allows us to explore in ways that open up the Overton window and help us remove some of these shackles of norms. Right, so that's one of these tensions to look at in futurecasting. Sometimes we wanna make the future super concrete in terms of building a time capsule from the future, bringing a future scenario to light in a way that's really visceral, really in your face so you can really feel it. One example of that is from Anap Jane who gave a TED Talk about this recently. She's a futurist and designer, and one way of making the future seem really, really concrete was by building-- she worked with scientists to simulate polluted air from the future. So they looked at projections of pollution based on current rates of economic growth and all of that, and then they simulated this polluted air in the future, they bottled it, and then there was a way to sniff it, and this was used as a way of getting politicians and planners to really viscerally experience this noxious air from the future and to say like, wow, we really have to do something about emissions standards or investment in non-fossil fuels because it made that future super concrete. Right, so that's a really visceral projection of the future, but at the same time you also sometimes want to have some distancing effect from that future because there's this sort of-- you're removing the shackles of the plausible you can just explore things that just make sense in that world. And that's the beauty of science fiction, right? So they make these jumps into the future, whether it's Star Trek or Star Wars, whatever you're a fan of, where it's just assumed that there's faster-than-light space travel and then from there they can build entire worlds around that. That probably implies that there'll be aliens, that there will be conflict, whatever that is, but we just take these things as a given, we don't have to think about the science of whether or not you can actually fly faster than the speed of light, but you can explore the implications and as long as what happens in the story world makes sense for that story world, we're able to explore those social implications, technological implications, even if we have to tell one lie to suspend disbelief. One way to visualize the future is through the lens of this futurist cone which is used by futurists. This one I borrowed from Dunne and Raby and it was quoted by Stuart Candy, who's a futurist as well. And basically this is time here on the horizontal axis and so, depending on how you look at the world, but let's just assume that there's one present reality. Everyone has a different perception of that present reality but as far as we know there's only this moment now, right? And the truth that exists in this moment, but the further and further you get out in the future, the more uncertainty there is. So you probably know what you're doing tomorrow and what your life is gonna be tomorrow. There's less certainty about next month and even less certainty about 10 years from now, but at the same time, 10 years from now is a big enough leap to make sense of these more macro trends and driving forces. Right, so you can choose things that you're interested in or concerned about, whether it's automation and robots taking over your job or disrupting your industry completely, or things like climate change or political shifts, and if you can remove yourself from the day to day ups and downs of political pendulum swings or of tech incumbents or newcomers kind of coming and going with the latest trend and just think about more of the macro stuff. You can still see these patterns and project these patterns into the future. And so, within this futurist cone, there are futures that are more probable, right? Things that we think are likely to happen. There are futures that are potential, so they're within the realm of possibility or plausibility. And then there's the preferable futures, the futures that you want to happen, right? So that's a values judgment. And so you can look at people's professional opinion based on what they know of the industry, the different models, whether financial modeling or climate modeling, to tell us what's probable, and then there's these value judgements of this is what we prefer and then we can work backwards and say, okay, this is what we have to do to make sure that that preferable future happens.