Weak Signals And Wildcards


Futurecasting for Product Innovation


Lesson Info

Weak Signals And Wildcards

We've also talked about weak signals and wildcards. And so part of being a futurist is also just being on the lookout for these weak signals. Alright, I've mentioned a few weak signals already, folks like Neil Harbisson the human cyborg. And you also just want to look at trends you want to look at outliers. Things that are very very recently possible, stuff that's very early stage, things that are maybe not ready for prime time yet. So it's even sort of pre-trend watching. Or it could be something that's out in the market but not yet mainstream but just sort of emergent, right? So you're always looking for the next big thing and it may totally fail, right? Like in the VHS versus Betamax wars. We didn't know back in the day which one was gonna succeed. But it's still important to model out these different scenarios of, you know, one or both succeeds. So here's just some examples of you know, being on the lookout for these weak signals. This is a bitcoin ATM that is in this takeout Chine...

se restaurant near my office in Union Square in New York City. This is the first one I've ever seen of these. I don't really know much about how this works and if you can buy your Chinese food with Bitcoin or what that is, but it's there and it's a weak signal, right? And so with weak signals we can think about what happens when we scale up the weak signal, if there's this kind of hum. Like if you've ever turned your stereo down as low as it could go but there's still like that hum from your speakers and then you kind of turn it up, right? And then it turns into a boom. It's the same with this weak signal. What happens if you amplify a weak signal you can create a different world and then think about the implications. What if this is everywhere. Or do we even need the Bitcoin ATMs if people can just do it from their smart devices, right? So these are all questions to think through in terms of the form factor, the social implications, the tax implications, all sorts of things. Security implications. We can also think about things like, you know, spectacles or things like the Google Glass. And things that didn't, aren't quite ready for prime time but they're also weak signals or they're trends, right? So what are the implications of everybody having these always on cameras that are wearable and fashionable and mainstream, right? How does that amplify our current social media, selfie, surveillance culture? What is the backlash? That's another scenario that's interesting to think about of okay you've scaled up some sort of weak signal, what if there's a backlash? And then maybe there's actually a movement of people who are against that? And we've already seen that now, right? In terms of like people who refuse to put their pictures on social media, they don't put their kids up on social media, so you can think about this as a pendulum too. It's not just a linear thing. You can think about the scaling up but also the backlash and the pushback against something as a weak signal as you've scaled it up over time. You can also think about these black swans or wildcard events. So this is really thinking about what happens when there's a disruptive break between you know, changes often slow or it seems linear in the moment, but then anything can happen, right? There could be some massive iceberg that melts some ice caps that melt and then sea levels rise dramatically in a short period of time. So that's this wildcard or black swan scenario. It could be, you know, a terrorist attack, it could be something that's disruptive that's worth rehearsing as a team, as an organization as it affects whatever industry, whatever thing you're designing. You can also think about this in terms of AI and automation too. What if there's some sort of massive global AI hack and it takes out a lot of really critical infrastructure. Or you know, you can even go more out there and think about all of these sort of killer robot scenarios. Or the machines taking over scenarios. And for that it's not necessarily about plausibility or probability you don't have to sort of assign necessarily right now like oh we think this has a 10% probability of happening. That's not the point, it's really training yourself and your team to think through the what ifs, right? When that happens, how are you going to respond? Or how are you going to respond now to prevent that from happening if that's not a preferable scenario. So how do you jump forward and back in time and then also think through, something, you know even if it's like cataclysmic like that just to still go through that scenario planning to deal with the what ifs. So here's some, those were some of the initial things to think about in terms of futurecasting. So identifying these weak signals just always being on the lookout for things in your industry or things that are just in the broader culture. We've talked about these driving forces in the macro sense whether it's automation, climate change, sharing economy, whatever you're interested in, and how you can mash them up into these cartesian axes to create these different scenarios and then you can also have these wildcard black swan scenarios based on these cataclysmic events. And so these are just some of the initial things to play with that will allow us to generate stories and start talking about implications as we go forward. Another question to put out to you guys here in the room and in the audience online is what are some weak signals that you see? Or what are some driving forces that you guys are interested in exploring? I think one weak signal that I see, it doesn't have to be, it's not a technology related one really, but it seems like there is the concept of being a digital nomad. And the idea of working in an office seems to be changing over time and the younger the workforce seems to be the more they seem to be striving for more time so when I first started my working life it was like, you started promptly at eight o'clock and you left promptly at five-thirty or something. And so, and you took very delineated breaks and lunches and that sort of thing. However as I've kind of worked over time it seems like the workforce has gotten a little bit younger and the timeframes have gotten a little bit looser. And it seems like time has become more flexible and time is given back to employees and they do work on their own time whether it be later or earlier or on the weekends or at night, or whatever, and it also seems that like distance seems to be crossed. Where there's a lot more telecommuting and that sort of thing. So in terms of like a weak signal it to me signals that perhaps in the future the workplace is not going to be a like one location and place. Yeah so that's a really interesting one, right? And so there's a couple different things you can do with that. So you've noticed the trajectory in your own life and career from this sort of, you know, punch-in, punch-out kind of culture to something that's a little bit more flexible both in terms of time and geography. So you can think about that as like some linear trend or a curve even, right? But there's a directionality to that that's predictable and so you can create scenarios based on degree of like, you can take it all the way up to 100% just for the sake of exploring that world where there's like almost no physical workplaces and like the default is just a disaggregated workplace. Or you could think about it something as like 50%, 25%, whatever that is in terms of degree. And see if there's like tipping points there or cultural, or social, or legal implications of that. You can also do things that are more like pendulum swings or backlashes. And we've seen this in the contemporary culture and recent history, right? Where certain companies have actually clamped down on the telecommuting thing and they say like everyone has to move back into the office. And so there's that backlash scenario too. So the whole point of these futurecasts and scenarios is that you want multiple scenarios whether it's the 100% telecommute one to the backlash one. And so you can have these stories, right? Of in parallel timelines, to compare and contrast and to discuss. Yes? I'm not sure if this qualifies as a weak signal but I think it would be relevant to most of Creative Live's customers because it's about the latest trends in art and how it's disseminated and how it's consumed because there's a growing trend toward the profit from art, pretty much every medium especially film and music. Being more centralized toward the big studios even while the big studios are actually tanking. And they're making more and more money but they're making less and less profit. While the likes of Netflix are destroying the entire system and on top of that the studios are terrified of the fact that they don't have any way of actually having a captive audience anymore. So now it's possible for pretty much anybody with a cell phone to connect to an audience at such a low cost that even the studios can't do anything about it. The problem is monetizing it is a challenge. But as people find ways to monetize that, it's undermining the entire entertainment system pretty much around the world. Totally, so it seems like there's a couple different things that we could do there, right? So one is to take the historical example of one industry and then ask the what if or what would happen if it were applied to another industry. And so we've seen some these patterns already whether it's, you know you were talking about like film, TV media, entertainment stuff. We saw maybe similar things happen with the music industry or with, you know, publishing and news media. Some things are the same some things are different but you can ask that what if and then just apply it to another industry and run your scenario based on some of the things in the past. These patterns that we've seen in the past, right? And it's not always going to be cyclical and the patterns are never going to map directly but that's one starting point and then you could also introduce a different pattern. You'll also see patterns in something like that that you could apply for maybe like the hollowing out. So some of the things you were talking about or like, there's tons of consolidation on the big studios, the big studios get bigger and bigger. But you also have all of these indie upstarts that may be disrupting, or they're just kind of treading water but they're also able to survive. Similar to like the age of the dinosaurs and all the mammals were little rat things. But there weren't like mid-sized animals. So that's a pattern and you can also generate scenarios around that pattern as well. And see what that means and then you can also do the counter-factual, right? Of like, okay there is a world where there are these medium sized studios doing interesting things, you know, again or in some future state of the middle. And then you would work backwards and say, like okay how do we get to that? How do we restore that middle part of the industry that seems to be hollowed out? And we'll talk about that in a later segment about how do you, you know, if you have that counter-factual or that what if state in the future where that middle has been restored, what happened before that, and what happened before that. Of like writing the prequels of how we get to this alternate reality. Do you often use this exercise as something that's solitary as like as an individual or as kind of a group exercise? Especially if some people aren't as good with writing or thinking in a narrative. That's a really good question I think there's value to futurecasting both as an individual and a group activity. For the larger stuff that's feeding into say a product development plan or a strategic plan for an organization, it's always a social activity but I think there are elements of this that have sort of personal and petagontrical value. So I actually assigned that ten year exercise ten years in the future exercise to my students at Parsons and they have like several weeks to do this. And it's like three to five pages. There's an example, there's a link to one of my student's stories. She actually wrote a screenplay about her life ten years in the future and you can kind of see what people come up with when they have a little bit more time. And in her case she has a screenwriting background. But anybody can write this almost as like a journal article and it doesn't have to be shared publicly but it is helpful just as a personal reflection tool of where do you see yourself and can you actually create these alternate realities for yourself and like figure out the spiral of implications and all of these other things. But on the group side, right? This stuff works best when you have a diverse group. So if we're gonna talk about the future of finance and money, like, I barely know anything about Bitcoin and Blockchain so I can facilitate it, but for that I would bring people in. I'd bring in an economist, I'd bring in, you know, people who are experts in crypto, you know, I'd do multiple exercises to come up with multiple stories and scenarios. And the other thing is about looking at patterns. So there are people who may be experts in a given field but no expert is infallible. They just, it means that they spend a lot of time thinking about or doing something. But the point about these patterns is like looking at things that emerge over time. So do a lot of people have concerns about, I don't know, the AI apocalypse. Like a lot more people should have concerns about climate change. All of these sort of things, but they're patterns that represent like our concerns, our anxieties, but also our hopes and dreams about things. And so the more, the larger the sample size the more diverse the sample size, I think the more, the sort of, the richer you can get with this collective intelligence in terms of building your scenarios so it's not about the writing chops of any given person, it's about the patterns over time and over a population. Yeah, please. I have another question. Which is, when you're working with groups about futurecasting, like what type of artifacts do people often come up with when they want to deliver their findings? It can be all sorts of things. I talked about Anab Jain and her TED talk and how she created the polluted air of the future so that policy makers and decision makers could really experience that viscerally. It doesn't always have to be a full on model like that. Say you want to model something like, I don't know, like a... Imagine like a can of food that heats itself with the press of a button. Right, so you don't actually have to prototype that, but using the very same skills that you develop from design thinking and low fidelity prototyping you can kind of fake that. So there was one example from a recent class that I taught at Parsons Paris where my students were interested in the future of fashion through the lens of 3D printing. And so I gave them this exercise that actually anybody can do. And this works best when you just get a couple friends or coworkers in on this. And I call it 90 by 90. And so every team has some sort of cell phone or smart device that can take video and edit video. And basically they have 90 minutes to make a 90 second snapshot of the future. And so with this particular group I sent them out in the streets of Paris and they came up with this idea where one of the students, the woman who was the protagonist of the video has to go to the ball tonight. And so she calls up her friends and they all have their smart devices where they can do things like you know, scan the color from a tree and like replicate a pattern that inspired them. And then they 3D print a dress at the end. And it was all done with cell phone cameras. And like obviously the dress was not 3D printed, it was just like somebody's dress. But they like pulled it out of this cardboard box. But you understood from the story. And in fact there was very minimal dialogue and they did that in a short... Short time frame, right? And so that was really like, how do you make that jump from like oh I'm not a good fiction writer I don't know how to think about that. To like hey, you have 90 minutes to come up with this like very lo-fi video. Like how do we make this story come to life? And then from there you have what's called a boundary object. Of like, this artifact, this video, can now be used for discussion. We can talk about it through various lenses of okay, so you're a fashion designer. How does that make you feel, that anybody can 3D print their on dresses? Or you're a lawyer, what does that say about intellectual property rights? There's all sorts of lenses where you can think about the implications but that video becomes an artifact that is a provocation. So the more visceral the more real you can get with that, even if it's like, really lo-fi and janky, but the idea is there. So that's the cross pollination here between the lo-fi prototyping, of design thinking, and just really basic cell phone cinematography to make a future come to life. And there's all sorts of things you can do with live action roleplay as well.

Class Description

We live in a rapidly changing world, and that includes the world of business. To be successful, companies have to develop products and services that not only address the needs of today, but anticipate the needs of tomorrow. That’s why futurecasting is so important.

While no one can see the future, we can model and rehearse potential futures, which is what futurecasting is all about. This essential tool for design innovation and business strategy helps us imagine what the future might be so we can create a long-term vision and make it a reality.

Using techniques adapted from the military, global corporations and top design schools, this course will help you map out the best- and worst-case scenarios of the future and prepare for them.

In this class, you’ll learn how to:

  • Craft and model different future scenarios to “rehearse” for the future.
  • Engage your team in the futurecasting process.
  • Stop thinking only in the short term (e.g., annual planning, quarterly earnings) and find the space and time to think about the longer term.
  • Develop your vision and imagination about best- and worst-case future scenarios.
  • Inspire your organization to better understand and utilize futurecasting.


Cindy Wong

I thought Lee-Sean was a great, eloquent speaker. He took what could be a high-minded, abstract concept "future forecasting", and made it relatable, down-to-earth, and easy to understand to his audience. If you're interested in learning how to plan, manage, and build future scenarios (5-10+ yrs out) to have influence in your organization, this class was invaluable. He walks you through practical brainstorming techniques to come up with scenarios and shows case-studies for how you can create a narrative to show how future scenarios can become realities from present day. I enjoyed all of it.