Practical Futuring

Alex Wright
10 min readDec 16, 2017
Zastaki, “Workers at the construction site of the future” (source)

Deprived of meaningful work, men and women lose their reason for existence; they go stark, raving mad.

– Fyodor Dostoevsky

What does it mean to do “meaningful” work? According to a recent MIT study, most of us find meaning in our professional lives in highly individual and idiosyncratic ways: one person’s tedium is another’s labor of love. Yet those who report finding meaning in their work seem to share a common trait: They perceive their work as “self-transcendent,” contributing to society in a way that matters to others more than it does to themselves.

Conversely, one of the most commonly cited barriers to meaningful work arises when job duties come into conflict with personal values, especially when short-term business goals exert pressures that tend to devalue the practice of a professional craft. For example: lawyers report feeling pressured to focus on billable hours over serving client needs; nurses bristle at management imperatives to manage bed utilization at the expense of patient care; and academics often feel the strain of bureaucratic chores that prevent them from devoting time to research or working with students.

In the world of digital design (where I have spent a good chunk of my career) short-term business pressures pose a pervasive problem. The rise of big data and agile development, coupled with the technology industry’s self-mythologizing zeal to “move fast and break things” (in Mark Zuckerberg’s famous formulation) fosters an environment where designers often struggle to create the space for long-term thinking in their work.

As a result, digital designers often find themselves grappling with the problem of unintended consequences, pressured to rush out solutions for insufficiently defined problems — in some cases leading to expensive redesign work later on, or worse yet to even larger-scale social, environmental, and political problems (see also: Russian election hacking).

In recent years, a handful of prominent design thinkers have argued for more sustainable, systems-oriented approaches to design (cf. Kossoff, Laurel, Shedroff). Inspired rhetoric notwithstanding, however, most working interaction designers lack the tools and training to embed these kinds of long-term considerations in their work. As a result, sustainable design efforts have largely failed to gain traction outside of the academic and non-profit realms.

So, how might we reimagine interaction design practice in a way that nourishes sustainable, long-term thinking? That’s the question I’m trying to probe in my doctoral research at CMU School of Design.

Enter Etsy School

During the Fall of 2017, I designed and taught a three-week course at Etsy called Practical Futuring. This course took shape as part of Etsy School, an open educational program where anyone at the company can elect to teach a class about, well, anything. The company puts an emphasis on fostering these kinds of loose-knit, employee-driven programs as integral to its culture of making and experimentation.

For context, other classes offered this year included Embroidery 101, Brush Calligraphy, Lockpicking, Laser Cutting, Scotch Tasting, and Childbirth, to name a few. Most classes are meant to be light and entertaining, though they do occasionally veer towards the serious; past semesters have featured seminars on Faulkner, SQL programming, and running blameless post-mortems (a method widely used at Etsy to foster organizational learning in the wake of software project launches).

For this course, I set out to pilot a professional development curriculum built on my research from last year looking into alternative economics, purposeful work, and the possibilities of post-capitalist experience design. I also wanted to begin layering in new perspectives from the world of futuring studies (working with CMU associate professor Stuart Candy), and incorporating best practices in instructional design (working with CMU associate professor Stacie Rohrbach).

Ultimately, I hoped to trial a set of teaching methods for integrating long-term thinking into the work of professional designers, through a combination of readings, discussions, and hands-on activities — while presenting this material in a light, approachable way that would fit within the contours of an after-work, non-credit curriculum.

How might designers benefit from integrating more long-term thinking into their work? More importantly, how might the culture at large benefit? This latter question brings us towards the underlying concerns of Transition Design, an emerging field of research (and a strong focus area at CMU) that explores the role design might play in fostering systems-level transformation that could ultimately improve the quality of life on earth.

For this line of research, I was particularly interested in exploring how those kinds of macro societal concerns might dovetail with a training program geared towards technology workers in a professional setting.

The class description promised participants the following outcomes:

  • You’ll become familiar with basic concepts from the field of future studies
  • You’ll get exposed to new thinking about alternative economic systems
  • You’ll come away with tools to help you integrate long-term thinking into your work life
  • Also, there will be snacks ;)

Building a curriculum rooted in the principles of situated learning (cf. Lave and Wenger) and social constructivism (cf. Vygotsky), I wanted to create a learning environment where participants could work with a set of material they could apply in the context of their current roles at Etsy.

By providing a small number of inputs coupled with ample time for participants to process the material in the context of their own work, I hoped to create conditions in which a process of collaborative, situated knowledge construction could take place.

To that end, I built each class session around a single reading (for example: Stewart Brand’s The Order of Civilization), and a brief 20–30 mintue lecture and discussion, followed by an interactive activity that would take up the remainder of the one hour class time.

At the conclusion of each class, I also asked students to reflect on the experience and answer a brief one-question survey distilling a single learning or “take-away” from that week’s class. The purpose of the survey was not just to gather evaluative feedback, but to encourage participants to reflect on the class experience and identify their own learning moments to encourage deeper learning and retention of key concepts from the class.

Course outline

The course consisted of three modules that progressed from macro to micro perspectives on the future of work, spread over a three-week period (here’s the detailed curriculum):

Week one

We began by introducing the the theory and literature of futuring and forecasting studies, and introducing essential techniques like horizon and environmental scanning, forecasting, and experiential prototyping (slides).

Readings: Stuart Candy’s Strategic Foresight (required); Stewart Brand’s The Order of Civilization; a McKinsey report on Measuring the Economic Impact of Short-Termism.

In-class exercise: The Thing From the Future (Singularity University edition), developed by Stuart Candy and partners at the Situation Lab. Breaking into teams of three, participants engaged in a friendly competition in sketching ideas based on a combination of prompts formed by a combination of cards drawn from one of three decks.

Week 2

After our initial foray into futuring studies at a macro/social/environmental scale, this week the class shifted focus to the more immediate realm of company strategy at Etsy. We grounded the discussion in a survey of the history of capitalism, the rise of a post-industrial society, and the emerging literature of alternative economics (slides).

Participants prepared by reading Ethan Roland’s The 8 Forms of Capital, and optional readings including John Mackey’s “Capitalism: Marvelous, Misunderstood, Maligned,” Donella Meadows’s “Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System,” and John Elkington’s “Enter the Triple Bottom Line.”

For this week’s in-class activity, I developed an experimental game called “Capital Roulette,” which presented Roland’s eight forms of capital as an exercise prompt in the form of a simple game spinner, which I fashioned by hand using a couple of vintage game board spinners purchased on Etsy, refashioned using a new pie chart created in Adobe Illustrator and a tube of Elmer’s glue.

Once participants selected a form of capital to work with via the spinner, they worked together in groups with a worksheet designed to support a basic scenario modeling exercise. First, they identified a set of environmental factors that might influence the trajectory of future events; then they identified two critical variables worth considering in this context (e.g., Global warming, artificial intelligence, Bitcoin, the price of slime, what Beyoncé thinks).

Using an adapted version of Jay Ogilvy’s scenario plotting matrix, they then plotted these criteria on a grid and imagined a series of more or less desirable outcomes from these eventualities — and how these might affect Etsy’s business. Finally, they began to sketch interactive experiences to illustrate a range of future products and services that might take shape in the context of these developments.

In the week two follow-up survey, one participant reported gaining “a broader, more holistic understanding of the economy that better facilitates thinking about the future.” Other participants reported some confusion in distinguishing “horizon scanning” from “environmental scanning,” and suggested converging those two exercises. Another suggested that smaller teams of pairs might work more effectively than trying to have teams of 3–4 participants sketching in groups.

Week 3

For our final class meeting, we brought the discussion in to focus more narrowly on participants’ own work, exploring how we could relate concepts of futuring and alternative economics to their professional lives.

For this class I invited my occasional collaborator Erica Dorn of the Good Work Institute to co-moderate the class, giving an overview of her organization’s work with leading a program of inquiry into the nature of meaningful work with a cohort of participants in the Hudson Valley. Building on this experience, we then invited participants to share their own perspectives on the challenges and obstacles they had faced in looking for meaning in their own work lives.

As preparation, participants read the aforementioned MIT report on “What Makes Work Meaningful, or Meaningless,” and optionally Meg Wheatley’s “Finding our Way” as well as an excerpt from E.F. Schumacher’s Good Work.

For this week’s in-class exercise, Erica and I co-facilitated a revised version of the values mapping exercise that we created in the Spring of 2017 with a workshop of CMU grad students on finding purposeful work. For this exercise, each participant was given a set of 30 paper slips, each containing a one-word value statement drawn and adapted from James Clear’s list of core values. Each participant then winnowed this down through progressive stages of evaluation to a list of three “top” values.

We then asked participants to select a single value to work with, and begin visualizing what it would look like to realize that value in their professional lives. After participants generated a set of drawings they were ready to share, we then paired them with each other to “mash up” their values and visions to create a specific concept for a long-term product or service at Etsy they would both personally feel invested in producing over time.

Next: Towards a theory of change

Looking forward, I’m hoping to explore how to translate these perspectives into a design language and a set of open-source lesson plans that could be made widely available to practitioners, and in doing so develop an underlying theory of how a professional education curriculum rooted in alternative economics, sustainability, and futuring studies might trigger both personal and organizational change.

While this project undoubtedly carries with it an underlying political and economic critique, one central challenge will involve positioning the content in a way that doesn’t feel threatening or off-putting to working design practitioners, whose professional concerns revolve primarily around career and skills development rather than theoretical critiques of capitalism.

A second challenge lies in the question of how to make futuring — a collection of methods typically framed around high-level business strategy — relevant for practitioners who may be working closer to the ground, and less able to influence long-term strategic decisions.

In the next iteration of this program I hope to begin probing on some of these questions:

  • What cultural factors outside the boundaries of the organization militate for or against certain types of horizons?
  • How can an internally focused program of research avoid the consumerist trap of self-improvement? How might we connect systems-level thinking with inner reflection?
  • How could I further deepen my understanding of educational theory (for example, applying Vygotsy’s Zone of Proximal Development model) to make this curriculum more effective in the long term?
  • Give the long-term, planet-scale concerns of transition design, how could an educational program like this create opportunities for incorporating the concerns of future generations who currently have no voice in the design of systems that may well affect their quality of life down the road.

Ultimately, any theory of change to emerge out of this research will hinge on the question of how personal, reflective modes of practice intersect with larger organizational, social, and political systems; and whether a program of applied professional development could serve as a useful design intervention that aligns with the wider-angle concerns of transition design and long-term sustainability.



Alex Wright

Head of UX at Google News; previously at Instagram, Etsy, The New York Times et al. PhD @ CMU Design. Books: Informatica, Cataloging the World.