“Sure, we can build the future.”

We’re regularly asked, “How did your design innovation tools and methods emerge from Stanford’s Design program?” The impetus was a question that Audi posed to Stanford students in the fall of 2008.

Up to that time, Volkswagen and Audi had sponsored engineering design and design thinking projects to Stanford students. These rather traditional project briefs would begin, “Re-invent the user’s experience of ….”

Those project briefs could just as easily been given to an IDEO, frog design, or any other firm strong in user-centered design and prototyping, with a spritz of creativity added. The reason that Audi and other companies brought these design questions to Stanford was, in part, to see what a team of “bright your minds” would deliver.

This all changed in October 2008 when Audi returned to campus to pose a question that began, “It’s 12 years in the future, Emergence of Stanford Foresight from Stanford Design

A simple question, “A revolutionary concept for 2020 is needed… .”

Audi, a car company, was returning to see if Stanford’s bright young minds could envision, research, design and build a full functioning prototype of a solution that would be delivered to market in 12 years. That’s over two products cycles in the automotive world. And if you take “every other year” iPhone releases as a product metric, it’s six product cycles in the world of consumer ICT.

The Audi question was exciting. And the response to it needed to go far beyond what Stanford was then teaching in design thinking and engineering design. (As just one example, in design thinking it’s imperative that you start with the user… but which user do you begin with for a product that won’t be released for 12 years?)

By coincidence, there’d been a great deal of work in Stanford Design to research the inception, development and delivery of long-range, visionary innovations. One notable piece of this research was work by Dr. Tamara Carleton to capture and model the way that the U.S. governments DARPA* agency delivered radical innovations (i.e. “change the world forever” type innovations) for over 50 years. Alongside this research, a number of our coaches and faculty had experience working on radical innovation in industry, often as executives and managers advanced technology groups, and, early in their careers, as the engineers and computer scientists who built the future.

In order to get in front of the students, we began to build the mental scaffolding that would enable our students to learn and practice the skill sets needed to address the question.

In order to form the tool set and methods the students needed we began by asking ourselves how each of us had approach questions like this previously. We collected tools from across design thinking, engineering design and planning, user-centered design, scenario planning, long-range planning, and a multitude of other fields.

We then tested the tools by bringing together small teams of the best & brightest, young and a bit grey-haired, to tackle complex problems, akin to the Audi question, in very short periods of time (hours and days instead of the months the students would have). The teams who worked with us to test the tools were hand-picked because they’d already delivered radical innovations, meaning they had a shared mindset. Yes, it was a cheat. A cheat that enabled us to rapidly iterate the tools we had at hand and develop a process for how the tools would add up to more than the sum of their parts. The outcome of the process is that is helps to develop an innovation mindset as well as skills.

While the process of refining and connecting the what ultimately becomes the foresight mindsets, tools & methods† is best covered in another article, the primary insight from its development is that the tools and methods used by experts are teachable, provided they are simplified, often broken apart in multiple tools, so that a non-expert can build from “first principles.”


*DARPA stands for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a part of the United States’ Department of Defense. After their founding in 1957 as a response to the USSR’s Sputnik launch, DARPA has focused on funding ideas and inventions that can be foundational for decades of follow-on innovation. A well-worn example is their funding of technologies and teams building an early computer network which ultimately become the Internet.

The Playbook for Strategic Foresight & Radical Innovation is available as a FREE download at http://innovation.io/playbook/