design 360 by WDO
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design 360 by WDO

5 Questions with Futurist Cecilia Tham

As a designer, entrepreneur and future synthesist, Cecilia Tham is working to empower communities and organizations through exponential technologies. We spoke to her to explore the world of innovation through the futurist lens and understand some of the key principles guiding her work.

Born in Hong Kong and educated in the United States, Cecilia Tham is a designer, entrepreneur and activist working to empower communities and organizations through exponential technologies. After receiving her Masters in Architecture from Harvard University, Cecilia spent a few years practicing as an architect before an opportunity in 2017 turned her onto the idea of using design to reimagine our collective future. It was as a Social Technologist at Alpha, Telefónica’s innovation arm, that Cecilia learned the value in applying business forecasting, speculative design and emerging technologies to address global challenges.

From there, she found her stride in the practice of what is called Synthesizing Futures, going on to build multiple companies as a successful entrepreneur. In 2021, she co-founded her current venture, Futurity Systems. The company describes itself as a research and design venture studio that aims to provide Futures-as-a-Service, working at the intersection of technology, society, and business innovation. We spoke to Cecilia (who currently resides in Spain) to explore the world of innovation through the futurist lens and understand some of the key principles guiding her work in anticipating the future.

The electronic popsicle, a prototype which explores how electricity can produce taste

What led you to establish Futurity Systems? Can you describe the studio’s ethos and the types of projects you focus on?

Coming out of Telefónica’s Alpha, Europe’s first moonshot programme, we really wanted to continue what we had learned and further our work in incorporating long term thinking to help build initiatives that require long horizons and future thinking for companies. We currently lack tools and methods in navigating uncertainties and there is no better time than now, especially post-COVID, to be proactive in our future making. One of the foundations of our work is to really focus on consequences, whether positive, negative, or unintended. That way, we can be intentional in our actions today and preemptively avoid undesirable outcomes in the future. Another aspect of our business is that we prioritize engineering and prototyping futures, from hardware to software, we get hands-on insights to understand how these ideas will translate into a future product or service.

What are some of the key principles that guide your work? Where do you find inspiration?

The process of analyzing to synthesizing (or sometimes what we refer to as decoupling and recoupling) is what guides a lot of our work. This is a principle that is carried across our methodology, our way of thinking and in our operations. We often approach a new topic by diving deep into that particular field and break apart the different components and gain insights, like TRL (technology readiness levels), maturity, saturation, possibilities, opportunities and risks. We then recouple and reimagine them in new ways, using them as palettes and ingredients for designing our future artifact. We like to think of our work as rigorously imaginative, because we design through understanding science and technology. Our principal mechanics to ground any question/assumption is done via prototyping, so making and engineering future artifacts is a very big part of what we do.

Vapeohol is a project that separates smell from food via a hacked humidifier

What are some of the key lessons you’ve learned while engaged in the practice of synthesizing futures?

We started Futurity Systems because we believe that companies and organizations are lacking the right tools and abilities to tackle the unknown. We want to guide them and develop an approach to designing their products and services with intention and understanding of possible consequences. We need to preemptively and proactively work towards building better futures together, that is our mission at Futurity Systems.

While design allows us to come up with creative and even unimaginable solutions, the understanding of the technology and sciences allow us to ground them in application, and the business layer makes them viable. In other words, we engineer futures through designing future artifacts, future products and future services.

From the future of food to the future of health, what are the issues you are most keen to explore through the futurist lens?

One of the longest running labs at Futurity Systems is the Future of Commerce, looking at how consumerism and capitalism in the future will evolve. One of the biggest concerns we have is our unsustainable and irresponsible consumption accrued over the last few decades, and the consequences we are facing now from climate change, to plastic use and privacy. From the futurist angle, an emerging technology that will disrupt this is autonomous vehicles, especially for logistics, from warehouse to homes. This approach could potentially reduce waste by optimizing collective consumption patterns. Another interesting angle we are currently exploring is the evolution of digital goods, and how that opens up new products, especially in the metaverse.

Can plants have autonomy? Herby (above) is equipped with sensors to measure physiological well-being and decision-making capacities

In your opinion, what does it mean to be a future synthesist in today’s context?

If analyzing and analysis comes from taking things apart and understanding those constituents individually, then synthesize and synthesist is putting things together and combining them in ways that will produce an imagination, a solution, a possibility. It’s about being able to bridge different ideas, concepts, disciplines together in order to have an integrated vision of possible future scenarios.

To learn more about Cecilia and her work with Futurity Systems, check out her keynote presentation from the 32nd World Design Assembly.

Cecilia Tham is currently a Future Synthesist and Principle at Futurity Systems, where she comes up with future-driven solutions in the intersection between technology, impact, and business opportunity. She works to validate, de-risk, and develop those solutions for companies and organizations. In the past, Cecilia has led a project about the future of food where she proposed “Plantable meals”, culturing meat using plant cellular scaffolding. She creates technological solutions for global impact, with a special interest in responsible consumption and climate change. After participating in Singularity University Global Solutions Program for Climate Change in 2017, she decided to dedicate her time and work on scalable impact-driven ventures.

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