The Design of Future Visions for Large Organizations

Clarify the present with Design Fiction: A tool to discuss the priorities for today which can make a preferable future attainable

For the last few years at Near Future Laboratory and BBVA Data & Analytics, my teams and I have been focused on clarifying the present and anticipating desirable, feasible, and profitable futures for organizations. Establishing a vision, then investigating that vision through Design Fiction, we proactively explore what we might do next, discuss implications of potential opportunities and seek to understand what we need to achieve today to create the preferable future we envision.

1. The future is a moving target

The time horizons of innovation have shortened. New technologies and business models are emerging and expiring faster than ever before. The pace by which ideas circulate through networks, and the availability of exceptional scales of funding and resources for even the craziest of ideas magnify the importance of framing problems in time scales which are much shorter than the old standard of ten years. Shaping a clear vision is pivotal for organizations, because there is less clarity for their members about where things are heading, and why. Leaders are requested to have clear and compelling visions, and be better at communicating these visions in an effective way.

Organizations need new approaches to explore futures based on the pace of modern human creativity — to find possibilities in unexpected places that can’t be known in advance.

Leaders of today’s digital giants, such as Amazon, Tesla, and Google, clearly articulate visions, even in the face of huge short-term uncertainties. However, many other large organizations and governments struggle with newer methods for anticipating and adapting to change, as they don’t work well with old-fashioned methodologies, where visions of the future are often projected through powerpoints, written reports, white papers, or, at best, a promotional video visualizing a seamless future. Organizations need new approaches to explore futures based on the pace of modern human creativity — to find possibilities in unexpected places that can’t be known in advance.

Design Fiction is just such a tool. Organizations can use Design Fiction to:

Enhance an imagination jammed in a world of sameness.
Spark conversations and anticipate unevenly distributed futures.
Check the sanity of a vision for an anticipated future.
Set priorities for today which can make a preferable future attainable.

The future is often characterized as the state of not knowing what will happen next. For an organization, it is a moving target with multiple potential paths and unfolding spaces. The creation and application of new technologies bring with them new opportunities to imagine “What if…” scenarios to better explore complex implications, and to mollify anti-change agents (e.g. those left behind by change). Extrapolating from past trends is useful, but often limiting. The future is mostly not predictable — it can’t be nailed down, so prioritizing investments which help frame future-facing insights allows an organization to understand what it will need to move towards its vision. To prepare for “not knowing,” the best an organization can do is aim to experiment and learn.

2. Tools and building blocks

Our work has developed across multiple methodologies, some of which are in quite common use, others less so. For clarity, here’s a short explainer for some of the terms and ideas used in this article:

  • Vision describes the state of an organization across its functions, but does not stand in as a summary of the organization as a whole. Visions should provide a sense of aspiration to stretch the imagination and provoke exploration of new possibilities. A vision should be accessible, inclusive, and cooperative. Vision drives discussion, learning, and strategy, and allows space for leaders to consider necessary organizational transformations.
  • Scenarios are the frameworks or stories within which an organization considers why and how a future technology might make sense, or be useful.
  • Diegetic prototypes or “props” exist as a functional piece of technology within a fictional world. They are tangible concept depictions which act as a stand-in for a “thing” that an organization would like to showcase, question, consider, and learn from. They are often representative of uses for new technologies, and provide an accessible way for others to interrogate practicality, propriety or value.
  • Design fiction is the use of “props” to help scaffold narratives about a slightly changed world.
The future is something an organization must constantly shape and adapt to.

3. The exploration of futures is a learning process, not an output

Executives — most of them with deep knowledge of their domain, their markets, their customers, and even their organizations — sometimes lack the means to experiment with and shape their vision beyond the next quarterly plan. Frenetic and misaligned incentives within organizations too often dictate they must manage the existing business in a reactive mode, and consequently, they are routinely following a blinkered path, rather than anticipating a need for change. As managing the present takes oxygen from experimenting with futures, their time to enhance corporate imagination and strategy shrinks.

The future is something an organization must constantly shape and adapt to. A compelling vision should have the facility to formulate mandates that a team may use to gain a clearer view of what really needs to be done and — equally important — what may prevent them from doing it.

The bottom line then is to recognize the complexities of the business, society and technologies to create visions for areas that are meaningful to internal and external stakeholders, and to make sure these visions bend or adapt the overall mission, purpose, objectives and values of an organization.

The video of the Amazon Go shows what shopping looks like when a supermarket has no checkout. Extrapolating the capacities of technologies and anticipating behaviors, Amazon shared this fiction before the concept went into a trial period.

4. The exploration of futures to set today’s priorities

Furthering the vision through a Design Fiction approach helps executives and teams increase knowledge on a new technology, display an ambition on its applications, build credibility, enlist support for its execution, counter skepticism, create momentum and incorporate common ideals. Feedback from people with different perspectives anticipates expanded junctures for opportunities and challenges.

With Design Fiction, the audience is asked to hold a certain suspension of disbelief as to what is possible, and focus on the implications for the organization, the competition, a product, its customers, markets, and society in general, because the related promise made possible by new technology does far more than replacing old technology and behaviors.

Today, large organizations use Design Fiction to learn and iterate even before prototyping, wireframing or writing a line of code. Insights from these explorations can become mandates for research, a user study, a usable prototype, a strategy, or some combination of these. Amazon often applies the approach of working backwards. For instance, videos of Amazon Go or Amazon Prime Air were used for anticipating and demonstrating the near-future capabilities of the company. They tell provocative stories of a potential tomorrow offering the company a feedback mechanism for valuable insights into the public’s consent or desire for certain technological applications. Design Fiction without some frictions or closed to critiques can easily fall into corporate publicity showcasing sterile ‘flat-pack futures’.

Google’s Project Soli video was developed to conceptualize future applications of applied research capabilities regarding the development of a new interaction sensor using radar technology. Explaining the scientific “magic” behind these tiny gesture sensors helps researchers clearly articulate their ambitions and make the world aware of Google’s belief of the potential around this technology. The video provided a way to perform “micro” future studies that pay particular attention to our everyday life rituals, behaviors, and frictions, as short-term evolutions for exploring the standard objects or services that might fill these possible futures.

Design Fiction is not just a new way of sharing research outcomes, but also a new forum for communication and collaboration with a variety of partners. The Ikea Catalog from the near future was produced in a group effort bringing together collaborators from public sector bodies, academic institutes, and major organizations — including IKEA and Ericsson. It’s not the technology featured in the catalog, but the suggested implications of new benefits and rituals in our future lives which elicit an emotional response. This type of prompt or provocation tackles future-oriented problems or opportunities with an eye towards addressing concerns, not just about a concept’s viability, but the wider consequences of that viability.

It is not a specification, nor is it a prediction. The micro-fictions embedded in the Ikea Catalog from the near future are where Design Fiction makes subtle suggestions about how the near future may be a bit different from today. They are meant to provoke the imagination and spark a conversation regarding the futures of connected things.

Even governments have used Design Fictions to incentivise future-forward policy by engaging citizens with positive perceptions of innovation, acceleration, and change. Dubai, in the UAE, has established the Dubai Future Foundation which, among other initiatives, curates an annual Museum of the Future to facilitate community investment in the future, through immersive and participatory experiences.

For me, a successful Design Fiction means that a large audience within an organization can feel, touch, understand, and discuss near future opportunities. It provides convincing material for exploring unknowns, working through turbulent alternatives, contesting the status quo, or setting priorities for strategic alternatives. It creates a believable bridge from the current universe of an organization to its potential futures.

In the second part of this article, I describe how we put Design Fiction into practice at BBVA Data & Analytics.

5. Putting Design Fiction into practice

The banking industry is facing major changes with the digitalization of its core business that impacts the management of risk, trust, identity and decision-making, among other things. At BBVA Data & Analytics, we spearhead BBVA’s transformation into a data-driven financial group. We operate like an ambidextrous organization with two lines of inquiry: the Inside, which is about delivering data engines to optimize and sustain the established banking industry, and the Edge, which is about exploring new growth engines (e.g. cost reduction, revenue generating, new experiences) through algorithmic research and experiments linked to business models.

At BBVA Data & Analytics, we believe the knowledge derived from financial data can transform the banking industry, its relation with customers and its role in the world. We design fictions to question our analytical capabilities through ‘What if’ scenarios.

5.1. Create a momentum with the team

Our data scientists are embedded within multidisciplinary teams from other divisions and business units. They are proactive partners who think ahead of the curve beyond incremental changes and consider the implications of their work. They participate in the framing of the problems and in the conception of ideas. Together, we examine information with an objective of regularly updating an actionable vision for our Edge agenda. They are tasked with delivering compelling insights, and experimenting with new technologies — without constraints — to contemplate these impacts and how they might best be progressed or mitigated. From this line of applied algorithmic research, we build “What if” scenarios.

By using Design Fiction, we can build speculative evidences and focus on tangible things for an organization to consider, in addition to static slides, demos and presentation documents.

While we like to “think outside the box” relative to a large financial group, we also strive to work within the vision of the organization and create understanding about it. By using Design Fiction, we can build speculative evidences and focus on tangible things for an organization to consider, in addition to static slides, demos and presentation documents. These materials directly feed the visions as part of BBVA transforming into a digital and data-driven organization.

Typically, we start mapping the ongoing lines of investigation as defined by our vision. Next, we project their evolution into two or three iterations and create stories about what could be: Potentially, what could the resulting technology feel like? Where could it be used? Who would use it, and for what type of experience? Then, we can group them into some future scenarios to explore in more depth.

Visions are dynamic and re-calibrated, from mapping ongoing lines of investigation to seeking feedback from their dissemination in public.

As a provocation to tell stories about these potential technologies, rather than jumping into the development of an actual product or service, we might create a fictional advertisement, videos that share a concept before we experiment it, release notes, or other “props” in order to gain some practical answers to questions which might arise. For instance: Is this now, or will it ever be legal? What kind of technology do we need to master to make it happen? Does this raise new social responsibilities for us as a business? Do we really want to create this as a team? Who within the organization would want this future and who would not?

5.2. Engage the stakeholders

An organization is only as strong as its teams’ ability to collaborate with each other. We like to think that Design Fictions act as a totem or boundary objects for shared understanding, discussion and evaluation of changes that could bend visions and trajectories.

As an example, let’s say that a team has developed an advanced recommender engine to create personalized and targeted promotion campaigns for small shop owners. We can imagine the business model which might be helpful for this type of product, but we need to understand what it will feel like. It helps the different stakeholders of a project to engage with essential questions, to understand what the desired experience might be, and why the team should design a recommender system one way and not another.

The mission of the Payments team at BBVA Data & Analytics is to create a world where services around money transactions become even more personalized and fair. A tangible vision stretching the imagination in context can open the door to new idioms and vocabulary.

What are the potential unintended consequences for a small shop owner to run its own promotion campaigns? What can she expect from the results? What will she be allowed to do? What won’t she do anymore? How does she interact with that technology the first time, and then routinely after a month, one year, or more? How does that service become a habit? Inventive and appreciable observations from these questions can expose fruitful insights before a project even starts production, simply by creating fictional customer reviews, a user manual, a press release, or ads in a language familiar to the organization.

In essence, our data scientists construct visions, with a vested interest in conveying to the organization that their experimental technologies can exist in the real world, in the near future. We are asking others to participate by sharing their thoughts on the main features, attributes, and characteristics of the experience from our point of view, (the possible, the ethical), the user’s point of view, (the desirable, the beneficial) and the business’ point of view (the profitable, the legal). This approach not only makes the vision more meaningful and resilient, it makes the organization behave as a learning organization, and that may just be part of its vision.

5.3. Convince the decision makers

Design Fiction helps convince others of the benefits of a potential technological capacity. Feedback from people with different perspectives provides space for anticipating new opportunities and challenges. In effect, narrow frames of inquiry constrict vision, which can prevent people from exploring all aspects of an idea, thus limiting results, and often missing out on a great opportunity in favor of a workable one.

Decision makers, like most humans, crave certainty. They need to be told a story about what will happen next. Design Fictions provide a way to do that by asking strategic questions. They can push an organization to step into an uncomfortable zone which prompts them to explore the possibilities of world changing around value, risk, reputation, competition, and customers.

The visions that give an understanding of what an organization could aspire towards can also surface reactions as evidence of a barrier to change. Indeed, this type of reaction often validates the vision — as true innovation is rarely comfortable. Decision makers are often stuck in the modes of thinking and working which brought success in the past. Basically, Design Fiction can help get a feel of “what’s next” to mitigate feelings of uncertainty and anxiety. The goal is to leave people feeling inspired, not agitated.

For instance, a couple of years ago, our teams of data scientists became really good at detecting abnormal financial situations based on customer behaviors. We extrapolated that capacity into a vision around the possible advantages for customers with a bank account that can “drive itself” and automatically correct anomalies. We called this idea ‘Peace of Mind’, and used Design Fiction internally to express this potential by embedding the concept into a short story which explained how, and when, it would work. That exploration became one vision for 2017 at BBVA as CEO Carlos Torres explains at a Money2020 event:

Carlos Torres, CEO of BBVA, articulating his vision of “Peace of Mind”

5.4. Transform the vision to a mandate

If response to a new concept is “What would we do next?”, we take it as a sign we’re on the right track. The near future will soon be the present, so there is a “need to constantly adapt and ask: what are we doing?, where should we go? and, what are others doing? Additional investigation through complementary tools such as the Business Model Canvas, Systems Thinking, Three Horizons, or Agile Vision, can also provide enriching answers to these questions and move from fiction to facts and reality.

What if the design of automation together with Machine Learning techniques can lead to a dynamic and fair definition of prices? We want to make sure our technological ambition and its consequences are fully articulated within potential value propositions.

Typical actions associated with Design Fictions involve building credibility, enlisting support, countering skepticism, creating momentum and sharing a common vision. A desired outcome of a Design Fiction is a team mandate to make the vision become reality.

We are living in an era when social rules and business models are between the “no more” and the “not yet”.

6. Design Fiction to shape and share tangible visions

Design Fiction offers a set of values which advocates learning through curiosity, interrogation, and provocation using broadly connected themes. Like Science Fiction or an episode of Charlie Brooker’s Series Black Mirror, it can be a concrete demonstration of what emerging technologies can lead to, as well as unanticipated consequences. Design Fiction creates artifacts that deliver strategic insights to important questions. It can tell us more about the types of societies, and lives, an organization might help shape. It can tell us about the evolution of technologies, the world they might live in, the language used to describe them, people’s appropriations, the rituals, and the frustrations. It tells us about the ethics of the professionals who create these technologies, and the larger vision behind discovery. It tells us those who benefits from techno-science advances, and those who might be left behind.

We are living in an era when social rules and business models are between the “no more” and the “not yet”. Coming up with stories about technologies’ future is part of the process of realizing them. Now is the time to make an effort to set up the right expectations and convince others to expand their capacity for better understanding of technological opportunities and their implications.

Design Fiction is an easy way to enhance the imagination and vision of overburdened organizations, teams and executives. This, in turn, creates a capacity to execute and take mandates to the next level.

This article was originally published in BBVA Data & Analytics’ blog

Thanks to Mrs Smith, Israel Viadest and Nicolas Nova for their feedback.