Keeping an eye on the future: McKinsey Design’s Phil Balagtas

McKinsey’s Phil Balagtas has his eye on the future. As an Experience Design Director at McKinsey Design, he brings his unique perspective to the many ways design can not only shape the present, but also transform the future of emerging technology and our world. Working with McKinsey, Phil applies his knowledge of digital design to a broad array of projects including financial services, consumer electronics and even aviation.

Even though McKinsey keeps him busy and challenged, he makes time to collaborate with his peers on educating others about designing a better future through the nonprofit he cofounded known as The Design Futures Initiative, as well as the associated global Meetup group Speculative Futures. The nonprofit focuses on one of his passions, Speculative Design, which is an ideology and a method to manifest possibilities, to prepare us for inconvenient challenges and to facilitate a more desirable, responsible path into the future.

The initiative’s annual conference, PRIMER, is the first conference dedicated to speculative and critical design and futurists in the US. Phil explains that as futurists, “we are able to solve problems by developing and designing artifacts, future scenarios and manifestations of what our world might look like in 10 to 100 years and beyond.” Speculative design imagines the impact and the potential of future tech like AI, robotics, synthetic biology, general sciences, autonomous cars, and more. Conceptual designs and ideas are used to ask fundamental questions that will impact our future societies. For example, one might ask how developments in biotech will shape the way our bodies respond to a world that’s experiencing the effects of higher temperatures, pollution and toxified resources from climate change.

The Design Futures Initiative Board of Directors and PRIMER Conference Operations Team

Some of the biggest challenges design futurists like Phil are wrestling with involve heady subjects like the ethics of design and technology. Determining the impact of new technology such as machine learning to mitigate issues like mass job loss or accelerate benefits like improved agriculture practices is an essential skill for anyone dealing with the future of tech. This requires the kind of research and analytical thinking, coupled with design chops, that makes McKinsey Design teams strong. As a global strategy company that works with some of the world’s leading industries, opportunities to shape company culture through digital and strategic transformation are commonplace.

“We’re able to provide a path to deliver meaningful products and to help them make smarter decisions about the future, that can ultimately help shape society for the better. McKinsey is the perfect place to discuss the most pressing issues and possibilities of our time,” Phil says.

The Design Futures Initiative’s PRIMER conference was held In May, bringing together some of the best minds in speculative design, strategic foresight, design futures, and discursive design. The event’s keynote speakers were Stuart Candy, an Associate Professor in the Carnegie Mellon School of Design, and Ani Liu, an experimental artist and speculative technologist trained at MIT Media Lab. With such a large undertaking, a challenge in planning PRIMER came from balancing life at McKinsey and conference planning. Phil credits Sarah Hendrix, his conference co-planner and the Design Futures Initiative’s Treasurer, with the phenomenal success of this year’s event.

When asked “Why call it ‘PRIMER?” Phil replied, “We believe it means that the things we speculate about, the cultural, economic, political, and environmental implications are “priming” our audience and society for possible futures. And we’ve created this platform not just to share work but to really ignite a concern about how things could be, and how we can avert the dangers and fortify opportunities for designing a better tomorrow.”

Personal Carbon Economy Algae Ruff Collar” by Shihan Zhang (model: Bonny Guo)

A conference centered around such a big theme (this year: Transformation and Possibilities) draws some exciting speakers and attendees, all talking about heady subjects that will impact us all. This conference is designed to foster connections between the brightest minds on this topic and advance smarter thinking and research around speculative design, which makes it an ideal project for someone working with McKinsey — a firm wholly centered on the power of connections and possibilities that helps clients achieve big goals.

Participants envision a future through the eyes of their great grandchild in Alana Aquilino’s workshop: Transgenerational Futures

Phil has big goals for PRIMER and Speculative Futures, including educating young futurists in design thinking, future thinking, and ethics in strategic foresight. Another goal is expansion — as the project gains traction it is reaching futurists around the world and connecting the brightest minds in speculative design. Speculative Futures is now in six major cities worldwide with over 2000 members, while PRIMER is now starting an EU conference. PRIMER 19 will be held in New York next year.

“Given the advancement of transportation technology like Hyperloop and autonomous cars, what will these do to the world’s economies? What cognitive abilities will take a backseat and what new abilities will arise within a more AI-driven and automated lifestyle? We try to ask the hard questions about the implications of design, not just what the product possibilities are.”
— Phil Balagtas

If you love the work Phil is doing, you may enjoy our report on Future Cities, where we take a look at just how smart future cities can be, including the implications for saving lives and helping make quality of life better for everyone.

Participants use Sami Niemelä’s Actionable Futures Toolkit: a set of canvases made to build and align a future for an organization, service, or product