Design Principles for De-Marginalizing the Future

How do we ensure that our collective future is conceived and constructed by all of us, and not just the powerful?

Who gets to imagine the future and, brick by metaphorical brick, build it? Original photo by Joshua Sortino on Unsplash

I was recently asked to write a short piece prompted by the question “If you could create the Guide, what would be in it? What would be important elements to be included?” The prompt was part of The Guide Project — a new Arizona State Initiative exploring approaches to quite literally designing our collective future. The published piece was indeed short — this is the longer version.

Not being a historian, I wouldn’t know how trustworthy the adage “history is written by the victors” is. But assuming that it isn’t totally off the mark, there’s surely a forward-looking counterpart to this aphorism which would go something like “the future is designed by the powerful.”

I must confess that I’m not yet convinced homo sapiens have the tools and abilities to truly design the future. If the cutting edge of science tells us anything, it’s that there’s a fractal-like depth to the complexity of the universe we live in, and what we think of as certain all too often turns out to be illusion.

Despite my skepticism though, humanity is without doubt developing an increasingly powerful toolkit that’s enabling us to nudge and caress the future into something resembling our dreams and aspirations. We’re making transformative strides in how we code with DNA — the base-code of all living systems on Earth. We’re doing the same with the “code” of atoms and molecules as we design materials that tap into the unique world of quantum behavior. And we’ve created — from nothing — a unique new world of cyberspace, where we can not only indulge our wildest dreams, but increasingly translate them into physical and biological reality.

When we combine these quite astounding technological advances with what we’re learning about social and institutional design-spaces, it can feel like we’re stepping into a new era of control over our collective future. And this is only amplified by our seemingly-limitless belief in what we can achieve if we put our collective minds to it.

“any guide to designing the future needs to ensure that the design process is “de-marginalized” so that everyone has the opportunity and ability to contribute to the extent of their abilities”

Whether this vision is real, or mere delusion, remains to be seen. But even if we’re only scratching the surface of our ability to design the future, there is an undeniable power that comes with the design-knowledge and capabilities that we now wield.

But who gets to flex this power? Who gets to imagine the future and, brick by metaphorical brick, build it?

Too often, the aspirational architects of our collective future are the wealthy, the powerful, the well-connected, and the well-educated. But what about those who aren’t part of this elite club? How much say in designing the future will people have who don’t have the appropriate connections, or the “right” sort of social legitimacy? How will the poor, the homeless, the discriminated-against, and the educationally challenged, contribute to what the future looks like?

These are communities that are too-easily marginalized in the grand experiment of designing the future. And yet, designed or not, the future belongs as much to them as it does the powerful, influential, and well-connected.

Because of this, any guide to designing the future needs to ensure that the design process is “de-marginalized” so that everyone has the opportunity and ability to contribute to the extent of their abilities, without the powerful running roughshod over the decision-making process.

This will not be easy. But unless principles of inclusivity are baked into such a design guide, the default will a future of the powerful, by the powerful, for the powerful.

Design principles for de-marginalizing the future

One intriguing starting point for such a set of principles is to take inspiration from a two-thousand-year-old “design guide for the future” — the Beatitudes.

These of course require some re-interpretation if they are to inspire design principles for a secular de-marginalized future. But imagine a guide that includes the following:

  1. Consider the poor, and strive for a future where they have plenty.
  2. Remember those who mourn, and design a future that will alleviate their sorrow.
  3. Listen to those who are quiet, who doubt themselves, and whose voice is easily drowned out, as they have as much of a claim to the future as everyone else.
  4. Pay attention to those who advocate for social justice, and work toward creating a future that is responsive to them.
  5. Hold in high esteem those who are merciful, and design a merciful future for them.
  6. Remember those who can’t care for themselves, and build a future that cares for them.
  7. Elevate people who mend rifts and build bridges, and design a future that values their skills.
  8. Recognize those who are persecuted, and endeavor to create a future where they are not.

These are all social design principles, and they underlie the reality that, no matter how powerful our technological capabilities become, any guide to designing the future must channel these in socially responsible and responsive ways.

In other words, if we want to ensure that the future is not simply conceived and constructed by the powerful, we need a guide that supports a future that is designed of the people, for the people, and by the people.