When I was a kid I remember I wanted to be an Astronaut, I also wanted to fly and go to many many far away places, yes — I have always been a bit of a dreamer, an explorer! Then I started growing and understanding a little more about the world around me and decided I wanted to be an Inventor. Although at the time I really didn’t know what that meant I knew I wanted to create stuff to make lives better. Years later I realized that there was such a thing out there called Industrial Design, so I went for it. The first couple of years were not easy. I always struggled with the system, thus never been an A student but I was truly passionate about Design. It was probably here when I started to discover that design meant so much more than “stuff”. Design was my life and I was gonna find that out soon enough.
One of my first approaches to design in the real world was when I did my Social Service for one summer in a community in Hidalgo, Mexico — high in the mountains where there is not much, except for oregano plantations and beautiful landscapes. I was there to help producers with packaging designs for their organic products. It was quite refreshing to be part of the project not only for the design task itself but mostly because I got to live in their community, eat their food, learn their ways — interact with these amazing people who see the world in a very distinctive way. This experience made me realize how much you learn from sharing moments, genuine moments and deep conversations.
Later on, I had the opportunity to start working in the field of Product Innovation; it was amazing, fun and oh! so enlightening. I confirmed — among other things — how much I enjoy the interaction with people. And here I don’t only mean hanging out or meeting new people (which is also something I really enjoy) but the interaction in terms of design and in 3 particular ways. The first one is teamwork, I truly enjoy collaboration, bouncing ideas off each other, challenge and to be challenged — creative conflict! The second one is the interaction with the client and/or stakeholder. This one is interesting because you get to understand another perspective; these groups of people are generally different than yourself, they have an other mindset, ideas, personality. And the third one is of course, the user. I love discovering and trying to understand what the user is going through, and how design can help them in their journey, how design can enable. The more projects I was part of the more I realized how important it was and still is, to ask the right questions, and not just design with no clear purpose or a real need. Unfortunately, it is easier said than done and most organizations out there still lack this critical concept. But we will come back to this later…
As Product Designer, Researcher and Strategist, I was lucky enough to have been part of fascinating projects, those in which I could make an impact — that impact I was craving for — and that opened my eyes to so much more. I started to get into the fields of social innovation, sustainability, strategic design, emotional design, social design, social change, etc. This door I opened lead me to explore more of the non-tangible face of design, its methods and great potential for social and environmental change as well as a means to shape a better future for all.
So here is where things get messy, ahem…I mean interesting! Foresight, what? Do you recall that door I opened? Well, it goes all the way into the future! I found this program at OCAD University in Toronto, Strategic Foresight & Innovation *psst psst, highly recommended — which combined all I was looking for in a post-grad, and so much more. Why to study again if I don’t like school? Because this was not just another Master in Design, this was a highly practical one with a social and sustainability focus, so a big plus already. It is also comprised of a great variety of methodologies, tools and frameworks which is where Foresight comes in. But the best part of this program is the people you get to work with — a very competitive program where brilliant people from all over the world and with completely different minds come highly motivated to change the world. This chapter of my life was once again very challenging and equally enriching. I moved yet again to a different place, a different culture and what it felt like a new world; this changed me again into what I am today, a Futurist!
Spacewalker…did I become an astronaut after all?
Being a Futurist sounds cool, hey? It sure does, just like being a Designer. Unfortunately most of the times it can be confusing, and sometimes even misleading. So, first. What does a Designer do? In a nutshell, solve problems, a variety of them in which the solution can take a million different forms. You have probably heard that a lot, designer — problem solver. Now, what does a Futurist do? Well, we solve problems too, we start thinking about the problems today to design a tomorrow. We use timeframes that are farther in the future but…yeah, a tomorrow, a 2030 a 2050. A futurist makes sense of the world today, we look at what is coming our way today, tomorrow and the following days, in order to build, to shape, to create a future YOU want. And by you I mean you as an individual, a company, an organization, government body…
If you think about it, we all have a bit of a Futurist in ourselves. From day one as hunters and gatherers and during the agricultural/industrial revolutions we have been looking at the future: is it probable that it will rain? Would we have enough food for tomorrow if it doesn’t? Should I plant new crops today, should I eat it all? Even when you study a career or plan a family you think about what you need to do today to get to where you want to. Well, Foresight is kind of like that, and as Futurists we help you navigate Space (pun intended), an environment, an industry. We help you understand that depending on your actions today, the way the future might look like. We help you build a pathway, steps to follow to get there. And this is the important part and one of the reasons we like to talk about futures in plural, because the future is not written yet, promise! There certainly things such as climate change that are going to affect all possible futures, these are called predetermined events, but there are also other uncertain ones (such as the Market, for example) we all can work with to create that future we call preferable — there are many other futures in between but let’s not get technical just yet. There is so much to unpack about Foresight which will make for another post another time, but what is actually important to talk about now is Experiential Futures, and this because it might help you connect Design and Foresight. So, what is Experiential Futures? Exactly that, future scenarios that you experience now; an immersive experience in which the main goal is to create an impact in the audience, participants or stakeholders. The idea here is to bring one or more scenarios to life in the form of an artifact, en exhibit, a workshop, and get people to live it. One of the advantages of Experiential Futures is how tangible these futures can feel for all stakeholders involved. I believe that Experiential Futures is a way of creating empathy. Empathy between clients and customers maybe, or empathy and understanding towards an environment, an industry, ourselves as humanity. A powerful thing, I believe, is that it helps one grasp what’s possible, and how one would feel if that were to happen. For instance, in a really cool project Future Proof about Food Security we showcased food items at risk of extinction. After the whole experience, during the debrief (which is the session afterwards where the interesting discussion takes place) we had one participant say something like: I never thought I would miss bananas, I took them for granted.
I find this part of the whole Foresight process super exciting, because as a designer it is always cool to see your ideas, concepts, stories come to life. Being part of the whole process is really exciting, and towards the end, when you see the people experience this environment and their reactions, you kind of close the loop. It is like a prototype being tested, in a way. The key to it is to be as authentic as possible when designing this future world so it feels real, so its convincing enough to create that something in the audience. See? Design and foresight work really great together!
And now, what is all this Futures Space talk? Futures Space is a network which connects Freelance Futurists (like me) to organizations and companies. It is a collaborative place where we learn and challenge each other and the industries we work in. Tanja, the Founder and Guardian wrote an amazing article about it. If you haven’t done so, check it out here.
What it means to me to be a Futurist, and part of Futures Space!
Fast forward to the present, and here I am in Berlin once again exploring and broadening my horizons. Collaboration! Impact! These words are key at Futures Space and the reasons I joined the network (besides of course, the amazing people who are part of this). As you might have noticed, it is critical for me to be part of the change, the transformation. It is important for me to use what’s in my toolbox to enable and facilitate the change that is needed, probably now more than ever.
Remember how we talked about the fact that what you do today really affects tomorrow, and has great impact (both positive or negative) in our future? Well, it really does! What you do today matters and has consequences. In Foresight, we use these categories: Social — Technological — Environmental — Economic — Political and Values (STEEP+V) as a way to analyze the impact of external events such as trends or drivers. This tool is a great way to understand that everything has an impact on the world and vice versa, and that this can be 6-fold. Therefore, every step taken needs to be well thought. A simple example: recruiting. There are now algorithms which can read resumes much faster than an HR team, right? So what? What are the implications of that trend and in which area will we see this change — socially, technologically, perhaps? Similarly, in the car industry — are we looking at the whole system when we decide to switch to all electric? What are we going to do with all those lithium batteries when we don’t need them anymore? Did we think about the implications when we produced billions of cars decades ago?
We NEED to rethink what we are doing today and how that is shaping our future. We cannot continue with the discourse “oops, we designed these robots and they are now racist and will overpower humanity”. No! We need to think about the unintended consequences of our designs, of our actions. As designers, we are responsible for the things we create. We need to ask the right questions and design with purpose. As humans, businesses, leaders, we need to start thinking about the next 5, 10, 20+ years!
It is now appropriate to share one of my favorite Foresight exercises, which is the Polak Game (do check out the article for details on how to use it!) The way it works is you place participants on a matrix with two axis, agency and expectations, and you ask them to walk themselves in any one of the 4 corners depending on how optimistic vs pessimistic they feel about the future and how much they think they can do about it. I like to think I’m in the upper-right corner: the future will be getting better and we can do something about it. Yes, I’m an optimistic, but don’t be fooled, I’m also realistic and aware that we need to act NOW and EVERYDAY onward to make that happen. I want to leave you with the latter, because part of my journey has been to figure this out myself, and an ongoing one is to help organizations and decision-makers understand it as well. Most importantly, though, is to guide them to act on it. I invite you to question, to ask, to act — and design your future!