The Building Blocks of the Future: Mindsets, Skill Sets and Toolsets, Oh My!

Kaz Brecher
Oct 6, 2020 · 6 min read

Thoughts from Made By Us teammate, Kaz Brecher

To power a better tomorrow, it’s never been more important to harness lessons from the past. History has been unevenly written and unevenly shared, but even if we never arrive at a singular “truth” or telling of our story, it is our aim to do better, to make the tent bigger, to understand a more multifaceted perspective. Made By Us is a beacon, a collective effort and guiding force that provides historical context and perspective to inspire action. We use our Medium presence as a forum for exposing more of our process, our perspectives, and the people doing the day-to-day work behind our projects.

We shape the future whether we’re trying to or not

Made By Us was founded with the aim of offering history in new ways to the young, and young at heart, who care about taking an active role in shaping the future of our country. As part of our mission, we are committed to experimentation, engaging “we the people” in our design process, and learning from each of our unique lived experiences as they intersect with perspectives from the experts in our institutions. So, as submissions continue to come into the My Wish For U.S. platform — a chance for all us to share and explore visions from across the country — we wondered if the movers and shakers out there responding so enthusiastically might be interested in some of the tools that innovators and futurists use to turn vision into reality.

You can check out more wishes from Civics Unplugged here or explore the My Wish For U.S. data for yourself!

This is how the Future Made By Us workshop series was hatched. In each interactive, online session, we shared a different technique that futurists and innovators use to connect a vision for tomorrow with actions you can take today. Together, we explored Backcasting; Ecosystem Mapping and Power Mapping; and, with Lisa Kay Solomon of the Stanford d.school, how to Vote By Design. Every day, we see more and more people asking, “have we been here before?” and “if so, what can we use to guide us today?” This influenced the design of these workshops, which combined historical context with design thinking tools, taking practical, actionable and powerful tools out of rarified corporate boardrooms or academic settings and into the hands of anyone curious enough to show up.

Historical context + the cutting edge = hope

Almost 300 people signed up for the 7 sessions we offered, from every corner of the country, ranging in age from 15 to 75, indicating a hunger for new ideas about how to make a difference. That seems to be the power of Made By Us — we have brought together 85 history and civics organizations from across the country, with more joining every week, representing perspectives across a spectrum from the Birthplace of Country Music to the Arab American National Museum and the Birmingham Civil Rights Museum to the Missouri Historical Society. By bringing together these varied records of life across our American history, we can come up with better ideas to answer the question: what can we do today to impact tomorrow?

Our workshops echoed exactly that truth, which is central to innovation and design thinking — teams with more diversity in life experience, perspective, and reference points tend to generate more durable and inspired solutions. A bit like the folktale about Stone Soup — in which a group of villagers each contribute a tiny ingredient to create a hearty meal which all of them enjoy together, impossible to have pulled off without the collective effort — tackling the future benefits from all of us throwing in what we can, in the context of a shared vision.

Our Backcasting workshops explored wishes shared at MyWishForUS.com — for example, wondering what life might be like if quality education was truly accessible to all, not just tied to the lottery of zip code — working backwards to tease out the need for more research, the distribution of funding, and considering the physical and technological affordances in each location itself.

Other groups worked on what it would mean for all students to get a more complete historical education than our parents did, surfacing a core belief that “history belongs to all of us” which bolstered our sense that Made By Us is on the right track. Ecosystem and power mapping revealed clues about “how we got here” and “who stands to benefit” from current structures and interrelationships in the realms of everything from representation in museums to intergenerational collaboration on tackling climate change.

Snippets from the Backcasting (above) and Ecosystem Mapping (below) online collaborative worksheets that we designed

While our sessions ran 90 minutes, we got near unanimous feedback that they were too short — a rare finding for a public program in our virtual lives these days! But using techniques like the Five Whys, which digs at the root causes and structures that may stay hidden without deep interrogation but actually govern our day-to-day experiences, sparked excitement about the potential of taking the tools out of our sessions and into personal passion areas.

Post-session surveys showed we just scratched the surface of a greater possibility: that people are hungry for tools to navigate the uncertainty of the future with history as an anchor, a springboard and an inspiration.

It’s as much (and sometimes more!) about the “how” as the “what”

Our Vote By Design sessions, which were done in partnership with the Stanford d.school team who prototyped the format and materials, clearly demonstrated that how we think can be as important as what we know (or what we think we know). They have been working with educators and groups like Made By Us to spread the tools and methods as they prototype further. Using the election process as a way to slow down and consider how we evaluate what we want in our leaders proves itself an incredible experience — whether you’re a first-time voter or have been voting for decades.

What if we could ignite the next generation of voters? Vote by Design is a non-partisan learning experience designed to promote civic engagement and agency among all voters.

Presidential historian, Doris Kearns Goodwin, who supports the Vote By Design approach, says:

“As a citizen it’s our most important function to somehow be able to evaluate: Who do we want as our leader who’s going to mobilize us to go forward towards our goals? When you think about evaluating candidates for the presidency, I think it’s the same thing as evaluating anybody you’re going to choose as a leader in whatever organization you’re in. So look and see if they’ve exhibited humility, have they exhibited empathy, have they exhibited self-awareness, self-discipline, self-control? Do they show an ambition that’s just for themselves? Do they seem to want to make a difference in people’s lives? Are they approachable, are they accessible? Are they honest when they’ve made mistakes?”

By asking ourselves to look back through history, examining the nuances of what we actually value and why it matters to us and to the country, we become more powerful citizens. Try it for yourself: who is your favorite president and why? What characteristics, like those above, did that president display and what impact did that have on our country? Are you using those same criteria to evaluate candidates today? Vote By Design has made a Presidential Debate Scorecard, which builds on the skills we began to develop earlier this summer.

Since we got such a resounding response to our sessions, we are going to extend our Future Made By Us experiment in the coming months. In partnership with the Better Arguments Project, we’ll be holding a session to support us all in having smarter, not fewer, arguments about the very ideals on which this country was founded. As a national civic initiative, it was created to help bridge divides, not by papering over our differences but arming us with ways to get closer. Indeed at My Wish For U.S., we’re not surprised to see conflicting visions for the future. So, learning how to consider the benefits and drawbacks of a tech boom, for example, or hold the tensions between liberty and equality, might just make the difference as we navigate this election season and beyond.

We’ll share details about this event on our social media channels, so give us a follow on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook to be the first to know and let us know how your own experiments are going!

(History) Made By Us

Powering our future with history.

(History) Made By Us

To power a better tomorrow, it’s never been more important to harness lessons from the past. That’s where Made By Us comes in. We use our Medium presence as a forum for exposing more of our process, our perspectives, and the people doing the day-to-day work behind our projects.

Kaz Brecher

Written by

A Curious Catalyst. THNK Faculty. Story matters more than medium, but pick the right one & use the right words, images, & interfaces, the right people hear it.

(History) Made By Us

To power a better tomorrow, it’s never been more important to harness lessons from the past. That’s where Made By Us comes in. We use our Medium presence as a forum for exposing more of our process, our perspectives, and the people doing the day-to-day work behind our projects.