Majid Behboudi
May 23, 2019 · 6 min read

Futures Wheel | Practical Frameworks for Ethical Design

Last summer, I had the opportunity to work side-by-side and mentor one of the brightest and most passionate people on ethics in design: Gavin Goh. His determination of the importance of ethics within the design process and digital tech converted my fundamental beliefs from being a subject that was unfixable to why it is more important than ever.

Gavin Goh and team organized a meetup (July 2018) through their organization iMPACT UXE where I met one of the speakers Mazi Javidani who presented unintended consequences of design. He gave ways and approaches on how designers can start evolving their practices and processes to lend themselves for emergence.

After the event, we started our journey on asking ourselves how we could evolve the tools and approaches we need as designers that enable us to design systems/services/products? Reviewing works of Tristan Harris (Center of Humane Technology), Omidyar Network (EthicalOS), iMPACT UXE, and many more…we noticed a gap within the design process on how most methodologies align themselves to “speed to market” and communication rather than long term impact and designing for emergence.

iMPACT UXE is an inviting social space to discuss the rising importance of ethics within the realm of digital tech. We want to promote learning and debate on the impact of our decisions in the products we create. Do we have a responsibility for our creations, and how can we take action?

Empathy = Empathy

In the past decade, organizations have been embracing design thinking and HCD approaches to their business offerings and now feeling the ramifications of their unintended implications that have led to huge losses and aversion. It may come as a surprise to some that services designed to improve our quality of life often end up creating unintended suffering for users. While service design is intentional by nature, there are often unintended consequences that have negative impacts on users.

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The impact of well-meaning design often has unintended consequences. Using systems thinking, we can apply an ethical rigour that moves beyond measuring the immediate impact of a system. Systemic design tools such as implication wheel, or Nancy Bocken’s value mapping wheel can help us not only consider the second or third order impact of innovation, but also allow us to see how the value created for one group, can destroy value for another.

Futures Wheel

We developed the Futures Wheel canvas to give more structure to the wheel when used in the context of a participatory workshop. Here, we propose the STEEP+1 framework a superimposed organization layer. You may use other frames such as 2x2 critical uncertainty matrix, or a framework informed by future trends used in Wendy Schultz’s Manoa Process.

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Futures Wheel is a decision making, strategic planning, and foresight tool that allows stakeholders and participants to map out multiple implications of a potential change. Futurist Glen first introduced futures wheel as a way to help students understand the consequences of any change and was later developed further by Joe Barker to be applicable in government and corporate settings.

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Futures wheel can be used at different stages of design. It can help in the initial stages when scanning for opportunities or later in the process, exploring how a solution may unfold. It is most useful when done with all stakeholders in the room as it can also serve as a highly effective decision-making tool.

Future Wheel Helps Us:

Imagine Possible Futures
Futures Wheel helps us design with an awareness of possible futures. Rather than thinking about the future, FW enables us to consider multiple parallel futures and therefore prepares us for best and worst case scenarios.

Build Consensus
FW helps build consensus by considering all outcomes and measuring the desirability. Every person makes decisions (consciously or subconsciously) based on their individual mental model of what they think the future will be. FW helps all stakeholders download these assumptions and have a more productive conversation around the outcomes of their decisions.

Promote Critical Thinking
FW encourages participants to think beyond the immediate outcomes and towards a long term vision of how things will unfold. Considering the positive and negative implication of a change and their 2nd and 3rd order impact also invite participants to think more critically about a change.

Identify Opportunities and Risks
FW helps to highlight the areas where there are opportunities and risks. It can help generate ideas, solutions, services, and products that amplify future opportunities and mitigate potential risk.

Promote Systems Thinking
Through considering multiple implications, FW compels participants to zoom in and out when thinking about a change. FW also encourages thinking of different causalities and how diverse implications can influence one another.

Communicate Complex Relationships
FW can be used as a great visual mapping tool that would clearly communicate all the different implications of a change, in one sheet.

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Futures Wheel Canvas

STEEP+1: Stands for Social, Technological, Economic, Environmental, Political. Each STEEP quadrant is designated to help you think divergently when considering different implications. There is a custom quadrant which you can choose based on emerging patterns.

Change: Change is the most inner circle. This is where you place the phenomena whose implications you want to explore. Change can include New Policy, New Product, New Service, New Feature, Organizational Change, Emerging Trends, Strategic Goals or Objectives, Any Event

Direct Impact: Direct implications are immediate consequences of the change event. If you have doubts, ask yourself: How does [change event] result in [implication]? if you have an answer, that is the more direct consequence.

Indirect Impact (2nd & 3rd Order): 2nd order implications (placed in the second most outer circle) are the implications that are the consequences of any of the direct implications. 3rd order implications (placed on the outermost circle) are the consequences of any of the 2nd order implications.

Examples: You may place a print out of another Futures Wheel example in this area to help participants have become familiar with the potential outcome.

Ideas/Solutions: When using Futures Wheel as an ideation tool, you may use this area to place any intervention or solution that would help amplify the opportunities or mitigate the risks.

Parking Lot: Throughout the process, you may come across implications that are 2nd, or 3rd order, place them in the parking lot for later. You may also use this area for any implication that is not within the scope of the session.


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