Imagining Not Just Technology, But the World It Will Live In

Context is critical to creating new futures

Rendering of Hyperloop control facility. Image: Hyperloop One.

With a click of the vacuum locks — and a slight pop of the eardrum as pressure changes — the 9:20 slides out of the station. With a perceptible, but not uncomfortable, tug of G-force, the carriage (what a funny term for something so modern) gently, but steadily accelerates toward a maximum speed of 750 kph.

There’s hardly time to do anything on this 15 minute “lock to unlock” trip from Expo Station to central Abu Dhabi, save for placing a device or two on the wireless charging spot below the relaxing images in the display window, or perhaps taking a sip from the complimentary flask of karak tea.

At the other end of the line, conveyor pods drop to ground level exits and self-driving shuttles, some having broken off a cargo run, are waiting just outside to take commuters to their individual destinations. Pulling away into sparse, mostly driverless traffic, the reflection of the massive centipede-like structure glistens in the selfie mirror, helpfully deployed on vehicle entry.

As futuristic as this sounds, this is the vision of a technology already in development in the UAE and has begun testing around the world. Hyperloop is, as described, an innovation that promises to revolutionize transport by bringing both neighboring capitals and distant cities orders of magnitude closer. The teams competing to build these superfast connections want to make travel — business or pleasure — more convenient, while also substantially reducing motorway vehicle traffic jams (and therefore emissions).

It’s a nice story, but, as with many visionary narratives which pitch for a specific innovation or disruption, this one also runs the risk of burying the context of its use. We hear or see a lot about how the new technology, product or service is envisioned, but little or nothing about how adjacent factors shape it, or may re-shape or even make it obsolete on delivery.

We may get a view of breakthough concept, but what else is happening in this world of, say, 2030? What has changed in the intervening decade or more? What has remained stable? In the Future Design course at the Dubai Future Academy, we are able to use organizing frameworks such as STEEP (social, technological, economic, environmental, political) to ask: How have social needs or values shifted? What other mobility technologies have emerged? What kind of work would you be traveling to, or from, if any? How is an evolving energy landscape managing to support this hungry innovation? What do regional political relationships look like in travel destinations?

Asking these and other contextual questions give us the critical context we need to understand how these “hero” innovations change, and can be changed by, the forces and trends around them. Contextualization helps organization facing the future focus not just on making enormous leaps or moonshots, or finding breakthrough innovations alone, but instead build a richer, more valuable picture of these innovations within more complex future worlds. This helps these organizations avoid a “push from present” approach — bending the world to fit the innovation — in favor of a “pull from the future” strategy that leverages emergent opportunities and surfaces risks that may not even be apparent today.

As described in Part I of this series, the Future Design program provides participants the tools with which to approach these kinds of challenges. Not only does the programme provide space to find and examine a broad range of driving forces from different points of view, students also learn how to see the connections and interactions between future driving forces and trends, and understand how they shape each other. In the intensive course Changeist lead, teams map uncertainties, and take time to consider what forces might have been in play before, and consider how they might unfold together going forward. This provides a rich basis for the scenarios that might ultimately become the groundwork for new product, service or policy designs.

The opportunity to explore multiple factors leads to more direct confrontation of ethics. One team’s recent Genomic City project looked at how medical breakthroughs are shaped by, and/or shape systems, behaviors, and dynamics around them. The team considered how availability of breakthrough genomic treatments might change not only the lives of people treated in the coming decade, but also the role the government could or should play in genomic intervention.

A speculative welcome box from an imagined Dubai Genomic City to newlyweds. Image: Author

This project anticipated service and support needs for guiding this innovation into place and making it a success. The team additionally took into consideration whether generational changes in attitude or values would make the work of Genomic City easier, or more difficult, as well as speculating whether or not educational advances would be in place to support genomic R&D.

In a separate project looking at how Dubai might meet its ambitious future goals, investigation led one team not to focus on just one innovation, but to explore the mental health and resilience needs driven by trying to bring many big breakthroughs to reality in a short time. The value of this unexpected insight is significant: mental wellness, community support, and emotional resilience are as critical an element for success as any education, technology or patent, when building a culture of accelerated innovation.

Onboarding materials for Dubai Spirit, a speculative mental wellness experience. Image: still from project video.

The team recognized that concurrent drivers such as climate change, changes in employment or economic stability would add extra pressures to the lives of those expected to deliver on such high goals. Their project, Dubai Spirit, presented a programme that could ensure a mentally resilient — as well as as happy — future population.

Foresight is, of course, more than single step. As part of a well-rounded analysis of possible futures, the step of mapping context is critical and why we give it the attention it deserves as part of a broader curriculum. Pairing powerful sensemaking tools with ways of bringing future concepts to life are the core of what Future Design provides.

Beyond providing a platform to learn about emerging drivers of change, Future Design can equip students with tools to:

  • Identify possibilities and risks upstream, before an innovation lands,
  • Understand the impacts and connections between issues and innovations,
  • Uncover surprising future issues that point toward challenges in the present; and
  • Futureproof design by anticipating change in different contexts and scenarios.

In the last of this three-part series, we will look at the spectrum of skills and capabilities Future Design prepares professionals to use in their work — from the analytical to the creative.

For more information on Dubai Future Academy’s Future Design programme, check here. For a look at our launch experience, see this essay.

Thanks to Susan Cox-Smith and Jessica Bland for their comments and suggestions.