Making Space for Futures
Creating a physical terrain for anticipation
Over the course of the fall and winter, I was privileged to sit for a number of interviews and podcasts in support of the launch of our book How to Future: Leading and Sense-making in an Age of Hyperchange. During several of those interviews and discussions I was asked about what people or organizations can do to start futuring—taking the first steps into making active sensing and sensemaking about possible futures part of their ongoing activity.
We cover this topic in some depth in the book, making suggestions about how futuring can be woven into behavior and practice. A number of my and Madeline Ashby’s suggestions center around repeat practice—habituating oneself or a group to think forward even while thinking about now. We write about having regular discussions, collecting signals, sharing perspectives and so on. But in several of the interviews, I found myself making a more concrete suggestion: make space for the future.
What did I mean? In this moment of deep pandemic-driven dislocation, it’s tempting to think it was a metaphysical, or at least metaphorical, suggestion. Something like hold space for the future. Well, yes, that too. But I did mean something concrete, physical, and practical: create a physical space in your environment for the future to live, be examined, be reconfigured, be contested. A wall, a tabletop, a white board, a shelf, a hallway. The space doesn’t matter (ok, it can, functionally, as you’ll read in a moment), but its presence does.
Before I go further, I’ll say a little about the source of this statement. For those of us who work in the futures field full-time or have foresight as a major part of our jobs, the future never goes away. We couldn’t shake it if we tried. It lives a kind of bi-cameral existence in our heads, alongside the present (and maybe the past, if your mind palace is particularly well appointed). However, for most people it’s a shapeshifting abstraction. A perceptual phantom. A memory in reverse. Most people don’t typically hold it with them physically unless they’re carting around some Gibsonian maldistribution (shhh, I know, just go with it). If you’re particularly enmeshed in the challenges of the present, consideration of the future is a luxury.
In the autumn, my colleagues and I were running a workshop for a lovely group of leaders of various social organizations, all of whom were (and still are) run off their feet by the challenges of aiding their communities in a still ongoing moment of severe stress and need. The ideas discussed in the workshop might linger in the mind, but tools and methods for futuring would be tough to put into action without serious effort. As a last thought in closing I said “Make a space. Somewhere in your office, shopfront, or by the lunch table. Make a space to put the future.”
Silence for a moment.
I explained. “Write things down. Capture ideas, examples, provocations. Stick them in that space. On a wall so other people can see, and add their own.” Boom. Like temporal gardening. Planting ideas, others adding to them, let those ideas expand. Build an allotment of signals, collecting others, until you have something that makes sense, means something new, or makes you stop and think. Then someone else joins the conversation. You talk, and maybe have a brief debate over two cups of tea. You both hang out for ten minutes after work and move a few things around. Before you know it, you’re sharing your space with a sticky future to which you add new thoughts, torn-out articles, or a printed statistic. You’ve made a space.
The idea itself came from two places. In our own work, often with a project or forecast, we build our own space. At first, it’s digital, in databases, Google docs, spreadsheets, (now) Miro boards and the like. Signals flow smoothly from online sources and storage into sensemaking spaces and structures. But almost inevitably, at some point the digital becomes physical. Things get converted to paper, stuck on timelines or in thematic clusters, and moved around. Those of us who are physically proximate will stand and discuss. Maybe only one thing moves in a week. Maybe the whole thing gets completely rebuilt. But we use this physical space to hold persistent thought. We iterate, go away, think in the shower, street or supermarket, and come back to it. Sometimes we’ll share online with distant colleagues, pointing the camera at the wall. But as long as it’s there, the topic remains open.
We even recommend this to some clients, and practice it with students. Build a rough draft roadmap of a future, and sit with it. Take time to question, add, edit. Let everyone digest. You’re co-habitating with a future. We accept that a given future is contingent, shapeable, subjective. Giving it a physical space in which to take shape makes these properties material.
The second source is the futures room. This practice dates back some years, and originated with some very present-focused futures clients inside a few Big Brands. A futures room was often a physical room or space that was commissioned or built temporarily in which products and other physical items that represented signals about the future would be collected and displayed for people throughout the organization to browse. Many of these were artifacts of the present that represented something new to the company, or signposted a shift. For American companies at the time (early 2000s), these were often products, ads, or objects from places where their possible futures were already happening, often in so-called emerging markets. They were interesting to source and build, and became places for concentrated futures to assert themselves, inspire or compel action. Lurking in these spaces meant overhearing conversations peppered with phrases like “I had no idea…” and “..but what if we…”
So, a few examples to consider as you make space for the future in your own environment:
- Signal spaces — These are simple. Clear a spot on the wall in a common room, clearly label it “Signal Space” or “Signals of the Future” or whatever grabs attention, put a few stickie-note pads and pens nearby and give people a task. These can be general things like “Come in an add a new signal of change you noticed today,” or “Bring examples of the future of [your field or market].” Make sure everyone is aware of what you mean, and give everyone the responsibility of bringing or suggesting something. With even a few people, this space may fill over time. People will stop and read, and maybe comment or build on something. Add photos, data points, or other supporting bits. Set a time once a week, maybe Friday lunch or a set tea-break, and have an informal discussion about what’s there and what it might mean. Keep track of these “impacts” or implications, and let them collect. Congratulations, you own a “Signal Space.” And a running conversation about the future.
- Trend walls—This is just the next step. Take a moment to cluster similar signals, and label them with a name. What trend(s) do they point to? What does a particular trend mean for you or your organization? Keep these clusters, reconfigure them, or maybe start to rate them by impact or uncertainty. It’s good to have a space beside your space at this point. You’re in deep.
- Provocation walls—Here, the impacts and implications move to the foreground. This might just be a space where someone posts one big provocation about the future each week, and everyone has a chance to respond. What if X disappeared in five years? What if people no longer need Y? What if our funding stopped in six months? Again, it’s good to explain what you’re doing so people don’t see hidden messages in your provocations, but making a physical space for alternative futures to live in public can help build a useful comfort or familiarity with possibility and uncertainty.
- Scenario spaces—A few years ago we were sitting with some friends in their California lab, showing them some futures cards we’d made for them—a deck of trends, personas and sectors that could be used to build different future scenarios by combining them. We thought they may want to use them in design or futuring sessions. “We should just put these on a board for people to play with publicly,” our smart friend D. said. “Let them make their own little scenarios for fun, maybe stop on the way to another office and quickly draw a few cards together.” Of course. He went on “Hey, maybe we’ll just stick one card a week up for people to sketch or leave thoughts and ideas about.” Brilliant. A deck of cards became a public space for play, thought, and conversation. Five minutes with the future as you come and go, and that future changes constantly, with each new hand dealt.
- Object gardens—This leans on the Futures Room idea, but is a little more compact and organic. Set aside a tabletop or shelf somewhere public, and give people the task of bringing some object, product, or other item that provokes a thought about the future (maybe their kids made it, or they found it at home). This might be some curious artifact from travel (when we travel again), or a new product from a shop in town. Label the object with a brief descriptor, place it in the object garden, and take a moment each week to share and explain. If you have people visiting your space, put your object garden in plain view. It might spark a useful conversation while someone waits for a meeting. You never know.
These are all terribly simple ideas, so much so they might sound like tips from a craft magazine. And, of course, they are somewhat dependent on shared space, something that has become a weird luxury this past year. But you can still do this individually, as you might with a kitchen garden, for example. You might even do these with family or roommates, or in other common spaces you share, even during lockdown. Be creative.
The point is to materialize your futuring in ways that both gives a reminder and makes a habit. As you can see, making physical space for the future can help make cognitive and cultural space. We keep and display images because they hold mental space for memories. Surely we can flip this around and find new ways to frame anticipation.
You can order How to Future: Leading and Sensemaking in an Age of Hyperchange and find more resources at howtofuture.com/buy. Find our more about our work at Changeist.