Photo: Ralph Graef

Designing for People Who Don’t Yet Exist

How imagined worlds can reveal real insights

Part III of the Tomorrow in Progress series. Read part II, “When Black Ships Bring the Future” here, and part I, a conversation between planetary futurist Alex Steffen and IDEO’s Tim Brown, here.

To inhabit the future is to work to imagine how our world is changing, by reflecting back on the present through the eyes and experiences of people living in a possible future, and trying to intuit how they understand the world differently than we’ve been trained to do. It is a specific approach to design futurism, to solving problems whose natures may be hard (even impossible) to grasp when we begin from older assumptions. We inhabit the future to free ourselves from the blinders of convention. We practice inhabitation to seek better questions.

Inhabitation is very much still an idea-in-progress, but as we explored it at IDEO, we found it rests on two techniques: worldbuilding and human-centered design.

“Worldbuilding” involves the intentional creation of a speculative setting, meant as a stage on which fictional people can act out a study or story. In contemporary life, we’re surrounded by worldbuilding all the time: in science fiction films and novels and videogames, in futurism, in marketing and advertising, even in journalism, where anticipating and describing fictional outcomes has become a common storytelling method when covering future possibilities. It is almost impossible to use the Internet and avoid encountering built worlds.

Sketch of a street sign in a city where 50 percent of our thoroughfares are used in new ways.

But not all speculative worlds are built equally well, or to the same ends. Made-up worlds are put to a huge variety of purposes: pure escapist entertainment (like the science fiction adventure Star Wars), provocative commentary on current events (like the television program Black Mirror), explorations of human nature (like the novel 1984), attempts to lend a product or service a sense of superiority by identifying it as more futuristic than its competitors (half of the advertisements for technology companies you’ve ever seen), political persuasion (by portraying the dystopia that will result from bad decision-making), and so on and so forth. The storytelling tools of built worlds can be remarkably versatile.

Because worlds we build for inhabitation are designed to create breakthrough insights about the changes around us, they need to work the way the real world does. They depend not on daring flights of fancy, but on constructing working models of what we know about change. Some changes can even be forecast with high degrees of confidence, since they move slowly and are well-studied (for instance, in demographics, the rough size of the global population in the next decade or two). Others may be impossible to forecast effectively (it is the nature of scientific breakthroughs, for instance, to be unexpected), but can still be usefully bounded (for example, breakthroughs that allow us to violate the laws of physics are, so far, not a real possibility) and curated (we might, say, decide that technology which does not yet work in the lab is unlikely to be on the streets in the next 10 years). The goal of this “probabilistic curation” is to produce an imaginary future that works like reality, but allows us to wind-tunnel the effects of changes that haven’t yet happened.

Worldbuilding lets us look around with fresh eyes. That, it turns out, is critical.

Old futures often obscure present realities. Much of the character of our present is the legacy of the Industrial Age — from the past’s breakthrough technologies like gas-fired cars, electric lights, and antibiotics to the old coal smoke heating our planet’s atmosphere and the vast gyres of plastic garbage in the Pacific ocean. Those legacies are so real that we’re easily trapped into thinking the world we live in today is the manifestation of a future predicted by the industrialists. It is not. We live with their legacy, but not in the future they imagined.

The simplest example is the most powerful: the seers of the Industrial Age believed that science, technology, and industry’s job was to allow us to bypass Earthly limitations on human enterprise. More, that it was technology’s destiny to transcend limits. Thus we have a futuristic mythology of the exponential, of boundless space as an endless frontier, of the atomic conquest of nature, of our thinking machines raising us up to be as gods, or perhaps becoming gods themselves.

The depletion of the Earth caused by living beyond our limits was just a downpayment on a spectacular tomorrow.

But if the 21st century has any central lesson so far, it is this: the limits are still here. All of our transcendence has proved, so far, to be an ecologically costly delusion. For that reason, it’s hard to imagine any worthwhile inquiry into the future that doesn’t reckon with the limits we face.

Sketch of dynamic zoning that creates a temporary market at street intersections.

We’ve gotten limits all wrong. Limits do not have to mean less. Just as Industrial futurism hoped for transcendence, Industrial environmentalism saw only two futures: decline or a retreat into a simpler past. That’s just an outdated understanding of our era’s possibilities, one that equates prosperity with destructive consumption. The equation goes something like this: If boundless material growth was impossible on a finite planet, then growth must end. If growth must end — or even contract — then clearly the solution was to look back at earlier human societies which had minimal footprints and slow growth, and try to emulate them: some version of Native American or Amish life, or some other simple living solution. Never mind that going backwards is just as impossible as going above and beyond. Luckily, 21st century people need neither.

Good designers, engineers, and artists know that constraints can be astonishingly fruitful. Limits and innovation are symbiotic. That’s one of the prime reasons inhabitation can be so powerful in our time: it allows us to probabilistically curate a world out of a set of likely future limits, populate it with people confronting those limits, then imagine the capacities those people might develop in order to build the lives they want. It lets us jump past the fear that limits trigger, and begin to see the innovative capacities they can unlock.

Sketch of a temporary crosswalk zone that generates new adjacencies.

Here’s where the second technique of inhabitation, human-centered design (HCD), comes into play. In HCD — pioneered by IDEO — we ask not just what a given system is, but who uses it? Why? How does it feel for them? In the process, we gain new insights into the kind of problem we’re solving, which in turn can free us to create a better, often unexpected solution. HCD makes empathy a tool for innovation.

Inhabitation builds a working future that frees us to practice human-centered design for people who do not yet exist. That, in turn, affords us new insights into the nature of change around us. It allows us to cultivate the capacity to respond to the demands an unforeseen future will make on us. Inhabitation turns empathy into a tool for strategic foresight, making new approaches to design possible.

That, at least, is the theory we set out to pressure-test.

While I was Futurist in Residence at IDEO, a group of us — including Scott Paterson, Will Carey, Reid Williams, and Shoshana Berger — met every Friday at the company’s San Francisco offices to practice worldbuilding and work with the idea of design inhabitation. Over time, these meetings developed into an incredibly lively exploration, looking at how designers and clients could together encounter life of a very different kind, like a fictional update on the 1939 World’s Fair, with its “World of Tomorrow” theme.

We prototyped to learn, mocking up a whole variety of different ways future people might respond to change. Some of these ideas have already informed other IDEO projects like the Future of Automobility; others veered off like bottle rockets into the tall grass of implausibility. We sketched, we told stories, we shared interesting speculations, we pitched crazy ideas and built other crazy ideas on top of them. Gradually, though, we narrowed our scope, and over time we alighted upon an interesting entry point for a specific inhabitation: our own city, San Francisco, in approximately 2029, 10–15 years away. If we were going to inhabit anyone’s future, we decided, it might as well be our own.

What were our assumptions and constraints, setting out?

  1. We assumed that we’d be smart to think from our own context as Bay Area people from various cultures with largely middle-class backgrounds. None of us had ever been homeless, so we didn’t try to imagine living unhoused in the future. There’s a fine line between feeling for people who are living differently than us and speaking for them. We wanted to ground big thinking in humility.
  2. We wanted to live into a set of planetary realities that seem particularly rooted in our local experience, especially manifest ecological limits (like water shortages, climate change, and rising sea levels in San Francisco Bay) and accelerating capacities for change (technological, design, and organizing capacities that disrupt legacy institutions, behaviors, and ultimately, urban space).
  3. We decided to create from informed optimism. Many plausible futures present themselves in which we do far too little, far too late, to meet the ecological and social crises we face. Our dystopian future has become a Hollywood cliché. But failure, without special effects, is sordid, not spectacular. It involves a wearing down of past accomplishments, human suffering, things breaking and rusting. Real-world disasters are more refugee camp than warriors of the wasteland. The far more pressing task is imagining success in the time we have left.
Sketch of a world in which we become used to seeing new kinds of footprints, in this case, a mother’s exoskeleton treads as she walks with her child.

From there, we fleshed out some rules:


  1. Highly technologically capacitated
  2. Urban in a new way (post-car, new spaces)
  3. Massively efficient (near-zero ecological impact)
  4. Financially constrained (affordable change)
  5. Risk-taking (political constituency for bold decisions)
  6. Retrofitted, adapted, kluged (not new and utopic)

Put another way, we wanted to explore a San Francisco that worked differently than we're used to thinking of our city working, one that was bold and creative in response to dramatic limits, but also deeply restricted in the range of responses its citizens, government and businesses could adopt (a world where factors like financial constraints, legacy engineering and infrastructure problems, and the value of the places and communities already here had to be taken into account). The world we mocked up to describe our own future, then, was full of both tough problems and exciting new capacities. In the coming weeks, we'll be sharing reports from our adventures into inhabitation.

Next up: IDEO designers share the future they’ve been inhabiting.

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