Designing the Future, One Napkin at a Time

A conversation between Tim Brown and Alex Steffen, moderated by Shoshana Berger

When planetary futurist Alex Steffen joined IDEO for a creative residency, it kicked off a series of Friday design sprints over lunch. Meeting invites went out under the fanciful title Adventuring, and IDEO’s designers darkened a small heap of napkins and Post-it notes while rubbing their chins over one of Steffen’s central ideas: That imagining an unknown future requires truly understanding the present. I sat down with Steffen and Tim Brown, IDEO’s CEO, to find out more about the collaboration. Their conversation introduces a series of essays and design fiction which we’ll publish weekly here, in the Tomorrow in Progress publication, from this day forward.

SB: Why bring a futurist to IDEO?

TB: IDEO has gotten more and more interested in complex things, and as we stretch this way, our horizon seems to draw closer. We used to do lots of future-oriented things — explorations for BusinessWeek or some of the things we did for Wired, where we took relatively narrow perspectives of the future of technology, but once we started to think about things like the future of healthcare or education or the city or society, it’s too hard to think about the future and the present at the same time.

AS: Exactly. Understanding that kind of change requires not just a rational inquiry into the facts, but also an intuitive engagement with what the future feels like. Given IDEO’s toolbox for exploring how people tackle a specific problem to come up with new ideas, I thought it would be really interesting to get a front row seat to how designers are doing that today and see if there wasn’t some overlap with my work.

Every Friday for a year, IDEO designers gathered over lunch to imagine what San Francisco might look like in 10–15 years. Image courtesy of James Corner, Field Operations for Presidio Parklands project

SB: What were the big takeaway’s from Alex’s time here?

TB: One of the lessons I learned from watching what Alex was doing is that so much of the art of this is in asking the right question. I think about that question he asked early on: “Let’s think about what a city would be like if we took away 50 percent of the streets.” It’s a radical idea, and there’s also a whole set of constraints that are inherent in it. That’s a very different question from “What if there were 50 percent fewer cars in the city?” which feels like a zero sum question. So much of sustainability thinking has been about what we don’t do, how we cut back, how we lower our demands, how we do without. Living on the planet that we actually live on with a growing population, rapid urbanization, rising standards of living, we know that simply trying to do less…

AS: Less bad is actually not good enough.

TB: Exactly. We actually have to figure out how to create systems that take what we have now and make it radically better. That involves design, it involves building — we can’t reverse gear our way out of the problems we face. It’s the equivalent of going from telegraph to telephone or telephone to Internet. Each one many orders of magnitude greater in terms of the amount of communication it allowed. It’s those kind of design opportunities that we have to identify first, and then we can actually work on them.

Taking a human-centered approach, the designers sketched moments on a typical day. What does getting to work look like in 2029? How about lunch?

AS: One of the things that has been really exciting about being here at IDEO is that people really engage with a set of possibilities if you open them up. There is an inherent personality type that says Okay, give me some constraints, give me an imaginative impetus, and I will come up with something radically different. I don’t need to stay in continuity with what people have said before, the weirder it is the better. When we look at sustainability, when we look at economic development, urbanization, the set of interrelated issues, the amount of change that we face is so non-linear, it’s so discontinuous from our 20th Century expectations, that I really think the only people who can fully engage with what’s needed are people who can make an intuitive leap into this other world and what does it feel like.

TB: Design requires that leap of faith. It’s a bit like how explorers used to head off across the ocean confident that there was something interesting there, but not knowing what it was. They have the self-confidence to just get up and go.

SB: Designing for the unknown is a quick and daily practice here, but things tend to move more slowly out in the world.

AS: I think actually there is far more momentum towards radical climate action than we often get the sense of in the media. If nothing else, there’s far more money at stake, at risk of being lost. I think there’s a lot of momentum towards the world being a very different place in terms of climate action within the next few decades, and that doesn’t even touch on all the things like urbanization, technological acceleration, and so forth. What does it feel like to be in a world where there are seven billion urban people, of whom five billion are globally middle class; what does it feel like to be in a world that’s aging?

An example of inserting a simple aid for an aging population: The cane bolster becomes a subtle but useful part of the urban landscape. Image: IDEO, Designs On Aging

TB: I just finished reading Walter Isaacson’s new book, The Innovators. The first chapter talks about Ada Lovelace, the daughter of Lord Byron. She was a poet and a mathematician who was able to look at Babbage’s machine and imagine programmable computing. She articulated what she thought these machines might one day be able to do in 1843, 100 years before the machine existed. That’s a form of empathy, that’s the ability to imagine out into the future with this combination of an artistic brain and a technical brain — and we need that.

Whether it’s an individual who is brilliant enough to build it, or groups of people working together. That’s what I’d love to get to: coalitions between knowledgeable people like Alex, designers like us, businesses, and maybe government or the nonprofit world — to ask some of these questions and explore some of these solution that would be for the benefit of everybody.

Next up: Tomorrow in Progress: Part I