Business 2.0 has a piece on the Institute's artifacts from the future, which we've been doing for a couple years. I think the piece exaggerates the "people didn't read our stuff, so we started making stuff" angle, but otherwise it's pretty good. The truth is that artifacts reach some people who don't feel they have time to closely read long reports (so do the maps, experiences, and other non-textual things we use to communicate our ideas); but they're valuable for several other reasons.

  • First, their tangible, specific nature forces us to think hard about what we really believe. It's easy for futurists to say "on one hand this, on the other hand that;" creating things, in contrast, forces you really to put a stake in the ground.
  • Second, thinking about artifacts makes you think hard about the interrelationships of technological, social, economic, and cultural factors. Things are where disparate forces come together, and artifacts from the future can be designed to show how they'll connect, compete, and play out. It's a reverse of the process cultural studies scholars follow: they can take an object– a Ming vase, a Victorian train station– and treat it as "congealed culture," a distillation or microcosm of the economic and cultural forces of the age. At the Institute we start with the forces, then move to the object.
  • Third, the shift to artifacts reflects our own sense that design is going to be a critical strategic skill in the future.
  • Fourth, many of our clients actually make things. They already communicate with each other in a language of prototypes.
  • Finally, artifacts from the future are part of a larger trend in the Institute of drawing closer lines between our research/brainstorming methods, and the media we use to communicate our ideas. We've been doing maps for decades, but only in the last few years have they become a major tool for getting our ideas across in public; likewise, we're repackaging some of our ethnographic work into experiences at conferences. Artifacts don't just constitute another way to communicate our ideas; they serve the pedagogical purpose of helping readers see how to think about the future.