Thoughts on design + futures

For the last few months, I've been thinking about the relationship between design and futures, and how they could draw on each other. (Of course, I'm hardly alone in this.) During the vacation, I spent some time working on an essay that lays out what I think the biggest opportunities are for collaboration between the two communities, and am posting the first draft here.


Alex Soojung-Kim Pang
Draft 1.0
4 January 2009

1. Introduction

Over the last few years, a small but significant number of groups have done work at the intersection of design and futures. The Institute for the Future's Jason Tester, English designer John Thackara, American designers Joshua Kauffman and Gwendolyn Floyd (cofounders of Regional), ubiquitous computing researchers Julian Bleeker and Nicholas Nova (organizers of the LIFT conferences), and Danish futurists at the Innovation Lab– along with many others– have conducted projects on the future of design, or used design to describe possible futures. The purpose of this essay is to build on this early work, and describe how the relationship between design and futures could be deepened to the benefit of both communities. A closer collaboration, and even more important a hybrid practice that drew on each, would improve product design, profoundly change the way we interact with the future, and create the tools to deal with some of the most critical problems of the 21st century.

I approach this from two directions. First, I describe how design can improve futures. In particular, I argue, research techniques developed by designers– particularly their close attention to human-device interaction– could sharpen thinking about, and forecasting of, the future of technology. Second, I describe the contribution futures can make to design. A combination of new technologies and challenges, I contend, are creating an opportunity to design products that can guide people to make better-informed choices about how they can be used, to reinforce behaviors that help users reach long-term goals, and to create a heightened awareness of the future.

This could have profound implications for futures. It would shift the profession from one that communicates through texts, mainly influences leaders and elites, and influences strategic processes, to one that communicates through things, influences large number of people, and informs everyday decision-making. But this is an essential transformation, as it would give us the ability to help solve the critical problems of the 21st century– problems that, I contend, futures as it currently is practiced is ill-equipped to confront.

2. Using Design Research to Improve Futures

Let's start with what futurists can learn from designers: a way to study the interactions of people and technology, at a level that has a strong effect on how technologies affect the world, and which futurists currently don't do a very good job of understanding.

One enduring problem with work in technology forecasting is a tendency to base forecasts exclusively on high-level technology trends, to assume that changes in user behavior, mental models, industries, and world-views can be assigned to points on a growth curve. In this way of describing the future, ubiquitous computing technologies will lead to an era of surveillance and the end or privacy– or alternately usher in unprecedented transparency. Mobile technologies will turn us into postmodern nomads, wanderers as disconnected from place as we are wired into the electronic hive mind. Web 2.0 and Facebook (or its equivalents in other countries) will redraw the boundaries of private and public life, of personal and digital memory.

The problem with these kinds of pronouncements is that they're a thinly-veiled technological determinism. This turn of Moore's Law, they imply, will change the way humans communicate with other; the next one will change the way we think about nature; and the one after that will undermine our grasp on reality. But the relationship between technology– especially information technology– and people is considerably more complicated. Consider the story of two devices: the first Apple mouse, and the Nintendo Wii controller, or Wiimote. The Apple mouse had a single button; the Wiimote has a trigger, four-button rocker, and six additional buttons (an optional "nunchuck," held in the other hand, has a thumb-controlled joystick and trigger). Objectively, the Nintendo Wiimote is a vastly more complex device than the Apple mouse. Yet both were hailed as "easy to use," and both were. How could that be so? Wiimote users were accustomed to texting on cellphones; playing games on Playstation, XBox, PSP2, and Nintendo DS; and using computer mice (including the latest Apple mouse, which has four clickable regions and a trackball). Most people in the early 1980s, in contrast, had never before had to orient and navigate in a graphical interface, move a mouse, or manipulate virtual objects. Little wonder a one-button mouse was all they could handle.

The point is this. Those of us trying to forecast the future of consumer products, personal electronics, or ubiquitous computing technologies have to go below broad trends in order to understand how technologies and people interact– and thus how technologies might be deployed in the future. The relationship between technological change, user behavior, and world-views (or mentalities, paradigms, culture, etc.) is contingent and non-deterministic. For users, interface design, cultural influences, mental and physical habits, and manual and sensory dexterity can all affect how they use technologies, think about products, and are affected by devices. In the past, when futurists were mainly concerned with forecasting the impact of technological change on manufacturing or military strategy, we didn't need such fine-grained analysis: it was enough to assume that more efficient energy or materials use would lower production costs, or improvements in accuracy would increase the lethality of fighting forces. (Though even on the factory floor and shooting range, the apparently simple relationships between technological change and performance obscure the large amounts of work and training required to master a new technology and realize its potential gains.)

So it's essential that we look in greater detail at how these technologies are used, how they're integrated (or not) into products, and what prior concepts or mental models users bring to new devices or products. Who knows how to do this work already? Product designers already have a wide variety of methods for studying user interaction, ranging from laboratory experiments to ethnographic fieldwork, which throw light on exactly the kinds of interaction and social dynamics we need to understand. Some futurists already draw on ethnographic tools in their research, and all recognize the value of paying attention to how people think about and use technologies; but their tools are less well-defined and precise than those used in the design world. Borrowing or adapting techniques from design could give futurists the insights necessary to understand the fine-grained relationships that evolve between users and technologies; help us make better sense of the technologies of the future; and ultimately provide the insights necessary to understand the mental structures that inform that use.

3. Designing With the Future in Mind

So how can the world of design benefit from working with futurists? Together, we can create devices that make the long-term consequences of day-to-day actions visible to users. This may sound like an abstract thing with uncertain value. It's not.

Consider one such device that already exists: the Toyota Prius fuel efficiency calculator, or MPG estimator. It provides real-time information about your estimated gas mileage, based on how you're driving. Drive aggressively and your mileage goes down; more thoughtfully, and your milage goes up. It's a very simple display of a single piece of information, but the effect on drivers can be dramatic: many report that they quickly learn how to drive more efficiently, and are aware of habits that they'd never paid attention to before. Even more striking, their children think about driving in entirely different ways: the MPG estimator turns driving into a video game where you get a high score not by driving fast, but by driving up your MPG.

By making this information available in real time and in context, the Prius creates a feedback loop between a driver's behavior and their car's efficiency, and gives drivers the ability to be more thoughtful about their own choices and practices. (It doesn't force you to drive differently, but nobody I've interviewed drives less efficiently in a Prius than in a car without an MPG estimator. Likewise, cars with less well-designed MPG estimators don't train drivers as effectively.) Now imagine this kind of real-time feedback available in all kinds of products and use contexts. Imagine credit cards that gave you information about your balance before you used them, and warn you when you approach spending limits. Imagine bicycles that told you how much carbon you've saved by bicycling to work rather than driving– and how much carbon you'd save over the course of a year (or ten years, or twenty) if you bicycled several times a week. Imagine household appliances that told you how much it would cost to run them based on electricity grid load, the day's weather forecast (which would affect how much electricity the solar panels on your roof would produce, or how much energy the house would need to maintain a comfortable temperature), and water cost. Imagine houses that told you how close they are to being carbon neutral, compared themselves to other houses in the neighborhood, and told you how many barrels of oil they saved this year. In other words, imagine having the ability to see how your consumption and spending habits, transportation patterns, even the particular ways you use devices, can affect your future, and world's future, over the long term.

This is not an unrealistic vision. Smart appliances, electricity usage monitors like the Kill A Watt, Web-based carbon calculators, and other tools already can help people measure (or at least estimate) their energy and carbon consumption. It will soon be easier to bring that kind of information off the Web or monthly bills, and put it onto the very devices that we have to make decisions about. Cheap, tiny sensors are making it possible to sense the state and measure the performance of built objects and environments. "Smart dust" computing systems are small enough to fit in pens or buttons. Thin flexible displays will let us put screens on almost any surface or object. Wireless networking systems will let all these technologies work together, and more important, let users compare and learn from each other. In other words, ubiquitous computing technology will provide users with real-time information that can illuminate their choices, and the immediate consequences and longer-term implications of options. Devices become tools for making decisions about the future.

Would people want this kind of functionality? I think that several current trends– the popularity of the Prius, the growth of online carbon calculators, and the growing trend in health self-monitoring (through, for example, pedometers)– suggests that users would see their value. The economic payoff of driving or heating your house more efficiently is pretty clear. Makers of expensive, energy-efficient products that cost more up front but offer significant long-term savings would have even more incentive to adopt devices that made those savings more visible. There's also the intangible but important benefit to users of being made smarter by technology. Finally, such devices illustrate one's moral fiber more effectively than, say, purchases of abstract green products. You might shop at Whole Foods, but I'll remove this many tons of carbon from the atmosphere this year. Ubiquitous computing's killer app, in other words, will not be shopping or navigation or sports scores. It will be the future.

4. New Futures, New Futurists

This opportunity is coming just in time, for it holds the potential to help address some of the critical problems of the 21st century.

Many of the great global challenges of the last fifty years– nuclear proliferation, the eradication of disease, the management of the Cold War– were solved through the heroic actions of elites: politicians, scientists, technocrats, and corporate executives. The main global challenges of the next fifty years– in climate, energy, and the environment– will have to be solved (or more likely, managed or diffused) through small-scale changes made by billions of people and organizations, their cumulative effects unfolding over years or decades, and ultimately having a profound effect on the future of the planet.

This is why the ability to create devices that give users a feel for the future, for the cumulative long-term impact of small changes, and for the collective impact billions of such choices could have on the world, is the most important and exciting development for futurists since the invention of oracle bones. These tools could help people change the future. But in order to take advantage of the opportunities that these technologies offer, and to meet the challenges presented by the problems we must help people face, we futurists will need to change our ways.

Why is that? To craft the Cold War future, we worked with leaders of organizations, companies and nations– the people whose opinions and actions were critical for shaping the Cold War world. We used the media of official persuasion: dense white papers, PowerPoint, and the like. Finally, our work followed the rhythms of strategic thinking, and was used episodically, in annual (or five-year) reviews. To change the future, we'll have to reach billions of people rather than handfuls of executives. To make the consequences of specific actions immediately visible, we will communicate primarily through things rather than texts, through interfaces rather than scenarios or stories. Finally, our work will need to be crafted to continuously reshape small behaviors, rather than grand strategy.

In short, we need to learn to talk about the future through things. Cultural anthropologists and scholars of material culture are able to reconstruct the outlines of a civilization, or the shape of world-views, from artifacts. Futurists must learn to work in reverse: to crystallize future worlds in designs that can help people make better-informed choices about their own futures– and hence the future of the world.

To create a futures appropriate for the 21st century and its challenges, we futurists don't have to become designers, any more than we have to be printers or graphic artists today. But we do need to learn some of the tools of design, learn from designers how to study people's interactions with technologies, and pay attention to how people create mental models and imaginary worlds through things. In exchange, we can contribute to the design of things that make the world and the future more comprehensible, and better.

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