Designing Desirable Futures

We’re in desperate need of radical change. And radical change starts from a place of vivid imagination. Continuing to react to the threat of ecological collapse with short-term fixes that don’t address root causes simply won’t do. One field that takes a lot of spotlight for potentially driving this change is design. The Design Thinking discourse, in particular, has promoted design as a potent problem-solving tool fit to tackle even the most wicked of all problems. And yet meaningful long-term change that goes beyond the incremental seems rare. Does our imagination fail us?

At Kontrapunkt, we believe brands can play a pivotal role in helping us imagine harder. Engaging in discussions about the future substantiates purpose in a reality where today’s thought leadership is tomorrow’s compliance. This article argues for a new role in design and calls on brands to drive this agenda.

Stuck in the hamster wheel
Much of design-driven innovation builds on the notion of the innovation sweet spotspot. At this intersection, where desirability, viability and feasibility meet. Operating within this spot, so it goes, results in solutions that solve real user needs in ways that support the business model and are possible to implement. What’s not to like? Besides ignoring the inherently political nature of ‘desirability’, the strong emphasis on the present state can cripple imagination. Excluding all things that lie beyond what we currently consider feasible terribly limits the scope of discussion. By refraining from even just considering this ‘unrealistic’ space, design innovation becomes stuck in the incremental, fixing problems under the restraints of the current system, thereby contributing to its maintenance rather than challenging it. We’re stuck in the hamster wheel of incremental change affirming the status quo. What’s needed is an approach that dares to go beyond the restraints of the present. An approach that, instead of reacting to existing problems through one-time solutions, promotes visions and proactive working towards them. One that encourages speculation and dreaming as productive means to disrupt, provoke, and spark new discussions and ideas — to pluralise our alternatives. This requires courage and imagination, and lots of it!

The crisis of imagination
Brands engaging in societal transitions must find their angle to a pretty loaded question: What future do we contribute building to? And a net-zero 2050 isn’t a differentiating nor precise answer — it’s a given. But what will this future feel like? What will we eat? How will we work? What will we do in our leisure time? Dreaming up new and better narratives for our future requires loads of imagination. Unfortunately, the ability to dream and imagine radically has become scarce. Despite increasing uncertainty and unpredictability, our ways of engaging with the future are limited primarily to anticipation. We commission trend studies and define scenarios to be better prepared. In planning for change, we forget our ability to be the cause of it. Have we lost our ability to dream up alternatives? Do we, as the American philosopher Dr. Marc Gafni puts it, suffer under the crisis of imagination?

The greatest crisis of our lives is not economic, intellectual, or even what we usually call religious. It is a crisis of imagination. We are getting stuck on our paths because we are unable to re-imagine our lives differently than they are right now. We hold on desperately to the status quo, afraid that if we let go, we will be swept away by the torrential undercurrents of our emptiness.

Dr. Marc Gafni

This does not mean that a sensibility to external changes to our context is pointless. It’s absolutely vital. But it does mean that we should not underestimate our agency in influencing the future. What if we shift focus from planning for change to planning the change? To quote the British mathematician and author Hannah Fry: “The future doesn’t just happen, we are building it, and we are building it all the time”.

Let’s then build it with intent — let’s design it!

A futures-oriented design philosophy
Enter Futures Design, a design philosophy that operates at the intersection of foresight and design. Its aim is to spur meaningful discussions about alternative futures and how to actively increase their likelihood. Futures Design uses methods attributed to foresight and speculative practises to expand our imagination and dream up new narratives of change. It views the future as a playground for experimentation and ongoing prototyping. Instead of working on individual solutions, it embraces a systems perspective of change. It sees single interventions in the present as constant impulses to steer development in a desirable direction. And it does so in engaging and accessible ways — by using design as a communication vehicle.

Because talking about what should and shouldn’t happen in some distant time can be extremely abstract and hard to communicate. Design, however, can make these thoughts tangible and easy to relate to. At Kontrapunkt, we use simple artefacts and communications design as ways to engage all stakeholders in the conversation. We believe that design makes the difference between a 50+ pages trend report or strategy paper collecting dust and an engaging communications piece that draws people in, makes them wonder, share it, and react to it — viscerally.

Planting seeds, growing futures?
By now, the social change makers among our readers might ask: How exactly would these imaginative exercises translate into systems change? To answer this, think about gardening (stay with us!). We can think about initiatives in the present as seeds for desirable futures. These seeds might eventually flourish with enough ongoing care and response to external events such as extreme weather. Like a flower, seeds of futures do not grow in entirely predictable ways and need ongoing care and effort, and some don’t make it at all. With this metaphor in mind, we can outline a 5-step process to operationalise Futures Design: Discover, Define, Plot, Plant and Grow.

1. Discover:
Prior to launching action in the present, we must first identify desirable futures. The Futures Design process begins by discovering and conceiving as many futures as possible to widen the range of possibilities. The aim of the Discover stage is to “stretch” the future.

2. Define:
Next, it’s time to discuss: Which of these futures are desirable? Which aren’t? Here, design is vital in facilitating this discussion by making things tangible, allowing a more comprehensive range of stakeholders to participate.

3. Plot:
Moving closer to action in the present, the next stage aims at roughly plotting a possible transition path explaining how the selected visions might be achieved using a technique called backcasting. Rather than delivering a definitive blueprint, backcasting positions individuals in the preferred future and asks what might have happened for this future to have come about.

4. Plant:
Hopefully, the preceding step has resulted in proposals for initiatives in the present to ignite a trajectory roughly following a constructed pathway towards the visions. In staying with the gardening metaphor, these initiatives may be seen as planted seeds of which some may, with ongoing care, eventually flourish into a desirable future.

5. Grow:
Achieving socio-technical systems to transition and transform requires the Futures Designer to nurture the planted seeds into systems innovation. Step 5 of the open-ended process, therefore, describes the designer's responsibility to launch design interventions and continually facilitate their scaling up and diffusion.

An opportune moment
Arguably, it’s time for us all to imagine harder. Fundamentally challenging the status quo, the current predicament poses an opportune moment to radically rethink entire ways of structuring modern society. At this moment, we think design should rise to the challenge. We believe Futures Design is a powerful approach to uncovering previously overseen ways forward by encouraging playful speculation, asking questions, prompting new conversations, and exploring alternative narratives in easy-to-understand formats. And it’s a way for brands to engage diverse stakeholders in meaningful conversations. As the most trusted institution, businesses and brands are responsible for contributing to the collective quest for alternative futures. Crucially, not being afraid to openly ask radical “What ifs” should also inform a new approach to communications. Because in a context where brands fight for thought leadership amidst tightening compliance obligations, imagination is a competitive advantage.