Last week, I participated in a virtual panel called “Recalibrate our Fate” for Design the Future 2020, organized by an exciting new organization called HireWisdom (video of the event can be found here, panel starts at the 3:24:37 mark). One of the questions the panel explored was the following:
What does it mean to design the future?
It’s always interesting to consider what the theme of an event really means, beyond a marketing tagline. And this one was very timely and important given the current state of the world. So, I thought it deserved further exploration, via this blog. I will recap and build upon the answer I gave during the panel to dive a little deeper into this topic.
A lost art
One of the things that separate human beings from animals is our ability to contemplate our own fate and focus on the future, as opposed to just the here and now. In that sense, we are always designing our future. When the ancients embarked on massive construction projects that took generations they were certainly designing for the future. Progress happened very slowly and lives were short so any large scale initiatives required generational thinking.
Ironically, as our lives have gotten longer, and the pace of progress has increased significantly, it seems our capacity for long-term planning has diminished (climate change action being the most obvious example). This, despite our ability to imagine the most far-flung wildest futures! With all the dramatic change happening around us in this accelerated age we’re living in, the need for deliberate designing of the future is greater than ever.
Not your father's strategic planning
You might ask how we can design the future when things change so fast. Perhaps even question if it’s worth the effort since everything you design or plan for could change tomorrow. And you would be right to question that. In fact, this is one of the reasons why traditional strategic planning in organizations has become so outdated and ineffective.
To put out a five-year strategic plan based on a current set of assumptions is almost laughable. Even three-year plans don’t hold as much value as they used to. These plans often project the change that organizations want to happen (i.e. the “outbound change” they want to create) given current market conditions and trends, but rarely factor in all the possible futures that could impact those conditions (or them directly) requiring them to shift direction. This is the “inbound change” coming at them. Both inbound and outbound change need to be considered to create a plan that can hold water in today’s turbulent environment.
Essentially, designing the future means taking a more fluid approach, considering a range of scenarios, so that you are prepared for various paths that may unfold. You can build out a strategy on the one that seems most probable but also do contingency planning around the others. The practice of Strategic Foresight provides methodologies and tools to do this (such as the Framework Foresight method shown below).
Choose our own adventure
The first step in all of this is believing that you can influence the future. It may seem like a silly point. Of course, our actions influence the future. Yet, it often seems that a fatalistic point of view takes hold when the future is discussed as if we’ve forgotten that the future is not yet written. Remember, everyone older than 50 assumed we’d have flying cars by now!
Take, for instance, the topic of A.I. (Artificial Intelligence) with respect to jobs. The general feeling out there is one of fear. Certainly, there should be a concern as AI can potentially have a tremendous impact on the job market. But if you tune into the zeitgeist of our day, you would think that the future timeline is set in stone and that the Terminators are already on their way here to eliminate all human jobs.
It’s not a certainty though, at least not to the extent that warrants such distress. There are myriad possible timelines in front of us. We (the collective “we”) get to choose the path we take. If we as a society are that concerned that this is the dystopian future we’re headed for (or any other Chicken Little scenario you can think of) then all the more reason for us to take the approach of deliberately designing the future we want — one that solves for that problem (or at least avoiding the future we don’t want).
We control the future
After all, the concept of a job is a human construct. We designed jobs to enable society to function and to provide a means for us to obtain daily necessities. If we came together and decided that this is not the future we want then we can forge a different path. We can explore ways to curtail the use of A.I. without eliminating it and without hurting businesses that seek to use it as a competitive advantage (i.e. finding the happy medium). If those alternatives turn out to be less desirable or not practical then we can flip the script and look at redesigning work itself within the larger context of our economic models (e.g. considering how Universal Basic Income can offset the impact of A.I., as one example).
The point is that it’s up to us to determine as long as we have a “Design the Future” frame of mind. As long as we believe that we can purposely influence the forces that currently drive society, such as globalization, exponential technologies, deep-rooted power structures, and more. These are massive macro-trends, so it may seem daunting, but it’s not required that we shift them completely, just nudge them little by little in a more desirable direction. Designing the future is about believing that we really can affect change on any scale. It’s a mindset.
It’s fine to have a vision for what you want your organization’s future to be, but if it’s not stress-tested against plausible scenarios that could impact it, then it’s just wishful thinking. So, while having the right mindset is a prerequisite for designing the future, what does it mean beyond that, in terms of doing? In other words, what’s the answer to the question that inspired this post: “What does it mean to design the future?”
In my opinion, designing the future means to actively anticipate and influence change to create a preferred reality. Prepare for change. Use strategic foresight methods to understand the dynamics influencing your environment. Create a vision that capitalizes on the opportunities and guards against the threats on the horizon. Take control of your future by designing it.