Monday, February 02, 2009

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.

ON FUTURES AND DESIGN

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."    (Continued via Putting People First, Relevant History. Alex Soojung-Kim Pang)    [Usability Resources]

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