Anticipating the Uncertain

The only thing we can be certain of is uncertainty, which implies we can’t unravel the future of an industry in a design thinking session; however, we can anticipate uncertainty.  Anticipation allows us as individuals, businesses and corporations to better prepare for experiences, endeavors and potholes. Futures thinking is a flexible process that enables one to respond when in the face of uncertainty. This thought process does not predict the future, but the scenarios you are presented with helps you imagine what the future will hold, so that when things transpire, your business has the will and the means to respond efficiently and effectively.

Futures Thinking Techniques:

  1. Horizon Scanning

There is no standard or systematic approach to futures thinking, as it is dependent on the industry and project at hand, but there are underlying techniques. Horizon scanning is a technique that requires a business investigate potential strategic issues they may face in the future. Consider horizon 1 as the issues at hand and in the near future that are being tended to within the political, social, economic and environmental relm. Horizon 2 is made up of issues that one can foresee, but cannot be certain they will unfold, as new trends and disruptions may overtake them. Horizon 3 consists of issues that have not yet evolved, nor have the change drivers been made evident. Understanding what factors may lead to these issues allows a company to generally prepare for strategic challenges that may present themselves.

  1. Scenarios Workshop

No set future exists, as unknown and developing social, economic, political and environmental events and factors are shaping what will come of the world. At a Hawaiian research center, a forecasting technique developed by Jim Dator has professionals create future archetypes that encourage designers and businesses to explore a variety of scenarios. Participants use logistical consistency to describe specific characteristics in a scenario, and then imagine how they would strategically respond or transform their mission, project, or business model. They must therefore consider potential future factors, events, situations and climates.

  1. Analyzing the Evolution of Your Industry

History tends to repeat itself, which is why analyzing and evaluating the evolution of your industry is important. Part of understanding the future is understanding the past. A well known futures thinking technique is therefore analyzing disruptions and evolution within an industry. Take a look at what has become the “heart-rhythm-management” industry. John Alexander Macwilliam discovered that by inserting a metronome and a needle electrode into a cat, he was able to alter the rate rate. This medical technological advancement led to the artificial pacemaker, then the implantable defibrillator, which developed what is today the “heart-rhythm management industry.” An analysis of technological advancements in the medical field led to the extraction of pain points, and within the evolving industry were the means and technology to solve a problem. Understanding disruptions (whether it be a new market disruption or a sustaining technology) within an industry provokes us to analyze change drivers and to predict future trends.  


Where Futures Thinking and Design Thinking Intersect

Futures thinking may resemble design thinking, but in fact the end of futures thinking is the beginning of design thinking. Futures thinking inspires one to investigate and instigate and offers a playing field for creation, whereas design thinking inspires one to create, test, iterate and optimize. Insights extracted from futures thinking allows for a productive solutions-based design thinking session. Futures thinking can be integrated into the early stages of a design thinking session through scenario workshops and forecasting workshops. When designers, for example, make an effort to note signals of change in a workshop, they can more easily identify opportunities that can be responded to in a design thinking session.