Practicing foresight as a service designer

Design leaders and their teams should work with one eye on the future. Here are some practical ways to incorporate foresight and service design practices into your work.
Neil Collman

Neil Collman

Neil is a design leader, speaker and foresight practitioner, who cares about making an impact for people and profit through insight and design.

Full disclosure: being both a futurist and a service designer is harder than you might think. But as we hurtle towards a highly uncertain, post-pandemic future, it’s more important than ever to be both.

This is part 1. Read part 2 

I believe it’s essential that design leaders and their teams are working with one eye on the future. I want to share — in a very practical way — what I’ve learned about incorporating foresight and service design practices into my work and leadership.

But foresight is a strange and alien practice to some. So rather than a rigorous treatise covering the academic hinterland of futures studies, I’ve written these two articles to help you and your team get started with the practice of foresight today.

I’ll talk about why it’s hard, how you break through that initial pain barrier, and what you and your teams stand to gain from incorporating foresight into your practice.

Five reasons why practicing foresight on busy design projects is hard:

Several years ago, hot off practitioner training at Institute For The Future in Silicon Valley and brimming with inspiration and ideas, I was itching to try out my new foresight tools and methods in the real world. I had visions of unearthing untold insights of futures never before explored, blowing minds and generally being a futurist badass.

On reflection I think I hit five big roadblocks that prevented me and my team from properly incorporating foresight into our day to day practice:

  1. First… what’s the point? Why bother to explore the future? Intuitively it makes sense to have some view on what the future is probably going to be like, but it’s not always immediately obvious how it applies to your design work today. Without a clear and immediate value, and with many more urgent jobs to be done, futures work quickly fell to the bottom of my team’s to-do list.
  2. Where do I start (and stop)? — The future’s big. An analysis of any future touches every facet of daily life: the economy, how people find purpose, what is valued and by whom, physical space, technological innovation… the list goes on. Identifying and then putting your arms around these topics is tough from a standing start. Faced with the apparent enormity of the task, lots of teams simply shrug and give up.
  3. How do I fit this into my day job? — Finding enough time to research and collect good quality futures data is hard. Even when you’ve identified what you’re interested in researching, the practical job of hunting down signals of change (local disruptions that could scale) and trends takes a lot of time and effort that’s rarely properly scheduled into a project plan. There are really no simple shortcuts.
  4. Which tools (of the many available) should I use?– the field of foresight has a vast academic hinterland with many different approaches to developing forecasts. There’s not an immediately obvious way in, and it’s easy to feel like you’re ‘doing it wrong.’ With so much choice, many simply fail to choose altogether and give up. Keep a track of your work, and show the framework of signals that have inspired these possible futures. It builds credibility, especially as you move into the non-conventional.
  5. How do I sell this to the client? My stakeholders? My team? — even when you’ve addressed the first four challenges, you’ve still got to convince others. Lending credibility to a necessarily compromised process is always challenging, especially when it can be difficult to pin value on the outputs.

By the way, starting out wasn’t all doom and gloom — we had some great successes crowdsourcing futures research across client organisations — but we were still left with questions about the place of foresight in busy, fast-paced design projects.

Ultimately the question we needed to answer was this: how can we — as a busy design team — lower the barrier to developing a useful view of possible futures?

How do you lower the barrier for busy design teams to develop a view of possible futures when nobody’s a full-time futures researchers? And more importantly, how can we incorporate that thinking into the design process in a very practical way?

Let’s get realistic

Over the last few years, we’ve been getting a bit more laser-focused at Nile, building a minimum viable approach for including futures research in our service design work.

We’ve taken the intensive academic discipline and extracted the essential, lightweight, enabling practices of futures thinking. We think of these as the foundational foresight habits that maintain a day to day literacy with futures in a design practice. It means that when you need to draw on that insight for a project you’re already part of the way there.

Before we unpack those habits in more detail (in Part 2), it’s worth landing four hard-learned lessons about the slippery idea of the future.

1. You won’t get the future “right”, so stop trying

Imagine it’s June in 2015. A futurist savant is telling you their five-year‘ forecast’:

  • A reality TV star is the US president.
  • The UK is in the final stages of leaving the European Union.
  • A global pandemic has locked people in their homes and shut down the world economy
  • Protests about systemic racism and inequality are spreading to urban centres worldwide. Statues are torn down, and police forces are defunded and disbanded.

And all this, happening at the same time? You’d be excused for rolling your eyes.

Making accurate predictions about big shifts over long periods of time is virtually impossible (and is something which, as humans, are historically very bad at). There are simply far too many factors at play, in nonlinear systems, prone to behaving in unexpected ways.

Instead, almost all of the value of foresight comes from the collective journey of exploring both desirable and undesirable possibilities within your teams and stakeholders, as a means to be better prepared and protected for what might come next.

Marina GorbisExecutive director at the Institute For The Future makes a useful (and timely) comparison to vaccination. “In the medical field, inoculating yourself prevents you from falling ill. In futures thinking, if you’ve considered a whole range of possibilities, you’re kind of inoculating yourself. If one of these possibilities comes about, you’re better prepared.”

2. Accept the incomplete process

The process of sensing change — and the futures that could result — is a never-ending process. You cannot read everything, talk to everyone, watch every youtube video, pick up on every trend.

Don’t be disheartened by stones left unturned, or threads left untied. When it comes to deliberate structured thought about the future, doing something is better than nothing. I remind my team to draw comfort from parallels with design research — we can’t always know everything about our users, but even some insight is better than working from a raft of untested assumptions.

3. Get out from behind the desk

It’s tempting to think that you can “figure out the future” with a web browser, a Wired subscription, and a bunch of spare time.

I’ll tell you now: you can’t.

A valuable initial research approach is to get out from behind your desk and sit down with people in your network who have an actual stake in the future you’re exploring — whether it’s your employees, your customers, your competitors or your partners.

And get comfortable with the idea of having uncomfortable conversations with people you don’t know. It’s the quickest way to get out of your personal echo chamber and actively explore other possible futures.

4. Finally, be clear about the why

If you’re going to go to the trouble of exploring what the future might hold as part of a design project, make sure you know what you stand to gain.

Design is a forward-looking activity; you’re making an informed bet that by designing a thing in this way you will:

  1. Meet and satisfy specific user needs and desires
  2. in specific future contexts (be that tomorrow or in a more distant future).

Designers have become excellent at understanding today’s user needs and contexts. But we’re often guilty of a kind of ‘status quo laziness’ when it comes to building for future contextsimplicit in many designs is the assumption that contexts will largely stay the same in the future: something that is appropriate for today will be appropriate for tomorrow.

If you’re in the business of building products or services that need to endure, not thinking rigorously about the future is a risk.

Foresight is a tool that counteracts that ‘status quo laziness’. It brings rigour to exploring future contexts and adds that necessary extra dimension to your design: how needs and contexts might shift over time.

So getting more information about future contexts means designing things that are more likely to succeed in them. Foresight work might help you find a clearer narrative, or develop a more nuanced vision; perhaps even shift a decision point or evolve a value proposition.

Whatever you’re aiming to do, discuss it with your team and your stakeholders and get it agreed upon. There’s nothing worse than ploughing time and energy into something without a clear reason why. That’s just good project management.

Read Part 2, where we’ll talk about the four foundational habits that form the cornerstone of our futures practice at Nile.

This two-part series is was inspired by my recent ‘Pragmatic Futurism’ talks for SDN and Nile’s Goodbye Faster Horses series. You can see the original presentation slides here, and watch a session recording here.