Want to be a futurist? Start by cultivating these four habits

What are the foundations of futures thinking? Let’s take a look at four habits we’ve developed at Nile that can help you build futures literacy.
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.


(If you haven’t read it, we recommend starting with Part 1 of this series)

In part one we covered the challenges many design leaders face when they try to introduce foresight into large, complex design projects. It’s hard.

Nile has worked to streamline the foresight process, 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 foundational foresight habits that help designers maintain a day to day literacy with futures. It means that when you need that insight for a project you’re already part of the way there.

Let’s take a look at the four fundamental habits we’ve developed at Nile to explore the future within service design projects. It’s worth noting that they’re sequential. You can’t easily do habit two without doing habit one, etc.

Habit One: Scan The Horizon, Habit Two Challenge Status Quo, Habit Three: Tell a Human Story, Habit Four: Translate the Impact
The four fundamental foresight habits we cultivate in Nile practitioners

Habit 1. Scan the Horizon

The first habit is about building a systematic way to identify the data in the present that might signal an uncertain future.

It sounds complicated, but it’s really not: I like to think about it as putting my natural curiosity to use.

For example, we recently spotted kids posting ways to hack “virtual presence” in the classroom on YouTube by changing their virtual background in Zoom. And it got us asking: could “presence hacking” become so commonplace that faith in the authenticity of virtual interactions is undermined?

Will people in different situations curate, customise, or automate their digital interactions in subversive ways? Who stands to win or lose from a future where that happens? What does that mean for trust in our digital interactions with banks, the healthcare sector, colleagues, our loved ones?

A youtube video title 'Zoom Life Hacks'
An example of a signal of change: young Youtubers posting videos about how to hack their digital presence.
The habit you need to cultivate

Every day, you and your team should have your radar on for signals. Look for the ridiculous, the shocking, the progressive and the subversive things going on around you that challenge or fuel your assumptions; scan across Social, Technological, Economic, Environmental and Political themes.

Then — most importantly — share these with your team. In Nile, we’ve got an ‘always on’ signals channel in Slack, where everyone can share what they come across and ask “so what?”. It acts as a living archive of signals which we can pull from whenever we need to.

Habit 2. Challenge the status quo

The second habit is about forcing your thinking beyond the way things work today.

Most of the time, we humans think the future is a straight line from A to B: that the status quo will largely continue, and maybe change in some simple ways. We’re also an optimistic species, generally inclined to believe that things will improve. (That means we’re pretty bad at exploring negative futures.)

The unreflective, optimistic future. Like today (personal vehicles, traffic) but better (it’s in the sky now!)

So the instinctive, unreflective forecast most people make about the future is ‘pretty much like today, but better.’ But a quick review of the last ten years will tell you this is almost never the case.

The future is a cloud of interrelated possibilities, a non-linear system, prone to behaving in unexpected and inscrutable ways. The chances of any one particular outcome coming to pass is tiny — yet in coming to pass, that tiny possibility feels as though it was inevitable: ‘twas ever thus’.

As futurists, we need to grapple with the true unpredictability of the future and shake off the laziness that comes with assuming the status quo will persist. It’s the only way you’re going to come up with provocative futures that have bearing on your design work today.

The habit you need to cultivate

Weekly or monthly, sit down with your peers, your project team, your clients, and explore and discuss the signals you’re seeing in the present — those you’ve collected through your horizon scanning.

A futures wheel diagram
An example of a futures wheel. A simple and powerful tool to help you break out of the status quo trap.

Think through the short, medium and long term consequences of what you’re seeing, and don’t shy away from the unpleasant possibilities.

A great way to get beyond the obvious to more interesting and insightful ideas is to use a tool like Futures Wheel (originally developed by Jerome Glenn in 1972) to explore the first, second, and third-order consequences of the changes you’re starting to see in the present.

There’s a great example by Scott Smith at Changeist that talks in more detail about the Futures Wheel and how it applies to the future of home working. I encourage you to take a look and try the method for yourself

Habit 3. Tell a human story

The third habit is about communication.

At some point in your project, you’re going to have to talk about the futures you’re exploring. Whether that’s to explain an approach, expand the field of design decisions, or shift a value proposition, you’re going to need a vision of the future that’s easy to understand.

Now, most discourse about the future in the mainstream media is designed to grab eyeballs. That often means it exists in the abstract and leads with the weirdness. “Robot Journalists are already Stealing Jobs”. “Mind reading computers are here”. “The collapse of the World Economy is Coming”. Things are strange and scary and will never be the same again. So it goes.

The problem is, it’s hard to relate to an abstract idea about the future which bears no relation to human experience.

We’ve found that the best way to get our stakeholders and teams to relate to the future is to place someone in that future and describe what it’s like: what kind of world do they inhabit? What are they doing in that future, and why? Who are they interacting with? — In short, what’s the human story?

Its the End of the World Economy as We Know It
I’m sure it’s important, but what does it have to do with me?

The good news is that, as designers, we’re already doing this day-in and day-out with personas, storyboards, journey maps, prototypes, video summaries. The task now is to apply that to the future human. A really simple way to do that is to create a future persona, complete with motivations, needs, behaviours and goals that respond to a new context:

The habit you need to cultivate

In your design projects, take advantage of the first two habits (collecting signals data in the present, and challenging the status quo) to create a new context for your users, customers and citizens and bring it to life.

We often do this by building small vignettes — casting a relevant user persona into our possible future context, and briefly exploring their interaction with the world.

Meet Dani, 32 in 2028, Mother of Two. She entrusts a huge amount of her life admin to automated services, so she can focus on the family. Member of a number of global work platforms (helps with flexibility), She's really into food related topics. She's automatically offered freelance tasks on merit. She expects the choices that technology makes for her reflect her values: local, ethical, fair. Has a work repuation score; there's an automated feedback loop with her performance.)
How we often communicate possible futures: projecting a persona forward in time, and exploring how they interact with a future context. We used this one on a project where we needed to explore the future of freelance work.

To make it effective, we generally follow four fundamental rules:

  1. Keep it simple. You don’t need to overproduce this human story. We keep our human stories feeling like snapshots — glimpses, not analyses.
  2. Play around with different types of individuals, in different settings. Bring your future contexts to life in different ways.
  3. Write something inspired by a non-conventional view of the future. Remember your second habit? Pick up some of the more alien or interesting possible futures and take some time to explore them. It keeps things engaging and can offer unexpected insight.
  4. Back it all up with reference to your signals in the present. Keep a track of your workings, and show the framework of signals that have inspired these possible futures. It builds credibility, especially as you move into the non-conventional.

Habit 4. Translate the impact

None of this matters unless you can identify the “so what” for your design work — what does the future you’ve explored mean for your client, your customers, your teams, your product range, your policies, your competitors? Does it reveal new opportunities? Does it challenge your cherished beliefs?

Here’s a simple example: Imagine you’re a sports retailer. Through your horizon scanning, challenging the status quo and human stories, you’ve identified a plausible and preferred future where more and more influential young people run side-hustle wellbeing businesses out of their homes. They need to customise their small, rented living space to perform as a virtual gym, or a streaming yoga studio, a podcasting space, or a video-linked weights room in the daytime, before flipping back to family dining in the evening.

If this is a preferred future, what things should we do today that might make this future more likely to happen? And if it does happen, what do we need to do — or be — to make the most of it? That’s translating the impact.

Perhaps it means creating or curating a new range of products and services to enable a temporary digital gym at home. In that case, which early adopters, influencers and technologists should we be starting conversations with today? Which suppliers do we need to talk to? Should we go into partnership with IKEA to design small-space flexible sports equipment?

The habit you need to cultivate

Always remember to conclude your foresight activities on projects with a clear action in the present, driven by the signals and trends you’re seeing and how they impact the things you and your client cares about today.

The IFTF cross-impact matrix tool.
The IFTF Cross-Impact matrix tool. Very simple, very powerful.

There’s a great tool, also shared by Institute For The Future called Mapping Cross Impacts which makes it easy to connect a shift in the future to an “impact zone” of your choice. It’s a devastatingly simple yet powerful technique to bring future impacts to bear on things you might care about today.

Get into the habit

Thinking about the future isn’t easy. But by focusing on these four habits, you can make it a little easier to get started.

And remember: thinking about the future is the first step to identifying which of those possible futures is preferable. And when you know that, you can take steps to bring it about.

With the future as uncertain as it’s ever been, it is designers who can grasp the tools to shape it. We’ll need all the help we can get.

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.