Clarify the present with Design Fiction: Shaping and sharing tangible visions for the future
For the last few years at Near Future Laboratory and BBVA Data & Analytics, my teams and I have been focused on clarifying the present and anticipating desirable, feasible, and profitable futures for organizations. Establishing a vision, then investigating that vision through Design Fiction, we proactively explore what we might do next, discuss implications of potential opportunities and seek to understand what we need to achieve today to create the preferable future we envision.
The future is a moving target
The time horizons of innovation have shortened. New technologies and business models are emerging and expiring faster than ever before. The pace by which ideas circulate through networks, and the availability of exceptional scales of funding and resources for even the craziest of ideas magnify the importance of framing problems in time scales which are much shorter than the old standard of ten years. Shaping a clear vision is pivotal for organizations, because there is less clarity for their members about where things are heading, and why. Leaders are requested to have clear and compelling visions, and be better at communicating these visions in an effective way.
Organizations need new approaches to explore futures based on the pace of modern human creativity—to find possibilities in unexpected places that can’t be known in advance.
Leaders of today’s digital giants, such as Amazon, Tesla, and Google, clearly articulate visions, even in the face of huge short-term uncertainties. However, many other large organizations and governments struggle with newer methods for anticipating and adapting to change, as they don’t work well with old-fashioned methodologies, where visions of the future are often projected through powerpoints, written reports, white papers, or, at best, a promotional video visualizing a seamless future. Organizations need new approaches to explore futures based on the pace of modern human creativity—to find possibilities in unexpected places that can’t be known in advance.
Design Fiction is just such a tool. Organizations can use Design Fiction to:
- Enhance an imagination jammed in a world of sameness.
- Spark conversations and anticipate unevenly distributed futures.
- Check the sanity of a vision for an anticipated future.
- Set priorities for today which can make a preferred future attainable.
The future is often characterized as the state of not knowing what will happen next. For an organization, it is a moving target with multiple potential paths and unfolding spaces. The creation and application of new technologies bring with them new opportunities to imagine “What if…” scenarios to better explore complex implications, and to mollify anti-change agents (e.g. those left behind by change). Extrapolating from past trends is useful, but often limiting. The future is mostly not predictable—it can’t be nailed down, so prioritizing investments which help frame future-facing insights allows an organization to understand what it will need to move towards its vision. To prepare for “not knowing,” the best an organization can do is aim to experiment and learn.
Tools and building blocks
Our work has developed across multiple methodologies, some of which are in quite common use, others less so. For clarity, here’s a short explainer for some of the terms and ideas used in this article:
- Vision describes the state of an organization across its functions, but does not stand in as a summary of the organization as a whole. Visions should provide a sense of aspiration to stretch the imagination and provoke exploration of new possibilities. A vision should be accessible, inclusive, and cooperative. Vision drives discussion, learning, and strategy, and allows space for leaders to consider necessary organizational transformations.
- Scenarios are the frameworks or stories within which an organization considers why and how a future technology might make sense, or be useful.
- Diegetic prototypes or “props” exist as a functional piece of technology within a fictional world. They are tangible concept depictions which act as a stand-in for a “thing” that an organization would like to showcase, question, consider, and learn from. They are often representative of uses for new technologies, and provide an accessible way for others to interrogate practicality, propriety or value.
- Design fiction is the use of “props” to help scaffold narratives about a slightly changed world.
The future is something an organization must constantly shape and adapt to.
Exploring futures is a learning process, not an output
Executives—most of them with deep knowledge of their domain, their markets, their customers, and even their organizations— sometimes lack the means to experiment with and shape their vision beyond the next quarterly plan. Frenetic and misaligned incentives within organizations too often dictate they must manage the existing business in a reactive mode, and consequently, they are routinely following a blinkered path, rather than anticipating a need for change. As managing the present takes oxygen from experimenting with futures, their time to enhance corporate imagination and strategy shrinks.
The future is something an organization must constantly shape and adapt to. A compelling vision should have the facility to formulate mandates that a team may use to gain a clearer view of what really needs to be done and—equally important—what may prevent them from doing it.
The bottom line then is to recognize the complexities of the business, society and technologies to create visions for areas that are meaningful to internal and external stakeholders, and to make sure these visions bend or adapt the overall mission, purpose, objectives and values of an organization.
The video of the Amazon Go shows what shopping looks like when a supermarket has no checkout. Extrapolating the capacities of technologies and anticipating behaviors, Amazon shared this fiction before the concept went into a trial period.
Exploring futures to set today’s priorities
Furthering the vision through a Design Fiction approach helps executives and teams increase knowledge on a new technology, display an ambition on its applications, build credibility, enlist support for its execution, counter skepticism, create momentum and incorporate common ideals. Feedback from people with different perspectives anticipates expanded junctures for opportunities and challenges.
With Design Fiction, the audience is asked to hold a certain suspension of disbelief as to what is possible, and focus on the implications for the organization, the competition, a product, its customers, markets, and society in general, because the related promise made possible by new technology does far more than replacing old technology and behaviors.
Today, large organizations use Design Fiction to learn and iterate even before prototyping, wireframing or writing a line of code. Insights from these explorations can become mandates for research, a user study, a usable prototype, a strategy, or some combination of these. Amazon often applies the approach of working backwards. For instance, videos of Amazon Go or Amazon Prime Air were used for anticipating and demonstrating the near-future capabilities of the company. They tell provocative stories of a potential tomorrow offering the company a feedback mechanism for valuable insights into the public’s consent or desire for certain technological applications. Design Fiction without some frictions or closed to critiques can easily fall into corporate publicity showcasing sterile ‘flat-pack futures’.
Google’s Project Soli video was developed to conceptualize future applications of applied research capabilities regarding the development of a new interaction sensor using radar technology. Explaining the scientific “magic” behind these tiny gesture sensors helps researchers clearly articulate their ambitions and make the world aware of Google’s belief of the potential around this technology. The video provided a way to perform “micro” future studies that pay particular attention to our everyday life rituals, behaviors, and frictions, as short-term evolutions for exploring the standard objects or services that might fill these possible futures.
Design Fiction is not just a new way of sharing research outcomes, but also a new forum for communication and collaboration with a variety of partners. The Ikea Catalog from the near future was produced in a group effort bringing together collaborators from public sector bodies, academic institutes, and major organisations – including IKEA and Ericsson. It’s not the technology featured in the catalog, but the suggested implications of new benefits and rituals in our future lives which elicit an emotional response. This type of prompt or provocation tackles future-oriented problems or opportunities with an eye towards addressing concerns, not just about a concept’s viability, but the wider consequences of that viability.
Even governments have used Design Fictions to incentivise future-forward policy by engaging citizens with positive perceptions of innovation, acceleration, and change. Dubai, in the UAE, has established the Dubai Future Foundation which, among other initiatives, curates an annual Museum of the Future to facilitate community investment in the future, through immersive and participatory experiences.
For us, a successful Design Fiction means that a large audience within an organization can feel, touch, understand, and discuss near future opportunities. It provides convincing material for exploring unknowns, working through turbulent alternatives, contesting the status quo, or setting priorities for strategic alternatives. It creates a believable bridge from the current universe of an organization to its potential futures.
In Part II of this article, we describe how we put Design Fiction into practice at BBVA Data & Analytics.