Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Design Futuring: An Answer to Unknowability

As a designer being trained in what is now called Transition Design, I spend much of my time thinking about socio-technical disruption and trying to contemplate the possible futures it might bring to bear. Business strategist do they same thing, but the vocabulary they use is quite different. For strategists, it’s about market disruption and emerging markets. But, no matter the words, the problem is the same: something that “do[es] not exist cannot be analyzed,” at least not with traditional means (New & Emerging Markets, 1). In these cases, the “applications for disruptive technologies [are not only] unknown at the time of development..[they are also] unknowable” (New & Emerging Markets, 1). And, this unknowability can pose a challenge to existing ways of designing, building and even managing a company.

In his introduction, Christensen outlines the myriad ways this uncertainty can impact traditional management styles, demonstrating how best practices in “sustaining innovation” don’t support the dynamism, flexibility and resiliency necessary for “disruptive innovation.”  “Because the vast majority of innovations are sustaining in character,” he explains,” most executives have learned to manage innovation in [this] context, where analysis and planning were feasible” (Introduction, 13). When analysis isn’t possible, traditional management and planning fail, and new approaches are required. While the author does outline principles to help managers avoid these mistakes and embrace a more nimble and disruptive style, I would like to offer an alternative model to talk about disruptive innovation in an unknown market, an approach Transition Designers call Design Futuring.

Just as Christensen cites the unknowability of new markets, Design Futurist Stuart Candy, in a well-known TED talk describes the plurality of the future. He explains that “because the future hasn’t happened, it is many.” Though this might at first seem like intellectual babble, what he really means is that the future is unknown, undefined and because of that there are many possible futures to consider when designing for disruption. Design Futurists (and yes, this is a job) work to bring abstract futures to life in visual form so they can be lived, analyzed and then designed for (or not). This discipline often takes on a somewhat critical stance, concretizing extreme futures as a means to demonstrate their impact and change behavior at the present, or bringing to life absurd realities as a way to highlight the implicit assumptions of designers and even technology. Designed futures are often lived as speculative products, elaborate reenactments or built environments.
Whatever their aim, designed Futures assume an iterative and playful stance - building, making and exploring; trying on different futures for size before you know whether that future is desirable or not. I would argue that this technique might be helpful for managers in situations where “action must be taken before careful plans are made,” and when “plans must serve a very different purpose: They must be plans for learning rather than plans for implementation” (New & Emerging Markets, 14). As I discussed in last week’s post, investing in tools to help strategists prototype decisions and bring unknowable futures to life might be worthwhile. Design Futuring might offer an approach to prototyping the possible outcomes of disruptive innovation in unknown markets.

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