Scenarios, designs and foresight

In World Future Society special report 20 Forecasts for 2014 – 2030 I read that 'foresight' is the single most critical skill for the 21st century. Here's why:

Foresight is critical to achievement in all areas of your life, including your major life decisions. People who lack foresight are likely to find themselves unemployed when jobs are unexpectedly lost to new technologies, competition from overseas, or shifts in consumer tastes. Foresight is the key to survival in a world of disruptive innovation.

And then come some hefty claims:

Foresight enables you to see opportunities, avoid threats, and chart the fastest path to your goals. The key to success is seizing opportunity when it arises. But you need to see the opportunity and be prepared to take action. That's why foresight gives you power and agility to achieve any goal you want to achieve.

Over-ruling my sceptic meter (on high at this point) I learned of the seven ways to 'Spot Tomorrow's Trends Today'. OK, since I have some interest in both achieving personal goals and supporting organizations in achieving business goals I read on to find that one of the seven ways of gaining foresight is to:

Develop Scenarios-—Futurists often describe the future development of a trend, a strategy, or a wild-card event in story form. These scenarios can paint a vivid picture that can help you visualize possible future developments and show how you can prepare effectively for future risks and opportunities. Scenarios help you to blend what you know about the future with imagination about the uncertain. Scenarios help you move from dreaming to planning and then to accomplishment.

Hearing that the Oxford Futures Forum holds regular conferences around scenarios I investigated. This year's aimed 'to join two established communities of thought and practice – the design research community and the scenario planning practice and research community … to enable generative dialogue, productive collaboration and deep reflection on the connections between scenario thinking and practice and design.' You can read more about the intention of the meeting here

I successfully applied to be invited and I've just spent two days with seventy or so people working in scenarios and/or design. I've come away a lot of learning/questions/resources to think about, explore and develop in organization design work. So conference organizers goals achieved – at least as far as I'm concerned. What stands out for me:

Organization design the 'agile' way. I was glad to meet people also interested in agile, iterative, open-ended, and unfolding methods of design. I'm newish to the field of agile methodology and intrigued by its potential application to organization design. Take a look at this introduction to Open Unified Process. The four principles it is based on: Collaborate to align interests and share understanding, balance competing priorities to maximize stakeholder value, focus on the architecture early to minimize risks and organize development, evolve to continuously obtain feedback and improve could well be adapted for use in organization design work.

The only problematic word in these principles is 'architecture' which some might take to mean the organization chart. But 'architecture' in software is much more encompassing. Some definitions are here. For organization designers substituting the words 'whole system' for 'architecture' would work.

I talked with people who are applying agile techniques into government policy making – the work of Christian Bason, of Mindlab in Denmark is particularly interesting. He's got a book coming out later this year on Design for Policy. We had good discussions on the challenges posed by trying to introduce open and agile approaches into traditionally organized governmental systems.

What's missing? One group in this evolving conference (no presentations, just self-organization and self-direction in 90 minute slots) came up with some terrific notions on what is missing/ choreographed/removed/airbrushed out from scenarios and design development in general. In one session they developed an embryonic toolbox that put in the richness and reality that could be in scenarios.

They did this by taking a starter office photo – of the type that designers show to clients – and applied other pictures and artefacts to answer the question 'What important things are missing/left out of the bubbles of design futures visualizations? (e.g. risks of environmental futures, disabled, stereotypes, gender norms, value of people's data, broken technologies, design frictions, clutter, continuity of mundane, religion, flags, expression of values). Everyone present instantly wanted to buy the toolbox! Maybe it will appear on Kickstarter.

They went on to suggest that we didn't talk about the propaganda/politics in scenarios, asking who's creating them for what purpose? They wondered whether scenario designers should be credited, and what transparency of scenario construction could mean.

Risk and uncertainty in design and scenarios – this was a fascinating if esoteric and at points struggling discussion as we wrestled with the question that someone put forward about whether we were designing for mitigating risk or handling uncertainty or both/neither. There were lots of illustrative stories – mainly about procurement of stuff where it was impossible to state exactly what would be delivered by when, (uncertainty) but the outcome was that the 'fit for purpose' product would be delivered in the time frame (low risk). (I vividly remember on one project we were bidding for the request for me to state the numbers, dates and content of all the change management workshops I would deliver into the project before I'd even met the client or knew anything about the situation. I thought it was an insane thing to ask but it was a procurement process requirement). Anyway, out of this discussion ultimately came a testable method for designing via unfolding scenarios – unfortunately we didn't get as far as working out how to change procurement processes and requirements.

Language: One of the joys of this interdisciplinary gathering was making sense of each other's' specialized vocabulary, learning new phrases and finding different interpretations of commonly used ones. What's the difference between narrative and story? Is 'narrative' too academic a word for day to day managers? What do we mean by 'turbulent environments'? Are use cases the same as personas? Do concepts like 'high concept pitch' and 'boundary objects' have a place in scenarios and design work? People 'showed and told' their favourite phrases 'tacit to touch it', and 'economy of line' were two that I Iiked. I'm wondering what new words/concepts I've absorbed that will enter my speech.

Muddles and models: emerged in a session on iterative policy development. The 'muddle' bit was credited to Matt Andrews, not at the conference but at Harvard Kennedy School. He talks about introducing reforms in a complex environment not by doing lots of assessment studies but by iteratively capability building via feedback to solve problems that people care about. "In a sense, this is like saying that you need to muddle through the sea of icebergs in your context, ensuring that every step helps you navigate better in future".

Context and design: aspects of context were referred to all the time in the sessions I went to. Nobody in these thought you could design anything, including scenarios, free from context. But the question was how does context make design and how does design make context? Someone quoted from the Stuart Brand book How Buildings Learn: What happens after they're built? and I remembered the Winston Churchill quote 'We shape our buildings, and afterwards, our buildings shape us'. So a nice reminder in this that as the context is constantly changing so should our designs.

Resources: these were decks of cards to aid the design process that people brought to the 'Deck-head' session
Mindlabs Method Cards
Systems mythology toolkit
The Thing from the Future

So a worthwhile 2 days, I learned new things to try out, met great people, and developed and changed some perspectives. Whether I developed foresight I have yet to find out.

What are your methods for developing your scenario, design and foresight skills? Let me know.