"You're going to spend the rest of your life in the future. Maybe we ought to think about this."
- Daniel Burrus, Global Futurist, Author, and CEO of Burrus Research
When I first heard or saw the term “futurist” as someone's job title many years ago, I initially thought they might have been a science fiction writer or an artist or maybe just someone with a grand vision of “Tomorrowland.” With some investigation, I discovered my first impressions of a futurist weren’t really that far from the reality. Writing, art, and vision are important aspects of the practice as are studies in science, culture, technology and economics. In fact, the more I learned about futurists the more I began to wonder how any company could survive without having one on their team.
Future studies — also known as future thinking, futurology, futuristics, or strategic forecasting — is an interdisciplinary study of trends, changes, cycles, and patterns with a particular interest in their causes and a predictive analysis for the future. The practice is both art and science in formulating a longview of what's possible, probable, and preferable in any discipline or industry while also challenging, and ultimately disrupting, the assumptions of institutional and organizational biases.
"Data science is a scientific approach to answering complicated questions, collecting the requisite data and using it to create a prediction and a forecast."
When applied to design, the same rigor and foresight can create a valuable roadmap for developing physical products, digital experiences, and human-centered interactions to provide insights for new ideas. A design futurist analyzes design "artifacts" from the past with meaningful trends emerging in the present to synthesize strategic design opportunities for the future.
Design is the practice of problem-solving and the goal of any business is to make better decisions faster. A good way to do that is to collect as much research data and information as necessary for a clear understanding ahead of making those decisions AND prepare for challenges on the horizon.
Data doesn't have to be big to make a big difference. Data Society, a company founded by Merav Yuravlivker and Dmitri Adler, recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to teach data science to everyone. As Adler puts it, "Data science is a scientific approach to answering complicated questions, collecting the requisite data and using it to create a prediction and a forecast."
We can gather an amazing amount of both soft and hard certainties from the data acquired through user interactions with physical and digital products, services, or experiences. Additional research practices - ethnography, active listening, empathy - give us a deeper holistic awareness to discover opportunities for more meaningful, lasting impact.
When Apple released the first iPhone, they used a visual design technique called skeumorphism to introduce new technology using derivative objects to simulate real-world, tactile interaction. It made a state-of-the-art experience seem familiar and intuitive. Fast forward to iOS 9 and the interface has evolved to a "flat" design with cues that have developed with user learning and adoption . Based on what we know through the development of the iPhone, from its release in 2007 to the latest model, what can you determine as possible, probable, and preferable to occur in the next iteration? The next 10 iterations?
Beyond the actual device itself, what in the ecosystem of the smartphone is possible, probable, and preferable to adapt over time? Apps may have to respond to a new model of interaction. Increased bandwidth from mobile carriers might also allow for more robust media or even encourage an evolution in compression formatting. Voice interaction may replace gestures altogether, and for that matter, the phone itself could be a completely new, wearable, "always-on" form factor.
"Live in the future, then build what's missing."
A design futurist also needs to generate value in the present in order to fund her/his continuing research (hint: It's never "finished"). A design futurist should also be adept at creating for every level of a project's design needs - Brand, UX, Prototyping, UI, Testing, Marketing, Pivoting, Panicking ... :-) A design futurist is constantly making connections between multiple moving parts, within a system of systems, to create moments of opportunity. Iterative strategies are not based on assumptions or expectations, but by learning, unlearning, and relearning.
Your business or organization relies on design in its system somewhere, somehow, and sometime. As your market evolves, as your technology advances, and as your customers or members grow, you have a choice. Either react to changes as they happen and struggle to keep pace or proactively apply science to your practice, change your view of the future, and by doing so you can direct your own future.
It's the "science experience" in every project and the chance to create with my clients and partners that drew me to this practice. A collaborative, iterative approach to designing experiences yields greater value over time. When Paul Graham, founder of Y-Combinator in Palo Alto, was asked how to get startup ideas (i.e. innovate) he said, "Live in the future, then build what's missing. If you're at the leading edge of a field that's changing fast, when you have a hunch that something is worth doing, you're more likely to be right."
What does your Tomorrowland look like?