Monthly Archives: June 2011

Futuring Practices: Tools, Terms, and Perspectives*

While approaches to futuring vary from institution to institution, a multitude of continuities, themes, and terms transcend. These elements consist of a series of tools, terms and perspectives that work together to guide the envisioning process. While my own research has sustained a primary focus on the research and processes of institutions and individuals, I will also highlight “theologies” of the future – how different backgrounds can breed different kinds of approaches to futurist theory.

Futuring Tools:

“10 Year Forecast”IFTF, 2010 (left) vs. “Avatar”, James Cameron, 2009 (right)

 

Futuring practices rely on a series of tools. These tools are useful approaches to the envisioning of a future, as well as the communication of these ideas to the inhabitants of that future. Scenario development, a tool used throughout a multitude of disciplines and fields, is a great asset to any futurist’s tool-box, allowing for “fictional prototypes” of sorts. The design of scenarios, and, most importantly, the design of ourselves within those scenarios allows for a deep understanding of our potential, preferred, probable, or plausible futures. Scenarios are crafted in varying levels of detail – they can result in designed environments (like what we see in Minority Report or Avatar), they can be imagined in literature, they can be illustrated in a series of diagrams… the possibilities are open to the creator’s judgement, inspired by the content of the scenario, and the community they are engaging with the vision. While scenario development is a crucial aspect in the “prototyping” and portrayal of our future, a few other tools can be implemented prior to this hefty process: signals, r&d, and design fiction. Each of these make up the pieces of a finished scenario: inspirationpeople, and prototype.

Examples of Quantitative approaches to “Signal-finding.” via PBS.org and GOOD.is

 

A signal, such as child obesity or air pollution, is an objective observation of the current environment, it’s inhabitants, and the relationship between the two. Often stemming from a whole lot of numbers, conversations, and observations, a signal serves as a piece of evidence that allows us to better understand the ramifications of today, on tomorrow. Signals can be seen as a piece of inspiration for humanists, inventors, and entrepreneurs to work towards in crafting and designing our world. In a trip north to the Silicon Valley, I met with author and entrepreneur, Jon Gillespie-Brown. Brown refers to a business idea as an “itch.” An “itch,” in business, like a “signal” in futuring, is an annoyance (or a need) that is shared by the majority of human beings. To predict the success of a business, or the success of a future, the itch, or signal, must be shared. Therefore, the next piece of the “futuring puzzle” is people.

“Designs for an Overpopulated Planet: Foragers”, Dunne + Raby, 2009 – design fiction

R&D is a corporate method that leverages a team of designers, engineers, and researchers to innovate products and conduct user-studies. When applied to the field of futuring, an R&D team can serve as a great asset in the sense that the team can leverage design-fiction methodologies to create diegetic prototypes while simultaneously testing those prototypes on people, through ethnography and people-knowing. By developing R&D teams that create designs for people, inspired by signals, we can begin to craft futures that go beyond “me.”

“New York Times Special Edition”, The Yes Men, 2008 – a prototype of a “preferred future”

FUTURING TERMS:

Many terms are used within the community of futurists, but I have collected major and frequent ones here. These terms are a result of my research of language used by The Institute for the Future, and Stuart Candy of both The Long Now Foundation and Arup.

  • Forecast: A forecast, often used for business planning and innovation, is commonly the result of quantitative research  and is used to describe a prediction or estimate that can take place anywhere from tomorrow to roughly two years in the future.
  • Outlook: An outlook, like a forecast, is also often the result of quantitative findings. However, an outlook refers to a longer timeline, roughly 10 years and up, and is often used to focus on large-reaching issues like health, for example. An outlook allows us to predict on the basis of current information.
  • Horizons: A horizon, unlike an outlook or a forecast uses qualitative research methodology. Referring to a mid-level timeline (about 3-10 years in the future) a horizon is the limit of a person’s mental perception, experience, or interest and is often used for business planning and technological innovation.

Stuart Candy presents at Long Now. via Sascha Pohflepp’s flickr.

  • Possible Future: A possible future is everything that might happen, un-edited. This means that all of the wild cards and unlikely situations, like an airplane crash, are included in the scenario.
  • Probable Future: The probable future is what is likely to happen because of our current  situation – an extension of today’s trends. While the probable future does commonly consist of the highly likely, predictions of these sorts may or may not become a reality.
  • Plausible Future: The plausible future is everything in-between the possible and the probable futures.
  • Preferable Future: The preferable future is what we want to happen, it is a future scenario that serves as an inspiration for each of us to individually work towards. It does not just happen, it requires action.

FUTURING FRAMING:

Zombieland” Directed by Ruben Fleischer, 2009 – “mutants in the rose bowl” example.

Peter Lunenfeld has a great way of describing / framing the future in two well designed descriptors: “bespoke futures” and “mutants in the rosebowl” – perhaps more generally referred to as “utopia” and “dystopia.”

“One reason we have so little faith in the future is that the shape of things to come has never been so inadequately imagined. We tend to see utopia as relentlessly personal, while the apocalypse is one of the few shared universals. In other words, while we can posit a future for ourselves as individuals (and even as members of a family) we have little in the way of positive imagination for the realm of the social, much less the political.” – Peter Lunenfeld in “Bespoke Futures: Media Design and the Vision Deficit

SUCCESS MEASURES:

To judge the outcome of a vision, it is beneficial to define a series of success measures to ensure that the scenarios being produced are contributing to the development of a world we wish to inhabit, or a direction we wish to work towards. The Institue for the Future provides three of these success measures: Happiness, Legacy, and Resilience.

  • Happiness: Will this envisioned future create happiness? Can a moment of well-being be constrained and reproduced? Is there a possibility for a collapse in bio-chemistry? Has the futurist accounted for this collapse, and prepared for the ramifications?
  • Legacy: What will my great-grandchildren say? What can I do to make that statement true?
  • Resilience: Is the future evolvable in the sense that it encourages rapid innovation? Does the scenario include ambient collaboration, environments designed for positive feedback? Is there a plan for using renewable sources as rewards – reverse scarcity? Are awe, wonder, and appreciation used to build strategic advantage – adaptive emotions? Is an infrastructure in place to find and link super-empowered hopeful individuals to create an amplified optimism?

FUTURING PERSPECTIVES:

Though many of the practices that have analyzed and described in this article have primarily focused on the tactics of specific futuring institutions and individuals, it is important to consider the role of futuring in other disciplines and belief systems outside of the “futurist circle,” including the historical, religious, and scientific.

Further reading on alternative futuring perspectives:

CONCLUSION:

Great opportunity resides in the futuring practice to create a model of innovation and communal participation that prescribes to the concept of “preferred futures” while going beyond the self. Is it possible to design an ideal future for more than just ourselves?

Inspiration, sources, and further-further reading- in no particular order:

*This article was originally written for “Micro Meta Mega,” a research project sponsored by the graduate Media Design Program at Art Center College of Design. It is a design-driven inquiry into the future of humanities research and scholarly production. Through the creation of speculative environments and interfaces, the project aims to provide an alternative to the information environments envisioned through popular media and corporate promotions that tend to emphasize military, scientific, and business applications.

Impractically, Practical

Impractically, Practical showcases artists and designers that use business as a cultural instigator, raising questions about the potential of transmedia communication to act as a catalyst to influence and initiate change on both global and local levels, through fictional entrepreneurship, and diegetic business.

In the spirit of being “Impractically, Practical,” I worked with exhibition designer, Kate Slovin, to conceptualize a display format that would take the most practical aspect of an exhibition – name cards – and display them in the most impractical way possible.

A grid of exactly 1/2 pound of black yarn was used to suspend the artist names. The show was a great success, with over 200 gallery-goers trickling in throughout the night.

The publication features the artists in the show, and aims to theorize and invent two categories of business-design: fictional entrepreneurship and diegetic business, two definitions for tools I am proposing that allow for the use of fiction in business model design to innovate new products and services that help us better understand our present situation through narrative and / or critical dialogue.

Creative Direction & Curation byMatthew Manos
Exhibition & Publication Design byKate Slovin
GalleryTake My Picture
Sponsored bya verynice design studio
Artists: Zach Blas, David Elliot, Michael Kontopoulos, David Leonard, Matthew Manos, Lauren McCarthy, Sara Moore, Ana Ramos, Jackson Wang, a verynice design studio, & The Yes Men

Huffington Post Interview – excerpt

About a month ago, The Huffington Post published an interview with me with the hopes of getting to know the background story of my business, a verynice design studio, because we had just hit our first major milestone: 100 pro-bono clients. Funny enough, towards the end of the interview, the discussion shifted gears and started relating, in a more specific sense, to my thesis and research interests of diegetic business.

[…]

An Xiao Mina: Tell me a little about how you’ve worked to create in-house design firms as well.

Matthew Manos: Marketing and design are crucial assets to any businesses, but especially non-profits due to the necessity of engaging an audience in order to spread awareness around a cause, or build trust in order to raise donations or recruit volunteers. Now a very problematic aspect of working with a non-profit client on a pro-bono basis is a lack of sustainability — just launching a brand or website really is not enough, and can lack the consistency in brand awareness and marketing tactics that are necessary in sustaining a successful social enterprise or non-profit organization.

We have worked with numerous non-profit organizations such as The $100 Solution and Youth Leadership America to contribute to not only the design of their promotional materials and branding, but to the design of their business model by incorporating marketing divisions and building teams / filling the seats for those positions for these organizations.

These two organizations as well as other small non-profits we have done this for are now able to sustain themselves with the help of these designed divisions within their existing infrastructures.

AXM: It’s easy to see how an organization focused on social action might want to pour more resources toward fundraising, or programmatic operations. Can a design team also play a role in the bigger picture of a nonprofit?

MM: Yes. The role of a designer is changing — the overall process of a design project (conceptualization, prototyping, execution, iteration, feedback) is synonymous to that of an entrepreneur. Designers have a natural ability to understand systems, and to (most importantly) find the gaps or voids within those systems. Designers understand the importance of “user” feedback and are in a constant working cycle of iteration.

All of these qualities make a designer an ideal leader, if they want to. Now this is not a new idea, *design-thinking*, but I think there have been a lot of missed opportunities to guide entrepreneurs and designers in both the conceptual phase (anomalous object), and in the implementation phase (solid object).

[…]

Diegetic Business

Fiction is not enough, but it is necessary.

Fictional Entrepreneurship allows for innovation within a fictional model. It allows for wiggle room, iteration, failure, and for ideas to transform into other ideas. Fictional Entrepreneurship is about raising social and critical dialogue around issues within our daily lives, our governments, and our societies. It is about telling a damn good story, but above all, about creating things that could never exist, or changing that which we think we have an understanding of. It is about being an entrepreneur of the “impractical.”

“Mainly they were worried about the future, and they would badger us about what’s going to happen to us. Finally, I said: ‘Look, the best way to predict the future is to invent it. This is the century in which you can be proactive about the future; you don’t have to be reactive. The whole idea of having scientists and technology is that those things you can envision and describe can actually be built.’ It was a surprise to them and it worried them.” – Alan Kay

Diegetic Business, on the other hand, is about the transformation from fiction to non-fiction. Diegetic Business is not “non-fiction,” it is the in-between of the imaginary and the real. It is a process that begins to involve people, profit, non-profit, etc., but is not quite there yet. Diegetic Business is about failure, problem-making, and being a naive inventor.

If entrepreneurship and innovation are about making a need that only that product can fill, entrepreneurship, like design, is growing as a field that is not “problem-solving,” but “problem-making.” True innovation, and true futuring practices come not from fixing things, but breaking them.

Why would we want to foster entrepreneurs and business models that do not take care of our daily annoyances, but create them? Why would a consumer ever engage with a product that make their life less efficient? We don’t want to, and they wouldn’t, but it is a necessary step in this transformative phase from the imaginary to the real. A successful entrepreneur, or “future inventor” does not meet our current needs, but foresees our future needs and problems. In order to do this, they need to make them.

 “I don’t know who discovered water, but it wasn’t a fish.” – Marshall McCluhan. 

If you are immersed in the context and the content, you have an extremely difficult time being able to see what is going on. This is proof of the idea that being naive is actually crucial when approaching the design of a business model. In a conversation with Peter Lunenfeld, a master of futuring practices and media design education, he claimed that we, as a society, need more “hedgefoxes.” A hybrid creature that is part hedgehog (able to deep-dive into a subject matter), and part fox (able to go quickly back and forth between subject matter). I believe the same is in the field of business – it is ideal to be have deep knowledge in one matter, but have hybridity in your nature, allowing you to freely explore other mediums that are unfamiliar to you. Choose mediums you are unfamiliar with, but bring your bits of familiarity with you.

Invisalign, Amir Abolfathi

In April (2011), I paid a visit to some of Silicon Valley’s most successful and innovative entrepreneurs in order to discuss my radical approaches to business and entrepreneurship and get their take on it. One executive in particular, Amir Abolfathi, embodies the persona of a fictional entrepreneur. Amir is the co-inventor of Invisalign, the world’s first invisible teeth correcting device, as well as many other products within the dental industry. When I heard about his newest company, Sonitus Medical, I became intrigued by the project’s “imaginary” qualities – a hearing aid embedded in teeth. Sonitus Medical is the world’s first removable hearing aid that uses bone conduction of the teeth to enhance hearing. Amir admitted to me that, while he is a master of teeth, he honestly knew nothing about the hearing industry before starting this company. He claimed that is was this naivety that actually made him a better innovator in the hearing industry, because it allowed him to come up with hundreds of ideas and sketches that were in no way possible or practical. By leaving practicality behind, and by being naive to the capabilities and possibilities in the hearing industry, Amir was able to come up with ideas that were never previously considered.

Failure, like naivety, in entrepreneurship is critical – this is where fictional entrepreneurship can play a strong role. By being an entrepreneur of fiction (fictional consumers, fictional capital, fictional product), you have nothing to lose, and can iterate freely until ready to become diegetic.

Oblong Industries is a living example of viable business as a result of speculative thinking. Though the goal of the business is not to raise social and critical dialogue, it remains a prime example of Fictional Entrepreneurship due to it’s ability to influence a change on humanity’s perception of daily lives and routine. Originally a fantastical image of the future, the infamous “Minority Report” interface has been made a reality by the “g-speak” platform, a product of Oblong Industries and the speculative design innovation of John Underkoffler, the technology consultant for Minority Report, and the Chief Scientist for Oblong. In 2010, I had the pleasure of visiting Oblong Industries to see the product in action, and meet the CEO, Kwindla Hultman Kramer. A highlight from my discussion with Kwindla asked the question: “Is the process of making a concept of fiction a viable business model a difficult one?” Kwindla informed me that he believes all innovative business starts as fictional construct, but that the process of attracting investors to believe in such a speculative concept can be a difficult one. I argue that the detail seen in the design of Minority Report’s gestural interface successfully suspends the audience’s disbelief and uses fictional entrepreneurship to make these abstract visions of the future tangible.

While the interfaces and products in Minority Report are the result of a fictional entrepreneur’s innovations, the interfaces and products of Ooblong industries are that of a Diegetic Business – they are able to hold onto the innovative and imaginative qualities of the fictional series of explorations as seen in the movie, while seamlessly entering the beginning stages of commercialization.

The transformation from a fictional enterprise to a diegetic enterprise does not need to be one with commercial intentions, but can also be one that is used as a tool for raising social dialogue and maintaining critical integrity. The successful qualities of using business as a medium for these kinds of communicative tools is that it is very accessible – business is a medium that everyone (whether it is realized or not) is a part of. We are surrounded by business, and are embedded within business on a daily basis. Therefore, using business as a tool for raising these issues or jamming our culture can reach a larger market and attract more participation then any other medium. Two examples of Diegetic Business, and entrepreneurs of cultural criticism are The Yes Men and Natalie Jerimijenko’s “Environmental Health Clinic.”

The Yes Men are a group of over 300 culture jammers. They impersonate leaders and big corporations in order to publicly humiliate them while raising dialogue around the wrong-doings we often forget about. Most recently, The Yes Men executed a prank known as Coal Cares™, a fictional non-profit that posed as an initiative of Chevron.

 Coal Cares™ is a brand-new initiative from Chevron, one of America’s proud family of coal companies, to reach out to American youngsters with asthma and to help them keep their heads high in the face of those who would treat them with less than full dignity. For kids who have no choice but to use an inhaler, Coal Cares™ lets them inhale with pride. (http://coalcares.org/)

A Diegetic Business, Coal Cares™ had the mission of making coal cool for kids, providing some very exciting inhalers. They even had one with Justin Beiber on it. So why is this a Diegetic Business as opposed to a Fictional Enterprise? Coal Cares™, and the rest of The Yes Men’s work goes beyond the imaginary by brining fictional personas and products into a society as a way to shift culture. These projects are Diegetic because they exist as operating businesses that have roots in the imaginary, but are able to maintain the social and critical values through the threshold of “real.” They are an artifact – extracted from a story. How can a simple object, a result of critical-entrepreneurial thinking, use charm and humor to communicate a profound cultural issue?

Natalie Jerimijenko takes existing models and re-mixes them to raise dialogue around social and environmental dialogue. Jerimijenko’s business, The Environmental Health Clinic, operates as any other health clinic would, but instead of coming to this particular clinic with your own health issues, you come to it to discuss the health of your environment. After their consultation, visitors of the clinic are given tools for water sampling to understand the state of their water supply raise, and raise their issues with people of office.

The Environmental Health Clinic is a Diegetic Business that begins to engage a culture by giving them real, working, products to both educate and empower them to raise their own dialogue and start their own initiatives around environmental issues. The bizarre nature of their sampling tools immediately provokes questioning from the peers around them – this creates a model which uses diegetic artifacts to tell the story to others, and watch it spread virally throughout the city.

“These bespoke futures go beyond profit and loss statements, to create an opportunity space for the imagination, enabling individuals and independent groups to create visions of the future that inspire them. The point is to move from P&L to V&F—profit and loss to vision and futurity—from ROI to ROV –the Return on Investment to a Return on Vision.” (Lunenfeld)

The key to creating a Utopian vision of the future is community engagement and the collective agreement of the masses. As Peter Lunenfeld highlights in his book, “The Secret War of Downloading and Uploading,” a Dystopian vision, “Mutants in the Rosebowl,” is the default answer from designers of the future because utopia can not be agreed upon. Utopia is different for every individual, like a fingerprint, no one person’s perception of utopia can ever be the same and another’s. Dystopia, on the other hand, is widely agreed upon. How can we start planning for a more ideal future, designing one that we would actually appreciate engaging in dialogue around? How can we, as designers of the future, design utopia for a wide demographic that extends beyond ourselves? How can an entrepreneurial method / approach to thinking engage a wide audience, or at least one that is bigger than ourselves?

But non-fiction is not enough.

People are a critical force behind the evolution of a diegetic business to a non-non-fiction business. Employees, innovators, consumers – people. People are needed to share the visions – to create a collective ideal, to be collective entrepreneurs, and to “make it real.”

Works Cited:

  1. – Kay, Alan. “Predicting The Future.” Ecotopia, 20 May 2011. <http://www.ecotopia.com/webpress/futures.htm&gt;
  2. – McCluhan, Marshall. Quoted in “Predicting The Future.” Alan C. Kay, Ecotopia. 20 May 2011. <http://www.ecotopia.com/webpress/futures.htm&gt;
  3. – The Yes Men. “Coal Cares™.” 30 May. 2011. <http://www.coalcares.org&gt;