Prototyping the future

28th July, 2014 by James Goodman

James Goodman discusses where the practice of futures is heading next.

‘Futures’ is a field that, since it was conceived in the 1960s, has existed to make the future better. Why have all those conversations about emerging change and how to prepare for it otherwise? Over Forum for the Future’s lifetime, however, there has been a noticeable convergence of futures practice with sustainability. These two fields are now more closely aligned than ever before.

Increasingly, businesses are using futures techniques to build resilience in the face of external changes that may affect their chance of success. They may not directly associate this with sustainability – and yet that’s what it boils down to. Sustainability is all about long-term trends and long-term value creation, and so, if you talk about the future, you are inevitably having conversations about sustainability. The internet means businesses can engage with global communities to crowd-source both signs of change and ideas for responding to them. More designers are using futures to envision the world in years to come, and create new products and services that will thrive in very different contexts.

Forum for the Future has always been about seeing the long-term view. We saw the opportunity to use futures practice to reach out to a more mainstream audience. For many in the business world, the term ‘sustainability’ simply fails to resonate, or they associate it with a land of risk and guilt. The future, by contrast, is a land of opportunity. No one in business is going to say they aren’t interested in it!

By talking about the future rather than sustainability, we could instantly change the story away from sacrifice and loss (or cords and kale), something that alienates many people, towards something that everyone has a stake in: a positive vision, something we should be really excited about and desire and aspire towards.

We have found this to be a very powerful process for building sustainability into business strategy. Too often, strategy ignores long-term issues, and fails to see how they connect to the status quo. Futures techniques prompt you to think much more creatively about your direction, and identify unexpected risks. They create a mindset which acknowledges change and uncertainty, and help people make decisions differently, reaching new conclusions about the best thing to do. We then help them translate this new mindset into strategy. One of our earliest projects was with Finlays, the global tea and flower producer. In 2008, it commissioned our futures team to help the company understand its operating context in Kenya over the next 15 years. Another was with PepsiCo, developing a set of global scenarios to understand the plausible worlds in which they might be operating in 2030.

Yet no single organisation will be able to get us to where we need to be. If you want a sustainable strategy, you need to tackle the whole system. And so we began to experiment with collaborations, using futures as our starting point. The future offers a great shared space for creative thinking – not just within a business but across an industry or value chain. It can bring people together to discuss trends, see how they connect, create shared visions, and come to joint decisions. Some of our biggest success stories are the result of such a process: the Sustainable Shipping Initiative, for example, is now an independent company. Fashion Futures is another example – used by over 300 fashion schools to help students innovate.

Now, we’re embarking on a new wave of experiments: prototyping the future. If we can work with others to create an element of what we want – even if the world isn’t quite ready for it – then we can expand the bounds of what’s possible. The very act of trying uncovers which elements of the current system need to change. And you won’t know which approaches might succeed until you try. Glocal, a project with Ecover, is one example [read more]. We set out to create a local closed loop cleaning system in Mallorca, and found out exactly what barriers (values, market, regulations, technology) we need to overcome.

We’re also exploring more ways to scan the horizon for signs of change and become more sensitive to weak signals. The web offers all sorts of new possibilities for this, from social media and crowd-sourcing to data-driven ‘pulses’ around a question or topic. We’re keen to understand how to anticipate opportunities to innovate for a sustainable future, and draw them to the attention of people who can amplify change. Our new futures platform will serve our network with fresh insights, and the means to take action. Through it, we will strengthen the connection between exploring the future and creating the future we want.

James Goodman is Director of Futures at Forum for the Future.

Photo credit: John Lund/Marc Romanelli/Blend Images/Thinkstock

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