Futures Thinking: tomorrow can be designed today.

We humans spend a great deal of time thinking about the future and analysing the past in order to act effectively according to our purposes…

In 1985 Endel Tulving was the first cognitive neuroscientist to use the term “mental time travel” to describe the human capacity to imagine personal events from the past, as well as to envisage possible future ones. As psychologists Thomas Suddendorfa and Michael C. Corballis write, the emergence of the so called ability to mental time travel was a crucial step in evolution towards our current success as species, since in a dynamic world mechanisms allowing prediction and foresight of future situations can provide a selective advantage. It is important to note here that when we talk about foresighting we mean the ability to prepare wisely and to anticipate for future possible events and not only being able to anticipate a coming circumstance thanks to experience. This cognitive function is what research psychologist Gary Klein calls “Anticipatory thinking”, an ability of individuals and teams to prepare in time for problems and opportunities, and which must be distinguished from prediction since the latter is aimed at potential events including low-probability high threat events focusing attention on sources of critical information.

Although there is some evidence that other nonhuman animal species can think about future events, Tulving and others have also claimed that this capacity is unique to humans. According to Michael C. Corballis, one likely reason for this is that mental travel into the past (also called episodic memory) implies the use of language itself, also generally regarded as unique to humans. This researcher argues that language probably did evolve to enable explicit reference to the nonpresent. In the well-known book “Sapiens“, historian Yuval Noah Arari proceeds to write that homo sapiens “rule the world” because we are the only animal that can believe in things that exist purely in its own imagination (gods, states, money, human rights…). So driven by this example, we will agree with Michael C. Corballis that given that words themselves have become part of memory, the emergence of language may well have expanded our capacity for imaginary cognitive jumps like fiction and storytelling. The capacity to communicate our mental excursions vastly exceeds that required for personal experience alone. To accommodate the information added through communication, including not only speech, but also the vast repertoire of information through books, films, television, and so forth, storage capacity itself must surely have expanded. The link between language and memory might, therefore, be considered bidirectional.

As I have written before, the way that we humans use symbols and signals to transmit information among each other in order to communicate is fundamentally different from the way that most animal species do it. The cognitive processes that enable communication in humans involve intentional control over the production of communicative signals, the representation of others’ mental states, and the detailed tracking of shared experiences. All of this may have help us make predictions about future events in order to ensure our survival. According to Andreja Bubic, D. Yves von Cramon and Ricarda I. Schubotz the concept of “predictive brain” depicts one of the most relevant concepts in cognitive neuroscience today since emphasizes the importance of allowing us to direct our behavior towards the future, while remaining well-grounded and guided by the information pertaining to the present and the past.

As intercultural educator Silvia Austerlic states, the act of designing is thinking about what doesn’t exist yet, therefore future is the space of design, where designers dare to compose new worlds. So thinking about upcoming possibilities and analysing previous events in order to act effectively is an indispensable part of the work of a designer. The advent of the so called Critical Design in the beginning of the 21st century broadens the vision in design from its traditional practice which is generally limited to highlighting the form, function, and aesthetics of a product or service. Although it employs classic design processes—research, user experience, iteration— the main goal is to conceptualize scenarios to reflect about social, cultural, or political paradigms much like The Frankfurt School of social theory and critical philosophy did in the previous century. As we can see in the infographic below, according to Elliott P. Montgomery -a design researcher, strategist and educator- Critical Design overlaps with the practice of Design Fiction and Design Futures in the broader field of Speculative Design where the aim is to explore possible futures. As pioneers Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby write, by creating speculative and often provocative scenarios narrated through designed artifacts -much like conceptual art did in the 20th century- this new professional field looks for the ideas freed by its practice to increase the odds of achieving desirable futures.


So it’s no wonder, as design strategist Corina Angheloiu writes, that a more recent approach to design has been that of a field to not only solve problems, but ask “carefully crafted questions” with an inquiry-oriented mindset. That is why the field of Futures Studies also overlaps with Speculative Design, because the systematic study of possible, probable and preferable futures including the worldviews and myths that underlie each future is really important in order to imagine critically new possibilities. Its methods have long been used in business and policy-making and are practices in industry and government as strategic foresight, but as Corina Angheloiu underlines the field of Futures Studies is often portrayed as a capability exclusive to experts, while in fact a participatory attitude like that used in a more user centered approach like in Design Thinking is a tendency to take into account.

Creative digital specialist Steven Santer explains that the generation of artefacts can commence from the synthesis stage of the Design Thinking process to generate Speculative Design work or to create a specific design solution for the problem at hand. Although Design Thinking is rather used to create a specific end product or service rather than to generate plausible hypothetical scenarios for examination, both of this actions require qualitative and quantitative research, understanding trends, and gaining insights which involves working with experts and other stakeholders during the project life-cycle. Finally, designers and educators Martyn Evans and Simon Sommerville think that the designers’ capacity to envision and interpret social, cultural, technological, and economic futures is central to the success of a design-led futures approach.

So let’s not forget that our abilities to prepare in time for problems and opportunities, and the capacity to compose new worlds is an extraordinary advantage to tackle the wicked problems of today and those that may come in the upcoming times. Because as the architect and systems theorist Buckminster Fuller said “a designer is an emerging synthesis of artist, inventor, mechanic, objective economist and evolutionary strategist”.

*(Picture: vectorstock.com, epmid.com, futurehumanbydesign.com).

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