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The future is a verb: Your toolbox to designing futures

Digital Playground

The future is a verb: Your toolbox to designing futures


This is part two of a two-part article. Read part one here.

Done well, design, brand, marketing and communications already bring the user’s perspective to strategic innovation. Combining multiple approaches and mindsets in a structured way enables the development of meaningful new offerings, based on multiple possible future perspectives, not just the current state.

Knowing how and when to select and use foresight tools is complex (some call it a ‘black art’). Overall the goal is to develop holistic understandings of complex and multilevel challenges through time and space, deepen the rigour of existing programs and processes, and develop collaborations within and across teams, business units, departments, sectors and industries – all with an aim to provide new opportunities to innovate and improve. Futures thinking and foresight processes are inclusive and participatory by design – they go beyond key stakeholders and engage voices beyond the usual ‘system’, so that diverse perspectives can be shared and collectively held to identify long-term issues, inform strategy and support implementation.

1. Causal Layered Analysis (CLA): go deep to surface beliefs and create new narratives

Causal Layered Analysis – CLA for short – is a futures research technique introduced by Professor Sohail Inayatullah in the 1990s. CLA allows for a range of perspectives about an issue or strategic option to be explored to identify driving forces and worldviews shaping that issue. It is particularly useful when different groups hold different perspectives on ‘the future’ of something and what decisions or strategy should be actioned.

CLA is a way to create new futures through new narratives and systems that support these stories and new measurements that ensure the stories are grounded in empirical reality. As shown in the figure above, the framework is workshopped from top to bottom, allowing a holistic view of reality, both in the present and future, with actionable outputs throughout.

2. Horizon scanning: trends are not your friends

Trends are current state and based on historical patterns – recent, yes – but still past. For almost any kind of futures project, horizon scanning (or environmental scanning) is one of the early stage processes that focuses on understanding factors that could change or affect the future of an organisation or brand.

Horizon scanning describes a process for monitoring an organisation’s internal and external environments for different signals of change that could surface new threats and opportunities. It focuses on ‘weak signals’ or single examples of change observed in the present that may seem to be limited in geographical, cultural or political terms yet show potential to become forces of change in the future.

Insights, research and innovation teams could build a scanning capability to identify weak signals – those things that may become forces of change before a trend or change arrives – to help anticipate and prepare for proactive responses to that change. But scanning is not routine market research, looking at current issues or doing a competitive frame analysis.

The key to any scanning process is framing, analysis and synthesis, and requires those doing the scanning to remain open-minded about what may be important, so that there is no initial evaluation bias or elimination of data, ideas and information that could be collected before scanning begins.

Also, because the scanning topic(s) chosen to be explored may dictate research areas, it’s important to leave the scope broad enough to discover things that you did not set out to find and may perhaps uncover things that were not expected.

Some definitions:

Weak signals are small but noticeable interventions (from ideas, programs, research outputs or innovations) that could disrupt the current system if brought to scale. Weak signals can expand to become trends or drivers.

Trends are repeated, lasting and consistent phenomena that can be observed in the external environment, often geographically and culturally distributed. The factors that cause change are usually referred to as drivers or forces, but trends are the one- to five-year directions of change caused by drivers – that’s why they don’t last. Trends are likely to affect large social groups, organisations or even governments – and require a response – but will also shift as the underlying drivers change and the influence of drivers/megatrends strengthens.

Megatrends are the great forces in societal development that will very likely affect the future in all areas over the next 10- to 15-year time span. They can also be described as large social, economic, political, environmental, legal or technological changes that are slow to form. Once established, megatrends influence all kinds of activities, processes, beliefs and perceptions in governments, agencies, organisations, cultural and political groups, and in society, possibly for decades.

3. Futures Wheel: considering (un)intended consequences

If you’ve ever needed to explore the impact of a possible change, issue or event, you’ll know how hard it can be to identify all possible outcomes. More often than not, we write down the first consequences we can think of, and compile a list that’s shallow, incomplete, tricky to analyse and, well, linear – and lacks the nuanced interconnectedness of the indirect consequences that trip us up down the track.

Devised by Jerome C Glenn in 1971, the Futures Wheel is a way of questioning and then organising thinking about futures and especially uncovering all those impacts or consequences. A Futures Wheel (or impacts wheel) uncovers deeper understanding of the particular problem domain being analysed, so that any generated future model may be as accurate as possible. The process and structure of a futures wheel provides an overview of what may happen as a result of an event, change or decisions. It’s a visual tool that gives structure to collaboration or brainstorming and reveals interrelationships of causes and resulting changes through discussion.

4. Harman Fan: take a walk through (im)possible or (im)plausible futures

Consciously or not, we frequently engage notions of futures, whether they are tangible futures (designing possible artefacts of any kind) or intangible futures (designing possible interactions or services). And while marketing and design could be considered inherently futures-oriented (through conceiving, prototyping and creating things that do not yet exist) humans are functionally limited by our capacity to imagine much more than three to five years out in time.

The Harman Fan is a simple method for creating quick scenarios that describe how futures could unfold. The Harman Fan is a group activity that draws on imagination, creativity and brainstorming to draw out expansive critical thinking over a 20-year or so time-frame. By deliberately invoking uncertainty, the method allows imaginative, and fun, exploration of the crazy and wild headlines that we think we may never read or hear – and also shows the pathways that could get us there.

The Harman Fan can help with ‘anticipatory planning’ and identifying patterns, trends and emerging issues of change. Drawing on design fiction and experiential futures tools and methods, participants engage in co-creating radical alternative futures to start that conversation about how easily the ridiculous and preposterous can unfold. [quote style=’1′ cite=”]Run as part of a new product development process or kick-off workshop – before any strategy or creative begins – this method provides a brief entry into futuring and an opportunity to explore collective rapid prototyping of future visions and the artefacts that may populate those visions.[/quote]

5. Scenario thinking and scenario planning

Fundamental to using strategic foresight to guide anything (corporate strategy, business plans, investments, policy, brand strategy or longer-range R&D) is the development and use of scenarios. Scenarios are provocative views of futures that are emerging: stories and narratives of what could be, depictions of alternative futures, rather than predictions of what will be.

The use of scenarios goes back to Herman Kahn’s work at RAND in the 1950s. Often dubbed scenario planning, it’s actually more about scenario thinking – as noted by Henry Mintzberg, who makes the distinction between strategic planning, strategy development and strategic thinking.

Scenarios are one aspect of an integrated and ongoing foresight process – they are not the only output or the only tool. [quote style=’1′ cite=”]Scenarios are usually created after a rigorous and detailed program of scanning, information gathering, considered analysis, discussion and critical interpretation. They are images of futures grounded in research; they’re neither design scenarios nor speculation for speculation’s sake.[/quote]

The deeper the analysis and interpretation, the more robust those scenarios created are likely to be. Basing scenarios solely on trends, ‘big data’ and forecasts risks a very narrow range of alternative potential futures, which in turn can have an unintended impact on the continued viability of a strategy, product, service, brand or organisation. For them to be truly useful, biases, assumptions and the influence of the perceived or accepted wisdom of decision-makers (and preferences for hard facts and quantitative methods) need to be surfaced and addressed in scenarios work.

Most importantly, while scenarios are a valuable part of foresight work, there are multiple frameworks, approaches and methods in the futures toolkit for creating them, and they are always intended to be part of an ongoing, long-term, structured and embedded foresight efforts.


It’s hard to accept that our world is changing radically, especially if we acknowledge this means serious and large-scale changes to business, brand and operating models. But those doom and gloom dystopias we shy away from are closer to reality than many want to believe. [quote style=’1′ cite=”]Chasing one singular future – utopian or dystopian – is redundant, especially as most dominant narratives of ‘the future’ do not convey the global diversity of lives, voices, cultures and experiences now nor reflect how they may change over time.[/quote]

Marketing won’t fix this. Design won’t fix it either. (And as standard approaches have contributed to our current dilemma, they could just make it worse.) Design sprints, innovation workshops, strategy and a crew of consultants will only go so far. Some organisations have reached an impasse on long-term innovation strategies; some don’t have them. And the impetus for change has changed or waned.

Futuring requires that proactive players, bystanders and benchwarmers become a thing of the past by Norike Ganhão (General Manager Strategy at Powerlink Queensland)

Through the whole process a clear image was created of who we want and need to be into the future with the seeds of how to get there. Creating such a clear image is a tremendous step in communicating both internally and externally so the industry and employees can understand our purpose and how we can all work together to create a common prosperous future. Participants summarised the main workshop outcome as follows: while the future may change in expected and unexpected ways, Powerlink needs not just to adapt, but also to create the new future. Otherwise, “the future will move without us”. Personal experience as head of strategy is that the futures work opened up participants’ minds, allowing us to receive input, putting us well on our way to create a strategy that will shift the future for Powerlink, its people and the industry.

Foresight as a discipline enables us to navigate futures and make sense of the possibilities so we can use it as a source of inspiration for what we do now, in the present. The tools and outputs can be applied in marketing and brand strategy and development – whether to develop products and services that anticipate needs, add meaning that improves people’s lives, prevent issues that impair our health and well-being, or help people make sense of changes in markets, contexts and ecosystems that brands may be part of or shape in years to come.

Foresight as a discipline enables us to navigate futures and make sense of the possibilities so we can use it as a source of inspiration for what we do now, in the present. The tools and outputs can be applied in marketing and brand strategy and development – whether to develop products and services that anticipate needs, add meaning that improves people’s lives, prevent issues that impair our health and well-being, or help people make sense of changes in markets, contexts and ecosystems that brands may be part of or shape in years to come.


Sérgio Brodsky is the executive producer of Futurecast and a leading brand and foresight strategist.
Bridgette Engeler is a Futurist, Senior Lecturer in Strategic Design, Foresight, Entrepreneurship and Innovation.
Norike Ganhão is the General Manager Strategy at Powerlink Queensland.


Original title illustration and artwork by Ken Shadbolt.

Figures created by Karl Dyer.

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