Journeys for Uncertain Destinations

How do we think about the journeys through complex situations when we are unsure of a destination?

There is a saying that the journey is the destination which speaks to the value of learning by doing — praxis — and how much it means to those who seek to create things. What happens when we don’t have a destination or the destination is moving? This situation can manifest in a wicked problem — one that changes after we start trying to tackle it.

Systems transformation like the kind we are seeing at the start of the 2020’s is just this kind of problem situation.

As futurist Amy Webb argues: every organization should put foresight into its budget for next year. Just as seeing possible futures are not the same as undertaking the steps required to shape that future, so too is the problem of seeing trends and patterns without a sense of where they lead.

Foresight & Fantasy

If you can’t see where you’re going — invent it. Strategic foresight is made up of three components:

  • Research on the trends, drivers, and patterns shaping a system around a particular topic (or more)
  • Creation of scenarios and composites of the possible futures that might emerge from this data
  • Development of a strategic plan, implementation, and evaluation strategy to guide action toward those possible futures

It is the middle part where foresight might be the most adventurous and creative and the means to overcoming the fear or inertia of not having a destination. By using scenarios and sensemaking from the data we have, we can start to design possible scenarios based on the patterns we see and the systemic issues that affect them.

This also allows us to consider some possible ways things might turn out based on different options. Recently, a group of diverse journalists and political operatives were brought together to do something akin to a wargames exercise around the upcoming US presidential election. The exercise is part scenario development and part simulation, taking a variety of perspectives and imagining what might happen if X or Y or Z or all of them came together. The outcomes did not provide a future design, rather a set of possible outcomes and projected pathways toward them.

Elections are problematic beasts for design at any time because there are numerous legal, ethical, and social issues tied up within them to control (as citizens — let’s not get into the issue of foreign or domestic wrong-doers). Yet, we can use the same thinking to look at areas where we as individuals and organizations have greater influence to shape our lives closer to home.

Design Your Future

Without a destination, let’s consider what one might look like.

There are two main ways to consider future designs. One is to find a collection of pre-determined outcomes based on known possibilities. In the case of the US election wargaming exercise they picked four scenarios: A Trump landslide, a Biden landslide, or a Trump or Biden win by a narrow margin. These are all constrained, plausible outcomes from an election.

When we’re not sure what might happen, a second, more exploratory strategy set might be used that could include:

  • 2×2 matrices that compare two different qualities together. For example, you may compare urgency or importance, or as Peg Lahn and I did in our look at Futures of Toronto foresight project, power — distributed vs concentrated and individuals vs collectives. This allows for domains to explore what two different qualities and juxtapose them together.
  • Extrapolation of trends. This approach allows you to follow a trend further if left unabated. For example, the distribution of 5G networks and the qualities it brings (increased connectivity, speed, reliance on technology) could be extrapolated outward to envision what it might look like if everyone, some, or few, had access to it and what it might look like depending on who the ‘some’ or ‘few’ were.
  • Use of a STEEP-V framework. This stands for Social, Technological, Economic, Environmental, and Values trends to see what these patterns and trends could produce over time.

Tied to all of these is a bigger question: How might we make (scenario) come about or meet it? This is the design aspect we speak about. Here, you consider what you need (people, resources, time, etc..) and what you might need to bring them together.

Take some time and work through this. What you will find is that having possible futures can reduce much of the stress of uncertainty that comes with having none. Even if those futures are still uncertain.

Need help setting this up and undertaking it? Reach out – I can help.

Photo by Matt Howard on Unsplash and Med Badr Chemmaoui on Unsplash

Cameron D. Norman

I am a designer, psychologist, educator, evaluator, and strategist focused on innovation in human systems. I'm curious about the world around me and use my role as Principal and President of Cense Ltd. as a means of channeling that curiosity into ideas, questions, and projects that contribute to a better world.

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