A Better Next

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Beforetimes were different than now and what’s next will be different, too. The difference is that one we can design for.

The carefree days of standing out in public admiring the possibilities is what attracted me to this picture. There’s no digital things, the man is dressed up, there are flowers, yet he’s also mostly by himself. It’s a nice bricolage of the past, the present, and maybe the future.

A fundamental tenet of systems thinking is that systems look different from where you sit in relation to them.

Right now, it’s a little hard to know exactly where we are sitting, yet that can trick us into thinking we can’t shape where we sit next — or what next even is. As we enter yet another chapter in what has been a complicated start to the 2020’s it’s time to think again about what is next.

Design Thinking for Life

Whatever we might think about design thinking, it is a useful framework (when applied earnestly and critically) to seeing possibilities and helping us shape them.

What a good design thinking process can do is help us navigate that space between what was, what is, and what could be. Some things we were accustomed to prior to the pandemic (“beforetimes” as I like to call them) will remain, even if they might look a little different, while others will disappear. Education is a great example of both. Humans will continue to strive for opportunities to learn with people and connect in the physical world. It’s also reasonable to think the drive to online experiences — webinars, meet-ups, and conferences — will continue onward. The costs — opportunity, time, money, environmental and more — are simply too great to ignore and the technologies, while imperfect, are far better than they ever have been.

So how might we design for education and training in the years to come? What will be the mix of tools and technologies? Will we create hybrids? These are some of the questions we might ask.

Design thinking can provide a means to introduce and explore these questions. Idea generation, synthesis, and sense-making can turn to the kind of prototypes (real, physical ones and thought experiments) that can lead us toward what that ‘next’ might become. Even if we are not actually creating the new models — what design thinking can do is help us see what’s possible and what might come ahead.

Design for Healing

There is a reason why design and strategic foresight go together so well. Foresight is about looking at what’s happening using data and imagination together and woven into development of models, scenarios, and prototypes to help us ‘see’ the future (or rather, futures). Design is what makes this happen and transforms data and ideas into actual things — services and products.

What makes this compelling right now is that we are about to undertake the largest social design project since the end of the second world war. We are — as a globe — going to be designing and redesigning our social policies, services, healthcare systems, and economies to meet what is coming. What is coming is a world where we are seeing a K-shaped recovery that has stopped and started, greater consolidation of wealth, a hollowing out of tourism, some retail, and many service sectors (while a stratospheric growth occurs in some others), and it’s a world that will be shaped by healing.

This healing will be due to children having spent up to two years of their lives learning off of a computer (away from their peers) and split between home and school, families and communities recovering from the loss of loved ones and ongoing illness for others, the many interrupted careers, educational pathways, entrepreneurship ventures, and the sheer exhaustion of front-line health workers. These are to say a few. And none of these effects will go away quickly. They may linger for a generation.

Many positive transformations will come through this, too. As we know, the act of healing is transformative and a vehicle for growth — if we allow it. The key is to do this by design.

Designing for Preferred and Possible Futures

So this is the challenge we have — how to design for healing and what comes next while we are still in the midst of whatever we call our current situation with some places locked down, others open, and considerable churn everywhere?

We do it by starting now. ‘Next’ is an idea that can shape the preferred future we want, not just the one that people think might come. Design thinking is at its best when it encourages us to be active participants in shaping what is to come. Let’s design a next that is what we want and need and use the process of making as a rallying call for innovation, creativity, and healing.

It’s there for us to use.

Design thinking can be powerful if we channel it in ways that unlock creativity and focus it on practical — yet bold — possibilities. Mixed with strategic foresight, it can transform your business, humanely. If you want help with this in your organization, reach out and let’s talk.

Image credit: Confusion…! by Yasser Alghofily used under Creative Commons License via Flickr and Chrissa Giannakoudi on Unsplash. Thanks for sharing your art, Yasser and Chrissa.

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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