Pasts, Presents, and Futures

Our understanding of situations are co-constructed and that means our future is, too.

Shaping our future — at least one we want — requires not only thinking about our present situation, but our past, too. This means listening to the stories we tell ourselves and others — and paying attention to the ones we’ve missed or forgotten.

Rather than work from a uniform past, present, and future, this approach involves adding an ‘s’ to all of them. Strangely, it’s by doing this that we might be able to find more common ground for understanding the complexities of what comes next at this time in history when we see so much repeat overlaid on some new, or at least newly amplified, factors.

Why does this matter? If we are to design a better ‘next’ after a long period of upheaval we might want to be prepared. To do so we need to know where we’ve been and where we might go.

Language, Memory, and Experience

In published conversation between Michael Quinn Patton and Kim van der Woerd the two teachers and practitioners discuss the use of the term unprecedented to describe the circumstances of the 2020 pandemic and how, for North America’s first peoples, COVID-19 and what it brings to their communities is nothing new. Putting COVID into historical and cultural context, we can make the case that there is little that is unprecedented about the causes and their consequences.

While much has been written about how history appears to echo in how traditionally marginalized and exploited communities are treated by the pandemic and our colonial systems I still see value in the term unprecedented by using a different lens for reasons that go beyond our past and present, but more to our future.

One perspective does not negate the other. It’s not that things are different (they are very much the same), it’s that they are more interconnected, enmeshed, entangled and faster and broader in their causality and consequence as a result.

Packing our Bags

Psychological and cultural baggage is something we all carry. Just like technology, our baggage is neither good or bad, nor is it neutral.

The baggage metaphor is useful in shaping how we might see the destination(s) we seek to travel moving forward. This is where we come to the matter of futures.

The Future Today Institute recently released a behemoth in its 2021 Tech Trends Report. In it we see no longer dozens of trends as we might have in previous iterations, but hundreds. The number of trends they track now is bordering on the ridiculous, yet there in those pages is a well-argued rationale for their inclusion.

Futures thinking and foresight is no longer some fringe activity in strategy and innovation: it’s here and it’s a critical part of good systemic design. Doing it well requires we take it seriously. It requires we understand design, psychology, systems, and evaluation, together.

Thankfully, we already know how to do it.

A Modest Design Proposal

I’d love to end this post with a set of concrete pronouncements of how to create the future we want, solve our current problems, prevent others, and the right the wrongs of the past – but I won’t. Instead, rather than arrogantly and naively suggesting a solution, I propose designing for situations with an eye to the future and one hand on our luggage.

I will preface this by saying that anything moving forward will focus on innovation by sheer virtue of the changing and changed climate. Thus, we need to frame what comes forward through a mindset of innovation, which I define as: learning transformed into value, by design.

This modest proposal is focused on that and involves maximizing our opportunities to learn:

1.Enhance our learning capacity. The digital education revolution that has burst out during the pandemic points to the opportunity and challenge of learning when physically disconnected. Online education (broadly defined) provides access to the world’s knowledge, while missing the smallest lessons that come from informal, impromptu encounters and moments that physical learning affords us. Being apart loses those opportunities while we gain knowledge through technology. Recognizing this enables us to better optimize the strengths of both in our future designs.

2.Enhance our connections. Innovation is best supported in ecosystems, both for our organizations and ourselves. Just as the physical interconnections remain vital, this proposal means also leveraging the tremendous collaborative and communicative opportunities technology affords us. To provide one example, I am part of an emergent community of designers (broadly defined) who engage in bi-weekly meet-ups and workshops that are lightly organized and self-directed with individuals from different continents and backgrounds. Using tools that help recreate the best of the physical world (like Kumospace’s lounge complete with the chance to ‘fill your wine glass’ while you talk, or virtual collaboration boards like Miro) can help us to enhance connections, not just make them.

3.Enrich our connections. We are better through sharing. Teachers know that it is often in the teaching (sharing) that we come to fully appreciate our own knowledge and to make connections between ideas. Creating opportunities to teach while learning with each other is a means to innovation when the direction is unclear. Using what we have to connect and share regularly, consistently, and generously we can learn more, faster, in more deeper ways, while also creating the thing that we’ve lost so much of with the pandemic: community. True community isn’t episodic, it’s perpetual. This enrichment provides the ‘legs’ to innovation because we’re connected meaningfully to others who not only provide ideas, knowledge, and feedback, but also check in ask ask us “how’s that thing you’re doing going?”

4.Focus on the small, look to the big. The smallest visible system you can influence is a useful place to start. It allows you to know something, have meaningful and measurable influence on something and be able to connect causes and consequences more fully to learn better from our actions. it’s also simpler to communicate to others — thus enhancing our ability to learn and connect. Once we’ve learned and affected one system, it’s easier to build on that. This is also about the power of one (person, group, and organization) and how we learn about what we do and how we do it reflectively to inform our designs and the systems we are working in.

5.Network our Knowledge and Ourselves. Building connections between ideas also means connecting our experiences together. What does the future look like from the perspective of someone with a certain lived experience? How does my baggage affect what I bring into a situation and how best can I connect the positive and helpful and minimize the negative or unhelpful in shaping what I see, choose, make, and share? When I know more about myself and what I as the designer am bringing to a situation, I can better use myself as a vehicle for change-making.

6. Focus on Healing. Healing is about growth from damage from wear, tear, and trauma. It’s a positive, constructive force and understanding that we may be healing many things — ourselves, our families, neighbourhoods, fields of practice, and more — to design the future. Curiosity and inquiry are forces for healing. As I’ve written before, healing can be done by design. Building this into the design, by design, focuses us on where we’ve come from, where we are, and what we want.

So while there are no tools or magical ingredients, the design for what’s next is going to be profoundly social lest we allow what’s been designed before to rule what comes afterward.

The system entanglements are too great to ignore and the cost of this ignorance, too great.

Photo by Mika Korhonen 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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