Designing for Unhealthy Time Horizons

The coming years will test our ability to design for the unseen, familiar, and pervasive issues tied to mental health and well-being. Are we up to the challenge?

I recently attended my first public event where I felt I had been transported to 2019 – the year before the pandemic (“Beforetimes”). It was a small concert that featured things like a coat check, a wine bar, and a chance to mingle together beforehand and during the intermission. It looked and, most importantly, felt like we were OK and that we belonged together with the audience and the performers.

What a relief.

Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic is not over. We have yet to escape the challenges posed by the global polycrisis that appeared over the past few years. Yet, things like the COVID emergency responses are ending (for now, maybe forever, we still don’t know what’s to come). What’s left behind is what requires a new way of thinking. It also requires us to question our assumptions around what horizons mean.

Time Horizons

The Three Horizons Framework is built on a way of thinking about horizons — the entire stretch of what we can see. The Board of Innovation explains this model or framework well and outlines how we approach different activity horizons. Their model defines the first horizon as maintenance and strengthening, the second as exploration and discovery, and the third as creating new possibilities and competencies.

This framework was designed to help us understand how to work with a current trend and set of activities and guide our transition in planning to the next emerging trend. The idea is that each innovation or change supplants the previous one, with both ideas operating in parallel.

The key here is that we can see a progression from one state to another and attach a time expectation to it.

Our current situation with personal, social, and societal well-being has me wondering what that time horizon looks like. I’m thinking about more than just the dates and times but the fabric of the experience. Having worked closely with those at the front lines of service and policy during the pandemic, I can say the amount of trauma, burnout, and distress is high. It’s everywhere. Staff being hailed as a heroes in one month and the enemy in others. People having been yelled at, neglected, ignored, over-worked, and exposed to viruses and abuse at the same time.

This is just the health profession.
Consider those in government having to make decisions that affect millions of lives with resources that change and implications that grow. What about small business owners who had to watch their enterprises, staff, and savings whither? Educators, parents, and students were left to see progress, connections, aspirations, and competencies fade or disappear altogether. Every day citizens who were told what to do over and again about nearly every facet of public life. People everywhere watched as sound evidence and concerns for public well-being were ignored while some suffered, died, and were cast out of their communities.

This affected everyone.

We were all there. What do we do with this?

Designing for Polycrisis Horizons

The pandemic is just the most notable and distinct crisis that has affected us. The term polycrisis has been used to describe the overlaying sets of interconnected issues that are time-bound (as in being ‘of the moment’); uncertain in their trajectory, persistence, and survival; and affecting other issues, systems, and symptoms. It’s been defined as:

A global polycrisis occurs when crises in multiple global systems become causally entangled in ways that significantly degrade humanity‚Äôs prospects. These interacting crises produce harms greater than the sum of those the crises would produce in isolation, were their host systems not so deeply interconnected.

Lawrence, Janzwood, and Homer-Dixon. 2022.

Let’s remember that horizons models are all based on speculation using an availability of uncertain, incomplete, dynamic data. It’s the best we have. At the same time, the size and scope of these issues will continue to affect people, which means we must without ideal data. For how long? What is the horizon landscape? What do you think we should do? What can we do? These are design questions and approaching them as such can help us to answer them.

Designing for this requires understanding our inputs, process, and outcome expectations.

Inputs: A depleted population that will widely vary in their needs, wants and capacities. They nearly all need healing. Some people need more rest, while others will heal more through active engagement with projects. The quality of the focus, attention, and empathy that those involved in design might be more limited than we’re used to. Bias your process toward getting more, not less input.

Process: Go gentle. Open up your design planning to consider flexible, adaptive timelines. While participation matters, some may not be interested in heavy investments of energy. With issues like COVID-19 protections and practices or climate mitigation, there may be wide disagreement among people about what to do. Sensemaking is critical for issues that have high complexity and many different perspectives that require consideration.

Outcome Expectations: Keep in mind that the primary outcome of a good design is inspiration. If you can inspire something in those you’re working with, you’ll make a difference. It might not be what we initially hoped for, but it could make a difference by simply offering people a means to see something better. That’s what design does better than anything.

When will this happen? That’s where time horizons aren’t all that useful.

From Horizons To Turns

Unlike other limits, our health will not only affect how fast we go, but how far and whether we progress at all. Unlike financial limits or many other resource constraints, health issue are ones that can turn everything off the rails.

The horizons are not straightforward nor are the paths to get there straight. This is another area where the metaphor of the horizon can be problematic. It helps with hope and long-term visioning, not in the shorter term planning. The picture at the top has clear sight lines and an attractive hue. The one above reflects snowy conditions, maybe treacherous turns, more uncertainty, while also evoking beauty. Both are true.

Use these two images as guides for how you feel, think, and plan for the journey ahead and what you need to think about in keeping us healthy while we travel that path. That’s how to build a mindset for designing for new, uncertain, horizons.

Image Credits: Luigi Manga on Unsplash and Ali Kazal on Unsplash

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