Censemaking No. 34

Designing Our Near Future

Welcome to the near future! This time isn’t far off, rather it’s right around the corner. What does it mean to design for a near future?

Designing for a near future means looking at what’s around us and planning our next wise action. It’s connecting strategy, a little lateral sensing, and mindfulness together to see opportunities right in front of us and to help us take action when things are uncertain and in flux.

This issue we’re going to look at some tools, strategies and ways to frame our present in terms that help us to shape our near future. We’re going to help you plan your next wise action.

Grab your cup and your notebook and let’s enjoy a coffee-time look at what your near future could look like.

- Cameron


A near-future is that which is right around the corner. It’s what comes from our next action and the one right after that. When things are uncertain our focus is best placed on where we can influence things and that means looking just ahead of us to see beyond.

Adaptive Action is an approach to planning that’s been developed by Glenda Eoyang and her team at the HSD Institute and builds on what we know about complex systems. Their resource guide provides anyone with a guide to understanding what it means to plan for the near future.

Forecasting and Backcasting are used in futures work, but neither offers a sense of what to do now. Sidecasting is designed for complexity and is about understanding what’s happening in the present to help guide our strategy for what happens next. Sidecasting is about asking questions about patterns found in the present: What’s common? What’s different? and What’s surprising?

Where do we start? Rather than seek patterns and change all over, focus more on what can be done locally: the smallest visible system. When so much is connected, it’s easy to get lost. By looking at the smallest coherent story we can tell we allow ourselves to shape that story and tell a bigger one down the road.

Anchoring what we do into a bigger vision and evaluating our actions based on this vision can help you connect the present to the future more easily. That’s the lesson from a recent book on Visionary Evaluation that looks at how we connect futures to the present through use of principles and approaches that connect our values to our actions.

From Here to There

Strategy is what links our intentions to our actions. But what if we did less strategy in favor of better planning? That’s what strategy leader Roger Martin is arguing for. He reminds us that strategy is a problem-solving tool at a big scale and that planning is what allows us to take the steps needed to shape our near-term. Good strategy = good planning.

Strategy is often hindered by complexity. Julia Hobsbawm argues that we can make strategy much simpler by starting with aligning it with a set of core principles for guiding our decisions. By focusing on clarity, ease, collaboration, and other factors together she argues we can better find more simple strategic options in a complex soup of conditions.

Another way to bring strategy to life is to visualize the big so that we can better understand the small wise actions that need to take place in the near term. That’s actually good design and the focus of a recent article on Censemaking that looks at design strategy and visual thinking.

There is no real future, just alternative futures. Some of these are better than others. The Finnish innovation lab Sitra has published a workshop and toolset that is designed to help you explore alternative futures. Futures Frequency is a multimedia foresight journey to help you create futures near (and beyond) you.

Work and Home

Perhaps no future trend has received more attention in the pandemic period than the future(s) of work. As vaccinations increase and policies change, what’s work going to look like in practice, not just theory?

A healthy work life is design so why shouldn’t our home life? At least, that’s the argument that Elizabeth Grace Saunders makes around making time for ‘me’ at home and using behavioural design principles to shape a better balance of care when you’re working at home.

It’s likely that our homes will continue to serve as places to work at least part of the time. How can we make the best of that and avoid the worst? That’s what software firm Atlassian asked and their research came up with 7 recommendations for creating a hybrid work environment that (might) work so our near-term isn’t something we dread, but embrace.

Virtual learning and the communities that form around them are one thing that’s not likely to go away post-pandemic. They might actually grow as we seek new strategies for navigating the complicated world of work and home that emerges from a year of enmeshment. That’s what Cecilia Manduca argues by showing how successful virtual communities have become vertical communities.

If you are a member of a population that’s considered more vulnerable to employment trends and social stigma or prejudice what does a future of work look like for you? That’s the question that Dr. Arif Jetha and his colleagues at the Institute for Work and Health asked in this report on vulnerable workers and the future of work. It can be a bright future - if we design for everyone, especially our most vulnerable.

Designing For Next

Whatever comes next, we have a hand in shaping it if we change how we see and think about design, systems, and our role in both. That is the focus of a new series that I am co-hosting with Liz Weaver and the Tamarack Institute on Designing for What’s Next where we look at the design and systems thinking principles, tools, strategies, and techniques for creating a near future we want. The first event is a free webinar on June 23rd at 1300 ET. Registration is required.

And if we want a future to look a certain way, consider the project by Matt Keene who has devoted time in build artifacts and questions to help us to create a future we want. His videos, writings, and resource lists are available here. He asks: What kind of future do you want?

The New York Times has a remarkable profile of what the pandemic has brought, where people are, and what the next might look like using stories, photos, and interactive features that will get you thinking and seeing a little differently. Our before won’t be our next.

Designing for Humans (as opposed to designing for what we want humans to be) is the focus of a new series that’s being published at Censemaking. It’s anchored partly to principles of behavioural design and human-centred design, yet goes beyond it. The thinking is that we humans are complicated creatures and we’d do better to design for this, rather than against it.

What do you see in your near future? We see a lot of further resources, tools and helpful insights that we hope will make your future healthier, happier, and better. Thanks for reading and sharing this with others.

Until our next coffee break….


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