Experiencing the future Part 2: How to build futures experiences

by John Mahaffie on December 14, 2011

I made the case in my previous post Experiencing the future Part 1: Getting beyond analysis and changing minds that experiencing the future is vital to good foresight and benefits organizations. I don’t claim to be a practitioner of the most exciting and advanced experiential futures, but I have decades’ experience getting real business execs in real organizational situations to engage the future better, adding experiences that fit what business seems able to embrace and make useful.

Below I offer some “how to”  suggestions for making foresight more experiential. For more on the leading edge, have a look at The Sceptical Futuryst, Stuart Candy’s blog—his topic list is chock full of intriguing and valuable ideas about helping people experience the future. And try a Google search on “experiential futures”.

The ideas below range from the simple to the somewhat more challenging and complex.

Better scanning – See Talk to the Frog and the ideas I share in Ideas on effective environmental scanning in the digital age which make the case for understand how the world is changing better, where possible experiencing that change first hand. The philosophy there is, “get out from behind the mouse.” This is the key to getting a more visual, tactile, and experiential sense of future possibilities–where the first clues or examples of them are in our world now.

Clear ideas about the future – The best foresight concepts are evocative descriptions of future possibilities, which begin to get our heads into something new. For example, the concept of virtual reality. This kind of futures experience is in our thoughts, but that is already more powerful than just engaging with data and analysis about change.

An image of something that may become big in our future. The Espresso Book Machine produces books on demand

Images – There are, by definition, no pictures of the future. But we can do at least two things about that:

1). Create pictures of the future as an artist can, or you can do without art skills, simply doodling, collaging, etc. and

2). Finding pictures of things that may already exist, but aren’t commonplace, and represent something we may see much more of in the future. For example, a picture of a goods-producing kiosk such as the Espresso Book Machine is inspiring of a wide-range of future ideas about goods produced on demand.

On these first two points, I’ve shared some advice for when you are presenting to groups in Giving presentations on the future.

Role playing – Having people get their heads into a particular identity, different from their own, is a powerful way to begin to shift their understanding and give them a different experience. And you can get a group to do this together, putting them into a simulated situation where their identities and circumstances are different, showcasing what might be true in the future. We also like to work with the “TOPs” (technical, organizational, and personal) multiple perspectives method with groups. This concept, described in detail here, was originated by futurist and systems science expert Hal Linstone. It helps a group understand the common perspectives that shape and are shaped by an organization’s decisions. We’ve had great success asking a group to break into three groups, each taking up one of these perspectives to confront issue or ideas about change.

“suffering” – A version of role playing is to have people lose something, or simulate losing something to highlight a potential future change. We had this experience with a futures team who decided to have those participating in a dinner be fed in three ways: normal food, a lavish feast, and plain rice and (simulated) dirty water. Each group had something to think and talk about, from different, simulated perspectives. You can also consider the opposite of “suffering”–Why not try out some utopian ideas and get people to describe and play with what the future would be like if something great happened, such as the end of hunger or cancer.

Getting people to see, touch, experience the leading edge of change: Packaging Executives visit a Center for Hard to Recycle Materials

In the world – It’s particular powerful with office-bound people to get them “out from behind the mouse” and out into experiences different from their own. That can mean seeing things that exist today, but that represent a change we will likely see more of. For example, we put a group of packaging executives on a bus and took them first to a standard municipal recycling plant and then to a center for hard to recycle materials (aka a “CHaRM”). The CHaRM is a rare facility–at the time there were only a few in the world. But it may represent a vital future in their business. Despite their being in the packaging business, some had never been to a conventional recycling facility, let alone to a CHaRM. It was eye-opening for some and idea-provoking for most of them. I reflected on this kind of experience in an earlier post, Offsetting your suburban, middle class, white collar bias which advocates for you getting loose of whatever built-in perspectives and biases you might have.

Scenario building – I’ve written several times about the scenario method and my fondness for it. Its power in really getting people’s head into the future is remarkable and reliable. Scenarios go far beyond basic trend analysis and forecasting to depict in words and/or pictures whole futures, with the changes we are thinking about portrayed in real situations. The greatest power of the method is in experiencing the process, though the outputs can be terrific tools for communicating about the future and sharing the experience with others.

Farmville and other mobile/web games teach people about big complex systems

Gaming – Games give players the power to shape future outcomes. They are a way to bring alive the forces and countercurrents possible that we try to convey in scenarios. Consider for example the power of fantasy ball teams in bringing to life the meaning and power of strategic decisions. More games are about life and decisions than ever. The mobile/computer game Farmville is teaching its virtual farmer users about climate change, for example.

Other tools, techniques and methods

  • Virtual worlds – online and console gaming can simulate futures in elaborate and immersive ways, including allowing players to game out outcomes of decisions.
  • Experiential scenarios – a method for bringing future possibilities more alive for people’s learning and understanding, debate and discussion. It goes beyond art and narrative storytelling to, for example, create experiences in the real world, such as simulating a pandemic’s effects on a city, as was done in Coral Cross.
  • Artifacts from the future – a long-time feature at the back of Wired magazine that features similated objects; consumer products, for example, from some future year. See: Found futures.
No matter how far into the experiential to reach, you’ll gain something from working to bring the future more alive with your colleagues. It’s worth the effort and the risk you’ll take. Give it a try!
Images: Espresso Book Machine via ondemandbooks.com, CHaRM by jbmahaffie, Farmville by tankgore1 via Flickr

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