Future Design

Pattern number within this pattern set: 
Douglas Schuler
Public Sphere Project (CPSR)

By acting as though the future will never arrive and things never change, we are subconsciously creating the future with the seeds that we are unwittingly sowing today. Whether by actively embracing the conventional "wisdom" that has created these socially and environmentally precarious times or by succumbing to the dictates of habit, instinct or necessity, humankind seems to sleepwalking into the future. Indeed it is quite plausible that we are creating the ideal conditions today for unspeakable disasters tomorrow.


This pattern can be used in a million situations, especially when people feel strongly that the directions they're following aren't the directions that they think they ought to be following. Employing this pattern often takes the form of a collaborative envisioning exercise with a variety of stakeholders.


Looking at the future with open, imaginative and critical eyes can open up the possibility of — if not the demand for — fundamental social change. After all, why would anybody bother to contemplate the future if there were no possibility of change; if every step taken was an echo of some past step.

The purpose of this pattern is to get people actively engaged envisioning better futures and making plans on how to get there. Through "rehearsing for the future" we hope to create a wealth of possible scenarios that could become the positive "self-fulfilling prophecies" of tomorrow, rather than the violent and exploitive scenarios that seem to rule today.

Educational settings are not the only setting for introducing and advancing a rich future-oriented agenda but they may be the best. Unfortunately, however, current educational practices seem to be oblivious to the future. Schools present topics such as mathematics or science with no historical context. History, on the other hand, though based on human events, becomes an "authoritative" recounting of past facts while the future is a "mere abstraction" (Slaughter & Beare, 1993). And since everything seemingly and inexorably unfolded in an inevitable way, the sequence of human events appears largely unalterable.

One failing of a non futures-oriented educational approach is the lack of inquiry into the causes of the world's problems (Slaughter & Beare, 1993). Nor is there any effort to develop or consider that could help alleviate these problems. Beyond a cursory look at history, where the impact of people who aren't elites is never evident, many people worldwide live in an eternal now, a temporal cocoon which cultivates amnesia of the past and ill preparedness for the future. Both elites and "ordinary people" seem unwilling to acknowledge that they have roles in shaping the future. Forgetting that fact in the face of immense 21st Century challenges strips humankind of its fundamental capacity to consciously make plans (Slaughter & Beare, 1993).

Future Design helps surface the internal models of the future that have been ignored, repressed, or deliberately kept from view, and attempts to understand how they play out and how they came to be. At the same time, and somewhat independently, Future Design builds new models that help liberate us from dangerous inertia and help us be more effective in our thinking about and acting on the future.

There is an endless variety of exercises, games, workshops, and other activities that we are calling "Future Design." Many of these could be organized and convened in just about any setting. Lori Blewett and Doug Schuler recently used a "Design a Society" workshop to organize a large team project in our "Global Citizenship" program at The Evergreen State College. Schools, of course, should not be the only place where Future Design can be pursued. Future Design activities are needed that could be done individually (and, hopefully, shared), on the job (government, NGOs, business, etc.), with activists, and as broad-based, possibly phased, longer-termed projects — with or without government involvement and support.

The current project, Open Space Seattle 2100 to develop a "comprehensive open space network vision for Seattle's next 100 years" contains elements (including the need for participants and resources — even if it's just time) that could be considered typical of Future Design activities. Since the Seattle plan is ambitious it requires broad support and ample resources. The University of Washington and the City of Seattle are key players as are a variety of environmental, civic, neighborhood, professional and other groups. Many of the Future Design projects that have civic goals are participatory and inclusive. At the same time that the community is developing a collective vision, the organizers also aim "To catalyze a long-term advocacy coalition and planning process for Seattle's integrated open space."

The Seattle project consciously invokes the visionary park and landscape work of the Olmstead brothers in the early 1990's that contributed to Seattle's livability. The timeline for this project which is longer than standard planning horizons, frees participants from a variety of constraints on their thinking. By encouraging people to think beyond what's considerable immediately do-able people are more likely to be creative. On the other hand, if the timeframe is too far in the future participants are likely to feel detached from the enterprise. The Seattle project gets around this by including tasks for the short-term as well as visions for the long-term.

In order to strike a balance between the real and the imagined, designers of Future Design projects must provide a structure for less-structured activities to take place within. The projects must provide prompts — scenarios, instructions, props, etc. — that encourage people to imagine a future without forcing them down certain paths. Since people can't simply be instructed to "be creative," these "prompts" are used to promote futures thinking among the participants. This pattern can be used in many settings, but research has shown that Future Design needs a supportive atmosphere, and, as Open Space Technology literature suggests, participants need to participate with passion, commitment and an open-mind. A broad spectrum of community groups needs to be represented, or at least recognised, or the outcome can reaffirm prejudices and help perpetuate old conflicts.

Future Design processes often provide a variety of participatory opportunities. The 7-10 person teams that addressed open space issues in one of the neighborhoods outlined on the Seattle Charrette Map (see image at end of this pattern) are key to the effort but organizers have organized a lecture series and a blog (http://open2100.blogspot.com) to encourage alternative ways to participate.

Massive challenges await this vain undertaking at every turn. How effective is Future Design? How do games and other Future Design approaches translate into action How do future designers from one group build on the results of others? Interestingly a project whose recommendations aren't implemented can still be a success. Margaret Keck describes the "Solucao Integrada" (Integrated Solution), a plan for sewage treatment and environmental restoration in Brazil, which, although shelved by the government, lived on in the public's eye as an example of sensible large-scale solution in the face of other ill-conceived projects. "Success" must be judged in a variety of ways and this includes inclusivity and richness of the Future Design process, its immediate impacts and its indirect contributions to the overall imagination and civic culture of a community.

Finally, as John Perry Barlow's email tagline reminds us: "Man plans, God laughs." Human history is full of twists, enlightened and macabre, tragic and heroic. The future is unlikely to come out the way we think it will or want it to, but that shouldn't prevent us from trying to work towards the goal of a more just and healthy future.


Develop participatory activities that addrdess these four major objectives: (1) Develop visions of the future and ideas about how to achieve them; (2) Bring into the light and critically analyze the current models of the future that people, society and institutions are employing both explicitly and implicitly; (3) Help instill feelings of empowerment, compassion, hope and courage in futures thinking and action; and (4) At the same time, cultivate humility in regards to the unknowability of the future and the limits to human reason and understanding.

Verbiage for pattern card: 

By acting as though the future will never arrive and things will never change, we are creating the future with the seeds that we are sowing today. The purpose of Future Design is to get people actively engaged envisioning better futures and making plans on how to get there. Through "rehearsing for the future" we hope to create possible scenarios that could become the positive "self-fulfilling prophecies" of tomorrow.

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