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Design x foresight – a toolkit for embracing ambiguity and future thinking with Phil Balagtas

The following excerpt is transcribed from the Future Of Now event that took place on 17 December 2020.

Key points

  • A misconception of Futurists and Futurism is that it about making predictions. In reality the goal of a Futurist is to explore possible futures through Futures methodologies and frameworks.
  • By understanding the patterns and cycles of history, Futurists can create and incorporate strategies today, in order to be better prepared for possible futures.
  • Speculative Design is a form of design that imagines future possibilities through prototypes, immersive experiences and scenarios and is used to facilitate more desirable and responsible paths as we move into the future.
  • At McKinsey & Company, the methodologies of Strategic Foresight and Design are combined to enable the Futures Team to help companies “imagine possible futures, make them tangible, and ultimately actionable.”



Phil Balagtas

Phil is an Experience Design Director at McKinsey & Company working with a variety of industries to transform and enhance their digital businesses and strategies. He is also the founder and organiser of the Design Futures Initiative which organises the international Speculative Futures meetups and the PRIMER conference in the US and Europe. An Educator and Futurist, his events bring together designers and Futurists from all over the world to teach and share strategies for designing for the future and the ethical challenges around emerging technologies.

Steven Fisher

Steve loves the future. So much so, he’s spent the last 25 years as an award-winning designer, film maker, entrepreneur and strategist delivering a valuable mix of futures thinking, venture creation, experience design, and innovation strategy to companies, governments, and his own start-ups. He is the co-author of “The Startup Equation: A Visual Guidebook to Building Your Startup” and is a Design Lead and Futurist at McKinsey & Company, working with a variety of industries to leverage design and Futures Thinking to transform and enhance their organisations. Steven is also the organiser of the Design Futures Initiative chapter in Boston. He passionately believes in teaching everyone Futures Thinking so we can embrace uncertainty and create a better future.


What makes a Futurist?

When talking about the future, it can be thrilling and attractive to look at it through the lens of Science Fiction and dystopia. Because of this, people may look to Futurists to make exciting predictions about our lives in the next ten to twenty years. Yet, an important disclaimer to keep in mind is that Futurists look at possible futures, and this does not equate to making predictions. Futurists utilise various methodologies, such as seeking trends and uncertainties in order to find patterns and clarity in what preferable and non-preferable futures look like.

Futures are built gradually, over layers of time and changes in technology, innovation and transformation. By understanding the patterns and cycles of history, Futurists can create and incorporate strategies today, in order to be better prepared for possible futures.


What is a Speculative Design?

Speculative Design is a form of design that imagines future possibilities through prototypes, immersive experiences and scenarios. It’s used to respond to unconventional challenges with unconstrained thinking in order to facilitate more desirable and responsible paths. Examples of Speculative Design can be found in Apple’s Knowledge Navigator, The Selfish Ledger by Google, or Transfigurations by Agi Haines. These work as provocations to conceptualise an understanding of how design might play a role in a desirable future.


Design x Foresight: The McKinsey way

Strategic Foresight is a discipline that identifies emerging trends and issues (also called signals). The insights gathered are then used to map out possible future scenarios which support present day decisions. At McKinsey & Company, the methodologies of Strategic Foresight and Design are incorporated into an innovative approach, allowing their Futures Team to help companies “imagine possible futures, make them tangible and ultimately actionable.”

This is done through using a human-centered approach (which focuses on business, people and technology) that is broadened and amplified by the considerations of the STEEP framework components; Social, Technological Economic, Environmental, and Political. Foresight extends the time horizon, so that patterns and cycles in history are considered along with present trends and weak signals. Through this external research, multiple future scenarios can then be created in the form of probable, plausible, possible, preferred and provocative – all informing present day strategies.

The core activities used for Design x Foresight are:

  • Trend Research and Synthesis for the Past/Present (What has happened?)
    This activity helps to frame the project and identify and prioritise trends that are informed by data.
  • Scenario Planning and Ideation & Concept Development for Possible futures (What might happen?)
    Scenario Planning envisions scenarios that could be more dystopian, but also establish possible futures that have the chance to become eventual futures. From there, Concept Development takes the ideas from Scenario Planning, and turns them into tangible design concepts.
  • Strategy & Backcasting for Present and Future Strategy (What we will do)
    This activity uses the concepts created to inform present and future strategy. Speculative Design is important here because the strategies developed are not just imaginative and about the future, but also based on referring to the past. This is helpful as futures start becoming the present. As this happens, it is necessary to adjust scenarios and map out strategies for when conditions evolve, and situations change.


What is your preferred approach to balancing specificity vs broader themes during the initial design process? 

PB – It’s actually useful to be very specific from the beginning. We have a lot of businesses who are asking us about strategies in the future over the next two to five to ten years, but the more specific you are up front, the easier it’s going to be to do a trend analysis that allows us to dig deeper and really unpack everything. That’s how you really come up with a very specific strategy.

SF – I would agree. You can sometimes start with a broader brush when it comes to the trends or signals you’re trying to look at, but you really quickly need to get specific. For example, if someone says to me, “Tell me about the future of travel”, I’ll ask questions like, Are they a commercial airline? Are they a travel agency? By going a couple levels deeper, people will start to see the importance of trend weights and impact, and that can help them get their priorities in order. Sometimes people might want you to go broad, but you’ve got to really pull them through into that focus because that output will just be as good. If it’s too broad, the outcomes will just be too small, and it won’t be effective in terms of what they would really need to make decisions.

PB – To build onto that, I want to stress that walking your client through this entire process hand in hand is very important, especially if it’s brand new.

Get them to also give you trends that they care about, because they know their industry more than you more than you do. Find out what’s on their mind and the things really fear. From there, you can do some more investigating. On top of trends, you’ll also likely find ancillary trends – things that right on the fringe that are influencing your market, but not immediately seen.

What are the key themes and patterns you are noticing when you apply the Design x Foresight framework? 

PB – This year, we’ve worked with mobility, the automotive industry, health care, cameras, financial institution groups, insurance. So sometimes it’s particular to the sector, and there are no actual key themes that reach across everything – other than things like COVID, which affects everybody.

 SF – There’s trends, there’s signals and there’s drivers. A driver could be additive manufacturing, 3D printing, or a self-driving automobile – where the signal itself is the battery technology. So, you need to look at the things that are driving that change, and how that is going to impact things that are trends.

Think about this. There’s a shock to the system with something like COVID, compared to larger systemic trends. But with that shock, there’s a rate of decay at which change and systemic impact happen. For example, in the United States, when 9/11 happened, there were a lot of changes and impact that happened in a certain timeframe. Systems Thinking was a big part of re-doing security and how we travel. But over time, those changes were implemented, and the shock disappeared into the background. Well, how will COVID be thought of in five years, ten years, twenty years? It may influence our thinking now, but you also have to keep that in mind as you look farther out the more things start to change. So, you actually have to get insight into that future that is quickly becoming the present.

How do you account for the ‘correlation versus causation’ problem when assessing signals?

SF – Obviously, correlation does not imply causation. I like to use correlation and causation as a layered effect. There can sometimes be a contradiction, but I like to use multiple horizons to take away any conflict and use tools like data systems to inform and validate what I’m looking at. You can be as rigorous or strict as you require but it’s not going to be perfect because you are looking at the future.

Further reading

To see all our speaker Future Of Now book recommendations click here.


More about Phil Balagtas, Steven Fisher and McKinsey & Company:


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More about the organisations connected to this event

  • morespaceforlight.com.au – A strategy and innovation consultancy specialising in both in-person and/or remote workshops, design programs and Design Sprints.
  • MURAL.CO – a remote collaboration whiteboard. With this platform you will supercharge your remote and in-person meetings and workshops.
  • hacker.exchange – a global education company that is supercharging the next generation of startups & leaders.
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