Design and the future

Design, as a thinking style, is starting to be recognised for its contribution to tackling today’s most complex problems. Its role may be even more important in the future, or the Future, that permanently fascinating horizon which occupies our dreams and fantasies. But not just in making the products and services of tomorrow. 

Design is practical futurism. It is fundamentally about creating a future state that is preferable to the present. In the everyday sense, the future in question may be very short range, and its impact may be incremental. But at the highest levels of practice, long range problems are in its scope.

The advanced designer’s task in addressing the Future is to scan the present for phenomena (such as technologies) that are driving change, and extrapolate their implications. These coalesce into scenarios, and those judged plausible, or better, profitable, are targeted by a physical product or an intangible system. 

The advanced designer’s task in addressing the Future is to scan the present for phenomena (such as technologies) that are driving change, and extrapolate their implications. 

This product, which is also usually a system, can connect with the present, forcing a rearrangement of existing practice. This is a disruption, the beloved of venture capitalists, who are also practical futurists. 

Like the electric light bulb, Uber is a product-system disruption. New, but existing, technologies and practices (aggregating individuals into businesses) are mated to an old system (taxis).The app and its infrastructure manifest it. It is rearranging, or disrupting, taxi services, but also public transport and possibly even the private ownership of cars.  

Uber has designed a flying taxi prototype
Uber’s flying taxi prototype

Seeing the Deep Design of the future, starts, in Peter Drucker’s phrase, with ‘the future that is already happening’, and a look at the past. Strikingly, the industrial age we are climbing out of may well be the first time in history when we see the future entirely in terms of progress—and  view it as a certainty. 

Also strikingly, we view it wholly in technological terms, rather than social or cultural or otherwise human ways. Ask most people about the Future, and you hear the familiar marching band of  AI, machine learning, and IoT, with robotics and additive printing bringing up the rear. Those most exposed to sci-fi offer dystopian alternatives, where, for example, hi-tech and poverty coexist but the mood is generally optimistic.

Ask most people about the Future, and you hear the familiar marching band of  AI, machine learning, and IoT, with robotics and additive printing bringing up the rear.

But the arch-concept of the technology-driven future is, by a distance, the unified digital grid. This is an extension of the digital world we are already seeing. Understanding it rests on the two following realisations. First, that the central benefit of machine-augmented human activity is best realised by networking both machine and user to other devices and users. The value is in the network, not the thing. An ordinary taxi, connected to a network, is instantly far more valuable, for driver, passenger and the organisation that supports it. 

From this follows the next, that the networks themselves are at their most effective when they, too, are networked. Toaster, car, bank or blood type can all be joined up. Autonomous cars remain stuck less for technological reasons but due to how machine-to-machine and man-to-machine interaction (collisions, to name one) are handled. It would be a lot easier if all cars were autonomous, and even better if they were being driven by the same system. Paradise or dystopia?

are we heading towards a society as shown in Equilibrium
Still from the 2002 dystopian science-fiction action film, Equilibrium

A logical conclusion is the perfect traceability of all human activity. This is exactly what is being resisted, as an example, by opponents of the horizontal reach of the Aadhar identity system, with its promise of service delivery on the one hand and privacy concerns on the other. Likewise, all-digital money. It may well all work, with the correct compromises reached. 

But design must concern itself with the ways in which this ongoing revolution interacts with the social structure that hosts it. For both good and bad, innovation proceeds at the rate subject to social permission, and it looks like society is in charge. This does not imply that all is well; corporations and governments are also social actors who cannot always be trusted.

design must concern itself with the ways in which this ongoing revolution interacts with the social structure that hosts it.

Less obviously, a technological revolution, while subject to cultural and societal control, also creates and affects the way we think. For example. the present status of science, and capitalism, is a creation of the industrial revolution, as well as a necessary condition for it. 

Indeed, the fallouts of this Future are several. Digital unification demands uniformity, and threatens an over-organised world. For example, the web is organised by search, a mechanism whose design rewards conformity and punishes the reverse by making it less findable.  

Even less obviously, the digital grid promotes a culture of objectivity (good) that is  unbounded or unqualified (not so good). It treats human instincts and emotions as biases (which they sometimes are). Flowing from this is the notion that statistics can capture reality; that algorithms are perfect. That Google is the truth. That popular is right. 

today being popular trumps being right
The digital grid promotes the notion that popular is right

It is also promoting a world where we are ever more connected, but ever more private. We listen to music on headphones, watch our ‘own’ TV, and speak to social networks, while being less social in a genuine sense. We can mistake our private world for public reality.  

We have designed a world where we are more connected yet more private.
We live in a world where we are more connected yet more private.

Design will hopefully play its usual role role as an intelligent, thoughtful maker of products and systems and it may do so by favorably negotiating the potential for bad and maximising utility. This is speeding the system as referred to in the opening paragraph. But more crucial may be its ability to provide intelligent friction. 

Design can argue for a culture of experimentation, of trying out the unproven, even the unprovable. It can resist the idea of a single right answer to any question, which is a tendency when the question is turned into a search for a number. It can argue for the apparently illogical; for the value of subjective experiences alongside objective benefits. A full exploration of this subject will follow. 

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First published in a slightly modified form ‘Design and the Future’ in Business Standard, 3 August in Deep Design, a fortnightly column by Itu Chaudhuri.

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