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From Observation to Vision: The Promise of Human-Future Interaction

The Watermarks Project [watermarksproject.org] is a public art project that explores the generally accepted prediction of the sea levels rising, due to climate change.

I've started a blog on frog design's Design Mind website called Intangible, focused on sustainability and service design. Whenever possible, I'll be cross-posting articles from that blog on ChangeOrder.

Imagining a sustainable future is like observing a series of waves crashing upon a shore, imperceptibly eroding the sand away.

It isn't clear whether we're at high or low tide, so we can't be sure how far to stand from the water. We try to judge, in the far distance, if there are large waves that may get our feet wet, or even worse, pull us out in the undertow. There are a fearless few out surfing the breakers, but most people are content to rest on their towels, sun themselves, and read a book or two. There is no clear understanding of how our actions on the shore will change the quality of the water, or what lives beneath the surface. Our influence on the known world is intangible.

In a recent article by Roberto Verganti on the Harvard Business Review website, provocatively entitled "User-Centered Innovation Is Not Sustainable," he writes:

"…one thing is certain: User-centered innovation has helped conduct us into an unsustainable world. The reason is sustainability is not embedded in the anthropology of our existing culture, society, and economy. Yes, people are starting to be concerned about the environment. But their concerns about many other things — their budgets, health, safety, well-being, and emotional fulfillment — are increasing, too…"

The crux of his provocative article is that vision-centered processes, conducted in tandem with users when possible, are the proper way to cultivate sustainable behaviors that have lesser impact on our world. This new paradigm, for both designers and executives, would require less pure observation and "propose new scenarios and solutions that are meaningful for people, good for the environment, and profitable for businesses."

Verganti points to Ezio Manzini, whom I had a chance to see a great presentation from in Savannah at Interaction 10, as a pioneer in researching and the edge cases in our communities. Manzini "explicitly searches for the needle in the haystack: local fringe communities that have already found sustainable solutions for everyday living. He then engineers these solutions and proposes them at a larger scale."

While the notion of user-centered design is definitely being stretched and broken here, I'd like to venture alternative methods beyond Manzini's approach that we can use to help cultivate the kinds of positive, disruptive change towards sustainable solutions that are being pursued more broadly in the design community.

One of them is cultivating a stronger practice of human-future interaction.

Red Cross ad, showing Fishermans Wharf in San Francisco after an earthquake

I recently heard a great talk by Jason Tester from the Institute of the Future (IFTF), an independent nonprofit that specializes in providing foresight to companies, foundations, government agencies. He introduced the above term and ventured the following hypotheses predicated upon it:

1. We can preview the "shadow of the future" in the present.
2. Experiencing the future is a powerful strategy to change behavior.
3. The future needs us to change our behaviors today.

As designers, we are uniquely skilled to visualize any sort of possible future. In a sense, we do this with every project that we create—but we don't explicitly do it in order to be provocative beyond the product or service we're responsible for representing.

By making scenarios from the future visible and tangible, people confront the long-term impact of tiny, poorly considered decisions. Tester says that "a human's ability to think about the future is still in beta." Recalling the past and thinking about the future are actually the same areas of our brain.

As case studies, Tester showcased a range of projects from both his work at the IFTF and from designers and communities out in the world, ranging from artifacts from the future—such as pills for sleep substitution or a medication to relieve fear of crowded urban dwellings—to online and real-world collaborations to create visions of the future, such as the alternate reality games World Without Oil, Evoke, and Ruby's Bequest. These online collaborations are helping create innovative solutions to problems of sustainability and social responsibility tangible in a way that's practically impossible by any other means.

While much of what Tester shared in his presentation has yet to reach what could be considered a "mainstream" audience, it definitely provides a clear direction for designers, communities, and businesses that are seeking to encourage new behaviors on a societal scale.

Creating new behaviors requires a tacit agreement between the user (a.k.a. human being) and the designer. The user may want to change their behavior, whether for cultural, political, or environmental concerns—but as we all know, a desire for change and actually manifesting it are the real struggle. The designer must be able to describe the intersection between human need, cultural desire, and the gentleness required to visualize lesser (or no) impact on the world at large.

I couldn't find this term on Google, so now I'm going to coin it: "human-considerate design." While I'm not sure the world needs yet another piece of designer jargon, I think those few words do a fairly decent job of describing how we can first design by considering the needs of the user—but layer upon those observations a wide range of inputs that transcends the individual and considers them in the context of world problems. To me, this term describes this tension between individual behavioral change and societal/ecological need. We can blend user-centered innovation with human-future interaction to make the shadow of the future visible, by design.

In future posts, I'll work to describe further how envisioning the future and observing the present can both be part of a holistic, effective design practice for both designers, organizations, and communities—one that helps to clarify the intangible impacts of our everyday actions.


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