Day 1- Imagining Better Futures

— Thank you for having me


— I’m here to talk about how to imagine better futures, but I originally pitched different title called “How Not to Ruin the Future”


— I’m not here to talk bout better utopian visions, as we have plenty of it already, like the metaverse


— Instead, I will talk about key responsibilities for those who shape future for others
  • It is our mission and necessity to think of futures that are hopeful, realistic, democratic, responsible
— The days of pollyannish futures are over and we face too many challenges as nation and a species, and we need to move forward beyond simply relying on technology


— We need to imagine futures that don’t ignore our problems but embrace them


— A good example is the metaverse, which has been held up as iconic idealized future, where all human foibles will melt away


— To quote a columnist from the Wall Street Journal: The metaverse will be for role-players and those choosing their own identities, rather than being trapped role in victim and victimizers
  • A political agenda is at play here, but we don’t want to focus on that end of politics, but on seduction that technological innovation will summon our better angels, by sheer virtue


— This is not the case, as the metaverse has not summoned our better angels, and has seen examples of dastardly activites
  • For example, a woman was groped in the meta-verse by realistic avatars, and this was a cautionary tale for Meta
— It’s also a bigger example of how technology doesn’t solve problems, despite us thinking of it as a panacea
  • Technological spaces bring in all the things we struggle with in the real-world, good and bad


—So let’s think about why we think tech innovation will magically fix everything
  • It comes from a problem common to a lot of futures thinking: Too much idealism
— Idealism is noble, and it ties to the power of optimism, which motivates people
  • But optimism can mislead and cloud challenges in the way
—Think  of driverless cars. They were supposed to ubiquitous in 2020
  • This didn’t happen because driverless cars have many problems like weather, rural areas, ethical quandaries like accidents
— In response, people go with pessimistic response, where we need to think critically on the  futures  that will come to pass
  • This is rigorous and measured in expectations
  • But too much negativity can lead to helplessness and hopeless
— So instead of knee-jerk doomsdayism, there is an in-between of being responsible of challenges ahead


— We do ourselves a disservice by not confronting limitations of our vision of the future, or being hemmed in by the visions we do have


— I learned these lessons through my work with trend forecasters


— For those unfamiliar with trend forecasting, it is a business that explains trends, and is common in marketing, brand strategy, consulting, and has connections to things like design thinking-
  • It is a culture industry that produces culture and helps accelerate certain developments over others, and endows these developments with meaning
— Trend forecasting impacts the future by predicting, and shaping narrative around future developments


— The work that goes into finding trends is just one way to imagine the future and many others are available like foresight or participatory futures


— Trends are one idea— tracking innovation as it moves across a population and a society
  • Finding signals, seeing it as harbinger of future to come, and leveraging patterns to find bigger insights
  • This is related to features like foresight


— For example, a few weeks ago everyone I knew talked about the Vibe Shift that came out in January 2022


— If you wonder why we are talking about vibes, it’s a rebrand of talking about trends in general
  • Important thing is that it talks about how to look for cultural signals, and how they lead to a broader change
  • Vibe shift is broader trend to linked to how we talk about change post-pandemic


— Society and how it embraces trends
  • Trends can take over and be the zeitgeist


— Naming is  a powerful force in popular culture and equally powerful in corporate America, which helps corporations make decisions about how we live


— I studied people who wanted to make future better, but saw those who had willful ignorance about impact of their actions
  • They wanted to have it both ways of getting it right, and not being accountable for future outcomes
— A quote from my book sums it up “At the end of day, if I do a project today on 2025, you’re not going to be in that seat in 2025, and neither am I ”
  • This resonates with how UXRs shape futures, and practices, but are not there to see the results and worlds you might unleash
  • This is coupled with optimism bias and missing the pitfalls of the change made


— This accountability for the future matters a great deal, in so many facets
  • Particularly in diversity, as diversity with out accountability is hollow
— Many visions of the future try to erase difference
  • They view the problem as being difference instead of how we approach difference
  • Visions of the future often involve those who have power, resources, taking for granted that future will work for them
  • This is the case of trend forecasting, where it’s dominated by wealthy cosmopolitan white men
— Making diversity a priority that changes fundamentals of what you do, can be very difficult
  • There is the risk of thinking technology will make difference go away
  • This leads to “futures without events”: Or a  future that looks superficially different, but where the power infrastructure remains the same


— Let’s consider Afro-Futurism as a counter to this default way of thinking
  • Future is not about escaping the past, but reckoning with it
  • Part of a paradigm shift that centers black experience as key part of future
— Central to all of ways of Afro-Futurism is the notion that the future prioritizes black objectives like maintaining black communities,
  • This is taking care of the future, and reckoning with problems of today and new strategies for them
— Ideas of future need to acknowledge difference, community, history, and struggles
  • We need to face the struggles of future in a forward way and not deny that they are happening


— If the goal to build better futures, we need to think globally in addition to thinking about diversity, and include ways of thinking that are different from the West/North America


— Global work is hard and arduous , and consumes time resources and space.


— Globally thinking needs to address issues of present as well as future, and think of it as a paradigm shift


— Final trend I’ll comment on, was the ‘performance of cool’ and gadgetry and next the hot thing, as being where the future needs to go
  • This causes an unrealistic pressure to be the coolest person in room or market
— It also ignores that most important changes to make are very mundane
  • Ideal future for some people can be food security, water, freedom from violence
  • Might not be sexy, but its important
— Leaning on cool to decide the future amplifies the other problems you talk about, and it doesn’t reckon with the problems


— I have an idea of solutions and ways forward with own research and those who think of the future


— I would like to come to the idea of sober optimism, to drive us forward that change and future are possible, without the pollyannish notion of putting head in sand and hoping things resolve themselves


— This comes from Victor Frankl, Terry Eagleton, and having optimism that is adaptive to struggles, and recognizing that out of struggles come tew things that show resilience of our spirit


— We need to embrace unintended consequences, and confronting challenges
  • To act is to make mistakes, and grasp unintended futures


— Afro-Futurism shows that future can be both critical and inspired, and that the future must address the past, that difference and diversity are part of future, and that future won’t be homogeneous


— Second, we need to understand future is not a toy or play thing, and that accountability happens with futures we construct
  • See the example of consultancies like McKinsey working with oil & gas companies that has unleashed problems  like climate change
  • We are seeing the tide shift around attitude that you can just collect your check as a consultant for your projects and sit back


— Finally, our futures need to be democratic. Wee need to share our practice and be transparent about methods used, and thinking of values such  as equity in making the future better
  • Equity in values: Imagining our future as not being just for particular people



Thank you!