Designing futures <br /> during a crisis

Designing futures
during a crisis

Ben Reason
  • Ben Reason
  • Founding Partner

It goes without saying that times of crisis are times of change. They can also be times when our outlook shrinks to the near term as we adjust to new conditions and have to invest time in new ways of living and working.

However, for everyone, but especially those in a leadership role, it is important to think about the future and to consider what changes will take place. We need to be prepared to navigate and influence directions and decisions going forward.

Thinking forward is hard right now – not through lack of possibility but because so much is possible. There is a plethora of opinion around how this crisis will play out. Right now this is because the future branches away in front of us in many diverging directions. 

This is challenging for two reasons. Firstly, these opinions are not from the perspective of you or your context. They may give you ideas about what the future holds, but you still need to construct your own future. Secondly we have to make decisions about what future to embrace. To do this we need to use possible futures to help us imagine what we would do and what future we want to try to create. 

This article provides a framework for imagining possible futures that we can use to provide a longer term perspective. It outlines how we can inform future directions and decisions. 

Framework: Layers of change

For a frame we draw on some inspiring work from Stewart Brand, founder of the Long Now Foundation. In these compressed timescales it is valuable to draw on someone whose focus is on the long-term. Brand developed the concept of Pace Layers – layers of change that are distinct but separate. These different layers move at different speeds – fast fashion to glacially slow nature. Fast changing fashion, art and technology can be understood as a layer of experimentation that enables us to test and learn. This layer then influences lower layers such as infrastructure, governance and culture. The layering creates a system that is able to respond to and absorb shocks by both adapting to change and rejecting failed experiments. Brand argues that this is a critical quality of complex systems and helps to prevent change from being catastrophic.

This framework is obviously valuable at any time – but especially in a time of volatility and experimentation. It is useful during a crisis as we are less sure of the future and there is a lot more experimentation going on. We can observe (and be part of) the many experiments that are taking place and use these observations and experiences to build scenarios that we apply across Brand’s six layers, helping us create long-term future scenarios.. 

Here is how the layering model can help structure our thinking and decisions:

Fashion/Technology – This layer helps us think about what new things are going on that could be the seeds of the future, treat them as experiments to observe and learn from. What is good in these experiments?

Commerce – This layer helps us think of what short term trends are observable in the market. To see what signals we are getting, what are we being moved towards by customers and what is in decline. Are these trends things we want to follow or not?

Infrastructure – This layer helps us think of the demands on capabilities that arise from the trends above and consider actions to address these demands. Are these capabilities things we want to invest in and support?

Governance – This layer helps us consider what new risks and priorities could emerge from the transition to new capabilities and how governance may need to address these risks and priorities. Are these new risks and priorities things we want to oversee or control?

Culture – This layer helps us imagine how new forms of governance could lead to cultural shifts that may or may not be desirable. Are these possible shifts desirable?

Nature – Finally but perhaps also primarily, this layer ensures that we consider the impact and sustainability of cultural changes. Are these possible impacts sustainable?

Layers of Change: The social economy ecosystem has many layers, all of which change at different rates, the outer layers moving faster than the inner.

Approach: Building scenarios

To employ Brand’s framework we can apply design methods. Design systematically moves through a process of understanding, imagining, designing and creating. In this case we are applying design to the creation of prefered future scenarios.

Understanding is, as mentioned above, the observation, and participation in experiments. We can observe what is going on around us in response to the crisis. We can read and synthesize the vast amount of reporting that is going on in established and social media, we can engage our partners, clients and customers to understand how they are adapting and we can investigate what our peers in and around our sector are doing as well. We should focus our attention on the first layers of fashion, art and technology and also commerce and business to do this. Fashion should be thought of as all things that come and go.

Imagining. This is where we can apply the Pace Layers framework. We take the observations that we feel have the most relevance and interest to use and push them through the layers. This is a little like the 5 Whys approach (Brand compares it to the endless questions of children). We ask what impact the observation at the layer of fashion might have on commerce, what commerce might then have on infrastructure, on to governance, culture and finally nature. If we apply this approach to a number of observations we will get a multitude of stories branching off into the future. 

Designing is how we apply our judgement and preferences to the branches of the future. Which stories do we welcome and which do we fear? We may welcome them for business, political, personal or social reasons so we should be clear about why we prefer them. We are appling design criteria. This will give us a future tree diagram that has colours – green for our preferred stories and red for the ones we fear. We may find that it is easier to start with the layers of nature and culture to find our preferences and then work backwards. 

Finally creating. We can use these stories and preferences to make plans. How do we want to act going forward to try to influence the direction of the future? What experiments might we back, what commercial activities will we prioritise, what changes may we need to make to business models? What infrastructure might we need to invest in? What changes in governance might we foresee? How might our culture evolve and what is the impact on the natural world?

One observation can lead to an exciting and informative story that can be captured and used to inform our thinking. This need not be a major strategy exercise. Although it clearly could be. 

So let’s take one observation on a journey.

A massive shift to home working

An example: Video conferencing in the UK government

Let’s take an obvious example from the coronavirus lockdown. Video conferencing.

At the fastest outside layer of fashion and technology use of video is going through a rapid cycle of experimentation. People are using it for everything from virtual nightclubs to the reconfiguration of meetings in the UK Parliament. Huge amounts of necessity driven innovation is taking place as people and organisations adapt. 

At the layer of commerce and business the change can be seen as video calling firms such as Zoom grow in value and in the acceleration of the trend for remote working and collaboration technologies. New contracts are signed and persist beyond the crisis. Parliament needs to ensure that it’s video conferencing contracts support a massive shift to home working and that it manages a new security risk.

At a slower pace infrastructure will see this explosion in activity and anticipate that some of this activity will die down after the pandemic but that some will become a new normal and adjust. This adjustment is not just one of technology but also other forms of infrastructure such as knowledge and ways of working. For example for the UK Parliament to return after recess they must have their technology in place and MPs must establish new ways of doing business outside of a 19th century chamber (how minutes are recorded for example). We can anticipate that these infrastructure changes will remain in place in case of future need and could lead to the possibility of remote participation in Parliament when regular business returns.

Governance of the UK parliament is not going to change so quickly, even a change to the participation in the chamber would require new rules and even laws. This small change could be more profound if it heralds the arrival of the ability to take part in Parliament – and vote – when not present (as has been the subject of much discussion). 

Which brings us to culture. The ability to vote remotely in Parliament has been much discussed specifically in relation to the ability to vote for MPs who are ill or have recently had children. A shift in the rules that require presence – perhaps long overdue – could see a small change in the culture of the UK government towards a more sympathetic attitude to the sick and to parents that could have repercussions beyond video calling trends.

Finally nature. Do we anticipate that these cultural shifts will reduce ecological impact from our activities? Will they enable less travel by for example making a trip just to vote unnecessary?

I hope this gives a picture of how a video conferencing operator or provider (be that Zoom or the Parliament IT team) could use this framework to think about the future in more sophisticated ways and thereby inform better decision making.