Smart Thoughts

About Designing the Future

Anticipate Futures Especially When They Can’t Be ‘Proven’

Written by: Sander van der Leeuw

The human future as a design space – what does that mean to you?

I recently read a wonderful book that prompted me to think about this topic. It is called Imagined Futures by Jens Beckert. He fundamentally reviews the premises of economic thought (his field) by arguing that our decision-making is essentially based on our personal visions of our individual futures. On that basis, he presents a very different view of the main elements of economics. But that is not what interests me most. It is the fact that we, as scientists, have been overlooking the importance of the “feed-forward” (anticipation) element in our everyday experience – not just our countless “feed-backs”.

This is not innocuous.  Beginning in the 17th century, admission into the scientific community has been based on “proving” and “demonstrating” what one argued.  Ever since, science was mostly limited to the relationship between past and present, as there is nothing to prove or document about the future.

We can no longer escape thinking about the future.  Since we are under pressure from the acceleration of change that was enabled by the Industrial Revolution, that also involves us as social scientists.

Complexity science is one tool to do so.  It focuses on studying the emergence of the new, rather than the origins of what is already existing.  It develops an anticipatory approach (“ex ante”) alongside the widespread “ex post” approach based on what demonstrably happened.

One evident critique is that “… we cannot scientifically approach the future….” Is that limitation inherent in human thinking, or is it part of the scientific paradigm?  Long before the development of scientific thinking, humans always lived in a present between past and future.  We have often used “intuition” – based on insights gained in the past – to anticipate what might develop out of certain situations. Some of this was expressed in the form of art, as “vision.” 

So, maybe the emphasis on science has been part of Western civilization’s tendency to develop measures to align people into a particular way of thinking – suppressing diversity.  This is evident in globalization – beginning with our colonial past.  But it also suffuses our institutions and legal systems, as well as our technology. Almost stealthily it could have made us rely more on the simplifying, reductionist hind-sight perspective than on the creative future-oriented one.   This has made it very difficult, for example, to develop a scientific understanding of creativity – which scientists generally place in a “black box”.

One of the important achievements of the complex-systems strand of thinking is that it has definitively moved away from reductionism – the scientific attempt to provide explanations in terms of ever smaller entities of which it was assumed reality was made. 

It is now assumed that societal dynamics are very complex and cannot be reduced into simple causal chains without major distortions. Hence, the “Occam’s razor” principle – always prefer a simple explanation over a more complex one – has lost currency.

But there’s a persistent, rarely recognized corollary to reductionism.  We often assumed stability – at least for a certain time – and suppressed or ignored information about change until change became so manifest that we had to acknowledge and study it.  

To better understand the current acceleration of change we should complement the current approach with one that assumes that change is omnipresent, and that stabilityneeds to be explained. How did societies manage to temporarily suppress change?  (Sometimes for very long periods)

Design seems to be a way to combine these approaches.  Design is comfortable with a controlled perspective on the future that honors diversity.   For example, it accepts that there are always multiple potential futures, describing those in terms of the possible or the probable.   Yet it attempts to impose a degree of control by designing one or more futures, rather than letting them emerge unconstrained.  That’s how – in much of our everyday lives – design has thus far been aimed at creating or maintaining a degree of flexible stability.

In view of the acceleration of social, societal, technological and environmental change that our world is currently experiencing, I would argue that a shift to designing for change is called for.   Such design is based on an integrated approach of learning from the past, about the present and for the future.

This implies some very profound changes in our habitual way of thinking – from static to dynamic, from subject- and entity-focused to context- and relationship-focused.

You also have to take into account second-order dynamics – changes in the dynamics of change.  Therefore you have to design for the very long term.

Many of these changes are emerging here and there in our current world, but we need to link them into an overall, alternative, structure of our thinking about our relationship with the world.

Ultimately, it requires that we adapt our values to dynamics that emerge, rather than try to control the dynamics to match the values we have.

 About Sander van der Leeuw

Sander van der Leeuw is the 2012 United Nations Champion of the Earth for Science and Innovation. Sander has studied ancient technologies, ancient and modern man-land relationships, sustainability, and Complex Systems Theory. At Arizona State University he teaches the ethnography of innovation.  He is also an External Professor of the Santa Fe Institute.  Sander’s expertise lies in the role of invention, sustainability, and innovation in societies around the world, investigating how invention occurs, what the preconditions are, how the context influences it, and its role in society. He has done archaeological fieldwork in Syria, Holland, and France, and conducted ethno-archaeological studies in the Near East, the Philippines and Mexico. Between 1992 and 2000 he coordinated a series of interdisciplinary research projects on socio-natural interactions and modern environmental problems. The work spanned all the countries along the northern Mediterranean rim. Between 2003 and 2007 he was co-PI on a project studying the dynamics of innovation in cities.