Smart Thoughts

About Designing the Future

The Future Is Serious Business: Approach it With Humor

Written by: Richard S. Thomas

Who blows your mind who has actually succeeded in designing the human future?  Who would you want to talk to?   And why?

In 1899 Jean-Marc Côté, a French commercial artist, was commissioned to create a set of illustrations celebrating the turn of the century. His challenge was to depict what the world would be like in the year 2000. The images were initially to be placed in cigarette packages. Later they were celebrated as postcards for The Exposition Universelle of 1900 in Paris.

The world was blessed with notable science fiction writers in 1899, two of whom were big influences on Côté. One was Jules Verne, and the other H.G. Wells. Each created stories of worlds, visions and possibilities that tickled the imagination and spoke to a future of fantastical things.

From the very little written about Côté one can only surmise he had an equally vivid imagination, but was perhaps trapped by an introverted personality with less vigor and enthusiasm for outward expression but for his artistry.

I would have loved to have a glass of pastis with him to probe why he selected some ideas over others. What was it about the notion of The Rural Postman that inspired him to put pen to paper? Was he afraid of the future or embracing it? Was he looney or just an ordinary guy? (What in the world would he think of drones today?)


Once finished with these illustrations, he slipped into oblivion, never to be heard from again in any public manner. What would have happened today in our uber-connected world? Perhaps he would be instantly YouTube-famous. Or vilified. Or just another voice in the fray.

I marvel that many of his illustrations are so close to the mark in depicting today. (See 49 of them here.)  Was that just dumb luck or did he have a uniquely tuned sense of the future that allowed him to see the potential of certain ideas more clearly than others? Why was his assembly of images devoid of the possibilities of space travel? Verne’s From Earth to the Moon was published in 1865. Did Côté not embrace the idea of space travel? His original body of work was greater than the 50 illustrations found some years later in a basement. Perhaps “space” was covered in the missing.

From snowmobiles, to air rescue devices, to cleaning robots for the house, to education delivered through machines that grind up books and feed into the brain (i.e. audio recorders, computers; machines of all types), Côté’s imagination, humor and accuracy titillates and delights the mind. I’m thinking he must have had a great sense of humor and/or whimsy, perhaps with a delightful sense of sarcasm. What I enjoy the most is that his future was conceived of with a sense of modesty, from which we can all learn.

It is perhaps this modesty that is so fascinating about the mystery that surrounds him. It gives me hope that we all have it in us to create the future to which we can aspire. I would share with him that I find his illustrations captivating – challenging the status quo and questioning with humor – a future that is equal parts potential and principle.

The future is serious business – some would argue the most serious of considerations. Yet if we lose our ability to laugh at ourselves along the way, we have lost the fascination and wonder the future holds.

I think Côté believed in the folly that we can actually control how the future unfolds. I think he saw that as a flawed strategy. The beauty and terror of the future is that it unfolds without care for a single idea. Rather it is made manifest through a set of serendipitous acts that occur as much by chance as intent. We stumble forward with our own humanity and create ways to hasten the results and/or gratification of whatever it is we seek. Let us not forget that we are all Jean-Marc Côté’s in one sense. We all have a role in designing the future, to keeping a sense of humor about it, to question it and to never lose our need for humility and empathy for one another.


About Richard S. Thomas

Dick is a designer with a passion for problem solving who is the co-author of 9 Billion Schools: Why the World Needs Personalized, Lifelong Learning for All. He is a board member of the 9 Billion Schools Institute that is on the leading edge of realizing a world where personalized, lifelong learning is available to everyone. Its manifesto states: “Learning should be as individual as fingerprints and as long, wide and deep as life itself.” Dick is also a Vice President at SHP Leading Design in Cincinnati, Ohio.