Smart Thoughts

About Designing the Future

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Introduction / Forward

In fraught times, it might seem crazy to even think about designing the future.

Yet history shows these are the best times to offer hope. After World War II, few would have bet on the scenario in which we live today, in which no one has popped a nuclear weapon in anger for more than 70 years. This could change tomorrow. But when a species has made its own luck for tens of thousands of years, at some point you must consider the nature of its achievement.

In the face of making-the-rubble-bounce extermination it’s almost miraculous that, nearing zero hour, we invented game theory with its revolutionary and hard empirical evidence that the search for win-win is what works.

Here we still are. Maybe tough times, historically, are when unexpected thinking is most required.

“The best way to predict your future is to create it,” is credited all the way back to Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War.

So with great hope and no little audacity we share with you these initial visions. Please design some of your own.

You can’t have better futures without better dreams.


The Guide core questions we offered our "Smart Thoughts" essayists were:

  • The human future as a design space – what does that mean to you?
  • Who blows your mind who has actually succeeded in designing the human future? Who would you want to talk to? And why?
  • If you could create the Guide, what would be in it? What would be important elements to be included?
  • If you could create a box for us to dream in, what would it be like?
  • What does “world building” have to do with treating the future as a design space?
  • What does “design thinking” have to do with treating the future as a design space?
  • What have you been waiting for?

By Lindy Elkins-Tanton

If one of America's foremost female space exploration leaders were given the opportunity to create The Guide, she would start with this: "How can I ask a bigger, a more important question to create teams that really produce and have impact?".

By Jim O’Donnell

Who says successfully designing the human future is entirely novel? When we can dial him back in our time machine, ASU's University Librarian would love to talk to the Roman who mastered two of the four ancient elements - earth and water - leaving air and fire for generations to come.

Traci L. Morris

By Traci L. Morris

For this member of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma, The Guide would include imagining Indigenous futures for the young. Could AI's become medicine people because of their special status?

By Jeffrey J. Cohen

An ark is a provocation to dream yet another world. Not a utopia exactly – most certainly not a heaven.  It's a wave-tossed, beleaguered opportunity.

By James Gee

While you can't design the future, this Regents' Professor argues, you can design FOR the future. With humility, plant seeds that can grow in many different futures. Grow worlds in which people find they matter, count, belong, and have meaning.

By Elisabeth R. Gee

Today's designers of the future want to be more than inventors -- they want more control. The U.S. Constitution is a future-design that has prevailed over two centuries. But the masterful designer of the future has been Mother Nature, from which we have much to learn -- and respect.

By Sander van der Leeuw

Stability is the outlier. That's why we have to explicitly design for change.  Design to dynamics that emerge.  Rather than try to control the values we have inherited.  Not the way many of us frequently think.

By Brad Allenby

We're already transforming all of the planet and all of biology. And now you want us to design the future? We don't even understand the present. But okay. What kind of planet would you like? And what kind of human species? And who gets to vote on that?

By George Poste

Our design space has become life itself. Yes, hubris is part of the package. But the opportunity to design from single cells to complete individuals to global ecosystems is awe-inspiring.

By Andrew Maynard

Some very fine social design principles for us to adapt in that Sermon on the Mount.

By Gary Dirks

For solutions, leaders gravitate toward technologies and infrastructure, and and the workings of government, business, and civil society. But wicked problems aren’t about these. They are about how we relate and the stories we tell.

By Angela Johnson and Sherri Barry

The Guide can take on scaling up a world -- unfathomable to most people right now -- in which everything you wear is affordable, customized, authentic, unique, ethical and sustainable.   And beautiful.


By Steve Helms Tillery

Using our smarts to redesign our smarts:   You want optimum performance?   To master new challenges?   To respond more effectively to new threats and situations?   We can design that.

By Angie Kim

Thinking seven generations out is challenging. But if you only focus on solutions that benefit people here and now, you're missing the point. Your "true north" beneficiaries are those you don't yet know and may never see.

By Alan Gershenfeld

Imagining how a complex system can fall apart is child's play. Creating stories about the future we actually want takes ingenuity. And courage. "To the rigorous disciplines of science, we must add the flaming imagination of art."

By Gary Marchant

The road to your enhancement is now open -- and being widened. Some of us are eager to race down that road. Others will try to resist and object. But designing the future is now about designing you.

By Christopher Johnson

As we envision the future, redesign the past. (!)  Aim to make the future remember as well as it innovates.

By Ron Broglio

 If the critters in our gut can even influence how we think, learn how to flourish the good ones.

By Ruth Wylie

Igniting the imagination by bringing together writers, scientists, artists and engineers is a tremendous path to reflecting on new possibilities and implications -- and designing futures in which we can thrive.

By Caroline Woolard

What if we built worlds in which the tables and objects in our spaces were as imaginative as the conversations we are having?

By Michael J. Saks

We have a mixed record of enabling society to sort wheat from chaff. Thus, to obtain sound knowledge of our design ideas, let's be prepared to retain or replace them depending on how they fare compared to still newer ideas.

By Bryan Henderson

What would it take to create a school where learners can truly dream and take action on those dreams? Make places -- real and virtual -- where passionate people with common interests come together to solve problems.

By Elena Rocchi

Construct events as the fundamental desires on which the next civilization will be founded. Play with the time and space of our campuses to manifest the collective unconscious as an affirmation of designers as creators.

By Stephen N. Elliott

If you design in the elements that pull you rather than push you, momentum is inevitable.

By Adam Chodorow

“Your only limit is your soul. What I say is true – anyone can cook. But only the fearless can be great!”

By Barry Bozeman

Beat a path away from linear and incremental thinking, away from artificial distinctions between rationality and emotion, order and chaos, and between bio and cyber. Dread erasing the line between truth and fake, and rabid-dog dialectic replacing civil discourse.

By Richard S. Thomas

If we lose our ability to laugh at ourselves along the way, we have lost the fascination and wonder the future holds.

By Hava Tirosh-Samuelson

It is a transhumanist mistake to think that at a given moment we already know what there is to know or what we need to know. There are always unintended consequences.

By Sean Leahy

To design physical spaces for our blood-and-bone bodies that beckon with opportunity, think of shaping creative spaces that support all us learners in authentic, adaptive -- and safe -- ways.

By Sean Hobson

In my Dreambox, diversity of perspective rules, imaginations are stretched and everyone fits as we navigate the past, present and future in pursuit of the perfect design.

By Leanna Archambault

Imagine the aha moments our kids are discovering when they create videos that channel their creativity and produce stories that share their knowledge and transform the thinking of others.

By Adam Pacton

How can we design and chart a future if we are all so radically different? Maybe recognizing, celebrating and understanding our difference is the first step to understanding our similarity.