Smart Thoughts

About Designing the Future

Start by Creating Evocative Mental and Emotional Maps

Written by: Alan Gershenfeld

What does “world building” have to do with treating the future as a design space?

When imagining the future, the worlds we envision tend to be informed by evocative storytelling – movies, video games, novels, comics and graphic novels.  These imagined worlds are often deeply dystopian or weirdly utopian - the chaotic urban jumble of Blade Runner or cities full of sleek white buildings and lots of turtlenecks for some reason.  

This is a very narrow view of the future, and one that is not particularly helpful when attempting to inspire individuals, communities, organizations and institutions to lean in and shape their future.  It is all too easy to default to dystopian visions, where humans have little agency as the technology runs amok, or to be lulled into a techno-utopian vision of the future, where we can just sit back and technology will solve our problems. The future will be much more textured – and we have the agency, individually and collectively, to impact how it emerges.

In a rapidly changing world, with accelerating technologies, shifting demographics and changing environment, we need to become better at understanding, visualizing, humanizing and iterating aspirational but achievable futures.  We need to harness the power of storytelling, grounded in research, to help design mental and emotional maps for the future – and then create the stable steps to urge these preferred futures into reality.  

As futurist Alvin Toffler pointed out in his 1970 book Future Shock, “we must vastly widen our conception of possible futures. To the rigorous disciplines of science, we must add the flaming imagination of art.”  He went on, “every society faces not merely a succession of probable futures, but an array of possible futures and a conflict over preferable futures. The management of change is the effort to convert certain possibles into probables, and then to agreed-on preferables.”

I am a Co-Founder of Experimental Design, a company that uses the practice of world building to help accomplish this goal of developing preferable futures.  The world building practice was developed by narrative designer Alex McDowell, who was inspired to develop the practice after serving as Production Designer on the movie Minority Report.  Experimental Design is a joint venture between Alex and social impact game developer E-Line Media.  In our collective backgrounds we’ve worked with a wide range of artists and storytellers to create game and film worlds that have engaged tens of millions of people. 

We now want to bring this craft to empower diverse organizations and institutions to prototype their future and provoke change. World building is not a way to predict the future; it is a way to begin experiencing and building the future now.

Imagine if every ASU student graduated not only with a deep knowledge of the transformational, accelerating technologies and societal shifts that will inform and shape their future – but also used this knowledge to help design the future they want to inhabit.


About Alan Gershenfeld

Alan was Founding Industry Fellow at ASU’s Center for Games and Impact.  He is President/Co-Founder of E-Line Media, a publisher of digital entertainment that engages, educates and empowers, and Co-Founder of Experimental Design, a design studio that works with diverse organizations and institutions to prototype the future and provoke change.  Previously, Alan was a studio head at Activision, chairman of Games for Change, and board member at FilmAid.   He is co-author, with his two brothers, of Designing Reality:  How To Survive and Thrive in the Third Digital Revolution and has written and presented around the world on the intersections of media, technology and social impact.