Future change by design
19 July 2022
Why do we need a strategy for the future?
Some time ago, I heard someone say it is easier to develop a strategy for 10 years ahead than the upcoming year. That thought stuck with me. As a design and consulting studio, we ask ourselves: how do we develop a strategy in a highly volatile context, where our plans get overturned every year by events that nobody expected? Increasingly, we see clients are interested in visions of a more distant future and those of strategy-building factors that become visible in the long term. "Where do you see yourself in 10 years?" is no longer just a job interview question. It is a question top executives are more and more concerned with in order to be “future ready”. It is about a vision of the future for their organizations to allow them to stay on a planned course.
This article can help you understand the connection between vision and strategy, strategy and creativity, and strategy and innovative thinking.
"The most successful strategies are visions, not plans" – Henry Minzberg.
Visions are the driving force behind social innovation. We must have visions in order to create and develop. Developing a business without a visionary strategy leaves the future to chance. Without a strategy, on the other hand, the vision alone will have zero impact. Visions need strategies. Without them, a lot of creative energy is wasted.
In a profit-driven world, where economic growth is based purely on productivity rather than efficiency, the term “strategy” seems to be one of the most misused. Having a strategy seems to be the formula for success. Unfortunately, in the context of entrepreneurship, strategy is often misunderstood to be a business plan with pages filled by numbers and strange-sounding texts that are difficult to comprehend and leave little room for creativity or innovation.
"In fact, a strategy should be a creative process designing a sustainable future based on clear visions, values and attributes. This is what we need to change the world for the better" – Doris Rothauer,
I am in favour of a definition of strategy that describes it as a set of choices and decisions that are difficult to reverse. But thanks to the many creative ping-pongs, I also believe that communicating a strategy to the inside of the organization is its essential component. Explaining to the entire team within the company the meaning of strategic choices, and why some particular decisions have been taken increases the chances of success. That stage when strategic activities are communicated is called vision sharing.
And something that helps a lot to communicate a strategy is visualization. Even a sketchy outline of the final outcome, a concept of solutions or indication of the benchmarks of a new quality help people digest those images more easily, and keep them in mind for longer. The visualization stage is called vision materialization.
Defining a strategy, communicating it within the organization and visualizing it – it’s an indispensable trio. The strategy creation process can be supported by many things at these three stages, and design is one of them.
The vision – strategy – culture triangle
When Satya Nadella became Microsoft's CEO in 2014, the company was known for its aggressive, militant and competitive culture. Microsoft was losing ground and had missed key waves of technological innovation. An amazing resurgence has been observed since then. Nadella and his team changed the company's goal from "putting a computer on every desk" to "empowering every person and every organization on the planet to do more." The chief factor that made Microsoft's amazing transformation possible was a transformation of the company’s culture. The key element of the strategy is to move from a “dominate the world” culture to a mindset of empathy and growth, which are essential in a more open organizational culture.
One simple powerful idea
“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea” – Antoine de Saint-Exupery
I believe that formulating concise catchphrases that bring company culture together around one simple and powerful idea that everyone can relate to helps shape and disseminate culture. Simplicity and emotional connection are powerful because they fuel focus and action.
To us at Ergodesign, this idea is embodied in the phrase "be future crafters (not gate keepers)".
Why do we focus on sustainable development?
"Dreams are powerful. They are repositories of our desire. They animate the entertainment industry and drive consumption. […] They can also inspire us to imagine that things could be radically different than they are today, and then believe we can progress toward that imaginary world” – Stephen Duncombe.
There is no greater, more urgent, more ambitious or inspiring challenge than to fit the further development of our civilization within the confines of our planet.
But the shift of the economic paradigm with a focus on solving the world's pressing problems is assigned dates in a rather distant future. Plans to move on to a more responsible, climate-neutral and socially equitable development path have milestones dated from 2030 to 2050. The deadlines of this transformation will not come until 20 or 30 years from now. Maybe that is why only the most mature and innovative organizations are taking those deadlines seriously today and are making it their ambition to meet them. This also goes for companies with the most committed top managements, who simply want to create a great company for a wider group of people than just shareholders – also their employees, users and consumers.
Is it worth it? Will it pay off? Is this a path for every organization? To us, sustainable development is synonymous with innovation. It is definitely not just a philosophy that can be implemented with superficial actions, just to make one feel better. It is an inspiration to define new market segments with previously unnamed needs and to create a unique offer of products and services.
Change is coming
It is estimated that one-third of environmental effects and environmental damage come from the misuse or abuse of energy. Meanwhile, as much as two-thirds are the result of the misuse or abuse of materials and raw materials. Telecommunications, automation, robotics, big data, artificial intelligence, quantum computers – the technological revolution that has been pouring through the world for several decades is only accelerating, and it makes you wonder if we have the necessary resources to take this technological leap. Will tech disruption be a good change? Will it serve man? Can the planet withstand it?
What can we do to make it a good change?
In his speeches on Good Disruption, Martin Stuchtey proposes three pillars of the new economy: abundant clean energy, a closed circuit of materials and a highly productive, self-regenerating system of production and distribution of new products and services. The combination of these three pillars of the new economy can give us a boost to innovation: unlimited production potential, new business models, adaptation to the needs of new users and to the problems of the world. New solutions that were not profitable a decade ago are now possible thanks to technology. We see the third pillar in particular as a creative playground for innovations and innovators, i.e. for ourselves, our clients and partners.
The partner of our exhibition The Story of One Kettle. Future Lab by Ergodesign for the Gdynia Design Days – Fixit (www.fixit.pl) – is one example here. For their customers, they are a partner in building user experiences in the field of service repairs and technical consulting, enabling them to manage the product life cycle, recover and reuse products and components. They offer services that are still not very popular in many markets, engage users and defy waste of material resources. By bringing appliances that were to be thrown away back into the circuit, they give them a new value, opening up a number of new business benefits and opportunities to develop new services. They prove that innovation is also about smart material management and taking the planet's interests into account in the business process.
But what role does design have to play?
"We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars" – Oscar Wilde.
Thinking about design, most people equate it with solving problems, for instance of aesthetic nature. Faced with enormous challenges such as overpopulation, water scarcity and climate change, designers feel an overwhelming need to work together to solve them.
Design’s innate optimism is great, but it becomes clear that many of the challenges we face today cannot be easily fixed and that the only way to overcome them is to change our values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors. Unfortunately, the present approach to design ignores the magnitude of the problems we are facing and continues to channel energy into what design does best – shaping today, maybe even tomorrow, but without addressing the decades to come.
Nevertheless, there are new possibilities for design. One of them is to use it as a tool for speculation. Speculative design is a form that develops the imagination and aims to open up new perspectives to start a discussion about alternatives – scenarios for the future. Design speculation can act as a catalyst for a collective redefinition of our reality.
Expanding the vision
As a design and consulting studio, we are more and more often asked to help work out strategic initiatives for the next decade, rather than design products or services for the here and now.
But even customers who are open to the future usually come to us to learn about the Future – the only one they think is possible and therefore certain. When it comes to technology, predictions about the only one and certain future turn out to be wrong time and time again. One of the most memorable lessons in business history came from Kenneth H. Olsen, then president of Digital Equipment Corporation, who announced in 1977 that "there is no reason for anyone to have a computer at home."
What we are more interested in is the idea of multiple possible scenarios for the future which are dependent on key factors and have different probabilities of fulfilment and different preferability.
Most designers work in this area. This future describes what is likely to happen unless there is some sort of shock, such as a financial crash, environmental disaster or war. Most design methods recognize and follow good practices.
This is a space for planning scenarios and forecasting, a space for what could happen. In the 1970s, companies such as Royal Dutch Shell developed techniques to model alternative global situations in the near future to ensure their survival in case of large-scale global changes taking place. This space is not about anticipating but about exploring alternative economic and political futures to ensure that your organization is prepared for and thrives in many different futures.
In this area, the skill is to relate today's world to a proposed one, following the development of possible events from today forward. Even considering changes that are possible according to modern science, politics and economics, it is still difficult to imagine how we could get from here to another possible place in the future.
The last zone, where all three of the above intersect, is the most interesting one. It is the zone of preferable futures. This is the part we find interesting. We do not try to predict the future, but we use design to open up all sorts of opportunities for companies, cities or entire societies to determine a preferred future.
Each generation has its own generational experience – we can confidently speculate that for us global environmental challenges are that experience. We are the last generation that can build the future by restoring balance to our planet. Our science and technology provide us with more opportunities than we are currently able to commercialize and use. But for a better future, we first need to fix our thinking – dream more.
We, too, can dream on a great scale.
To see a visualization of some of our visions, we invite you to visit the exhibition prepared by Ergodesign designers and researchers: The Story of One Kettle. Future Lab by Ergodesign. Our narrative guides you through six zones with reflections on responsible design, as well as three scenarios for the future.
The exhibition was prepared for the Gdynia Design Days (2-10 July 2022) and can be viewed in Building 4 of the Pomeranian Science and Technology Park.
For more information about designing the future and the Future Change by Design program see here https://future.circularchange.pl/en/