Three rules for designing the future

At IS IT A BIRD we love imagining how the world could look in times to come. It’s what we work for: a belief that we are helping to shape a tomorrow that holds even more meaning and value for people than today.

Last week we visited Space 10, IKEA’s future living lab in Copenhagen, where they presented a concept for how urban mobility might look if we embrace autonomous technology, a topic we have also been working with in various ways. As was the intention, the project provoked us to think and, starting with a conversation over lunch, to reflect on our ongoing purpose of innovating based on human values rather than technological possibility.

As a human-centred innovation agency, every day we get asked the Big Questions about what the future should look like. The context of these questions is varied, so our process is always different, but there are three elements that we always work with, and that we believe to be essential when innovating the future.

1. Make sure you start with the right question

Being human-centred means our point of departure is always a deep and explorative understanding of people and the values that motivate them. We approach our work as an explorer would, but we need to set some direction before we begin. This means it’s very important for us to begin every challenge by asking the right question. The question should be a fundamental one, and one that gives us enough freedom and space to discover the unexpected. So in order to understand the potential of urban automated vehicles, we might ask ourselves “What does mobility mean for people in a city?”.

We then go out into the field to learn what will ultimately create value for people in the future by studying them in the present. By asking questions like: 'Beyond moving from A to B, what basic needs do transport solutions fulfil today?', and analysing the results, we can get valuable insights. In previous studies we have found that parents derive meaning from driving their kids to school; elderly citizens feel pain when giving up their driving license; commuters find pleasure in sitting quietly next to a window on a train; and children gain a sense of independence and freedom from being allowed to cycle alone to a friend’s house. These insights have implications for the design of future mobility solutions, and we must ask ourselves how to use them to ensure new solutions really do create better lives for people.

To really explore human needs we must understand the wider social, economic, political and technological context they exist within, and connect this with the future by looking at how we expect things to change. So we combine ethnographic data with a deep exploration of relevant trends.

2. Know what your expertise is, and collaborate with the people who challenge you

We know anthropology doesn’t hold all the answers. That’s why we have plenty of designers in our team, and we also always collaborate closely with experts from different fields once we begin the ideation phase. A meaningful solution must respond to a real human need, but it must also satisfy countless other technical and commercial demands and objectives. Depending on the project, we often put together teams that include a diverse set of experts, from engineers to chefs, doctors to marketeers, CFOs to architects. A strong multidisciplinary team for a future mobility project could include artists, engineers, corporates, urban planners, citizens, philosophers and sociologists. By drawing on such a rich array of expertise, we give ourselves the ability to take the creative leaps necessary to truly reimagine urban mobility.

3. Start by trying it out, then do it again. And again.

To have useful conversations about things that do not yet exist, it is crucial to use tangible artefacts, to constantly experiment, and to test ideas against the real world. This is how we always work, and it's exactly what Space 10 are doing with their project; developing a concept as research material with which to provoke, inspire and challenge the world. If we consider this a project to redesign urban mobility, then Spaces on Wheels is essentially the research stimulus: a very early iteration of a prototype. Over the coming years, the ideas we are discussing now will transform and improve as designers experiment, test and learn from the world around them.

New generations of technology will continue to revolutionise our lives in the coming decades. Being brave enough to ask fundamental questions about how we want these revolutions to play out is so important, so that instead of technology, innovating to create real value in people’s lives leads the way.  

Thanks to Space 10 for the inspiration. Given the pace things are moving in the world today, we can’t start asking these questions soon enough.