Experiential Futures – a new methodology to help catalyse insight and innovation

There has been an explosion in recent years in the interaction between the design and foresight communities. While both necessarily possess a future focus, as disciplines, they have traditionally had very little engagement with one another.

This is changing. Concrete examples of this engagement include the Association of Professional Futurists 2009 meeting on “Futures by Design” and the Oxford Futures Forum 2014 theme “Design and Scenarios”. One of the most exciting developments from this interaction is the way in which practitioners are re-shaping and re-focusing their approach to their own design and foresight practices.

One of the most interesting recent developments along this vein is the emergence of experiential futures. Merging futures work and design this new technique and practice is creating new spaces for exploring and shaping change.

Future-focused, in all of its manifestations, design necessarily requires finding “particular representations or aspects of ideal things out of a cloud of possibilities.” While the notion of iterating patterns of convergent and divergent thinking are now well understood within the broader design community there is still often a pressure to more quickly skip over the understanding of the broader ‘possible’ worlds for which we are designing. Or, where this focus is present – it is at such a high level that it’s impact on the concrete manifestation of the design process is limited. Similarly, futures and foresight work is normally constrained within a limited number of practice features – with a strong preponderance on workshops and scenario documents – which limits the overall effect and effectiveness of futuring for our clients with this work also generally being conducted at a very high-level of abstraction.

While much of the responsibility for this may be placed on the more limited resourcing – time, money, skilled practitioners etc – that these processes are sometimes afforded by our clients and our own practices, it nonetheless behooves us as practitioners to try where we can to enhance the overall value that we are able to bring both to our disciplines but also to the clients with which we work. Experiential Futures provides us with one such opportunity.

Linked to the practices of Speculative Design and Design Fiction – experiential futures provides us with both a pragmatic tool to build on the advantages of these two forms of modern design technique while also allowing us a very practical impact on our own design practice and processes for our clients (be they for-profit, non-profit, government, or other). As Stuart Candy and Jake Dunagan make clear in their outline of experiential futures, it “uses the materiality and idioms of graphic, interaction, and product design, and frequently video, to prototype elements of a possible world; past, present or future.” At base the immersive nature of an experiential approach – crafting a deeper ‘felt’ experience of a world – goes beyond just simply creating interesting experiences and instead “make experiences that lead to the creation of better futures.”

Leading the charge in the creation of this new methodology, Stuart Candy and Jake Dunagan have created a simple scaffold for the use of experiential futures as a tool and practice. Candy and Dunagan’s methodology is based on a nested concept of three spaces of encounter:

  • Setting            The theme or kind of the future to be explored (e.g. generic image of the future).
  • Scenario          A specific narrative proposition and sequence of events that emerge from the setting
  • Situation         The circumstances of encounter where particular events are given physical form at 1:1 scale in various media.

The relationship of these three levels – and their use of material artifacts – can be seen in this diagram.

Candy and Dunagan state that this movement towards concrete detail in an experiential scenario can be clarified via a parallel in filmmaking. They go, on to argue that:

A narrative feature film typically goes through a lengthy development process involving an outline early on, then a treatment outlining the setting and the story and characters within it. This is then fleshed out as a screenplay with dialogue etc. Well before the first second of film has been shot, from these documents the designers of sets, props and costumes work out what physical elements of the movie world must be found or created in order to bring the vision to life. Outline, treatment, and screenplay, then, are increasingly detailed expressions of the world in which a film is set and what happens in it. The final translation of written scenes into actors’ performances, together with the tangible paraphernalia completing the simulation, concludes the process. Overall it proceeds from high-level, abstract story elements down to the nitty gritty of 1:1-scale, real-time storytelling. (ref)

This use of a ‘long zoom’ through to concrete practical manifestations of artifacts and processes takes the abstract nature of much foresight and futures work and, building on what design brings to the table in terms of practices, methods and approaches, brings a sense of humanity and of the 1:1 scale that is often missing in futures work to our own practices. In experiential futures work then we see a fruitful merging of the methodologies and tools of the disciplines of foresight and design in the creation of a concrete methodology which enables us to add a depth of detail and context to our practice and, in doing so, create spaces for more value-creation and innovative practices for our clients.

There are limits to it’s use (as there always are for all tools and methodologies) as the Setting ultimately adopted will be just one of many possible settings that could have been chosen; and within that chosen Setting, the particular Scenario is just one of many possibilities, and; the Situation brought to life through this practice is always necessarily just one of the many possibilities that could exist within the chosen Scenario. That said, experiential futures offers an exciting and novel approach to “the design of situations and stuff from the future to catalyse insight and change.”

For more on the development of this new approach to futuring and design see the papers by Candy and Dunagan which can be found here and here.

Images courtesy of: Pixabay