A conversation with Phil Balagtas, Design Director at HABITAT and President & Founder of The Design Futures Initiative
“It’s nice to have someone who is an expert in social behavior, right? Anthropologists, historians, scientists are great UX designers, are great UX researchers. There’s no real difference in futures thinking. I think one of the myths that we’re trying to dispel is that futures thinking is not this whole other or body of practice like service design isn’t a whole other body of practice. It’s still designed, it’s still systems thinking. They just have some different tools such as a service blueprint, right?” -Phil Balagtas
In this episode of Control the Room, I had the pleasure of speaking with Phil Balagtas about his experience working as a Designer with a focus on Futures Thinking. He starts with an overview of the ethics if Futures Thinking, their implications, and how more thoughtful ethical questions could lead to better decisions. We then discuss how to study and practice Futures Thinking. Listen in to learn practical frameworks to introduce Futures Thinking into your organization.
[2:10] How Phil Got His Start In Futures Thinking
[10:30] Why Futures Thinking Isn’t A New Disiplin
[17:00] The Difference Between Speculative And Foresight Design
[27:20] World Building In VR And AR
[37:50] An Explanation Of The Third Order Effect.
Links | Resources
Phil on Twitter
Phil on LinkedIn
Design Futures Initiative on Twitter
Design Futures Initiative of Instagram
Design Futures Initiative Website
Design Futures Initiative on LinkedIn
Design Futures Initiative on Facebook
Primer Conference Website
What is Strategic Foresight (The Futures School)
What is Speculative Design?
Speculative design for the real world
Futures Thinking: A Mind-set, not a Method
Phil Balagtas @Google Design Talks
Shell Scenarios-Imagining the Future
Speculative Futures & Corporate Innovation at Lufthansa
Enterprise Speculative Practices: A Trojan-Horse method for bringing speculative design to a large-scale enterprise (IBM)
Anthony D Paul: Envisioning Our Demise to Prevent Our Extinction (General Electric)
About the Guest
Phil is a design leader based in San Francisco, CA and has been a practicing designer for over 20 years. He has experience designing across a variety of devices and platforms within non-profit, retail, advertising, and enterprise software organizations. He most recently served as an Experience Design Director at McKinsey & Company working across industries to transform and enhance their digital businesses and strategies. He is also the president and founder of the Design Futures Initiative which organizes the international Speculative Futures meetups and the PRIMER conference in the US and Europe. An educator and futurist, his events and workshops bring together designers and futurists from all over the world to teach and share strategies for designing for the future and the ethical challenges around emerging technologies.
About Voltage Control
Voltage Control is a change agency that helps enterprises sustain innovation and teams work better together with custom-designed meetings and workshops, both in-person and virtual. Our master facilitators offer trusted guidance and custom coaching to companies who want to transform ineffective meetings, reignite stalled projects, and cut through assumptions. Based in Austin, Voltage Control designs and leads public and private workshops that range from small meetings to large conference-style gatherings.
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Download a copy today at voltagecontrol.com/magical-meetings-quick-guide. Today, I’m with Phil Balagtas, the President and Founder of the Design Futures Initiative, where he is working to educate and democratize futures thinking, which is a set of methodologies for how to think about the risk and opportunities of the future and beyond and create more responsible products and strategies today. Welcome to the show, Phil.
Phil: Thanks for having me Douglas, glad to be here.
Douglas: Let’s get started hearing a little bit about how you got your start in futures.
Phil: Well, I’ve always sort of really been into science fiction, but mostly through film, television, and books, but I didn’t really start really full-on getting into it until grad school. In 2009, I went to California College of the Arts here in San Francisco, California to get my master’s. It’s a thesis program. So, I knew I wanted to do something sort of future-oriented, but I didn’t know what or how. I was a UI designer at the time.
I started doing a lot of research and ran into Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby’s work out of the Royal College of Art in London. And they were practicing this form of design called critical design, also called speculative and critical design. I was just blown away by the projects that were coming out of that school and their program, designing interactions because it looked nothing like the design that I had been experiencing or practicing.
I was doing websites and UIs and stuff. And these were both physical objects and digital, but really looking at the future and how design plays a role in the future. And not just like what those products look like, but incorporating things like ethics and new behaviors and new technologies, and all sorts of things that could really shape these really interesting and compelling and weird products. It was just like the design as I’d never seen it before.
I felt this is an opportunity to really explore a different type of design, as well as incorporating both provocative approaches and thinking about other responsible practices like ethics and policies, and that kind of stuff.
Douglas: It’s really interesting to hear ethics be a part of what’s referred to as kind of future initiatives or future thinking. I’d love to hear your thoughts on that. Because what emerges from me is the fact that wow, shouldn’t have ethics be a part of everything from the get-go? Why is this a future thing?
Phil: Yeah. Sometimes ethics are sort of, and this might be controversial, is ethics are sort of a social construct, right? We decide what is ethical or not and what we believe in and what we agree is ethical or not over time. As society evolves, our morals and values change. That can change over time. Centuries ago, torture was ethical under the flag of Christianity. But yeah, I think the great thing about speculative and critical design is it proposes ideas that allow you to ask more questions, and you could do this through design objects, experiences, storyboards, videos, whatever it might be.
But once you propose this object and ask, what if this existed? Should we do it? Why or why not? Or should we not do it? Is it the future we want or don’t want? That’s what’s so important about actually doing these exercises because you can start to ask all those multiple types of questions and really bring ethics to the forefront. I mean, also feasibility, and is this actually necessary for the world? Is it necessary for human behavior? Are we asking all the right questions around how the type of behaviors that could emerge, and are we prepared for the type of negative threatening behaviors that could emerge as well? And can, and should we prepared for that today?
Douglas: I really love this idea of even just taking that step back and saying, this is what’s going to manifest if we make this thing, is this a world that I want? Is this a scenario I want? It seems like a healthy place to be, but often teams are so busy trying to make the next thing that they don’t take the time to think, is this right? Do I want this?
Phil: Ah, therein lies the problem, right? We are constantly rushing to throw something over the fence. We find something shiny and interesting, emerging technologies and ideas, and we so badly want to make it work and make money off of it and provide value that we don’t necessarily always go through the rigorous exercise of thinking about like, what happens actually if this thing exists? And exists for the next two to five years, how does it evolve? How should it evolve? How could it evolve? And what are the implications there?
I mean, we’re not completely absent of that thinking. There are a lot of people who are thinking about implications. Product management is. Designers sometimes are just executing, but we have, there are tools available through this futures thinking toolkit that allow us to more structurally do that work and think about it.
Douglas: One thing that comes to mind for me is every new technology or every emerging technology has the power to shift ethics and shift what it means to be accessible. In my mind, a great example of this is VR. What if, as more and more people get headsets, we make a discovery that, oh, wow, there’s 10% of people have this weird neurodiversity where they struggle with these devices? And we knew that until we really took it to market. Something we haven’t even discovered yet. Now we have this ethical dilemma of, how do we handle this accessibility as this new norm starts to emerge?
Phil: That’s right. By using these frameworks methodologies and just taking the time, and building that into our policy as designers that, hey, we’ve got this thing that could be potentially powerful. Let’s actually assign some real time to think about the ethical implications, the implications on the disabled, the type of behavioral patterns that could emerge. Let’s do that work. Not all of it is necessary to address right now because we don’t always know, but there are some things that will emerge that will be like, okay, yeah, that’s an actual real issue that could happen. And we maybe we’ve seen it in the field before, and what would we do?
Douglas: Yeah. Some of it may be prescient. We know it’s right around the corner.
Phil: Right. Yeah. I like to compare a lot of this work to what I did at General Electric. I used to work for GE Aviation, the aviation business unit which is responsible for building jet engines. When we build a jet engine, it takes about 10 years to roll off the assembly line from concept to deployment. But we put those engines into such rigorous testing because they are critical for the aircraft to stay afloat, right? Using physics, of course.
But we put them through test cells and we throw every single thing we can think of at it, like chickens, frozen chickens, rocks, ice, snow, water, everything we can to see how we could break. And if it does break, what happens to it? If we could treat everything, I mean, we don’t have to spend millions of dollars on test cells for everything, but there are some technologies or platforms that are critical and could be life-saving or life-harming, that we should put it through this rigorous testing to make sure that, okay, this is okay to put it into the world. This is okay to expose and provide access to this group of people.
And we’re prepared for what’s going to happen. We’re prepared for these potential things, whether it’s in a policy perspective or it’s some sort of feature perspective, we know we’ve done that work.
Douglas: It’s really fascinating. It makes me think about how there are certain things that we may be creating, whether it’s products or services that are clearly going to have a high-risk factor. If we’re talking about putting humans in a giant hunk of metal and hurling through the air at high speeds. Okay, yeah. Everyone can agree that there’s a high risk and we should probably test that rigorously. But there are some things that the risk doesn’t become apparent until the damage is done, or that like screen time, and social media, and some of these things that we’re even noticing some of the issues there, were those easy to anticipate? And how do we get around some of these issues that are hard to see into the future?
Phil: Yeah. And there will always be surprises. I mean, even if you’re a really well-seasoned practitioner or futures and doing all the work, there’s always going to be some surprise. But we do know from human history, and futures are just based on basically the present and the past, because that’s all we have. We don’t actually have a telephone into the future. There are lots of things that we can anticipate. And we learn along the way, there are lots of models we can look at to see if like, okay, this could happen. There’s a lot of bad acting people in the world, or bad behaviors, both from users and from products that could affect us.
Herein lies another problem, and who’s actually driving the decision-making here? Because sometimes it’s all about getting the thing out the door, making the money, and this whole idea of like, okay, let’s just throw it out and test it. And if it breaks, we fix it. Okay, that’s fine to get some really good immediate feedback, but don’t be throwing something out into the world where there could be a real critical danger and you haven’t thought about it, because if that danger happens, you’re screwed, right?
Douglas: Mm-hmm (affirmative). What I’m hearing makes me think about this notion of just being multidisciplinary and how it sounds like having an anthropology background or understanding, psychology, behavioral economics, and I can imagine tons of fields that could be really valuable to be thinking through some of the histories that we may want to avoid. I’m curious, are there mechanisms that are in place to invite that way of thinking or this multidisciplinary approach?
Phil: Oh, absolutely. I mean, just like design is, it’s nice to have someone who is an expert in social behavior, right? Anthropologists, historians, scientists are great UX designers, are great UX researchers. There’s no real difference in futures thinking. I think one of the myths that we’re trying to dispel is that futures thinking is not this whole other or body of practice like service design isn’t a whole other body of practice. It’s still designed, it’s still systems thinking. They just have some different tools such as a service blueprint, right?
Futures thinking also some different tools. They all invite the same type of intention and requirements from who is doing it. The designer should be asking broader questions. They should be inclusive of different expertise so as to try and get the right information. Sometimes as a designer, you’re sort of tasked to do that all on your own.
Douglas: That’s a great point. What’s your advice for a team that may only be a few designers or maybe the lone designer that’s on a team that might want to start incorporating some of this stuff into the practice? I mean, earlier you talked about slowing down, just making space for it, but are there any other ways that they might make this maybe more approachable for the rest of the organization, or at least sprinkle it in, in some meaningful ways?
Phil: Yeah. I mean, I would first start by just going and looking up a few talks and stuff, and not to promote my own stuff here, my organizations and stuff, but we have a conference called PRIMER, and a lot of our talks are online, but there’s also a lot of other futures conferences that post their talks. Go and see what other people are doing and get inspired around the type of level of skill that you need and what you want to involve yourself.
You might be more interested in the speculative design part and not so much in the foresight part, like looking at trends and research and all that stuff. That’s one place to go. There are lots of books, and I can share with you a list of the ones that I’ve been promoting. And there’s training out there. There’s not a lot. It’s starting to increase now as futures is getting more popular, but you can go and take a foresight class from the University of Houston, from the Institute for the Future, from Hedge the Future School. And you can actually get certified in this stuff. I don’t know if that’s useful for you in your resume.
But that’ll teach you sort of the analytical approach. I hate to use the word analytical because I kind of box it in, but that’ll teach you foresight, and how to get the information and use it to create the world you want to design in. Then there’s also speculative design courses that you can take. And these are … You can take them at a university, if you want to go back to school, or you can take these sort of bootcamp classes that are just like a day or three days long and learn about it that way.
But there are lots of different ways to start practicing it and bring it … I’m working on a book right now on how to make futures work. Lots of different ways you can start doing this in your organization or personally. You can start to sort of evangelize it yourself, bringing in next your own speaker and to talk about it, sharing stuff on slack, and getting other people interested in what it is.
But again, the other myth to dispel is that futures only works in the far future, and that’s why sometimes people don’t really invest. That’s the uphill battle we’re fighting. You can take these tools, once you figure out what the methodologies are, you can take them and put them into your practice, such as like the futures wheel, which is an implication mapping diagram. You can take that into any project today. You can actually use it to map out your trip to the grocery store, if you want to.
It doesn’t have to be this other futures practice. It’s just a tool, and you can use it right away. If people are interested, you can be like, “Look, this is part of a much greater toolset for thinking about the future, and we can help you with this stuff. And it’s a strategic approach.
Douglas: That’s really cool. Yeah. It’s just taking a simple tool, maybe not even making a big to-do about what it’s called or what it is or what framework it’s in, and just bringing it in when it’s needed. If people start asking questions, then that opens the door for a bigger conversation.
Phil: Yeah. Typically, you have to be cautious and know your culture know your culture’s vocabulary. When I first started to integrate this stuff at GE, I never called it speculative design or futuring. We just called it strategy and vision. We’re just going to do a design thinking workshop and we’re going to do the strategy and vision for the next two years of your software platform. Slowly would smuggle in these exercises and be like, okay, and what about this? What about this? What if this happened? What if this was in the world? Do you want this?
Well, people don’t really realize it’s a very practical approach. We go and develop software that plans out for the next year or two, and you can use the same tools to do the same thing, except for you have much richer datasets, you have richer visualizations and narratives, and it’s a lot, I don’t know, more fun and immersive to it this way.
Douglas: Yeah. That’s cool. Yeah, I think that comes up often in for quite a few of the listeners, this idea of having to run a strategic workshop or strategic planning of some sort. It definitely strikes me as the perfect time to insert these things, or smuggle them into, as you were saying.
Phil: Yeah. Sometimes we even call the workshop, the future of X company, or the future of work for X company. That also gives it this really imaginative, creative, playful space. Gets people excited about, oh, it’s the future of our organization. We’ve been invited to create the future. And setting up that space early, you don’t have to tell them about the tools, design fiction, all that stuff. You’re just saying like, this is a visionary workshop. And we are here to think about the future of our industry, our business, blah, blah, blah. And it should start igniting that excitement hopefully.
Douglas: Absolutely. I was really curious, you mentioned speculative design versus foresight, and I think you were maybe saying that foresight was kind of the analytical stuff, even though you’re a little bit worried about pigeonholing it with that name, but how would you delineate speculative design versus kind of foresight?
Phil: Well, when I explain it, I try to think of it in three different phases of futuring work. Strategic foresight, is a pretty mature field. You can go and take classes on this stuff in business school. It has a set of methodologies for taking intelligence from trends, different types of trends we’re seeing in the world, all the drivers that create those trends, talking to people and experts, getting all that information, and using prioritization tools to prioritize them, and then doing scenarios. Building scenarios of what the future could be.
I like to pair up scenario design, or scenario building, with world-building. We are using those terms interchangeably these days. World building, comes from science fiction authoring. When you’re reading a fictional book, they build the world around you, right? You start off and they tell you who the characters are, the laws, the rules, the history, all that stuff. That’s what you can do with this stuff. You can use this intelligence to create different scenarios, different worlds that could happen.
There’s a pandemic world, there’s a non-pandemic world. There’s something in the middle. There’s a transformational world where everything’s great, utopic. And there’s a collapsed world where everything starts to fall apart, systems fall apart, everything fails. Once you have those worlds and you know the conditions within those worlds, looking at both social, technological, economical, environmental, political, policy, all that stuff, you can use the design aspect, this is phase two, the speculative design aspect, to start to design products and services and understand users and markets in those worlds based on what you know already.
You’re never going to have all the information, but working with your client, or whatever the project is you prioritize, what information you want to use to craft that environment. Then that’s where we create all these future products and services or platforms, whatever it might be. The third phase, which is the most important is strategy. You do all this work by painting out the vision of what this new world’s going to be. You collaborate on what the vision is that you want. Hopefully, it’s like the place you want to go, and you use strategy, which is business as usual on how you’re going to get there.
You plot out the next two, five years, how it might be, and you can use something called back casting, where you basically put that goal in the future and your back cast into the present, and say, what’s necessary for this thing to happen, for this thing to come to life? We need people, we need infrastructure, we need to learn more about this emerging technology, all that stuff. You plan that roadmap there. That’s basically it. We’ve been doing this for a long time, except for we’ve only been doing it in a short term. We can start planning much further.
Douglas: Wow. The back casting stuff sounds super familiar. I think I’ve run into it a few times. It’s also similar in the … For all the learning development folks, it’s similar to backward design, right? Where we want to look at our outcome and think about how we get our students to that outcome. So, if we’re looking at that future, then how do we think about moving from that? What is that next near future, the next near future, etc?
Phil: Exactly. Yeah, exactly the same thing.
Douglas: Another thing that I’ve seen from your work, is I think you’re the first that turned me onto this word, and then, of course, it brought back lots of memories of examples of this. I just never knew what it was called, and it was design fiction. The videos or movies of this is where 3M is going to be in 20 years, or whatever. The specific memory I have was you playing a video, I think it was Apple. It was right when the Newton came out or right before it came out. They were basically showing what you could actually draw a line to is now a Siri. It’s really fascinating looking at it in the old ones because you can look and go, how much of that did they get right versus how much was this totally off the mark?
Phil: Yeah. They’re almost there, right? The Apple Knowledge Navigator video, which you’re referring to was created by Hugh Dubberly, who was a designer at Apple in ’87, I think, and John Sculley was the CEO. What they wanted to do was basically create a video for a marketing conference, showcasing emerging technology, and so they crafted this story, built this prototype, and had this seven-minute video of a professor collaborating with someone across the world on stuff. The only thing that hasn’t come true out of that video is the … Well, not for Apple, it’s just the folding touchscreen tablet.
Samsung kind of beat them to that. I mean, we don’t know if the folding part is so necessary, but they did make all that happen. I don’t think that the designers over the last 40 years or so have been looking at the navigator and saying, this is the thing we want to build, but we do know that it sparked a lot of interest and it channeled a lot of intelligence into the organization, and it became sort of a goal of some sort. Maybe not a constant one, but the inspiration for future designers there.
The fiction part, so I’m not going to get into the nuances about the difference between the terminology, but a design fiction is any sort of fictional thing that you create. And most design fiction projects usually are prototypes, functional prototypes. You put it in someone’s hands and make them believe it’s real. They’re in the future and this thing exists, and they use it as a prototyping research tool. If you released the Apple video into the world and said, this is real, when it wasn’t and got feedback from it, that also would’ve been operating as a design fiction vehicle as well.
Douglas: I see. So, the fact that it’s the slide of the hand of like, hey, this thing, this is a really new thing that we created is what makes a design fiction.
Douglas: In a lot of ways, it’s what we used to call vaporware.
Phil: Yeah. That’s true. And a very powerful tool. If you don’t know if it’s real or not, you can really get some good feedback around, is this the thing we want or don’t want? What’s wrong with it? what’s good about it? And give you some intelligence on like, okay, this is the thing we want to build or not build.
Douglas: Exactly. Wow. Really cool. I want to come back, you mentioned your conference in passing, PRIMER, when is that coming up again?
Phil: Well, since the pandemic, we’ve gone fully online. I’m praying for the day that we can go back in in-person. This year, it’s going to be … We usually do it around the summertime, around June, July, but this year we’re going to push it out to August because I think a lot of people are burnout on Zoom conferences. We saw our numbers drop quite drastically last year. And a lot of the team has been kind of stifled by the pandemic. So, we’re pushing it out. We’re going to have a lot more time to plan it.
Douglas: Excellent. Well, hopefully, August gives you enough time to reboot and people are excited and come and renewed and have lots of cool things to say. Are there any developments since you’ve had the last one that you’re excited to highlight and thematically push on to the next conference?
Phil: Well, we’ve always really tried to curate the arc of the conference by inviting everyone from the futures fields. Because Strategic Foresight had its own community, spec of design, design fiction, academia has their own community of people. We’re going to invite everyone there. So, you’re going to be able to see everything from very conceptual, artistic, critical design, very just provoking projects. Artists who are doing this work, to people who are sort of doing it in the middle and practically practicing it in corporate environments, such as GEHI and Lufthansa.
So, you get a full range of the wideness of futuring and how different it can be in different settings. But the great thing is, is now we have more people working in corporate environments who are showing what they’re doing and making it work. Last year, we did something new. Typically, we have the PRIMER team, the internal team who’s selecting. We do a call for speakers and then we select those talks, and then we create the arc ourselves. Last year, because we have this global community, we have over 80 chapters around the world right now, and still growing.
We asked each region to curate the program. So, all the submissions came in, and then those were distributed amongst the regions and they were able to pick. So, we had better representation and plus involvement from community leaders to feel like they’re invested in the program. That felt like more of a family, like a global family curated event than before. I think I love that idea. Again, plus being online, our access was just increased. I think the first year during the pandemic when we went online, we had like 900 people who had signed up. Not all of those people came and were engaged, but we had the most amount of people who were interested than ever before. So, I think staying online is going to be great.
Douglas: Yeah, absolutely. It’s definitely … That’s one thing we notice with our communities is that it just exposed a global audience, just opened things up in a big way. Of course, time zones are still a challenge, but accessibility just went through the roof because people didn’t have to take off time from work and fly and all these things.
Phil: Yeah. And you can’t really argue that point. I know everyone wants to go back to in-person, but Jesus, like accessibility is just great. We have to continue to do this, whether the pandemic is here or not. I see that hybrid’s going to be the next step where we’re doing both. I went to … Oh yeah, you guys did that meeting the other day, which I thought was amazing, and we’re still learning more about how to make that work effectively and inspiring. I’m excited about that opportunity as well to shape that new model.
Douglas: Yeah, that brings me back to another point that I was thinking about earlier, a nice to segue into VR. When you were talking about world-building, I couldn’t help, but my brain went to VR because we were just, the other week, in there doing world-building around, what is the future of facilitation? We were quite literally like building worlds to simulate the environment. I mean, that’s what VR is about. Then I had a moment or a little meta moment where I was thinking about, oh wow, the futures is about creating a world or a little container to do an experiment, engaging in some thoughts around, what if? What if creating a container in VR allowed us to frame our thinking? So that when we went in there, we were kind of surrounded by this potential world that we were considering. So, our conversations would kind of be imbued with that. Curious to hear your thoughts on that.
Phil: Yeah. I mean, the beauty about VR being a completely different world is we could create it. I think it’s really interesting because it, I mean, it’s expected that we would try to create our world in VR, but the rules are different. I’m looking forward to when new worlds are created, don’t mimic the real world. How do we have a workshop that doesn’t look like a workshop in virtual space? Where we use this virtual space and take advantage of all the features and capabilities of being there and breaking the rules of physics and how we actually engage and document things and the type of exercise we do.
I’m looking forward to how that expands itself. But with the metaverse coming, I still believe, and I’m not sure if people agree and disagree, that metaverse still has about a decade to really be matured. Augmented reality might come first. So, that’s another sort of in-between world, where we can start to create new interim worlds. I think that’s going to be a fun thing to start playing with as well. But I think like you said, building new worlds means building a lot of different rules and laws and policies, and those are the things we have to watch out for as we do that.
Douglas: Yeah, absolutely. I agree with you. I think mainstream adoption of this stuff and designing for customers, and big use cases probably weigh off. The epiphany I was just having was using it as an internal design tool. So, we almost create a room for ourselves to go into that’s kind of decorated with this landscape that we want to consider. So, when we go in there, we’re inundated or surrounded by these considerations, and so it helps like prime our thinking maybe.
Phil: Yeah. Back at GE, we had a holo deck, where we basically had a room that was built that was circular. We were doing VR, but that was in a different space, and we would take this like customized GoPro, 360 GoPro and plant it out in the middle of a train yard, or an aviation facility, or whatever, and then project that around it so that our designers could see what it’s actually like to be in that world so that we can design better for those users in that context. I see that kind of thing also happening with VR too, where we don’t have to imagine what it’s like to be a user or a community working in this environment.
We can put that environment in and we can walk around in it and actually prototype live in it. We don’t have to do it in a separate workspace. I think that would be really interesting.
Douglas: Yeah, for sure. It’s gotten me thinking big time, to your point a moment ago, around defining, not just creating a facilitation room that we go into. What they created for the conference was two different worlds, but I think the thing that excited me the most was a lazy river of reflection. It was modeled after Rose, Thorn, and Bud. So, the river was in three different sections. Instead of having a timer that’s going off, this mechanical thing that’s just glaring at you like, oh, you’re running out of time.
It’s more about how the environment’s unfolding. Like, how far along the river are we? Which blew my mind open around, wow when you go into this kind of other spaces, you can think about other mechanics that allow us to know how far we’ve gone and how much time we have left. It’s a really interesting thing to ponder.
Phil Balagtas: Yeah. I love that. I love that feature that you guys had. I loved your [inaudible 00:30:48] by the way, too. Yeah, and how we’ve transformed along the way. It’s an actual journey. I love that you guys are thinking about that. That’s what I mean by designing the arc of the conference. These conferences have a lot of opportunities to be more experiential and immersive, and there are a lot of challenges with being online. I’m always looking for like, what are people doing to take advantage of this thing that we’re in, this situation?
Who’s really being creative and innovative in this space and really trying to just like go all in and push the envelope and all that stuff? You guys did an amazing job.
Douglas: We know. I just heard a story the other day, Tony Robbins, for better or worse, Tony Robbins had a conference, and he had 800,000 people in this thing. He had his team custom build a tool so that they could have 800,000 people live cameras on at the same time.
Phil: No way.
Douglas: Because you can’t do that in Zoom or like hop in. All of the platforms have limitations. He was like, well, I’m not going to settle because I want this thing. They built it and were like, wow, that’s fascinating.
Phil: That’s awesome. Well, I didn’t know about that.
Douglas: Yeah. I don’t know a ton about the inner workings of it, but just the notion of 800,000 people on at the same time, it’s like … With cameras on, that’s something else.
Phil: Yeah. He’s really popular.
Douglas: I want to hear a little bit more about the future toolkits, or the futures toolkit, I think you called it, where can folks find this, and what are just some of the maybe bang for the buck, kind of exercises that are maybe easiest to understand if people want to dip their toe in? I mean, you mentioned the futures wheel, which I’ve used before, and I’m familiar with, but what are some others that people might try out if they’re just kind of getting their feet wet?
Phil: Yeah. There are lots of talks out there. I do a pretty decent 101 talk where I talk about some of the methodologies. If you just look at some of the older talks, I’d mentioned a couple of them in there. But the first phase of it is really something we all know most about like just talking to people, talking to people about what they think the future is going to be, asking them what trends to look out for. The trend research … This is not necessarily a framework or methodology, but being able to identify trends in the world, know how to look for them, know where to look for them, and how to categorize them. Is it a mega trend? Is it a micro-trend? Is it a fad? How is this trend actually evolving right now, and where do we see it going?
Then using, there’s sort of a two by two matrix called the probability impact matrix. You put a probability on one side and you put an impact on the other. Probability can be like the probability that this will be popular today. Or you can split probability up into like 5, 10, 20 years. And you can just plot a trend on this map and say, how impactful will it be? And when will it actually hit? So, autonomous cars is going to be a mega trend over the next 10 years. So, we’ll see it persisting over the next 10 years.
Once you have this information, you take out your slice of time of the horizon, we call it the time horizon. Let’s say we’re looking at 2030. Once we have that slice of time, we’ll know what trends are going to be the most prevalent in that area, if we’ve done good enough research. I would get very specific though. Just thinking like the future of cars is too big, but the future of radios and cars, or the future of like, I don’t know, a specific thing is usually helpful to help you prioritize it. Then there are lots of different scenarios you can build.
If you just Google, scenario archetypes, that’s one. There are a lot of good articles and videos out there. They’ll teach you what kind of scenarios you can build. Honestly, you can make them up. There’s like the utopic scenario, the dystopic scenario. Then there’s the one in between. And there’s the business as usual where nothing changes. We know that that doesn’t always happen because things change. But you can start to map out the different worlds based on these conditions. Yeah, the futures wheel is very powerful, and that’s the number one tool that I would recommend out of this entire toolkit because you can use it anywhere at any time.
A spec design doesn’t necessarily have like a double diamond really. You just have to sort of understand the conditions you’re working with. The futures wheel can give you areas that you might want to design response for. Let’s say you use the futures wheel and you find out there’s this like the third impact, third-order consequence due to the advent of autonomous cars or the advent of flying cars. That might be the one that you want to pioneer the respective design project or it’s a threat to the industry street. You might want to create a contingency plan for that.
Yeah, there are different types of design, prototyping, design fiction that you can use to create that. Some of it I can’t teach you. It’s just being creative and looking for the trends in the world that you want to respond to. The back casting is a pretty strong one for a strategy, but that’s not really hard to teach. Whatever your object or goal, the north star that you created, just put it in the future, in that time horizon in 2030, and just map it back to the present. It’s pretty simple.
But yeah, I mean, there’s a ton of different tools. There’s causal layered analysis, which is another one. There are all types of different ways you can prioritize trends and intelligence. But yeah, just Google, strategic foresight, and there are lots of articles out there that’ll teach you some of the different tools you can use. Again, you don’t have to use all these tools. You can literally just look at trends or just figure out where you want to get your data from and build a world or go directly into your respective design thing.
Douglas: I think that’s a good point. I think not enough organizations do the research or pay close enough attention to some of the emerging trends, and sit with them to think about like, what does that really mean as far as like where this could go?
Phil: Yeah. One thing I discovered, which is powerful, at a business consultancy that I worked at in the past was having data. If you’re talking about the future, even with just regular business analysts, they have a lot of data when they’re creating their PowerPoints with hockey sticks on them. They have a lot of data. So, knowing where to look at the trends, but also how to support those trends with data. So, go and look at market investment, go see who’s talking about it on TikTok. Go see what startups exist or are forming around this technology.
Go see who’s talking about it. Is it on The Verge? Is it on Wired? All that data can support the strength of that trend so that people believe it. Basically building the world is you’re building a belief system. If you haven’t supported information to make your client believe that, okay, this is the world. That’s probably going to happen because all these people are investing in it, and it looks like it’s going to be a reality. Now, you’re one step in. Now let’s think about what do we want to do in this world? How do we want to disrupt or create, or whatever it might be?
Douglas: You mentioned third-order effects a moment ago. I just want to make sure for their listeners that maybe weren’t clear on what that is, could you maybe give a little bit of detail on what you mean by third-order effects?
Phil: Sure. The futures wheel is basically a circular map. In the center, you put a trend, event, a signal, the existence of something. Let’s just say autonomous cars, the existence of autonomous cars. The first circle that you draw out from it, or the first piece of information is the first-order consequence. What’s the direct implication of autonomous cars. It can be to any degree. It can be a social implication, a cultural implication, technological implication, economic, whatever it might be. Let’s just say from behavioral user implication, the first direct implication is we don’t have to drive.
My hands don’t have to be on a wheel. The car’s going to take me to where it goes. Great. Okay, that’s the first order. The second-order, or indirect implication, is the thing that happens because of that. Because I don’t have to learn how to drive anymore and the car takes me, if I had learned how to drive before, I could forget how to drive in case there’s an emergency. If the car malfunctions, I won’t know how to properly steer the thing because I’ve forgotten it. I’ve devolved that part of my training. And you can go on so forth and so forth.
So, people forget how to drive, there are more accidents, the body count rises, all these things that can happen down the road. It’s up to you to decide how far out you go. Those orders of consequences can also go in periods of years. So, the first direct consequence that happens in the next two years, then the next five years, then the next 10 years. It depends on how you want to use your map. Then, so you might want to say like, okay, well, this is actually pretty serious. People are going to out how to drive and they’re going to give you accidents. How do we solve that now? Can we create a speculative project idea of how we might want to solve that now?
Or do we just want to say, “Hey, we’ve thought about it, and here’s the plan?” We either actually invest in that plan or we just say, “Let’s wait for it to happen, and if it does, we at least have done some of the work to actually execute on that.”
Douglas: My other question was something that I was thinking about a couple of times as we were talking, and it’s, how beneficial, or I would imagine it would be beneficial to have different categories or lenses by which you look or prompt, especially in the case of the futures wheel. I think, when I first encountered it, we were using the pestle as a mechanism to think about, what are the categories or lenses? We’ll look at these first, second, or third order, etc, of effects. Do you have any favorite different lenses or perspectives you might look, pure into the future through, to help kind of with your thinking and expose different communities or risks?
Phil: Yeah. Pestle is just a different version of STEEP. STEEP is a pretty standard one. Social technological, environmental, economic, and politics is what they use. I try to use, instead of politics, because some of these politics can be so volatile and it’s a little bit too big to handle, I use policy. What’s the policy environment we’re operating in? Do we need new policies for certain implications or do we need to modify things? And then the environment doesn’t necessarily have to be the natural environment like sustainability and nature. The environment can literally be the context.
I worked with a cleaning solution company once, and the E in the environment was, yes, we’re talking about environmentally safe chemicals, but also the kitchen. Because a lot of the users of this cleaning agent were in the kitchen. Lots of conversations happen there, the uses, the primary use there. That’s the environment part. You can also add V to the end, which is values, values, and morals. Even though social and cultural are also categories, values, within a particular time, are also important. They can change over time. Yeah, STEEP or STEEPV are the ones I typically use.
Douglas: When we spoke earlier in the pre-show chat, you mentioned that policy is an area that you are really interested in right now and you’re kind of looking into the design of the policy. I found that pretty fascinating. I would love to hear a little more about how to design futures, these tools, your work can be applied to policy, how you’re going about that.
Phil: Yeah. I have a talk that I did for IxDA’s interaction last year, which is just a short 15-minute talk, just breaching the subject, but I’ve got a longer one that I’ve been doing, and I’m going to do it again at UX New Zealand here in February. So, when we constantly think about the future, we think about future products and services. We’re just thinking about the thing, right? And maybe we’re thinking about the people and the interactions, behavior, and is this the thing we want? But rarely are we thinking about the policy environment, because every single thing that’s in the world, every product, even just to exist in a particular society, in a nation, you are surrounded and governed by policy.
Most of those policies are created by people who are not designers. They’re government officials, they’re product managers, and leadership, they’re strategists, and design of those things aren’t necessarily always thought about, nor is the idea of actually including all the voices and thinking about the implications of that policy on society, on users, customers, the public, whatever it might be. By doing some of that work, and I’m not saying that that work is not being done. Some of it is being done, but our hypothesis is that designers can be part of this process.
We can think about who are the necessary people that need to be at the table? What are the implications on these people, and is the policy being designed to recognize those implications? Because sometimes policies get through. It’s basically decided on by a small body, if you’re lucky, it’s exposed to the public. If the public actually understands what the policy is, do the language that’s used, and sometimes the language is very, very difficult and not really designed for the general public if they actually understand it, and you actually can create, provide input to shape the policy, then you’re lucky. But most of the time, it’s not. Lots of legalese, lots of fine print.
You get confused about what it is. We see this when we’re voting for certain legislations, we don’t get it. But if we can design that content so people do get it and want to engage with it, that’s one step that we can improve. Also, just the principles that we use with design of like, let’s prototype this thing in the world, let’s make sure it’s malleable and can change if necessary. Let’s think about the long-term effects of it. What does it mean for the future or future generations? And how do people interact with it? And constantly changing things, not making it set in stone. Make sure that’s malleable and can evolve.
But also those layers of interaction. We don’t think about design as like designing language, but the language of the policy is so important. That interaction layer, whether it be the terms and conditions that you agree on, the sign that you read on the restaurant that says you can’t enter here without a mask or vaccination, the product that goes out the door that doesn’t recognize people of color, the laws that are hindering real action on climate change, on diversity and inclusion, all of these things have a moment where people interact with it and they have to understand it and have to either agree or disagree, or comprehend it.
If we can design those interaction layers from the content up, so we understand it, and how we engage with it, we can understand and actually have a real opinion. That matters, not just like I’m going to skip through all this stuff and just so I can get in, and now I’m stuck within this policy environment that I can’t do something, or it could be possibly harmful to me or my brothers and sisters, maybe we’ll have stronger, more useful effective policies that govern our products in society today that we can all depend on, that we actually trust. We’re not so stupid and completely oblivious to what it is that is weaving the future of our world.
That’s what we’re looking at. We’re talking to lots of different people from public policy government to product managers, and trying to figure out, is there a framework and an initiative where we can start to apply our design principles and our sensibilities so that we can design policies better?
Douglas: Wow, so cool. Something that came up for me as I was listening was the book Flash Boys by Michael Lewis, where he was talking about high-speed trading. One of the points he made in the book was that every SEC regulation, for the most part, was created to shut down an exploit, but each, in turn, created an opportunity for the next exploit. That to me seems like got the huge opportunity when making those policies to look at those third and fourth-order effects, right? What are the exploits that might be created by this new policy?
Phil: Right. Just like products. That all thing is policy can be a product that we design, and we just need to have that sort of neutral opinion so that they’re not designed to create harm or to leverage one person’s interest more than the other, and just be fair, inclusive, and incorporate all the things that we really care about.
Douglas: So amazing. Well, we’re about to wrap up here. I just got a couple of things I want to hit before we end. The first is, what do you think the future of futures is? Where are things headed? What do you think will emerge in the discipline of futures in the next five, 10 years?
Phil: Yeah. I mean, that’s, well, I’m going to be biased here, but I really hope that people are going to be practicing futures more often. But I think what we’re seeing happening in the field is that the problem with futures being adopted so widely is because it’s always, like I said earlier, considered as this different thing and it’s too far in the future. We can’t measure return on investment. It’s just not worth our time. You’ve got to go through all this training and it’s academic, and all that stuff. I believe that design, in general, will start to incorporate more futures thinking as a strategic tool and it’ll become part of our toolkit.
There might become futurist designers in a specific role or strategic design futurists, whatever it might be, but I think that the way we’re going to make it work and make it useful is if it just becomes part of our toolkit. The design will evolve and maybe splinter out, just like it has over the last 20 years. You’ll have some specialty, people who are specialized, and groups that are specialized, but I think that it’s going to just become more normalized, I think. Why it hasn’t happened yet, well, I don’t … People are still using it, but again, it’s siloed into this very specific, customized, special thing.
That’s what we’re trying to break apart. It doesn’t have to be only for these experts. Everyone can use it, everyone should be using it. All of the good-natured things, like ethics and responsibility, the environment, all that stuff should be things we should all be thinking about all the time. As these social issues are rising to the surface globally, here’s an opportunity for us to think about all those things we really care about like climate change, and use these tools. I think, as those social issues rise, so shall our method of approaching that, and hopefully, that’ll be the case.
Douglas: Awesome. Let’s wrap here with a final thought from you to the audience.
Phil: Yeah If you’re interested in this work, go out and do the research and try to practice it and apply it. Don’t be afraid of futures thinking or be intimidated by the work or the methods or anything. It’s very easy and very practical. Again, just like any methodology, anything you bring into your practice or your organization, you should just be careful of the vocabulary and all that stuff. It’s like introducing again, like service design. Or even still today, I worked with a lot of companies that had never heard of agile or design thinking. Use the same approach for how you might want to sell it or incorporate into your practice.
And contribute to the community. Do some projects, work on it, share your work with other people so that we learn from you on how to make it work or how it doesn’t work. Be positive of it and embrace the future.
Douglas: Awesome. And how can folks find you and the talks that you mentioned today?
Phil: You can connect with me on LinkedIn if you want to have a discussion, teach me something, or just talk about stuff. I have a couple of websites. The easiest one is my name, if you can spell my name, it’s philbalagtas.com. I also have a new independent advisory and consultancy called Habitat, Designing Future Habitats, Future Worlds. That website, which is coming is onehabitat.design. We also have the Design Futures Initiative website, which is www.futures.design. We have our conference, PRIMER Conference, which is primerconference.com. Yeah, I think that’s a lot of it.
Phil: If you go to one of those websites, you’ll find other links to other places.
Douglas: Excellent. Well make sure to get those links in the show notes, and I’ll follow up with those book recommendations too. Maybe we’ll get those in the show notes so folks can learn more about futures, maybe check out the conference, get engaged, and start incorporating this in their work.
Phil: Yeah. Thank you.
Douglas: Thanks for being on the show, Phil.
Phil: Thank you, Douglas. Thanks, everyone.
Douglas: Thanks for joining me for another episode of Control The Room. Don’t forget to subscribe to receive updates when new episodes are released. And if you want more, head over to our blog, where I post weekly articles and resources about working better together, voltagecontrol.com.