In our current era, we find ourselves, often unknowingly, at the forefront of sweeping changes that challenge long-held certainties. The realm of design and business decision-making now contemplates futures with increasingly ambiguous and indefinite boundaries, rendering forecasts ever more unreliable due to the unstable scenarios they rely upon.

We encounter VUCA contexts (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity), as identified in futures studies, complicating the process of making firm decisions. Change accelerates and destabilizes (Volatility), making the outcomes of transformations unpredictable (Uncertainty). The roots of change involve a myriad of complex, interconnected systems (Complexity), leading to varied interpretations (Ambiguity). Navigating a VUCA world successfully remains a critical question.

This may seem paradoxical, but it only does if we fail to break free from traditional patterns. In the era of digital transformation, where data gathering and analysis grow increasingly precise and efficient, forecasting the short term becomes simpler. Yet, as we look further into medium and long-term horizons, complexities expand, particularly when moving beyond the realm of accumulating and archiving reliably and objectively described data.

The Covid-19 pandemic starkly showed that unforeseen events could completely overturn predictions. Despite precedents in history, and science fiction often envisioning such scenarios, this significant event was grossly underestimated in forecasting efforts.

Companies and public institutions, when making decisions, increasingly need to consider both short and long-term impacts, employing a human-centric approach to evaluate effects on the socio-economic system and define the demands to meet.

Designers and decision-makers are now more than ever required to factor in long-term dynamics, striving to preempt change and protect their strategies from predetermined paths. The aim is not to predict an unpredictable future but to assess and identify potential future scenarios, regardless of their eventual realization.

The push to anticipate change underpins the growing incorporation of visionary tools like design thinking and futures thinking into corporate innovation strategies. Understanding their differences helps determine their appropriate use and the common criteria for their adoption in business, highlighting their synergy.

Futures thinking vs Design thinking

Choosing between design thinking and futures thinking isn’t necessary; these disciplines, though seemingly at odds, complement each other perfectly. Design thinking focuses on creative problem-solving for human-centric issues, often aligning with business goals, whereas futures thinking seeks to uncover and explore potential future challenges.

Design thinking

Design thinking is a human-centric innovation approach that combines people’s needs, technological capabilities, and business requirements to foster success. It diverges from traditional problem-solving by adopting a human-centered design focus, keenly observing and understanding customer needs to address them effectively.

This approach departs from linear design processes, favoring a cyclical five-step method: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test. It aims to tackle all facets of a potential issue, considering contextual and cultural elements. Its human-centric outlook has broadened design thinking’s applicability beyond product or service development to address a variety of business needs.

Design thinking has evolved into a versatile creative problem-solving practice, transcending its origins in product design. It engages stakeholders across disciplines, leveraging their diverse skills to address end-user requirements comprehensively.

This paradigm shift has expanded design thinking’s relevance, making its strategies and techniques valuable across business sizes and sectors. It aims to form cross-functional teams that deeply understand a problem’s context to deliver effective solutions, aligning with user needs and business objectives.

The 5 Stages of the Design Thinking Process [source: Stanford d.school]
The 5 Stages of the Design Thinking Process [source: Stanford d.school]

Futures Thinking

Despite their similar suffixes, design thinking and futures thinking may seem distinct upon individual examination. Futures thinking, unlike design thinking, emerges from traditional futures studies. It leverages structured approaches to envision and probe alternative futures, thereby generating value for businesses and public institutions implementing its methods.

Futures thinking applies strategic foresight to explore “What could happen?” diverging from the predictive nature of “What will happen?” seen in traditional forecasting. It helps organizations envisage and frame medium to long-term scenarios, over 10 to 50 years, facilitating more informed present-day decisions.

Choosing the Right Approach

The explanations provided clarify the decision-making process for selecting a methodology to meet specific business goals. Design thinking suits short-term, creative problem-solving for well-defined issues, while futures thinking is optimal for anticipating change and crafting long-term business scenarios, designed precisely for these aims.

This view, though fitting for many cases, might oversimplify the complex and evolving challenges of today’s business landscapes. The evolving complexity of human-centric design challenges, referenced by design thinking, demands solutions beyond immediate needs.

Limiting focus to current demands may yield soon-to-be obsolete solutions. Today’s design demands a longer-term outlook, acknowledging the increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) world.

Incorporating futures thinking into design thinking enriches it with a vital tool for informed, resilient decision-making for the future, enhancing adaptability to previously explored alternative scenarios.

Design Thinking and Futures Thinking: Uniting to Shape the Desired Future

Businesses are increasingly adopting futures thinking practices to future-proof design thinking’s practicality, driven by the natural synergy between these disciplines.

Futures thinking offers an open, innovative approach to problem identification, unbound by historical contexts, and focuses on exploring alternative futures a decade ahead. This foresight encourages evaluations beyond current feasibility, promoting innovative solutions.

Australian futurist Joseph Voros highlights this with the iconic Moon landing narrative. In 1961, President Kennedy’s ambitious goal for the U.S. to land on the Moon lacked the necessary technology, embodying a future vision not immediately achievable. Despite public skepticism and seen failures, this vision, realized with Apollo 11’s Moon landing in 1969, became a monumental human achievement, illustrating the power of transcending conventional thinking for groundbreaking innovation.

Futures thinking is essential for surpassing traditional thought patterns, offering significant insights for innovation. In business, anticipating future markets presents unparalleled opportunities. The integration of futures thinking with design thinking enhances innovation processes, ensuring comprehensive support across all phases.

Innovating Beyond Design and Futures Thinking: A Mindset for Innovation

In the realm of business, decision-making often involves navigating through short and long-term scenarios, effectively addressed by blending design thinking and futures thinking. Practical design tools turn abstract future visions into tangible simulations and prototypes, offering clear functionality to stakeholders. This synthesis of design and foresight cultivates a mindset prepared to explore all alternatives, fostering an innovative approach to potential future challenges.

Furthermore, combining these methodologies encourages a dynamic view of change, portraying people, products, services, and organizations as parts of an ever-evolving system. This integrated perspective deepens the understanding of change’s effects across social, technological, political, and economic dimensions, emphasizing the need for non-linear thinking.

Integrating futures thinking with design methodologies significantly enhances innovation, presenting varied perspectives and approaches.

Future scenarios improve stakeholder communication, allowing for a comprehensive grasp of change dynamics without requiring expert knowledge. This enhanced communication boosts internal collaboration and deepens customer engagement, enriching the customer journey. Additionally, simulating change helps predict user responses to solutions and forecast market demand, offering a strategic edge. This approach enables resilient decision-making across potential short, medium, and long-term scenario variations, increasing preparedness for unpredictable events in the future landscape.

Written by:

Nicoletta Boldrini

Futures & Foresight Director | Direttrice Responsabile Tech4Future Read articles Look at the Linkedin profile