“Futures Meets Design: How Designers are Using Foresight”

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Hello and welcome back to the Dr. Nilda business foresight strategies show. I have with me my guest host which is Rachel. I have a very special guest coming all the way from Melbourne, Australia. Hello Bridget.

Hi and thanks for having me.

Thanks for being here. I just can’t believe you’ve taken the time for us because you’re really far. I know you guys are quite a few hours ahead of us and so this is a big but I really appreciate this. But, you bring so much worth to the audience that I just can’t help but beg.

It’s a pleasure to be here. The time zone actually works out better than other parts of the world.

Bridget Engler is Course Director for the Master of Design at the Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia. She lectures in strategic foresight, design strategy and management, design thinking, and creativity and innovation. Engeler’s passion for her field led her to become a Board Member of the Association of Professional Futurists. She is currently a Ph.D. candidate in strategic foresight and her research focus is anticipatory thinking in society, technology, and culture. I love it. Welcome Bridget. How are you?

Good, thank you. Thank you very much for having me this afternoon this evening.

It’s morning here. Thank you so much. My first question to you is what attracted you to foresight?

Well you could say that it was the Thorin MBA. I decided that an MBA just had too many Excel spreadsheets and numbers to really keep me interested. Like the number of units that are required. But, it was actually I think a more organic process but also a more intuitive process. I’ve been working in brand strategy and design for 15 or something years. And I was working in strategy. I was working in verbal identity and I wanted to do something else. I had an undergraduate degree and 1st graduate degree that I was working with on a day to day basis. I kept seeing things just cropping around the edges. So, what I realize now is that I was seeing what signals to me as a futurist. I started exploring what was out there and it led me to a discussion with a colleague who was working at a large beverage company at the time. We had a chat about some work that he was doing. We had a chat about a brief that I was working on for a new product they were developing. He talked me through the evolution of the brief as part of, I suppose, as part of as the result of a foresight process. I thought this has got to be something. This is interesting. I then met a couple of other people and I thought oh this keeps coming back to me. I took myself to Swinburne and found myself a few months later enrolled in masters of strategic foresight. What I also learned later is that for some futurists they look for a three hit. Once you have something it hits you or is put in front of you three times it’s no longer a weak signal this is something you need to notice. So, I enrolled in the program and found myself in a space where I felt extremely comfortable but also sitting on the edge. It was something in there that was new and interesting. There was something there that felt really familiar and there was something there that really challenged me. But I figured I was probably in the right thing and now I’m teaching.

That’s a wonderful story. I love that story and I loved the fact that it was sort of haphazard although it wasn’t. It was divine intervention. Although you didn’t know it because it’s sort of how it happened for me it was divine intervention. I was looking for an MBA and sat down with the Dean. I sat down with the Dean of the school who as I was telling him what I wanted to do and where I wanted to go said you are the perfect candidate for foresight strategies. And I was like what is that. And before I knew it I was involved in a program that I have to tell you has forever changed my life because I’m so fascinated by futures and by all the potential. Just being able to see the world from that broad perspective. I just can’t get enough of it.

I found myself sitting in meetings talking about brands that were going to the market for a few months or had a shorter lifespan. I kept thinking about the consequences of that and not just from well this is a child product or an innovation. And then we want to see what happens with that this could lead to a bigger project with a brand. But it was that what are we using to understand how a brand might emerge in a market? And what does that brand scape look like five years out. I was just looking for something more and felt that the other programs I was looking at for education weren’t going to give it to me. Just a whole lot of things came together it was serendipitous. Then it was kind of intuitive. But, now that I look at it I can see that there actually was a path I was following and I ended up in the right space. This I think also goes back to future isn’t predetermined. There is no one future. I could have done an MBA. I could have done everything else entirely. I could have gone and taken a job at a design agency rather than running it. I could have done a whole load of things instead I made a choice and it took me on a path which feels right and feels comfortable. I really enjoy it and I love my work. I love teaching. I love doing the industry work I do and I love research. I’ve ended up in the right space for the moment anyway.

Because even that will evolve.

A PhD is one of those evolving things. What’s a PhD got to do with research and industry work and what’s a PhD going to do to support industry collaboration or a work outside? I think the depth of knowledge and the rigor that comes with that level of study and exploration means that it’s valued with industry and business. It’s not just an academic piece. It’s not just a bit of work that you produce and grow all that now I checked the PhD box. But there’s actually a lot of skill and knowledge that goes into a PhD. And I’m not talking about me. I’m talking about the process of a PhD.

Exactly the processes. Its vigorous and yet fascinating.

My question is what is the connection between futures thinking and design? I can see how you were going for your MBA and then you kind of changed to adding futures thinking to design. I kind of see it but what is the connection? To me I see futures thinking as almost like another way to create.

I think the connections back to design that design manifests in something whether it be a product or a service or a brand or an organization design. It manifests in some kind of tangible or intangible outcome or service or product or work or whatever. And futures are the creation of futures to come. I think that is a really obvious connection. For me there was that I want to say disconnection or the disconnect but a little bit of interesting tension. That friction between design and foresight which meant that we’re often talking about designing things for long term but actually not really for the long term. So, long term was a couple of years or maybe six months or maybe five to ten years for a business strategy. But, those things have longevity. And the more I kept saying to smaller organizations small businesses or startups or not-for-profit that were still relatively small by my number or by an activity that every big brand started small. I kept thinking of what did Coca Cola think about when it was a small brand? Did they actually use it? I know they use foresight within their organization now. But what are we designing and what is the lifespan of that? What are the consequences of that? I also felt a little bit of dissatisfaction not with design thinking as I think design thinking is a great process and it’s a great set of tools and it can be deployed really well in organizations for lots of different things. But, I felt that there was a bit missing from design thinking as a process or a typical innovation or creative process in an organization. Where there wasn’t a lot of attention to the longer time span. So, we might have an immediacy around delivering innovation or a new product or service or getting something into the market. But that foresight wasn’t always thought through. Even though there were so many different voices and so many different perspectives brought into a process it still felt it was a bit lacking. And then I think I saw a lot of emergent conversations around design thinking being a way to create better futures. And absolutely it is. But if the foresight piece isn’t there if the futures thinking and the futures tools aren’t within that process or part of that process or the foresight work hasn’t been done before that design thinking begins to take place it’s an opportunity lost. It’s an opportunity to think 25 50 years out. It’s an opportunity to bring different realities and different perspectives into a process that is really well understood and really well known mostly. For me there was just a wall. It isn’t the thing. Design thinking is not this global panacea. It’s not the pill that we can take and expect everything to be fixed. I think it felt like there was a little bit missing being around that. So, there’s a connection a clear connection in the sense designers bring stuff to life. So, they get stuff out of people’s heads and put it in in front of you. They get to use the phrase get it off the whiteboard and into the marketplace. That’s phenomenal I can’t do the work I do without equal to bring stuff to life. What I carry in my head is my imagination I’m not a designer. I struggle with anything more than a stick figure or a word document. I think that the other thing that there is this connection between the imagination and those futures that can be envisioned and actually making them happen.

What are the challenges in teaching foresight?

I think it’s the opening up of mind. And the challenges are around the methods and tools. Asking people to think 25 50 years out when we often have trouble thinking about what we’re doing next week. But then some of the language of course that can be obscure. It can be obtuse. And we live in a world that tends to prioritize and privilege certainty and guarantee and knowing over uncertainty and immergence and trusting that what you are doing will bring about a result. I actually think that’s where there is another link to the design process because as a client you brief the designer to do something and you have no real idea of what they’re going to produce until it gets produced. There’s a lot of emergent properties around the design process. There’s a lot of iterations. Same with foresight you don’t know what it’s going to be until you get there and that is kind of tricky. Then this just the challenges of more processes more tools. I sat in many conversations with Joe Varas and Peter Hayward where it was another day another model. But today here’s a model use that if it serves you great if it doesn’t will there be something else. I think it’s event depends on who’s in the room and what interests they have in thinking longer-term. I think everyone has the capacity to be a futures thinker.

Because it’s really imaginative. I would feel comfortable saying that Walt Disney was a futurist because he had this imagination and he saw the future. He was able to develop things today that are going to be future centric. So, he always had that. He was always so many steps ahead of everyone else. I think that it’s fair to say that he was a futurist. He was a futures thinker. Then he coupled that with design imagine. I would agree that although there’s a lot of uncertainty you have this opportunity to imagine all of the possibilities. But isn’t that how things have happened? Isn’t that how Google, isn’t that how Facebook, isn’t that how all of these people have made things happen? It’s been an imagination. It never existed before.

We often as people have imagined things that we might find useful or could be interesting. But we don’t bring them to play. We don’t actually create them. We don’t make them real in our lives. And designers do that. We didn’t ask for the internet. We didn’t ask for electric vehicles. They were depictions of alternative ways of communicating of ways of their alternate ways of doing business alternative ways of transport. We need these images of alternative in order to prompt us into thinking. And it then is down to the individual to decide you know do we want that? Is that actually a good thing for us? that want presented so many different futures in the work that he led. It’s nice to see that people at work are I like that. Yeah, I’ll pick that up. And we have choices. So, we can say no. In Design we’ve had this discussion about print is dead print is dying prints not going to happen. We’re still printing stuff. Print is not dead.

At least not while I’m alive because I need print. I’m very technological. Everything we’ve run in the is high-tech. However, I still need a book. I still need a highlighter. There are certain things that I need in print. My magazines I feel more comfortable reading them in print. My books I feel more comfortable with print. The Bible I feel more comfortable reading that in print. All of this stuff is available and I guess it’s good for maybe the Millennials. I don’t know I’m not comfortable with it yet.

I’ve got two research projects at the moment that are not part of my PhD. They’re part of my research work at Swineburne. and both of those projects are distinctly different they’re both related to health. But one is more in their aging and older and mental health space. The other is in sexual health. What we’re finding in both is that digital has a role to play but print has a significant role to play. We take print communication out of the equation that communication equation for both of these particular projects. So, there are very specific very important groups of people who use those products and need those products who won’t get them. Print is critical. One particular project print is so critical that in some of the research we’ve been doing we’re starting to understand that for some people printing is their daily connection to the rest of the world. But print medium is their way of getting news. They can’t do digital. They can’t do electronic delivery because of their condition. So, this print is dead digital is everything doesn’t work for everyone. I know it’s kind of an extreme example it’s almost a naive example but it’s one of those mantras that you hear around foresight and design. Oh, this is dead. We’ve got the top 10 predictions this is what is going to beat next year. We can choose whether those things are going to be beat by choosing to use them or not.

There we go. Absolutely because if there’s a demand there’s a supply.

Going back really quickly to the whole challenges of teaching foresight I think that if we don’t stay in that open mindset of like Dr. Gary said. What if we? What if people like Walt Disney, Google and all these companies that have said that very question what if we? They wouldn’t be where they are today. Which is interesting.

Exactly and in the classroom when you ask that what if we did this you might be looking at a group of 15 to 20 students from 11 or 12 different countries around the world. So, that we changes because there is no one we. You then get into a discussion around walks for we as a people which is a voice expressed by a student from a particular part of the world or from a particular organization. That we is distinct and needs to be heard. Then someone else expresses their we. And you suddenly got to open a space for descent which is for me one of the most interesting parts in the foresight process. But, open up the space for the conversation. What is it that we want versus what another we wants?

It is based on their experience because a different country, a different organization, a different community has a different experience. So, that what if we comes with that experience. So, they’re bringing that experience to the table. So, there’s so much more to work with when you’re actually working a project when you’re actually working on making change because you’re getting it from different perspectives and different experiences.

Absolutely and that makes it maybe more challenging. but it also makes some more fun. And it makes it I think more powerful. Not just in terms of a foresight process but for the people participating. So, their learning is much deeper. And a lot of the learning comes from within themselves as opposed to a tool or a process that is introduced in a classroom. And I think that’s another part about foresight that often doesn’t get as explored. That your personal journey is that important as the learning journey that you’re going on. Whether that be in the form of education setting or learning about something going through a process at work.

I wanted to take a couple steps back and to hear a little bit more about design. I have a niece who is a graphic designer and of course she works with me. And I do foresight so I keep telling her we could marry this. We take couple this because she already has that vivid imagination. I’ll give her a project and she says tell me what do you want? And I was like I want this, this, and this. And so, she’d go away and she’d give me that. and then one day she was like can I have like creative autonomy? Can I like just go crazy? And I said I don’t know what does go crazy look like? She said just let me do it and came up with an incredible concept that I never thought of.  Because she already had that creativity that imagination in her. So, when you talk about design is that what you’re saying? And is that what you’re coupling with foresight?

I think a lot of the time yes. I’m also talking about designers having the capacity for more developed futures thinking. So, that anticipatory thinking capability or capacity for designers to bring that to every project. So, to be asking I suppose bigger and maybe deeper questions about the projects that they’re working on. So, for some people that might be as fundamental as do I actually want to work on this project? Do I really want to take this break from this plant? Do I want to engage in that kind of work? Does it align with my values and my practice? And is that the face I want to be in? Or it could be as small and it’s actually not a small question but a smaller consideration which is well if I talk to my client about this and say to them don’t tell me about the next 12 months but tell me about the next five years or 10 years. What is the entire lifecycle of these products? What do you think is your strategy for 10 years from now? And then do a bit of back casting from there that might help with the design process. But, I do think it is as fundamental as giving designers the capacity to imagine things differently. And asking the right questions as part of the briefing process. So, not the we need a brochure to do this but we need a way to help people understand more about this particular issue. Or we need to find a way to improve the design so that this group of people use it. We need to find a way to design this so that people with this level of ability can engage with it. We need to find a way for this group of people to access our website using a particular mean. it is very much back to that more open-ended approach that you were talking about before. That what if we? And a lot of the time that question from a design thinking process which is how might we? That is a useful question because it’s not a why or who question but it is a how that challenges the designer. I think sometimes there is a distinction between futures and design which is much more about the why and the who versus the what and the how. The design you could argue maybe plays around the what and the how more than it does the why and the who. But if you don’t have a why and a who in your design process then you could really design anything. You don’t understand the needs the real what is that what is the reason for doing this and who you are designing it for then you can create anything and someone will kind of pick it up.

Tell me what kind of projects are you working on now?

Well I’ve got a rather big project which is to develop a new condom. So, I’m part of project geldom which is funded by them Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. We are working on using a tough hydrogel to develop a condom that you can’t feel. Which should in theory make a lot more people want to use it. It’s linked to a bigger strategic initiative around preventing the spread of AIDS globally. And condoms are still the most effective barrier protection you have. So, it’s not about contraception but it is about sexual health. So, we’re looking at what we can do with a top hydrogel to make people actually want to use it. But that involves looking at human behavior. It also the anticipatory process of what do you do if you introduce this as an intervention into a community? How does a community to respond to that? How do we do that in a culturally appropriate way? Where do we need to be sensitive to people’s issues around sexual health? What can you and can’t you discuss? Then we’re a team of researchers from universities in Australia and we’re really passionate about our work. But, we have to engage with someone for them to decide whether they want to hear what we have to say about our product. There is very much a human incentive and futures oriented process in the work that we do.

They also bring their own biases, thoughts and feelings.

Other’s biases are some of the things that you come up against in design awful lot. And obviously in foresight as well. That’s where there are tools like causal analysis. Which I really enjoy using because they help hear some of those assumptions. There’s also a tool that I was teaching learnt it from Dorie Tunstall who’s now located in Canada. Which is a process called QAME questions assumptions methods and evidence. One of the things that that tool lays fair and square on the table is the assumption. For the assumptions that you bring to your research process and to get them out and understand how they might be challenged. Or that to identify assumptions that you didn’t even know where assumptions and biases. We have assumptions about how a condom might be used. As me I’m female I live in Australia I’m nearly 50 I have my assumptions about condoms. But it’s not about me. I have to design for other people and empathy is only going to get me so far. I need to work with the people who are going to be possibly using these condoms.

You do outreach. You go to the community. You go to the people. How do you do that?

At the moment we are using some neuro testing to determine responses to the material. We will go into the field at some point this year which is really exciting. So, we’ll be able to engage with communities in various parts of the world. So, that that is in planning at the moment.

You’re creating something but at the same time you’re doing a human interaction. You’re able to do outreach and to speak to the people and understand where they are. Pretty much like we were speaking before. Who are they? What do they want? What’s their experience? Because they’re going to speak to you from that experience. They can’t speak to you from anything else. So, as they speak to you from their experience then you can understand and be able to design best for them.

Yes, because there’s no way that I can go into a community and say here’s this awesome new product. It’s beautifully branded don’t you love the way it looks? Isn’t it amazing? now use it. If they’ve never used one before it doesn’t matter how god it is or how attractive it is.

Or they come with those assumptions like this is uncomfortable. I don’t like it. I don’t want it. It doesn’t fit my lifestyle. I’m never going to get aids. Those are the things that you have to deal with. So, how do you make something appealing? How do you make it something that’s trendy that they would want to do? Rachel and I had an interview the other day we were talking about remember that toy?

The fidget spinners?

A mom created that first son who had autism. So, for his sensory level that helped. But there another kid that thought it was cool and that became all of the rage.  That’s why it’s so important to be able to connect with the audience that A you think would need it or what want it. And sometimes just venture out to possibly people that you may not think want it but there’s a very good chance that they would.

And doing it in a way that this is about that meaningfulness in design. Design is a way of making human values and human meaning of what it is to be human. Design is a way of bringing that into reality in the world. This is all about human behavior, our preferences, the things that were comfortable with, the things that we’re not comfortable with, and helping people understand how that all kind of fits together in a way that is that better world. Which is then the connection to better future for everyone.

I want to thank you so much for being here. For sharing with us. I tip my hat to you. I remember that whole doctoral journey and I don’t want to think back. It was amazing because when I was done I remember my last course when it was finished I was like did I learn anything? Am I supposed to go out and implement that stuff that stuff that I just didn’t learn. It’s amazing how it comes to you. You don’t realize. You think that you’re learning at such a rapid pace and you’re taking all of this information that there’s no way that you’ll ever really know it. and quite the contrary. It was really fascinating. But I remember the journey and I tip my hat to you.

I’ve been told by a few people that it not just about the PhD. it’s not just the thesis. It’s the journey along the way. The journey even as important as the destination. I know for some people it’s just the destination. for others it’s just the journey. But I see I don’t want to say a balance but I can see they are two distinct things.

It really changes your life unlike anything else that I’ve ever experienced. It really changes your life. Your whole perspective of thinking it changes your life. Alrighty then so thank you so much for being here. Thank you for taking your time. Thank you for taking your afternoon for us. This is huge thank you so much and we look forward to having more conversations. We’re both members of the association of professional futurists so, we’ll continue this this conversation even if it’s off the air.

I really appreciate the opportunity to have a chat with you both thank you very much.

Thank you.

Thank you.

Alright everyone so this end this segment of business foresight strategies and next week we’ll have another futurist with us. Thank you so much for staying tuned and being with us. Thank you so much we look forward to seeing you next week. Bye.



Our Guest

Bridgette Engel is Course Director for the Master of Design at the Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia. She lectures in strategic foresight, design strategy and management, design thinking, and creativity and innovation.

Engeler’s passion for her field led her to become a Board Member of the Association of Professional Futurists.

She is currently a Ph.D. candidate in strategic foresight and her research focus is anticipatory thinking in society, technology, and culture.


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Interview With Bridgette Engler- “Futures Meets Design How Designers are Using Foresight “

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