HCI and design are future-oriented activities. Large parts of research and practice in the field are oriented to inform the design of future technologies and identify novel ways to support users. Futures thinking has become increasingly important with the awakening to the global challenges related to social, economic and environmental sustainability. Design has to take much broader and systemic considerations into account than only the needs of the product’s end users.
Despite increasing research in speculative design and sustainable HCI, current practice largely fails to understand and answer a call for holistic, systemic futures thinking. We believe that the reason for the poor level of adoption of futures studies and foresight methods is the their length. A typical foresight process that aims for scenario building takes months to carry out. Only recently have scholars started to adapt foresight methodology in a rapid manner. For example, Timelines by Wong & Nguyen. They integrated futuring methods to focus on values-based design.
Our work adds to this development by focusing on innovation and product design teams. We ask: What rapid method could enable innovation teams to improve the anticipatory capacity of their invention processes? We used reflective practice iterating over four workshops to develop our method, including an external team of material scientists.
The popular Foresight method Futures Wheel visually maps the consequences of changes in concentric circles. We embedded our version of brainstorming with Futures Wheel into a full-fledged futures workshop, including framing and scanning activities. Our method achieves two things:
- It offers a practical tool for innovation teams to map out consequences in their ideation and development processes.
- In addition, it activates anticipatory capacities by stimulating competencies essential for futuring.
Our process builds on the metaphor of ripples in a sea of possibilities. The sea is an ideal metaphor for visioning with the volatility of its nature and the land as a contrast that gives us a grounding. The process consists of three phases and a follow-up:
- Scanning the shore
- Choosing a pebble
- Creating the ripples, the main activity.
Once a team aligns on a common goal (for example, “We would like to brainstorm the consequences of a novel conversational user interface which we are developing”), the process starts with a scanning activity. In foresight, scanning tries to find observable signs of change in the present. These changes can be in the form of trends, megatrends or weak signals. Weak signals take a particularly important role in working on long-term futures, as they indicate possible drastic changes that are not yet perceived as actual trends. To allow depth in the scanning activity and integrating all participants, everyone prepares two to three topics before the group workshop. At the beginning of the workshop, every participant presents their topics to the group.
The next step in the process concerns the selection of the pebble: the starting point for mapping out consequences. The choice of the pebble is critical for the whole ripples process. The pebble can be a weak signal, as we see in the example, as it was identified during scanning or a concrete idea, for example, “What if textiles would have self-repair capability?” or even a more general exploration: “What if clothing would be based on living organisms in 10 years?”
The pebble then becomes the starting point for the main activity of creating ripples. The goal is to brainstorm consequences and impacts in the form of concentric ring segments. The first ripple represents direct future consequences, and each further ripple describes the implications of the preceding ripples. To create a good flow for the brainstorming, we alternate individual brainstorming with group discussion. Before each participant places their most valued ideas on the board, they must be discussed with the group. Here, the ripples’ internal coherence is more important than the quantity. After all, the group’s goal is to map out the ripples of a change and how possible consequences relate to each other. We also use different categories like environment and legal to better categorise the diversity of futures. The process is repeated at least three times until the diagram is saturated. After this process, we suggest using, for example the Next Steps analysis to generate some concrete outputs.
From developing this method we had some practical outcomes. We saw how Future Ripples appeared to be of practical use to us and our participants. For example, It helped the group of material scientists in identifying and drafting a research proposal on memory textiles: Due to the cross-linkage of the ripples and consequences, and also the scanning and framing stages, the group was able to connect their far-fetched future proposal to changes observable in the present. Also, the broad variety generated with the STEEPLE categories was useful for them to find connection points with other consortium members.
However, facilitating futures thinking is challenging, whether through a method or by moderating. One difficulty we found is self-efficacy, the perceived competence of the participants. For example, one author had a particular struggle with this from the start. She was new to the foresight and some terminology was intimidating. The metaphor and clear steps then helped her once we had introduced them. Especially the scanning activity that connected to everyday knowledge outside of her professional experience. Further, mapping out uncertain paths went against her urge to problem-solve, as using futures requires consolidating closed and open-ended thinking. These difficulties definitely are something that the method still has to deal with.
We invited you to use our method and tell us how it works for you. We provide a ready-to-use Miro template for running a workshop online.
This post was co-authored with Tim Moesgen.
Felix Anand Epp, Tim Moesgen, Antti Salovaara, Emmi Pouta, and İdil
Gaziulusoy. 2022. Reinventing the Wheel: The Future Ripples Method for
Activating Anticipatory Capacities in Innovation Teams. In Designing Inter-
active Systems Conference (DIS ’22), June 13–17, 2022, Virtual Event, Australia.
ACM, New York, NY, USA, 13 pages. https://doi.org/10.1145/3532106.3534570