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Explanation, Longread

How to research the future?

If you are interested in methods, do read on. If you are interested in my philosophy, I would recommend you to read this post on my latest project ‘the Rose Garden’. In this long read, I share the methodological perspective that I am currently using. If you would like to continue reading, download my book Becoming Futurists here under ‘research’.

There are three areas of methodical expertise that I am developing within my professorship: design thinking, speculative design, and futures research. Design thinking is an accessible and practical approach that is already used in many different contexts and training programs. The method offers our students concrete steps that they can apply in the research phase to develop concepts. Design thinking has long existed within the domain of designers but was mainly translated into new contexts and worlds by publications and works by Tim Brown[1] and Roger Martin[2]. In recent years, this method has gained enormous ground, both academically and in practice. In addition to the extensive literature published on the subject[3], many large companies such as IBM, Samsung, and Philips make use of (elements of) design thinking.

Speculative design is less well-known and widespread than design thinking but appeals to the imagination. This perspective invites designers and researchers to make the future tangible. In 2013, Dunne and Raby published the book Speculative Everything,[4] which can be seen as the starting point for speculative design. The central thesis of speculative design is that ethical discussion about what do we want with our future, is sparked when that future is tangible. The value of speculative design is, on the one hand, that this approach encourages reflection on possible futures and, on the other, to learn to ask critical questions.[5] Speculative design can take many forms; it can be a science fiction film, a tangible object, or a poem. For example, NextNatureNetwork[6] developed an artificial womb, which raises the question: is the development of an artificial womb desirable?

Finally, futures research is often connected to methods like scenario planning. With this perspective it is possible to think in alternative futures and question what one cannot know about the future.[7] This requires a very different mindset than focusing on what we do know about the future.[8] The latter approach, focusing on the known, is tricky because it encourages to think about the future in a linear way. Today is the same as tomorrow, even if we know that this is not the case. Uncertainty is a central concept in this perspective[9]; the future is simply impossible to predict, and the courage the embrace that we do not know is of vital importance. This is also why futurists, artists, and designers have a lot in common: they all navigate, in their own respective ways, that gray area of not-knowing.

Within the professorship, we see the added value of connecting the various perspectives: future research, design thinking, and speculative design. We make the future tangible at multiple levels by connecting the design thinking approach to the creation of tangible concepts with speculative design. It makes the somewhat abstract perspective of futures research concrete and adds an additional layer to the further development and deepening of design thinking and speculative design. We do this, for example, by making it clear how to create your own desirable future guided by the three perspectives. We also encourage our researchers to experiment with the perspectives and fail, so they can try again. We believe that this approach is useful to grapple with the ever evolving and changing world around us.