Principles for tangible futures

Tangible Futures, Part 3: Principles

These are principles I’m using to develop tangible futures now…

Tangible Futures are

  • Inspirational, touching us both intellectually and emotionally.
  • Pragmatic, optimistic in a realistic way.
  • Innovative, they are a vision of something that is a mystery now because, by definition, we haven’t invented it yet.
  • Strategic, describing something happening years in the future.
  • Custom, applied to a particular organization.
  • Storytelling, encapsulating the people, places, things, and relationships of a situation in the accessible format of a story.


Tangible Futures are not

  • Predictions
  • Strategic plans

Futures studies and the importance of ‘images’

Tangible Futures, Part 2: The historical context

The Wilson Quarterly’s Winter 2006 issue focuses on future studies and includes this historical review, Has Futurism Failed? In it the authors cite several practitioners hailing the importance of our images of the future. To me this could include our science fiction, our movies, and our political rhetoric, as well as our vision for business. Here’s an excerpt:

…widely shared images of the future can sometimes open up large new realms of behavior possibilities, creating chain reactions of self-organizing change. This insight actually emerged in some of the early work in future studies. The economist Kenneth Boulding put the matter clearly: “The human condition can almost be summed up in the observation that, whereas all experiences are of the past, all decisions are about the future. The image of the future, therefore, is the key to all choice-oriented behavior. The character and quality of the images of the future which prevail in a society are therefore the most important clue to its overall dynamics.”

Tangible Futures example: Futurama

Sometime during the second half of the 20th century, American companies forgot how to dream. The social and political upheaval of the 1960’s and 1970’s may have squelched the raw optimism of previous decades, but this only made the need for inspiring visions even more important in the face of new, complex business environments.

In 1940 General Motors offeredFuturama” as their vision of the future. It went beyond automotive design, delineating plans for a new kind of city to accommodate increased auto usage, as with the elevated walkways below. In hindsight it’s easy to criticize this particular vision, but I’m sure it inspired employees and customers with an optimistic, realistic vision which the company could work towards.

Norman Bel Geddes, “Magic Motorways” from GM’s Futurama: Pedestrians and motorcars will continue on their way without interference.

Tangible Futures example: Earth from space

Stewart Brand knew the power of this photograph before it was publicly released. In 1966, “…he sold buttons which read, ‘Why Haven’t We Seen A Photograph of the Whole Earth Yet?’ Legend has it that this accelerated NASA’s making good color photos of Earth from distant space during the Apollo program and that the ecology movement took shape in 1968-9 partially as a result of those photos.

Of course, the photo represented the present state of earth. And technically — like any photograph — it represents the past. But by showing us a whole new perspective, it conjured new ideas about how we share one planet rather than inhabit separate nations. It’s a powerful, tangible representation that implies potential for the future.

Tangible Futures example: Hugh Ferriss’s delineations

Imagine it is the year 1900 and you own a large corporation needing offices in a major city. You want to construct a building that makes a grand statement of your financial strength and contributes to the civic infrastructure. Currently the highest buildings are about 20 stories, but you are told new construction techniques are capable of building much higher. What would such a structure look and feel like? How much usable office space would there be? Would people want to work that high in the air?

Working within the constraints of new building codes and executives’ demands for bigger, more productive office space, Hugh Ferriss issued dramatic depictions of buildings that informed architects and inspired corporations. In his time, these illustrations were radically dramatic, opening the eyes of architects and corporations to the possibilities. Using the raw knowledge of architecture, he created a tangible vision and the visual language to understand the potential of skyscrapers. His style evolved to not only inform but also to elicit emotional reactions.

For a future you can conceive but not quite visualize, how might a film, a simulation, or a prototype business situation change your strategy?

Understanding the future in a tangible way

Tangible Futures, Part 1: Background

I’m starting a series of posts to talk about something we’re calling Tangible Futures, which are tangible expressions of visions for the future. That might sound quite ordinary or quite esoteric depending on your point of view, but having worked on it for several months I’m finding it to be a useful practice for the business community in a number of ways.

In this post I’ll try to tie together some important ideas that people have been brave enough to express:

Companies Need a Vision of the Future. John Hagel:

…Ask these same CEOs and their management teams two simple questions:

  1. What will your relevant markets look like five to ten years from now?
  2. What will your company need to do in order to thrive in these markets five to ten years from now?

Almost always, the answer will come back that there’s just too much uncertainty to have a clear point of view on this. But, here’s the rub: If the senior management team of a company doesn’t have a clear point of view on where the company is headed, why should investors put a lot of faith in the long-term performance of the company?

Business ideas must go beyond communication and help people change. David Maister:

The real question is: what are the methodologies that really help people change their lives when they understand messages like [Peter] Drucker’s and Tom [Peters]’s? What should they/we be doing differently with our books, our speeches, our videos? Is there a more effective way to actually help people change and make a difference on the world?

Strategic Change Is Useless Without Cultural Change. Tom Peters:

If Drucker and Bennis and Collins and Peters and Co… are/were so damn smart-wise, why is corporate performance so shabby in general?… Strategy don’t matter for diddly if the corporate culture is disfunctional or mis-aligned.

To combine these ideas, we could say that companies need a vision of the future that helps them achieve cultural change. This vision could help executives see future opportunities in a new way. The vision could help executives communicate these opportunities downward (or the reverse could happen, employees communicating opportunities upward).

But this doesn’t often happen now. Some of the problem has to do with the way strategies and forecasts are constructed, which I’ll address in an upcoming post. Some of the problem is simply a fault of the media employed: text and images can communicate ideas, but (at least in a business setting) fail to impart the richness of future situations. And they don’t spark strong emotional reactions that inspire people to care and act differently. We have richer, more interactive media at our disposal: film, theater, environments, computer simulation, and so on. It’s time to start employing them in the service of business strategy.

In the next few posts I’ll show some examples, look at how we can integrate this practice with futures studies, and talk a little about how we can start making tangible futures.