An empathy for the future: Interview with Sara Gry Striegler and Oskar Stokholm Østergaard, Danish Design Centre

Today I’m joined by Sara Gry Striegler and Oskar Stokholm Østergaard of the Danish Design Centre to talk about their work developing design approaches which allow people, communities, companies, and organisations to better understand the futures which may await them.

Sara is Programme Director at the Centre, leading their Future Welfare work, and Oskar is Project Manager for a range of ventures including the new Living Futures scenario toolkit.

Matt: The Design Centre has had an evolving role and remit since it was founded in 1978. What’s it been like, coming to the point where the Centre is using design as a futures-oriented tool?

Oskar: We’re currently in the process of finalising our own new strategy, with a focus on being mission-oriented and finding ways to not only create growth through design practices, methods, and mindsets, but also help in solving systemic issues at a wider level. We are becoming more systems-oriented in that sense, and the futures work helps us to tackle those big issues, pulling back from a narrow focus on using design to solve particular issues in isolation, one at a time. 

Futures thinking flips that focus on its head; we try to take in the broader lines first, and then consider where we want to go – or where we want to avoid going! – in the future.

Image courtesy of Danish Design Centre

Sara: Over the last two years or so, it’s become ever more relevant to work with the future in this way. Four or five years ago, I was leading our work with healthcare, having previously worked in health innovation across public-private collaborations. I taught new methodologies to nurses, doctors, and public servants in an effort to build innovation capacity within the sector. Innovation was the buzzword of the time – but it was essentially training leaders and healthcare professionals in design methodologies.

Coming to the Centre, I saw that we could take on a position as a midfield player, versatile, collaborative, and able to bring different sides of the healthcare landscape together. My ambition was for the health sector, and the health industry, to work more proactively in adopting new technologies for greater added value, and new ways of organising & delivering their services and patient experience.

It’s not just that we’re going through such uncertain times, exacerbated by COVID-19; we see more and more systemic challenges, and we want to go beyond siloed, piecemeal responses. This perspective goes across themes and sectors: social transformation, sustainability, technology, and many more.

Looking for a new way to hold that conversation and draw people together, I saw a presentation from Oxford’s Rafael Ramírez, who spoke about how scenarios can give us new perspectives on the future. I was excited to integrate that way of thinking into the design-led approach to huge systemic challenges. That was the spark to get us really actively engaged with futures, and to situate design methodology at the heart of those conversations.

The problems we are facing right now aren’t problems in the traditional sense, where you can find one solution that solves it. It’s much more about trying to reconfigure entire systems. You need that big picture and that awareness of the emerging futures to imagine different configurations. You need to take in the entire design, not just individual components.

What design also gives us is imagery, stories, descriptions, and situations which evoke what the future could bring and what the future could look like. Those visual or tangible experiences which design offers can help us to move on from always asking the same questions, proposing the same solutions. 

Design has been on its own journey in the 21st century, especially with the rise of “design thinking”. A lot of design work such as user experience focuses on empirical elements – looking at what users are doing now, understanding their wants and needs in the present. What challenges and opportunities arise when you try to design for a world that hasn’t come to pass yet?

Built into the design mindset is a focus on interdisciplinarity, collaboration, and opening up spaces. It democratises the future in that sense; it helps make working with the future much more accessible. It makes the future visual, concrete, accessible; it’s about emotions and experiences, not abstractions. With design, we can make the future more actionable for everyone.

The design mindset is also what made us focus on the human experience of the world to come; understanding the stories of people in the future, which offer a common ground where everyone can start to explore the future. From a fifth grader to the prime minister, you are still a human being with a reason to be on this earth as valid as anyone else’s; it means you can connect with human experiences from imagined futures developed through design, too.

Design creates an empathy for the future. You put yourself into that future, you apply it to yourself. Our participants and collaborators have an experience which lets them to understand what it would mean for them, their family, their colleagues, to be part of that world.

That experience also triggers a human response, a new layer, that transcends a purely professional mindset. It can help you to talk about some of the more difficult issues presented by the future, which normally our institutional perspective obstructs us from discussing.

I saw an image from your “Boxing Future Health” scenario project, with people in blindfolds being guided to sit on a mat, and at the Experimentation by Design meeting which led to the “Living Futures” scenarios, we had things like toys and even baked beans sealed in plastic as props to use in our imagined futures. How do you go about letting people think through the future in this tangible way?

When we get people to reflect, “What could this plastic bag of beans represent in our future?”, it’s intended to trigger their imagination. When we work in this way, we’re not telling people, “This is what the future certainly is”; we’re creating a framework within which we can create plausible futures, drawing on their experience, their knowledge, but also their imagination.

Adding an element of play and imagination breaks down the boundaries of what we see the future as. It can be a relief: knowing you’re allowed to play means you aren’t expected to come up with the definitive future. You’re forced into acting in a way outside of the normal boundaries of your role and your expertise: you’re not giving a presentation, or writing a memo, you are doing something else and it gives you an excuse to dream a bit bigger, leaving the usual script behind. Play is a catalyst.

The artefacts help, but this whole way of working – immersing people in an experience – serves as a boundary object: something we can all relate to. We all look at the same plastic bag of beans, and then each imagine: “What do I think that object could be?”

The health and care professions are often very evidence-based, there can be a mentality of “I can only do what has been demonstrated in a randomised control trial”; innovation can sometimes be a challenge. What’s it like, futuring design in a health context?

I was pleasantly surprised! I was, to be honest, a bit nervous when we set out on this journey, precisely because of the sector’s strong desire for evidence – however, they were really open and took the work very seriously. 

The difficult part of that process is applying the insights you gain through imagination to real-world change. However, our methodology is structured and systematic; this seems to calm people who aren’t inclined towards such creative processes. As Oskar says, it’s also a relief for them to be able to express things which they can see already, but for which they don’t have an outlet.

At a university hospital we worked with, the participants had a lively disagreement about the future directions – but they could also see those directions, and the extent to which some of the futures were always emerging in the present. We gave them a framework to discuss this with, and tools to move from discussion to action, translating these future experiences into immediate plans for the coming year.

Having these vastly different scenarios also makes it possible for professionals with a particular idea of what the future might look like to also see other worlds and other realities. It unlocks conversations which were inaccessible to people who only saw one future.

At a management board where I presented scenarios, the presentation released different opinions; board members were discussing the evidence base for one scenario, until another said, “Well, in this future, we wouldn’t be working with evidence any more.” A diversity of opinions made itself manifest.

Your Living Futures scenarios are very broad in their perspective; they provide this framework for open discussion, which you’ve mentioned, at a global level, addressing huge social and economic changes. What was the journey, from initially deciding, “We’re going to do this”, to presenting the scenario framework at Experimentation By Design, when people came together to flesh out each of those four scenarios.

Matrix of factors from the “Living Futures” scenario kit (C) Danish Design Centre, used with permission

After our healthcare scenarios, we did some more foresight work with Wonderful Copenhagen on the future of congresses, and further projects with the Danish Business Authority and some other organisations. This laid the ground for a much larger undertaking, the next level of futuring design.

We saw so many opportunities for doing something that would lie across sectors: could it be possible to look from one silo to another, and inspect the spaces between, too? We drew on data from our previous scenario engagements, brought together different stakeholders, and tried to identify some key uncertainties that were applicable across multiple sectors.

We ended up with, “What drives value-creation, the market or more social values?”, and “How are we organised, with robust centralised structures or ones that are more distributed, adaptive, and agile?”

Those aren’t the only important uncertainties, but they led to interesting dynamics and contrasts that were valuable across multiple sectors. We’d like to share these more widely, across our own ecosystem but also beyond. We’re not aiming to make something that invalidates other foresight approaches; these scenarios are supplemental and aimed at catalysing new discussions. It’s adding a new tool to the toolbox, not replacing anything.

Our position as the Danish Design Center allows us to take scenarios, build experiences, create stories and atmospheres with voice actors and sound designers, but alongside this offer a generic tool which can be offered to a wide range of stakeholders. If you’re working with a specific organisation on a scenario project to inform a particular strategy, you might not be able to achieve that experiential richness and breadth. That richness can open people’s minds to the multiple futures which may await.

We wanted to create a set of scenarios that would be applicable to many sectors and subjects, and then we could look at these scenarios through different lenses. At the EXBD event, we made this a physical thing, using pieces of coloured plastic to represent the different lenses through which you could consider the uncertainties at play in the four scenarios. Participants carried the coloured plastic as a prop to focus their attention on a particular aspect of the futures – such as the future of work – as they toured the scenarios.

The process and the journey is very enlightening, but eventually it leads to a product, whether that’s a diagram of uncertainties on scenario axes, a recording of an actor, or some kind of physical or virtual exhibition. What’s the journey to that end product?

In “Boxing Future Health”, we created four cylinders to represent the scenarios, drawing on a wide range of healthcare experts to inform those outputs and going through a prototyping process too, with just a few artefacts in a meeting room. We get our workshop participants to develop the personas, the characters who we will see as citizens of the future, and then we draft and develop their stories.

One example of what we learned through this process: in the first health draft, not all of our characters were patients. But people didn’t feel as much empathy when the character was a doctor or a politician explaining their part in the future health system; it was too distant from the business of care, that very personal and human experience of the patient. So to get even closer to what it felt like to live in this world, we made sure that all of our scenario characters were patients from the future. It builds empathy: “What would it be like for me to receive this treatment in this way, in this future?”

After Experimentation by Design, we collected data, right down to the level of how many stickers participants had put on the different objects in the conference room. We distilled everything written, everything made, everything recorded on that day – down to the tiniest snippet – into some kind of essence.

We built our characters around these essential elements, but the aim is for this to be a living resource which continues to develop. The stories we tell are aimed to unlock discussions, and we’ll constantly ask: “Is this story the right story to do that job? Do the discussions we’re unlocking need to change, and if that happens do we need to make a new key?”

We aim to nurture the Living Futures kit so it can grow over time, revising stories or retiring them, adding new ones and evolving them over time.

We really want to capture the emotions with these stories. That’s something we’ll continue to fine tune over time.

What was the process of finding the characters featured in the kit?

Some were easier to find than others; there are even a few that I’m still struggling with. I’d quite like to have an activist teenager in each scenario, someone who rebels against the norm of each future – but how do we make that come alive in some real, human way, and avoid it just playing to the values of the mirror scenario? Yet societies do experience rebellion and disagreement. How do we feature that in our imagined worlds?

As soon as we add these human perspectives, we have to be respectful of how we represent the issues that a person might deal with. We need to be especially respectful of vulnerable or sensitive identities; the storytelling factor, which is so valuable and special about our process, is also much more complicated than just asking, “How does manufacturing or transportation function in this world?”

One of the things I really take away from this discussion: your focus, above all on empathy.

These scenarios address such broad and deep structural and systemic issues, that some of these scenarios end up challenging the fundamentals of the capitalist society in which we currently live.

Thinking about systemic change leads us on to political issues. What’s the relationship between design, policy, and politics?

It’s difficult! We are a partly state-funded body, and we therefore have to find ways to be politically nonpartisan. We try to create materials which people will use for themselves to generate and apply political perspectives. Different participants see and interpret different political systems within the scenarios we offer.

The challenge for us is balancing that: how much do we give to nourish people’s imaginations, and how much do we leave for them to put there for themselves? Technology is obviously an important aspect of the future, but we’re not so interested in attempting to predict exactly what technologies might be dominant 30 years into the future. The same goes for political technologies so to speak. We’re much more interested in the human experience, what we as humans could perceive as value, and how different perspectives could lead to very different societies. 

There’s that quote, attributed to Frederic Jameson and Slavoj Žižek, that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism! And the scenarios we generate aim to help people imagine what was previously unimaginable, to let them think in a way that is unbound by the status quo, and let them feel what it would feel like to inhabit that previously unimagined space.

As a “midfield player”, bringing together different stakeholders and working across the public, private, and non-profit sectors, as well as the political layer, we’re trying to bind all those silos and layers together, hosting an interactive playground between strategy, politics, and the citizens. Scenarios can bring people into this broader conversation and give us a framework for citizens, authorities, and politicians alike to explore consequences for our society to take different decisions and move towards one future scenario or another. 

Design thinking has become such a buzzword, it could almost risk becoming a victim of its own success, if the tools become too standardised and routine. 

What’s the tension between releasing useful, replicable tools and ensuring that people can still find that unique insight offered by design, so that it’s not just a cookie-cutter, mass-produced approach?

This is a good question, a big struggle for the design sector! At the Centre, we are asking ourselves: Can everyone carry out design thinking approaches? Are the tools enough, or do you need experts, consultants, staff with special training?

The scenario kit is part of extending that inquiry and that discussion, finding out what works to bring this experiential and creative and insightful design approach to wider society. 

We want to empower other people to work in new ways, and I think that to some extent, people can carry out a design process using off-the-shelf tools, but there is something about a designer’s mindset which might not just be something you can learn from applying these tools.

With Living Futures the idea was to make a living resource rather than what we would normally consider a tool, typically something a bit more static. Our aim is to share it, maintain it, and keep building on it. For me, it’s also an exercise in focusing on maintaining, nurturing and refining something rather than giving in to the urge of creating something new every time. We look to do something a bit more profound, tapping into stories and emotions, that goes beyond the design tools or exercises the people we work with typically encounter.

Living Futures participants – Image courtesy of Danish Design Centre

With Living Futures in particular, we aim to empower other people to take on these futures, so we don’t have to be there every time. How can we, through all our futuring design initiatives, empower other people to start working in new ways, looking at the future in new ways, creating new frames and building on the insights of an experience they’ve had with us or one of our partners?

As you’ve said, a framework for discussing difficult questions that can itself grow and change, an opportunity for empowerment, empathy, and reflection on consequences.

Imagination, emotions, and experience should not just be reserved for entertainment; they’re invaluable resources. It is just as serious and strategic to play with, and imagine, the future, as it is to look through your spreadsheets, analysing hard data.. We’re limited by the constructs that we take for granted, including our assumptions about what it looks and feels like to work on strategy.

At the moment, we’re really curious about what it means to frame scenarios globally. The Boxing Future Health scenarios began as a very Danish set of visions and grew from there; with Living Futures we want to build something that is truly global, that doesn’t just happen in our offices, but which is not limited or enclosed by your proximity to our Centre.

If we’re not building spaces and expecting people to visit us, how can we create those experiences in virtual spaces — are there new kinds of technology and new strategies that enable us to create the same kind of shared experience?

You can find out more about Sara & Oskar and their work at the Danish Design Centre website – and there’s more on scenarios & design in this conversation between Sara and Rafael Ramírez.

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