Creating better futures
In our mind, the words “robot” and “future” are inextricably linked. This is because of the stories that our culture has created over the last hundred years. However, the irony is that robots have been with us for a long time and could hardly be considered the future. They are parts of our lives, they live and work among us, extending our capacities, making our lives simpler, faster, deeper, giving us the possibility of more free time to dedicate to more important tasks. Or at least that’s what the theory says.
In fact, many of these robots are no longer referred to as “robots”; they are called dishwashers, car assisted driving, air conditioning thermostat, telephone answering machine … And also systems that connect with each other, that make decisions, that respond to us, that collect, analyse and process information.
Leila Takayama , social scientist and expert in human-robot interaction, explains to us in her beautiful conference piece entitled “What is it like to be a robot?” that by observing how robots work today and their interaction with us, we often learn much more about ourselves than about these machines. For example, we learn that human psychology does not change at the same speed as technology and we are always running to catch up; trying to make sense of this world in which these autonomous things work around us. When entering our social environment, we not only expect robots to be integrated and have predictable behaviour (we are bothered for example when an ATM takes too long to respond and we are in a hurry), but we project human characteristics onto them. “It’s not so much about reinventing humans, it’s more about figuring out how we interact, right? And we end up using things in surprising ways.” Many of these robots were created from daring to imagine how things could be different than they are today.
This practice of imagining possible futures is also known as “Future Design” and has matured enough in the last 50 years to become a robust and methodical discipline, which we will analyse in an upcoming article. For a first look at Future Design, I like the practical way in which the futurologist and designer Anab Jain describes her method in her TED conference presentation in April 2017: “We are constantly looking for these first signs; these murmurs of a possible future. And we follow this possibility into the future to ask ourselves what would it be like to live in that future? What can we see, hear and breathe there? Then we do experiments, we build prototypes, we create objects, giving life to those futuristic concepts, making them concrete and tangible in order to feel the impact of those future possibilities here and now. However, it is not a job of prediction, rather one of creating tools. Tools that can help connect our present and our future reality to become active participants in the creative process of a desired future, a future that works for all.”
This working method does not sound so far from what we can apply in a company. From practically any position in the organization, it is possible to ask ourselves the same questions that Anab Jain asks: based on what I observe in my industry, my organization and my area of work, what can the future hold for the service or product I provide? What is the best experience that my internal and/or external client can have? How does my client see, feel and live that possible future experience? Building prototypes of that possible experience today is much easier and less expensive. Automation tools, for example, allow us to build a prototype in days that connects one system with another without having to modify them, or reconcile in seconds information that previously took hours. And suppliers of such tools are almost always willing to use this approach to demonstrate the benefits of its products for a very reasonable investment. In my experience, providing these tools to operational areas awakens innovation capabilities in people in amazing ways and, most importantly, it generates an enthusiastic culture of continuous improvement and transformation. That is one of the secrets to the success of the implementation of continuous improvement in companies like Toyota: to generate an environment where imagining new ways of doing things is acceptable (even if they are wrong) and even rewarded. And bringing tools to the operational teams where they can experiment is essential so they can test their ideas and discover what works.
Duncan Davidson wrote in Entrepreneur.com that being disruptive by itself is not enough, if you do not have the ability to imagine the future we want for our business and our customers. Therefore he proposes asking the following questions:
- How does the future look?
- What is the hidden need for that future?
- When will that future be ready?
Elon Musk (Tesla cars), Apple and Disney managed to describe how they saw the future of their business from a distance, and from there they were able to find the hidden needs of their customers. The secret to reaching those hidden needs is empathy. The teams within the organizations must understand and exercise this sense of “putting themselves in the shoes” of their client, and from that perspective build the new processes that will cover their needs. It is very important to have the tools to describe the user experience such as Empathy Mapping, Customer Journey Mapping, Experience Mapping and Service Blueprinting. These are all basically documents that must be produced throughout the organization, so that they develop together a common language and understanding of the description and satisfaction of customer needs.
Because in the outside world things happen too fast, Anab Jain tells us, so fast, it becomes really difficult to understand our place in history. And both personally and in organizations, this rapidity creates an overwhelming feeling of uncertainty and anxiety, and our reaction to these feelings is simply to let things happen without connecting with the consequences of today’s actions in possible futures. Jain describes this reaction on a personal level, but it is exactly the same within organizations: we treat our company in the future as if it were a stranger and the future as an unknown land. “And it’s not an unknown land but the journey that lies ahead is continually changing due to our actions. We are this future and for this reason I believe that fighting for the future that we want is more urgent and necessary than ever,” concludes Jain.
The creation of futures is not an exclusive task of futurologists. It is a skill that we must develop first as individuals, and then as organizations. Remember that things are always created twice, first in our mind, and then in reality.
Author: Conciliac Team
Anab Jain, Why we need to imagine different futures, April 2017, Ted.com, https://www.ted.com/talks/anab_jain_why_we_need_to_imagine_different_futures/transcript
Duncan Davidson, Do not Try to Be ‘Disruptive.’ , March 2018, entrepreneur.com, https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/309552
Leila Takayama, What’s it like to be a robot ?, April 2017, Ted .com, https://www.ted.com/talks/leila_takayama_what_s_it_like_to_be_a_robot#t-838615
Sarah Gibbons, UX Mapping Methods Compared: A Cheat Sheet, November 2017, Nielsen Norman Group, https://www.nngroup.com/articles/ux-mapping-cheat-sheet/