With Angela Oguntala and Luke Sturgeon on Strategic Foresight
Understanding how today's rapidly changing processes affect our daily lives is the key to a better understanding of what is happening in our world and guides us to discover new possibilities. Strategic foresight is a widespread approach among both countries and companies, allowing us to better understand the possible development directions of current trends and their impact, plan different future scenarios and select a preferred vision, while creating resilient strategies and paths to achieve them.
At the end of September 2023, Angela Oguntala and Luke Surgeon, from the Design Studio Greyspace, conducted a Future Foresight masterclass at the Design Center, and here we are happy to share the interview by Johanna Vallistu with them.
Driven by my curiosity, what brought you guys to futures? How did you end up practicing the field? And did you have another career before that?
Luke: Guilt! This is how I explain it to others. My background is in design, and experience design, interaction design, product design, service design, , mostly around interaction design, but kind of stemming off in different ways for over a decade for years and years and years. And in doing that work, especially the education, and the more you think about the practice of design, what happened along my journey is that design has got so focused on tools and processes to solve problems. Give me any problem - I'll solve it with design. I'm going to make a thing. Then usually what happens is that the end result, regardless of the problem, is a product or service, which means you can solve anything with a product or a service. I thought to myself, I don't think that this is right. I don't think we're really answering some of these big questions. I think we're skipping over some bits. We're saying that we're doing that, but really, we're just trying to launch features and do stuff. And so I started to feel guilty, that I'm saying I'm doing one thing, but actually, the work that I'm doing isn't that. I'm trying to solve these big problems. I'm not thinking long term, I'm just trying to create new features for products that will sell. And I was like, no, there's got to be more to this. Me and Angela both felt that there's got to be more to it. What can we do? So for me and Angela it was fine-searching for that other thing. In this case it was futures thinking and strategic foresight. And finding some key questions: Why is that happening? What's really the root cause behind it? How do you affect root causes? Because the futures is asking critical questions beyond design. So guilt.
Angela: Maybe not so much guilt, I have more thought about timing. For me, I am from the East Coast in the United States. And I just thought about how we time life and what are the consequences of fast time, fast food, fast fashion, talking fast, walking fast, fast whatever, and how much that has been the incentives that we have in life and in business are aligned around fast time, and how unsustainable it is in general and for me. I can tell in my everyday interactions and work it was deeply just troubling. And it was just not creating the kind of life or the kind of world that I wanted. And so I wanted to talk more about longer term perspectives, timing life differently, but still being productive, still being able to reach the outcomes that we want, still be able to do all the same things, but just recognizing that we could do it differently. And no one cared or wanted to buy long-term thinking or long term consequences. But people cared about the future - there was something that was powerful and interesting, and felt full and pregnant about this idea of new possibilities. And so I was lucky enough early enough in my work, where I was really exploring this longer term thinking and how we fight fast time and all the problems that it created, to have a few mentors say you really need to continue with it. After Luke and I studied together and got our master's degree, they said we really need to combine this with foresight. Also, some people saying the work that me and Luke were already doing and talking about, could be situated quite strongly within a foresight practice. And so we started to learn and to do that. But also I just got sick and tired of people saying, “hey, maybe this is how the world works?”. But it doesn't have to work like this! And it's creating a ton of problems for everyone. So yeah, how could it be different?
There is a big debate in the foresight world, whether we should prepare for the futures that happen to us or we take a stance that we are the ones creating the futures. For example, climate change - how much can you signal that we can change things ourselves, and to which extent we have to adjust. So what is your take on that? How do you usually convey that view? Do we create the future? Or should we use foresight to be prepared for things that will happen?
Angela: I think in general if there is an either – or stance, there really isn’t. That is the first flag that there isn’t a choice and we should be doing all of it. So our work is strongly grounded in purpose driven innovation, we do create the future. Our present was built by design, our future is going to be built by design. None of this happens by accident. Yes, of course, there are some effects that happen once you trigger one pathway because you built this design or product, and it creates new behaviors. Yes, that happens. But the world we live in now was built by design, the choices we make as powerful organizations as individuals, as society – these are the actions that create the future. And at the same time, we've recognized and we need to understand that we do need to prepare for some of those futures. I think preparation does a lot to expand your creativity and your perspective, because for those who believe maybe I can build the future, to start to embed a lot of this preparation, thinking about different possibilities and different trajectories, could the future be this or that – you start to see your agency. I don’t think the preparation closes you off. It can actually open you up to seeing your agency, through preparing for different eventualities, you start to see, okay, I'm preparing for this, but if we just did these couple of things differently, we could lessen the impact of this future, we could move in a different direction. So I think it depends on the audience, what their starting point is, and how you work with them to see that, yes of course, we need to do both. But we need to start with the future we want. And that is the idea that you create the future. So that's my rooting principle. And then, of course, we need to adapt along the way and be present and be aware and meet people where they are and see the fractures and systems that are already happening. Like – we have to do something about that.
The background of the question is of course the climate crisis and the perceptions of young people. The question is how could foresight help in activating them but also not giving false hope in areas where there’s not so much hope anymore.
Luke: I have a few thoughts about it. There's been a few projects that we've worked on the climate process in the past. I think very similar to what you've just mentioned about climate change, because they say, “Look, we're doing this stuff. And there's these other groups doing stuff. And we're kind of involved in these communities, but there's no one working together and talking, we have no big vision of where we're going. So, we're trying to fight these problems and we're trying to put out fires and we're trying to kind of, let's say, take climate change. Lots of different actors and groups trying to implement change or change things. And so we've had clients say, but what we don't have is everyone coming together and saying: “this is what we're fighting for, this is where we're going”. And so that kind of then comes back to what is the future you want. To share it, to have a common goal and work together. Because often that point was that we're fighting against these other organizations. They've got a common goal. They publicize it, they talk about it, the news headlines talk about it, we spend all our time countering that. But we don’t have enough time coming up with our own vision, because we're too busy. Help us find the time to create our own vision.
Now, coming to the practical futures. So Estonia has a very long course a tradition in public sector, but it has always been, I think, a very closed circle. And now whenever we are talking, for example, with small companies about futures, they tend to be very skeptical about the usefulness of foresight when they don't have the experience. So what would be your elevator pitch to these companies? Where would you start? Which arguments would you prioritize when telling them that foresight is useful?
Luke: I have one idea now that we talked about with the client in a workshop recently, and how we frame some of the work and he was around - often with big companies that focused on the goals, short term goals and objectives. What they need to do now? And foresight is a way of saying, what are my goals and objectives in the future? What's the next thing? Because I'll have goals and objectives? What are the goals and objectives that I will have next that I'm not even thinking about? Because you could also start implementing them next, what am I going to be accountable for next? Because everyone's so focused on today. And then they look at the next thing today. And the next thing today, and the next thing today, and it's nice to be able to say, what do you want to be accountable for? What should you and what will you be held accountable for even in three years? What things should be on your radar?
Angela: I think more and more the conversation around purpose is actually deeply aligned with foresight. So for a long time, I think foresight in some of the inquiries that we came in was very much around prediction, or scenarios or trends, and really having this preparing for the future and understanding “Yeah, what might happen? And how should we respond? And how do we prepare?” and that conversation. And that needs to happen nd additionally, I think this idea of vision and purpose, and recognizing that you are held accountable to much longer terms. Leaders right now are not just held accountable to returns, they are held accountable to climate impact, to workforce reskilling, to social justice to a number of different issues. And those are long term issues about the society we want to build the future we want to live in. And we know that consumers are demanding from businesses, if we look at some of these Edelman Trust Barometer that say “Should business be doing more or less on a societal scale? They're like, No, we demand you to do more. And if you don't, there are consequences to that. And so I think that's what we're seeing now is that you can either come to foresight by pressure or by vision, and I think like that idea of like: “I want to build a future where we are going to be here for the next generation! We are going to be relevant. We are going to be speaking to the larger societal issues that are meaningful to us.” And you do that either because you have this larger mandate of building a world that you want to live in, or you recognize that consumers, yeah, by pressure, consumers will support the companies that are aligned with their values. And this does require foresight lens, it does require longer term perspective, what is broken right now in our stories? What are the new stories we want to build? How do we build new systems that support those new stories? And so I think the pitch is very connected to a sense of purpose and values and ethics, whether we're even talking about algorithmic justice, intergenerational justice, which is connected to climate justice, or economic justice, like all of these justices I'm finding are some of the first conversations that leaders and organizations are having around the future is like, what do we do with these questions?
How resource intense is the foresight process? So in Estonia, most of the companies are either small or medium sized companies, and when they don't know about the process, and maybe not necessarily they don't have the consumer demand them to become more ethical, or they don't sense it yet. Then how to tell them at first, how much resource do you require for foresight? How time consuming is that?
Luke: I guess there's a few different parts to it which we've seen over the years. So one is, let's say, a foresight project where we're gonna explore what's the future, this x, or this trend, or whatever that thing is, and we're just gonna explore it, understand what's happening, create some scenarios, create some ways that's going to affect us, do some thinking. And then some of that might become insights into the product strategy, or whatever the kind of corporate strategy team to help them of make small or bigger changes. So that's a project. So that grows a team. The other thing is having a cover like a team during this ongoing work, which happens a lot, which is one or two people permanently working to scan and grab content, and changes. And then periodically being able to do that say, Okay, what's happening, why and how does it work together. And that requires some kind of some permanent commitment, because it's, it's a workload in itself. But I also think that the other thing which we find in some of the training that we do is, it's not the work, but it's the mindset. So with leaders, and it's just about how you read, understand and absorb or, and kind of distill what's happening around you, but make sense of it. So that doesn't require additional resource or time, it’s just slightly changing the way you already do something, which is absorb information. So now you absorb information with slightly more of a critical eye, thinking more long term asking some more critical questions about why is that happening? Is that something I should pay attention to or not? Maybe because of this and that, and then you just keep going. Just because of this practice that you have of thinking and understanding. And that's behavior change - that doesn't require you to do anything except change behavior eventually. I think that's there's two different things that can be helpful there.
I think this is very much also what's been discussed recently, for example by OECD, that foresight doesn’t always have to be a project but it's more about building a capability of foresight, through horizon scanning, for example, and then implementing these things in-house.
Angela: I think that this last part about mindsets and behavior change. Even when I think about when you said the OECD, I think about when these lists come out from these renowned think tanks about what are the skills of the future. Usually one of the top three is something about cognitive flexibility. You shift perspectives, you shift mindsets, you can zoom into the longer term while thinking about the details, you can think of anticipate multiple scenarios you can learn and evolve and grow. These are all foresight, skills, these are all ability to deploy a sense of gap of foresight in your everyday work. And this is consistently cited as key to the future of work as we will live in moments of deep transition, like we will no longer have periods of time where there are these long stretches, where things remain pretty consistent. And in order to deal with that, as individuals and as companies, you will need to build the kind of skill set that can evolve and grow. And often when you read the details of the skill sets of the future, they're specifically like foresight skills.
Yeah, very well noticed, I haven't thought about it this way. Quite often people say that, you know, it's like a field or a practice or a job to work at the foresight field. But actually, you can start growing it within you start noticing signals and try to notice the change and then contextualize it. But then coming to the designers, I'm wondering, what is the role of designers in this foresight, foresight ecosystem? Should they be leaders to develop foresight or should they use it in their work? How do you see? And for me, I see also that there's the field of speculative design, which is foresight process, but just named differently. So what is your take?
Angela: You know, Luke has a master's in what's your master's in speculative design?
Luke: Yeah, I was funny, because we talked about yesterday with the client, I think that that's helped me. and so that we were talking about the challenge with all of this work is communication and how to present some of these ideas to others, which is always the biggest thing. It is the challenge Angela and I found years ago, when we were looking at some of these tools and methods is that they are quite academic. And then you end up with written scenarios, matrixes, spreadsheets, documentation, and none of that is exciting, or provocative or interesting. And no one wants to read it. So what they want in the end is like, give me the top three bullet points, right, turn it into a deck. And so already, they're starting to translate it. And I don't think designers should make decks. But I think that there's a need for you to communicate and articulate the most important and key aspects of that and help people imagine and experience what this future could look like and could feel like - show me, let me feel it, let me touch it, let me interact with it, let me talk about it. And so, design plays a critical role in answering the questions like why should I care, which is what a lot of people have. So there's all this stuff “Why should I care? What's why is it important? How does it affect me?” And so there's this work to say: “Here's three ways this could radically change the way you wash your dishes or live in your kitchen or whatever that thing is, right? You're like: “Whoa, I hadn't thought about having an open kitchen where the whole of my community uses my kitchen. And then I use that. You've just shown me this. So based on these two things, you've just shown me a completely different way to live with my neighbors. Wow. ” So now it feels real, because you've told a human story. But this is a human in this future. And they do this stuff differently to the way you do it now. Is that good or bad? But you're able to show it in a human way. And I think that's the role and the power that designers can bring is huge, creating human stories that we can understand and experience.
So designers could be like future facilitators. Facilitating futures…
But moving on, I was wondering, can foresight also be harmful? Have you seen a process, which leads to like versus a process that leads to some kind of output or outcome that just is not right?
Angela: Yes! I think one of the main things that we've been combating in our work is this idea of heavy over prioritization of prediction. And you can see that when you take that approach, and you say, x will happen in the future. And thus, this is what you need to do as an organization, period. This is how you need to invest, this is how you need to think about your resources, because this is the future that we are moving towards. And I think that is what a lot of the present landscape looks like. When we think about foresight, that's what is. That's what is supported a lot because people like certainty, they don’t like uncertainty. So like the person who comes and is the most confident, telling you what's going to happen, even though that never happens, there's tons of books written about how much all the things we say never come to be, are very destructive. And I also think and there's been like brain imaging studies that also show that when someone tells you like this is what's going to happen, the markets are going to look like this, all of the creative and decision making parts of your brain that used to light up, they no longer light up, which is why the idea of plurality, which is also core to foresight, there are many different futures that can come to be and like - how do we understand them? How do we negotiate the ones that we want? - That's always been our and foresight’s approach. But there is another stream that seeks to calm everyone's anxiety by saying “I'm going to tell you what's going to happen”. But no one knows. No one knows what the future of work is going to look like. Yeah, we see different trends we extrapolate them, but no one knows what any future is going to be like, let alone like some of the longer term thinking that we need to do for many of the industries that we need to rethink because of our climate crisis, or because of decades and centuries of social injustice. How do we rethink this? Like, no one knows the futures of any of these things. So I think that can be really problematic - just exclusive prediction. Yeah,
What do you think about quantifying scenarios?
Angela: I think that's interesting when it comes to prioritization. Luke, do you want to speak about that?
Luke: Yeah, I guess it makes sense. But only within a timeframe, because for every year that you add to how far you're looking is like massive uncertainty. You can do that if you're thinking short term. And that's great. But now you're already thinking short term, right? I don't know if I consider that future thinking or present day thinking. Because what you're thinking about is based on the data, that is just past data, right, it's based on everything that's happened up until now, not the future, based on if things continue, like they did in the past into the future, the line would look like this. But the further out we go, the more that line becomes a cone. I also think that that and we talked about this, it comes back to Angela's point around agency, is if you do that, you say it's gonna work in that way. You don't ask the question of should it continue? You say this is gonna continue and everyone's gonna do this. But what we don't say is, is that good or bad? Because if it's bad, why do we keep talking about it as an inevitable thing, when we want to talk about is how do we minimize this danger from happening, this threat from happening? And I think that's that challenge of like, this deterministic thinking like “This is how it's going to be” and no one says “Well, what do you want? What's better? What's an alternative? Is that good or bad? Who's that good and bad for?” We just skip all of those questions?
Angela: A lot of the times when we do quantify scenarios, it often mostly shows us what the people in the room are paying attention to, which is also an interesting thing. I think that's interesting, where you get a group of people together and you can see that everyone, when we think about the future of work is only thinking about robots stealing jobs. No one is thinking about the impacts of universal basic income being deployed at a massive scale. After the pandemic, no one is thinking about shifts and the younger population that wants to retire at 40, the anti-work movement, like all of these other things, political and social things and people are only focused on that. I think that can be a good wake up moment, actually. So sometimes we do kind of prioritization or quantifying of scenarios, but not necessarily to say that now we figured it out, but also to show what are we paying attention to. What are we not paying attention to? What blind spots and assumptions are we making here?
And it's, this is a very good thing that you brought out that then you can challenge the assumptions or, the scenarios that have been quantified. Because you can quantify things for which you have data and for which you can make assumptions about future but then you can't have like more radical futures. Then, of course, question about sustainability and circular economy, as these are the two topics that are in the center of the Design Center project and where they are doing their research, how to use foresight in favor of sustainability and circular economy. Maybe just if you have some examples? I know it's a very broad question.
Angela: Yeah, I think part of circular thinking is recognizing that when I am designing this product and the service and I'm putting it out into the world, I will need to have a longer term perspective. If I want to design for circularity, I can't just design for this moment, I need to design for the longer term evolution of where this thing is going to end up. If I do want it to be repurposed, rethought of deconstructed, disassembled - if I want to think in those ways, I have to think about how society might evolve. I have to think about materials, I have to think longer term. And those are aspects of foresight. And so you see people similar to like what we just discussed about like, critical skills for the future of work. When you think about designing for circularity, so many of those questions will force you to zoom in and zoom out at many different levels and a different way from like user centered design where I'm only thinking about this one person in this one moment and I'm not thinking about other actors, and I'm not thinking about anything past months into years and decades to think that longer term of what will happen to this product, what do I need to build to allow for the Zero Waste world or more circular practices. So, I've just always seen these things as being aligned. And additionally, I think speculative design when we think about the big risks we are facing around our climate crisis, like incremental innovation is not going to get us out of that. We have 100 different conversations about that, it will take radical transformations. And those radical transformations have to come from a mindset and beliefs that we should challenge. Yeah, maybe we have greywater. And you have to see it in your toilet, not crystal clean water, or maybe our buildings are made from mushrooms. And we have to think differently about how we structure society. Maybe we use bioluminescence for lighting like these are big, absurd questions that challenge the way that we've come to think, oh, life is always going to look like that, I'm always gonna be able to consume endlessly. And I think foresight is designed to really challenge some of these givens and to really think longer term about putting something out into this world. There are consequences, and I need to understand them and negotiate them now.
And the time perspective, I haven't thought about it. Whenever you bring in the time perspective, you shift away from the past into now, that's a very good point at the at this time. Do you ever think about that you would like to have a counterfactual for now, the current moment - the alternative present?
Luke: Always. There was a lot of projects a few years ago that we were doing that were more about that. And which is harde when people thought “oh, you guys do future stuff”. And there's this assumption that we're thinking really far out. And then I'm like “well, no, here's the last four projects that we've done. And all of them have been deconstructing the present and reimagining the present, based on fundamental differences.” So they were around challenging the present and reimagining the present. We were using futures tools, but we weren't creating futures, we were creating alternative presents. Because it needed to be for that situation. We needed to ground it in the present, and talk about the present.
The F-word - futures - puts a lot of people off and comes with a lot of baggage. And there's a lot of time that people come and we talk about things and they don't ask me certain questions, because they assume they know what my work is. And then when we get into the details, it turns out they think that a futurist is someone who stands on stage with a PowerPoint and says, like, these are the top five trends. I’ve never done that, and I never will do that. But I will sit with you and ask you what you think is important. And why what would that come like? And imagine this. And imagine three other ways that could be the counter what you just said, and collectively wrapped together. So that by the end of it you go away thinking - there's so many ways that this one thing could go, there's so many possibilities, there's so many opportunities, there's so many threats, it's like it's maybe it's more complex now, but it's also full of more possibility and hope.
I see, it would be wonderful to go through that exercise for the present moment. I have a final question as we are reaching the end of our interview. So how do you see the future of futures for the field and for yourself? Because at Turku Futures Conference in June there were many presentations about, for example, using artificial intelligence in futures. I think it is a thing that needs to be discussed, even if it doesn't evolve to our everyday life. But there are already some futures platforms that use artificial intelligence. There seem to be some changes in the air.
Angela: But then I'm actually colored by the two most recent conversations I had with futurists over this past month, they were both older North American and European men. And both of their comments were nothing about artificial intelligence, one was talking about elevating the consciousness of CEOs. He's like “Yeah, we'll get to the AI stuff later. But none of this is going to work. He's like, my work is actually about spirituality. I don't tell anyone that. But if we don't elevate our consciousness to another level to understand what we have in front of us, and to really see those risks, these dated mindsets will never actually allow us to innovate into anything better.” And I was like “Oh, I didn't know that's what you were talking about”. And then the other one I spoke to was in a panel. And they asked him about the future of work. And he was like: “I have no idea.” And that's some of the issues that we're dealing with in foresight, Luke and I, is this sense of certainty. And I've been saying this alot, but it was just interesting to hear that, and a lot of the conversation centered around ethics. And really wrestling with and understanding our histories. And I'm like: “Where's this coming from?” It felt very odd. And so I think we're at a point where we're seeing enough fractures in society. It is a very mainstream understanding that we need to understand AI. How is it going to impact business, our lives, society, culture? It's already impacting and shifting stuff. But I think that people want more. I think people are also a little sick and tired of hearing how much AI is going to impact us and are looking for something deeper. We're like, well, what's the point? Why are we talking about this? I think more people are asking what are we doing? Why are we talking about this? Where are we moving towards? And I think the pandemic has something to do with that. I think it elevated a sense of consciousness and shifted how we thought about time and work and how we move about and I'm seeing some conversations now as the fringes get louder, around purpose. Why are we doing what we're doing? The ethics, the implications of our work, challenging uncertainty, really building new mindsets that are fit for the future that aren't so brittle that will break at the first moment where we see one of these massive global risks really deeply impact our immediate world. And that's a lot about mindsets.
That's true. It's very interesting to hear these reflections. Luke, the last word is yours.
Luke: I have a story that maybe I can share. And it was really useful for me to contextualize AI. And so I was in a pub a while ago with some friends. We were just catching up. So we're like, three, four minutes into the conversation. And everyone's together. And they're like: “Wow, generative AI. That changed quickly!”. One of my friends, though, is a photographer. And he rolled his eyes at the idea of yet another revolution: “I'm kind of tired of it now” We asked: “So what do you mean?” He said: “When I started in photography, I learned film photography, and then digital photography came out, and everyone told me that my job was gone. But it wasn't”, he said, “and then I learned digital photography.“ He said, “But then CGI got so good that you didn't need to do that anymore. And everyone told me my job was gone. So, but I carried on making photography. What was the next thing? So then you think that everyone's got mobile phones with cameras? So that came out and now you don't need photographers anymore? Because everyone's got it. So now you don't need photographers, but he's still doing photography. Now they're telling me that generative AI or that it was a stock photography, that it was making stock photography, so they don't even tog refers he said, but I'm still taking photography. It's just slightly different to what I did before. And I'm still doing it. So now generative AI, you don't need photographers to create images, you can just do that. But I will still be taking photographs and people will still want me to take photographs. But I just have to slightly tweak what I'm doing already. But it's like the fourth revolution I've had to go through in 15 - 20 years. For him the question is: “And then what?” Instead of like “this is going to change everything!”. Because all those things did change. It still exists. But things did change. And I think sometimes things get blown out of proportion, because they're exciting.
The interview was conducted by Johanna Vallistu.