Design for the next-to-be

Why will designing innovative products and services in the new decade be different from the past? How will Design facilitate the process?


17.01.2020 - 7 min read

The Twenties of the new century have just begun, and it’s time to do some thinking about the decade that awaits us. In the last decade, the world as we know it has changed a great deal in almost all areas: political instability, market volatility, general uncertainty in the economic and social dimension. We can dust off the concept of Vuca, an acronym (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity) coined after the end of the Cold War to describe the current state of affairs.

It seems that Giambattista Vico was right in saying that history proceeds by courses and recourses: a significant acceleration of economic and social phenomena characterized even the Twenties of the previous century. We hope, however, that, for the political part, it will be better than then.

In the business world — the one we can observe more closely from our studio — we have noticed how new players have invaded the landscape. They exploit emerging technologies and new operational models to redefine policies to become the reference points not only of the market but also of civil society, defining new levels of quality in people’s experience and service models.

We can also cite some companies as paradigms of some trends: WeChat is the symbol of how the boundaries between different industries are fading; Tesla or Amazon defines the level of experience we all want to live; Forward shows how new technologies are opening up entirely new markets.

Furthermore, the situation of global political uncertainty has been so great that we are beginning to look at these realities and the models on which they are based as a possible solution to regulate the rest of society. Radical change is not only inevitable but also desirable.

Exponential technologies and space of opportunity

If it is true that we are in the Exponential Age, we need to shed some light on the terminology. 

A technology can be said to be exponential when, in a given time, it doubles in capacity or performance; or halves its costs. Such as computers and transistors, for example, which duplicate every 18 months according to Moore’s well-known law (although this doesn’t seem to be valid for a few months now -reference). Many other exponential technologies follow the same path, such as 3D printing, drones, robotics, artificial intelligence, synthetic biology, and so on.

When we talk about something exponential, we also mean something that transforms at very high speed. The space of opportunity that opens up before people and businesses is therefore vast and, at the same time, continuously and rapidly evolving.

But there is another aspect that distinguishes them:

Exponential technology is such when its cost/performance ratio allows it to be adopted into the solution of today’s business problems in ways that were not possible before.

And companies must be ready to deal with it, reckoning both with speed and with the possibility that change is not gradual, but represents a paradigm shift, a real quantum leap.

The burden of change seems to fall mainly on companies and organizations, which are significant intermediaries in the relationship between individuals and the future. And, if, on the one hand, this perspective gives dizziness and high stakes, on the other hand, the advantages for those who can correctly interpret the opportunities of this new scenario are very high, both in terms of revenue and market leadership.

What seems to be desperately needed is some kind of order that allows to redefine clear directions and to face the future with a perspective. Already in the technological field the first, timid, attempts at regulatory regulation are emerging: the PS2 in the banking sector, the GDPR for people data.

Near, remote, and possible futures

The future is a fluid and plural dimension. It changes, it transforms, and can only be looked at through the lens of probability, of desire, of hope sometimes.

It is better to talk about futures, instead of a single generic tomorrow: not everything that will happen is equally uncertain. Some events are so determined that they can be treated as a present; others are possible; others are options that cannot even be considered so remote in time or burdened by immeasurable variables.

If in the political and social dimension, we are still in the VUCA dimension, in the market and technology things seem — caution is a must — to have reached a lower level of uncertainty.

This is the space of what we have called “next-to-be”: a future that is already sufficiently defined to be addressed with the tools of design thinking.

Progressively, the technologies will enter a phase of maturity and therefore, they can be adopted in specific periods. In the same way, the regulatory framework is becoming more precise and can start to direct some grey areas.

The future is getting more evident as it approaches and allows those who can interpret the information to plan their evolution. In other words, to deal with the near future with a design approach.

From experimentation to industrialization

The idea of future pairs well with that of imagination. It is not possible to face the future without being able to imagine it.

In the case of a distant future, imagination can run free. It’s the space of science fiction.

We can say, without fear of being contradicted, that in 2375 there will be a Galactic Hegemony. This statement is neither true nor false. It could be suitable for a film or a book.

If, on the other hand, we interpret the trends already underway, we can make probabilistic statements: in 2070, the world population could count 10,459,239,501 people. This data allows us to make assumptions in many areas: the productivity of crops, the availability of commodities, housing…, but the margin of uncertainty is still very high. An asteroid might yet hit us and nebulize civilization in a snap.

In the “next-to-be” context, on the other hand, randomness is reduced (although it does not eliminate the possibility of uncontrollable exogenous events).

For the first time in decades, companies can define a transformation horizon by planning the technological leap in the short and medium-term and look to the future with an industrialized approach.

Risk management in these cases is lower, and companies’ investments are no longer loss-making, as in the case of going into the domain of distant futures. The 5G, to give an example, will become a reality in the next two years, depending on the legislation of individual countries; the same is for the automation of vehicles.

Long story short, it is possible — and in this the Design is fundamental — to imagine the future five years from now with reasonable precision, to understand which technologies will be mature by then. Then they can start a backward path to understand what kind of experiences people will live, identify which will be the technological and operational platforms that will enable them and, finally, define a roadmap to bridge the gap between that vision and the present.

We can also try to outline the steps of this path:

  1. Look at mature exponential technologies, understand what their adoption curve will be 36 months from now, understand their implications and possibilities for people, observe and understand the macro trends crossing the market and civil society.
  2. Imagine what kind of experience people will have and define the ideal front-stage and back-stage service operating model to support this kind of experience.
  3. Identify the ideal application and operational map (BSS / OSS) and evaluate the distance between the infrastructure of the future and today’s reality to understand how to transform it so to offer that kind of service, or product.
  4. Define a roadmap to fill this gap and execute it.

The role of Design is to define the future scenario and analyze this vision to derive requirements from it so that organizations can orient their investments for the next three to five years on a specific change curve. While the discipline’s approach is strategic in terms of infrastructure, it remains experimental in terms of business functions. Precisely because the path organizations will have to take may not be linear, but it may force them to make quantum leaps both in terms of supply and internal structure.

But beware: focusing on the next-to-be does not eliminate the need to build hypotheses and scenarios to prepare for more remote eventualities. Just as there are different stages of the future, there must be different ways to deal with it. Design can make a fundamental contribution: as the “tenth man” when looking at the far future, as an interpreter and visionary when dealing with the medium term, and as a pioneer when coping with the next-to-be.

The future is above all the result of the way we can imagine it and thinking about the future changes the way we design for the present.