Not long ago, I had the great opportunity to appear as a guest on Will Sherlin’s Innovation Engine Podcast, and even though I thought we had a great conversation, there were a lot of things we just didn’t have the time to explore.
One idea I didn’t fully address was the connection between design thinking and the far future. It’s not an easy connection to make, because to design anything requires making it real in the present. To attempt to design a far future would have to be oriented to things we imagine we might want the future to be, but constrained by what we can envision based on life in the present. In that sense, it’s a bit of a paradox. But even though the mismatch exists, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the exercise wouldn’t be worth the effort. My expectation is that by going through the process, we would learn a great deal that’s worthwhile both in shaping a future world, as well as guiding us toward truly important changes in the present.
Langdon Winner, an author and professor of political science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, observed that our modern societies have been shaped by technologies that typically outpaced our foresight in putting them to the best uses. A classic example is the complication created by the increasing use of drones and their potential to interfere with commercial aircraft. In fact the increasing interference with commercial aircraft by simple handheld lasers is another. And the proliferation of video cameras and the ease of capturing and sharing their content instantly and globally has exceeded our ability to control any of it for good and ill. The internet itself created an environment well outside the ability of any nation to police it. Already several decades ago, Winner identified the phenomenon in his book, Autonomous Technology: Technics-Out-Of-Control as a Theme in Political Thought, and we as a society have failed to address.
Among the first inklings of actually taking control of our future was Walt Disney’s initial concept for EPCOT, a bold idea to create a piece of the future and bring it to the present - an Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow. Alas, the audacious notion of creating a living breathing city as an experimental prototype was not to become a reality. Soon after proposing the idea, Walt passed away, with his heirs lacking the vision and ambition to pursue his concept in full. A safer concept - a permanent world exhibition and technology showcase - was what replaced it. But Walt’s original version showed a remarkable departure from the type of random evolution that marks most of our history.
But as ambitious as Disney’s vision was in it’s time - already 50 years ago now - it didn’t really attempt to look very far into the future. Apparently inspired by his company’s wildly successful exhibitions at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York City, much of the proposed city was comprised of clever combinations of technologies he’d already prototyped. But the idea of creating a grand experiment has a huge potential beyond the use of technology; it offers the chance to explore ways people can live together more harmoniously.
I mentioned in my chat with Will that the rock stars of future visions tend to be technology and architecture. But as fascinating as these are, I also wonder what the future will hold for other components of the societies our descendants will inhabit. How will our governments change? In fact, how will our nations be transformed, reshaped, split apart and re-absorbed? One of the most fascinating issues to ponder is: with ever increasing automation and evolving intelligence of software, what does the future hold for human activity and in what economic context?
Finally, how will humanity’s distant future allow its inhabitants to thrive in ways that our current world doesn’t allow? Interesting questions that although they can’t be answered fully by us, seem still to be worthy of our exploration.