Foresight session at LIFT08

Still a struggle to find time to blog my notes from the LIFT08 conference. Here are some notes from the session about foresight. Scott Smith As defined by his complany tagline, Scott talked about "seeing change differently" or how to help people to see change more clearly. He defined foresight as "keeping your mind and your eyes aware of the periphery as well as what is in the immediately linear future, as there is always something that could disrupt your path". Following William Gibons's quote that the "future is already here but it's not evenly distributed", Scott then described how the future is hidden in little places or pockets we are not always aware of and insisted on the important of qualitative data (over quantitative extrapolations). Hence the importance of ethnographical approaches. He insisted on a set of tips to adopt a qualitative foresight approach: (1) be aware of what's going on around you, (2) scan, collect, organize, (3) look for patterns and deep currents, (4), understand the role of values, (5) have a view, but not an ideology (and be ready to step outside your boundaries), (6), stay grounded, (7), be prepared to leave behind the artifacts of your experience.

Francesco Cara Francesco works at Nokia, he's design strategist and basically described the sort of approach to innovation he favors. He started by insisting on the notion of ecosystem and complex systems drawn from Piaget that shaped his vision hereafter. Looking at the evolution of mobile communication, he showed how the ecosystem got more complex over time: from GSM phone units (closed by regulators, carriers, manufacturers) to WAP-based phone with more capabilities to exchange "with the outside" and finally a third stage with new services that tap into the Internet (maps, email...) and new entrants (Google, Apple). To do so, he actually used visualization from a project conducted at our EPFL lab called "Mapping the Digital World, Visualizing the fundamental structure of the digital world in mobile devices . This last stage forms a sort of "cloud" of services that is so complex that our way to interact with it are totally different. But the problem is the one of the interface: how to interact with this complex ecosystem?

(Picture taken by Bruno Giussani)

Francesco showed the different approaches adopted by companies such as Blacberry (specialized: email), chaotic interface with various ways to use services (Sony Ericcson), desktop-based (Apple iPhone) or portal-based (Windows). He then advocated for "fresh" innovation. And why is this in a foresight session? Francesco's point is that sometimes innovation does not lie in observing the past or looking for weak signals but rather to develop brand new approach and create new metaphor (that can of course be based on analogical reasoning, taken from other domains). His claim was not that the stuff presented by Scott is wrong but rather that innovation if a combination of both and it all boils down to the level of granularity in the data you need to inform design.

Bill Cockayne Bill started off by making a strong point that what he talks about is not "futurism" but "foresight" and the role it plays in the innovation process. What he means is rather how to inform the building of something that is 1-2 product life cycle away. Depending on the products (car: 10 years+, nokia: closer), what happen is generally 1st product cycle (made now), 2nd product cycles (strategized now) and what happen for the 3rd product cycles?

Bill focuses on where you kind of start the whole process. He explained how the ideas he presents has been developed as Stanford. For instant, they adopted the ambiguity curve as a way to decribe the process. It's used by Prof. Leifer at Stanford and it's inspired by work from MIT+Buckminster Fuller. The ambiguity curve is not explicitly referenced but it shows how the situation evolves. At the beginning, you have ideas (beginning of a problem) with a vast ambiguity ("but we have to live in it"). All the way to shipping a product you retain ambiguity but there are different stages:

The thing is that people are having a problem to figure out where to fit in this process, to be aware of one's strength or how to maximize them. What is design, what is foresight? How to connect d+f? The problem between r+d= people from research why what they give to developers is shipped and people from development never visit the researcher's office because they have work to do today. And there are same issues with foresight and design. However, there are no breaks between r and f or between r and d, eventually you have to ship products! There are 3(+1) stages: (0), wallow (what Scott described: looking for the future, not ready to start the projects, be aware and intuitive, scan/look/analyze data), (1) foresight (prepare and sense), (2) research (form and analyze) and (3) design (integrate, develop)

What is important here is the notion of roles, which was developed afterwards. I strongly recommend here to have a look at at the impressive work done by Michele Perras, who recreated the images form Bill's slides. For example the one that shows the different types of roles (see also Bill's discussion of the role on her blog which nicely covers the topic in greater details):

(Re-created by Michele Perras)

Bill then described what roles can fit with what part of the process and along the ambiguity curve. He also presented what sort of process takes place: informal/formal/corporate.

His last advice was to know yourself, and what role you can play: 1) if you wanna be an expert, please remain an expert; stay at school kids, focusing on what you're good at 2) t-person: learn another language, something complementary (take a design degree if you're en business expert), vast need for this people 3) break your breadth, take a new expertise 4) come talk to people like scott, francesco, bill and read widely

Why is that important? why did he talk about roles and not tools to predict the future? Because change is constant, which means that new opportunities appear constantly and "we love opportunities because that's where innovation comes from" and knowing where you excel at will help you to know who you are and make you more comfortable in the change environment and help you tell other people where you're good at.