In the last issue of ACM interactions, Richard Seymour has this good piece entitled "Optimistic futurism" in which he articulates an interesting vision of design+foresight. After discussing how a wave of relevant innovation stopped around the 70s ("what the hell happened to the future") people realized that the future dystopia represented in pop-culture may happen (although people though it couldn't possibly happen): "shrinking ozone layers, global warming, airplanes into buildings, rising fuel costs etc." The good point of the articles comes when Seymour states that "It's something we all need to see" (visualize the future!) and the role of designers in this, as in this excerpt:
"Designers cannot be, by definition, pessimists. It just doesn't go with the job. We're supposed to be defining the future, aren't we? (...) There's nothing on the planet that can't be made just that bit better (rather than just that bit different). But before you do it, you need to have an idea of where you want all this to go eventually, a vision of the future, with a set of stepping stones to let you get from the now into the future in an effective and efficient way. " (...) that's what we should be doing: leading the way by visualizing and articulating achievable futures that get us out of this hole.
I'm pretty sure the folks at Apple don't call themselves optimistic futurists, but that's exactly what they are. My favorite Steve Jobs one-liner is: "It's not the consumer's job to know about the future; that's my job." And he's absolutely right.
Jurassic corporations need to learn from the mammals. The secret of the "next big thing" isn't lurking inside the consumer's head, waiting to be liberated by some well-paid focus group. It's inside the heads of the dreamers, the futurists, the utopians."
Why do I blog this? some good thoughts here about the design+foresight issue and how both are connected through this notion "optimism", which correspond to a direction given to the future.
Also, the "beyond-focus-groups" design stance is important as shown by the quote from Steve Jobs; I guess some people may mistake it with a "don't pay attention to the user" but I don't think it's contradictory with having a user-centered approach by any means. It just reinforces the role of designers, who can him/herself base the work on informed opinions/educated guesses about people's life/motivations/desires/needs through field observation.