Designing for the Future | An interview with Jake Dunagan

Strategy, at the core, looks at desired outcomes and the decisions made to achieve them. At verynice, thinking about the future is not just best practice, it's something we hope to educate the world about. Meet Jake Dunagan, for the last two years, Jake has led the effort at verynice and most recently contributed to our new book, 'Toward a Preemptive Social Enterprise.' We sat down to discuss what futures work means and how organizations can build this capacity. 

How would you describe your work?

The core of what I’m trying to do is to help people understand change, envision alternative futures, and then actively build a better world. This is done through a battery of theories, techniques, and processes. Futures thinking favors those that can connect dots at an abstract level, across a wide range of fields, and then drill down to the details of how trends and emerging issues might interact, amplify, or deflect in possible real-world contexts.  It is a challenging, but often thrilling endeavor. One is always at the edge of one’s capacity, and learning how to learn (fast) is key.

One of the best ways to learn is through direct experience. But we can’t directly experience the future because the future only exists as a projection from the present (and conditioned by the past). To try and help overcome that, I’ve been involved in a technique called experiential futures, or design futures. This is a process of deeply investigating a subject, developing a compelling story, and then making that story tangible through graphic media, the built environment, performance, and other artifacts from the future.

My colleague Stuart Candy and I recently published a paper on a particularly momentous project we led in Phoenix, as part of the Emerge conference.

Can futurists predict the future?

Not any that I’m aware of! The world is a complex system, with fluctuating perturbations, unexpected events, and strange behavior. We might be able to make predictions about certain things, like elections, but even then, with usually only two candidates and a mass of polling information, we’re often wrong.

So, for me and many other futurists, prediction is a fool’s game. The better approach is to prepare rigorously for complex, accelerating, non-linear alternatives. Because we can’t predict THE Future doesn’t mean we can’t increase our foresight capacity and improve our chances for making better choices--to steer toward better future while being ready to take sometimes drastically different directions that we had originally planned. This goes for individuals, but I’m mostly interested in group and society-level strategies at this stage.

You recently contributed to ‘Toward a Preemptive Social Enterprise’ What do you hope people take away from this book?

First, that foresight and futures can make any endeavor better. Futures studies is not just about high-tech clichés.

Second is that business itself is an invention, and can be re-thought, re-designed, and re-deployed in new ways. As my mentor, Jim Dator, likes to say, “the world is a social invention, and we are social inventors.”

Third, is that it is not only our option to re-design business and society, it is our responsibility. We are ethically bound to leave a decent world for those future generations to come. Future-oriented, socially-minded business could be a big part of how we overcome some of the systems challenges we face.

What are some big things to consider in the next 5,10, 20 years?

There are always new technologies to consider, and we certainly can see current events casting their shadow on the future. But to take it a step more abstract, I think the biggest thing we are going to face in the next 20 years is the question of how to be an ethical person. Nothing in that question is stable. We are challenging long-held beliefs about human nature, the mind, individuality, etc. We also live in a world of extremely turbulent change, so even if we somehow figure out ourselves, the self will be in a new world almost every day. We’re going to have to get used to irreducible ambiguity, and do the best we can with the knowledge we have.

A long-term, systems-level view that is emotionally connected to living beings is how I orient myself. And, stealing from Jim Dator again, I take my work seriously, but not myself.

Is there anything organizations can do now to prepare?

Get real about there not ever being a return to “normal” times (if we ever had normal times), and then get professional help. My four-step argument about futures is this: 1. All humans think about the future. 2. We are not very good at it. 3. It is not our fault (spoiler, it’s baked into our brains), and 4. There’s something we can do about it.

The “something” we can do about it comes from three generations of scholars and practitioners developing tools and techniques to think about the future more usefully. Seek out futures thinking tools, raise your foresight capacity. I mentioned “professional” help, and that’s what we provide at verynice, but in reality, the best outcomes are when students, companies, organizations or agencies take this initial learning and make it their own, and leave us behind. My goal is to have hundreds of “former” clients doing their own futures work, and becoming architects of better futures. I think we’ll all be better off in that scenario.