Consolidate ideas into scenarios
Could weak signals and foresight work also help in solving humanity’s greatest challenges?
As it happens, researchers more and more often ponder how information related to the future could lead to the emergence of better futures for us all.
Future alternatives are also at the heart of Aalto University Professor of Sustainable Design İdil Gaziulusoy’s work. She points out that the role of design has expanded over the last few decades.
‘Traditionally, design has been a servant of the consumer society. Part of design remains so, but our profession is taking an ever more critical view of its old role.’
Instead of physical products, a designer’s work may focus on, for example, an intangible service path, user experience or even a process to manage societal change.
Gaziulusoy’s own work deals with societal transition phases from the perspective of sustainable development.
‘Among other things, we emphasise processes of participation in which designers play an important role.’
Gaziulusoy’s research project in Australia makes for a good example. While at the University of Melbourne, she studied new alternatives for South Australian cities to develop sustainable and low-carbon futures.
About one hundred experts of different fields from research institutions, industry, NGOs and decision-making bodies took part in the futures workshops that launched the project.
Based on current phenomena, the workshops envisioned a future in which climate change-curbing emission restrictions had been implemented successfully.
Designers then gave the experts’ ideas concrete form by drafting them into imaginary news flashes from the year 2040. Some examples: Cycling becomes Melbourne’s most important mode of transport. Remaining cars assigned to public transport use. Drones handle post and goods deliveries. Buildings now harvest solar energy and their gardens are used to produce food.
The observations accumulated over the multi-year project were, in the end, condensed into scenarios that model future development paths. Among other things, they indicated that it is possible to aim for sustainable development from foundations built on entirely different sets of values.
‘In one scenario, strong government was the key actor, in the next, business dominated. In the third, communities took the lead and, in the fourth, micro-enterpreneurs.’
Gaziulusoy points out that the scenarios created in Australia were, above all, tools for testing differing perspectives, not agendas for the future.
‘In a world that is unbelievably uncertain and complex, it would be dangerous to commit too strongly to a defined future.’
The same idea applies to foresight work more generally. What’s important is not so much whether or not foresight hits the mark. More essential is that we learn to act smarter in the present.
Perhaps we could also detect weak signals in the coronavirus. At the very least, the pandemic has made us notice that the crisis cannot be resolved through the work of virus researchers and health authorities alone. Getting through it calls for the participation of all of us, whether this means working remotely, keeping safe distances or wearing a mask.
Perhaps a similar ability to cooperate could help us create a future in which even climate change has been halted.
Text: Panu Räty. Illustration: Noora Typpö.
This article is published in the Aalto University Magazine issue 27, October 2020.