We are living during a period of history defined by uncertainty. Global climate change, political and social upheavals, demographic shifts and other large scale changes mean that past trends do not necessarily predict future ones. But this is also a period when design as a field is more prominent than ever, giving us tools to innovate in the face of challenges with uncertain outcomes. A primary design goal with these really big challenges should be resiliency.
Resiliency is a kind of strength. It allows objects to hold their shape, and people and organizations to remain intact under duress. To design resiliency we cannot just devise solutions to current challenges; we must also anticipate future challenges, and this requires futurecasting.
Futurecasting is not about predicting the future. This is a fool’s errand, yielding results that are almost certainly inaccurate. When I was growing up, magazines like Popular Science promised flying cars and personal robots in the 21st century. (I’m still waiting for mine!) Instead, futurecasting is about sketching possible future scenarios based on current trends across a wide range of disciplines including science, technology, social sciences, economics, environmental and energy trends, etc. Instead of viewing the future as a single linear pathway, it uses systems-based thinking to envision multiple possible scenarios from best-case to worst-case possibilities.
For this article, I want to focus on four specific and interrelated trends that will affect organizational resiliency in the next decade:
- Climate Disruption
- Artificial Intelligence
- Experience Design
Climate change is already happening, and the latest data suggest that it started earlier than previously thought. Many scientists also believe that the recent Paris accord is too little, too late to stop human-caused climate change. While there is promise of technology-based solutions to the problem, these will take time to both come on line and begin to take effect. So we can say with a high level of probability that many of the predicted effects of climate change are inevitable, and some— such as sea level rise, drought in some areas, flooding in others, and increased storm activity— are now unavoidable. Designing resiliency to climate disruption thus becomes of paramount importance.
What this means is that organizations need to be aware of all the possible effects of climate change, and what parts of their business are most vulnerable. For some organizations that means there are value chain risks to physical property, energy supplies or price volatility with raw materials or commodities. There may also be risks of products becoming unpopular due to shifts in the needs or attitudes of consumers, or regulatory risks due to governments taking action to mitigate climate disruption effects. These need to be factors in an organization’s design strategy to improve resilience. (Kem-Laurin Kramer has an excellent book on design strategy and sustainability called User Experience in the Age of Sustainability.)
Before proceeding on this topic, it’s important to define what AI means. There are different types of AI, and the differences are enormous:
- Weak (or Narrow) AI is non-sentient and focused on specific tasks
- AGI or Artificial General Intelligence is sentient and of equal intelligence to humans
- ASI or Artificial Super Intelligence is sentient and exponentially more intelligent than humans
To be clear, what we are talking about here is weak AI. We are a long way off from building a self-thinking, self-aware, sentient AI, and we really don’t know how long it will take or if it’s even possible. We are held back less by computing power and more by the fact that we don’t have a clear understanding of the inner workings of consciousness or sentience. It’s pretty hard to build something when you don’t know what you’re building.
However, weak AIs are going to have an enormous impact in wealthy countries in the next decade. A new development that is coming quickly is the personal AI avatar, a weak AI that acts as a personal assistant. It will filter information for you, customize your news feed, manage your personal and professional communications, and predict your needs and desires. These personal AI avatars will be gateways to access consumers. Some companies will design and customize the avatars. Others will negotiate with the avatars to deliver ads and marketing materials. Organizations need to understand how this technology works.
Objects with embedded computers and wireless connectivity, the ‘Internet of Things,’ will proliferate, and increasingly these objects will interface with weak AIs that live in the cloud. These will also interact with personal AI avatars. For instance, your avatar will know when you wake up and will tell your coffeemaker to start making coffee. Your printer will tell your avatar that your ink levels are low and then your avatar can order new ink from Amazon without bothering you. Rather than just designing individual products, organizations will be designing product ecosystems, and there will be no difference from a design standpoint between digital and analog experiences.
Another area that is seeing revolutionary change is transportation design. Enabled by weak AI, autonomous self-driving cars will become the norm in the next decade. That doesn’t mean everyone will drive one, but we will all share the road with them. Just like with the Internet of Things, experience design will be critical in how we interact with transportation, from cars to buses, trains and aircraft. Already, companies like Tesla, Hyperloop, SpaceX, Toyota, Honda and others are hiring UX designers to do the design work that used to only be done by ergonomics engineers. This is because people don’t just interact with their car or other vehicle, but are interacting with multiple hardwares and softwares both inside and outside the vehicles. Organizations working with transportation will need to think of their products and services more like digital devices and software-as-a-service rather than traditional transport.
We are in a cyberwar. Right now. The recent hacks of government email servers and the DDoS attacks that brought down sections of the internet in October, 2016 were skirmishes in this war. This war is very complex because some of the players are governments and some are private parties, but it’s often very hard to tell the difference. This war will affect everyone using the internet and connected devices, so organizations need to know what’s going on and have a strategic plan.
The recent DDoS attacks were especially significant because instead of using desktop or laptop computers to launch the attacks, they used other devices, like home internet routers and webcams. All of those Internet-of-Things devices are actually computers with wireless connectivity, and they are all vulnerable to cyberattack.
For decades cybersecurity and anti-virus efforts have always been a step behind hackers. Humans are a bottleneck in these efforts, and so the only way to be able to respond and defend against these attacks quickly enough to be effective is to use defensive Weak AIs. On the flip side, AIs can also be weaponized and used to launch attacks. Again, because AIs have an enormous speed advantage over humans, such an attack could be very damaging.
Hackers know this, and so an attack with a weaponized AI is almost certainly inevitable. Organizations need to have a cybersecurity strategy, and AI needs to be a part of that strategy. For individuals, personal AI avatars will not only be our assistants but also our bodyguards against hacking and identity theft.
With AIs being the new defensive and offensive weapons in the cyberwar, experience design is critical to being able to effectively utilize them and to understand what is happening.
Experience Design (XD), UX, and Design Thinking are becoming the biggest forces in all fields of design and business. This is because they work as effective methods for solving big, complex problems with human-centered solutions. XD/UX combines the creative ideation and sideways thinking of design, critical for coming up with innovative solutions, with the empirical rigor of science, critical to validating whether a solutions works or not and why. Studies indicate that startup businesses fail 80-90% of the time due to XD/UX failures, which include things like lack of a market need, being beaten by competition, poor product design, ignoring customers, etc. XD/UX is critical for business.
Some of the areas that XD/UX is expanding into include:
- Industrial design
- Product design
- Transportation design
- Fashion tech
- Medical tech
Increasingly, XD/UX is designing not just single products but product-service ecosystems. The empirical iterative process of XD/UX is particularly well suited for tackling big complex problems using design thinking and systems thinking.
In this time of uncertainty, there are unique opportunities for innovation. The organizations that are best prepared and well positioned will have a distinct advantage in those opportunities. By leveraging design thinking and XD/UX, organizations will have the critical elements to design solutions to climate disruption, AI, and cybersecurity. Futurecasting may at first sound more mystical than meticulous, but only by putting in place a proactive forward-thinking strategy can organizations design resiliency.