One of the biggest barriers to creating better tomorrows is our inability to experience the future, today. Even the best strategic foresight project will ultimately encounter this problem. In its simplest form, even the most robust intellectual analysis of preferred futures lacks one of the key components for inspiring action. Without a visceral sense of what a better tomorrow might “feel” like, we too often revert to our safe images of a future that is just an extension of the present, even if that present is not a desirable state.
One strategy that has proven effective in overcoming this normal human bias is the introduction of experiential learning into the foresight process. By immersing participants in a future world, even a small slice of one, experiences can help bridge the gap between today and tomorrow in a way that no intellectual inquiry can fully accomplish. Giving participants the chance to “sense” a possible future creates a new level of dialogue that, can lead to a higher level of analysis and critique.
With Experiential Futures we do not strive to create suspension of disbelief, but to produce verisimilitude. We want to leave participants with the complete and total conviction that “yes, this could be my tomorrow!” To accomplish this requires that the experiences be more than real. They must be dramatic, entertaining, and engaging.
Of course, Experiential Futures come in many different shapes and sizes. One of the most useful ways to think about these different types of experiences is to organize them according to their intended purpose.
The very threshold for an Experiential Future is when participants feel like they have been “placed” into a future world. These experiences pre-create a future story world that is open for exploration and observation. In these events, the participant plays the role of visitor or tourist. The purpose of this type of experience is to provoke discussion about the feelings that the participants have in response to the scenario. In many ways, this type of futures experience is essentially an immersive theater experience set in a future. The most elaborate examples of these tend to obscure the line between foresight work and entertainment. While these “future spectaculars” can generate new levels of discourse, they fail to provide the participants with any sense of agency over the outcome of the scenario.
Immersive futures experiences are a perfect step between traditional focus group exercises and rolling out a potential new product or service prior to testing. Their use would be most appropriate for longer-term product discovery—particularly ideas that are beyond the reach of existing technology. Such an experience might pre-create a marketplace of the future or even a typical day in the life of a consumer. In this environment, the key activity would be the use of the future product or service. Much of the information gleaned from this experience would relate to design questions and personal attitudes.
Strange New Worlds
These futures experiences typically immerse the participants in a future that is significantly different than their expectations. This scenario can be negative, positive or a mix of both. The key element of this experience is giving the participants some level of agency. In a Strange New World experience, the participants are given tasks or work assignments like the ones they currently perform. The impact comes when they discover that the tactics they employ to solve current problems might be significantly out of synch with the future. By introducing tension into the experience, this approach highlights the shortcomings of strategies designed purely through intellectual discussions.
This represents the classic type of futures immersion, long used by military and strategic planners. The distinguishing characteristic of War Games is the application of tightly controlled parameters—both at the scenario and the interaction level. In most instances, the primary purpose of this exercise is to afford the participants the opportunity to test various carefully calculated strategies against a range of scenarios. This tends to be the most tactical of all the categories.
Agents of Change
While experiences in this category will often also begin with a prescribed scenario, they should allow for the greatest range of agency for the participants. The purpose behind this type of experience is to empower the participants in a very real and visceral manner. The experience should give them wide latitude to develop their own responses to the scenario and even the ability to change the scenario itself. One variation on this category would be the experience that requires the participants to build the future from scratch. While the choices of alternative responses in this experience can be tactically informative, the larger purpose of this type is to overcome the strongly held conceit that as individuals or organizations we have little control over the course of our future.
Creatively bringing together the elements necessary to create any of these immersive experiences is certainly more challenging than producing the typical white paper or PowerPoint. That does not mean to suggest that they can only be employed as part of larger foresight projects. Any of the experiences can be scaled. Often, even the simplest bit of immersion can go a long way toward opening up the dialogue, especially with audiences that might be resistant to the topic.
Pierre Wack, the father of business foresight, observed nearly half a century ago, that foresight can only be successful if it “got beyond the facts” and tapped into the emotional and mental models of the audience. While scenarios alone can help to bridge that gap, immersive experiences carry the potential to connect at a much deeper level. As we continue to explore new tools for creating better tomorrows, experiential futures will be one of our most effective tools.
About the author
Joe Tankersley is a writer, futurist, and former Walt Disney Imagineer. He combines his broad experience as a storyteller with a deep knowledge of strategic foresight to help organizations create compelling visions for better tomorrows. As part of Walt Disney Imagineering’s elite Blue Sky Studio, Joe helped establish the group’s first Strategic Foresight Program. In that role, he created a series of innovative projects designed to explore possible futures for The Walt Disney Studios, Disney Parks and Resorts, The Disney Company’s Corporate Citizenship Group, and Walt Disney World Operations. He continues to support those groups today as an outside consultant. In 2014, Joe founded Unique Visions, Inc. As a consultant, he applies the knowledge and skills gained by his years working for the world’s most successful entertainment company to help others create their best tomorrows. His clients include multinational corporations, major foundations, and community-based organizations. Recent projects have explored the future of the workforce, retail, sustainability, health, creativity, and aging.
Situation Lab by Stuart Candy
Artifacts from the Future by Institute for the Future
Museum of the Future at Dubai by Noah Radford