Designing for People Who Don’t Yet Exist

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Designing for People Who Don’t Yet Exist

To inhabit the future is to work to imagine how our world is changing, by reflecting back on the present through the eyes and experiences of people living in a possible future, and trying to intuit how they understand the world differently than we’ve been trained to do. It is a specific approach to design futurism, to solving problems whose natures may be hard (even impossible) to grasp when we begin from older assumptions. We inhabit the future to free ourselves from the blinders of convention. We practice inhabitation to seek better questions.

Inhabitation is very much still an idea-in-progress, but as we explored it at IDEO, we found it rests on two techniques: worldbuilding and human-centered design.

“Worldbuilding” involves the intentional creation of a speculative setting, meant as a stage on which fictional people can act out a study or story. In contemporary life, we’re surrounded by worldbuilding all the time: in science fiction films and novels and videogames, in futurism, in marketing and advertising, even in journalism, where anticipating and describing fictional outcomes has become a common storytelling method when covering future possibilities. It is almost impossible to use the Internet and avoid encountering built worlds.

But not all speculative worlds are built equally well, or to the same ends. Made-up worlds are put to a huge variety of purposes: pure escapist entertainment (like the science fiction adventure Star Wars), provocative commentary on current events (like the television program Black Mirror), explorations of human nature (like the novel 1984), attempts to lend a product or service a sense of superiority by identifying it as more futuristic than its competitors (half of the advertisements for technology companies you’ve ever seen), political persuasion (by portraying the dystopia that will result from bad decision-making), and so on and so forth. The storytelling tools of built worlds can be remarkably versatile. []