Archaeology of the future

When people hear about new ideas for the first time, their reactions are often shaped by existing mental models. Designers wanting to introduce new ideas in complex, multi-stakeholder settings frequently find that thinking about potential futures is constrained by this phenomenon and the problem is compounded by business concerns about disrupting existing revenue streams (Clayton Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma addresses this issue). In this post I want to explore a creative approach to thinking about the future that can help to address this common problem by framing and modularising how ideas are introduced to new audiences. This can help us manage the introduction of strategic, paradigm-shifting ideas alongside tactical innovation. A structured approach to managing the future is an important discipline for innovators. History is littered with ideas that weren’t birthed with an adequate understanding of how far ahead of their time they were, accompanied by a strategy to bridge the gap. The story of Xerox Parc’s innovations in personal computing in the 70’s and their failure to bring these to market are perhaps as significant a case study as we’re likely to find in recent times.

In my time at Livework we made extensive use of a concept we referred to as Archaeology of the Future. I’m not certain who coined this term (there is a book on science fiction by influential literary theorist Fredric Jameson called Archaeologies of the Future but it was first published in 2005 and Livework was already using the term extensively by 2006). Archaeology here refers to the importance of introducing new ideas in mundane, everyday contexts that make them appear achievable and useful. This approach to the introduction of new ideas can also be seen in consumer advertising for new technology, for example in Apple adverts showing people using new products, in recognisable contexts. Essentially the argument goes that the way to introduce new technology is to simultaneously demonstrate it’s revolutionary and yet recognisable aspects, creating a bridge between the two.

Archaeology is an existing concept with a long lineage that refers to the discovery, reconstruction, preservation and study of artefacts from the past. It’s approach to time provides useful tools for aspiring archaeologists of the future. A concept that I find particularly useful is that of strata. Since time occurs linearly, we can neatly divide events from the past into bands or strata of time which were subject to similar forces. The French philosopher of ideas Michel Foucault directly employed a method he called the Archaeology of Knowledge to study how ideas that were prevalent at a given historical moment influenced the political, social and cultural paradigms of that time. He would study documents and artefacts from a point in time time horizontally, looking at how what was happening in the broader culture influenced particular practices, for example critiquing how supposedly scientific attitudes to madness or sexuality were shaped by literary or cultural fashions.

What I take from this is the idea of using strata to give your audience a framework for the concepts you’re introducing. Designers working with sketches and Photoshop can easily mix innovations that are readily achievable in 6 months with ideas that organisations will struggle to bring to life within 5 years because of technology or organisational constraints. Mixing the two can mean losing credibility for your entirely achievable 6 month-off innovation. Using strata to show that you understand the time-frames involved removes risk from both conversations. Alternatively, in order to help make a 5 year away innovation more easily understood, mix it with realities from today to create a bridge. What’s important to understand is what you’re trying to achieve. Product development usually benefits from a sense of reality, whilst new concept development may need a sense of future-shock to shake out it’s implications. The affect you’re looking for should drive the choice of strata in which you choose to present your ideas. By presenting ideas with time attached we ground reactions within a framework and work towards alignment with development roadmaps.

Another key thing to remember is that we each experience the world through the lens of our own memories and experiences. There is no such thing as direct access to the future. This is why probability-driven methods of innovation so often go off-track (there’s still mileage in beating on New Coke!). What different audiences read as ‘tangible’ can vary greatly and it’s important that your strata are rich narratives composed of multiple perspectives. They may incorporate one or more of the following elements. Context setting frames the story and focuses the manner within which it may be critiqued allowing willing suspension of disbelief to be actively created, for example through using lo-res sketches instead of highly detailed Photoshop mockups. Scenarios or narratives of usage help everyone access the context and can allow multiple competing understandings to co-exist for a time. This is important since a single powerful individual who disagrees with the narrative of use can easily derail the entire exercise.

Narratives about user behaviour and experience add a dimension of experiential value and also believability. If our audience can imagine themselves or someone they know using the product, convincing them that others will too is that much easier. This is also why understanding your users is so important. If your audience doesn’t know who they are creating the product for, and it’s not them, they will find it difficult to make this empathic leap. And of course we can’t forget that organisations with shareholders, employees and other stakeholders who rely on them to produce revenue and profit need to understand the future through the rational language of numbers. A story that fails to explore market size, costs and revenue opportunity will struggle to convince those for whom the future is made using these tools as a scaffold. All of these swirling elements of tangibility revolve around your actual product prototype. Think of them as the soil in which our artefact of the future lies nestled. It’s an old trick of anthropologists. Telling the story of how you discovered your object builds your credibility to tell it’s true story.

It’s at this point that the tangible product itself emerges. Tangibility itself can be a very varied beast. Hand-drawn sketches or even signs in physical places, although obviously not real, can often be enough to bring an idea out. Since we’re usually trying to communicate ideas and convince others to buy into the story of this possible future, it may only need to be tangible enough to create a bridge to the future, allowing conversation to move forward. Other times we need future-shock to jump-start the process. Chris Downs (now at Method) is a master at presenting mocked up interfaces of competitors already offering future services. This has the effect of shaking executives who think such a future is too far off to need competing with. I remember once struggling for a whole afternoon to get a team to look beyond their siloed infrastructure to a potential future that brought all of their data into one interface for their customers. The next morning I simply presented an (entirely faked) HTML demo of just such an interface. This type of stimulus rapidly moves a conversation past “why we can’t do it” to “how we can do it”.

Of course these tricks can only reach so many people when they take place in workshops. To reach deeper into organisations they need social lives of their own. We should try to design these artefacts as trojan horses that can live on in our client’s own spaces, to be seen and picked up by new people and spread through the organisation. The more people become used to seeing artefacts of the future in their daily lives, the more susceptible they become to potential futures. You begin to create a shared language of the future and a fluency in it’s creation. Such artefacts should have a couple of key affordances. It’s good if they are big and impressive enough to have an impact, but not so large that they get in the way and are disposed of. Mounting A2 or A3 poster boards on foam, though very simple to make, are an easy (and classic) way of gaining some ‘artefactuality’. Larger posters have more short-term impact but are harder to leave behind. Things that get taken down from the walls after workshops fade from memory. Things that live on desks or against walls act as subtle reminders and prompt conversations between their curators and colleagues long after you have left the building. There’s no reason to stop at flat prints either. The more your embodied ideas provoke curiosity, the more powerfully they will act as conversational prompts.

A final point about such archaeologies is that we should design them to allow for gestation. Action about the future doesn’t often develop linearly from ideas. The social life of innovation is key to understanding how it’s actually achieved. Ideas require champions, conditions and a healthy dose of luck. It can take time for the conditions to emerge in which this version of the future is actually possible. Archaeologies of the future should bind together the aspects I’ve discussed and provide calls to action, enrolling people around their execution. Make sure they’re supported with an infrastructure capable of gathering supporters. This could be as simple as an email address and a willingness to have off-budget conversations or as complex as teams and budgets.

Hopefully some of these thoughts will help you think about how you manage the introduction of new ideas in your organisation. Careful support for the discovery, curation and nurturing of ideas from the future goes a long way to see them coming to life.