Postcards from the Future

By Sandjar Kozubaev

In our futures practice, we are often asked about what it’s like to immerse someone in the future and why it’s important. One of the ways to do that is to use designed artifacts to turn an idea about the future into a lived experience, albeit small and even fragmented. Getting glimpses of the future and experiencing them in a tangible and visceral ways helps the audience suspend disbelief and open themselves up to seeing an issue or a question in a new light. This is one of the reasons why design and futures has been intersecting and collaborating in recent years to create provocative and critical representations of the future. These works range from highly polished prototypes of imaginary products to immersive enactments involving props and improvisational actors.

These experiences of the future can be very striking, and create rich conversations about longer term uncertainties. The downside is that they can take a long time and significant resources to produce. Fortunately, there are very simple ways to do that. In a recent insights festival series called Imagine If, where North Highland and our clients came together in London, New York City and Atlanta to share insights about the present and future of their businesses, we had an opportunity to put our twist on a classic futures activity and called it “Postcards from the Future” at the Atlanta event. This activity is one of our favorites, because it is accessible and is well suited for short but provocative interactions.

The concept is simple, a participant imagines herself in a particular place in some distant future and writes a postcard to someone they care about. The postcard could be a highlight about what they saw in that place, a personal note or just about anything. The only constraint is that it needs to be written from the context of the future of that place. We designed a series of postcards from the year 2050, representing a variety of places ranging from the Louvre in Paris to a settlement on the Moon. Simply putting an audience in the situation of writing a story about an imagined yet concrete place through a believable interaction can have a lasting impact on how they think about the future. The point, of course, is not to predict the future, but imagine alternative ways of being in that world. And that’s what innovative thinking is all about.

Our participants’ stories blew us away. They included crazy and whimsical imaginings on topics such as climate change, transportation, virtual reality, health and wellness; and the list goes on and on. The next time you find a need to imagine an alternative future, ask yourself this question: What is the simplest interaction you could create for your audience (your colleagues, stakeholders, community members, etc.) that would allow them to live in the future, even if for a brief moment? Answering that question might be easier than you think, and the insights and rewards can be tremendous.