Imagining and designing the future together

March 4, 2021

Andrew Bullen and Janine Huizenga, Co-founders: Creative Cooperative FR/NL

Our vision of the future is shaped by our aspirations, our ideals and our past experience. And more than ever, our present experience of the pandemic, and its impact on almost every aspect of daily life, have brought into sharp focus exactly what really matters to us, whether as individuals or as a community. Such humanistic imperatives as healthcare, security, freedom, family, friends, work, education, democracy, availability of food and information, fair distribution of wealth, and the health, beauty and diversity of our shared environment not only reflect our values, but also represent essentials for the future prosperity and wellbeing of humankind. In many respects, the pandemic, with its daunting challenge to humanity, has brought the world closer together in the realization of how important our shared core values are. This has acted both as a trigger to ‘rethink our socio-economic’1  model on the basis of shared economic and social fragilities and also as a motivator for collaboration in adversity.2

In this light, it is not difficult to understand our real values, what matters and what’s at stake for our future. However, life in a global and digitalized environment is far from simple. Indeed, it is becoming increasingly complex, whether in a business organization, an urban agglomeration or a rural community. Consequently, when we imagine the future, and design solutions to realize our values for the future, we must also grasp the implications of the interaction of multiple, inter-related factors. We must focus on the promotion and sustainability of valuable but vulnerable eco-systems to maintain the balance between human and non-human factors. To achieve this end, we believe that it is essential to complement human-centered technological design principles, involving the use and understanding of technology in a participatory creative process, with the broad vision and insight provided by systems thinking.

In the early 2000s, our company Creative Cooperative started to create urban design challenges around what Jane Jacobs called “problems of organised complexity”3. We brought together policy makers, innovators, architects, designers and communities to create innovative urban solutions through the use of open and collaborative methodologies and technologies. On this basis, we initiated the European Street Design Challenge in Paris to co-create scenarios for the future city, based on a systems thinking approach to inspire alternative design scenarios from a broad future vision, based on systemic trends, driving forces, parameters and values.

The results of such an approach provided a new design paradigm for the digital city of the future, based on the tension between conflicting driving forces: trust and security as against change, creativity and risk on the one hand and competitiveness set against broader ethical/social considerations on the other hand. This approach gave rise to urban designs focused on shared and open knowledge facilities, the fusion of physical structure and digital information, and new forms of technology-driven sensory presence in the city. Knowledge exchange was considered as a new future form of “value-transaction”.4

However, understanding the system, its components and driving forces is not enough. Further challenges in the Parisian banlieues, Amsterdam, St. Petersburg, Cairo and China, and the design of urgent solutions for the UNDP in Egypt and Georgia, saw us move towards a more participative design-thinking approach to place the ‘empowering human’ at the centre of the design process.

Particularly, our United Nations work with the disadvantaged and disabled in Cairo and Alexandria, and our projects with locals in such ‘sensitive’ areas of the Parisian banlieue as St. Denis, Bondy, Bagnolet and Montreuil, brought home the value of co-creating and co-designing with locals. They are not generally included in application or system specification and design, but they really understand the issues and can be inspirational and instrumental in addressing and solving those issues together through their own ‘real-life’ experience and expertise. Who else could be more equipped to co-design a new disabled-friendly pedestrian system to traverse the intimidating Cairo traffic than the disabled who must face that daunting challenge very day? To be effective, this participative creative work needs the careful development of one critical factor: trust, both in the leadership and the technology. And not only when working with disaffected groups communities in Egypt, France or rural China. The pandemic has shown that governments across the world which have inspired trust among the population have been more successful and credible in their application of science and technology5.

However, the limitations of design thinking methodology, when not informed by broad perspective and future vision, led us to the development of a new, hybrid approach, reintroducing systems thinking to complement the ‘human centred’ element. This complementary approach aims to achieve the most effective design of services and solutions to meet often urgent human needs and aspirations while embracing complexity with a longer-term systemic approach.

We have been successful with this approach, for example, in the United Nations “Loud and Clear” project in Tbilisi, where we worked closely with 

deaf participants to design a new 112 emergency alarm and response system for their urgent need across Georgia. Their personal trust, empathy, experience and expertise were all critical for the in-depth understanding and effective co-design of the service on a human level; as was a complete and thorough understanding of the complex technology and interconnected processes within the future-oriented system.

What does our experience tell us when we imagine and design applications with technology for the future? First, we must carefully examine the forces affecting complex systems, building scenarios for the future, and particularly designing resilience into those systems: the ability and flexibility within a community to anticipate and adapt to the challenges of the future, for example. This systemic approach is clearly applicable to such threats as climate change, ecological and environmental destruction, the decrease in biodiversity and the loss of essential material and natural resources. It will promote circular systems, a diverse and balanced eco-system, food security, environmentally friendly transport, renewable energy, and the use of locally available, often traditional skill sets and materials.

To complement this approach, we must normalise broader participation within the development of the systems of the future. As we have learnt, participation goes along with trust and transparency. Our shared technologies and data are too important to be placed in a ‘black box’ in the hands of a few powerful institutions or individuals. On the contrary, we must break open that ‘black box’, deconstruct complexity, and ensure that our technology and data use are transparent and understandable. Indeed, at a time of rapid development of AI, big data and high-speed computing, transparency around the use and impact of technology and the ownership of our data should become a civil and democratic right.

With all these factors in mind when imagining our design for the future, we are now embarking on the QuantIA project, which holds the potential to realize the ideals and values described above. The QantIA project aims to use the latest AI and high-speed internet, together with satellite technology, to better evaluate the ecological system, locating environmental degradation, and bringing together residents, experts and artists in understanding, communicating and mitigating its impact.

Whatever our hierarchy of values, we share a common responsibility as entrepreneurs and designers of technology solutions to ensure the prosperity of our world in a spirit of solidarity and fairness. Our vulnerabilities exposed during the pandemic have only served to highlight how we can, and should, work together with our users to understand complex social systems and design technologies and applications for an enlightened and dignified future.

1 Nasser Kamel, Secretary General of the Union for the Mediterranen, Mediterranée du Futur, 01.12.2020

2 “Believing that fellow citizens share one’s values has been found to elicit a sense of connectedness that may be crucial in promoting collective efforts to contain the pandemic. The abstract nature of values, and cross‐cultural agreement on their importance, suggests that they are ideally suited to developing and tailoring effective, global interventions to combat this pandemic.” British Psychological Society, 23. June 2020

3 Jacobs, J., 1961 The Death and Life of Great American Cities, New York: Random House

4 In this context, it is worth noting that the pandemic, particularly the life-saving role of low-paid emergency workers, has also brought into focus future-oriented reflections on ‘value’, from a social and economic perspective, as witnessed in ex-Bank of England Governor Mark Carney’s December 2020 BBC Reith Lectures “How We Get What We Value”, and inspired by economist and Professor Mariana Mazzucato’s highly influential work “The Value of Everything’ Penguin, 2019.

5 OECD: Transparency, communication and Trust: The role of public communication in responsing to the wave of disinformation about the new Coronavirus. July 2020.

Andrew Bullen is Co-Founder and CEO of Creative Cooperative, France/Netherlands. He is a Consultant to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in the Middle East and Georgia for the development of social innovation and entrepreneurship through design thinking and Consultant to major European regions for Innovation, Strategy and Design in the European Digital Cultural and Creative Industries. Andrew is also a writer (fiction/non-fiction) particularly on digital culture, media, creativity and society. He is Co-Founder of the European Street Design Challenge, global urban design competition, and the Lucitopia Rural Design Challenge, to regenerate rural areas in South East China. He has served in Directorships and Senior Management roles for major innovative European organisations across the creative digital media industry, design, arts and education in the public and private domain and as International VP of the Future en Seine Innovation Festival in Paris. Andrew has taught in major universities in the UK, Germany. Netherlands, Russia and China.

Janine Huizenga is Head of the Department of Interactive/ Media/Design at the Royal Academy of Art in the Hague. She is Co-Founder of the European Street Design Challenge and Co-Founder of the Creative Co-operative, France/Netherlands. She is a Consultant to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in the Middle East for the development of social innovation and entrepreneurship through design thinking. Janine has a broad creative background in art, media, design, photography, video and digital technology. This has proved to be a solid basis for her significant professional design experience in the Creative Sector, particularly for Waag in Amsterdam, which established itself as an internationally recognized creative institute during her time as Creative Director. She is a board member of several creative industries organisations in The Netherlands.