Otto von Busch, XXI magazine, iss 98, April 2011

Provoking the future

As time pass, change happens and the world moves on. Paradoxically, as science has observed, the world seems to evolve following two opposite routes. According to physics, as eons of time pass, we move towards the “heat death of the universe”, that of thermal equilibrium, where all movement match out in total entropy. This future decades into an infinite soup of grey. This is the fate of the universe, an end close to absolute freezing, of zero Kelvin (0K) degrees.

On the other hand, in biology, the opposite is true. Through the generous radiation of energy from the sun, the living systems on our planet exist far from equilibrium, and the progress of time means increasing diversity, as every offspring is unique and species mutate and evolve. For biology, life exists in abundance.

The changing times challenge design, and it exhibits similar paradoxes. Globalization seems to equal out choices, and the “McDonaldization” of design establishes identical shopping malls across the planet. We seem to be heading towards a thermodynamic equilibrium of design. This is a future offering 0K, or absolute zero, of appeal. But opposite to this, we see tendencies of increasing variety. We are swamped in goods and design, and on top of this, customization seems to enter increasingly more fields of design. With user engagement, tinkering and hacking, the individual’s will is imposed onto any product making it almost genetically unique.

The engineer usually handles measured and predictable futures with regulated transformations in granular, step-by-step modules and is devoted to rational values of efficiency, calculability, predictability and control. This approach limits the possible creative leaps of design mutation, and it is here “design thinking” has proposed its new competitive edge to business and as a method to release unconstrained eruptions of creativity in any firm. Design thinking has also been promoted as a way to bypass the limits of user engagement or participatory design practices.

User involvement in innovation is a contested area. From the perspective of participation the idea has been that products and services are more likely to succeed on the market if companies ask what the users want and also aim to satisfy user needs. Coming closer to the customer or user would help designers make stuff the user really wants.

Book Shop truck - July 1929 Modern Mechanix

In disagreement with this, others have suggested that involving users stifles the generation of visions and innovation, as users only want what they already know and seldom bring about radical new ideas. They see user-engagement as 0K of innovation, the entropy of design. Not only this, the perspective of giving users qualities of co-designers creates unrest in the lines of designers, as it seems to undermine both the artistic taste of the individual designer as well as the hard-earned authority of the profession.

Here design thinking come to save the day, offering practical, creative resolution of problems by combining a unique mix of designerly empathy, creativity and rationality. A key ingredient in design thinking methodology is the iterative cycles of prototyping, using mock-ups and models, social games and play, brain and body-storming techniques to create scenarios of interaction, products and services. For designers, such evolutionary techniques usually seem like safe ground, as it also gives overview and control to the designer.

However, we could also use other tools to make possible futures tangible and discussable, to break the entropy-spell freezing the minds of users to the current. One such tool could be the use of “provotypes”, a termed coined by Danish designer Preben Mogensen. These are not prototypes primarily made to test functionality but instead designerly probes, conceptual as well as physical, to point out possible futures. They are usually produced by the designer and aim to provoke and break the horizon of imagination among users and participants. As a work tool the provotype mobilizes a pendulum movement between visions and engagement, future and present, imagination and hands-on work as it gathers the participant’s attention to new possible futures. It may look like fantasy, but it is also a way to start discussing the future.

Old popular science magazines show all kinds of unconventional innovations, some which came true and exist today, but most just fantasies. Yet, in their hopeful naivety they often show a much richer variety of possible futures than whet we meet in today’s design magazines. To keep design away from the entropy freeze of absolute zero we might need to provoke the future a little more.

Don’t prototype – provotype!


inventions wanted

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