Imagining the Future

Two months ago, I found myself in a room full of designers, academics, UX researchers and anthropologists. A classroom, a projector, a set of post-its and design templates, brief individual presentations and lengthy team exercises, ideas generation and sketching – a rather orthodox, easily recognizable workshop setting served to facilitate a conversation amongst somewhat like-minded and variously trained individuals. All of us came to the Participatory Design Conference in Genk, Belgium, and took part in the Experiential Futures and Autonomous Driving workshop, in order to share personal experiences and professional insights, and ultimately tackle one question, or rather, imagine one particular future: a commuting experience in 2030.

As an anthropologist and a researcher of urban mobility (and a commuter myself), I find the future of transport an infinitely captivating subject matter – technologically, environmentally, socially and culturally. Yet as I travel the world trying to learn – from the present and the past – what the future holds, I seldom stop to ask myself, how, as an anthropologist, does one anticipate and predict the future? What tools do we have as ethnographers to capture behaviours that don’t yet exist, and understand socio-cultural contexts that are yet to come? And what role can we play in the making, as well as the understanding of the future?.

An Ethnographer’s Divination Toolkit

Appadurai has famously argued that we “need to construct an understanding of the future by examining the interactions between three notable human preoccupations that shape the future as a cultural fact: imagination, anticipation, and aspiration” (Appadurai, 2013, p. 286). It’s a straightforward and helpful roadmap, providing one with a set of concrete albeit highly vague and internalised phenomena to explore when seeking to understand the future.

How can we predict the future? By looking at how real people, in situated contexts, imagine it; anticipate it; and what life they aspire to live in the brave new world. What tools do we use? We carefully design immersive experiences, personalised interactions, and embodied activities that allow us to walk a mile in the respondent’s shoes.

When we researched pooled mobility in the UK, India and Brazil, we did exactly that. In order to identify socio-cultural barriers standing between the present (individual ownership) and the future (shared services) of mobility, we immersed ourselves in the worlds of commuters, tracing their dreams and fears, social aspirations and cultural apprehensions, identifying tensions, pain points and challenges to pooled services. Povinelli’s observation that “the future is not in the future, but in the myriad contradictions that cannot endure the present intersection and thus open the here to somewhere else” (2014) is poignantly accurate in the context of urban travel; it alludes to a number of ways in which existent experiences of mobility fall short of people’s dreams and expectations. As a seamless vision of robotic cars fills our imagination with futuristic ideas and pop culture images of what’s to come, “futures are replacing the past as cultural reservoirs” (Piot 2010, p. 16), and it becomes increasingly hard to discern who those visions of future belong to. It was therefore vital in the context of the project to get into the real-life granularities of cultural anticipations, dig into the socio-economic nature of aspirations, and explore the world of imagination – both highly embodied (based on personal experiences) and disembodied (abstract, fantastical) at the same time. This approach allowed us to harness the power of ethnographic thinking and surface a variety of expectations and experiences, thus, uncovering “the archaeologies of the future” (Jameson 2002:215) in the context of urban commuting.

The best way to predict future is to create it

As a corporate ethnographer, however, one’s task is further complicated by the fact that we cannot stop at interpreting people’s lifeworlds and asking what their imaginations, anticipations and aspirations tell us about the future they envision, fear and hope for. Our goal is not just to understand the future but also to shape it, using our own imagination and creativity as platforms for knowledge co-creation and for establishing more human-centred and inclusive modes of autonomous vehicles development and urban planning.

Simply put, once we understand ‘the future as a cultural fact’ – we need to switch to a different kind of imagination. Firstly, we need to become storytellers, and bring our learnings to life for multifunctional stakeholder groups. Secondly, we need to work together with them to turn our insights into recommendations and design principles that will shape their products and services– i.e. make the imagined futures real.

There are various ways in which we – as ethnographers, UX researchers and designers – can achieve this. Throughout the workshop hosted in Genk at the LUCA School of Arts, we engaged in a number of carefully designed activities that were all aimed at exploring possibilities and surfacing new considerations. We were presented with a set of short speculative videos that brought up different themes related to human experiences and expectations of mobility; we sketched images of shared mobility services in 2030 based on our own commuting routines today; we went back and forth between being researchers, commuters, human beings, designers, and, ultimately – storytellers, all working together to prototype and design an autonomous commuting service of the future. These are but a few weapons in the vast arsenal of design anthropology that can be successfully used to make strategic recommendations based on an imagined future.

The symbiosis of anthropology and Participatory Design has a long(ish) history of developing insights into possible futures and designing interventions. At Stripe Partners we have worked on a large number of projects seeking to uncover what the future holds, and what strategic implications it incurs – for this or that industry, with some or other product in mind. Thus, when discovering the future, we never lose sight of the key objective – to bring the client on board with our findings, and to ensure that they include our interpretation of future and possibilities when designing products that will shape that future.

As the relationship between design anthropology and Participatory Design becomes more and more established, there is a plethora of excellent conferences and workshops both close to home, and at the other end of the globe, that allow us to share experiences and toolkits, ideas and visions, to imagine, to anticipate and to aspire together. These encounters provide us with innovative toolkits and new confidence in the power of ethnography to predict as well as to make the future. And whilst only future will tell if we have been right in our predictions, we are confident at present that putting real people, their fears and dreams, desires and pain points at the centre of our future making endeavours is the only way to assume responsibility that comes with creating future.

// Anna Zavyalova

* Photos of the workshop by the courtesy of Participation Design Conference 2018.


Appadurai, A. 2013 Between Utopia and Despair. The Future as a Cultural Fact: Essays on the Global Condition. London Verso

Jameson, F. 2002 A Singular Modernity: Essay on the Ontology of the Present. London Verso

Piot, C. 2010 Nostalgia for the Future: West Africa after the Cold War. University of Chicago Press

Povinelli, E. 2014 Petroleum Dreaming