“Any useful statement about the future should at first seem ridiculous.”
— Dr. Jim Dator, Futures Study Professor, University of Hawaii
Oh, those Jetsons! George and homemaker wife Jane, their two kids Judy and Elroy and their robot maid Rosie. It’s 2030 and they’re on their way to your city. Rosie with her blinking eyes was a bit cranky so George had to talk her into their driverless, flying saucer-like aerocar.
So busy those Jetsons! Even though three-day workweeks are the norm now providing ample “leisure” time, there’s so much going on with the kids – sports and scouts – the Jetsons fall into bed exhausted at the end of the day. They’re headed to your city to look for a house to buy, a house floating in mid-air no less, because they want a better future. They’re headed to your city so George can take a better job. They’re openly asking whether your city is the right place for them.
JETSONS IMPACT ON THINKING ABOUT THE FUTURE
The Jetsons have been around awhile. They’re a fictional family, of course, the stars of a 1962 Hanna-Barbera cartoon that lasted just one season. More episodes were made in the mid-1980s. But the 1962 season stands as the single most important piece of 20th century futurism. So says a Matt Novak writing in Smithsonian Magazine 50 years after the Jetsons first jet-packed their way into the American psyche.
Important because of the profound impact the show had on the way Americans think and talk about the future – even today. Important because back then futurists were already envisioning things like ultrasonic dishwashers, instant language translators and, yes, driverless vehicles. And some of those things are coming true with more likely to come true by 2030. We just don’t know the specifics – yet.
WHAT WILL THE JETSONS WANT?
Back to your city. Assuming your city wants the Jetsons to settle in its community, what does your city need to do over the next 12 years to be ready for them? What do the companies and not-for-profit agencies in your city need to offer?
Will the Jetsons want your city to be a leader in the way it deploys artificial intelligence on behalf of its citizens to run the city? What about zoning requirements for construction and upkeep of floating houses? If I’m a Jetson in a driverless vehicle, what infractions will the police pull me over for? What will policing even look like? Will drones be arrested and thrown in jail? With gaming now pervasive, what will the kids’ experience in your city’s public schools be? What kind of jobs will there be? How will everyone, including seniors and a diverse population including people from Asia, Europe, Central and South America, and the rest of the world come together in community? What will the definition of community be?
GETTING READY OUGHT TO BE ABOUT PLANNING
Getting ready for the Jetsons – figuratively that is – is what planning ought to be all about. But in most cities and many companies and not-for-profits, it isn’t.
That despite the accelerating change experienced in the last 12 years. Twelve years ago, the smart phone didn’t even exist. Not-for-profits didn’t rely on apps to provide services. Some cities were just putting in roads, parks and other infrastructure.
Now, there’s an app for everything. Young cities are rapidly approaching “build-out” and will need to deal with redevelopment of existing spaces to accommodate future growth. Residents are getting older and looking for ways to age in place and stay involved in the community. A cultural revolution is changing the way people work and play. In turn, they are asking how businesses, not-for-profits and cities will deliver better experiences – not features and benefits. The next generation of leaders and managers will be in charge. No doubt, there are other issues change will precipitate.
TENSION IN THE WORLD OF PLANNING
There is a greater tension in the world of planning now. On the one hand, people want to know where they’re headed; on the other, no one can predict the future. So no one can truly guarantee the plan they create will get them there. And the definition of “there” changes before the plan is set to expire. Concrete plans…they’re a challenge for sure.
Dr. Dator observes: “…we should all know by now that society is not some gigantic machine, the future states of which, if its inner workings are properly understood and its operations carefully calculated, can be precisely pre-determined.”
But Dator and others who study the future show us a way forward. Alternative futures can and should be forecast. Preferred futures can and should be envisioned, invented, implemented, continuously evaluated, revised and re-envisioned. Studies of the future need to precede and then be linked to strategic planning. All with the knowledge the most likely future you envision is often one of the least likely futures to actually occur.
LINKAGE: FUTURES THINKING AND DESIGN THINKING
At the same time, futures thinking has begun moving forward hand-in-hand with design thinking, allowing additional understanding and strategic thinking for the future. Design thinking is more about creatively solving problems for today’s world and the immediate future. It’s about a concrete concept that is tested, finalized and brought into use. It utilizes elements from the designer’s toolkit like empathy. You make decisions based on what future customers really want instead of relying only on historical data or making risky bets based on instinct instead of evidence.
Futures thinking, by contrast, aims to illuminate possibilities 10 years down the road through the creation of alternate scenarios. Blending the two together allows more future-proof design of products, services and communities. It allows for the design of concepts for any one of the future scenarios, meaning that the end point of the futures thinking process can be seen as the starting point of the design thinking process. One feeds into the other.
The ultimate benefit of the blending is that rather than designing something that today’s user will use today, we better understand what the user might want and need in the future and evolve with him or her…and the Jetsons.
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