Let’s pretend

Yesterday, I shared some quotes from Inventing the future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work by Alex Williams and Nick Snick.

Here are some more thoughts about imaging the future.

The alternative as a utopian future

Science fiction has a good record of predicting the future. There was a brilliant talk by science fiction author Lauren Beukes at dConstruct 2012. I remember very vividly her saying:

Those who can’t imagine the future are doomed to f**k it up.

The talk makes the point of how often science fiction has correctly predicted the future. Lauren talks about how reality is often much stranger than what we imagine will happen.

The year 2016 has already proved this beyond any doubt – just look at UK politics, Brexit, the Labour party, and more recently the US and their new President-elect.

Imagining the alternative

Another future quote I like is from the BBC Music John Peel lecture 2015 given by the musician, artist, and producer Brian Eno:

You think about this world by imaging the alternative to it.

He talked about what children do when they play. They say “let’s pretend”.

I really like the idea that the best way think about a problem is to first imagine the alternative. To pretend.

Let’s pretend

To design the future we play at reality until it becomes reality.

There was a story I used to tell about my daughter Sarah when she was 2 years old (she’s now nearly 9). I used this story back in one of my first ever conference talks at Refresh Edinburgh which you can watch here.

As I remember, despite us buying her toys, I used to find her playing with all sorts of objects and things she had collected from around the house. Not so much toys but inanimate objects. The interesting thing was how she used to imagine alternate uses for everything she picked up and played with.

There’s no limit to a 2 years olds imagination. A hairbrush became a microphone, an ice cream cone, or even a talking hedgehog (I’m guessing at this).

As we grow up we lose at least some of the ability to imagine things beyond the fixed meanings we already have for them.

The real challenge is to forget about what things mean right now. The contexts, relationships and politics of the objects and interactions we have with the things in our lives.

Instead we have to be prepared to give new meaning to things. We have to pretend.

Design sprints

To give you a more practical way forward with this, design sprints are a useful tool for thinking about the future.

The idea of a ‘design sprint’ has fast become a familiar term and in our design team we’ve adapted some (but not all) of the methods outlines in the Google Ventures Sprint book.

The important focus for a ‘sprint’ is right at the beginning when we ask the product owner in the room to imagine where we want to be in the future. I usually ask them to imagine where they want their team or product to be a couple of years, or even as far away as 5 to 10 years time. The question is: what does your product or service look like in the future?

I’m asking them to pretend. To be bold and to imagine something that’s worth working towards.

For the rest of the design sprint, a small team then prioritises and works on the biggest unanswered question we have in order to move towards the vision of the future that they’ve described. It’s only a first step, but I like the focus because it makes us ask the question.

Design sprints can be treated as low costs experiments so it’s important that teams have permission to be bold in imagining the radical alternative.

The work from ‘sprints’ can be thrown away and doesn’t need to be treated as “business-as-usual”. Instead, asking bigger questions can open up new creative ideas and creative direction that might just help us deliver on the outcomes and objectives set by our organisations.


To summarise: “let’s pretend” is something we can’t be afraid of.

I believe that the future belongs as much to storytellers as it does to scientists.

The future belongs to people capable of painting a broad enough picture. Something that means we’re then willing to join them in working towards it, step by step.

This blog post is part of an experiment where I’m writing and publishing something everyday. This is day 11: everyday is an opportunity to write something – previous blog posts.

Ben Holliday is an experienced designer, leader, writer and speaker. This is his blog (started in 2005). You can follow all of Ben's blog posts by subscribing to the RSS feed, or follow him on Twitter for more regular updates.