Design is Dangerous

The design professions have exploded onto the world scene over the past decade, ushering in a new trans-disciplinarity which is increasingly applied in many contexts. And yet, design is dangerous. Designing in an unconscious way, without understanding or challenging our own design assumptions or biases, or exploring the potential consequences of design decisions, means that we can create legacy systems that create more harm than good and that can be hard to undo. Think of the design of (some) urban infrastructure, cities like Los Angeles that have been perpetually locked into unsustainable transport models, or the farm chemicals industry, which has been complicit in the degradation of natural ecosystems and soils.

I don’t really want to go through the litany of problems, as we have all heard them already ad-nauseam. In fact we have become a bit calloused to the problems, there are just so many. A more productive angle is to look at the underlying dynamics that drive the system and the worldviews and perspectives that underpin design practices and behaviours.

Humans are technological beings. From our very first beginnings we experimented with and created artefacts and methods for transforming the world around us, or for organizing ourselves. But we are also in a technological crisis. Many of the technologies that we brought forth in the 20th century, nuclear technology, pesticides, combustion automobiles, were driven and developed with an incredible over-confidence, naivety and ignorance to the consequences that they entailed. Underneath this was a mechanistic and materialist worldview. People acted from the assumption that we are not deeply interconnected, that we are just a set of disparate elements in a static system.

Many dangerous assumptions have been part and parcel in the design of everyday life. The way in which the systems and algorithms of the big tech platforms drive an attention economy, commodify data, in primary service to corporate shareholder profits. Is this seriously how we are playing with the minds of our children? But this too is an expression of underlying assumptions, that whatever we find in front of us can be exploited and commodified for profit. The symptoms of this we call “social externalities”, but it is more specific to talk about the PTSD that Facebook moderators experience, or widespread screen addiction among our children… let’s try not to mince words.

Even social constructions, ways of organizing social life can be understood as aspects of design, and imbued with assumptions. The time and motion studies that accompanied the emergence of industrial production and factories, Taylorism, on one hand created remarkable efficiencies, and on the other hand infantalized workers, turning them into repetitive automatons. It was not until Edward Deming when this logic began to be fundamentally questioned.

So we need to find a way to question our design assumptions, and bring the future into our design logics, so that instead of creating social externalities (unconscious harm), we are creating generative value (conscious benefit). Decades ago the Australian designer Tony Fry articulated this by talking about “defuturing”. He argued that so much of what we call design reduces the scope of our futures, making our future less and less viable and possible. And through a new design philosophy, we might be able to use design to re-future. Or as Sohail Inayatullah might say, if we want design to be different it needs to be an epistemological intervention, design needs to come from a new set of assumptions and perspectives that will make the future more viable.

The major shift in worldview and perspective we have seen in the emerging practices, such as futures studies, action research, human centered design, etc., has been from a mechanistic to living systems based understanding of reality. Today we see the emergence of such a life centered worldview, in which we can appreciate our deep interconnectedness with the many living systems around us. We increasingly understand how the health of our living systems translates to our health. Or how the dynamic balance within our planetary ecosystems is a prerequisite for the integrity of our societies and our future generations. This is the way that many indigenous cultures have seen the world for a long long time. This is also a critical way to think about how we need to reimagine design in the context of our future challenges. We need a life centered perspective and vision to come forth as a primary driver and holder for the space of the way in which design needs to take place.

And if new selves help support new methods, we need a life centered self, with a deep appreciation for our interconnectedness, a great compassion and empathy for all of our living systems and beings, to guide our journey. We can already see this in many areas, the development of regenerative agriculture, community approaches to mental health and well-being, the platform coop movement, and climate restoration space, and many other places.

But design is also dangerous for another reason. Design has the power to make existing systems obsolete. And by virtue of this design is a threat to incumbent systems, cultural norms, political configurations and economic vested interests. To design with integrity can also mean to challenge existing unsustainable forms of everyday life, and to enter into the space of power and politics. This requires the deep skills of the social innovator, social entrepreneur, systems navigator, political operative, and life-centered empathic leadership.

Incumbency is seemingly all-powerful. As we’ve seen for decades, the fossil-fuel and mineral industry lobbies have held the response to climate change hostage. Backroom manoeuvring, misinformation and bogus reports shaping public perceptions, and a host of other ways of holding onto power. Buckminster Fuller said “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” I want to say, yes but… the actual application of these new designs, solar energy etc., was a journey of a thousand miles.

But he is still right. The future starts in seed form. It begins in the womb of the world, the glimmer in the eye, the daydream, the fantasy, the imagination, the model and the spirit of possibility.

So design holds this very special potential. In its most conscious manifestation it is an epistemological intervention, it can be dangerous to incumbent systems that are unsustainable or harmful. It can bring forth forms that can lead to a much better world. Design can be conscious disruption. It can be done to create breakthroughs that make existing models obsolete, and create new generative forms of life and living.

There is a double loop here. The future is implicated in what is designed – as a design is a potential seed of a different future. However, the images of the future people hold serve as “meta-assumptions” that form the boundaries and limits of what is seen as possible and desirable in what we design. To design differently we need to imagine differently and hold different assumptions about the future. The future and design form a complex interplay of imagination and cascading consequences. All of which is a very dangerous.


Join us for our introductory course, which will cover these ideas and more: Undesign: practical futures tools for anticipation and conscious design



Leapfrogging Sustainable Development: Exploring the strategic futures of production and policy through cosmolocal and commons-based design

A cosmolocal and commons based design course was held 0n September 20-21 2019 at the Indian Institute of Technology in Mumbai, entitled: “Leapfrogging Sustainable Development: Exploring the strategic futures of production and policy through cosmolocal and commons-based design”

The philosophy behind cosmolocalism emphasizes documenting innovation and keeping this knowledge open, so that it can be relocalized in other contexts and geographies around the world. It envisions a world in which each community’s innovations work is documented and remains open – so that we create a world of open designs and solutions. This becomes a resource for all of humanity to use for enhanced livelihoods and production within planetary ecological boundaries.   

The course was a collaboration between Dr. Jose Ramos (Action Foresight), Dr. Raji Ajwani (IIT Mumbai and Centre for Policy Studies) and Professor Shishir K. Jha (IIT Bombay and Centre for Policy Studies) and Michel Bauwens (P2P Foundation) and began with conversations initiated in September 2018, between Raji and Michel. The course was designed and delivered by Jose with the support and sponsorship of Raji and Shishir.    

Many countries are looking for new development pathways that can address systemic poverty and a host of sustainability and development challenges, including but not limited to the SDGs. Development strategists are increasingly keen to avoid “used futures” for development that perpetuate the development mistakes of the last few decades (large scale modernization projects with little sensitivity to local knowledge and needs, little regard to ecological boundaries, technological gigantism, etc.), and keen to find new approaches that work from community strengths, culture and needs while leveraging technological potentials. 

The workshop attracted a diverse group of people, from the UNDP, local NGOs, PhD students and others interested in learning about the commons and cosmolocalism. 

As a prototype, the workshop combined knowledge of a variety of cases (listed below), commons and cosmolocal concepts, together with a foresight to experimentation methodology called the Anticipatory Experimentation Method (AEM). The content and method used is documented here so that others can adapt either in their own contexts. We encourage others to use and adapt this to their own context – so that you can run something in your own community. We do ask that credit is given to the content developers in any reuse.  

Day 1 

Day one was a content heavy day, with the introduction of ideas and many cases. 


Introduction by Shishir Jha and Jose Ramos  Audio:

Cases by Jose Ramos  Slides by Jose

Audio presentation by Jose

Cases by Raji Ajwani  Slides by Raji

Audio presentation by Raji

Presentation by Michel Bauwens (P2P Foundation) 
Presentation by Andrew Lamb (Field Ready) 
Presentation by Gabor Kiss (Envienta)  


Links to cases 


Here are two presentations, one by Michel Bauwens and another by Andrew Lamb – both are excellent. Michel discusses many thing, but he goes into the importance and role of the urban commons – examples from Ghent and Bologna.



Michel Bauwens – P2P Foundation from Jose Ramos on Vimeo.




Andrew Lamb – Field Ready from Jose Ramos on Vimeo.


Day 2

Day two was the design day, where we ran the Anticipatory Experimentation Method, and 3 groups worked on developing project ideas: 

The ideas included: 

  • Addressing drought among rural villagers 
  • Addressing the need for a policy innovation lab 

Because there was so much content, the time needed to flesh out ideas wasn’t available. This is something that needs to be better balanced in future. 

Explanation of Anticipatory Experimentation Method 


For an explanation of the method see this article on medium –


Concluding Reflections 

  • What was clear was that the content resonated with people. There was a natural energy and eagerness to delve into the domain and also to be creative.
  • Also clear was the need to lean into the commons as a domain of knowledge and practice. Distributed manufacturing alone, technology alone, will not work to address the challenges people faced. Deep mutualization and commons governance (urban, digital, resource, etc.) are all needed. 
  • The conversation on enterprise cosmolocal quickly bled into a conversation on political economy. It was a natural progression because it is political economy that is the next frontier in terms of enablement. This is the partner state conversation and bootstrapping micro-political economies via the urban commons.
  • Too much space was devoted to cases. It made the whole process feel a bit stifled. Next time more space needs to be devoted to the design process. It might be good to lay out some design principles first, so that we don’t have to go through endless cases to get the point across. As well, a cosmolocal canvas could be useful so people can explore a bit easier.
  • It was a modest beginning. The whole thing felt a little rough around the edges, but it was also a prototype. So it was good to give it a try and get the experience. The next versions can build in the learnings.

I hope this content and documentation is useful in helping others use and adapt this in other contexts. Contact me if you need any advice in running this on your own.

And finally here are some photos for your enjoyment.







Leapfrogging Sustainable Development: Exploring the Strategic Futures of Production and Policy through Cosmo-local and Commons-based Design

Two aspects of my life are coming together for the first time. My work with a number of collaborators (Michel Bauwens, Sharon Ede, etc) to conceptualize and articulate cosmo-localism, plus my work over the past decade to meld foresight and action through action research approaches. The result is a course on cosmo-local design. We will use anticipatory innovation processes to develop cosmo-local strategies that can address development challenges in new ways, through a new lens.

In the spirit of cosmo-localism, I’m making all the content for the course open access, so anyone can adapt, facilitate and teach it in whatever locale is desired. More post to come with content.

Thanks to Raji Ajwani, Prof. Shishir Kumar Jha (Indian Institute of Technology) and Michel Bauwens (P2P Foundation) for making the connections to make this course happen.


20-21 Sept 2019
Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai

A new way of thinking is emerging for developing strategic pathways for local to planetary economic and ecological viability. This way of thinking centres around the ideas of “peer to peer production”, “the commons”, and “cosmo-localism”. This course will give participants emerging strategies to address critical development challenges using new cosmo-local and commons-based production strategies and thinking. Cosmo-local development describes the process of bringing together our globally distributed knowledge and design commons with the high-to-low tech capacity for localized production and self-organization. It augurs in an era in which the legacy of human creativity is at the disposal and service of those with the most needs, and in which our systems of production can be sustained within planetary ecological boundaries.

Over 15 cases will be presented on a variety of topics and themes, including:

– Examples in agriculture, for examples Farm Hack, Le A’terlier Paysans and FarmBot
– Examples in manufacturing, including Open Motors, AbilityMade and OpenROV
– Examples in medicine and health, including Fold-it and the Open Insulin Project
– Examples in housing construction, including Hexayurt and Wikihouse
– Examples in the circular economy, including Precious Plastic
– Examples in urban development, including Fabcity and Ghent city as commons
– Examples in water management, including Hack the Water Crisis (Stop Reset Go)
– Examples in crypto-programming, including Holochain
– Examples in disaster response, including Field Ready

The course is run in the format of ‘action learning’. This means that participants will form into groups (5-8 people) based on topics that are meaningful to them, and will engage in a problem solving (anticipatory innovation) process through-out the course. Participant will be introduced to the key ideas and guided through the problem solving in a step by step format, so that the ideas are applied in the context of real development challenges. The course is a unique offering combining anticipatory innovation and systemic futures design thinking that will give participants renewed leverage in generating ideas for positive social change.

Objectives of Course:

– Learn from 15+ examples and cases
– Learn concepts in
– Peer Production
– The Commons
– Cosmo-local production
– Understand cosmo-localism as both
– A seed form that can be applied and scaled from social enterprise
– A political economic vision which provides new policy pathways
– Develop networks and connections with others that carry forward momentum
– Develop process skills in applying these models in the context of specific development and organisational challenges

Expected Outcomes of Course:

– A new set of concepts and understanding for development
– An understanding of how these strategies are applied
– A set of examples and cases that clarify how they function
– Ideas developed in the workshop that can be carried forward into the world
– Inclusion in an extended network of people interested in these new development strategies
– A cosmo-local production design canvas that will provide a template for applying the ideas elsewhere (this will be a simple to use canvas that can be printed in an A2 or bigger paper that will be linked to the course content)

The course is being run by Dr. Jose Ramos (Action Foresight), in conjunction with Prof. Shishir Kumar Jha and Raji Ajwani (Indian Institute of Technology – Mumbai) and Michel Bauwens (P2P Foundation).

Workshop Schedule

What is cosmo-localism?

Cosmo-localization describes the process of bringing together our globally distributed knowledge and design commons with the high-to-low tech capacity for localized production. It augurs an era in which the legacy of human creativity is at the disposal and service of those in need within ecological planetary boundaries. It is based on the ethical premise, drawing from cosmopolitanism, that people and communities should be universally empowered with the heritage of human ingenuity that allow them to more effectively create livelihoods and solve problems in their local environments, and that, reciprocally, local production and innovation should support the wellbeing of our planetary commons.

“Cosmo-localization is a new paradigm for the production and distribution of value that combines the universal sharing of knowledge (cosmo), but the ‘subsidiarity’ of production as close as possible to the place of need (‘local’), essentially through distributed local manufacturing and voluntary mutualization. The general idea is not to impede technological progress though intellectual property, in an era of climate change where we cannot afford the 20-year lag in innovation due to patents; and to radically diminish the physical cost of transport through local production. Cosmo-localization is based on the belief that the mutualization of provisioning systems can radically diminish the human footprint on natural resources, which need to be preserved for future generations and all beings of the planet.” Michel Bauwens

“what is light (knowledge, design) becomes global, while what is heavy (machinery) is local, and ideally shared. Design global, manufacture local (DGML) demonstrates how a technology project can leverage the digital commons to engage the global community in its development, celebrating new forms of cooperation. Unlike large-scale industrial manufacturing, the DGML model emphasizes application that is small-scale, decentralized, resilient, and locally controlled.” –Vasilis Kostakis and Andreas Roos, Harvard Business Review

Links to cosmo-localization:

Peer Production and the Commons

From redistributive urban commons to cosmo-local production commons

Cosmo-Localization And Leadership For The Future

Click to access J5.pdf

Cosmo-localism and the Anthropocene





Anticipatory Innovation

Innovation is an obsession in our current society. We are enamored with technological innovations, we celebrate innovators. We want to be them. And yet when you look closely at the various crises and risks around the world, it becomes clear that the human propensity for innovation is again and again repeatedly at the heart of our collective crises. Innovation in broad terms is responsible for the decline of critical ecosystems, the production of an unsafe climate, and an unprecedented level of risk that human beings face today. Nuclear weapons, which the US used against Japan to bring it to its knees and end the war, led to the Pandora’s box of weapons proliferation. Now US foreign policy is obsessed with the problem, involving North Korea, Iran, and the detente with Russia. The use of fossil fuels and the combustion engine, brought us among other things motorized vehicles, of course transformed our ability to travel. At the same time it is fundamentally complicit to air pollution in cities and carbon emissions, and of course automobile traffic!

Do not get me wrong I am actually a technological optimist! But my optimism does not come from thinking about the next great product, the next innovation. It comes from thinking about how as human beings we can change our consciousness, culture, worldview, our orientation towards how we interact with the world. So at the heart of innovation is a fundamental contradiction that as human beings we are being fundamentally confronted with today. Innovation and our capacity to transform the world around us is fundamental to our prosperity, our capacity to communicate with each other, indeed now it has become fundamental to the transformation of human knowledge. And at the same time it is brought an unprecedented scale of crises, risk and unintended consequences.

The solution is not to disown innovation, pretend that the 20th century didn’t happen. The solution as well is not to deny that innovation has a shadow – that it has contradictions. The solution is to engage with this contradiction actively and inquire into its transformation, the possibility of an integration, of a transcendent position that can hold the complexity of the contradictions we experience today. For thinking about our future, our shadow is our friend.

This is what I hope to develop in this talk. To do this we need a method like Causal Layered Analysis to help us go down the rabbit hole from symptoms to systems to epistemology and to core metaphors that help us understand our human predicament. So let’s begin.


The most basic symptoms that we see today are what most concerns us. A recent report highlighted the decline in insect numbers around the world. We see the collapse of bee colonies in many parts of the world. There is now a Great Pacific Garbage Patch that swirls around in the ocean, with the plastic slowly breaking down and filtering into every ocean-based ecosystem. And most reports on climate change are now saying that 1.5° to 2° warming is a conservative estimate, and when we look at the actual implications of 2° to 3° warming they are profound and disturbing. There are otherwise sane people talking about civilizational collapse. But, if we look at a deeper level, however, we begin to see that these are all symptoms of a system that ‘intentionally’ produces this as an outcome.


For example economies today are interlinked in a grand drama of industry, innovation and competition. This industrial innovation system is supported by every major player that is part of it. In the US this is largely funneled through the defense industries, which act as a subsidy for commercial applications. In Japan they have the ministry of industry trade and innovation. The EU has its own system. The field of foresight actually got its start supporting the industrial innovation system. I’ve call this the STIF model. Science technology and innovation foresight. Through futures research, research institutes identify the growth industries, technologies and opportunities, which helps governments to prioritize research areas, then the money funnels through. The system has been working for well over 70 years, at least since the 1950s. As R&D gets funded, the prototypes move into commercial application, driving industrial transformation. This has basically been the formula for the dramatic technological revolution that we have experienced over the last 70 years.

And yet, as the sociologist Ulrich Beck argued, the same system has produced risk at a grand scale – he defined this as the “global risk society”. Rather than some kind of fluky happenstance production of risk – his argument is that it is actually a systematic production of risk. And if we look at the complicity of this system in our most pressing challenges today, this becomes very clear. Today we see new breakthroughs in artificial intelligence and machine learning, which herald an age of robots-as-servants. But it also has brought us into the potential death spiral of autonomous military robotics. We have systematically designed our global economic system to produce risk.

This of course was coupled with the growth mindset coming out of the 1940s and 50s. As a bulwark against communism, the West adopted Keynesian economics, with its emphasis on economic growth. Of course this economic growth was to be built on the back of this technological revolution, productivity gains and more jobs. And so we not just designed a global economic system to produce risk, but also to produce an unsustainable trajectory of economic growth, given the carrying capacity of our ecological systems. Current estimates show we are well beyond 1.5 planets of carrying capacity. A recent report shows that our capacity for resource extraction far outstrips the earth’s long term carrying capacity. We now have an “earth overshoot day” dedicated to highlighting this. We now use one Earth’s worth of resources in 7 months. The other 5 months are “deficit” or “loan” months – it will need to be paid back. And can I just add that eco-futurists and ecological economists like Hazel Henderson, Herman Daly and Donella Meadows have been talking about this since the 1970s! For 50 years!

Then there is capitalism. Now I am not going to argue here that markets and competition are not needed. I believe markets and competition are fundamentally needed. When I choose a cell phone provider I want to have some choice, and I want one group to be competing against another to provide me with the best service. When I want to go down the street and buy some bread, I don’t want to be limited to one business, whether private, public or otherwise. I want some choice where I buy my bread. I’m gonna buy my bread from the people that are friendliest to me and whose bread is the best and the tastiest. So we’re not talking here about markets and competition. But I am no Milton Friedman.

In simple terms capitalism is a system of accumulating value – by shareholder to accumulate value. This hasn’t changed much in about 400 years of history. The Dutch East India Company and the English East India Company, for example practiced this through a variety of methods. They were backed by their shareholders, their investors and they were tasked with bringing back / accumulating more value. The problem is having been removed from the source of where that value was coming from, terrible things can happen – the company takes land, kills, even enslaved people. We know this from the history of mercantile colonialism.

But the core capitalist logic has not changed much. So when you look at an operation like Facebook, we say okay Facebook is different. It’s connecting all these people, it’s making all kinds of things possible. But capitalism creates social externalities. In the process of accumulating value for shareholders, the company creates a problem somewhere else. So for example now we see a lawsuit against Facebook by content moderators, who are arguing that they experience severe psychological trauma for having to moderate disturbing Facebook content for hours on end – they have posttraumatic stress disorder. It’s like that scene out of the Mexican sci-fi film the Sleep Dealer. Technology has replaced human labor but it hasn’t replaced human exploitation.

And this is not to mention the way in which Facebook has driven social polarization. To be fair it’s not just Facebook but it’s a whole suite of social media platforms. But research that has come out recently essentially argues that the way in which content gets contained within filter bubbles, and the algorithms that govern the content that we see produces a web of self-referentiality – people are more and more exposed to the same or similar ideas reinforcing their thinking, indeed making their thinking more entrenched and extreme. And it’s not in their interest to give you content that’s going to contradict your worldview. Why would they? They just want you to spend more time in front of the screen so they can sell you more advertisements. If you get confused, experience cognitive dissonance and then have to work this out, that is not more advertisements for them. So we have Trump and we have Bolsonaro… and other countries where, the social externality of capitalist driven social media is social polarization. If you ask me this is a very high price to pay. So at a deeper level we have innovation and technology embedded in political economy.


But I want to take us one step deeper and explore something else. And this is that there’s been a fundamental disconnect in the way that innovation and technology have played out in the 20th and early 21st centuries, with respect to our understanding of ecological systems. It is a remarkable fact that in the West the systems literature only really emerged in the late 60s and 70s. Somehow in the madness of progress and modernity something profound was lost. There were presumptions about the distinction between man and nature. “Nature” is out there somewhere – “man” is here. I use the word MAN deliberately this distinction emerged in a patriarchal era.

The fundamental premise here is that human beings are at the center of the world context. We can shape the nature to the will of the human. We can pour pesticides and fertilizers onto soils with abandon. We can divert water systems any way we want. We can operate as masters and controllers. Its humanity with a God complex! But in fact this worldview has fundamental blind spots. This is the same worldview that empowers a company like Monsanto to super-sell Glyphosate to farmers as a way to kill weeds. The only problem is, the glyphosate also kills farmers. So in the US today there is a case in the upper courts where farmers are suing Monsanto for the effects of glyphosate. And it’s been implicated in colony collapse disorder. And what do farmers and bees have in common? Besides being very busy? They are both living systems. Glyphosate is both one of the key contenders as the culprit of colony collapse disorder, it is also a key contenders for a cause of cancer in humans.

Myth and Metaphor 

This then brings me to the core premise of this talk – a fundamentally unprovable hypothesis, but to me it makes sense. I believe that hardwired into the human psyche is a technological bias. From our origins it was technology that became the success formula for our species. If wanted to defend ourself from lion, before technology we had our bare hands.

Some anthropologists argue that the physiological transformation of hominids was driven by the invention of cooking. By being able to cook raw food we were able to eat food quicker and digest faster – we were able to consume more calories. They argue that the evidence shows that the invention of cooking coincides with a rapid expansion in the size of the human brain, essentially that the capacity to absorb more nutrients through cooking was reflected physiologically. This might explain why cooking shows are so popular.

And this brings me to the wonderful image and metaphor in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 A Space Odyssey. When the proto-human throws the bone into the air, it flies up and spins and becomes a space station. And we are projected hundreds of thousands of years into the future, to the year 2001 – (which for us has passed but those in the 1960s it was the future). The significance of this image cannot be understated. For me it is nothing less than the affirmation of who we are as technological beings. Humans don’t do technology – we are technology. But as we saw with the tragic unfolding in 2001 a Space Odyssey, the film itself, technology and innovation can have some unintended consequences. The artificial intelligence that ran the ship – Hal 9000 – went a little crazy.

And so embedded in our dreamscape of who we are is also a nightmare. I believe films speak from the collective unconscious. It’s an idea from philosopher Susanne Langer. And I believe what the collective unconscious is saying is that at a certain level of awareness we know here is a fundamental contradiction, and this unease, this terror, expresses this feeling in our relationship to technology – indeed who we are as technological beings. Humanity’s disowned self is speaking to us through the medium of collective dreams and nightmares – film. And this gets reiterated in film after film after film. We see this in films like Terminator, in Ex Machina, in so many films.


So now this is a very good place to come back to the core idea for the talk – that we have a problem with innovation. But that there are some solutions. And so I want to provide a few design principles that we might think about in terms of solving the problem of innovation – in the way that it “defutures” to use Tony Fry’s terminology – in its current manifestation, and how it might “refuture” in its next manifestation.

So innovation that refutures – that gives us a future rather than taking it away – this is anticipatory innovation. It is not the next cool gadget for the future. Because as I discussed the cool gadget of the future, whether it’s an iPhone or a plastic bottle or artificial intelligence or whatever, it is an expression of humanity’s ingenuity but also its shadow, it is contradiction embodied.

But innovations that that come from an an awareness of this contraction and which “refuture”, this is anticipatory innovation. It is not really a new idea. People like Bucky Fuller, Lewis Mumford, Ivan Illich, Hazel Henderson, many others articulated similar and profound sentiments decades ago.

So drawing from this conversation there are four design strategies for anticipatory innovation here:

  • Piecemeal amelioration of symptoms
  • Cosmo localization
  • Understanding the web of life
  • Owning our shadow as technological beings

Piecemeal amelioration

At the most basic level, at the level of symptoms, we need lots of projects and lots of new technologies. Let’s clean up the great Pacific Garbage Patch. We need renewable technologies, we need low carbon technologies. We need to sequester carbon as quickly as possible.

Cosmo localization

But at the level of political economy we have to do something completely different. Instead of designing and producing something in two different parts of the world, meant to compete with each other, proprietary and un-shareable, producing as many problems in the long-term as it solves, we need to mutualise the production of value for mutual sustainment. This is Cosmo localization (also known as “Design Global Manufacture Local“), a political economic vision shared by a number of people around the world.

The basic idea is that we are in the era of planetary challenges that have local manifestations. To solve local problems we need to enlist a globally distributed community which can pool knowledge, expertise and resources. In biological terms this is called “stigmergy” – whereby as a global community we build on each others work toward shared goals and outcomes. Thus a “planetary stigmergy” is the mutualization of value, designs, knowledge and strategy at a globally coordinated level. Cosmo-localism entails developing such planetary contributory systems, meaning that for any one problem or challenge, local or distributed, people contribute to the problem solving from everywhere.

Michel Bauwens argues that “cosmo-localization is a new paradigm for the production and distribution of value that combines the universal sharing of knowledge (cosmo), but the ‘subsidiarity’ of production as close as possible to the place of need (‘local’), essentially through distributed local manufacturing and voluntary mutualization. The general idea is not to impede technological progress though intellectual property, in an era of climate change where we cannot afford the 20-year lag in innovation due to patents; and to radically diminish the physical cost of transport through local production. Cosmo-localization is based on the belief that the mutualization of provisioning systems can radically diminish the human footprint on natural resources, which need to be preserved for future generations and all beings of the planet.”

Cosmo-localization describes the process of bringing together our globally distributed knowledge and design commons with the high-to-low tech capacity for localized production. It is based on the ethical premise, drawing from cosmopolitanism, that people and communities should be universally empowered with the heritage of human ingenuity that allow them/us to more effectively create livelihoods and solve problems in their local environments, and that, reciprocally, local production and innovation should support the wellbeing of our planetary commons.

Likewise, Vasilis Kostakis and Andreas Roos argue “what is light (knowledge, design) becomes global, while what is heavy (machinery) is local, and ideally shared. Design global, manufacture local (DGML) demonstrates how a technology project can leverage the digital commons to engage the global community in its development, celebrating new forms of cooperation. Unlike large-scale industrial manufacturing, the DGML model emphasizes application that is small-scale, decentralized, resilient, and locally controlled.”

And thus Cosmo-localization is a conscious twining of a consequentialist cosmopolitan ethics with technology. It takes the view that technology is not value neutral, but rather proscribed by discourse, culture and worldview. The same cultural milieu that gave us “disruptive innovation” is one that is premised on individualism, disrupt or be disrupted, and lacks a concern for the social implications and applications for technology – and reflects an unconscious stance toward technology, as something “out there” rather than as an integral part of what human beings are.

This twining of a planetary ethics, with the emerging potential of open source design and the new localized production technologies being born augurs a transformation. A new universal human rights and ethics applies to the right to the human legacy of designs – a global design commons; This global design commons needs to be directed toward the production of goods and services within planetary boundaries; And thus a planetary contributory system emerges where people coordinate in solving shared problems. Problem solving is localized while simultaneously being supported by a global web of solidarity.

Understanding the Web of Life 

At another level, though, we need to innovate with a clear understanding that we are embedded in the web of life. We are not masters of it, we are not controllers of it. In fact we emerged from it. In our DNA and in our physiology is the legacy of 4 billion years of evolution. So we need to innovate with a clear understanding of ecological principles. These principles can’t be covered here in great depth because it’s actually quite complex – there are many context and there’s a lot going on. There is permaculture, Panarchy, Regenerative agriculture, biomimicry, and a whole number of strategies and frameworks that can help us innovate using principles for ecological resilience.

For starters we need to understand that our fundamental life-support system is this complex living system which is our planet. This is the fundamental unit. At a bioregional scale we need to really understand the complex and nuanced interactions between species. At the level of the human body we need to see ourselves as living systems. Whatever we put into the environment will become us – whether it’s pollution or pesticides or radioactivity. And at the microlevel we need to understand the complex dynamics that provide the foundations for resilience – the health of soils, microbiological dynamics and what it means to have healthy gut bacteria flowing through our body. We are part of the web of life.

Already there’s plenty of projects that take ecological principles into account. The literature around the circular economy is inspired by how the web of life works – nothing is wasted, every output is an input for another process. And much of this also can be found in premodern systems of production. In Edo period Japan there were a very well developed systems of what we would call today a circular economy to deal with human waste in urban environments that was then used in rural farming, and how they had a complex artisanal system of repairing broken items. So today we also have the right to repair movement.

And in Mexico City, there is the precolonial legacy of Tenochtitlan. A city that, at the time of the conquest, had a larger population than any European city, and sustained itself through a complex system of what we would now call aquaponics. I don’t want to over-romantisize the Aztecs, but the main idea is that we can learn a lot from history – many of the “new” ways forward are embedded in the past.

The Commons 

At the most fundamental level we are grappling with who we are as technological beings. Really until we fully accept the shadow of our technological self, we will continue to produce crisis after crisis, externality after externality. So the last key idea is the idea of the commons. I have defined the commons as that which we mutually depend on for our survival and wellbeing, such that we are implied into new systems of collaborative governance of these commons. And when we look at what this is, there is a lot there – we depend on:

  • Healthy soils
  • A safe climate
  • Water
  • Honest media
  • Good systems of governance
  • The list goes on…
From Bauwens 2015

So when we think about our technological shadow, well indeed, we can also see that this is part of the commons. We need to innovate in a way that creates a future rather than takes it away – we need anticipatory innovation. We need to make sure innovation creates less risk and not more. And so, anticipatory innovation as a practice is part of our commons.

And indubitably, when we realise that we are mutually implicated in something that we mutually depend on for our survival and wellbeing, well, that then is our call to action, that we need to engage in the governance of this, the management of this, that we become active shapers of it, rather than victims of inaction. This is “commons governance”, which has a rich literature, and as David Bollier and Silke Helfrich argue, means we become “commoners” and practice “commoning”. In practical terms this means applying the precautionary principle more actively, as a partnership and political contract between citizens, the state and commercial sectors.


If we bring on board these design principles, we can create innovations that refuture, rather than defuture. We can practice an anticipatory innovation that can make our world a healthier and safer place for all of us.

I use a technique called the anticipatory experimentation method, that helps to challenge “used futures”, create new ones, to bring the preferred future into the present through experiments that can scale for impact. It’s a methodology for anticipatory innovation.

The great futurist Hazel Henderson talked about our entire planetary existence is one great laboratory of learning. The challenges we face collectively are like a planetary classroom. We are being asked to learn something fundamental about ourselves, about how we behave in the world, about a new level of thinking.

We can take the crises we face as a signifier of many different things, how terrible the human species is, how difficult the challenges is …. There are some lazy ways of thinking that lead to fatalism.

I prefer to take our current dilemma as a way to frame humanity’s evolutionary leap. We need to ask “what is this planetary era asking us to learn collectively today?”

If we can use Henderson’s metaphor, then the lesson plan for humanity becomes pretty clear.

Train-the-trainer course in strategic foresight and horizon scanning

In early 2016 I got the opportunity to run a very exciting project dear to my heart. For years I’ve been conceptualising a design process for anticipatory governance. In 2012 I was given the opportunity to do the research at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, where I compiled and made sense of the literature. I later wrote this into an article for the Journal of Futures Studies. My intention with the article was to really make it possible for any foresight consultant to review the 7 key strategies for anticipatory governance and support governments anywhere with building in the best approaches for their unique contexts. I saw the 7 approaches as a “design space” that provided a broad field of view of the issues and opportunities in the design challenge of anticipatory governance. I later put together the idea for an anticipatory governance design service.

The core idea is that anticipatory governance is absolutely central to social viability. Government is an important vehicle for organised and effective social responses to our challenges and aspirations. Governments have an important role to play in protecting and extending the social good (what is commonly valued), and in responding effectively to change (both opportunities and threats). And governments need to be able to operationalise all of this into effective strategies for change – through policies that facilitate and support better social outcomes.

But government cannot do this if they are not future oriented. If government is not in alignment with citizen’s ideas of the social good; or if government is not actively looking into how the future may be different than the present; or if government does not have effective operational strategies, then it is simply not possible for government to organise and support effective responses to our challenges and aspirations.

Many governments do their best, with piecemeal approaches. But any sober reading of our current situation across the globe should give pause for thought. We are not really responding effectively to the threat of climate change, a volatile financial system with moral hazards, the growing gulf between the super rich and the rest (tax havens), the changing nature of migration, and the looming disruptions we can expect from technology. This list goes on…

What we need are really holistic and robust approaches that can create the breakthroughs needed to address our real social and sustainability challenges, at many scales. Piecemeal foresight in policy-making will produce a few good ideas and initiatives and make us feel a bit better, but comprehensive approaches generate alignment between a clear reading of the shape of change and the breakthrough policies and strategies we use today that will get us to where we really want to go.

Now I feel it is an imperative to open source our knowledge and methods in this area so that we can accelerate social change, and support government and policy making that will well and truly address the real issues we are all are facing. In this spirit I want to make the methodology and approach I used and will continue to use as open and reproducible as possible for others who want to delve and work in this space.


In 2015 I was contacted by the Centre for Strategic and Policy Studies (CSPS) in Brunei. CSPS were looking for high level capacity building, to develop the thinking and methods of strategic foresight and horizon scanning and build it into their policy and advisory role.

CSPS are the lead policy advisory organization for the government of Brunei, and are now also mandated to be a specialist in strategic foresight and horizon scanning to support future-oriented policy making across government.

CSPS thus specifically wanted a train-the-trainer approach that would leave them with all the ideas, tools and approaches that would allow them to reproduce my techniques so that they could apply it for various government departments and ministries. With this in mind, I proposed and developed an intensive program of training and design thinking that would train CSPS staff and select government participants.


Training, learning and design process 

The overall approach was broken into three parts.

  1. Part one was a four day intensive training on strategic foresight and horizon scanning methods and approaches.
  2. Part two was a two month action learning project, where the participants chose one or two approaches they were taught and applied it on a topic.
  3. Part three was a three day review and design process where participants first reviewed their projects, and moved through the action learning cycle to reflect and glean insights from their experience, and then engaged in a human centered design process for prototyping anticipatory governance systems.

Part One 

The first workshop in Feb of 2016 was 4 days in length and covered the following material:

The workshop was applied, and teams were not just introduced to the key ideas, but also practiced the various exploration and ideation methods unique to each methodology.

Part Two 

This second part was a two month action learning project where each of the three teams chose one or two methodologies to apply to a futures research problem.

Each team took it upon themselves to use what was learned in the intensive workshop and apply it to a public policy challenge area that they needed to tackle.

During that time I skyped each group at least twice to see how they were going and offer any advice and support. All the groups grappled with the research challenge well. Of course there was the standard getting lost in the forest, but equally the deep insights and clarity that comes from an experiential approach. All three teams ultimately did a great job.

Part Three

The final workshop, three days in length, was comprised of

  1. A forum for senior ministers in Brunei.
  2. An action learning review for their projects.
  3. A human centered design process to prototype anticipatory governance for their contexts.

For the forum I engaged the services of Cheryl Chung of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore, who has many decades of experience using foresight for public policy and gave a presentation on ‘Foresight Studies and Horizon Scanning for Policy Making in Singapore’, shared her knowledge on what works for foresight work in the Singapore government / how it has impacted public policy making.

I also gave a shorter talk on what makes for empowering or disempowering approaches to the future in the context of government.


The forum organised by CSPS was high level and included senior ministers from major ministries. The forum went well and got quite a bit of press:

The forum was very important in building the visibility and legitimacy of the endeavour, and can be understood as a type of foresight communication, which is central to the effectiveness of foresight projects.

Day two was the action learning review, where participants got to reflect on their experiences in applying foresight, what worked, what didn’t, and what they would do different next time around. They also had a chance to reflect on the political challenges in doing foresight work, and what strategies can be effective.

Day three was dedicated to human centered design to prototype anticipatory governance strategies. We started with getting clear on the problem, design challenge and intended impact. We did some empathy work to better understand the “design ecology”. Importantly, I did not introduce or push the 7 strategies for anticipatory governance until after this, as I did not want to overly imprint their designs with programmed knowledge. But it became clear that in the context of a human centered design process for anticipatory governance, these 7 strategies were very useful in helping participants to reflect and incorporate key elements. In this regard the process was similar to Reg Revan’s action learning formulation of Programmed Learning + Insightful Questioning + Experience. We ended by road-mapping the prototypes and then developing narratives that can carry the meaning and message of the design efforts.


Final thoughts 

CSPS have taken very concrete steps to make themselves a robust foresight unit which will be able to advise government for years to come. They have put in great effort and have build substantial capabilities, and will continue to do so.

I feel fortunate to have been able to conceptualise a design space and design service, and have an opportunity to support a national government in applying such designs and knowledge. I have learned a lot and I am reflecting and considering how best to improve on this.

For the government of Brunei, I think they are in an opportune space to build in foresight approaches that can make their policy making truly innovative and which can lead to breakthroughs. There is a lot of work to do but I’m very confident they have made solid first steps.

My hope is for greater collaboration, sharing and the development of a Global Foresight Commons on what works in this space, so that we can enable a transition to future oriented government and the necessary transformations we need to create a world of long term wellbeing and prosperity.

Anticipatory Design

We have been guided by a passion and vision to link foresight and action.  The link between design thinking and foresight has become more prominent, with renewed emphases on social innovation, social entrepreneurship and co-creativity.

A new generation of design thinking is emerging, trans-disciplinary, engaging across art, science and technology, commons-oriented and deeply collaborative and participatory. Service design thinking has become an important approach in the interface between creative industries, enterprise creation and social innovation. Service design both incorporates the use of foresight as leverage in conceptualizing services and innovations in the context of social change, and incorporates a participatory and (design ethnography) orientation so that design is tightly coupled with end users.

Applications for Anticipatory Design ranges from project development, and social innovation incubation to larger scale urban design foresight and anticipatory policy development.

Projects in this area includes:

Creating the Age Friendly City: An Initial Evaluation

Bendigo a Thinking Community

Financial Resilience Living Lab

Publications in this area include:

Forging the Synergy between Anticipation and Innovation: The Futures Action Model

From Social foresight to social entrepreneurship: pathways to sustainability

Anticipatory Innovation





Financial Resilience Living Lab

Action Foresight was thrilled to be asked to manage the Financial Resilience Living Lab pilot for the Financial Resilience CRC bid earlier this year. Living Labs are ‘public-private-people-partnerships’; simply they are places where researchers, business, government, other organisations and people come together research a particular topic. They emphasise co-creation, innovation and sustainability. Living Labs treat the ‘end-user’, you and me, as knowledgeable participants in the whole process contributing to the design, evaluation, topics of study and opportunity rather than being ‘objects of study.’ More generally this is framed as a ‘demand side’ economic innovation policy particularly directed at service creation and directed a an economic view based on the service dominant logic economic theories of Steve Vargo and Robert Lusch.

The Living Lab pilot was a collaboration between Action Foresight, RMIT, Swinburne University, GSM, Smart Services CRC and the tlab participants in Dandenong. Unfortunately the government withdrew support for all CRC’s in this round, but the pilot showed the use of the Living Lab model for this kind of topic.

Our role was to make sure that the co-creation with the participants was central throughout the design of the program – to demonstrate that we could achieve the level of co-creation that could have lead to membership of the European Network of Living Labs the following year. Fortunately our university collaborators were of a similar mindset. The program as based on the best practice tool kit from Enoll. With our collaborators we developed a program that ran through the three key stages of the key iteration of a Living Lab project cycle, understanding the opportunities, designing solutions and evaluating them. The topic theme was based on insurance for people on low incomes. We deliberately looked for non-financial as well as financial solutions.  A typical scenario might be that we someone who is working on a casual basis their car breaks down and they can’t afford to get it fixed straight away as a result they can’t get to work for a few days and they lose their job. A small event triggering a much larger loss of income as well as the expense. Here the need is to be able to get to work not just have an insurance policy that protects the car. There may be solutions more akin to Uber than insurance policies.

The Action Foresight team have Living Lab expertise as well as expertise in related fields and techniques that are used in Living labs, such as action research, user centred design and of course futures. Action Foresight can help you design, set-up and run your Living Lab or your Living Lab project. Action Foresight and SustainSA  are currently working together with other collaborators to develop the Australian Network of Living Labs with the aim of promoting the development of Living Labs in Australia.

Creating the Age Friendly City: An Initial Evaluation

This research report was commissioned by City of Port Phillip (CoPP) and delivered by Action Foresight with the aim of improving the lives of older residents, both now and in the future. The major objective of this initiative was to provide a broad assessment of municipal strengths, weaknesses and gaps for the City of Port Phillip (CoPP) in relation to the World Health Organisation’s Global Age-friendly Cities: A Guide and the Community Liveability Guide2 developed by Professor Laurie Buys and her team at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT).

The research team drew from workshops, focus groups and interviews, augmented by online surveys administered by the CoPP. An environmental scan of related issues was conducted to provide an outside view and support future policy development within the CoPP.

The project was carried out by DeChantal Hillis, Dr. David Wright, Dr. Laurie Buys and Dr. José Ramos.

Bendigo a Thinking Community

In 2012 we put forward a proposal to run an intensive and large scale foresight capacity development process for the citizens of Bendigo in Victoria, Australia.  The objective of Bendigo-A Thinking Community was to encourage and engage with the community to think deeply and strategically about expectations and aspirations to develop a more prosperous, liveable and sustainable society.

A rural city two hours (by train) North-West of Melbourne, Bendigo is facing a number of long term challenges and changes. The current population of approximately 100,000 is set to increase dramatically over the coming decades. Demographic shifts and new migrant populations are changing the cultural landscape. The impact of climate change, already felt in the region, remains an ever present and uncertain factor. The industrial and economic base of the city is also in transition.

We were engaged to run a nine month foresight program for 50 participants, the goal of which was

to inspire [the] city to become renowned as a thinking city. A city, that can think creatively for the long-term. A city, that attracts and inspires the most creative people. A city that thinks beyond the next political poll, TV series or annual report. We already have wonderful thinkers in Bendigo. But do we have the skill set as a City to think long term? Can we inspire our community to be actively engaged thinkers?

In 2013 we designed and over nine months ran a program that involved four full day live large group workshops and six online webinars.  The content of the workshop include:

·      Using the Futures Action Model as a framework to facilitate foresight informed social innovation

·      Setting up and facilitating a social media platform for a shared Horizon Scanning process

·      Group / team based exploration of a variety of foresight themes and innovation topics, many which led to social interventions and innovations

·      Use of the Three Horizons framework of change to help groups conceptualize change strategies

·      Use of a narrative foresight approach, including the use of Causal Layered Analysis, to create a new story / narrative for the development of the region.

·      Production of a story artifact.