Foresight has long attracted curious individuals who feel uncomfortable in just one domain. Akash Das, a designer turned futures researcher, applies insights and methods from a variety of fields. He is one of the quintessential multidisciplinary thinkers and researchers. In our conversation, we explored the relationship between foresight and design. We also discussed the emergence of a new kind of futures consultant adept at bridging disciplines. Furthermore, we spoke about Akash's approach that combines design, futures, and systems thinking.
With a diverse background spanning cultures and disciplines, how did you end up in Foresight and Futures?
My journey into futures thinking began with design. Having trained as a designer, I have been purely involved in design for almost six years. I started in fashion and apparel design, then moved into lifestyle and communication. We do a lot of trend forecasting in fashion, and that was my stepping stone into the futures field. We try to forecast the prints, colours, and materials consumers will like and businesses should focus on. Trend forecasting is an integral part of design. And I started specialising in that as I moved from one job to another. Over time, I began to work with more companies and clients focused on understanding trends. Although trends were my starting point, I was never satisfied with their answers. And being in fashion made me even more dissatisfied. It became clear to me that while trends were integral to conveying what lies ahead, they were becoming increasingly marketed. Trend forecasting was becoming a neat formula for brands and manufacturers. To me, it felt regurgitative. There wasn't really a critical eye to it. It was all about generating more designs faster and doing more business. As we can see now, in retrospect, there are two things that happened that led people to believe trends are meaningless. They realise that the marketing and advertising industries try to push a rather superficial aspect of trends. And that's a problem because when people lose trust in trends, they believe the entire futures field is a sham. They also tend to think that trend researchers are just imposing something that is not true.
The other thing that undermined trust in trends, particularly in fashion, was blandness, best encapsulated in the whole “core” thing. It all began with a trend called "normcore" and coalesced into smaller trends that were essentially patterns of how people dress or their lifestyle and consumption habits. But it spiralled out of control when social media lapped it up and everybody started making their own "cores.” This wasn't research-led or critically thought about. It didn't have a basis in any underlying drivers. And so, trends started to feel manufactured and like we're just stuck in a loop. We see this pattern repeating; only the trend labels are different. That made me wonder: How do we go beyond that? How do I look at trends through a more critical futures lens? How can we help businesses and brands achieve long-term success? That's when I started to delve deeper into futures studies. I began reading about how we could take a more critical, nuanced approach to trends. I wanted to figure out ways trend research could be applied in a larger context. But I was in India back then, and India didn’t have many agencies or people in the futures or foresight space. That's when I began working with clients around the world. Working internationally opened up my perspective. I started dabbling with different aspects of futures thinking, especially the strategic side, called strategic foresight, and the speculative and world-building sides as well.
A large part of my experience after working as a designer has been in education. This gave me the opportunity to explore futures thinking from a more academic angle. So in this way, I started uncovering these different pathways and applications of futures thinking. In the last four to five years, I've tried to synthesise all of that. How do we converge those domains? How do we make sure we're not making the same mistakes as design?
What is the connection between design and futures?
I come from a design background, so I am very hands-on and not necessarily heavily research-oriented. At least not in the traditional sense. Like creative research, design research is very different from quantitative and qualitative research. However, there are interesting synergies between design and futures studies. Design, which is something you do, is about anticipating change. Designers are simply trying to do that in the context of eliminating certain pain points or providing desirable gains. The working mindset is: how do we solve an issue that's not immediately in the present but somewhere in the future? There is always a time difference between thinking about an idea and executing it. By the time the idea materialises, it's already in the future. For me, designers are, in some ways, emerging futurists, but they're not necessarily thinking of themselves in that way. And that's where futures thinking comes in. Once you show designers what futures thinking is and how they can apply it in their day-to-day lives, they will be better at anticipating. They're doing it subconsciously, but we teach them how to do it more consciously so they can make better decisions.
Applications and implications are one of my favourite ways of thinking about design's role. It's somewhat missing from the design space. I come from fashion and apparel design, where thinking about implications is practically non-existent. Designers are heavily focused on the applications. And it's only now that they're bringing in the other side of the coin, which is the implications. If I create this app or garment, what are its applications? Every designer is well versed in understanding applications. Who is the user? How much will we sell it for? What will the colour be? But when it comes to the implications, for example, how it will affect people's lives five years from now, few think about them. Social media is an example of a design that went wrong. It had all the right intentions. The applications were pretty nailed in terms of connecting people all around the world. But nobody thought about the implications. And now we deal with them, from privacy issues to increased levels of anxiety and depression. In my journey from design to futures, I was driven by the question of how to make people aware of the implications or unintended consequences. How can brands evaluate the overlooked impacts, like their carbon footprints, their effect on ecosystems, or even the effect on their employees or consumers? If you're always competing, you're not innovating. You're not looking beyond what your competitors do.
Is there a mindset shift in organisations regarding long-term thinking?
Yeah, I certainly think there is, which is both a good and bad thing. It's good because companies and brands have finally realised that there is this not-so-new concept called long-term thinking or long-term strategy. Business schools teach about it. The reason it's not that prevalent has to do with how markets are oriented. And it is simply easier for people to focus on the now than on the later. There's this prevailing notion that if you're investing in the future, you're diverting your time or resources from the more pressing problems and challenges a business faces in the present. It's always been a mindset and perception issue, not a lack of methodology issue.
The pandemic triggered a shift away from this mindset. The pandemic simply happened, and nobody knew what to do about it. Businesses have realised how helpless you can feel when a black swan event, such as COVID-19 or a war, happens and you're unprepared. Most businesses and brands now understand the repercussions of not being prepared. That has made them more focused on futures thinking, strategic foresight, and anticipatory planning. Today, many big businesses practice it, and numerous small- and medium-sized businesses are looking into it as well. They sometimes use the term future-proofing, which I believe is not an appropriate descriptor of how futures work should be approached. You can't really "proof yourself from the future", but you can definitely prepare yourself better. So that's the good part of the story. Many businesses and brands have become more future-focused. The slightly bad part of the story is, of course, that it just became another trend. Similar to the shift from consumer to user-centricity a few years ago. The idea was to expand the definition of consumers beyond the people who buy your products. Brands started to focus on their larger community. They wanted to make users part of their brands, even if they weren't buying anything. This became a trend. Everybody jumped on the bandwagon. And everybody started talking about wanting to cultivate a community of users and fans, but the processes behind this shift remained pretty much the same. It was only a front. That's my worry about this new-found enthusiasm for futures thinking. Many brands and businesses focus on consulting as many futurists and trend researchers as possible. I feel that they're losing the plot as they become overly reliant on what people tell them to do without really understanding why they're doing it. Instead of being based on an understanding of the value of long-term thinking, it's reactionary and fear-driven. Consequently, futures thinking is not embedded in the entire process and organisational culture. It just becomes another task at best, and tokenised at worst.
How do you create an organisational culture geared toward futures thinking?
That's much harder to do. You have to train your employees to think anticipatively and systemically. Some companies are beginning to understand that we can't treat futures thinking like trend reports. If you want anticipatory capabilities as a business or brand, you have to treat it as a funnelling exercise that runs from the top to the bottom. Company-wide transformation can only happen if everyone gets involved. It cannot be like, “Okay, these are the five things we need to focus on.” That's trend-report thinking. Transformation must be deep and cross-departmental.
What are the barriers to adopting futures thinking in businesses?
First and foremost, that somewhat flawed belief that we waste resources. In many cases, we lack reliable data to prove that the money we invest will yield results in the future. How do we know if investing a lot of money will benefit us? For example, it is becoming increasingly apparent that we need to invest in sustainability, but how can businesses be sure these investments will pay off? They struggle to invest in something that will not yield immediate returns. It's not part of the capitalist mindset, which is about making profits and outperforming the competition. From a design-centric perspective, businesses and brands are created to differentiate themselves. In reality, however, we're cultivating brands for competition. And when you cultivate your business or brand for competition, you only focus on reducing the price. Differentiation becomes difficult because nobody invests in something different. A major mental barrier is the inability to look beyond direct returns. The investment may have an indirect return, though. If I don't invest in long-term strategy, another pandemic might not only eviscerate my business capabilities but also impact the whole ecosystem of my business. We need a holistic and cooperative mindset as we move towards a new age. Brands shouldn't focus solely on competition. Instead, they should invest in systems that will protect their interests five, ten, or 20 years from now. In most businesses, changing this behaviour is difficult.
You mentioned before that you became frustrated with trend research, feeling it lacked substance. Did you devise your own method?
Yes, over the years, I've built a methodology that I'm still refining and researching further. It reflects my transition from design to futures. At the core of what I'm seeking to develop is holism in the way we approach futures thinking. I leverage three pillars to ensure we look at the bigger picture with a holistic mindset. These three pillars are design thinking, systems thinking, and futures thinking.
Holism can be very broad. The way I approach it is to avoid reductionist and isolationist thinking. This stems from my experience working with designers and design schools, where everything is excessively siloed. In fact, this realisation was one of the catalysts for my transformation into a multidisciplinary designer. Having worked across different design disciplines, I've realised that each tells the same story but in a slightly different language. However, they don't necessarily talk to each other. Product designers, industrial designers—they rarely collaborate with fashion and interior designers, or with communication designers, beyond rare task-specific instances. Deep synergies are missing, which keep this inherently siloed view of design entrenched. This is something we try to transcend with trans-disciplinary design, which wants to remove these siloes. Because how else do we solve wicked problems? How do we solve extensively interconnected and interdependent problems if we take a single-minded approach? A lot of times, if you're talking about sustainability in the context of fashion—and that's a big conversation in the fashion industry—you just have material designers dealing with the sustainability crisis. You would probably need systems designers as well. And the same for, let's say, generative AI. We know that generative AI has many climate-related problems. The amount of water it uses is crazy. But software designers can't solve the problem alone. They need scientists who, in turn, understand the designer's approach. It all depends on how we bring together these very distant stars in the galaxy. When it comes to different disciplines, we have to figure out a way to bridge them. It's that bridging that requires holism. I approach futures thinking from this perspective.
I am extremely grateful for what design has taught me, which is how to look at pain points. Being able to empathise with what the user experiences. How much of that actually gets applied to brands and businesses is another story altogether. But design thinking taught me how to always think about the person beside or across from you and avoid becoming egotistical in the process. That's one of the most critical values of design thinking. However, its usefulness and impact have decreased compared to a decade or two ago, when the world wasn't spinning at an accelerated pace. Now, if you're just solving a pain point in the near term, the problems will have completely changed by the time your solution hits the market. Today, you need anticipatory thinking. In the words of Buckminster Fuller, we need anticipatory prognostications—a way to apply futures thinking to design. The challenge is to ensure that this future-anticipatory aspect that we discovered and these drivers we identified can be connected back to design, be acted upon, and have materialistic outcomes. Futures thinking can infuse design with an anticipatory capability that I believe many designers still lack.
What role does systems thinking play in your approach?
One of the other gaps I've seen is that people think foresight is all about producing reports—that it’s all about providing stats, themes, or trends. But how does a brand apply that? Particularly with regard to the essential third pillar, systems thinking. It's complimentary to both futures and design thinking. Given the uncertainty and complexity we're experiencing at global scales right now, which we haven't seen in the past, it's more crucial than ever. With all these trends around us, we must find out how they connect with each other and what that interconnection looks like. This will enable us to solve some of the problems resulting from these trends. What are the bigger stories they're unveiling? Systems thinking allows us to think of the design and futures narrative in a big-picture context. To understand what connects them, their interdependencies, and thresholds.
This is essential because, as designers, we know how to create solutions. But with one solution, we might trigger a cascade of new problems. The concept of wicked problems arises because we interact with highly complex, interdependent, and uncertain systems. A solution to an isolated node can cascade into different problems downstream or upstream. Often, we don't know how or why that happens because we're not anticipating it. This is where systems thinking comes in. If I have this great solution, let's say CCS, climate capture and storage, which is a big conversation right now, how does it actually impact behavioural systems downstream or upstream? Will it keep us locked into a fossil fuel-led future? These are questions we're not anticipating because they're a different node altogether. My focus is on solving the climate crisis and reducing carbon dioxide emissions. I’m not necessarily thinking about how it facilitates a pro-fossil fuel future, which is the main driver of the climate crisis in the first place. But the more we start thinking in systems, the more we can apply a more holistic mindset to futures thinking. And that's an approach I've explored with these three pillars. How do we develop holism? How do we avoid getting stuck in silos and look at things in a trans-disciplinary way?
How do you break down silos in practice? Do you bring together a trans-disciplinary team to work on a challenge, or do you apply a trans-disciplinary perspective to your work?
A bit of both. It really depends on the project brief and size. For projects that require large-scale thinking, it makes sense to bring in teams with both specialised skills and a multidisciplinary mindset. On most projects, I collaborate with T-shaped individuals. This requires having in-depth knowledge of particular domains but also the capability to connect with other domains. The challenge is to bridge across design, futures, and systems, across languages and frameworks, and figure out ways to work in tandem with each other. This again depends on how far a business wants to go or what sort of solution it wants. If they're looking for strategic solutions, we apply these three pillars to provide directions on the key areas they should focus on.
However, if a client is looking for a more innovation-centric idea, which is where you really need to develop something novel, then we're utilising design, futures, and systems thinking and essentially zoning in on that innovation. In one of the projects I worked on, we looked at a waste by-product called Chitosan, which comes from discarded seafood shells. Our objective was to make it into a material that is flexible and sturdy and that can also serve as the basis for creating semi-solid and solid structures or even products. We applied design futures and systems thinking, but everything was approached using this material as a lens. We asked, for instance, how it would affect downstream and upstream systems.
One point of view in the discussion about removing siloes is that disciplines by themselves don't have value. I don't think that's true. Disciplines do hold value, and we must have specialisations. Everything isn't just about generalists. But we need more pathways to connect these varied disciplines so that knowledge doesn't get stuck in individual towers. It is possible for these knowledge pools to connect and figure out each other's biases and blind spots. Also, we need to understand how they meet the needs of the modern world and how they will solve future problems. Things change constantly and become more VUCA. I don't really like the term, and VUCA has always been there to a large extent. However, more people perceive the world as more uncertain and volatile, which requires understanding and empathy.
It sounds like there is an emerging need for a new kind of consultant strategist who builds bridges between disciplines and contexts. My observation is that strategists are getting more interested in biology and ecology, applying the principles of these domains to business issues.
I agree. It's interesting that you mentioned biology because science and the arts have traditionally been very fluid. And they've been very open about coming together. For example, we have marine biologists, material biologists, and many others, but design and business are more rigid in that regard. They haven't necessarily figured out how to communicate with different design disciplines. There are multiple biases.
You're right that bridging is essential. Especially since in the last 30 or 40 years, we've dealt with increasingly complex problems. Or it could also be that it’s not the world that is growing more complex, but that we are becoming more aware of its complexities. Either way is true: the world has always been complex, and we're becoming more aware of its complexities. And now is the time to figure out how to change things. Bridging is a great word because we now need to work more hand in hand with different kinds of professionals and ideators. That's basically what systems thinking enables us to do.
And they need to know which disciplines to bring in…
There are different skill sets being explored. It's also about perceptions. Being a generalist has always been frowned upon to some extent. The assumption was that generalists didn’t have deep knowledge. “Jack of all trades, master of none” kind of thing. But we're in this very significant shift right now, where we need generalists. We need people who can see the larger picture and identify what is going right and what is not going so well. And somebody in a particular domain may not be able to see that because they're focused on what's next in their domain. They're not necessarily looking at how that would impact another domain, another industry, or another area altogether.
As an example, take the “Amazonization” of our lives, the extensive focus on instant gratification and convenience at every step. At first glance, it's brilliant. You're providing more ease and convenience in people's lives. And that's where design meets its limitations—its thresholds. Making people's lives better or easier is the ultimate win for designers. But if you ask a systems thinker or a futures thinker, they'll point out that you are potentially fostering burnout, as people are now stuck to their screens and don't decouple themselves from work. So, you're essentially removing the opportunity for people to stop working. You are also building a system that creates more work, which leads to more burnout. There's research about how these convenience systems actually make things more inconvenient in the long run. This is because you're getting more and more trapped. If you have access to your work emails on every device, what does that do? Does it really bring convenience to your life? Or does it make you feel more trapped? These are some interesting critical questions that systems thinking can help answer. Design thinking alone can make it seem like you've won the game.
As you said, innovation usually aims for more ease, speed, and convenience. But how much more convenience can we have? The ability to do things faster hasn’t really freed up our time. We're just moving faster on our rat wheels. Innovation has become boring because we keep solving “problems” that aren’t actually problems.
Yes, we need to reset our focus. What you just said reminds me of those initial predictions from the 1930’s or 1940’s about technology solving our lives. And one of the things people thought would happen if technology became embedded in our lives was that it would free up our time to do things we really wanted to do, like write poetry or have something meaningful or purposeful in our lives. And to a large extent, technology has saved us time. The unfortunate thing is that all that free time becomes embedded in more work. Neither technology nor design are to blame. It's probably larger systems that are built to take advantage of every opportunity for economic development. That's at the heart of this issue—a system centred on GDP and creating more growth. We're operating on a two-dimensional economic scale. We’re not necessarily looking at other aspects of well-being or growth. We're, however, at a moment where we become aware of these problems. We realise that innovation is also about saying no to certain ideas, even if they appear great at first glance. That was a central tension in the movie Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer had this brilliant idea but was conflicted about what to do. Do you move ahead? Because if you do, you give people a weapon of mass destruction.
Some say progress is inevitable; we can't stop it. And now that we have generative AI, we can't really do anything about it. It's interesting to even entertain the thought that we can say no to a new technology because it seems we can't. Once it's out there, it becomes self-perpetuating.
Well, we can find a way to have a different relationship with machines. I say machines because you just spoke about generative AI, the biggest shift in the technological paradigm. Trying to figure out a way to change our relationship with technology doesn’t necessarily mean freeing up our time so that we can do more work and be more productive. It means working out a way to make our lives better by allowing us to do things we like to do. So that's something brands of tomorrow need to focus on. How do we figure out a way to allow generative AI, or AI in general, to help people take purposeful and meaningful actions in their lives? That's the big challenge.
That's a great way to think about it. I was thinking about the AI for good movement. Technology as a tool to achieve specific goals rather than dictate them. We might need to reframe what we are trying to accomplish. Do we need more growth, or is it well-being?
That's the thing. It's just all tools at the end of the day. It's about how we orient these tools towards certain objectives. We change the narrative, and the tools follow that narrative. It's as simple as that. It's the narrative right now that keeps us stuck in certain ways of doing things. A way that doesn't necessarily help the world except for the top one or two percent, who benefit from the system and the inequality it creates. But it's not working for everybody else, nor for the planet. We're on the brink of catastrophe as climate change accelerates. It's not working in the context of the larger economy because, while GDP seems to be growing, people's well-being is not. The money that people earn ends up getting sucked into health care, which they could take care of if they had more spare time. So invariably, we're stuck in a system that doesn't necessarily aggregate profit for everyone. But once we change that narrative, technology can help us come out of it.
Do futurists have a role to play in changing this narrative?
Yeah, I think we do. It's complicated because futurists work across a variety of domains and add value in different ways. So the answer might differ from domain to domain. If you're looking at a speculative designer or a world builder, they can make a difference by inspiring people through stories. And I know it might sound like, "Oh, we've heard that before," but stories can be transformative. How we relate to technology comes from stories—for example, the Hollywood movies The Terminator, Space Odyssey, and Blade Runner have influenced how we relate to technology. It's always antagonised, right? From the stories we've grown up with as children, we've always perceived technology as something to fear. However, stories can turn the tide by teaching us how to approach emerging futures. Be it de-growth, sustainable transformation, or any other future destinations we're imagining at the moment. Creating stories will allow people to feel immersed in these futures and more prepared to take action. It will inspire them to be optimistic and overcome fear, which is crucial because feeling afraid leads to more business-as-usual scenarios. Often, people are afraid to take action because they don't know where it will lead or how it will turn out. As a result, they find it easier to maintain the status quo.
A helpful illustration of the various futures and design domains and how they intersect is the graph by Elliott P. Montgomery. It shows how different domains produce or change narratives differently. From the standpoint of strategic foresight, it will be a more challenging proposition, as it's difficult to show that a strategy is effective before it is implemented. Similarly, scenario planners struggle to convince people to buy into their scenarios. But that's the challenge that futurists and future thinkers have taken on. How do we make people believe that a scenario isn't just imaginative storytelling but backed by facts and data? We extrapolate from today in the most logical, rational, and pragmatic way possible. In that way, we identify possible, plausible, and probable scenarios for you to prepare for. For foresight strategists, that's a more technical way to inspire people to take action now for their future. Unlike speculative designers and world builders, who can enter into full sci-fi mode, foresight strategists must rely more on data and projections than just inventive storytelling.
In a way, foresight is less about bringing about a certain future than it is about changing the way people think and feel about it. Immersion seems to be the perfect tool for accomplishing this.
Yes, absolutely. However, allowing people to feel immersed in potential futures is very difficult to do. The reason for this is that you need to make the audience believe that the stories you tell will somehow impact them. It's a challenge, which is why designers and futurists need to work together. I love Superflux's work for that reason. It combines futures thinking with speculative design and brings emerging futures into physical form, so you can really experience them. Unless you make people experience these realities, it's very difficult for them to feel engaged. And if they're not engaged, they can easily brush them off. There are still many people who believe climate change is a hoax or that the earth is flat. There's nothing you can do about it. It just shows how strongly people believe in something and how difficult it is to convince them to change their minds. And that's where immersion comes in. I'm hoping that with new emerging technologies like the metaverse, we can help people feel more immersed in these kinds of possibilities. And yes, storytelling is a very effective device for that. The mindset shift that happened when the movie Avatar came out was incredible. It completely upended our view of humanity as a species. Up until then, humanity was the protagonist. Suddenly, we turned them into antagonists, and that changed our thinking about our actions. It made us reflect on our role on the planet and whether we need to change our course. That's the power of compelling storytelling.