It’s the year 2050 in the city of Pittsburgh. Everything is so different compared to just 35 years ago, when Peter Scupelli, assistant professor of design, left Carnegie Mellon University’s campus for a conference in Seattle. Instead of buses, rapid transit pods carry people from station to station. Cyclists wind their way throughout the city on carless roads and recharge electric bikes at docking stations. Rather than commuting long distances to offices, many people work side-by-side at local collaborative work centers, which buzz with the exchange of ideas and information. Most people live in compact apartments, given the region’s space limitations, often with extended families. They regularly use 3D holographic technology in their “media rooms” to interact with loved ones or coworkers elsewhere in the world. Evenings and weekends, neighbors socialize in large communal areas, such as rooftops or vibrant community centers. Educational opportunities exist through online courses and other learning resources at a nearby “Learning Hub.”

This is the future as envisioned by a group of CMU students, Scupelli tells the audience at the 2015 international conference for the Industrial Designers Society of America (IDSA), one of the oldest and largest membership organizations for industrial design professionals. He and Arnold Wasserman—a 1956 CMU alumnus and co-founder of the renowned design consultancy Collective Invention—have traveled to Seattle for the IDSA’s 50th annual international conference. They’ve been invited to speak about “Dexign the Future,” which is a novel design studio course they’ve developed and co-taught. At the Westin Seattle Hotel, they join some of the brightest minds in the field of design, whose affiliations include, among others, Amazon, Intel, Microsoft, Netflix, and PepsiCo, as well as prominent design firms, nonprofits, and design schools. They’re all here to discuss the topic of this year’s conference: “The Future of the Future.”

“This is perhaps the most important conference in our history,” writes IDSA Board of Directors Chair Emeritus Charles Austen Angell, as designers increasingly find themselves playing key roles in businesses, nonprofits, and governments, searching for solutions to the global problems of the 21st century.

Those problems are outlined by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, an alliance of nearly 200 CEO-led business organizations, which calls for significant change by the year 2050 to ward off the catastrophic consequences of global warming and to reduce the waste of natural resources. It’s estimated that we’re currently using the planet’s resources at a rate that is the equivalent to 1.5 Earths and growing, reports the nonprofit Global Footprint Network. This means we need to develop new and sustainable forms of infrastructure and food production, not to mention improve access to healthcare, education, and economic opportunities for a growing, urbanizing world population, expected to reach 9.6 billion by 2050, with close to 70% of people living in cities.

Creating a sustainable and equitable world means equipping the designers of tomorrow with the ability to design for “long time horizons,” state Scupelli and Wasserman in “Learn!2050 and Dexign Futures,” their paper that prompted the invitation to present at the IDSA conference.

Designing for the future seems like an elementary concept, but Scupelli found that many students are pessimistic about where society is headed, in part because of popular books and movies. Take, for example, the 2015 blockbuster movie Mad Max: Fury Road, which grossed more than $300 million at the box office. It portrays a post-apocalyptic society that has collapsed into a state of lawless disorder.

“That seems to be how we like our future these days,” Wasserman says to the IDSA crowd, “a post-apocalyptic dystopia where everything blows up.”

To thwart a Fury Road future from a design perspective, Scupelli turned his attention to a field that often flies under the radar: futurism. Although “futurism” may sound like a made-up name from Star Trek, it’s actually a field of study that’s been around for quite a while. Businesses, the military, intelligence organizations, and other government agencies regularly engage in futurist-type thinking and methodology.

One famous example of futures thinking, Wasserman explains to the audience, is the Mont Fleur Scenarios of the early 1990s. They were developed by futurist Adam Kahane and helped to end apartheid in South Africa, says Wasserman. By visualizing alternate scenario outcomes and creating stories for each, leaders were able to reach agreements needed to create a new decisive, representative government.

Wasserman says he regularly partners with futurists and strategists. It has served him well, as he was named one of 20 “Masters of Design” of the 21st century by the business magazine Fast Company. He’s worked with businesses and governments across the world, including helping to redesign Singapore’s education system. In 2013, while he was holding the Nierenberg Chair at the CMU’s School of Design, he and Scupelli developed the pedagogy for the course “Dexign the Future,” with an “x” identifying its experimental nature. It’s a “flipped, blended” studio course that combines futurist thinking (and its focus on long-term outcomes, with design thinking, and its human-centered approach), creating “an extremely powerful tool set for thinking about the future of the future.”

“That seems to be how we like our future these days, a post-apocalyptic dystopia where everything blows up.”
Arnold Wasserman

Using Pittsburgh as the focus and 2050 as the year, students were challenged to create a narrative of a world that they wanted to see. Students worked with the local initiative Plan Pittsburgh, gathering weeks of data from research and conversations with locals to get a sense of the wants and needs of some of the city’s neighborhoods. They analyzed systems-wide forces likely to drive change in Pittsburgh by 2050—trends in climate change, energy, economy, civil rights, communication, transportation, education, and technology, among others—and established benchmark goals for each decade.

Essentially, the students “dexigned” the future. The success of the course inspired Scupelli to develop an introductory course in 2014 to better understand design methods and futures thinking. He and Judy Brooks from the Eberly Center of Teaching Excellence are piloting a Dexign the Future seminar course via the Open Learning Initiative (OLI), later this fall. Although the courses are still relatively new, Scupelli hopes that other educators will use the materials, all of which are available online, to teach their own courses.

To Ayse Birsel, education VP of the IDSA Board of Directors, the novel approach by Scupelli and Wasserman is noteworthy: Crossing design thinking with futures thinking and creating data-based, holistic future scenarios with real, tangible goals “equals power” to design students as well as to determining the future of education itself, she says.

Scupelli and Wasserman aren’t alone in pushing the envelope to tackle the systemic, interconnected problems of global warming, population growth, natural resources drain, and other “wicked problems,” a term first coined by urban planner Horst Rittel in the 1970s, which is used by designers to denote complex, seemingly unsolvable problems.

“Dexign the Future” is reflective of a larger, growing mission of CMU’s School of Design to solve these wicked problems. Terry Irwin heads the school, which consistently ranks among the top 10 design schools in the world. She and colleagues Cameron Tonkinwise and Gideon Kossoff have developed a theoretical framework, “transition design,” a term coined by Kossoff in his doctoral dissertation, which proposes “design-led societal transition toward more sustainable futures and the re-conception of entire lifestyles.”

Irwin describes it, more simply, with a model. Take the “wicked problem” of energy, for example. Along a continuum of solutions that increase in their effectiveness, you could choose to work on designing hybrid cars that use less gasoline; you could work on designing solar-powered cars or another form of renewable energy; or, you could completely rethink cars altogether and why we need them, choosing to focus on swaying public opinion or developing alternative modes of transportation. That’s to say, if we change the way we live and work, we won’t need to drive as much or drive at all.

How does that translate into educating the designers of tomorrow? That means teaching design students to see the forest through the trees—or, in other words, to be able to recognize the larger, broader social and environmental contexts and systems in which problems are embedded, to ask the right questions, and to work collaboratively across many disciplines. One of the ways this is being implemented at Carnegie Mellon is through the Integrative Design, Arts and Technology Network (IDeATe). It connects diverse strengths across the university to advance education, research, and creative practice in domains that merge technology and arts expertise.

Leaders from nearly every sector—business, government, nonprofits, healthcare, and education—are under pressure to reinvent the proverbial wheel to keep up with the demands of a rapidly changing marketplace, economy, and society. And designers, says Irwin, are strategically poised to emerge as leaders in helping the world to transition to better futures.

But perhaps to plan for the future, you have to first revisit the past.

It’s the year 1933, arguably when stories about “the future” began, Wasserman tells the IDSA audience. The Great Depression held the country in a financial stranglehold, and the drought in the Midwest plains would soon lead to the devastating Dust Bowl. Despite the gloom, thousands of Americans flocked to Chicago for the 1933 World’s Fair. On the fairgrounds, visions of a shiny future dazzled the eye and piqued the imagination—the unveiling of state-of-the art streamlined trains, built for record-breaking speeds; models of houses designed for convenience; and plans for future cities with looming skyscrapers and interconnected freeways. The fair buzzed with the power of American manufacturing, showcasing the marriage of engineering and modern design. It gave despondent Americans a new story to tell, notes Scupelli and Wasserman: a vision of a future that was promising. Yet, it was an unsustainable future inextricably tied to fossil fuels.

That very same year, a group of CMU art students sent a petition to the university’s president calling for the creation of a program that would better suit their professional interests, in the field of industrial design. As evidenced at the World’s Fair, design was key to manufacturing, and there were jobs to be had. The administration heeded the call. Funds were acquired, and plans were put in motion for an industrial design program to emerge, among the first in the world.

The era saw the beginning of a long relationship between manufacturers and designers, with Carnegie Mellon emerging as a leading program for industrial design, adding a degree in graphic design in the 1968.

If we don’t start transitioning society toward a more sustainable future, “we’ll just be designing the deck chairs on the Titanic.”
Terry Irwin

It was in the 1980s when the field began to radically change, as computers entered the marketplace. The text-based interfaces of the early machines weren’t the most intuitive or user-friendly formats to work with, opening up a new area for designers: the graphical user interface. Originated in 1968 at Stanford Research Institute and later perfected at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center, the mouse-driven, direct manipulation graphical user interface was ultimately commercialized in 1984 when Apple released Mac to the market with its well-designed, icon-friendly user interface, and the rest is history. A few years down the road, the game changed again, as designers developed the new digital realm of the World Wide Web.

Fast-forward to today, when the field of design has exploded in tandem with technology. Dynamic websites, apps, tomorrow’s smart devices, sensors, bionic medical devices, self-driving vehicles, holographic technology, virtual reality—the technology of the future is the subject of many talks at the IDSA conference, further emphasizing the fundamental role designers play in bridging the gap between product and user. And given the multidimensional complexity of these kinds of products, they have their work cut out for them.

Take a thermostat, for example, that was designed in part by Fred Bould (a CMU School of Design 1987 alumnus) and Nest Lab co-founder Matthew Rogers (a CMU School of Engineering 2004 alumnus). The Nest thermostat self-regulates the temperature in your home by combining sensor and machine learning, and uses wireless technology with several interfaces—one being an app on your smart phone that lets you control the temperature remotely. Over time, it “learns” your schedule and automatically makes adjustments that cut energy costs.

The thermostat, in part, led Google to acquire Nest in 2014 for $3.2 billion. Bould, who is also known for his work designing the Roku box and GoPro camera, says he looks first and foremost at a product’s utility when choosing what to work on, selecting products that will be useful over the long term.

The Nest thermostat represents the beginning. It’s one of the first major wirelessly controlled home devices to hit the market; more are expected to follow as the “Internet of Things” grows—a network of physical objects or “things” embedded with electronics, software, sensors, and connectivity to enable objects to collect and exchange data. Other examples are remotely controlled washing machines and sensor implants in pets. Probably the fastest growing sector today for intelligent networked sensor/feedback/control technology is that of “the qualified self,” which ranges from fitness tracking to remote digital healthcare.

Yet “things” are only one part of the picture when it comes to the growing field of design. There is always a broader context, says Scupelli, an interaction designer who got his start designing for interactive museum exhibits. “Environments”—which are made up of products, information, and services that people inevitably interact with—all require design, like grocery stores, eco-friendly buildings, and micro-apartments. In addition, speakers at the conference discuss the challenges in blending the digital and physical into a seamless experience. How will their designs fit into someone’s lifestyle? It’s the difference, for example, between deciding to design a new phone and deciding to design an entirely new way of communicating.

As the talk by Scupelli and Wasserman draws to a close, unanswered questions linger in the air. In 2050, will we be riding rapid transit pods instead of driving cars? Will we have more connected communities, better wages, and free education? Will we be able to live more sustainably and significantly reduce our carbon footprint? Or, will we continue what may be an apocalyptic march into an unsustainable future?

Summing up, Wasserman says we must learn to incorporate “futures thinking into design thinking,” not unlike this exchange from Alice in Wonderland:

Alice: Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?

The Cheshire Cat: That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.

Irwin, in agreement, says designers can’t afford to not look at the bigger picture. If we don’t start transitioning society toward a more sustainable future, she warns, “We’ll just be designing the deck chairs on the Titanic.”

“We’re in transitional times,” echoes Scupelli. “We’ve got to do something different.”