Sampling the Future(s)

About 30 years ago, I sat outside a seminar room at a product design conference. I recall meeting Tom Matano. In the 1990s, Mr. Matano was an icon and rock star in the industrial design world. He was the head of Mazda’s West Coast design studio and key designer of vehicles like the Mazda Miata and Mazda MPV. He later headed Mazda’s global design effort.

I was a rookie business PhD, but he was extremely gracious and spent 30 minutes explaining his mental model for the industrial design process by sketching it on the back of the conference program. I don’t think I ever got the original, but I mentally retained the image for 3 decades. I didn’t meet him again, but few ideas before or since have had such a profound impact on my understanding and worldview. Below, I’ve sketched what I remember and think it looked like.

Tom Matano's Future Sampling Design Methodology. Stakeholders in the here and now don't have time to think deeply about future alternatives. Industrial designers can "sample" the future and help current stakeholders visualize the alternatives open to them.

Paraphrasing what I remember from his explanation, he said that the left axis represents time, from past to future. The horizontal line represents time “now”. He then described organizations by the way key groups of people aligned with that timeline. 

In the lower part of the diagram is the general workforce. This isn’t a power structure, but they work on tasks that were (mostly) defined in the past. The majority of their jobs and functions were probably established 1, 3 or 5 years ago and they execute them as they were intended at that time. Thinking about the future doesn’t help them much.

Line and middle managers operate in a time frame around the present. Their work is defined by internal and external factors that are recent. They may look a bit ahead, but it’s through a job lens that was built in the recent past.

Executives are supposed to chart the course for the organization to follow. However, Mr. Matano said that they typically can’t see much farther than a year to 18 months ahead. They may give lip service to the idea of long range planning, but they seldom have the bandwidth to do it frequently or systematically.

Finally, he described what he and his industrial design colleagues did, at least in the context of automaking. He doesn’t think in terms of one future. He sees many alternative futures. If this happens, then that will happen. He didn’t worry about trying to “predict” the future or advocate for a specific future. Instead, his job was to look at the alternative futures and bring back a “sample” of what they might be. He tried to construct a tangible representation of each alternative future (e.g., a sketch, a story, or even a clay car model) and put it in front of executives and managers for them to study.

The idea is that the executives and managers don’t have time to go fishing around in alternative futures, but they have the knowledge and skills to understand the implications of the different alternatives. They can weigh the pros and cons, figure out the costs and it is for them to decide which future(s) to pursue.

Futures and COVID-19

We are just getting to the point where the first, emergency response to COVID-19 has settled in. All of America is more or less in lockdown. Even in states that didn’t formally mandate social distancing, it appears that a majority of the population signed on anyway. Now the question is “what next?” In the spirit of Tom Matano’s future sampling, here are my attempts to write short stories about possible alternative COVID-19 futures.

A – Technology to the Rescue

Sometime in the next few months … before August, a clinical trial somewhere in the world comes up aces. It produces a drug that really diminishes the COVID-19 symptoms. Then another drug appears. Then doctors start to get the treatment protocol (breathing exercises, turning over, etc.) down to a science. By October, death rates are plummeting. People still get really sick, but few die.

Even an 80 year old diabetic can view COVID-19 as a tough illness, but not a death sentence. People will take more risks in order to regain their family, economic and social life. More people get COVID, more recover and herd immunity begins to grab hold. Except for the most deeply at-risk, most of society heads back to work. By New Years, life is returning to normal for most people. By May, workers on the front lines have the new vaccine. By September 2021, everyone can get it and COVID-19 is history.

B – Hunkered Down

In this future, technology works slowly. We try a lot of drugs, and some help at the edges, but there’s no silver bullet. A vaccine is taking a long time. We are working on ways to decrease mortality, but COVID is still deadly for too many people. Testing ramps up but we still have limitations. Mass testing is out of reach.

Social distancing is the new normal. In some places and societies, people master it and they can engage in more (but not all) activity while keeping cases and death rates within bounds. Other places are less disciplined and the infection flares up again. The undisciplined areas return to mandatory lockdowns again and again.

The summer and fall of 2020 are a dead loss. Economic activity starts and stops in a few areas, but no one gets any real traction. The areas that are most disciplined get the most activity back, but nothing close to 100%. The undisciplined areas are in economic chaos. Only in 2021 does the picture begin to brighten. A vaccine (not perfect, but good) finally arrives. It goes to front liners first, general public 6 months later. By the end of the year, people can finally venture out without feeling they are taking their lives in their hands. The recovery finally begins, but a huge amount of damage has been done.

C – A Testing We Will Go

Here, we hold the lockdown for as long as it takes to really knock down the infection rate nationwide. Technology solutions are slow to arrive, but we do build a massive testing capacity. We can do hundreds of millions of tests per year. Tests at doctors’ offices. Tests at home. Drive-by tests. Nasal tests to catch current infections and blood tests to identify recovered patients with antibodies.

With all of our testing, we pretty much know who has COVID, where and when. Decision-makers can track real-time maps that show the latest small flareups … even if subjects are asymptomatic.

COVID is still dangerous, but we have a tracking collar on the beast. People can go out and interact as long as they’re in an area that is known to be safe. As soon as COVID approaches their area, they jump back into full social distancing mode.

This dance continues through the middle of 2021. Towards the end of the year, one or more vaccines appear, first for front-line workers and then for everyone. The testing infrastructure stays in place to make sure that we are never blindsided again.

D – The Unchained Beast

In this scenario, nothing really seems to work. Drugs barely dent it … and they’re offset by new COVID mutations. Some of the mutations are even deadlier than the original. The disease is everywhere and comes in annual waves. Vaccines are temporary and weakly effective.

As social distancing drags on, society and the economy begins to change in fundamental ways. With a return to normalcy off the table, new businesses and services emerge. The agony is enduring enough that they can gain a solid foothold. Global trade continues but supply chains must totally restructure – both for safety and because demands have shifted dramatically. Social venues operate with new, dispersed and protected layouts. Sanitizer on every table. Everyone wears a mask. All the time. New mask designs are a red hot business.

We become a virtual society. America’s airlines consolidate as half go out of business. Global travel is by appointment only. Everyone does video meetings all day … even for routine social events and family get-togethers. Even Grandma can do video chat. Telecom companies become behemoths. Figuring out how to close the digital divide is the question of the day. Otherwise, what will a third of our population do?

On the plus side, pollution is way down. Our carbon footprint is drastically reduced on a global basis. Maybe there is time to mitigate some of Global Warming.

What Can I do With This?

My goal in trying to channel Tom Matano’s “future sampling” exercise is the same as the goal he shared with me. I’m trying to flesh out alternative possibilities so other people can kick their tires and decide what they believe and want to do. As the reader, you can decide which one is most likely and you can think about what you can do to make it come true. Use the exercise to focus your energies into achieving the future(s) you can help to achieve. Even if you can only add a tiny piece one of these pictures, every little bit helps.

If you dislike my future stories, don’t argue with me … they’re my stories after all. Instead, use the comments on my FB, LinkedIn or Twitter accounts to write your own stories about some other futures. Then readers can decide for themselves.

Also, if you think this a lame exercise, blame me … NOT Tom Matano!