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Using Speculative Design, Backcasting, and Storytelling to Influence the Adjacent Possible —MWUX Inspired Series 2017 Blog 2 of 5

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I’ve learned over the years, when attending design conferences like Midwest UX, it is incredibly important to have an open and abstract mindset. I always try to load up with conceptual ammo I can interpret and work into our team’s process post-conference. 

This year I was introduced to a few terms that really got me thinking—the adjacent possible, speculative design, and backcasting. These three concepts all revolve around designing for the future, casting a vision, and working towards a desired state. The more time I spent thinking about and researching each of these the more I saw how they could be remixed into an interesting thought framework. But before we get too far, let’s take a moment and define these concepts. 

The Adjacent Possible is a term rooted in biology proposed by theoretical biologist Stuart A. Kauffman in the article, The Adjacent Possible but is elegantly abstracted and summarized in context of innovation by Steven Johnson in the article, The Genius of the Tinkerer. I heard this term for the first time at MWUX while listening to Jesse James Garrett—an absolute rock star in the UX world.

The adjacent possible captures both the limits and the creative potential of change and innovation… The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself.

—Steven Johnson

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Speculative Design “…is work that uses design (products, services, scenarios) to address challenges and opportunities of the future. We tend to look 5-10+ years forward and speculate on how things could be and what future we want or don’t want based on these scenarios.” – Phil Balagtas, MWUX presenter and Experience Design Director. Read more by Phil on speculative design here.

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Backcasting is a process where participants propose a future event or situation and then work backward to construct a plausible causal chain leading from here to there. This process is best used during problem framing. Learn more about backcasting at Design Research Techniques.

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Creating a Thought Framework to Influence the Adjacent Possible

Now that we’re defined the adjacent possible, speculative design, and backcasting let’s combine these concepts and techniques to create a thought framework we can use to influence the adjacent possible. Wait, what does that really mean? 

Influencing the adjacent possible means envisioning a desired state, finding all the potential ways to get there from the current state, then putting forth actions to elevate the plausibility of reaching the desired state.

—Brandon Knap

Here is a possibility map that combines the scope of speculative design with a goal-oriented adjacent possible. To use this map, we set the problem as the current state and we set the best possible solution as the desired state. We then plot all the potential moments required to reach the desired state or solution. A moment could be thought of as a tactic such as improving brand messaging, redesigning the website, hiring a marketing strategist, and so on. Moments positioned closer to the probable line are easy to accomplish while moments placed closer to the possible line require more effort and may be riskier.

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With all the moments plotted between the current and desired state, it is now time to create plausible storylines. A storyline could be technology, brand, customer experience, marketing, etc. Each storyline is a string of related moments that logically backcast from the desired state to the current state. By breaking down the problem into small storylines we’ve created micro-goals that elevate the plausibility of reaching the desired state.

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With the storylines in place, the problem now has clear paths towards reaching the desired state located in the adjacent possible. Now, every time a moment is achieved we have successfully and purposefully influenced the adjacent possible!

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Putting It into Practice

There are many different applications this thought framework can be applied to. It can help facilitate conversation around business & brand goals, strategy sessions for new products, even personal goals. The sky is the limit. Here are a couple basic scenarios that could be applied to the Adjacent Possible Framework.

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Closing Thoughts—Never Stop Tinkering and Exploring

This Adjacent Possible Thought Framework is a modest attempt at thought leadership and a nod towards brilliant thought leaders—Jesse James Garrett, Phil Balagtas, Stuart A. Kauffman, Steven Johnson, and many others pushing the bounds of thought and design.

Never stop tinkering and exploring, this expands your adjacent possible and creates more diverse opportunities to innovate.

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