Imagining the future: lessons from the Jetsons

Imagining the future: lessons from the Jetsons

'Meet George Jetson'.  George and his family - the Jetsons - were a 1960s view of the future.  They can teach us something about policy futures too.

In the 1960s, the makers of the Jetsons imagined the future to be an idyllic suburban 1960s American family - but in the sky.  George goes to work in a spaceship.  Jane goes shopping in the sky.  The two children go to floating high school.  There are lots of space pods.  When Jane goes shopping she uses green cash bills - not plastic and certainly not a mobile phone.  George sits at his futuristic-shaped desk, but works with pen and paper. There’s not a screen in sight.  

How did they miss so much? Probably because in visualising the future, we basically take what we know now and put it into a future context - why wouldn’t we? The creators of the Jetsons weren’t able to imagine the huge range of possibilities: mobility was the great innovation of their time, so the future would see exponential growth of that (and more things in the sky).

More things in the sky was also the overriding theme of a recent exhibition at the London Transport Museum, which looked at how people imagined the future of transport over time. In the early 1900s it was horses and carts, in the 50s, flying cars.  They didn’t envisage  open APIs giving people access to transport data, or social media consultations on how networks would run. How could they?  

So how do we push ourselves to think about 2050 beyond better iPads and bigger blockchain? How do we avoid our own ‘Kodak moments’ - pursuing the policy equivalents of mini-discs or delivering DVDs faster?

In the Lab, we worry about this because we spend a lot of time trying to help policy-makers think about the future. We think one way is to use speculative design techniques, which, as Cat Drew has previously argued, allow us to think about the future more expansively, and perhaps more profoundly.

Speculative design helps us play with different variables - stretching them into possible, probable and plausible futures. It encourages us to think about a much wider set of possibilities, rather than imagining we can predict what will happen.

In our speculative design experiments we create ‘artefacts’ that help us explain and explore those futures, and elicit responses from people. Having things that you can see and touch, whether they are train timetables, mocked-up robot repair shops or the euthanasia watch (a Lancaster Imaginations project), act as a time machine. They transport people into the future of their imagination. What would a world be like with this in it? How would I feel? What else would be happening? The world instantly becomes a more real and human place.

Of course (and if 2016 taught us anything), there will always be what Nicholas Taleb describes as ‘Black Swans’ - random and unexpected occurrences. But we can still improve the way we think about the information we do have. We think autonomous vehicles will be a thing and look at them through the lens of transport policy. But what about the social, health and environmental implications? What might life with these vehicles really look like, and what else will be going on at the same time?

Transporting policy-makers into the future helps them think more creatively. But also more profoundly and personally. The provocations help them better understand what they do hold dear, the values that guide us. So we’re not trying to accurately predict the future - we can’t. But we’re developing a shared sense of the possibilities, and the principles that should guide us in navigating them.

As the Jetsons teaches us, the future is hard to imagine. But the things we can do to prepare ourselves better are not rocket science.

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