How design thinking can improve technology forecasting
In 1873, an esteemed British inventor said: “The Americans need the telephone, but we do not. We have plenty of messenger boys.” On the flip side, The Simpsons predicted FaceTime and 3D printed food long before their inception. Right or wrong, technology forecasting can be tricky. Here, we share how we approach this daunting task.
Humanity is facing some big challenges. Whether it’s putting an end to global warming, creating equal opportunities for all, or preventing future pandemics – our physical and digital environments must continue to evolve to support a more sustainable world. But how can technology help us solve pressing global issues? Or, more generally speaking, how we can use technology for the better, in ways we’ve never seen before?
Behind the scenes at Ericsson ONE is a diverse team of technologists and designers who are trying to understand where the world is heading, what the ICT industry can do to support future needs, and what opportunities this presents for Ericsson. In collaboration with experts from a wide range of industries and disciplines, the team applies design-orientated thinking and tried and tested processes to identify future areas of interest and generate original ideas for new innovations.
Here, they explain the process they use, which we call the four stages of exploration.
Step one: identify real problems that need solving with divergent thinking
This phase focuses on understanding real needs and problems through research and open-ended exploration. During this stage, people must consciously embrace divergent thinking – a creative thought process that allows people to develop a deeper understanding through open, free-flowing discussions. This will help you identify what we call “opportunity spaces” – areas where interesting and relevant solutions can be found – while refraining from jumping to solutions too quickly.
You can start this process without an existing problem in mind. Instead, you can take an entire industry or area and explore how different technologies can create value in this space.
Joakim Formo, Strategic Design Director at Ericsson ONE, explains: “Traditionally tech companies start the innovation process with an issue that needs to be solved, but instead of throwing technology at obvious problems, we take a couple of steps back and look more broadly at an area or industry, for example, transport or manufacturing.”
By starting out with an open mindset and a broad understanding of a field, your ambition is to avoid any existing technological biases and create a more fertile space for original ideas.
“The trick is to make sure any predispositions or assumptions are left at the door, or else you’ll just end up with the usual suspect solutions. For example, at the moment we’re looking at mobility and the transportation of people and goods. However, we’re not necessarily just looking for new transport solutions – transport is just one means for gaining accesses to goods, places or people,” says Joakim.
This requires a mindset shift, and discussions during the discovery phase must be carefully tuned to unlock new insights. Anna Viggedal, Design Lead at Ericsson ONE, says: “One way of facilitating these open discussions is to ask open-ended questions that steer people away from an end solution. I often introduce materials, such as pictures, that can stimulate the discussion. Looking at different scenarios also helps people consider different opportunities in a given field.”
To come up with ideas that are truly original and unexpected, you also need to have a diverse group of people in the room. Cristian Norlin, Head of Design and Technology at Ericsson ONE, explains: “The people in our team have backgrounds in the humanities, design, psychology, gaming, and engineering, but it’s not just about us. We also involve experts from whichever field we’re exploring to deepen our understanding of the area. The more diverse perspectives you can get, the better.”
Conducting research is another key part of the discovery phase. This can include discussions and interviews with people who know about the area you’re exploring and conducting desktop research to build a bank of inspirational content and relevant cases. These examples are then sorted and grouped into categories to help structure the data and topics.
Step two: define the areas you’d like to pursue with convergent thinking
In the second phase, the focus in on identifying key insights, themes and opportunity areas using convergent thinking. Convergent thinking – which is the opposite of divergent thinking – requires a mental switch to a more closed mindset so you can hone in on the best possible solution (or solutions) to a chosen problem.
In this stage, you’ll use convergent thinking to analyze and synthesize information and define the areas you’d like to pursue from a logical perspective. This involves taking a deeper look at the information you collected in the discovery phase and trying to envision future scenarios enabled by current or future technology in more detail. This phase usually involves sketching different scenarios and creating detailed mind maps so you can clarify the findings from your research and identify possible areas to pursue.
“With the recent mobility project, for example, we ended up slicing the research and ideas we had into four different fields of application, including: the physical movement of things and people, digital experiences and services, city planning and infrastructure, and then an abstract layer, which included things like legal agreements and policies. Then we tried to come up with a way that technology could somehow add value to each layer,” explains Joakim.
Deciding which areas or scenarios to pursue is a collective exercise, and it helps to have a team of people who feel comfortable disagreeing with each other.
“If there’s a big, lively debate, it’s a good sign! Novel ideas aren’t necessarily always consensus-driven, they arise when different perspectives meet. Occasionally an idea still gets a landslide vote, but when people have different hunches sparks really fly,” says Cristian.
During this phase, the team also considers which scenarios or opportunity areas naturally complement Ericsson’s capabilities as a business – whether that be core areas of expertise or areas we’re looking to explore – to ensure they’re feasible.
At the end of this phase you should start to see the contours of the problems you need to solve to enable the different scenarios you’ve explored.
Step three: develop more ideas and solutions
This phase focuses on using the information from the previous stage to develop more solid ideas and solutions. Here, divergent thinking is used again to generate as many ideas as possible, and they should be continuously evaluated in order to understand their feasibility.
“At this point we discuss and develop new ideas, evaluate them, refine them and combine them until we have a few ideas or concepts that are robust enough to prototype,” says Anna.
It’s helpful to ask questions that start with “how might we “or “what if…” to frame your ideas. For example, “how might we make public transport preferable to private transport?” and “what if public transport was individually personalized somehow?”
Similarly to previous stages, visualizing ideas using sketches, examples and images is key so that everyone can envisage the ideas.
Step four: deliver
In the deliver phase, you pick up your convergent thinking hat again and select several ideas that can be prototyped. This doesn’t strictly mean building a product, but it should be an evolution of your existing visualizations and sketches – perhaps with more specific features – and something you can test further for feasibility and validate the product.
From a design perspective, prototyping is part of the thinking process.
Joakim explains: “Making a prototype helps you explore an idea further in a creative, cognitive and collaborative way – rather than just working theoretically. Prototypes are also a tangible way to communicate an idea, giving others something to experience and understand so they can help refine or change it.”
At this stage, the output is often a well-developed sketch or prototype for something that might become a product, which is then presented to people for feedback on whether or not it’s technically possible.
It’s also important to build a clear narrative around the product during this stage.
“The narrative we build around a concept or idea is a super important part of innovation and product development. This narrative should be a story based upon all of your previous research, ideas and discoveries, and it should provide people with some rich context about why you ended up here,” says Joakim.
This phase also involves evaluating ideas and analyzing each prototype to ensure it really fixes the problem you are trying to solve – and running experiments or tests to capture feedback from new people or potential customers. This helps us understand more about what the world will in the future and takes us one step closer to making it real.
The four stages of exploration: final considerations
In reality these stages often overlap, and it’s not necessarily a linear process. You may revisit different stages, or sometimes they can even run parallel to each other. However, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing – as long as you incorporate all of the elements of this process at some point, you’re setting yourself up for success.
Establishing psychological safety throughout the process is also key, and no one should be afraid of making a fool out of themselves.
“You must create a safe space in which people are comfortable thinking out loud. We’ve seen so many examples of ideas, and I’ve personally had some bad ideas, but when someone else hears it they can help you connect the dots you’ve missed – and this is when the magic happens,” says Cristian.
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