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Designing the Future: Have you checked your Assumptions yet?

Updated: Apr 4, 2022

The future. We use it daily to plan our lives, explore our next move, develop a plan, envision our dreams and determine what comes next concerning other things we care about.

But how might we use the future to expand our thinking, grow our creativity and imagine how we might prepare our business or organizations to become ‘future-proof’? This is the core purpose of Futures Thinking and its use in strategy development by Foresight or Design Strategists is of great value to any organization.

Futures Thinking is still a relatively emergent discipline used to trigger and train the mind to think differently. Future Thinking is not about predicting the future, but rather about understanding how our thinking about the future might illuminate and provide awareness of our present state and our willingness to act out what's next. After all, the present state is the point at which the future emerges. Our actions now impact what we design, develop and plan for.

Using the future as a design tool for creating and generating collective intelligence can be explored in many different ways. Anticipatory assumption workshops are a recent addition to my toolbox which offer some amazing insights into how our own biases and assumptions shape the future.

Assumptions are a natural humanistic tendency that shapes the lives we lead, what we think is possible and what we aim to do next. When we consider a future, say 5 – 10 years out, the outlook we have, the plans we make and the strategic vision we create are undeniably based on the assumptions we have in the present moment. In examining these 'anticipatory assumptions', we find the nuances and roots they have in our ideologies and beliefs and how these perspective impact what we see as possible for the future. In collaborative work, by identifying and then playing with collective anticipatory assumptions, we can begin to see how diverse versions of the future may emerge and challenge our notions of the future.

If we were to run a workshop like this together, it would occur in three basic steps. Each step consists of some framing elements which guide a more active brainstorming and sharing session, followed by some questions for reflection to guide a deeper sense of understanding about what was experienced.

Step 1: Collectively envision the future

Here we make the tacit explicit by drawing out the versions of the future we can imagine as possible, both probable and desirable in relationship to a theme or topic. An example might be, the future of education.


What does the probable future of eduction look like?

What does a desirable future of education look like?

Reflection Questions:

What are the differences between your probable and desirable futures?

What aspects of the future are we most likely to consider? How do frameworks or heuristics help us to consider the future more holistically?

What do we see and how does it differ from others we are working with? Do all our futures ‘fit’ our purpose?

Step 2: Imagine beyond what is known.

This part of the process is really about pushing our limits and thinking expansively about the future with new propositions in mind. Every day we are confronted with new developments which will change what will be possible in 100 years. If 100 years ago we told those driving horses and buggies that in 2019 we would have handheld mapping devices that would dictate our route and predict our exact arrival time, the limiting beliefs of those pioneers would become quite clear.

In framing a completely and radically new condition that the future might hold, the assumptions we hold about what is possible become clear.


Provide framing examples to help participants assume how a new condition in the future might impact our thinking about what is possible. The sky is the limit when considering this framing device. An example might be: In the distant future, it becomes clear that objects have a sense of consciousness.

Develop new insights about this future. For example, what does the future of education look like with this new condition?

Reflection Questions:

How does this element change our perspective of what might be possible in the future?

What insights does considering this provoke?

How are our perspectives shaped by the conditions we have?

Step 3: Confronting our assumptions

The final step helps us distill and reveal how our assumptions live in what we imagine for the future.


Using the first two activities as our frame of reference, what do we now see as our underlying assumptions in the versions of the future we created? Here we want to identify as many assumptions as possible.

Reflection Questions:

How have we come to understand the implications of these assumptions?

What new questions do we have about designing the future we want to keep in mind now that our assumptions are visible?

The purpose of this 3 step process is to generate insight. Insight into self, insight into the collective, and insight into how our anticipatory assumptions impact the future we are willing to create.

In understanding our assumptions, and the assumptions of others, we can begin to see how the future is related to what we are willing to see in the present.

This insight development happens through a process known as, deconstructed learning. In moving through a set of activities that end in asking us to consider what we were thinking, the roots of our minds begin to emerge. In illuminating and comparing these roots, the barrier of our mind begins to expand, and our ability to understand what is possible grows!

Mind-expanding activities are of vital use to our society. The current state of challenges we face is immense. The set of problems facing people, systems, organizations and businesses are wide-ranging and the creativity to imagine beyond the status quo is what sets innovation leaders apart.

As my toolbox of Future Thinking methods develops and grows, this lesson of anticipatory assumption illumination will remain a core piece of my practice I hope to use to inspire, surprise and expand the mind of the people I am working with.

Special thanks to Loes Damhof of Hanze University, Futures Literacy Lab and Riel Miller of UNESCO trainers of this important methodology.

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