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While innovation and design should always have a future focus, how far forward and for what purpose is often less clear.

Helping support the transformation of government requires vision, creativity and experimentation. Yet the work government does is often reactive and constrained by funding and election cycles.

As the government embraces design thinking, there is an opportunity to use these tools to catalyse, unpack and make our future thoughts tangible. How can we be more preemptive, especially on issues we know are imminent and what should be the role of government in creating and fostering proposed futures?

There are various initiatives exploring emerging technologies and Aotearoa’s future such as the TVNZ What Next series, think tanks, small teams such as the Service Innovation Lab, ForesightNZ (from whom we drew inspiration and their toolkit), the Victoria University Digital Futures team and exploratory initiatives like the Megatrend Mashup game (developed by DIA’s Lee Dowsett).

However, a common critique of such process is the abundance of conversation versus tangible action - which I hope our mission and approach at the lab will help mitigate. We aim to focus on technology as an enabler, explore the positive aspects of change and how to transition, rather than just experience disruption and dystopia.

How far into the future?

We have been inspired by Māori planning principles to look into the 50, 100 or 150 year futures. This longer term approach is taken by theDepartment of Conservation with their 50 year vision, which includes rolling 25 and 10 year targets. We didn’t want to only look 5 or 10 years into the future, as this approach often leads to visions of slightly better or faster versions of the status quo. So we set ourselves a 50 year target to explore optimistic futures for New Zealand Aotearoa.

What have we done?

“Optimistic Futures” was an event that explored where New Zealand might go and how we might evolve our government, public institutions and society to be resilient and prosperous. Ten diverse speakers explored potential future states in 2070 for how we could live as individuals, organisations and community.

The virtual reality (VR) showcase, also named “Optimistic Futures” at the D7 digital nations events was designed for visitors to imagine and discuss optimistic futures. The demonstrator creates a VR experience showing a day-in-the-life of a typical person in 2070.

During Techweek 2018 we ran “Transitioning to an Optimistic Future”, building on the concepts and discussions from the Optimistic Futures and D7 events. This public workshop focused on what would be required of New Zealanders to thrive in the future.

How this is influencing our today?

Through these conversations we are building a clearer picture of what’s expected of us and how we can contribute towards these visions. We can start to predict certain patterns for greater future-proofing of the work of government (such as legislation as code).

We can plan the work needed to understand the grey areas and to get feedback and input from those who are missing from the conversation. We also keep these bigger-picture ideas and assumptions of building towards better futures front and centre in everything we do.

What’s inspiring us?

We’re not the only government using design methods to explore ideal futures. The UK government has been exploring the use of speculative design to understand implications of emerging technologies through creating near future scenarios and prototypes. The UK Government Office for Science experimented with the approach to help inform policy and foresight practices by challenging how they engage with the public, using specially designed tools such as design probes and props.

What next?

We will continue to explore these futures through our design and prototyping of new government services. We are exploring emerging technology, gamification and virtual reality to help tell engaging stories and present abstract concepts for public debate.

The lab has the expertise to design and use probes like these to support how we gather evidence during our discoveries, especially when trying to understand complex concepts or interactions that might happen over longer duration than our sprints. Is there potential to design these tools to be reusable but still effective?

While we’re always working for better outcomes for people we’re no longer just designing for humans. An example of this is the Better Rules work being supported by the lab, looking at how the government can create rules that are readable and usable by both humans and machines such as robots.

We have been collaborating with groups like the Victoria University Digital Futures team who are researching national data infrastructure and how we can be more open and data driven. Collaboration is a core function of how we work at the lab, so get in touch if you would like to learn more about exploring Optimistic Futures or how we can support your initiative.

If you have done or know of other futures work happening in Aotearoa, please leave a comment below to share and connect with peers in this space. It’d be great to have a show and tell with others interested in this space.

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