Game Over: Using Simulation to Innovate the Future

Photo by jeff_golden

Photo by jeff_golden

Is the military more prepared for a volatile, uncertain world than business is? Bob Johansen, author of “Reciprocity Advantage,” thinks so. I’m not so sure.

Since Bob has thought about this longer than I have, and I don’t want to pick a fight, I’ll settle for this: The design thinking practitioners in business are just as prepared for a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (aka, VUCA) world as the military is, and for the same reasons;

Both groups use gaming and simulation to anticipate alternative futures and practice how to operate in those conditions.

I met Bob recently at an AMI meeting (this is a meeting you never want to miss) in Kansas City. He is a Distinguished Fellow at The Institute for the Future in Palo Alto. As he was describing his new book, Bob shared his belief in the power of forecasts. He defines the term forecast this way:

 A forecast is a story from the future that provokes insight in the present.

Forecasts aren’t used to predict the future; instead, they stimulate new explorations and preparations. In the best case, they can cause what Bob calls “urgent optimism.” That is, they can prompt investment so as to become self-fulfilling.

 Back to the military and design thinkers. The military uses gaming and simulation to represent their stories from the future. Then they put combatants into those games/simulations, often at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, CA. The participants learn how to operate in those unfamiliar conditions. Naturally, they make a lot of mistakes at first. To make sure no one gets hurt, the military uses blanks in the weapons.

As a service designer and design thinker, I see clear parallels to our practice. We typically study the present, then make forecasts about what might be possible in the future (i.e., new concepts). Next, we prototype them in 2D and play games with them. Or we simulate them in 3D, and invite users to interact with them. Our practice is to create multiple possible futures in these low-cost forms, then observe target users to see what they find compelling.

We make a lot of mistakes, and we learn from them. These are the rapid learning loops of service design. And just as war game participants have safety measures, these prototypes are “blanks” that can’t hurt us. If users hate it, our investment is low and we can pivot quickly.

 In the face of a VUCA world, pivoting quickly is a get-out-of-jail-free card.

Do you have a practice of simulating the future and practicing your response to it? Is your innovation process built to allow quick pivots? If so, please share your story below or email me.