Through her work as a futurist, Alisha Bhagat imagines and investigates truly fascinating visions of what is to come. And although she possesses years of experience in traditional strategic foresight, she is working to upend our typical sci-fi visions of the field. Bhagat regularly asks questions in her research like, does the future have to be solely shaped by visions like the Metaverse?Can it instead echo sophisticated ancient societies?Be a world not filled with plastics and synthetics, but repurposed natural materials? Is there a way not to subdue nature, but instead embrace and even communicate with it?
As a polymath designer and strategist, Bhagat explores these questions and more as Futures Lead at Forum for the Future, a consultancy that works to bring more sustainable strategies into large organizations. Outside of her full time work, Bhagat also leads the Diaspora Futures Collective and is part time Faculty at the New School.
I recently had the chance to chat with Bhagat, who will also serve as the 2022 Core77 Design Awards Speculative Design Jury Captain, about what is fascinating her most about futures work as of late. We discussed how the pandemic changed the field, and as someone working deep in sustainability, what her thoughts are on smart strategies for a more a regenerative future using design.
Core77: When did you first hear about futures work, and how did you go about diving into and engaging in it?
Alisha Bhagat: I first found out about futures work right out of grad school. I studied foreign policy and was working for a government contractor that worked with US Intelligence and security agencies in Washington, DC. A lot of what the US government's perspective of futures work is thinking about it in terms of anticipation and risk management. So that was really my first introduction to this way of thinking about different possible futures, different outcomes of certain scenarios, and what that could be.
And how has your work evolved? Can you tell me a little bit more about what type of work you're focused on now?
Forum for the Future [where I lead Futures] is an International sustainable development nonprofit. And we are working on transforming global systems to realize a more just and regenerative future. Forum for the Future works with organizations—often businesses, but also foundations and other nonprofits—to tackle some of those difficult challenges we face as we transition towards the future we want to see. Then I think within Forum [for the Future], we're really interested in applied futures and how to hold both sides of futures: the creative, imaginative part of futures that can challenge people's worldview and assumptions about the way things need to be, but also holding the practical action-oriented type of futures, and using futures tools for strategic outcomes and get really into the the nitty gritty of action planning.
Do you have any examples of a scenario you might tackle on your team within your work?
Forum does a lot of work in food, all across the food supply chain. We focus on everything from regenerative agriculture to sustainable product design. And that involves working with a lot of different actors across the value chain to look at their impact and how they could reimagine what the future of food could be.
We're looking at this from a really deep level; it's not imagining the future of food just in terms of, here are the new and novel products that we could unveil, but, what would it look like in the food system for us to create the types of systemic changes it would take to provide enough sustainable protein, to have an agriculture system that is truly regenerative and pays workers an equitable wage? And in that kind of project, we're using things like scenarios and action sprints, trends decks…using all of the tools in the futures toolkit that can help those different actors start to visualize what those solution areas might be.
What issues are you most interested in focusing on within speculative future work, and why do you think it's a good tactic for tackling those issues?
One of the issues I'm really interested in is the idea of history, past cultures, and bringing that into the present. Using the future as a place for mindset shifts, but also learning from the past and what's already been created but might have been forgotten. I wonder what lessons we could take from that into the future.
"Is there room for a less techno-focused future and more of a human-centered future? What does that look like, feel like, and who can we get to help imagine that?"
Interwoven with that is this idea of social change, centering and thinking about the future specifically around BIPOC voices or other underrepresented voices. Imagining the future to think about really what are those impacts on our social fabric that might be coming down the line. And what precedent we might have from the past and from our cultures and traditions, [and could use] to think about and anticipate that change. So that has been very interesting to me to explore [these topics] given the history of future studies, where it came from and how it propagated. Is there room for a less techno-focused future and more of a human-centered future? What does that look like, feel like, and who can we get to help imagine that?
And that reminds me! You started a collective within the past couple years, right? What's going on within that?
Yes! It's called the Diaspora Futures Collective, and it's a really informal group of futurists who identify as people of color. We get together every couple of months and talk about all issues related to decolonizing the future, visioning everything from speculative images and stock images centering people of color and what that might look like. I'm definitely drawing a lot from the discipline of Afrofuturism to pull out some of those narratives. We're looking at different cultures and are examining, what is Chinese Futurism, what is South Asian Futurism? And bringing those ideas and narratives to the fore.
In what ways do speculative futures need move away from Western-dominant perspectives?
There are so many things, but I think one big area we talked about in our group is around the linear idea of time. And with that is sort of the idea of linear progress. So if we're saying that things are going to continually get more advanced, continually get better, then we are thinking about a speculative future in which we're somehow more advanced, better than the way we are now. And I think that's something that we've been trying to challenge.
I think in cultures where we look more at time as a circle, in which lessons from the past are still important, hold a lot of value. Although these lessons from the past may be reinterpreted to meet the modern day, there's a way in which we could challenge that paradigm and just bring that different mindset into the way we design things now. It does not always mean taking a piece of technology and then iterating to make that piece of technology better. We could be implementing existing technology or existing knowledge that's been uncovered, and just introduce different ways of thinking about what we consider as new and novel.
I was curious to get your perspective on how the pandemic has changed what you do within foresight. And then even within the field in itself, how have you seen it change?
That's a hard question! I don't have a neat answer for that. I'm actually interested in what you think of this because the pandemic basically made everyone retreat into themselves. In a way, it enabled a lot of international cooperation and connection, but also prevented people from doing big-scale exhibits and immersive scenarios that people can physically interact with. So it was it was almost like the virtual world became more important. Is that what you were thinking about?
First off, you're right—the world is definitely starting to be reflected more virtually with the introduction of the Metaverse, NFTS, etc. What I was thinking when I asked this question was, what I've heard is that the services of futurists have been more in demand, and larger companies are starting to think more about how they need to bring in foresight practitioners and people who are thinking about these strategies in order to mitigate risk.
I think that's true. Obviously right when the pandemic hit, we were all doing crisis management for three or four months, but I think now there is a huge surge in interest in futures and foresight because companies want to be ahead of the next COVID-19. And I think there's also a realization with COVID-19, with the war in Ukraine, that these sorts of disruptions and uncertainties are just going to keep on happening. And greater resilience is obviously needed to cope with those things and be ready.
I think all size companies are feeling that and trying to rethink their value chains and how they could redesign that using futures to inform their strategy. I also think from a practitioner point of view, it is challenging in the sense that while there's a surge of interest, we have now entered the official 'virtual workplace', and a lot of what we used to do to get people immersed in the future through speculative design was to get people to touch and feel objects or to have a sensory experience in a workshop. And it is a little bit harder, although not impossible to do that through virtual means.
It's good to declare an appreciation for interactions in literal physical space because it's so easy for us to get wrapped up in the virtual world and never come out.
Speculative design lends itself well to creating visuals and I think that that's wonderful, but I also think there's so much else that can be created—experiences, theater, and even smells or soundscapes. We've had design sprints or scenarios in the past where people broke up into groups and took on personas, and really thought about what it would be like to inhabit a world. I think there's a lot in the field of speculative design we can't experience when people don't meet in person. And I think that's just a bit harder to do on virtual. A lot of folks, myself included, are still figuring out the best way to get people to really change the way they see the future, to make better decisions, through this less dynamic medium.
Since your work centers so much around climate change and sustainability, what do you think designers and strategists outside of the speculative world are getting right about mitigating impact when it comes to climate change? And in what ways you feel people are misdirected in terms of tackling that issue?
Obviously climate change is very important, and the recent IPCC report came out and it's not looking great. So we are entering a pretty serious decade in which action is needed if we want to mitigate climate change and not be an even more disastrous, disruptive world. In the same way that social justice is an inherent thing all designers need to consider, I think climate impacts are just a given baseline thing that need to be considered.
When it comes to not-so effective strategies, it's very easy to go into this dystopian scarcity, alarmist mindset, where a lot of the focus ends up being on survival kits or a very extreme climate disaster future scenario. It's often so out of people's realm of thinking that it can cause them to disengage. And that's not to say there aren't people in the world who do live in climate disasters who need that, but that's one area where sometimes designing for those scenarios can scare people.
Scenarios defined within Forum for the Future's "<2°C Futures" report, a projected plan of action to stay below two degrees centigrade of warming by 2040
I think there's a need for climate positive visions of the future. And a need for design that is holding two truths: that climate change is really bad and detrimental, but is there something hopeful, or actions that we could feel good about implementing. The solar punk climate positivity space I find really interesting, people reimagining what cities could look like or what people's lives could be like in that kind of a world. I think that can sometimes be a little bit easier for people to latch on to and see as possible.
Particularly with designers, maybe the answer can also lie in what initially seems like a lot of tedious stuff, right? Rethinking your systems and process for developing products and services, tweaking how you manufacture things...
Yeah, or things like reshoring and localized production. Not always the most interesting thing at first glance, but definitely interesting from a climate resilience perspective. Same with local food production, which is not "futuristic" in that sense, but it's very interesting when we think about how complicated food supply chains are and what it would look like to produce food closer to home, have that be less of the once a week Farmers Market type thing and more of a regular thing. So reimagining consumption and thinking about the ways we live, all of those things fit into the climate discussion. And are great opportunities for design to really inspire people.
How do you predict the role of the designer and the strategist will evolve over the next 10 or so years? Have you seen some changes in the industry that interests you? Has your role evolved?
I still think that we're on a risk mitigation trajectory. People do want to continue with business as usual, and they're asking, how can I mitigate the risk from the next COVID-19? There are going to be huge, huge implications with the conflict in Ukraine as we're already seeing the price of Bitcoin and the price of energy fluctuate, and just general inflation in the US. So I think that the risk mitigation perspective is still top of mind.
"There's only so far you're going to be able to just continue to mitigate risk. You're going to have to develop some radical redesigns of certain types of products systems."
I think, if we are able to get past the risk mitigation, companies that are truly able to innovate will move into a kind of pre-empting [era]. Less of a perspective of, I want to keep creating this product and service in just a way that mitigate my market risk, but instead, what does the world actually need from us? I think going back to those core design questions will become more important because there's only so far you're going to be able to just continue to mitigate risk. You're going to have to develop some radical redesigns of certain types of products systems.
For example, I was having this talk with someone about New York and the cityscape and how there are so many brick and mortar retailers that have gone out of business due to the pandemic. But that was a trend that was happening prior to the pandemic too. And one of the people in the conversation said, "What a shame so many businesses are going out. There are so many vacant storefronts," and then the other person said, "Is that such a bad thing? Were there too many stores? Does every block need a Chipotle and a Duane Reade, or do we need less stores?" The US was a very saturated retail environment to begin with. And maybe this is a good change that we can use to reinvent the cityscape. So just thinking through those types of things will inevitably happen.
I feel what you're saying is, for designers and people who are shaping the world, it requires a deeper listening not only of people but cultural shifts. And realizing that you can't control nature, you can only shape around that.
Definitely. It's just about fundamentally trying to understand how people live. For example, it's important to think, what is going to happen to this generation that grew up with COVID? Is their understanding of human relationships going to change? Will this impact friendships and relationships? Does that impact demographics, are we going to see a greater shift towards cities because people who are younger will really crave human contact after they were deprived of it, knowing that it is so precarious and such a luxury to get to do things and be sociable? Or are we going to see more people moving out to areas where they can connect more with nature because they know that it's so precarious and there could be another pandemic?
I think it's almost harder now to be a designer and strategist because you have to keep your eye on everything. You have to do deep scanning every day and keep abreast of pretty much everything everywhere happening. Because all of those things could really impact the context that we're in.
What are some skills that are wrapped into your work you think all designers or future designers ought to fold into their design practices, especially now?
What we do at Forum is a lot of directed scanning. And we've started doing weekly and monthly scanning sessions as a group. I think that can be really helpful for designers and futurists, in the sense of there is so much information out there and there's so much coming in. I think it can be really helpful to engage in sense-making in a group of people, and it can easily be done with colleagues. But it's about taking something that's happening that we are all reading about anyways, such as the war in Ukraine, and thinking about, what are our second-order, or our third-order consequences? I think sometimes people don't do that because they feel that they're not experts. But this is not to publish or to do anything; it is to help your own thinking and framework to think through some of these topics in a group.
Another great practice is just taking inspiration from anywhere and everywhere. Personally, I try to take at least one day a month where I just wander around and look at things or read things, go to a museum, and just try to just give myself a different perspective. Because if you are thinking about the future all the time, it can sometimes be hard to pull yourself out of very established paths of thinking. So do things that can get you into other modes of thinking, whether it's spirituality and religion, or art, or music; just something that's using another part of your brain. I think that can be really helpful in understanding and experiencing the world outside of this very intense and small world of designing futures.
You're going to judge the Speculative Design category of the 2022 Core77 Design Awards, so I was curious what you'll be looking out for and what's going to get you excited if you see it within the entries?
I'm going to look for a really good story. Does this story grab me, and can I very quickly imagine the future that is being presented here as possible and captivating? You know, it is speculative—so it's less about, is this the most feasible thing, but instead, am I taken along on the story, am I a part of it and captivated by this narrative? I also will look at the problem the project is solving: what does the designer hope to achieve by creating this? Is it clearly addressing some need or emotion or want? If so, what is that and how do I feel about that?
I think it's about having an emotional connection as well—how does this make me feel when I experience it? Sometimes you see something and you're really taken aback or shocked or repulsed, and those are all valid feelings. But it's more about, am I feeling something and then examining why that made me feel a certain way? So I think those are things I'm going to look for as well.
Finally, I think I'll look from the perspective of inclusivity and accessibility—I'll be examining what the role of humans and specifically humans like me and folks on my jury are in each scenario. What would it feel like for us to experience the future that this designer is trying to convey here?
The 2022 Core77 Design Awards open for entry period is now closed, and winners will be announced in early June! Stay tuned for more awards news in the coming weeks.