Thomas Müller: using foresight to redesign the world

The pandemic is just one of four mega-crises the world faces. How do we survive? By redesigning our systems with foresight and purpose, to create futures we actually want to live in, says Accenture Interactive's Thomas Müller.

Thomas Müller is Global Lead, Accenture Design with a mission to build the industry’s leading team driving meaningful transformation and delivering business results via human impact. He is also a contributor to the book The Great Redesign

During the second episode of the second season of What’s NEXT on December 9th 2020, he explored the four mega-crises that face us, and how the combination of design and foresight can help navigate us through them into a better future. You can catch up with Thomas and his work on Twitter and read more about The Great Redesign in our book The Great Redesign: Frameworks for the Future.

 Watch the complete episode

“The world we live in is facing a crisis the likes of which it hasn’t really seen in 75 years,” Müller said. “The depth and severity of it come into focus when you realise that humanity is facing four different mega-crises simultaneously.” 

These, he explained, are crises of: 

  • the economy 
  • the pandemic 
  • the environment 
  • equality 

“We need to look beyond the horizon and start planning for multiple possible, plausible, probable andultimately, preferred futures.” 

Designers should see their role in shaping these futures as the most essential and consequential opportunity that lies ahead of them. We need to build a better, more healthy, more purposeful future for all.  

 1. The Crisis of the Economy  

The economy of the last couple of decades of technological development has led to enormous physical and digital clutter, Müller said. The consequences of the entanglement of politics and technology have burst into being in the last few years. The idea of capitalism as endless growth is being challenged, from protests on the street to much more serious debates in company boardrooms. The clash between the technology industry and governments is being felt – but nobody can agree who should be held accountable. 

We stand at an inflection point. The speed of innovation — and value generation — is incredible but, at the same time, we see the risk of reducing resilience across companies as they become more dependent on their ecosystems.  

Many of us experienced the great recession of 2008 and the subsequence rise of venture-backed lifestyle start-ups. Warby Parker or Everlane are far from the old established megacorporations. They offer consumers an alternative both through design, and the promise of a brand built with a purpose beyond just profit. Some companies have really benefited through the 12-year recovery – but some struggled and were less prepared for the current crisis. 

The novelty of technology is wearing off. Does this new product, service or brand deserve a place in my life? Is it doing more than putting a strain on the planet? It’s never been easier to remove brands from our lives. All of this puts into question the idea of profit as the only directive for business. 

2. The Crisis of the Pandemic

“We’re still stuck in our homes,” says Müller. Covid-19 remains a global crisis, one that is evolving in both speed and scale. It’s the biggest global event — and challenge — of our lifetimes. It continues to require social, political and fiscal actions from all of us. It’s changing our attitudes and behaviours and forcing organisations to respond. 

The need to respond won’t end with the threat of the virus diminishing. Reopening requires more than a return to normal. The long-lasting and unpredictable era we emerge into from the pandemic will see changes to the way we do business and to cultural norms.  

The economic impact, the result of the highly interdependent global economy, is presenting challenges for governments and global organisations such as the World Health Organisation, the World Trade Organisation and the EU. At a family level, we’ve gone in and out of restrictions all over the world, putting stress on the generational bonds between family members.  

We’re approaching a point of cyclical waves of infections, and restriction — and so patience is beginning to wear thin with social distancing, leading to societal stress.  

“I don’t need to look further than across Germany or just even within Berlin, where I am right now,” he said. “We’re continuing to experience exactly that scenario.” 

The arrival of vaccines, with an important discussion around the ethics of distribution, will hopefully allow us to avoid a chaotic outcome.  

3. The Crisis of the Environment

The climate continues to change — but so does the way we think about it. Our concerns about pollution and sustainability have experienced a dramatic cultural shift. A crisis that was too big to do anything about has become quite personal.  

“You only have to think back to 2018 when people’s growing anxiety and anger about the impact of plastics on the environment was vented at the worst culprits,” Müller said. “The companies behind single-use shopping bags, bottles, coffee cups and drinking straws were held to account by the public and mainstream media.” 

Consumers began to expect a commitment to be proven through actual actions, not just words. Organizations needed to redesign their business models to fit the circular economy where sustainability is really built into their products and services. 

Greta Thunberg’s entry into the debate helped catalyse a global movement and push the climate crisis into many voters’ top priorities. Governments are banning the worst offending products. Companies are building ethics into their mission statements and business priorities. But now they have to match those words with actions.  

“Anyone who ignores this is going to be left behind. I think we have to see a major recommitment at the personal, corporate, national and international level to changing the trajectory we are on before it is too late.

4. The Crisis of Equality 

The death of George Floyd put a spotlight on the state of equality worldwide. Equality between genders and among races is a work in progress. The situation in the US has been highlighted and dramatized through the subsequent protests across major US cities. A global outcry over racial injustice and police brutality followed. 

He shared the personal reflection of one of his colleagues at Accenture Interactive. She talked of the disproportionate deaths amongst black and brown Americans from Covid-19, and its reminder of systemic inequality that’s been killing people long before the pandemic began. The realities we’re seeing on our TV screen are ones people have been living with their whole lives. They live in fear; not just of their lives, but of their jobs if they challenge someone at work. Her mother told her when she was a child that she would have to be better and smarter than the white people around her to get the same opportunities. The system ensures that black people cannot win. 

Designing out systemic racism

Müller points out that these words applied to North America, but also apply to many other countries that have their own versions of systemic racism. Systems protect castes of people, even if we don’t use the word. The New York Times recently described a caste system as a fixed and embedded ranking of human value that sets the presumed supremacy of one group against the presumed inferiority of other groups. 

“Maintaining this status quo is not acceptable in this day and age,” he says. “It should not be the job of black and brown people to educate the white majority to solve racism. It is a collective responsibility to have a conversation and to show that we’re willing to learn.

“White people can help dismantle existing caste systems if you believe what is happening is unjust.” 

Facing the Crises 

So what if we can be part of the solution?” Müller asked.  “How might we tackle one or some of these crises through our jobs with our clients from where we are exactly right now?

“What if design can provide a map to the future?” 

In the 1978 book Living by Design Pentagram defined design simply as a plan to make something. Furthermore, they wrote that if a design is a plan to make something, then a purpose is implied. 

“I love the fact that a purpose is implied,” he said.  

By 2015, the Harvard Business Review had design thinking on its cover. It was no longer just for products; executives were using it to devise strategy and manage change. We started focusing on user experiences, and on their emotions. We started creating models to examine complex problems. And we started using prototypes to explore solutions.  

“And most importantly, it advocated tolerating failure,” said Müller. “The idea of failure as an important stepping stone to success was a radical one only 5 years ago.” 

Towards the Great Redesign

Subsequently, faced with a new world filled with VUCA — volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity — something else has started to emerge.  

“Quite magically, select designers around the world have begun galvanizing around the idea of foresight.” 

As a result, this is not an opportunity for a redesign, as much as the Great Redesign. Foresight — as a discipline — should be our guide.  

The Principles of Foresight 

  1. The future is not predetermined – there is an infinite number of potential alternative futures. 
  2. The future is not predictable – we can never collect enough data to construct a complete model of how it will develop.
  3. We can influence future outcomes by our choices in the present.  

“So, even though we can’t determine which futures among the possibilities will actually become reality, we can influence the shape of the future which eventually happens with the choices we make today,” he said. “It’s therefore absolutely important that those choices be as well informed as possible.” 

So, the Great Redesign can begin by talking about the futures we want to live and work in. We then start taking practical steps to make those futures more likely.  

“Designers, you know this is our moment. This is our time. It’s no longer enough for us to dream about the future. We actually can design our futures. So, I think it’s time to do this together, because this is our time. 

This is the Great Redesign.