Service design methods sampler: The Future, Backwards

Before forming a strategy, use this workshop method to create a shared understanding around what the future could be.

Canadian service design conference

At last year’s Converge—the Canadian Service Design conference in Toronto—we presented on service design methods. Rather than talk for ninety minutes about how these techniques have helped our client work, we demonstrated their value through a workshop. During the session we guided participants through three methods, the first of which was “The Future, Backwards.”

What’s it for?

Future, Backwards (created by Cognitive Edge) is a great alternative to traditional strategic planning exercises. This workshop method asks people to contemplate possible futures (impossibly good and impossibly bad) in the context of the project, program, service, or strategic plan horizon and define events that lead to those futures in reverse-chronological order. One significant benefit is that the method, when run across different groups in the same workshop (3 tables of 5 people, for example), highlights similarities and differences of multiple futures, all conceived within an organization and sometimes the same project team. This method also works to illuminate hopes and fears, while breaking patterns of thinking that rely on past perceptions and experiences. We especially recommend using the Future, Backwards method at the start of a project or program. It’s a great way to align perspectives about the future before forming a strategy.

Service design conference future backwards workshop exercises on papers

How we’ve used it with our clients

We’ve facilitated this exercise with a number of clients, including Island Health, TELUS, and TransLink, metro Vancouver's public transportation agency. We worked with various teams there to illuminate a possible revision of fare policy—their first in 30 years. For most teams the ideal future meant services were seamless, fair, integrated, and easy to understand. One team saw it quite differently; identifying their ideal future as one in which the system is fully dynamic, customizable, and determined algorithmically. What if fares depended on whether somebody was sitting or standing, for example? While this future was ideal for some, in other groups it was seen as the worst case scenario.

Using the Future, Backwards exercise, we helped TransLink better understand the different perceptions of possible change to fare policy, and how it would impact their work. The conversations that took place during this activity were just as important as the final output (maps of the future) of the workshop.

Interested in learning more about our service design workshops? Get in touch with us today.

The Cognitive Edge method is ©2012 Cognitive Edge (USA) Inc., used under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Noderivs license.