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110 / Futures Thinking and UX Design, with Phil Balagtas

Hosted by Sean Flaherty & Paul Gebel




Phil Balagtas


Phil Balagtas is a design leader based who is now based in Barcelona and has been a practicing designer for over 20 years. He has experience working across various devices and platforms within non-profit, retail, advertising, and enterprise software organizations. Within the last decade, he served as  Design Director at General Electric’s Digital Aviation group and an Experience Design Director at McKinsey & Company working across industries to transform and enhance their digital businesses and strategies.

Phil is also the founder of the Design Futures Initiative, a nonprofit dedicated to the advancement and education of Futures Thinking where he also founded the Speculative Futures network which is in over 80 cities worldwide. Today he is a part-time visiting design professor at Tecnológico de Monterey in Mexico City and at Elisava in Barcelona. Phil leads his own Futures consulting practice called HABITAT training organizations on Futures Thinking and leading teams on strategic initiatives.

For more than a decade, Futures Design thinker Phil Balagtas has been developing tools for fusing the concepts of strategic foresight and speculative design with traditional design strategy. On June 22-23 at the ITX Product + Design Conference, he’ll share many of these insights. In a Day 1 workshop and Day 2 keynote, Phil will show us how we might envision our future, considering all those things that demand our attention: our users, our businesses and current strategies, and our impact on society – through the lens of design.

In this episode of Product Momentum, Phil describes his work to build and support a community of futures thinkers, insisting that the community formed through a series of ‘right time, right place’ events. Using terms like speculative design, strategic foresight, and traditional design strategy, he talks about how the power of community has been crucial to creating the momentum that drives innovation.

The futures design vocabulary avoids words like predict or forecast, instead preferring foresight and possibility to answer “what if?” types of scenarios, Phil explains. But the cool part is that this practice is not dissimilar from current business strategy approaches.

“We did similar things before, looking at alternate possibilities of the future,” he adds. “But now we have very rich visions and scenarios, and we use them to explore how we want to operate in that world, how we create innovations and pioneer new markets.

“We’re a future-minded species. Naturally, we’re always thinking of the future. ‘What if this happens? What do I do then?’ What I’m working on is a new set of tools that help us do what we’ve always done, now aiming them at business and product strategy applications.”

Listen to the entire pod – or check out the ITX Product + Design Conference – where you can learn more from Phil Balagtas about the fresh perspective futures thinking and speculative design bring to the conversation – issues that don’t always come to mind in traditional business methods, but are gaining importance every day.

Paul [00:00:19] Hello and welcome to Product Momentum, where we hope to entertain, educate, and celebrate the amazing product people who are helping to shape our community’s way ahead. My name is Paul Gebel and I’m the Director of Product Innovation at ITX. Along with my co-host, Sean Flaherty, and our amazing production team and occasional guest host, we record and release a conversation with a product thought leader, writer, speaker, or maker who has something to share with the community every two weeks.

Sean [00:00:43] Morning, Paul. How are you feeling?

Paul [00:00:45] I am outstanding, Sean. How are you?

Sean [00:00:46] I’m doing great. This was a great conversation with Phil Balagtas.

Paul [00:00:51] Phil is a futures thinker, super inspirational, and just a real breath of fresh air in, I think a lot of ambiguity and uncertainty going on. He gives a really grounded approach for how to think about big things.

Sean [00:01:03] I can’t wait to have him at our conference on June 22nd and 23rd, where he’s hosting a workshop and a keynote, and to hear more and to learn practically how to use some of these skills and these tools.

Paul [00:01:14] Absolutely. Well, I can’t summarize in any kind of concise way more than just to say this is a great topic, very timely for where we are in the world, and I can’t wait to get after it.

Sean [00:01:24] Let’s get after it.

Paul [00:01:24] Well, hello, and welcome to the show. Today we are delighted to be joined by Phil Balagtas. Phil is a leader in design who is now based in Barcelona. He has been practicing design for over 20 years. He has experience working across a variety of devices and platforms within nonprofit, retail, advertising, and enterprise software organizations. Within the last decade, he served as design director at GE’s Digital Aviation Group and an experienced designer at McKinsey and Company, working across industries to transform and enhance their digital businesses and strategies. He’s also a, or rather the founder, of Design Futures Initiative, a nonprofit dedicated to the advancement and education of futures thinking where he also founded the Speculative Futures Network, which is in over 80 cities worldwide. Today, he’s a part-time visiting design professor at Tecnológico de Monterey in Mexico City and Elisava in Barcelona and leads his own futures consulting practice called HABITAT, training organizations in futures thinking and leading teams on strategic initiatives. Phil, welcome to the show.

Phil [00:02:24] Thank you, Paul.

Paul [00:02:25] Absolutely. So just to tee us up a little bit, can you tell us about your experience with futures thinking? How can a designer take these ideas that you’ve started to coalesce a community around and apply them to product design?

Phil [00:02:38] Yeah, sure. I have been studying and practicing futures thinking for a little bit over a decade now. I discovered it back in grad school when I was doing my Master’s and was really looking at some strategic methods for thinking about the future of product design. Before I sort of discovered this practice, I had thought about the future in a completely different way. It was all based on what I’d see in science fiction and, you know, touchscreen interfaces and digital things and this and that and robots. But it wasn’t until I discovered speculative and critical design and futures thinking that I realized that the future can be much different as well. And we can start to think about things like ethics and environmental responsibility and economics and cultural impact and all kinds of other dimensions that I really wasn’t used to thinking about. I was just kind of really interested in designing products of the future, but I didn’t really think about any of these other aspects.

Phil [00:03:29] So I discovered speculative design there and I did my whole thesis around it. The topic was visual identity. It was looking at how digital identity plays out in the future and identity leading systems. It had a really long graduate thesis title to it, which I won’t say today, but you can probably look it up somewhere on the internet. And then I talked about my thesis and why it’s really important to think about the future from these other lenses. I didn’t really feel like it really had the impact on my professors, so I went and got a job in Silicon Valley and was designing software for a living.

Phil [00:04:00] And it wasn’t till 2015 that I went back to the books and decided to start a meetup called Speculative Futures in San Francisco. And it really was an attempt to bring this methodology, these principles, to designers, everyday designers. You know, a lot of them were people working in Silicon Valley for software organizations, and so I was kind of reverse engineering a lot of what I had seen in books, a lot of it coming out of academia, mostly from Europe, originating at places like the Royal College of Art in London. And after the meetup started, it grew very quickly in popularity. And then this other group of people started coming in that practiced strategic foresight, this whole other discipline that was future thinking, but through a business angle. And it came with a bunch of new tools such as like tools to analyze trends. How do we understand the trends and patterns in the world today, and how do we project those into future eras, whether it be in five years or ten years in the future?

Phil [00:04:54] And so I really looked at it as like this additional set of tools I didn’t have. And so my mission has really been over the last decade or so was fusing strategic foresight, which has been around for many decades and taught mostly in business schools, speculative design, which is another vehicle for how do you visualize products and services of the future? And then traditional design strategy: how do we envision what the future is going to look like and think about all of the things that we should be thinking about, not just the environment, but our impact on society, on the world, on our users, on our business, on our current strategies, and how do we visualize that through design? And that’s pretty much what I’ve been teaching and training and practicing over the last ten years or so.

Paul [00:05:39] Yeah. If I could expand on that, one of the things that we talked about in our chat prior to the show is just how as a species we’re hardwired to think about the future. We’re invested in this idea of what’s outside of us, what’s coming down the pike. And companies will pay a lot of money for these insights about the future. What I hear you talking about in a lot of what you talk about and what you write, is that the business case, that foresight angle that you were alluding to, doesn’t necessarily approach, not the right or wrong angle, but a different angle through the lens of richer visions, through things like ethics and sustainability, and what does the future look like from those visuals and building a richer toolkit in that lens. Is that a fair sort of distilling this down to its essential piece?

Phil [00:06:21] Yeah, that’s correct. And it’s just about alternate possibilities because the future really is not written. Anything that’s beyond this very moment is unwritten and anything can happen, just as we saw with the pandemic. A pandemic can completely just derail an entire world economy. And so what futures reign tends to do is that we try to stay away from the words predict or forecast really, and we use words like foresight and possibilities to try to understand what could happen. And the thing that people don’t really understand is that this practice is not dissimilar from current business strategy approaches. And like you said, people get paid a lot of money to come in and tell you what the future is going to be like. I worked at McKinsey & Company. You know, millions of dollars for strategists to come in and analyze the market and they give you a couple of PowerPoint slides and say, “This is where it’s going, this is where you cut jobs or you invest so that you can sustain.”.

Phil [00:07:14] We did similar things where we were looking at alternate possibilities in the future, but we have very rich visions and scenarios and alternate implications and possibilities, and we can use a couple with our imagination to really understand what the world’s going to look like, how do we want to play or operate in that world, and how do we create innovations, how we pioneer new markets? How do we protect ourselves, protect our businesses, protect our society from these potential impending threats? And so we are naturally future-minded species. We’ve been this way our entire existence really, really trying to understand migratory patterns of animals and weather and just how to survive. We’re naturally always thinking in the future in possibilities. What if this happens? What if this happens? What do I do then? How do I protect my family? So these are just new tools, really, that we can start to apply across a number of different both business and product strategy applications.

Sean [00:08:14] Yeah. Early in the conversation, you mentioned a set of principles, like core principles. What are those core principles?

Phil [00:08:21] Well, there are quite a few, and I’m writing a book about them right now. One of the first things we talk about is having a mindset, a futures mindset. Some people talk about it in terms of futures literacy, and that’s an entire growing discipline in itself, and how do we actually train people to be literate in the methodologies and be accepting about the uncertainties of the future? But one of the first things that I think of with this is having a futures mindset, which is accepting that the world is VUCA. And this is an acronym that was developed at the U.S. Army War College a long time ago. It’s been used as strategic thinking for many decades, but it stands for V, volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. The future is always VUCA. And it’s not always a war zone, though in some cases it could be depending on what your business is or what you’re doing.

Phil [00:09:05] But once you start to understand that the future is completely unwritten and it’s uncertain and it’s complex, and you are able to really tackle that with confidence and ease and to look at the possibilities through analyzing trends and patterns in the world and developing different scenarios of how the world could be, then you’re pretty much ready for that journey. And then the journey starts with doing all that analysis work where we do what’s called world-building, which is basically building different versions of the future. World-building is a term used in science fiction or fiction literature, where you’re building a world around your reader, telling them, “This is what the world looks like: these are the actors, these are the rules, these are all the things that you should be thinking about.” And then they talk about the hero’s journey and all that.

Phil [00:09:47] So we do a similar process, which is just kind of building the world of the future so that we can actually sit there, go there, and look around and understand, “what’s going on, how do we survive in this world?” And there’s a negative world and a positive world and something in between. And then we can make, hopefully, you know, a logical decision of what we want to do with that future. Some parts we ignore and some parts we really take advantage of.

Sean [00:10:10] All right. So VUCA is an acronym, volatile, uncertain, complex, or ambiguous. And I think that’s a valuable mindset to take because the world is changing and we’re constantly hearing this. So, like, as we think about the products that we build, think about products that we used a year ago that are now no longer relevant in our lives. We’re constantly being bombarded with new and interesting ways to solve problems. And I think having that mindset is a really valuable tool. So essentially, what I heard was that mindset futures thinking is really about setting ourselves up for alternatives, like, what are the possible alternatives? And you’ve got a toolset for figuring out, sort of systematically, maybe a little better than we did before, what are the possible futures that we should be thinking about addressing? Is that accurate?

Phil [00:10:59] That’s correct, yeah.

Paul [00:11:00] Well, I’m going to bite my tongue off, restraining the urge to make this entire conversation about literature and worldbuilding, because I could geek out on that for another hour. But I do want to come back to sort of the core of what your passion has been around and just ask a simple question: you know, why community? You talked about that meetup and how that sort of started the genesis of this global community now that’s dedicated to the advancement. How does this community fit sort of with the ideas of futures thinking? Who do you find is attracted to it and what have been the surprises along the way?

Phil [00:11:32] I never really set out to build a community. It sort of formed around the passion for me to talk about this work and to learn from it and to help other people learn from it and to find a usefulness for it in our design practice today. I think a lot of it was just kind of luck and timing and probably even to San Francisco where we sort of built a momentum around it. And I think just right time, right place. Also, around the world, it was really interesting to see how fast our community grew. I think in 2018 we had six chapters and then two years later we had 60. I mean, it just, through, I guess, social media and word of mouth and just a real interest for new design tools, and just, it all made sense to us. And that was great because the more people you have who are interested in the same thing, the more exploration and experimentation and really picking apart you can get out of this.

Phil [00:12:24] And so what I also discovered, bringing this into my day job. And the nonprofit and the community and conference, I started conference also called Primer, and a nonprofit called Design Features Initiative, which I think you mentioned earlier. Those just kind of came with the territory. Those were sort of necessities that came to deliver to the community to continue to feed them. And I was doing that on the side while I had my day job working as a designer and director at GE and McKinsey. But once I started to bring that into my corporate setting, I started to realize how important community was there too. And if you want to introduce anyone into a new lens, approach, methodology, whatever it might be, you need people to support you. And it kind of starts with building a community around that, getting people interested and creating that internal momentum and that fire to research this and to put it into practice and to test it and to see where it fails and where it succeeds, and change it, and reshape the vocabulary, all that stuff. And so we really needed a lot of people and that has continued to evolve and escalate over the last decade, which is great.

Paul [00:13:23] Yeah, I think, you know, what I really appreciated getting an acute insight as we have been preparing for your visit here to Rochester for our conference as well as, you know, prep for this conversation on our podcast, is really just how universal a lot of these ideas are. While they’re applied to business and specifically design, you can use these things to plan a family vacation, right? These concepts are not, you know, design-specific. You can take this idea of strategic and long-term thinking, and really, it’s a very portable kind of idea. So when you built this community, or rather the community built itself around your ideas, did you find that you were tapping into something latent that people have just been hungry for, or do you feel like the world was just kind of ready for it at the right time and the right place?

Phil [00:14:04] I think it’s a little bit of both. I think that, you know, we’ve been seeing design thinking evolve and change and the idea of human-centered design change. With the growing interest in climate change and now with the impact of pandemic on our supply chains and economic systems, people are starting to think beyond the Anthropocene, beyond looking at the human as the center of everything, and our impact on the world, what are we leaving behind? So I think there was a lot of just kind of right timing there as well.

Phil [00:14:35] But yeah, it seems to just make sense for a lot of people. And I think you asked earlier, like who does it speak to a lot? I’ve always been targeting designers first because that’s where I come from. My education is in design. My career has been in design. I’ve just felt like this is something that we need. Anyone can use it really: product managers, executive leadership. I do a lot of executive training as well, teaching everybody. And again, I sort of tweak the methods and how I talk about with different people. But at its core, like I said, this is really something, and there’s a couple of tools, my own tools, that I’ll teach at the workshop, at the conference that are so flexible and so usable. Like, I’m just surprised that no one is doing this every day. And, you know, even children. I did some work with kids a few years ago and there’s a new program here starting in Barcelona for kids K-12, teaching futures to K-12. And it just makes sense, right? How do you teach kids about having a long-term view about the future? You know, they don’t have to be applying it to business strategy right away. But how do you teach them to have positive perspectives and design their career, design their life path, and know that there are many, many futures that they can tackle, that they can actually go out and activate if they want to? So, yeah, it’s super portable. I like that you called it that.

Sean [00:15:48] Cool. So if there’s one tool that you would recommend the audience really gets to know in this sort of VUCA, futures mindset space, what would that tool be?

Phil [00:15:58] Yeah, I mean, I think the one tool, and one that I’ll be teaching, and so I won’t be giving too much of it away is called the futures wheel, sometimes called the wheel of implications or an implications wheel or the driver’s wheel, sometimes people call it. And we’ll be doing some exercises at the conference using this. But again, it’s a diagramming tool that allows you to map out the direct and indirect consequences of an event, a trend, an idea, or signal. Like, what happens if this thing continues to escalate or play out into the future? What are the positive impacts? What are the negative impacts? What are the neutral impacts? It’s like, if this happens, then that happens, then that happens. Like, how do you go out like three or four different levels of consequence and discover things that could happen that you never would have thought of had you not done this exercise? So it’s super flexible. And again, like Paul said, this is one that you could probably use to plan out your vacation, your wedding, your career path, your trip to the store, or a ten-year business strategy if you want. I mean, you’d have to couple that with a lot of other analysis tools to do something that big, but yeah.

Sean [00:17:02] I think any time you’re going to make a big decision and you know, that it’s going to have impacts, I think having a thoughtful framework to walk through, what are the possible consequences with levels? It’s not something I typically see product people doing, but I think this is a really valuable tool, so I’m excited to learn more about it.

Phil [00:17:18] Yeah. Well, we actually are, and naturally, we do think in these terms of like, decisions, like, you know, when you go buy a house or buy a car, like you’re thinking about, like, what if this happens? What if this happens? What do I do if this happens and this happens? And even with product design, you know, I spent a lot of time in software design, once you get into the QA process, QA engineers are doing a lot of this implication mapping. Whether they have this fancy diagram or not, they’re thinking about, like, what are the edge cases here, what are the happy paths? Where are the error cases? And what if this happens? Do we actually create an error response for something that will only happen two percent of the time, or do we just like note that we know about it and maybe just have a conversation like, “Okay, in the rare case that this happens, this is how we’ll respond to it.” And sometimes that plays out in policy, whether it’s policy for the user, interaction with the user to their software, or an actual policy with the business, or possibly the product. So these things can really influence many levels of product design from the business all the way to the user.

Paul [00:18:15] Yeah. As a practitioner, you know, sometimes I do lead a team of product people, but I do still get the chance to jump in and roll up my sleeves from time to time, and I can say, every single day, there’s a conversation about, what is this error, edge case, null state, empty state, how do we return, gracefully degrade? And…

Phil [00:18:32] Yeah.

Paul [00:18:33] It can be paralyzing for a team to have everything at a flat level of priority. If everything has the same weight, then you just look at this backlog of things that you want to do and you get overwhelmed. So I think having this kind of perspective is a really healthy way to both honor that scenario and recognize, yes, it exists, but we’re not going to get to it now.

Phil [00:18:54] Right.

Paul [00:18:54] This exists and it’s important, but it’s not as important as this. As we’re coming to the end of our time together, I was wondering if you could just think a little bit about our future together, the plans that we have coming up in June of this year, 2023, as we’re recording. We’re going to be getting together with some folks to talk about things in a keynote and some workshops. Can you, at a very high level, just share, what are you excited to share with the community here? What are the ideas and influences you hope to make and impact you leave behind?

Phil [00:19:21] Well, I really do hope that people find a lot of value in taking the workshop and then obviously the keynote. The workshop will be methods-based, so there’ll be a little bit of a one-on-one to get you guys ramped up on what futures is, and then we’re going to put it into practice very quickly, including using the futures wheel. But I mean, just like the example you just gave, you know, having those many options can be very overwhelming and daunting. How do you deal with it? How you prioritize those things? And I’ll teach you guys a framework on how to kind of deal with the weight of alternatives, which a colleague of mine likes to use that word, the weight and burden of the futures that are in front of us. So we’ll talk a little bit about that and how to make it practical. Of course, it won’t be the entire toolkit because there’s many different tools.

Phil [00:20:06] But then on the keynote, I’ll be sharing a lot of examples that I have from across the decades, starting with Apple used futures in the mid-eighties and I have a little bit of backstory into how they were using it to envision the future, as well as some very conceptual academic work and even some, you know, I hate to use the word practical because I think that’s not really the right term, but, but some people like to say like, “Oh, that’s practical future, that’s not some science fiction thing that I can’t touch.” But there’s a lot of like corporate work that’s being done that doesn’t feel like, you know, the teleporter or, you know, some crazy thing that’s like 100 years from now. So we’ll share lots of examples and really kind of make the case that this is something that’s very practical, accessible, and usable and can provide value, and how can we measure it, as well.

Phil [00:20:55] Because I think one of the challenges we have with both selling and executing futures thinking today is ROI. Everyone wants to know, like, “How do I get return on investment on something that hasn’t happened for two or three or five or ten years from now? How do I actually measure that?” And I’ll discuss that it is measurable, but how different it is, but also how valuable it can be with our current design process and in our current measurements. There’s both qualitative and quantitative aspects as well. So hopefully it’s going to make sense and I think the way that I frame it hopefully does too, that it’s not any different from what you’re doing today, either internally or with your teams. It’s just a new set of tools.

Sean [00:21:34] A little bit more structure, a little bit more thoughtfulness.

Phil [00:21:37] Yeah.

Sean [00:21:37] So question for you, how do you define innovation?

Phil [00:21:41] Oh, that’s a hard one. Well, I use futures thinking, and I frame it in terms of innovation, entrepreneurship, and strategy because I think of it as kind of really trying to look at the future, whether it be tomorrow or ten years from now, and really try to continue to understand what society or businesses or personally we need, what needs to change, we needs to transform. Maybe I can kind of put this in terms of one of the principles as well. We think about things in scenarios. One of the scenarios that we always have to think about is called business as usual. That means that the future doesn’t change if the future looks exactly like today, but it’s in the future. And that’s how most people think about the future. They think, “Oh, five years from now, we still have an iPhone, and we still have Facebook, and we still have Google and all that stuff.”.

Phil [00:22:27] What they don’t realize this business as usual is actually the big joke. It’s not innovative because it inherits the same problems that we have today. If you think the future looks just like today, it’s a joke because there is no innovation, there’s no transformation, there’s no evolution or anything. Yeah, sure, you’ll have the same stuff, but you’ll have exactly the same burdens and problems. And so I see innovation as really undoing that and really trying to get the business as usual scenario out of there and working towards what we call transformation, things that intuitively society or businesses need, and hopefully that we can start to think about everything that we do beyond our own personal goals, beyond our business goals, and think more about impact on the world, social impact and those kinds of things. So that kind of encapsulates what innovation is to me.

Paul [00:23:15] Amazing answer. Last question before we let you go… I can say, you know, one of the best resources that I found in preparation for our talk today was your talk at Google, and I’d recommend that to anybody who wants to learn more about you and what you’re writing and thinking about. But I was wondering if you could share, what are some other ways people can find about your ideas, either through things that you’ve written or things that you’re inspired by? So what’s on your bookshelf that you’d recommend a product manager take a look at?

Phil [00:23:40] Oh, man. Well, right currently I am researching other books on futures right now as I write my own so that I can actually make sure I have a clear position and differentiation in the market. But there’s a really great book by Scott Smith called How to Future. There is another really great book called Design Fiction by Julian Bleecker, and there’s another called Future Scouting by Damian Lutz and another one that’s called Facing Our Futures by Nikolas Badminton that is also really good. All these books have their own style and approach to futuring, and some of them are similar. They cover similar processes. But if you’re really interested in kind of digging and getting to know the process, these are some good ones. You can check out my website,

Paul [00:24:24] Amazing recommendations. Phil, thanks so much for spending some time together with us. I learned a ton. I know our audience will tell you, so thank you, thank you. It’s been a pleasure.

Sean [00:24:31] Thanks for sharing knowledge, sir.

Phil [00:24:33] Thanks, you, too.

Paul [00:24:36] Well, that’s it for today. In line with our goals of transparency and listening, we really want to hear from you. Sean and I are committed to reading every piece of feedback that we get, so please leave a comment or a rating wherever you’re listening to this podcast. Not only does it help us continue to improve, but it also helps the show climb up the rankings so that we can help other listeners move, touch, and inspire the world, just like you’re doing. Thanks, everyone. We’ll see you next episode.

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