Author Talks: Design your future

Danish design experts Christian Bason and Jens Martin Skibsted say humanity needs a more expansive outlook on problem-solving—one that is less human-centered and more future-proof.

In this edition of Author Talks, McKinsey Global Publishing’s Adam Volk chats with Christian Bason and Jens Martin Skibsted about their new book, Expand: Stretching the Future By Design (Penguin Random House, May 2022). Design thinking is a process of innovating through experiment-like ideation and iteration that resembles “creativity in a bottle.” It’s become a valuable business method, but as technology has evolved and global challenges intensified, Bason and Skibsted have formulated some critiques—as well as six new expansions. An edited version of the conversation follows.

Why did you write this book?

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Jens Martin Skibsted: We wanted to write something completely different. Because we’re both on a governance level and we’ve led many of the leading Danish institutions within the design field, we thought we’d write the “ultimate book on Danish design.” We realized that might be a little bit self-aggrandizing, and there are topics way more interesting, so we slid into different subjects, and we had to revise the book a ton of times. We kept in mind people who are not within the field and not Danish.

Christian Bason: We wrote the book in a conversation with each other. We were basically discussing where we felt the design field needed to go and what we were occupied with and interested in. Those ended up being the key themes in the book. It felt quite natural, but it was a big shift from where we started.

What surprised you in your research and writing?

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Jens Martin Skibsted: I don’t think any of the research surprised us, but in our collaboration we got to know different sides of us both. It brought us to many different places. There are many angles to being Danish that do not relate to design.

Christian Bason: We needed to find out how to write something that’s universal. This is not a book for a specialist audience, or for a very narrow audience. It’s a book for the enlightened citizen: those who want to change things, those who want to innovate, those who are concerned with the state of the world, those who want to be change makers.

This is not a book for a specialist audience, or for a very narrow audience. It’s a book for the enlightened citizen: those who want to change things, those who want to innovate, those who are concerned with the state of the world, those who want to be change makers.

One of the lessons we have learned nationally and globally is that we could share our ideas and be sort of agnostic about what kind of culture or context our ideas could be used in. That’s our hope, that this could be used anywhere on the planet.

What is your definition of ‘design thinking’?

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Jens Martin Skibsted: Design thinking is a process. One of our critiques in the book is that there isn’t any more thinking involved in design thinking than in any other type of design. So, the book is also about bringing more thinking into design thinking.

With design thinking, you have a hypothesis in the same way as in science—you have a wish—and then you have a few intuitions about where you want to go. You project a word or person in whichever direction you want to go, rather than conducting an analysis where you break things apart. You ideate, you come up with something, and you iterate and iterate. You have to start over many times. At the end, you can get to a result you’re happy with.

Christian Bason: It’s a human-centered approach to innovation and change. It’s a process that you can learn and teach, and you can apply the methodologies—doing the research, the ideation, the brainstorming, building the prototypes, testing them with users.

It becomes, almost, I wouldn’t say paint by numbers, but I would say kind of a replicable process. That’s what made design thinking attractive to business: they can say they put creativity in a bottle. That’s the strength. That’s why design thinking has become such a widespread approach in large corporations. Organizations like IBM have trained 150,000 people in design thinking. You see similar programs in other large corporations.

But what are the limitations? Where does design thinking end? It ends with asking more fundamental questions about how we need to think and who we need to involve. Design thinking has no natural language around, for example, sustainability, which has become the maybe most pressing and urgent agenda for business now.

Jens Martin Skibsted: Design thinking can be used by anyone, and it’s being appropriated as a business method, but the book is also a “how do we go beyond that.” There are certain limitations. It’s human-centered, and if you look around the planet now at all of the troubles we have—in terms of global warming, but also the conflict in Ukraine and a host of other things—they are man-made.

If you keep optimizing for humans, then there are some limitations to how far we can go. How do you protect an ecosystem if you optimize for the guy who wants to build a house in the ecosystem and not build the ecosystem, for instance? The speed of business is also completely different today, and the speed of business means that some customers want a result in two weeks. This is a tough thing, especially because then they also want something that lasts for 30 years.

If you keep optimizing for humans, then there are some limitations to how far we can go. How do you protect an ecosystem if you optimize for the guy who wants to build a house in the ecosystem and not build the ecosystem, for instance?

In terms of the effects of global warming, for instance, they are not here and now; they are out in the future. So, you have this paradox: things need to happen here and now but they need to foresee a fairly distant future. These are both results of speed. The faster business goes, the faster you need to do things, and the faster you will be far ahead in the future. Design thinking is not good at solving these things because it’s kind of a lengthy process, and it’s not made for the distant future—it’s made for a near future for humans.

Christian Bason: Building stuff for the near future for humans is what got us into this mess in the first point. And so, even though we’re not taking a big bash at design thinking, we are suggesting that we’re at a time now when we really need to go beyond the success of design thinking.

How can we use human-centered design to improve the human experience and the world?

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Jens Martin Skibsted: One of the advantages is that you can design for a desired future. If you project a future that is just going to continue as it is, you’re not going to have any innovation breakthroughs—you’re just going to keep doing what you do, just slightly better or slightly more advanced. So, you need to project a completely different future.

If you think of science fiction, we actually ended up with the StarTAC phone that they used in Star Trek. These wild projections of what humans can become is a very unique feature with design thinking.

Christian Bason: Design thinking, the term, is almost interchangeable with human-centered design, and there have been other terms thrown around too. Either way, the notion is about going behind what people say they want, understanding their true needs, empathizing with users, and then also creatively proposing new solutions, iterating them, testing them with users, getting human feedback, finding out what’s attractive, what’s meaningful, and what makes sense to people. It’s really powerful.

In that way, human-centered design has been a counterweight to technology-led design, where tech, specifications, and what’s technologically possible are the driving forces. Our commercial world, both digitally and physically, has been shaped by human-centered design. For enterprises that “bake in” design skills and competencies at the C-suite level—meaning they build design teams, use these methodologies in a systematic way, measure how they do, improve things, and iterate—they outcompete their peers by 30 percent over time.

The question is, if we continue that way, where will we end? So, we need to, as Jens Martin said, start some more disruptive leaps of imagination. We need to expand the way we think about what solutions are needed. We need to go beyond this human-centeredness that’s maybe not sustainable.

What are your six proposed expansions to design thinking?

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Jens Martin Skibsted: The first one is time. We tend to have fairly short time spans in what we do. For instance, elections are often spans of four years. How can you solve many of the major challenges today within four years? It’s just not really realistic. With corporations, you have quarterly reports. What can you achieve within a quarter? It’s fairly little. We want to approach the thinking about time span in a different way.

For instance, blue chip companies that make the most money are not ordinary stock-listed companies—they are majority-owned by a foundation. They’re not philanthropic foundations; they are about making business, but they are also about creating long-term value. Board members are going to say, “We’re not making any money,” but the families that own these foundations will say, “We don’t care, because in 20 years, we’re going to make a lot of money.”

Those bets often come true. They are better bets than three-month or one-year bets. Of course, you also need to look at the very near future.

Christian Bason: The second expansion we proposed is proximity. We are talking about a term that’s very big in design thinking, which is the idea of empathy—of empathizing with users and understanding customers and their unmet and unrecognized needs. We’re suggesting that we need to expand how we look at this notion of proximity, or closeness, to get more relevant action. For example, how do we think about underserved users, those who are not the mainstream?

We’re also asking, who says that everybody we should care for are human beings? How about caring for other species than humans? What about nature? What about these ecosystems that we need to care for? What about the biodiversity? We already now see rivers and other natural resources getting rights, like personal rights, in terms of protection and in terms of what we can do to them legally. In the book there’s a quote: “With what right do we even cut down a tree and design it into a designer chair? Do we need to rethink the rights of nature?”

Proximity also has to do with the connection between citizens and decision makers. How do we close the gap between the leaders—those who decide—and those who vote, and those whose opinions are not always taken into account? We’re taking a pretty broad perspective on this notion of proximity and getting closer to problems.

One example in the book is an artist, Olafur Eliasson. He’s an Icelandic–Danish artist who chipped off blocks of ice from the polar ice cap in Greenland and plopped them down in Paris, London, and Copenhagen for citizens to experience these huge, melting blocks of inland ice—reminding all of us that the climate is changing and the ice cap is melting, and this is what it actually feels and looks like up close.

Jens Martin Skibsted: The third expansion is life. It expands what we perceive as what is life. For instance, lab-grown meat: Is it alive or not? People can download their conscience or memories onto computers: Are these alive? You’ve got humans becoming more and more humanoid; you’ve got AI in virtual space; what rights do they have? In the US, there’s a very lively debate on when life starts. Imagine if you start having that debate in terms of robots: When does a robot become an entity or an ethical agent that should pay taxes, that can earn revenue, etcetera?

In the US, there’s a very lively debate on when life starts. Imagine if you start having that debate in terms of robots: When does a robot become an entity or an ethical agent that should pay taxes, that can earn revenue, etcetera?

We have completely different boundaries of life, and that obviously also implicates a lot of thought with how we can harvest that value to make money. How can we avoid making some of the mistakes we have made in terms of ethical challenges with business that we’ve seen when innovation isn’t really thought through before it’s brought to the customer?

Christian Bason: The fourth expansion we have is value. Here we are challenging the way we think about both what value is and also how it’s created. First and foremost, we’re looking at a business environment and a world where, increasingly, value creation needs to focus on impact, which means environmental and social impact. We, of course, still want to think about finances and about the business model, but big companies are increasingly focusing on what difference they make in the world, rather than putting money first—which is a huge shift that is also connected to long-term thinking.

We need to start balancing and measuring value in new ways to capture the true impact of what we’re doing and to get new ideas about developing business. The same goes for governments that are born with the idea of value for citizens or for society but also have had the tendency to look mostly at finances to drive the budgetary approach to change and innovation.

Then there’s the question of how we create value. We’ve built a world around the linear approach, where we start by extracting minerals and resources from the ground. We then process them; we design products and package them; they are sold to consumers who then consume goods; then they discard them, and they become waste. That model is simply not sustainable anymore. We need to shift toward, first and foremost, a circular economy—circular models of value-creation—so that we recycle and reuse and even regenerate the resources we draw out of the earth.

Our economy is driven not only by physical products and goods but also by intangibles like services and the digital economy, so we need to look at networks and think about how we as a company or an organization are part of a widespread network of actors. Our value creation could be reinvented and innovated by looking at the relationships we have with actors around us: suppliers, customers partners, and so on.

Jens Martin Skibsted: The fifth one we call dimensions. That one is probably the most abstract of all of them. If you think about what dimension we live in, we live in a physical world, but we also have started living in a virtual world. We assume that this happened because it was meant to happen, that it came about because it had to come about, but humans could have chosen a completely different route. Many of the biggest companies in the world deal with a digital world, but we can’t assume that this is how it’s going to be.

My personal assumption or guess is that it’s going to be biochemical. With all of the things we’re seeing with CRISPR and so on, all of a sudden, we can hack biology. To be future-proof, we need to think of these different dimensions. We tend to be in this little dimension that we’re in—when we’re only in a physical dimension, we assume that’s it, right? Now that we’ve added digital, we think, “That’s it.” We can keep going. That’s the fifth dimension.

Christian Bason: The last one is an expansion called sectors. It’s an amazing thing. We are in a world where we see the public sector becoming more proactive in many ways and actually innovating or contributing to innovation. For instance, not a lot of people are aware of this, but most of the technology you’ll find in your standard iPhone was funded by taxpayers and created by government labs around the world: whether it’s a flat screen, the internet itself, compression software, or even Siri voice recognition. It’s all originally taxpayer-funded, either through basic research, applied research, or grants given to start-ups and other companies.

Most of the technology you’ll find in your standard iPhone was funded by taxpayers and created by government labs around the world: whether it’s a flat screen, the internet itself, compression software, or even Siri voice recognition. It’s all originally taxpayer-funded, either through basic research, applied research, or grants given to start-ups and other companies.

We’ve seen that shift, that government is becoming aware of its role in creating innovation and changing society. We are also seeing business, as I mentioned before, turning to more societal value, more impact, more sustainability, and so forth. These sectors are becoming more intertwined, and we see a future where the public sector, the private sector, and also civic organizations and the research sector need to collaborate in new ways that are more hybrid.

We see philanthropic organizations almost becoming policy makers because of the amount of funds they can throw into a particular public problem or field. It’s not expanding sectors as much as it’s almost imploding sectors upon each other. Out of that comes new types of jobs, new types of organizations, and a new landscape in business that we need to relate to.

How can organizations use the concept of ‘expansive design’ to make more intelligent decisions that benefit humanity as a whole?

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Christian Bason: The other day, a group from a very large international bank visited the Danish Design Center. The company had identified challenges they wanted to work on and a set of really difficult questions. They had a few ideas already. We built a framework with these six expansions, and said, “Let’s challenge your ideas. Let’s challenge the problems you’re coming with.” Then, they went through a workshop session where they used the six expansions as creative fuel, as a way to stimulate their thinking.

This involved questions like, “What would happen if we thought about this on a much longer time frame? What kind of role would we play as a bank in a world where these sectors are mixing in new ways? Which users are underserved, and how might we think about more inclusive approaches to our products? What does sustainability really mean for us?

You can take these wide-ranging notions and then make them quite concrete and applicable to a concrete business problem.

Jens Martin Skibsted: Ideally, you would go through all of these expansions and see how this could broaden your thinking in order to come up with something entirely new. I think at the get-go, to even start doing that, you need to accept that the future will be designed. It’s not just going to happen to you. We have to understand that it’s completely up to us to choose that future. We’re not saying that we need to choose a Danish future—you need to choose whichever future is desirable to you. That’s one of the key takeaways: that you can design this future.

What is ‘technological determinism’?

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Jens Martin Skibsted: It’s a thinking that the future is determined and that the technologies we have today are not there by choice but because they had to be. Some people will accept that we could go in different directions, but very few will actually accept that we could have gone in different directions. There’s this assumption that we’re here as a natural cause of what happened before—this predetermined path that is deterministic. In the case of the technological, we think that the technologies we use are predetermined.

Christian Bason: What we are expanding here, in terms of tech determinism, is the notion that it’s mainly one part of the world where all the new ideas are coming from, and that they are necessarily all good. We have other centers of innovation: Africa, Asia, China with AI and face recognition. You can debate over how it’s used, but you can certainly see that it’s highly innovative and highly useful for many purposes.

In the Nordics, where we have our base, there are so many innovations in energy, sustainable materials, and sustainable business models happening. Why not take a broader look at the world to get inspired and innovate? We are arguing that you can really benefit from taking a much more global perspective on where to look.

Ten years ago, there was a huge fascination with the technologies coming out of social media and big tech. Today, there’s a reckoning that, just because something is tech and is online does not mean it’s necessarily good. We are becoming more realistic about whether all of these technologies are the future we want, or if we should we go somewhere else. Should we make other choices? That’s the essence of the critique of tech determinism from the book.

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Christian Bason and Jens Martin Skibsted on how to innovate through experiment-like ideation and iteration

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