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Alternative Futures Can Give Us New Perspectives on the Wicked Problems of the Present

08. Jun 2023
Long reads

By Oskar Stokholm Østergaard, Anders Erlendsson & Sara Gry Striegler, DDC – Danish Design Center

Last year, KL – Local Government Denmark published an analysis that said that Denmark will be short of 16,000 care workers in the eldercare sector by 2030. That is, without a doubt, an immense challenge already causing significant consequences today. But is the problem just about a lack of ‘hands’ and the need for more people to enter the care sector, or is it time to reassess some of the foundational assumptions of our welfare state? 

What if the crisis in the eldercare sector was about more than just recruitment and labor shortages? What if it was about our perception and appreciation of care and care work, our linear approach to retirement, and the transactional nature of our current welfare model?

Everywhere we look, we see widening cracks in the surfaces of critical systems while the elusive threat of collapse looms. A storm is brewing. Most Danes recognize the feeling that something is fundamentally broken, yet all too often, the conversation is about treating the symptoms rather than grappling with the underlying causes. We urgently need to see both the challenges — and our options — in a new light.

Seeing your blind spots

The lack of ‘warm hands’ in the eldercare sector is an example of a wicked problem. A distinct type of complex, entangled, and dynamic problem spanning institutions, contexts, administrations, governance systems, and systemic boundaries. The consequences are often shrouded and ill-defined while also devastating and unequally distributed. The term itself was introduced in 1973 by Rittel and Webbers and has since become a key concept, e.g., within design and systems innovation.


Tame problems Wicked problems
Relevant social, technological, economic, environmental, and political factors are, to some degree, stable. Relevant social, technological, economic, environmental, and political factors are unstable.
Uncertainty is limited. Uncertainty is high.
We’re able to project the present into the future. We must imagine and consider multiple possible futures.
The problem can be solved with known approaches.  The problem needs reframing and requires new approaches.
The ability to identify and develop the best solutions within the existing system is essential. The ability to navigate complexity and imagine alternative systems and opportunity spaces is essential.
Possible to solve. Impossible to solve once and for all.


The Wicked Series

This article is the second in a series of four:

The articles explore and explain how we work with wicked problems from a design- and mission-driven perspective. 

The articles are available in Danish on Impact Insider here, here and here.

oskar stokholm østergaard

Photo: Oliver Herlitschek

While the first article in this series was about working with wicked problems, this article is about working with alternative futures to gain new perspectives. One thing we’ve learned over the last decade or so of working with long-term, systemic, complex challenges is that future scenarios and futures-oriented design approaches are incredibly useful for tackling wicked problems. Alternative images of the future can help us shine a different light on the challenges we’re already seeing, on our blind spots, and on possible pathways for moving towards something better.

New approaches for addressing complex challenges

At DDC, we’ve committed ourselves to addressing complex and systemic societal challenges through design and mission-oriented innovation. In close collaboration with foundations, companies, public institutions, and NGOs, we’re working specifically on the issues surrounding the dwindling mental well-being among young people, the need for an irresistible circular society, and demographic changes. In addition to this, we’re working closely with public organizations on building capacity, mobilizing ecosystems, and setting direction within various areas of the Danish welfare state.

Based on our continuous development and learning work, we’ve developed an overarching thought model for moving from identifying a systemic, complex problem to a portfolio of initiatives that address the problem over time through new innovative approaches.

The model can be divided into four tracks:

  1. Uncovering the logics and structures of the existing system and reframing the problem.
  2. Developing and exploring radical alternative futures.
  3. Negotiating the preferred vision of the future and defining the mission.
  4. Establishing a governance model and seeding an associated portfolio of interconnected initiatives.

The model is illustrated as an extremely linear and simplified step-by-step model. Still, in reality, the work across these four dimensions in many ways happens dynamically and in parallel. The interplay between the four tracks, and the insights and nuance they each provide, help inform the shared frame of understanding that is continuously being revisited, expanded, and negotiated.

This perspective, and an insistence on maintaining complexity, is critical for us in our work with wicked problems, as they’re dynamic and, in principle, impossible to solve because the challenges they describe are constantly moving. When we interact with the problem, it changes. New connections and entanglements arise. New resource flows appear. The appearance of the problem changes.

Even if new complementary or alternative systems that can overcome the structural conditions that create dysfunctional situations are successfully created, it would still be utopian to imagine that they would be flawless and able to solve such large-scale problems completely. The problem will continue to change its form, the understanding of it will grow and become more nuanced, and naturally, as a result, ambitions and goals will evolve too.

Therefore, it is not meaningful to talk about final solutions to wicked problems but instigate, accelerate, and guide a movement in a better direction.

Whereas systems innovation is concerned with mapping and understanding the materiality of the system, futures-oriented design is about opening portals to multiple possible future realities. Whereas the system mapping described in the previous article supports new, sustainable systems, alternative futures allow people to explore the consequences of a change in practice.

"It is not meaningful to talk about final solutions to wicked problems but instigate, accelerate, and guide a movement in a better direction"

Anders Erlendsson

Photo: Oliver Herlitschek

Alternative futures show new possibilities

When you’re a group of people charting a journey somewhere, it’s generally a good idea to have a shared sense of where you’re going. At least you’d want a shared direction, but ideally, you aim for the same destination. It doesn’t have to be the final destination, maybe it’s just a rest stop along the way, but it is somewhere

For this, it is useful to work with what would often be called a preferred future, a subcategory of future scenarios that describe the future we want to see in the ever-growing field of disciplines that work with the future as a subject. The field continues to expand but includes directions such as strategic foresight or design approaches like speculative design (Speculative Everything (2013) by Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby is a classic), design fiction (Julian Bleeker et al. from the Near Futures Laboratory just released the excellent Manual of Design Fiction last year), and transition design (Terry Irwin, Gideon Kossoff, and Cameron Tonkinwise are among the pioneers. The website for the Transition Design Seminar at Carnegie Mellon is a great place to start). 

The concept of the ‘preferred future’ as a guiding star for the long term is gaining ground these years. It makes sense; a good story about a possible future where systems work differently and lives within them are better can encapsulate and communicate the hope and nuance we so desperately need.

In a time when you might feel like a passenger in a train car that is steadily moving toward the abyss, such stories are in short supply. Instead of only looking for technical answers in the here and now, we should think much more long-term. That requires us to set a direction collectively, focus on creating fertile ground for systemic change, and cultivate connected ecologies of experiments that can evolve and share learnings over time. A preferred future can become that trellis upon which our interventions in the present can grow. 

The otherwise appealing concept of preferred futures is not the only, and often not even the first, type of future scenario to consider when working with long-term strategic perspectives. As Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in one of her Earthsea novels

It’s a rare gift to know where you need to be before you’ve been to all the places you don’t need to be.” 

The work mustn’t just be about drawing a picture of where we want to go. It must actively explore the alternatives and examine their opportunities and challenges. In other words, consciously working with more than just a single rosy utopia (that a preferred future isn’t and shouldn’t be a perfect utopia is a conversation of its own). 

There are at least three good reasons for this:

  1. It helps us expand the opportunity space. When we explore multiple, diverse alternative futures, we push the boundaries of what we can imagine. This can open our eyes to entirely new possibilities and risks.
  2. When we give life to alternative realities and their systems and logics, the logics of our system become more apparent. Invisible mechanisms, power relations, and relationships that we never imagined could be different suddenly become visible, and we can actively challenge them and think about them differently. Without this awareness, we risk building systems that look new on the surface but reproduce existing problems underneath.
  3. It allows us to uncover blind spots. By testing our possible solutions in different hypothetical contexts, we can become aware of strengths and weaknesses that we wouldn’t otherwise have seen.

There are several tools and approaches for working proactively with the future. They all try to mobilize our imagination and give us images of what alternative futures might look like. 

In our exploration of alternative future perspectives on aging and care, we developed a series of very tangible ‘future fragments’. Speculative artifacts from the future with a bit of story attached. Not necessarily attractive but rather thought-provoking. The tactile and physical qualities of the fragments made it possible for people to get closer to actually experiencing an alternative future in their bodies.

One of the most powerful fragments was, in many ways, one of the simplest: The Caregel. This biomedical gel gives the patient the sensation of being physically touched by another human. Due to the lack of human care workers, a synthetic alternative has been developed. Caregel is especially prescribed for lonely people in nursing homes and retirement homes. However, the product can also be used on children as young as three in consultation with your doctor.

care gel

Caregel is an example of an alternative future that sheds light on ethical issues, new opportunities, and problems. It raises questions we don’t normally deal with:

What is care? Is care a central part of our welfare society, or can you buy it at the pharmacy? Who cares — the individual, the municipality, the market, or the community?

Alternative futures help us challenge the assumptions and logics we associate with wicked problems today. Ideas and hypotheses can lock us into a narrow and reductive solution space. That’s why alternative futures are a central part of how we approach large, complex problems. By establishing tangible and plausible future scenarios, you can create a practical tool to analyze changes that may happen in the future and inform decisions made in the present.

That enables you to:

  • Harness uncertainty with colleagues, users, and partners as a space for new opportunities to emerge
  • Provoke and inspire new forms of dialogue and practices across actors, power structures, professions, and organizations
  • Involve partners and enable them to shape a preferred future together – i.e., create strategies and initiatives that translate into action, even in the short term.

When we work with partners to investigate and explore alternative futures for mental well-being for young people, care, or aging, we use design methods inspired in part by the strategic foresight theories and methods that originated in the 1950s. 

Part of what sets the design-driven futures approaches apart from traditional strategic foresight is the focus on materiality, sensing, involvement, and provocation. Therefore, the work is just as much about play and storytelling as experience design, installation, and performance art. 

However, this doesn’t change the fact that developing future scenarios is, to a large degree, an analytical, structured approach where weak signals of change, trends, tendencies, and big questions in the present are extrapolated and used as building blocks to create and explore several possible scenarios for the medium to long term future. 

Where this work has traditionally been done by dedicated units in the military, government, or large corporations, we — and many others — see great potential in democratizing it.

"What is care? Is care a central part of our welfare society, or can you buy it at the pharmacy? Who cares — the individual, the municipality, the market, or the community?"

Photo: Anne Ravnholt Juelsen

The potential of design

In recent years, the design field has undergone a process of self-examination. It is now widely recognized that the design discipline has been a driving, aestheticizing engine in accelerating the major problems we face — and that it, therefore, must help do something about them.

The realization has accelerated the proliferation of speculative, critical, systemic, and sustainable design perspectives. As two examples of crystallizations of all this, Danish design professor Ida Engholm published the book Design for the new world – from human design to planet design earlier this year, and DDC CEO Christian Bason, with Jens Martin Skibsted published the book Expand: Stretching the future by design last year. 

In both books, design work with the future as the subject matter is a central piece. We also see more and more design schools worldwide offering modules, courses, and entire programs with a long-term and systemic design perspective.

At DDC, we naturally see massive potential in a design-based approach to working with complex issues and wild problems. The design field works with visual, tangible, and collaborative methods that allow for joint exploration and testing of the future, as well as much broader involvement. 

Design-based approaches focus more on democratizing, distributing power, involving, and experimenting. It is central to the designer’s mindset to be in a constant flux between the exploratory and the propositional, where insights emerge through alternately exploring problems and attempting to intervene in them.

That is ideal in situations and challenges characterized by ambiguity and internal contradictions – just as the DNA of complex, systemic problems. And this is especially crucial in complex systems where many people, processes, and structures must come together.

A case: A city where young people thrive 

In March 2022, we at DDC committed to addressing our society’s complex and systemic growing problem: the increasing lack of well-being among young people. We wanted to challenge the dominant narrative and create a new unifying, visionary narrative where youth thrive. We insisted on understanding the problem in a new way, discovering the unknown possibilities a new understanding would unlock, and exploring how we could realize them with others.

We brought together a group of people with broad representation from the established ecosystem: Foundations, public organizations, NGOs, private companies, and other actors not traditionally associated with the issue. The aim was to gain radically new perspectives on challenges and opportunities and get insights that could form the basis for shaping a new direction, a shared mission to work for a society where young people thrive.

We started by exploring the past and the present. We investigated why the mental health system looks the way it does today and the discourses and logics it is built on. We explored where in the system existing structures and frameworks create a collective experience of lack of well-being among young people and how the material of the system, the purpose of the system, its power structures, resource flows, and the relationship patterns that support the undesirable situation. This work highlighted how shifts in the system’s composition could turn problems into opportunities and thus allow completely different types of solutions.

With our historical insights and an understanding of the present-day system, we moved our attention toward the far future. Among the many scenarios explored was a world where you have a legal right to thrive and can sue people for hurting your well-being. Suppose you think the local government, your teacher, your ex, your father, the supermarket, your classmate, Instagram, or your boss limit your well-being. In that case, you report them to the police and let the courts decide whether you are entitled to compensation.

"The imprint that the experience of being in the future has left on me will last. I will keep coming back to these images in my daily work"

Participant from the program


The different future scenarios allowed people to experience and taste what it would be like to be a citizen in other future societies. Which elements, discourses, and logics were appealing, and which were downright repulsive? The experience widened the opportunity space and enabled the actors to negotiate a preferred future to dream of and strive for together.

The result of the work became the foundation and starting point for designing and developing a sensory manifestation of what a city where young people thrive might look like. We call the future universe Vorby. A city that you can step into and experience right here

The futures-work has been a unifying sensemaking process that has fostered new connections and relationships in the system. From the very first sessions, it has pushed the understanding of the problem and possible actions. While creating a new direction has resulted in an actual manifestation of a preferred future where young people thrive, the process and the work of bringing it to life have been equally valuable for many participants.

Designing alternative futures is, thus, in our view, an essential step towards opening and claiming the spaces of possibility that wicked problems hold. They show us the possibilities — good and bad — and provide a shared, expanded framework of understanding that allows us to design a future that is truly worth striving for. A preferred future that we can use to guide and inform our long-term missions.

Oskar Stokholm Østergaard

Design & Futures Lead

Phone +45 4027 1823
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