From Chapter 32 of Future Rising: A Journey from the Past to the Edge of Tomorrow
On January 24, 1984, Apple Computer cofounder Steve Jobs stepped out onto a stage at De Anza College, California, and changed history. The event was the much-anticipated launch of the iconic Macintosh 128k personal computer.
Surfing the wave of one of the most memorable ad campaigns ever, the Macintosh masterfully blended together innovation and design. And in doing so, it changed the future of personal computers. But there was a small appendage attached to it which, if anything, has had an even greater impact on how we use our electronic devices: the computer mouse.
These days, touchpads and the touch screens on smartphones and tablets are beginning to supersede the mouse. But between 1984 and the early 2000s, the mouse ruled the computer interface roost. And its success was due in part to a particular blend of innovation and design that has become known as “design thinking.”
Design thinking places humans at the center of an iterative process of rapid idea generation and testing, and it’s found its way into everything from the design of disposable cups to how advanced technologies are governed. Its origins go back decades, but the concept was popularized in part by two Palo Alto designers, Dean Hovey and David Kelly.
In 1991, Hovey and Kelley founded IDEO, one of the world’s most successful and influential design companies, and one that effectively put design thinking on the map. But even before the launch of IDEO, Hovey and Kelly were working together on innovative designs. And perhaps the most influential of these was the mouse that shared the stage with Steve Jobs, back in 1984.
The story of the Apple mouse illustrates just how deeply design, innovation, and the future are intertwined. You can’t innovate your way to the future without designing something new that’s of value to someone else. Design by intent, rather than by accident, substantially amplifies our ability to change the future in ways that are potentially useful. More than this, design thinking brings a very human element to innovation. It encourages innovators to think about not only what they can build, but also how it enhances or otherwise affects the lives of others.
This human-oriented side of design helps increase the value of innovation to the people who use it, and whose lives are affected by it. And it becomes especially important when developing powerful technologies that could, if not handled sensitively, cause more harm than good in the future. But there’s also a humility to design thinking—at least in some ways that it’s practiced—that recognizes the unpredictability and ultimate uncontrollability of the future.
This is seen in the way design thinking and the complex challenges associated with “wicked problems” come together. Horst Rittel and Melvin M. Webber coined the term wicked problems in 1973, in recognition of just how unpredictable the future is. These are problems that are so slippery that the very nature of the problem changes as attempts are made to solve it. Wicked problems are essentially unsolvable problems, where the best that can be done is to develop temporary solutions on the path toward ever-shifting goals, and this in turn requires a uniquely fluid approach to design.
Rittel and Webber’s work focused on social policy planning. But since they popularized the idea, it’s become increasingly clear that much of the world we live in is dominated by wicked problems—especially where people are involved.
Design thinking recognizes this “wickedness” in its approach to building the future. It’s a highly pragmatic process that reflects the near-impossibility of getting things just right where people are involved, and instead encourages ways of building pathways to the future that are right enough for the moment, yet agile enough to adapt to a changing landscape.
Through the smart use of innovation and the savvy application of design approaches, we are more adept now than at any previous point in our history in imagining what the future might be like, and how we might get there. And because of this, we have within our grasp the ability to dramatically change the future.
How this plays out, of course, depends on whether we have the maturity to use such profound capabilities responsibly. Yet without a doubt, we are on the edge of being able to transform the future in ways that we could only dream of a few short decades ago.