UTDesignLabSteering towards responsible futures at DesignLab

Steering towards responsible futures at DesignLab

Entering DesignLab, you don’t know where to look. There’s too much happening at once. The bright hall is filled with all sorts of prototypes. Groups of students are standing in front of robots, taking notes and observing the robots as they move and talk. Other students are hunched over their laptops or wearing VR headsets. Today, however, it’s especially crowded. The reason is a course on Digital Transformation by Apeldoorn Leergang, a cooperation between Achmea, Belastingdienst and UT. Although the course has existed for a few years now, it’s the first time that part of it is held here, at DesignLab.

“Before, it was a rather traditional course”, says programme coordinator Monique Docter. Participants, all of whom have roles in the field of Cyber Security or Data Science at either the Belastingdienst or Achmea, used to learn about different topics by attending lectures and seminars. “But since the digital world is developing at such a fast pace, we felt it was time for the course to develop with it. To breathe new life into it.” As a result, the course now consists of a theoretical as well as a practical part. The latter has taken the form of a four-day masterclass called Responsible Futuring. “With emphasis on the ‘responsible’ part”, Monique adds. “Sure, technology offers lots of wonderful solutions to societal challenges. But there are also downsides. Throughout these four days at DesignLab, we focus on mapping all the possible consequences of our decisions. Both the positive and the negative ones. That way, we aim to tackle these challenges in a responsible way.”

Before the official start of the masterclass, participants were divided into three groups. Each group got to choose a societal challenge to focus on, with a relation to digital transformation as the only prerequisite. They go through the four different phases of the Responsible Futuring philosophy with these challenges in mind. Responsible Futuring moderator Maartje Huinink and DesignLab researcher Julieta Matos Castaño make sure that this all runs smoothly.

The bigger picture

In line with phase one, connect and relate, the first day of the masterclass was about identifying stakeholders. “Stakeholders are people who have the power to make a change, but they are also people who are being affected by that change. You need to think about the broader societal impact”, explains Julieta. “In one of our exercises, we map the different stakeholders, showing what matters to them, their values, and how they’re all connected. Where conflict may arise and where there’s complementarity.” Maartje nods in agreement. “To help see the bigger picture”, she says.

After interviewing the main stakeholders, participants presented their findings at the second session. That one was about understanding and framing. “Although we’re all talking about the same issue, we do so from different perspectives. These determine what you see”, says Maartje. To illustrate how the masterclass encourages participants to empathise with different perspectives and worldviews, Maartje and Julieta mention a role-playing exercise they organised. In this exercise, the participants literally walked in someone else’s shoes, wore different glasses and hats, and delved into the motivations and goals of the stakeholders they represented. Julieta: “Looking at an issue from different perspectives contributes to building common ground and inspires participants to be creative and critical of what’s at stake.”


On the third day of the masterclass, participants get to speculate and make potential futures tangible. As part of imagine and ideate, they create ‘what if’ worlds. For example, how would our future look like if digital transformation initiatives strived for full transparency? And what would happen if the concept of mobility radically changed? It’s time to provotype. Yes, you read that right. “Provotypes are basically provocative prototypes”, according to Julieta. “We ask participants: assuming that this future is true, what do and don’t we find desirable? What can we learn from this? We’re discussing, talking, and asking ourselves these kinds of questions.” Each group gets to choose one tool to help tangibilise their future: LEGO, craft supplies or a collage template.

Arnauld van der Heijden from the Belastingdienst, immediately starts gluing pieces of wood and foam together to create a small figure. What he’s provotyping? “A world in which mobility is scarce, and you live and work locally. You’d only travel if it’s essential”, he explains. He clearly enjoys using his hands to create. Something he doesn’t get to do on a typical workday. Arnauld: “More importantly, I enjoy doing so together with the people from Achmea. Although their organisation is comparable to ours in terms of size and target audience, we’re a non-profit organisation and they aren’t. That creates an interesting dynamic when looking at issues.”

Meanwhile, another group isn’t just using a tool, but the entire classroom. They’re moving furniture and creating pathways. Gerrit Koning, who works at Achmea, is setting up chairs in a row. He and his group are provotyping a world in which your entire trip is monitored, so you can get from A to B without encountering any hurdles. “Extreme efficiency sounds ideal at first. But when you really think about it, it also raises many questions. For example, what do we do about the fact that this breaches our privacy? And what would it mean for the business I’m in, insurance, if you know that you can get to your destination without any issues?”

Beam me up, Scotty

Wiro Kuipers takes a look at Gerrit’s provotype. “Have you considered teleportation yet?” he suggests, half-serious. “Provotypes don’t have to be 100% realistic. Besides, if Star Trek could already do ‘beam me up, Scotty’ back in the 60s, why would it be far-fetched to say that it might exist in twenty years from now?”

As a Responsible Futurist, Wiro is mostly concerned with turning the masterclass into a full-blown experience. In other words: making participants feel like they’re actually in the future. “Even if we’re talking about the future, we still tend to come up with solutions for today’s problems. By making it this immersive experience, we can get participants to think ahead.” That’s why they were gifted a travel guide for the future at the start of the masterclass, which is in fact a box in which they can put everything they collect throughout these four days.

“But there’s more”, says Wiro. He walks up to another part of DesignLab and points at a big screen. “Here we have our AI persona Qu, who chimes in from the future to speak to the participants and reflect on their work.” The screen stands in the middle of an exhibition, showcasing different projects that are related to Responsible Futuring. Projects on urban digital infrastructures, policy making, and health care, to name a few. “Above all, I hope that visitors can tell how much fun we’ve had in creating this masterclass. This world, really. That has been an insightful process in itself.”

Future literacy

At the time of writing, the last day of the masterclass is yet to come. “Last, but definitely not least”, warns Julieta. “In fact, the reflect and reframe session may be the most challenging one.” It’s in this phase that participants return to the present. There, they speculate about how the pros and cons they’ve gathered while provotyping affect the decisions we make today. They need to derive lessons learned, that they can apply to their practices today. “That’s what Responsible Futuring ultimately is about”, Maartje adds. “To make you aware that everything you do now, is steering towards a specific future.” While that realisation may be a bit scary, it can also be liberating. “You have the agency to shape a positive future.”

‘Futures literacy,’ is how Julieta and Maartje like to put it. And although the masterclass hasn’t reached its conclusion yet, it seems that participants already understand the message. “We live in an extremely digitalised world. So now, more than ever, is a good time to think ahead”, Gerrit comments. “It’s been very interesting to collaborate on that with other stakeholders. Not just by asking for their input, but really listening to what they’re saying and taking that into account.”

Arnauld is also enthusiastic. “It’s like Albert Einstein said”, he says. “We can’t solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them. So we need to think outside the box. The best part is that everyone can do that. We all have an inner child that allows us to imagine and create.”

Text: Floortje Schuurmans