In 1988, Deborah Mitchell and her colleagues wrote a study in the Journal of Behavioral Decision Making in which they developed the concept of « prospective hindsight ». Hastily summarized, this concept involves generating an explanation for a future that has not already happened, or to be more specific, generating an explanation as if that future had already happened.

The authors developed a test in which two potential factors are discussed: temporal perspective (has the event occurred or is it going to), and uncertainty (if the event’s occurrence is certain or not). The underlying question is to understand if people can find more reasons explaining a specific event, depending on these two factors.

It may seem easy, but in fact it is not. Human (or at least occidental and white students requested to be part of this kind of study) are using two very different cognitive approaches when they deal with the past or the future: they explain the past, and predict the future. So, thinking about a future event as if it had really happened and trying to explain why it has happened is quite complex. As such, it creates confusion between both cognitive mechanisms. However, the authors’ hypothesis is that people might make more informed decisions if they « saw more » consequences of their choices.

The results of the study are extremely interesting:

  1. Prospective hindsight”as a tool for dealing with future event generates more reasons for something to happen than the usual foresight approaches. Basically, it allows to « see more » by widening the scope of analysis.
  2. Prospective hindsight”highlights the benefits of manipulating the level of uncertainty of an event. Basically, making an event certain helps finding causal relationships between factors allowing to explain this plausible future.

If the first point is already interesting, the second has something fascinating to offer. We see it like a powerful backbone to figure out how and why design fiction might be operational regarding innovation and strategic process. Prototyping plausible future makes an event less fictional and more “present”. So doing we are manipulating the ratio of uncertainty of an event, and we then facilitate the construction of events chains for a specific outcome. This appears to be an effective way to accompany a company on the road for creating that specific event.

This capacity to “increase realistic awareness of uncertainty present in a future situation, including the range of potential outcomes”  is key in our design fiction practice since it challenges the idea that design fiction helps discussing about potential futures. Maybe thanks to its connection to artivisim (think for instance about the Yes Men provocative performance) and critical design (Dunne and Raby’s legacy), design fiction is anchored into dystopia as a sort of trademark; just like the British TV show “Black Mirror”. In line with Mitchell’s analysis, we could fruitfully offer the hypothesis that this critical approach has the potential to make dark futures more plausible, then more akin to occur!

Let’s say this is certainly not something planned by the promoters of the critical stance, but an hypothesis that has the refreshing power to shed a new light on this doxa which is, so far, more a wish than something actually demonstrated… 

On the contrary, it seems that providing an audience with a potential future might be the best way to commit that audience to this future, and help it get on tracks. This also pleads for « well designed fictions » that mixes bright and dark future for example, or critical stances and ways to handle them. Indeed, we need the audience to believe that this future is really plausible but also to get them on track for better alternatives. In the era of fake news that is quite a challenge, but all the research we are currently working on tends to push forward that we might need to « lie to the audience » for some time in order to immerse it truly in the fictional future.