Volatile. Uncertain. Complex. Ambiguous. Together referred to as VUCA, the U.S. Army War College introduced these attributes as a way to describe the post-Cold War landscape. As a multi-party innovation catalyst, Cisco CHILL employs a variety of approaches to design and build innovations in a VUCA world. Pulling from the fields of design, strategic foresight, and management, we have developed a process to validate new opportunities and strategies to help our customers stay ahead of the curve.

The Futures Cone

Imagine you are holding a flashlight in a dark room. Where you stand is the present and, out in front of you, time stretches forward. The beam of light is narrower right in front of you and widens out the further away it gets. This cone of light represents all the imaginable futures out there; the further away you get the more options there are.

Within that cone, imagine a narrow beam that represents the more plausible futures that could happen based on what we know of the world, including the laws of physics and structures of society. Within an even narrower beam are the probable futures, the ones informed by current trends that we can measure. Finally, there are preferred futures: the ones that we think “should” happen. Of course, “should” is a value judgement, which is why, when CHILL sets out to explore the preferred futures of a given domain, we include as many stakeholders as possible to help design that preferred future.

Many futurists over the past decades have used this flashlight metaphor to help explain the multitude of futures that are out there. Even the futures that exist in the darkness beyond the beam of light—things that we can’t imagine—happen all the time!

“I’m getting a weak signal…”

Once we understand that there are many possible futures out there, we hunt for signals. This process, called futures or environmental scanning, is a vast search to find signals of potentially high-impact change amongst news, published research, literature, and media. From where we sit in the present, some of those signals may be strong and some may be weak. The weak signals are where things get most interesting, where the cultural fringe can be connected to leading-edge indicators of change.

For CHILL’s investigation into the Future of Work, we conducted this process in two simultaneous workflows. In one work stream, a team focused on the secondary sources, reading research papers and major news outlets alongside sci-fi tomes and cultural fringe media. What are the indicators of change for the way we hire, train, interact, and collaborate? How have artists rendered those changes into stories and portraits of the future? At the same time, a team interviewed customers and partners from all kinds of industries to identify signals in other sectors. For Future of Work, that included tech, healthcare, manufacturing, transportation, education, human services, and more.

Once the signals have been gathered, we sort them into categories. We sort and we sort again as we make sense of how the signals fit together. Like much of what CHILL does, the synthesis is a highly collaborative and iterative process. The signals help us identify driving forces or trends that form an arc which we can explore: our Ambition and Opportunity Areas.

When CHILL scans for signals about the future, we listen, not just to the winds of change, but to those people and organizations that are making the winds blow.

The Future is Narrative

If you are a regular reader of this space, you’ll know that CHILL is dedicated to learning through prototyping. We use prototypes as we develop innovation concepts in our Living Labs, but also to make sense of the complex web of signals produced by our scan.

We use several methods to bring the imagined and preferred futures to life. For example, we created a comic book to illustrate a particular picture of one possible future. During Living Labs, concept teams use staged vignettes to gather feedback from end users. In addition to provided props, each team brings in artifacts and prototypes that represent a new opportunity that the end user will confront. This technique creates an “experiential future,” where instead of just thinking about theoretical changes, an end user interacts with physical manifestations of that future. These experiences provoke a new way of thinking and can uncover key insights about what would make the concepts most successful.

CHILL convenes whole ecosystems of companies to explore a particular domain and design futures to solve some of our industry’s toughest challenges, from healthcare to media, to sustainability and beyond. We use our principle of mass inclusion to bring many people to the table to forge that vision of what is to come.

How are you designing the future for your customers or your industry? When you think of the Future of Work, what signals are you picking up? Join the conversation on Twitter @joannadillon or by following us on Medium.


Joanna Dillon

Innovation Outcomes Manager

CHILL Services - US