Journal of Futures Studies, June 2019, 23(4): 123–128
Change the Model
Carnegie Mellon University
Dan Hill is Director of Strategic Design at Vinnova, the Swedish government’s innovation agency. He has
previously held design leadership roles at Arup Digital Studio, Future Cities Catapult, Fabrica, Sitra, and the BBC.
Keywords: Dark Matter, Design Fiction, Evaluation, Overton Window, Policymaking, Strategic Design.
Stuart Candy: How do you see your work in relation to design and futures?
Dan Hill: All design work is by definition to do with the future. In terms of the types of design that I do, there’s
three sort of ambits of design, and I imagine it like the futures cone, but… without the futures cone!
So in the pointy end there is interaction design, which is the touchpoint. How do I unlock a MoBike? Hold
a phone over a QR code. (Figure 1)
Service design broadens that out slightly. That’s the business model, how it operates, who maintains it, how
the transaction works; do I pay by credit card or through Apple Pay; does the Apple Pay API talk to MoBike
API? It’s all to do with arranging touchpoints. It’s still in the matter world a bit more, as there’s physical things,
it’s just orchestrating those into something that feels coherent, ideally.
And then going a bit further again is strategic design, which is when we get more dark matter-y: What
conditions do we need to put in place for that to thrive? Can we legally do this thing in this country? How does
it relate to other services you might use in the city? That needs to be organised, or thought about at least.
So you’ve got interaction design, service design, strategic design, up and down this scale.
Journal of Futures Studies
Figure 1. Scales of design. Diagram by Dan Hill
And then I think of speculative design, if we were to use that phrase, it’s a time slider. So we
could look at interaction design, if we’re doing MoBike, and it’s for right now, or maybe next year.
But we could do a speculative design / interaction design piece about what’s it going to be in five
years’ time. Maybe I’m paying with my glasses, or unlocking it with my shoes! But it’s still about
the touchpoint. We can do speculation about the service design layer and speculation about the
strategic design layer –– so, let’s ratchet up the speculative design dial.
SC: So what’s broadening out, if it’s a cone diagram of something widening?
DH: It’s trying to take into account both matter and dark matter. The dark matter being the
organisational model, the legal model, or the political situation.
SC: It’s more of the world.
DH: Yeah, that’s maybe the simplest way of saying it. And the reason that’s important to me
is because working in cities, you’re trying to make systems, and systems that change systems,
one way or another. I don’t think you do that at the interaction design scale stage much. You’re
just concentrating on the latency of the QR code reader and is that going to be fast enough
communicating with the bike hardware. Those are really material concerns. Whereas the strategic
design layer is really the systemic change possibility.
One thing I would say about this, almost the unspoken thing in the world of government policy:
It depends what you do, and that is an active choice. So when people say, tell us what the train
station concourse is going to be like in the future, I say, it depends what you do. So if we design it
without gates, there won’t be gates, and it’ll look like this. We design it with gates, it’ll look like
this. But they’re looking for some kind of implicit answer. There is no implicit answer; it depends
what you do.
Change the Model – An Interview with Dan Hill
DH: With some foresight work, one produces a series of scenarios, and we’re trying to pick the
most likely or something, and I’m saying, intent matters hugely here, and if you’re a policymaker,
you’re in charge. But the policymakers I often work with in government, they’ve been so battered
into a position of not having agency, or not believing they have agency, that –– for instance,
transport is a good example –– they’ll just kind of go with some sort of abstract model. “Well, we
fed these numbers into the model that we’ve been using since the mid ’90s, and it shows a marginal
increase in cycling with a steady increase in car use.”
There wouldn’t be, if you changed the policy. Then the model would change. But they’re using
the model to drive the policy, as opposed to saying, “What do we want to happen in the first place?”
SC: It’s a disavowal of their capacity to design strategically.
DH: Their entire raison d’être. Because ultimately, if you follow that line of logic, then you just say,
well, we’ll just have some super smart model at some point. We can feed some assumptions into
that, and then crank the handle, and some policy will pop out. If it was that simple then we wouldn’t
need policymakers. So you’re kind of arguing yourself out of existing at some point… which is
possibly what some are thinking!
I was working with a guy the other day from the infrastructure department. He represented this
one mode of discourse, few other ways of thinking, or imagining, or visualising, or whatever. I was
talking about road use and cities, and how we could shift the way that’s happening. And he just
said, “Well, all of the economic models we use show that road use is always central to the way the
economy works.” I said “Change the model. Can you change the model?” Of course you can change
the model –– it’s a model. Feed in some different data, or tweak the algorithm, to increase bike use
and and decrease car use. Then you’ll have a model that shows decreased car use.
Design is about making something happen, one way or another. You have to take it with a huge
amount of humility, because I can say there ought to be this level of bike use, and put these schemes
in place, but I don’t really know how that would play out. So I suggest, well, make things adaptive,
malleable, and stay in the project, learning, and pivot accordingly, and work your way through it.
That’s not policy as a “predict, fire and forget” thing; it’s an ongoing process. That’d be my
actual answer to how you’d design for the future: make it adaptable, and keep adapting it from real-
world interactions. But one can still have an intent, a direction, a trajectory – ideally, a positive
outcome. It’s amazing how infrequent that thought is, particularly in this world of the strategic
design layer, which concerns the much harder policy objectives and systems change.
SC: Let’s grant your observation, kind of a Herbert Simon-type observation, and something that a
lot of designers intuit if not espouse explicitly, that what they’re doing is future-making, no matter
what or at what scale they’re designing. If all design is future-making, but some cases are further
future-making than others, what do you do differently when you’re working in a more speculative
or longer-range mode? I realise you have a sort of magpie’s grab bag of tools; things that you’ve
developed yourself, things that you’ve picked up from mentors, and developed on projects…
DH: As you say, magpie-like is a good way of thinking about it, because we’re trying to find the
right tool for the right question. If the question is mobility, and I’m a car guy, the answer looks like
a car. But the question is mobility, not necessarily cars at all, so let’s just open up to a full range of
possibilities, including people moving less, or moving more slowly.
Let’s look at how’s it’s actually going to work, in a low-carbon, sustainable, safe, zero road
deaths, accessible, and healthy kind of way. If we plug all of those in as outcomes, I reckon it’s
probably going to involve things moving less, and people slowing down.
Journal of Futures Studies
But I can’t start with that, with the government in the room, because that’s not seen as
acceptable politically. I think the Overton Window concept is quite a useful one; what’s politically
acceptable at any one time. The window can move, and I’m trying to find ways of moving the
SC: How and when do you use experiential scenarios or design fiction mockups to address the
Overton Window challenge?
DH: Well, we use them all the time. We’re using them to flesh things out, to ask unspoken
questions, to flush out assumptions. (Figure 2) We’re also trying to get people motivated, frankly.
Then we can say, “In that film, three people get into one vehicle, instead of three people getting into
three vehicles; that’s better for the city, isn’t it?”
I’m trying to get them interested in those things, rather than the status quo. I’m gently pushing
people beyond the bounds of what they’re actually comfortable with, quite often, because I’m
working with, let’s say, a bunch of urban planners and the City Council, who are looking at models
from yesterday around things like car use and ownership, or mobility generally, or the way that
people live in houses, or energy, or whatever it might be.
Figure 2. Still from a ‚sketch video prototype‘ for planning notice using an augmented reality (AR) interface,
by Arup Digital Studio with Ericsson (2018)
So god knows what percent, 75 percent, of the ideas in the average drawing from me and my
team are probably not going to happen. And that’s hard to take. Because almost all of those things
would lead to beneficial outcomes, to reference Simon again. But again, the humility says, even
with the most convincing person in the world, it’s not going to happen just like that. But if we can
get 25 percent of them over the line, then fantastic. And if they’re generative enough, then we can
learn, go back and develop them. (Figure 3)
Change the Model – An Interview with Dan Hill
SC: Even if you accept the 75 percent failure rate as the cost of getting the 25 percent through, if
you’re playing the long game, you’re seeding stuff for later, because it habituates them to seeing it.
“Dan Hill actually presented that to us ten years ago, maybe it’s time to give it a shot.”
Figure 3. Asking questions with design. Drawing: Dan Hill / Arup Digital Studio
DH: Oh, a ton of what I do, actually, is less to do with specifically giving them a design solution
that happens right now, and might just be changing their attitude, with a long, slow release of
some kind. It’s more generative that way, and they’re driving it. It’s not what I’m intending to do,
necessarily – I would like to make the train station without the gates, because I think it would be a
great space! – but it’s kind of a drip release. And it’s very hard to trace the effect of the work.
SC: This evaluation thing is a real challenge.
DH: Traceability, exactly. I was looking at what we did in Helsinki around the street food stuff. We
made this Open Kitchen project on the back of the citizen-organized, Ravintolapäivä thing. I have
this slide now with five or six different actual tangible outcomes, in law or policy or organisation
change. And then just like a really awkward, wiggly line in between them! Because there’s no way
that I can say Open Kitchen did that, and Ravintolapäivä did that. But it definitely did have some
effect, and you can sort of trace it a bit, but I know that those things don’t happen without those
things. But yeah, I cannot draw a straight line, which is usually what the world tries to make you do
as a designer, or any kind of pseudo-professional.
SC: Right. It created an environment in which this later became possible.
Journal of Futures Studies
DH: Exactly, and this is why I use this “dark matter” analogy, because it is kind of loose enough.
It’s all about creating the conditions for things to happen.
SC: Is “drip feed” a strategic design vocabulary entry?
It should be!
DH: We have this sort of idea of something like a slow release, like a slow release drug in a system,
but even that is a little bit too direct, because it’s going into culture, which is far more complex.
Maybe that’s also why, as you said, my practice, for want of a better word, is magpie-like,
because I’m trying different things. And so for someone, I might think it’s a movie that will do the
job; someone else it might be a conversation; something else it might be an event, or for something
else we need to make a newspaper. And then there are books and writing, and I enjoy making all of
those things as well, as craft. But there’s a constant searching and trying to figure out: what is the
thing for this thing, that will trigger a response?
SC: I really like your idea of your design function as a kind of general practitioner and a first port
of call, and you can refer clients on to the specialists as and when that’s appropriate, rather than
starting with “what you need is a building”.
DH: Absolutely, you can’t start with a specialism. A hammer only sees nails.
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1. Hill, D. (2012). Dark matter and Trojan horses: A strategic design vocabulary. Moscow: Strelka
This text is an edited transcript of a conversation that took place at the First Futurological Congress
in Berlin, hosted by the Dubai Future Foundation, on 21 July 2018.