Futures Research

Ethno-Futures - Stories in Service of a New Direction

The graphic documentation above is the result of the salon “Ethno-Futures” hosted during the EPIC 2017 in Montreal, Canada. 

///The key learnings from the session:

  • Participants seem to agree that a vast majority of the work developed by ethnographers for the industry is focused on future developments. Meaning businesses are often trying to use ethnography to guide decisions about future possibilities – the next product, the next service, the next trend to be explored.
  • Besides this apparent consensus on these future implications, few practitioners are familiar with methods and tools used in “futures studies” and “foresight”, areas of knowledge that have been developed in the last decades, mostly in the fields of political sciences and business strategy. It seems that the EPIC community could benefit from more content in these areas.
  • There were many questions about the challenges of working with clients exploring futures topics. Questions such as:
    - How much can biases and emotions influence the research?
    - What kind of evidence can future-focused research offer?
    - What level of rigor can ethnographers aspire to achieve in these contexts?

/// About EPIC and the salons

EPIC (Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference) is the premier international gathering on ethnography in the business world. A community of practitioners who work to ensure that innovation, strategies, processes and products address business opportunities that are anchored in what matters to people in their everyday lives. Drawing on tools and resources from the social sciences and humanities as well as Design Thinking, Agile, Lean Start-up and other approaches to realize value for organizations from understanding people and their practices. Our diverse attendees come from every industry, including Fortune-500 companies, the world’s top technology firms, management consultancies and design studios, universities and NGOs, public policy organizations and think tanks. EPIC people also come together year-round on epicpeople.org to learn, share resources, create knowledge, and expand opportunities.

/// About salons

Among the most popular programming at EPIC conference is Salons. Conference attendees gather in a small group with inspiring hosts for lively, candid discussion of pressing topics. Salons create a horizontal space for interaction, exploration, and experimentation around a provocation statement and instigating readings. For the Ethno-Futures salon the provocation was:

/// Provocation

Ethnographic work in the business environment is always concerned with the future. We often study how a particular technology or service might fit into people’s lives as those lives change. Social practices and memes move from local to regional to global, creating new narratives and norms that affect customers and corporate operations. Or we seek to understand emerging user needs for future products, some of which may take years to develop. Over the past decade, ethnographic researchers have slowly begun to engage with scholars and practitioners of futures studies, speculative design, and design fiction. This salon will explore how ethnographers can look forward, studying practices that don’t yet exist, and how organizational strategists can integrate more human-centered approaches into their planning. The practice of ethnography plays a vital role in keeping future possibilities open. Salon participants will discuss:

  • What are the most interesting overlapping areas between ethnography, design, and futures practices?
  • What constitutes a core set of ethnographic futures methods?

/// Readings

Forlano, Laura, “Ethnographies from the Future: What can ethnographers learn from science fiction and speculative design?”Ethnography Matters, September 26.
Gorbis, Marina, “The Future as a Way of Life: Alvin Toffler’s Unfinished Business.”
Lindley, Joseph, Dhruv Sharma, Robert Potts “Anticipatory Ethnography: Design Fiction as an Input to Design Ethnography.” 2014 EPIC Proceedings

/// Credits:

EPIC 2017: Gary Gebhardt from HEC Montréal, Rita Denny from Practica Group, EPIC2017 committee and epicpeople.org.

Salon curator: Simon Pulman-Jones from GfK SE
Salon hosts: Miriam Avery from Mozilla Foundation
                      Lyn Jeffery from IFTF
                      Fernando Galdino from GfK Verein
Graphic documentation: Alina Gutierrez Mejia from Visual Versa