Chuck steps into the ONVR application and finds himself in a room with five others. In front of them they find a suspended cloud of nodes – people and their connections across a subset of employees. The system visualizes human vectors of innovation and collaboration in terms of information flows, individual and team strengths, and their relationship to specific innovation projects. Chuck can easily walk inside of the cloud, grab it, rotate it, expand it or shrink it down.
What’s more, everyone is enlisted in the data manipulation and discovery process: their insights are immediately consumed in the same context by everyone else – what Chuck calls ‘parallel, multi-context, physical multi-threading.’
It’s a powerful experience: “When I got into the experience” for the first time, Chuck says, “it was enough of a shock that it took my breath away. I was super excited. It almost brought tears to my eyes…I could be a bit of that data represented in there.”
The following real-life vignette comes from a 2019 interview with Chuck Shipman, a “Digital Alchemist” who was prototyping three dimensional data environments for Human Resources at Cisco. Chuck is an example of a living signal of change, someone boldly charting new territory by engaging in a new or unusual behavior. In this case, Chuck was leveraging VR to think about data with others, in 3D.
“One of the questions we get asked most frequently in our foresight courses is, ‘Where do you go to find new signals of change?’” says Lyn Jeffery. Lyn is an IFTF Distinguished Fellow and Program Director of IFTF Foresight Essentials, the training arm of the Institute. She has a doctorate degree in anthropology, a field of knowledge that heavily relies on ethnographic research methods.
“It’s not always easy to find good signals—things that really surprise you and shake up your mental models about how the world works. Some people have go-to websites that showcase emerging trends, or journals they scan for the latest research findings in fields that are important to them. In fact, different kinds of signals give you insight into different kinds of futures. For me, the best signals will always be things real people are actually doing. One of the best ways I know to develop provocative, plausible forecasts is to talk to real people who are doing things that challenge the status quo today.”
Lyn was a lead researcher, alongside Toshi Hoo, Director of IFTF’s Emerging Media Lab, on a 2018-2019 project “Leading Edge Behaviors: From the New World of Social VR”—whose findings are still relevant today. What follows here is a guide to their methodology, which can be applied to your own foresight work, no matter what the topic is.
IFTF’s Leading Edge Behavior Methodology
The “Leading Edge Behaviors: From the New World of Social VR” report, published in 2019, identified ten key behaviors from within the upsurge of VR experimentation that was taking place in 2018 and 2019, which illuminate the potential for mixed reality in the coming decade. The approach we use relies on basic observational research methods and lead user studies, applied in a futures context, and is part of a much wider, vibrant discussion about the intersection of anticipation, ethnography, anthropology, and applied research. Here’s a brief how-to for the ethnographic foresight methodology we used to reach our findings in this study.
1. Immerse Yourself in the Landscape
Get the lay of the land by looking at signals and drivers of change to see what interesting things are happening. For example, one of the signals cataloged during this phase of the project was a study that found VR participants were successfully convinced they had been transformed into another age, even when their virtual body was a different gender, when they saw themselves re-embodied in a 7-, 40- and 80-year-old avatar in VR. In addition to searching for signals, talk to experts who’ve been following the domain for years. Ask them what they’re noticing, what new coalitions are being built, what to track, or what new research to read. One challenge is knowing when to stop. You could look forever, but you shouldn’t stop too early. You want to start the project by having a good sense of where the field is today and how it’s changing.
2. Identify an Initial List of Candidate Behaviors
Next, create an initial list of candidate leading edge behaviors, about 30-40, within categories relevant to your research topic, such as governance, community, economics, spirituality, work, etc. At this stage, think as broadly as you can, looking for behaviors that are surprising, edgy, and not well understood. Don’t worry about whether this is actually a substantive behavior at this point. Use the simple phrase “People are….” and fill in the blank with a verb. One example from the project was “People are building customized VR worlds as gifts to give to friends,” and “people are attending VR music concerts.” As Lyn explains, we focus on behaviors because new futures arise from people doing things—actively building bridges from the present toward a different future.
3. Pursue Your Behaviors
Now comes the really fun part! Divide your candidate behaviors among your team members for deeper exploration. The goal is to narrow your list to behaviors that you can substantially support with interviews, signals, and other qualitative and quantitative data. Act like an investigative journalist and locate the people who are living signals of your candidate behaviors, including: community leaders; people developing tools, platforms, and services; people creating new narratives; activists; content creators; regulators; even bad actors disrupting the space. As you pursue your investigations you will find some candidate behaviors to be significant and profound, while others won’t pan out for a variety of reasons. Perhaps you can’t find a real person who’s driving this change. Perhaps you find real people, but what they’re doing is less surprising and change-generating than you thought. For example, a candidate behavior that didn’t make the final cut was people buying decentralized, blockchain-based real estate to develop in VR worlds. VR real-estate development is a well-established practice, but the blockchain angle didn't add anything truly meaningful—at least for the people we spoke with at that time. Sifting through your initial findings to see what’s valuable and what’s fool’s gold is part of the ethnographic process, no matter what you’re looking at.
4. Map the Implications
Once you’ve arrived at your final list of leading-edge behaviors, your work isn’t over. Shift to thinking about the implications of the behaviors across different domains (e.g., commerce, social relationships, governance) and for different stakeholders (like employers, developers, retailers).
Lessons for Practitioners
Lyn’s general advice for ethnographers is to be humble, be sensitive, and respect your subject’s sense of privacy. She also recommends using ingenuity and creativity in finding your research subjects. Reach out to people on social media, connect with enthusiasts, connect with developers of new products and services, and more. As she says, “Try mapping out the places people are gathering, then show up and be a part of it. It definitely takes time, and you can’t be shy.”
Do you know any person or groups in your locale who are challenging the status quo? Talk to them, learn what motivates their decisions and actions, and examine how they make sense of their world. Ethnographic foresight helps us understand the motivations behind today’s future world-building activities, opening up new ways of imagining how things could be different.