Short snappy version

This elective uses practices and theories from contemporary design to explore how organisations, groups and communities can work together to create, give form to and realise better futures.

However rather than naively saying “Do this and everything will be great” the elective is also underpinned by critical and reflective questioning about what “better” means and for who and the limits of designerly approaches.

Longer version


Aimed at all sorts of professional working in many different kinds of organization, this MBA elective echoes Simon (1996)’s argument that design is the core activity of the professions: “Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones” (Simon 1996: 111). Simon made a distinction between the sciences, concerned with studying what is, and design, concerned with what could be.

Although it recognised the importance of design and rests on a simplistic definition of the sciences that ignores how they are produced by a variety of social actors, Simon’s argument has been influential among scholars working in management and organization studies. His work can be read as a reduction of design to problem-solving (Hatchuel 2001) which is often contrasted with a constructivist approach advocated by Schön (1983). Building on Simon but departing from his bounded rationality, Hatchuel and Weil (2008) argue that new concepts and new knowledge result from a process of expansion during design. During a design process, concepts are generated that cannot yet be evaluated as true or not. This expansion of concepts and knowledge is why design is important for innovation and the creation of new kinds of value, and why design is not problem-solving.

The decision to use the verb form “designing” in the title of the elective echoes Weick’s (1979) exhortation to attend to organising (the verb) rather than to organisations (the noun). What matters in this curriculum is helping students understand and learn how to do design and understand its limits. An important influence is the notion that designers (should) design for change over time (Tonkinwise 2003) rather than designing objects that are then seen as complete once designing is over, but which nonetheless persist when they break or are discarded.

Further, it is not only designers who are involved in designing. From the perspective of anthropology and sociology, many people play important roles in (re)constituting the meanings and effects of designs through their practices (eg Suchman 1987; Shove et al. 2007; Ravasi and Rindova 2008). Designs – the final form of products and services, for example – remain incomplete (Garud et al. 2008). Thus designing never ends and many people are involved in doing it.


The second term, better, is just as problematic. The aim to make things better in the future is fundamental to design. “Science raises the question ‘is this proposition valid or true?’, while design asks ‘will it work better?’” (Jelinek et al. 2008: 317–18). But design fields have been slow to take up the challenges and insights from sociology, anthropology, cultural studies and other fields that have emphasized how difficult it is to determine what better might mean, for who, and why.

If we think of a service, for example, to determine what is meant by designing a better service could involve the organisation delivering the service describing its goals and resources; identifying the market it is operating within, and any legislation or cultural and social practices that might constrain the service and the organization’s resources; articulating what constitutes the service; identifying its customers and end users; and agreeing a point in time at which to gather data in order to determine whether there are improvements.

Questions to be considered might include determining the boundaries of the service and of the organisation. Should the organisation only think about “better” from the point of view of its existing customers – the people who write the cheque (who for a business-to-business service might be colleagues in Finance, rather than the team who use a service)? What about potential or past customers? Or employees who co-create the service encounter? For a business-to- consumer service, to what extent should the organization consider what “better” means for members of the customer’s family who might also have knowledge and practices that shape the way the customer co-creates a service? Or communities whose habitats and well-being are implicated in the resources involved in constituting and experiencing the service? If we take an organisation that is committed to reducing its carbon footprint, how far does the organization go to create a better service if this increases the work that end user has to invest in it?

Thus “better” may be an aspiration, but whose aspiration is it, for who, judged by what criteria, determined by who? The tension between a design approach – the desire to change existing situations into preferred ones – and approaches in the humanities and social sciences, that query assumptions drawing on extensive studies of power relations, difference, identity, governance and accountability, is evident here.  This elective sets out to encourage students to design better futures but it will remove any overly simplistic certainty about what that means.


The third term, futures, is also not so simple. The future is understood here as unknown and unknowable. But as Fry (1999) points out, “The future is never empty, never a blank space to be filled with the output of human activity. It is already colonised by what the past and present have sent to it.” (Fry 1999: 11-12). We cannot know what will happen although we may speculate, imagine, model, propose, or hope and fear. Ideas about the future are necessarily connected to individual desires, which in turn relate to group, organization or community hopes and fears.

Ways of thinking about the future range from theories rooted in religion (overcoming uncertainty through belief), philosophical traditions (limiting uncertainty through reasoning), science (dominating uncertainty by modelling what is known), economics (bounding uncertainty through calculating probability) and the arts (bypassing uncertainty by imagining alternatives).

The management field that sees its role as thinking about the future from an organization’s point of view is strategy. As in other management fields, theories about what constitutes a good strategy and how to create one have shifted over the years. This elective will enable students to complement what they learn about strategy by exploring how design practitioners engage with ambiguity and uncertainty. The models and prototypes designers create are learning devices for organisations to help them envision and prepare for different futures that are necessarily unknowable.

Designing Better Futures

Described in this way, this MBA elective may not look promising. So far the course is underpinned by concepts that are troubling and promise to generate yet more problems, not obviously the best way to create an educational programme. But this is exactly what is required in contemporary MBA education.

The course pushes students to embrace uncertainty and ambiguity. The goal is to think and act in ways that acknowledge and engage with the grave challenges facing the world and its human and non-human communities and habitats while avoiding simplistic accounts of what individual actors can achieve. The course draws in students with a bold, even ridiculous, claim: “We will help you learn how to learn how to design better futures!” but at the very same time it says “Designing never ends, it’s impossible to agree what constitutes better, and the future is, by definition, unknown.” And yet it is essential to try.


Adapted from Kimbell, L. (2011), ‘Manifesto for the M(B)A in Designing Better Futures‘ in Cooper, R. Junginger, S. and Lockwood, T. (eds) The Handbook of Design Management,Oxford: Berg.