Radha Mistry's Job at Autodesk is to Explore and Provoke Possible Futures

For this year’s Core77 Design Awards, we’re conducting in-depth interviews with some of our 2020 jury captains to get in a glimpse into their creative minds and to hear more about what they’ll be looking for in this year’s awards submissions.

You could say the general purpose of an organization’s collective body is to ask the question, “what’s next?” In other words, any one person’s job at a company is to help contribute to moving it forward and make it a success. But not everyone can say they walk into work each day with a job that requires them to ask, “What does the future look like for everyone, and how can we help build it?” For Radha Mistry, Practice Leader for Foresight at Autodesk, these philosophical inquiries are almost always on her mind and essential to her everyday work. Given Autodesk’s importance in helping to shape systems ranging from product development to AI to construction, the company puts a significant effort into envisioning the future and how they can make products that will accommodate to that evolution in a way that’s close to prescient.

Curious as to what a job like this entails, we chatted with Mistry, who also will be judging our 2020 Core77 Design Awards Speculative Design category, about her day to day at Autodesk as well as what she hopes to see in this year’s awards entries.

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You have a very unique job title—can you tell me more about what it means and what your job entails on a daily basis?

Yeah, it’s definitely not a typical job! I run the foresight practice at Autodesk and basically what that means is, our team is tasked with helping the company think more rigorously and intentionally about the future. We operate on a 10-year time horizon because once you get past 10 years, it becomes hard to really think in a more measured way—it’s too intangible for us to do anything with any real impact or understanding. So we work with our CEO staff to help them determine what is the position we’re taking across social, technological, economic, environmental, and political forces of change. And then taking that perspective and really thinking deeply, what is the impact if we believe that this is what the world is going to look like in 10 years? What does that mean not only to our business, but also for our customers? And how can we build out scenarios that demonstrate preferable futures for many different kinds of users? And then to kind of be in a position where we can say, what do we have agency over? What do we not, where do we think our blind spots in our gaps lie? And what are we going to do about it?

In terms of my day to day, it looks different every day. You know, it’s a lot of research, a lot of reading. Lots of brainstorms and workshops and getting folks into a room who maybe wouldn’t necessarily be in that room at the same time. And meeting with some incredibly remarkable humans both inside of the company and outside who are really exploring things at the edges of each of our core industries in architecture, engineering, construction, media and entertainment, product design and manufacturing. And then really having the space and the support and the time from our executive leadership to really connect the dots in a meaningful way.

I consider myself lucky. I think it’s definitely something that is critical to businesses today. But, you don’t see [futures work out there] with such wide support in so many organizations.

I’m curious about that ten-year timeline and how that works. How do you implement what you come up with and how does that manifest in your present work?

The cool thing about the way that we operate is we do create technology and software that customers use today. Autodesk has been around for about 35 years. We’ve seen how automation has changed the nature of people’s jobs, and the way that things are designed and made. So because we are constantly putting products out in the world, because we have users who are using our technology every day, we have this opportunity to say—okay, if this is how people are designing and making now, if we looked 10 years out and all of a sudden we’re seeing robots more widely used on construction sites, what does that mean for how our products have to evolve today to allow for that to happen tomorrow?

So we’re speculating on what the future might look like 10 years out. And then using a method we call backcasting to work our way backwards to say, okay, what are the things that need to happen in the next 0 to 3 years? What are the things that have to happen in 3 to 7 and then 7 to 10 years? And that’s good because it makes us hold ourselves accountable and pressure test the things we are coming up with. So we’re not just throwing moon shots out there. We constantly have to come back to, how does this impact our customer? How does it impact the way they are designing and making? And that is profoundly affecting human beings in society, and we have to acknowledge that with the weight that it deserves.

Is there anything you can share that speaks to what you’re researching and what you think you’ll see in the future?

Last year we embarked on a world-building project. And one of the outputs of that work were a series of narratives and accompanying illustrations that helped us to demonstrate what we believed the world was going to be like 10 to 15 years out. It was a little bit more speculative but we wanted to dive into how automation would shape the future landscape of our customer’s jobs, industries, and the nature of their work. We wanted to make sure our nascent perspective on the future of work was made as relatable and tangible as possible…We were thinking about things like What will need to change for successful human and machine collaboration? How do we make things for more people without racing through our planet’s limited resources? And even, will all of our customers be human in the future?

From Autodesk’s world-building project, this illustration is featured in the report “Spring 2030: Robot Trainers and Small Town Mayors” (illustration by YimeIsGreat)

We explore things like, in the future if you were designing a building, you have to understand that at some point it would be taken down. And so [it should be] constructed to be deconstructed easily, and those materials can be repurposed. If the nature of construction operated differently, and multiple construction sites could operate as a connected construction ecosystem, say something isn’t working or if equipment is broken down on one site, can I move materials to another? Or if skills and labor isn’t needed and there’s a surplus here can we pull it over to something else, because there’s so much waste in the construction industry right now. Basically these four scenarios looked across four different kinds of geographic terrains, different users, and look more deeply across the implications for manufacturing and construction and really thought about who the designer and the maker in the future is.

Let’s back up a little bit I want to hear a little bit how you got into this work in the first place. How did you first delve into foresight?

Yeah. So my path was a little bit of a meandering kind. Having been doing this for about almost a decade now, I think it tends to be the folks who haven’t found themselves in one particular industry or one particular practice, and are just incredibly curious and sometimes lost in the best of ways. But my background is in architecture. Buildings, architecture, not software architecture—you have to specify when you’re in the Bay!

I was studying architecture in New Orleans when Katrina hit, and I think that really impacted a lot of my points of inquiry as I was exploring and learning about the field. I think one of the biggest things that came out of that was when Katrina hit, when I came back into the city I thought, “I wonder if 50 or a hundred years ago, the architects that were building for the city at the time anticipated a hundred year storm like this.”

A future city-scape scene from Autodesk report “Winter 2030: A Metropolis in Transit” (illustration by YimeIsGreat)

It made me realize, I’m not just designing these figments of my imagination— I’m putting things out in the world that will profoundly impact people’s lives. They will impact the resilience of that city. Buildings essentially then become these future artifacts because you have to consider the context within which you’re building. And time is one of those things you have to take into consideration. So that was my first foray into it. At the time, I didn’t really know what speculative design was called; I didn’t know it was a thing! When I was working on my architecture thesis, I became obsessed with some of the speculative architecture movements of the 50s and the sixties and seventies and groups like the Metabolists in Japan and Superstudio in Italy and Archigram in the UK, and even smaller, maybe lesser known art collectives like Ant Farm in the US. I’d also read and heard the practice sometimes referred to as “paper architecture”. And I thought, “Okay, maybe this is a research thing I can do on the side of my architecture gig.”

“Once you kind of step outside of yourself and set your ego aside, you realize, actually your role as a designer is not to put your vision out in the world—it’s to be a mediator for these future environments.”

So I started architecture school when Katrina hit and I graduated when the Recession hit. It was a very interesting time to be a designer. I worked for a couple of years then in architecture and just decided that wasn’t where my heart was. And so, I moved to London and I went back to school and started working for Arup’s foresight team. I became way more immersed in the futures community there, both professionally and academically.

I realized then that this was a thing I could do as a viable career choice. It wasn’t as easy to explain to my immigrant parents, but they’ve come around now. But [I’ve gotten here by] just being very curious about these things. Looking back now I can connect those dots and I can say, yeah, of course I was always interested in futures. But at the time I think that I was always grasping for this thing that is architecture, but not architecture that affects people, but not today.

Yeah, foresight’s a thing. It puts a roof over my head and I feel like I’m doing something worthwhile in the world. And that’s kind of wonderful.

I went to New Orleans recently for the first time and got to experience all of its ultra-unique architecture and it is unfortunate, amongst the many other tragedies, that Katrina hit somewhere that had such a rich architectural history.

And New Orleans still does have such a rich architectural history and tradition! And so many folks there are working hard to continue to drive that forward…It was so interesting because when we went back [after Katrina], as an architecture student, I had to step back a bit. Your first instinct is to make your mark in the world and do something new and innovative. And once you kind of step outside of yourself and set your ego aside, you realize, actually your role as a designer is not only to put your vision out in the world—it’s also and maybe more importantly to be a mediator for these future environments. It’s to be that translator. So it really flipped my perspective on things. And I just realized, the core of my practice was not going to be about putting buildings out in the world. It’s about making sure people have a voice in the world, in the design process.

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And when we were in this rebuilding process and there were a lot of conversations happening around it, people just wanted what they knew. They wanted what they were familiar with, they wanted what they felt had history and told their story. And that was, these older shotgun houses. And you know, that is changing over time as vernacular changes, but it was interesting to see that and have a moment where you’re like, okay, start with the human being and then go from there.

I wanted to ask this next question just because I have been talking to a few different design studios who are starting to embrace this idea that speculative work is important to incorporate into their practices. Do you think it’s important now for more studios and companies to take on employees who specialize in futures work? If so, in what design areas would it be particularly beneficial to see more speculative investigations?

Yeah, I’m smiling because it’s wonderful to hear that people are seeing the value because even 10 years ago, that wasn’t necessarily the case— at least not as prominently.

I think futures thinking is becoming a lot more top of mind for businesses, for studios, for designers because there’s just so much more change we have to navigate. There’s so much more uncertainty. We have to wade through much more complex systems, right? Even 50 years ago you had the world news, but you didn’t have the state of Germany and India and France and Ethiopia in your face all the time on social media. There wasn’t a 24 hour news cycle. And so I think that has amplified the sense of urgency of things, the feeling that things are changing super rapidly and we can’t get a grasp of it. That has created this landscape where people are realizing there’s value in being more intentional about our long term impact on the world, on people and on the planet.

“With anything you design, if you can’t undo the consequences of it within 12 to 24 months, it needs foresight.”

In terms of the industries where futures thinking is a good fit, I think it’s anything that profoundly impacts the wellbeing of human beings and our planet, whatever requires a more thoughtful consideration of what we put out there and what our long term impact is. Sitting in Silicon Valley, when a lot of these startups were really starting to take hold, there was this culture of “move fast and break things”. And while I do think it’s important to experiment and to question and to provoke and not to get tied up in our own thoughts, I think that can be done in a more intentional way.

An illustration from Autodesk’s futures report “Summer 2030: Micro Factories as First Responders” (illustration by YimeIsGreat)

And I don’t necessarily subscribe to that idea of just putting stuff out there and not thinking about the unintended consequences of it. I think it’s created a culture where we don’t often take the time to reflect and consider our next moves with intention and foresight, and futures thinking gives people the opportunity to do that. I think folks are realizing it’s not a luxury anymore, it’s a necessity.

So how can we make that a deeper part of the conversations we are having, the business models we’re putting together? [It would be beneficial to see more speculative research] in the AEC (Architecture, Engineering and Construction) world. Like I said, buildings are future artifacts and infrastructure, anything that is going to be on the planet for a long time that’s going to affect people. I think consumer tech like health and wellbeing, transportation and mobility, sustainable packaging. Even policy development could be considered a design area and I think the way in which we design and develop policy drastically needs to change to meet the needs of a rapid pace of change, you know? So with anything you design, if you can’t undo the consequences of it within 12 to 24 months, it needs foresight.

I think in the past there were a lot of designers out there who thought that they could really only do so much to the future better in a way, but nowadays the role of the designer has expanded. We have our hand as designers in the supply chain, in designing systems, etc, which was not as much the case a couple decades ago.

Yeah, perhaps there was a feeling of not having agency. People didn’t feel like they had agency over the future. And you were kind of just like a cog in the wheel of this system that you didn’t maybe fully have visibility into. And now I’m seeing even in the architecture community, there are architects who are going into a project as a partner with a developer. So they now have equity in the things they’re putting out there, even though historically they have always had the liability of those projects. I think that is fundamentally shifting not only the way that we think about the business of these things, but the way we think about whether or not we have control and agency. And I think that’s such a key piece in how we conceive of the future.

When people feel like they don’t have control, there is a tendency to become complacent. It’s only when we feel like we have a sense of agency to do something, when we feel like we can care, do we actually care. I think we do when we understand, “what does this mean for me and what is my role in it?” And that’s why I say there are still so many communities who don’t necessarily see themselves in these visions of the future. And it’s so, so important to make space for them. Because if we don’t, then you are excluding an entire group of human beings who should and could have agency and input and really have a positive impact on where the planet is headed and what happens to society in the future.

I remember reading a while back about how a lot of tech companies were hiring sci-fi writers, but that dominant perspective can also kind of reinforce these stereotypes about what the future looks like. I think it’s probably important to combat that.

100%. And if we think about where the locus of control is going to lie in the future, it’s not going to be in North America. And if we are working off of that assumption, then we need to do better to be more inclusive in what these visions of the future are. And what has historically dominated future’s thinking has definitely been more of this—this might not be the correct term, but more of a westernized mindset. One of the things that my team here works to really think about is, when we say we are a global company, what do we mean? What does that really look like and what are we doing about it, you know? I think that’s an important provocation to consider.

You are the Speculative Design Jury Captain in the 2020 Core77 Awards—What will you be looking for and hope to see in the projects entered this year?

This is kind of just reiterating my point before, but I’m really looking for a project that’s exploring a global perspective. Something that will address points of inquiry that are more relevant and more reflective of what the world will be grappling with in the next 10, 20, 30 years time. A point of view that’s diverse, fresh, and provocative. And that’s really the reason why I chose the jury members that I did because each of them are fearlessly questioning the edges of their own practice. They are all bringing along and building communities around them that are doing the same. I think that’s needed and I think that’s important. I’m looking forward to seeing what people submit.

Thinking of submitting to the Speculative Design category in the 2020 Core77 Design Awards? Submit today—Regular Deadline ends March 9th!

The Core77 Design Awards Speculative Design Jury

2020 Speculative Design Jury Captain Radha Mistry will be joined by these designers for the awards selection process:

Monika Bielskyte

Futures Researcher/Futurist Designer

A futurist with an artist’s eye and an inventor’s mind, Monika Bielskyte prototypes culturally diverse, socially and environmentally engaged future world designs for the entertainment industry, technology companies, and cities/countries. As an expert in future of content and immersive media technology space (XR/AI/UX), Monika’s work consists in connecting bleeding edge technological innovation with some of the world’s most original creative visions that brings Sci Fi to reality.

Robert Bolton

Principal, From Later

Robert Bolton is a Canadian artist, strategist, and principal at the foresight studio, From Later. Recognizing art works and practices as powerful antennae for detecting change, Robert experiments with ways of understanding and imagining how emerging ideas, technologies and cultural phenomena may influence longer-term futures. As an advisor to decision-makers within all matter of organizations, Robert leads interdisciplinary teams, developing strategies for long-term growth and resilience.

Tobias Revell

Artist & Designer

Tobias Revell is an artist and designer. Spanning different disciplines and media his work addresses the urgent need for critical engagement with material reality through design, art and technology. Recent work has looked at the idea of technology as a territory, expectations of the future, rendering software and the occult and supernatural in pop culture discussions of technology.

Source: core77

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