Creativity and innovation rely on drawing connections, seeing patterns, and pulling from other ideas or disciplines.

When we think about design specifically, we believe there is endless opportunity to draw interesting approaches, tools, and methods from other areas.

One such example is ecology, and the concept of trophic cascades. A common illustration of this is the reintroduction of the wolf to Yellowstone National Park at the end of the 20th century. Back in the 1930s, the wolf was killed off in the park, ridding the elk of one of their largest predators. The elk population thrived—but there was a negative ripple effect on vegetation and other animals.

According to a wildlife biologist, the effects are still unfolding. But the reintroduction of the wolf has begun to mitigate some of the worst of it: willow stands in the park are getting stronger and the beaver population is flourishing once again.

But we don’t think that this idea of trophic cascades is only applicable to what we see in nature.

We can use it as a design frame too, and in fact, it can help us design better solutions. We (Erika Woolsey, Rich Braden, and I) call this idea Impact Cascades. Impact Cascades relates closely to the concept of speculative design: a method that requires futures thinking in order to address and solve large societal issues.

Take self-driving cars. They are still in their nascent phase, so we can easily apply the notion of impact cascades to their design.

How do we do this? We usually use the following flow to work through it.

We start by identifying a person, job, or object at the center of the system. In this case, self-driving cars. Then we identify all of the events that might happen, or possible disruptive forces. This should cover social, economic, ecological, technological, political, and health events. A positive economic impact for example might be that it creates manufacturing jobs. But a negative economic impact could be that it would make bus drivers or any other public transport drivers redundant.

Going through every possible impact in each of these areas gives us a better sense of what could happen, beyond simply the original intended impact. We want to note just put the human first, but know that every human that could see their lives change (for better or worse) as a result of this innovation.

As you can see, this frame can help us push ourselves to consider all of the positive and negative unintended consequences. It’s much easier to avoid the human traffic equivalent of killing off all the wolves if we keep in mind the potential impact of every decision we make.

To think of it another way, it's a lot easier to plan for and mitigate risks before they happen. This includes everything from possible automobile accidents to inadvertently destroying jobs. Waiting until after the fact can be like trying to close pandora's box.

We know this way of thinking isn’t foolproof—some surprises will inevitably arise—but speculative design is like risk mitigation planning. The more prepared we are, the more likely we can design the best possible solution for the need we’ve identified.

Trend is not destiny. We can stop the overpopulation of elk in Yellowstone (or change the trajectory we’re on), but we need to engage to do so. In our view, using this way of thinking is one (of many!) ways to intentionally design what the future looks like. This in turn sets us up for the best future possible.

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