Temporality and Innovation

Using Design Anthropology to Imagine and Design for the Future 

What is Temporality?

Anthropologists use the term “temporality” to talk about the way we experience time; temporality allows us to think about how time is, what it feels like, and how it exists in our lives. Whereas time can be understood as the objective movement and change of existence from past, to present, and then future, temporality speaks to the subjective experience of time and the relationship that humans have with time as a construct.

Temporality has been an important concept for anthropologists in a couple of different ways. The first is in the subjective nature of the experience of time, and how these experiences shape everyday life. For example, many cultures have different ways of conceptualizing the relationship between past, present, and future; temporality is important when seeking to understand how these cultures interpret their lives. In this sense, anthropologists have often studied differences in the ways in which time is experienced locally.

Alternatively, temporality has been an important part of anthropology’s own critique of itself, specifically the need for anthropologists to avoid freezing the people they study in an “ethnographic present” by critically engaging with how the past plays an important role in shaping the ways that the present is understood and experienced. As we seek to understand human experience, we must engage with how past contexts (be they social, political, environmental, etc.) contour current conditions. In this sense, temporality reminds us that there is a history of factors embedded in every moment and event of social life.

Shifting Anthropology’s Temporal Lens Forward to Design for the Future

Anthropology’s emphasis on temporality isn’t just about the subjective experience of time and the importance of the past in shaping the present. Design anthropology, in particular, shifts the temporal orientation forward to explore the ways that humans imagine their futures, and then incorporates these imaginings into the design of relevant and contextual future experiences.

Rather than producing ethnography as text, design anthropology engages users and consumers in collaborative, co-creative activities, producing artifacts that reflect the needs and contexts of future experiences. As Caroline Gatt and Tim Ingold describe, doing anthropology through design means that, temporally, we are engaged in a kind of transformation that is prospective, in that we project an imaginary field that considers the future. Design anthropology uses what Joachim Halse has termed “technologies of the imagination” (scenarios, enactments, prototyping, and other co-creative activities) to represent possible futures, and then critically engages with what life looks like in the futures we imagine.

Shifting the temporal lens forward, anthropology becomes about what is possible, and the field of study becomes the human imagination. This temporal shift moves us away from anthropology as retrospection and places it at the heart of future making. 

Design Anthropology Signals

Design Fictions

Anthropologists and design researchers are increasingly using fictitious scenarios to engage with users to imagine and explain possible futures; these understandings form important context for future design.

Ethnographic Co-Creation

Empathetic product and service design is being collaboratively developed through co-creation of artifacts that allow participants to reflect on past and present experiences, and imagine experiences they’ll have in their possible futures.

Ethnocharette

Conceived and piloted out of the University of California’s Center for Ethnography, the ethnocharette is an experimental approach to applying design thinking and methods to ethnographic inquiry. Borrowing from a design studio format, the ethnocharette is a highly collaborative approach to prototyping new forms of (non-textual) ethnographic knowledge.

How might your business or brand benefit from an anthropology that shifts its temporal lens into the future?

01/ How do your products’ features and benefits support or amplify your customers’ fears and hopes about the future?

02/ When people imagine their ideal futures, do your services still meet their expectations?

03/ What shapes the ways that people imagine they will interact with brands in the future, and what kinds of partnership ecosystems will support these scenarios? 

04/ How do people imagine their future selves? Does your current business offering support these imaginings?

the author

Dr. Emma Aiken-Klar

Emma Aiken-Klar, PhD is VP, human insights at Idea Couture. See her full bio here.