Futures: Resilient Futures

What happens now matters.
Because what happens next depends on it.


For the last quarter century, design thinking has framed how companies have understood the process of design and, more to the point, its value.

It brought design into the mainstream of global business culture, folded it into the curricula of the world’s top business schools. And then it became commodified, reduced to a suite of skill sets and tool kits, slickly packaged and sold to executives as an innovation process that almost anyone, but especially anyone with an MBA, could quickly master. Brainstorming sessions set off explosions of pastel Post Its® plastered onto whiteboards. At the end of an exhausting afternoon, once everyone’s ideas had been thoroughly sifted and sorted, consensus thinking - the self-satisfied wisdom of the crowd in the room - would emerge triumphant, convenient and toothless.

No matter the complexity of the problem, no matter how it might have challenged others before, design thinking would lead to an epiphany before dinner. Now add to the mix a blinkered “human-centered” focus and brace for a reductionist disaster.

It ought to be obvious—table stakes—that the products, services, experiences, systems, environments and organizations we design should enhance comfort, improve productivity, extend capabilities, or in some other way deepen and enrich our lives. This is true whether it’s the design of a coffeemaker, a typeface, a company, a transportation network, or a new neighborhood.

When human-centered is enshrined as the goal, every other concern automatically gets lower priority. It strips out context. This species-first lens combined with design thinking leads to narrowly defining the problem at hand: “solving for x,” oblivious to potential collateral damage.

It flies in the face of common sense. We, and all the products, services and systems we create, are part of a much greater whole.



A plastic bottle will check all the human-centric boxes: cheap, light, unbreakable, sanitary, fits comfortably in hand. But the material’s near-indestructibility presents a pervasive noxious threat. Recycling sounds great, but turns out to be greenwishing. Global recycling rates have never risen beyond single digits, so plastic waste has piled up everywhere, from the Mariana Trench, the deepest point on the planet, to the top of Mount Everest. Every ocean has massive, deadly gyres of plastic “garbage patches,” while lakes, rivers and streams have turned murky with plastic smog: tens of trillions of tiny poisonous petrochemical particles. Plastic has even begun to infiltrate rocks, with implications for the planet’s geology. Microplastics are now in everything, including us.

Human-centered, indeed.

We have been playing design whack-a-mole. Our solutions only opened the gates to the next suite of confounding problems. By every definition, including Einstein’s, this is insanity. If we keep doing the same things, if we keep pulling out packs of Post-Its® to groupthink our way out of this mess, we are never getting out of this mess.

It simply isn’t enough to know better answers, although there are a lot of better answers. Nor is it enough to broadcast “ideas worth spreading,” although that can be useful, too. We need companies and organizations to make these better answers real. Now. At scale. Fast.

Against the backdrop of accelerating climate change and colliding tipping points, resilience, the ability to bounce forward, is the only path to a better future and the only viable strategy for growth.

Our job as designers is to help companies and organizations see, create and communicate their places in the future. We have to look beyond the stakeholders of today. We have to consider who will be the stakeholders two, five and ten years from now.

First and foremost, even before stakeholders, we have to think about stakes.


Everything has implications.

Everything has consequences.

The internal combustion engine brought the world into a modern era of mass production, urban growth and speedy transport. It also changed the nature of work. It created all kinds of garbage. It literally paved the way for suburban sprawl, supermarkets and traffic jams. And, thanks to the mass burning of fossil fuels, it heated up the planet, knocking the climate on tilt.

For our clients, stakes are always tied to the bottom line. Businesses that don’t turn a profit, don’t survive. Businesses come to us when they’re at a crossroads, which means they are primed for change, with the C-suite paying full attention.

For startups, it’s mostly about good trouble. They are seeking the right product/market fit to position themselves for funding rounds or an IPO. For legacy companies, however, the stakes can be existential. Sales have slowed. A new technology threatens to put them out of business. A customer base has shifted. There is an urgency to articulate a vision that resonates not only with their customers, but also brings renewed clarity of purpose to the company itself.

Design provides contextual insights. We analyze marketplaces, competitive forces and leverage research for a deep understanding of cultural and consumer shifts. This is design’s Venn overlap with marketing and advertising.

But we also look at larger contexts. With a hat tip to Octavia Butler, Disney, The Jetsons and Ray Eames, we ask, “What will it be like to live in the world of tomorrow? What needs do we need to anticipate?”

These days, the answers are sobering. This year’s “it” word at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum was “polycrisis.” We are living in an all headline, ALL CAPS news cycle of pandemics, bank runs, homicidal weather, big lies, job-chewing AI, kinked supply chains and wars. Everything. Everywhere. All at once. On full blast.

According to the latest IPCC report, global food production is predicted to decline due in large part to the effects of climate change. Water sources are also under threat.

Food and water. Those are the can’t-do-without, essential basics.

We are at a moment in history where almost everything needs to be rethought, reimagined and done different: How products are made. How services are delivered. Packaging. Materials. Business models. The stakes couldn’t be higher.

And the opportunities couldn’t be greater.



The companies we admire.

The companies that have gone the distance.

The companies with a future.



Transformation isn’t an endpoint, but a process. It isn’t an add-on, but a built-in. Companies that have embraced a transformational mindset are able to evolve in ways that seem almost effortless to the outside world.

This is the “think different” of Steve Jobs. His genius was in understanding the exponential power of combinations: a smart phone coupled with an app store, or a team of customer care geniuses doubling as brand evangelists. Jobs is celebrated as a natural marketer. But he was also a natural systems thinker, applying the three core principles of integrative design to everything from products to sales channels to his own company.

Where design thinking is a methodology for organizing priorities, integrative design is a methodology for finding better answers.

The three principles are:

  1. Start with outcomes: What are the desired results?

  2. Draw from an expanding, cross-pollinating assemblage of ideas, technologies and business models. Integrative design is dynamic and intrinsically transformative, offering a path for continued improvement.

  3. Make sure that every part of a system performs at least two different, meaningful functions.

In the dozen years since Jobs’ death, Apple has never stopped evolving and continues to be ranked among the most valuable companies in the world by market cap. The company’s latest move into banking services is quite a leap from its beginnings with personal computers. Yet when understood as a progression of systemic, integrated innovation, it makes sense.

And although early reviews are mixed on the company’s first foray into “spacial computing” with the launch of a pricey “Vision Pro” headset that looks like a pair of sci-fi ski goggles, Apple’s remarkable track record, extraordinary people and deep, deep pockets buy it time to keep trying.


Tipping points are colliding. To use a military term, the rapid acceleration of climate change has become a “force multiplier,” affecting everything from supply chains to food systems to insurance.

Resilient companies, the ones that will “bounce forward,” see constraints as opportunities: a chance to innovate and race ahead of the competition.

In 1973, Interface made its mark in the world of floor-coverings by bringing the easy-to-install and-replace carpet tile to the US market. Twenty years later, founder and CEO Ray Anderson was determined to make the company a leader in sustainability. In doing so, he also managed to transform an industry that was anything but sustainable. At that time, most carpeting was made from petrochemicals. Used carpeting clogged up landfills.

Anderson first tackled low-hanging fruit, embracing energy efficiency. The company saved so much money, it emerged from a recession in 2002 with a solid bottom line and increased market share. Interface showed competitors what was possible. Over the years, the company has pioneered the use of environmentally-friendly materials for flooring, including carpets that can actually absorb CO2. “Project Positive,” extends the vision to “the forest next door,” transforming the landscape around the company’s headquarters into a mecca for biodiversity and ecosystems services. Like Apple, Interface has been able to maintain its position as a top brand for decades, although sustainability has become a subhead. Environmentally-compatible practices are now simply business-as-usual. To operate any other way makes no sense.

The good news is that there are better answers almost everywhere you look.

Sway, a recent winner of the Tom Ford Plastic Innovation Prize, has developed an alternative to petrochemical plastic bags made from seaweed. Startup C16 has a replacement for palm oil that can be grown in a bioreactor. Ecovative, under the banner “We Grow Better Materials,” has turned mushrooms into everything from an alternative to styrofoam to an alternative for leather and even bacon. All are part of the growing clean materials / green chemistry economy, creating products that are planet-centered: better for everything, including us. Rachel Carson would be beaming.

Car companies are rushing to be part of the EV transition. Municipal bus companies are partnering with electric utilities turning backup battery banks into “virtual power plants” to keep the grid humming smoothly during periods of peak demand.

Everything. Everywhere. All at Once.



A library—5,572 volumes and always expanding—is the heart and soul of COLLINS’ practice. Nested among the books of the floor-to-ceiling shelves that line the walls of the front room of our Brooklyn office are African dolls, toy robots, a Star Trek starship, Pinocchio puppets, lots of toys and vintage signs. A nine-foot tall, blue Muppet—Thog—stands guard just outside in a hallway. (Thog followed us home one day while we were working on the Jim Henson Exhibition at the Museum of the Moving Image.)

Everything—book, toy, poster, sculpture and model—has a story to tell.

Our work begins in the library because there are few, if any, problems that are truly novel. We look to history, science, fiction, news, math, mythology, music, plays, art, economics, finance, psychology, cosmology, archeology, education, children’s books—everything we can explore to understand better what others before us have done when confronted with similar challenges. We try on strategies from different eras and disciplines. We test out combinations.

And we always have our radar up for the adjacent possible. This wonderful turn of phrase was originally used by biologist and complexity theorist Stuart Kauffman to describe the collisions of Earth’s starter molecules that eventually led to the creation of all the molecules required for the emergence of life.

In his book, How We Got to Now, Steven Johnson trades out molecules for innovation. Everything around us, from toaster to space ship, not only has a long, meandering backstory, but also provides backstory for the next round of inventions.

Gutenberg’s printing press, for example, was inspired by presses for making wine in his hometown. All those newly printed books boosted demand for eyeglasses which, in turn, led to innovations in lens-making, which led to better lenses for microscopes and telescopes. Without wine, would we know about microbiomes? Or stars born 6,500 light years away in the vast cosmic dust clouds of the Pillars of Creation?

So we kick the tires on every cutting edge technology. We play, experiment and wrestle with AI, blockchain and whatever comes next. We ask, “What will we be able to do tomorrow that we cannot do today?”

We think about about implications—and opportunities—writ large. We think about implications for our clients. We think about implications for their clients.

We keep an eye on the news. We return to the library every chance we get. We look for patterns and synergies. We pay attention. To everything.

Design is thinking.


As designers, we have a direct line to the people who run the companies that run the world. We are hired to think creatively, expansively, imaginatively and incisively. We are invited to the table at a point when change isn’t only possible, but also desired. Our ability to help businesses and organizations understand and see themselves in new ways can be transformative, triggering cascades of collateral goodness where solving for x leads to better answers for y and z, too.

In the library, we can find precedents for each of the many daunting problems that face us today. What is different is facing so many challenges all at once.

In a little over 200 years—only ten generations—the human population has exploded from from one billion to eight billion. During that brief time, the planet’s natural bounty has declined dramatically and the climate has been knocked off balance.

It is time to live up to our aspirational species moniker, Homo Sapiens (wise human). Or, better yet, aim higher: Homo Imaginativi (imaginative human). To do different and better requires imagination and creativity. This is where design and designers can make a difference.

Every business has the potential for a resilient future. The ones that understand how a transformative mind-set can unlock the “adjacent possible” are already well on their way.

Our job, our vision and our purpose is to work with leaders who understand that what happens now matters.

Because what happens next depends on it.

So let’s put away the Post-Its® and get to work.

Artwork by Sharon Park, Designer at COLLINS and Nicole Cousins, Associate Designer at COLLINS.

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