Exploring the Future(s) of Livelihoods through the Design-Lens

September 7, 2020

by Aseel Bokai, Design Research Assistant, UNDP Accelerator Lab Jordan

The future is already here- it’s just not evenly distributed. – (Gibson as cited in Designing Anthropological Futures, 2016, p.3)

Designing for the future(s) is certainly not an easy task. As designers, researchers, entrepreneurs and individuals who are naturally curious about exploring the possibilities of social, economic and environmental realities, and eager to scale and come up with solutions that take into account whole systems, it is important that we attempt to move away from exclusivity and singularity that implies that there is only one version of the future(s). 

In order to achieve this form of inclusivity and plurality when talking about how the current reality is, or could become, the Accelerator Lab Jordan team integrated elements of foresight into its exploration phase to collectively consider the impact of macro and micro trends that are shaping the future of livelihoods in Jordan, and to facilitate a team discussion about the type of future(s) that people may want, and the future(s) that people may not want. This is all part of a larger effort that falls under ‘Design for Development’, a project that aims to target the three key elements of sustainability; people, planet and profit having design at the centre of the triangle.  

Mapping our Assumptions 

As a team consisting of individuals with different backgrounds, experiences and perspectives, it was essential to begin the process by mapping out our assumptions of ‘What can design be?’.

Interestingly, the team had different viewpoints on what design could be, which challenged our conception of the role of design in development, and everyday life. A few of the associations and ideas that came into mind defined design as a bridge, a way of thinking, a system, a tool, a product or a service. What was essential is that we all had a shared belief that design should focus on deviating away from proposing solutions that are limited to meeting solely a physical function, or ones that fail to engage with social issues.   

We then moved to explore the meaning of ‘livelihoods’, which made us realize that the values associated with livelihoods and its role get heightened once individuals have more access to income-generating opportunities, education and safety. When achieved, livelihoods become linked to mental health, wellbeing,  self-awareness, dignity and ultimately about having agency over one’s life and decisions. 

Overall the exercise provided us with a quick reality check that uncovered what people in our team are guessing about, and the type of assumptions and questions we are asking ourselves about the themes we are tackling early in the process. 

Speculating future(s) scenarios

After re-thinking the definitions of ‘design’ and ‘livelihoods’, we started conceptualizing future(s) scenarios to highlight issues that may arise when we speculate the future(s) of livelihoods. We categorized the speculative scenarios into three main categories; the plausible (could happen), preferable (desired) and dystopian (unpleasant) future(s). 

Mapping out different future(s) scenarios enabled us to come up with a range of ideas and visions, which we felt were worth exploring further.  It was interesting to see that we were all hopeful about the future(s) yet felt that there was a lot that had to be done in order to achieve desired future(s) visions.

Mapping out Players

To get a deep dive into the future(s) visions, we collectively voted on a preferable future vision that we wished to further explore. 

“In the future(s), Jordanians will have equal access to sustainable income-generating opportunities”.

For this activity, we started off by laying out the different individuals, communities, organizations and companies who we believe might help us achieve the preferable future, who might oppose the change and the ones who might guard and sustain the desired version of the future(s). 

The discussion helped us generate a few guiding questions for our research strategy and objectives:

What new roles could the UNDP embrace? What is the Accelerator Lab’s role in helping the UNDP achieve that goal?

What new relationships could we build to create a preferable future(s)?

What do we wish to sustain? 

Who will support us to achieve better goals? Who might oppose this change?

Understanding Drivers

From mapping out the players that may help us achieve the desired version of the future, we moved to examine the plausible future(s).

Plausible Scenario:

“In the future(s), we believe that institutions will continue to develop and implement opportunities that will have a short-term impact.”

To explore what contributes to the likelihood of the plausible statement we conducted a PESTLE
(political, economic, social, technological, legal, environmental) exercise to identify motivations and factors that have an impact on the current state of livelihoods in Jordan. Analyzing and reflecting on the present situation provided us with a critical means of engaging with the local context.


As a way to think about the systemic issues that may appear when we talk about livelihoods, we decided to situate ourselves five years from now in the dystopian futures that we envisioned early in the session. We referred to the worst possible scenario about the future, which was “In the future, livelihoods become irrelevant as the country faces existential threats”, and used it to work backward and identify possible factors, events, and unknown variables that could have led us to such a grim future. A few of the threats and unknowns that we were able to identify included global warming, drought, a resource curse, economic crisis and an irresponsible society. Backcasting the worst possible scenario reminded us that the future(s) is not linear, and that we can have many alternative outcomes depending on the decisions that we make and on external factors.  

Generating Solutions: Transforming the Unpleasant into the Desired Future(s)

To conclude the session, we conducted an ideation exercise to transform the dystopian statements about the future(s) into positive outcomes. The team voted on three future statements and mapped out key steps and ideas that we believe could contribute towards creating more positive change.

(Refer to the image below)

Accordingly, through suggesting solutions, we were able to collectively come up with three future(s) vision statements, which included: 

“In the future, there will be more economic growth opportunities outside of the capital.”

“In the future, more efficient and fiscally responsible systems will be designed.”

“In the future, people in rural areas will have more access to the main local market which will improve their livelihoods without compromising long- term prospects in their community.”

What’s next?

Lastly, one of the main takeaways from our foresight session is the need to go out to towns in Jordan, find people where they are, listen to their stories and start asking questions.  The two-day foresight session enabled us to diverge our thinking and tap into different areas and themes, which prompted us to start validating our assumptions about the future(s), as there is still a lot that we are uncertain about. Our planned next step is to speak to and involve a range of stakeholders in our research, to ensure that our process remains inclusive and iterative. Because ultimately addressing the needs of those directly impacted by the challenge and bringing their experiences and knowledge to the forefront is one of the preferable scenarios that we wish to achieve in our work. 

Stay tuned for our next blog post!