Today, October 21, is Back to the Future Day. This year’s edition is special because October 21, 2015, is the date that Marty McFly time-travelled to in order to save his own future in Back to the Future Part II.

By now you’ve probably read several articles about what this classic 1989 movie predicted about technological innovations in the future or about smart companies that are trying to market their products around it. For instance, earlier this year, Lexus launched its own version of Marty McFly’s hoverboard and Pepsi recently brought its Pepsi Perfect Bottle into the market awaiting Marty’s arrival. Clearly, the movie has inspired product innovators. However, the movie also contains a valuable design principle for those working on innovation. I call it the Marty McFly Principle.

Back in 1999, I co-founded an organization to help the Netherlands make a successful transition toward the knowledge economy. We saw the world changing—the rise of the Internet and globalization, the growing economic importance of knowledge-based services—but we were not satisfied by the policy responses to the challenges these transformations brought about. How could we create a strong but fair knowledge economy with opportunities for all?

We decided to call ourselves Kennisland, the Dutch equivalent of “knowledge land.” The name stood for the kind of future we wanted to build, the type of country we wanted the Netherlands to become. Our name, our branding and our publications showed what a knowledgeland could be like. We wanted to inspire and invite people to work with us on creating a better future for everyone.

Initially, we considered ourselves a think-tank, but we soon found that conducting research and then making recommendations on what the government should do differently was not the way to go. What was the best recipe for a knowledge economy anyway? No one knew, certainly not then. What we needed to do was to learn by doing. We needed to work with stakeholders from across society to create the change we thought was needed. We needed to learn what worked and help to spread that knowledge, taking on challenge after challenge until we had achieved the future we envisioned.

Social innovation is about solving complex problems that are systemic in nature. Much has been written about complex problems. Design theorist Horst Rittel was one of the first to describe them in relation to social planning when he and Melvin Webber offered 10 characteristics of a wicked problem, the first being that there is no definitive formulation of what the problem actually is. Thus, they stated, one cannot first understand and then solve a wicked problem. Only by starting to solve the problem will the understanding of what the problem really is emerge.

This means that the traditional problem-solving approach, which requires starting with a clear problem definition, does not work. As Zaid Hassan states, we need to move away from this “expert-planning paradigm” and toward a new approach to solving our most complex challenges—an approach that is social, experimental and systemic. This approach does not start with a problem; rather, it starts with a notion of what kind of future is worth striving for.

At MaRS Solutions Lab we help solve complex challenges that require systems change. We convene various stakeholders around complex challenges, such as reforming the healthcare system, regulating the sharing economy or transforming the tender fruit economy in Ontario. These challenges require a different approach than solving a technical problem where the solution is known and can be implemented with current know-how. That is why we apply the Marty McFly Principle: We work back to the future.

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We typically start by attempting to understand how the system around the challenge operates and who is involved. We also try to get a better picture of the user experience from those directly involved by using design tools. Then we convene relevant stakeholders to discuss and enrich that analysis. Just as important, we collaboratively envision what the desired future could look like. We’ve even developed some tools to help the collaborators do this based on the famous Back to the Future movies. For instance, we ask participants to create their own front page of the Hill Valley Telegraph (below), the movie’s newspaper, which changes it headlines when Marty McFly and Doc Brown succeed in altering their future. Similarly, we ask our stakeholders to imagine what the future could look like, both with and without the changes they see as necessary.

Hill Valley Telegraph_Visioning the Future
The Hill Valley Telegraph: A tool that helps multi-stakeholder groups to imagine their desired future together

This allows us to compare the current system with its desired future state, and that comparison forms the basis for us to start working back to the future. Together with stakeholders, we co-design interventions that have the potential of changing the system to its desired state. One intervention is never enough, because magic bullets for systems change do not exist. The process is about figuring out which steps everyone agrees should happen first. That brings us on a long road to the future, likely filled with hurdles, stops and surprises similar to the many attempts Marty and Doc undertake. We try to prototype and test these interventions, and then assess if they bring us closer to the desired future. If they do, we try to scale them. If they don’t, we hope to learn what we need to do differently.

Solving complex problems thus becomes an iterative process. We constantly learn and adapt while solving the problem. Ron Heifetz, a public leadership professor at Harvard Kennedy School, introduced the useful concept of adaptive leadership. (Watch his introduction here.) He describes it as an iterative process involving three key elements.

  1. Observing events and patterns around you.
  2. Interpreting what you are observing.
  3. Designing interventions based on your observations and interpretations.

After having intervened, you observe again. This approach to driving change is fundamentally different than traditional approaches, but the approach only works if there is an idea of what the future we are working toward looks like.

This is essential because of the two other characteristics of a complex problem. First, no single person or institution can solve a complex problem. We need coordination and collaboration between various stakeholders, often across institutions and even sectors. Governments, corporations, non-profit organizations and foundations can all be involved in some way—and each of them needs to take action. The second characteristic is that solving a complex problem takes time and often a long time. One key question in solving a complex problem then becomes: How do we bring and keep such diverse actors together? This problem will likely be defined differently by each stakeholder. Some stakeholders may not even see the problem. Having collaboratively described an appealing future that can only be achieved through collaboration—and reminding your stakeholders of that future throughout the process—can be highly beneficial.

We created such a description for MyHealth, a new initiative we are developing at MaRS to look at how smarter use of data can help improve the health system. This summer, we partnered with Bridgeable, one of Toronto’s leading design firms, to create new concepts and to demonstrate what such a future might entail for mothers and newborns. The result was Babybundle, a suite of apps that can help mothers take better care of their own and their child’s health and well-being by accessing all of their personal and clinical information in one place. Babybundle was developed after doing user research, brainstorming with mothers, interviewing experts and developing mockup prototypes. The entire exercise was undertaken to create a vivid image of a possible and desirable future of what healthcare could look like if data was used in smarter ways. We will be using this example to create support for our work and to establish new partnerships with the goal of changing the healthcare system.

The Marty McFly Principle is a key principle in the work of social innovation labs. However, applications of this principle can also be found in other places. Car companies use it when they develop concept cars and tech companies use it when they make mockups of visionary products. In the collective impact approach, participants collectively define a future desired impact and everyone is committed to creating it. The Marty McFly Principle is also visible in foresight, design strategies and transformative scenario planning. This shows that working toward the future can be more productive when dealing with complex problems. There are never any guarantees you will reach that future, but as Doc Brown says: “No one should know too much about their destiny.’

Enjoy Back to the Future Day!

Joeri van den Steenhoven

Joeri was VP of Systems Innovation and the Director of the MaRS Solutions Lab, a social innovation lab that aims to improve the lives of citizens and strengthen the resilience of communities in Canada. Before joining MaRS, he was the co-founder and CEO of Knowledgeland, one of the leading change labs in the Netherlands and Europe. He also worked as a director at the Young Foundation in the UK. See more…