When we take a moment to envision the world ten to fifteen years from now, it’s quite likely we will imagine a lot of new technology and innovations, driven by great economic progress and prosperity. We optimistically think that global and societal problems in the areas of health, education, and environment would be solved in a tech-utopia.


Attention has shifted to the Asia-Pacific region as a global economic leader due to progress, prosperity and technological advancements. At the same time, there is a challenge to embrace this economic acceleration, and still uphold social and cultural sustainability. Looking at exhibitions positing visions of the future (e.g. ‘Future of Us’ in Singapore, ‘The Future Starts Here’ in London), they feel too infrastructure-, technology- and design-led. Social innovation - ideas, activities and products that work towards meeting social sustainability goals - have become a growing area, but run the risk of being Western-centric, and could overlook tradition, culture, and heterogeneous beliefs and practices.  We need to ground these visions in actual human realities of Asia-Pacific if we want design and innovation to resonate emotionally and transform the region.


The question then is how to best harness technology’s potential for greater impact in addressing sustainability goals in ways that would still be true to the Asia-Pacific community?


This is where design thinking meets futures thinking meets ethnography for social innovation - a collaboration between designers, futurists, and ethnographers in the design process. Design thinking focuses on creating products for today’s world, while futures thinking aims to inspire and uncover possibilities that we may have in the coming years. Ethnography then helps to uncover human-centered perspectives for identifying and understanding complex, multiple needs that people are not always able to express.


What is needed in order is a framework that facilitates conversations to create new products and services that have cultural content and meaning based on cultural values. A framework that encompasses the following:


Futures thinking:

  • Understanding existing power structure of a country, how its dominant narrative is constructed, and the negotiations that people have with that dominant narrative

  • Framing or (reframing) of problems and possibilities

  • Thinking long-term and transgenerational, rather than short-term



  • Immersing in and being sensitive to cultural nuance and conditions, in order to understand how these could play out in design projects

  • Generating knowledge on cultural values and meaning, and barriers of adoption to technologies


Design thinking:

  • Observing how ‘design’ is adopted into people’s everyday lives

  • Evaluation of ideas, concepts, products, and service prototypes i.e. a ‘reality check’