The development organisation of the future?

Among the many exhibitors selling products and promoting brands at Bond’s annual conference lurked a first-time exhibitor‚ Mantis Systems, a new organisation with a mission to stop global risks converging into future catastrophes.

“This is fantastic, fascinating work,” enthused a funder to a Mantis ’employee’. “There are so many synergies between our approaches,” mused a large corporate. Offers of partnerships and funding whirled around the Mantis booth, with a palpable buzz.

Despite the slick promo videos and carefully curated impact case studies, Mantis was a fiction – an exercise in speculative design and the outcome of a collaboration between Bond, Superflux, UNDP and Nesta.

A new approach to help people think differently about the future

Our unlikely partnership stemmed from recognition of a shared problem: international development organisations know they need to change if they are to stay relevant in a rapidly changing world, but they struggle to know in what way they need to change.

We felt it was time to deploy a new tactic to help development leaders think beyond the entrenched status quo. To do this, it’s critical to be able to imagine alternative futures and possibilities. And so we turned to experiential futures -‚Äì the design of situations and stuff from the future to catalyse insight and change.

By creating an organisation “from the future” that people could experience and interact with, we wanted to provide a bridge from thinking about abstract trends to understanding concrete implications for today. The intention was not to create the ‘optimal’ organisation, or even a necessarily desirable one ‚Äì but to create something that would provoke and challenge.

Simulating a future development organisation

After an extensive foresight and design process (see our extended version of this blog for more on this), Mantis Systems was born.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Our weekly email newsletter, Network News, is an indispensable weekly digest of the latest updates on funding, jobs, resources, news and learning opportunities in the international development sector.

Get Network News

In this hypothetical organisation, a powerful artificial intelligence (AI) integrates open source data with behavioural insights and location data to continuously model and avoid global systems risks. Its citizen contributors also carry out micro, pre-emptive interventions to collectively downgrade identified systems risks.

The reactions

Most of the people who spoke to us at the Mantis exhibition stand were intrigued and excited by what it offered. We were encouraged by their openness to consider entirely new approaches, and to move quickly into thinking about implications for their own work – from the opportunities to the threats.

“We are currently developing a pipeline of new programmes and we have nothing in our portfolio that speaks to the type of interventions and approaches that you have. Can we partner and you guys can help us out?” NGO employee

“The way you engage citizens to work for you completely makes our company redundant. We should talk.” Private sector company

We were delighted that some delegates also raised thorny questions about the ethics of Mantis operations:

“I see that your project is extremely ambitious. However, it also raises inevitable and profound ethical and regulatory concerns. How long will you be able to look after each Mantis action and decision, until you don’t even understand the predictions or actions it is making anymore?” Software developer

On the second day of the recent Bond Conference, we held a “sense-making” workshop where we explained the Mantis experiment. Almost all groups fed back that Mantis prompted them to recognise the need to improve knowledge of existing and emerging technologies.

What next

We found experiential futures highly effective at shifting thinking beyond current comfort zones and uncovering less obvious insights.

Over the next few months, we will be offering members a range of opportunities to build their futures acumen and harness foresight skills. If you would like to hear more about these initiatives, please join Bond’s futures and innovation working group.

And if you didn’t catch Mantis at the Bond Conference, you’ll be able to meet us again at Nesta’s FutureFest later this year.

You can read more about this project on our extended blog.