The Future Factory — A Guided Systems Thinking Journey

Live Prototype

The Team

Meet the design team!

From left to right:

Patricia Yu is a junior in the products track at Carnegie Mellon University, School of Design.

Christianne Francovich is a second-year Master of Design for Interactions student at Carnegie Mellon University.

Laurel Rountree is a junior in the environments track at Carnegie Mellon University, School of Design.


February — May 2021




Learning theories, user research/testing, storyboarding, sketching, collaborative design

Project Description

To solve today’s complex problems, we need ways to come together and share ideas. The Future Factory aims to empower students between the ages of 16 to 24 to address wicked problems and make them realize that their ideas are important and can have a real impact.

The Future Factory experience takes them on a guided journey into the future where step-by-step they are taught how to analyze a problem and brainstorm ways to change the current narrative.


Persona: Grace, 17 yrs old, high school student, passionate about marine biology

To explain why teaching systems thinking to students is important we would like to introduce you to Grace. Grace is 17 years old, she is dissatisfied with the current state of the world. She would really like to make a difference and have an impact to reduce the amount of plastic waste in the ocean. But she has difficulty figuring out where could start. This leaves her feeling dissatisfied and hopeless about the situation.

Grace is not alone in this opinion, through our survey we found that students between the ages of 18 and 24 are very passionate and care a lot about a variety of topics. However, when asked if they felt they would be able to tackle any of the issues, 51% responded no. Additionally, when asked if they had ever been taught systems thinking by their institution, 83% responded that they had never heard of it.

Results of an online survey distributed by the team amongst high school and college students

So, students care about their impact on the world, and currently, schools do not foster action-oriented change on wicked problems.

We saw an opportunity here. Our design process started by asking the question: how might schools become a safe space to foster action-oriented change by teaching students about systems thinking?

Our design challenge


Our main stakeholders are of course schools and students. However, because we want to empower students to realize that their ideas really can have an impact on the world we decided to include a third stakeholder from outside the confines of the school; namely, organizations.

To tie these stakeholders together our concept of the Future Factory comes in. The idea is that each month a different organization writes out a future prompt. For example, Coca-Cola’s prompt could be: we live in a world without single-use plastics, how did we get here? Through the Future Factory, students are taken onto a guided journey into the future where step-by-step they will analyze the future world, the current world, and finally, brainstorm ways to move from one state into another. At the end of the experience, students can submit their ideas back to the organization, providing the organization with a portfolio of new ideas to choose from and leaving the students with the feeling that the world wants to hear about their ideas.

Value exchange between stakeholders

The process of designing a learning experience

This section includes the highlights of our design process, if you would like to know more check out our medium blog where we kept weekly progress updates throughout the duration of this project.

The complete design process — of course, the process wasn’t this neat, but you get the idea;)

Researching Learning Gaps

Defining Learning Gaps

Knowledge gap: The first challenge we identified was students’ feelings of powerlessness when facing wicked problems. When it came to making an impact on certain societal issues that they felt strongly about, students feel as though they are not in a position to carry out those changes, especially in high school, because they lack the resources and knowledge to know how to tackle those complex issues.

Motivation gap: The second issue was incentivizing students to learn about systems thinking and wicked problems. We realized that a common complaint among students was that the information they were learning in school wasn’t very applicable to present-day issues. So we needed to find a way to make the information relevant to the students.

Environment gap: Additionally, students might not feel incentivized to learn about systems thinking because it would take time away from school learning or from extracurricular activities that would help them get into college or jobs. We felt that this would also be a concern for parents as well who want their children to attend college. We felt that by legitimizing our designed solution so that it can be something that students can put on their resume as some form of internship, training, or volunteer experience, then students and parents would see merit in investing time into it.

Leveraging Learning Frameworks

For designing the framework of our experience we first used Dirksen’s Structured Flow of Goals Model to decide on the overarching learning objectives: using systems thinking to solve wicked problems. This we then divided into sub-goals such as understanding the future, understanding the present, and taking action. Those were then divided into even smaller sub-sub goals. Each of these sub-sub goals is addressed using the CCAF Model: we introduce learners to the context, give them a challenge, practice the skill through doing an activity and finally provide them with feedback on how they did.

The framework for our learning experience

Concept Evaluation

The three phases of user testing

Throughout the design process, we prototyped many variations of the interface and board-game to test the flow of the narrative, clarity of instructions, player interactions, and user engagement. First, we tested three different stages of our concept in three different user tests:

  1. Introduction and setup
    Are the initial instructions clear? After going through the introduction and seeing the board setup, do users have the correct mental model of the experience? Are they confident and excited to engage in the experience?
  2. Stakeholder roles and requirements
    Are the instructions clear? Are players able to role-play the different stakeholder roles? Are they understanding the different worldviews these stakeholders embody?
  3. Journey takeaway and reflection
    Do the users see value in having a journey takeaway? Would they be motivated to submit their ideas to the competition? Are there parts missing?

We then tested the complete experience ourselves. Focusing on: does the flow make sense? Are all the instructions clear? How much time does it take for each portion of the experience? What parts are/aren’t engaging? In the future, we would want to test this on our main users: high school and college-level students in an educational setting.


Some major takeaways from our testing sessions were:

  • People found switching between the digital and physical interfaces confusing. Therefore, we would need to make it clearer what is the role of each medium. We decided that the digital would solely be used for instructions and storytelling and that all the activities would be carried out using the physical board.
  • Some steps were making the experience more convoluted than necessary. For example, having to take a photo throughout the game to upload onto the interface just to show it at the end is very tedious for the players and takes them out of the moment. Therefore we refined the game by taking those steps out and simplifying.
  • A lot of our explanations and instructions were very text-heavy. So we need to find a way to make the explanation parts in the interface more engaging. We improved our concept by leveraging sound narration and more images.

The Final Concept

The game components

Context of use: our players usually will play this during class in school, with an IPad or computer, and with the supervision of their teachers.

Phases of the experience

The 6 phases of the experience are:

  1. Introduction & Setup
  2. Hometown: Introduction to the Future
  3. Ice Trail: Selecting Stakeholder Roles and Requirements
  4. The Iceberg: Causal Layered Analysis
  5. Construction arena: Brainstorming and Evaluating Ideas
  6. The Future: Journey Conclusion & Takeaways.

The next section describes each of the phases in more detail:

🔸 Phase 1 — Introduction & Setup

Phase 1 — introduction and set up of the experience

The purpose of the introduction is to set the context for the students. First, they are introduced to who (which organization) wrote out this month’s challenge. Then the goal of the experience is introduced, after which they are prompted to ‘accept’ or ‘decline’ the challenge. Once they accept, the team has to decide if they want to work with a preferred or unpreferred future. In our scenario, the team chooses the preferred future, and they are introduced to the game master that will guide them through the experience. The students are also introduced to their objective — to design an artifact that solves a systemic problem that can bridge their current world with the preferred future they chose.

Learning objectives:
Gain a mental model of the journey steps
General understanding of preferred and unpreferred futures

🔸 Phase 2 — Hometown: Introduction to the Future

Phase 2 — Home town: Introduction to the Future

In this phase, students are given a step-by-step explanation of the Causal Layered Analysis (CLA) of the future they have chosen. This CLA will also act as the example CLA later on in the journey.

Introduction to the Future

Because Causal Layered Analysis is such a technical term, we decided to use the metaphor of an Iceberg to explain it. Because like an iceberg, the further down you go into an analysis of a wicked problem the less obvious or ‘visible’ the root causes become.

Learning objective:
General understanding of the different levels of the CLA

🔸 Phase 3 — Icetrail: Selecting Stakeholder roles and requirements

Phase 3 — Icetrail: Selecting Stakeholder roles and requirements

The next step in the experience is to divide the stakeholder roles, the students each pick a stakeholder card from the deck hereby randomly assigning a role of the students. The stakeholder card describes their persona’s values, political and economical background, and role in society.

Choosing stakeholder cards

They are then prompted by the interface to grab a post-it and write down what their stakeholder would want to achieve, their requirements. Before starting they are given a short explanation of why understanding stakeholder requirements are important.

Writing down stakeholder requirements

When they finish writing their stakeholder requirements the system prompts them to rank the requirements according to priority.

Ranking stakeholder requirements

Learning objectives:
Understanding different worldviews and acknowledging different perspectives

🔸 Phase 4 — The iceberg: Causal Layered Analysis

Phase 4 — The iceberg: Causal Layered Analysis

This is the most difficult part of the journey because it involves the most technical terms such as Causal Layered Analysis, Litany, Causes, Worldviews & Metaphors. This phase starts by showing the students the example CLA of the future world that was introduced earlier in the experience. Subsequently, they are required to listen to different articles of the current world sort of like a podcast. These two steps give the students the initial information they need to dive into the analysis exercise.

They are shown an interactive iceberg with 4 layers: Litany, Causes, Worldviews & Metaphors. When they click on each of the layers they are given a brief explanation of what that layer signifies.

Interactive iceberg and sorting through world-building cards

Then they are encouraged to browse through the world-building cards of each layer and chose 4 cards that best represent their current world. There are 4 stacks of worldbuilding cards, one for each layer of the CLA. When they have selected 4 cards for each layer they are prompted to compare the current world CLA (that they just made) with the future CLA, which signifies the start of phase 5: brainstorming barriers and ideas.

Learning objectives:
Researching systemic causes
Understanding the different levels of the CLA
Ability to complete a CLA of the current world

🔸 Phase 5 — Construction arena: Brainstorming and Evaluating Ideas

Phase 5 — Construction arena: Brainstorming and Evaluating Ideas

After finishing the CLA and seeing both the current and future CLA presented next to each other. The next task is to brainstorm the barriers that we would need to overcome to move from the current world into that preferred future. This brainstorm session is timed to create a sense of urgency.

Now it’s time for ideation, the players determine how they want to move through the ideation phase. For example, they could go through the ideation and evaluation once or twice. They show the process they will take by using the little iceberg plates to build their path towards the future.

building the path towards the future

For our prototype, we determined they will travel from barriers > ideation > evaluation.

Once they have determined their path, these barriers that they brainstormed earlier are used as the starting point for the first brainstorm: how might we overcome barrier 1? how might we overcome barrier 2? etc. They write the how might we question in the center of a piece of paper and divide the papers amongst themselves. A two-minute timer is set and they have to brainstorm solutions to overcome the barrier on the paper in front of them. After the two-minute timer is up they pass their paper to the right of them and receive a piece of paper from the person to the left of them and the process repeats until everybody has brainstormed for each barrier.

Ideation timer — for that sense of urgency!
Brainstorming ideas

It is now time to vote and evaluate the ideas. Each player gets three voting dots which they can place on the photograph next to the idea(s) they think are the strongest.

Selecting the best ideas through dot voting

After the voting ends it is time to count which ideas have the most votes, the top three ideas are then held next to the ranking of the stakeholder requirements that were established earlier in the journey and evaluated accordingly. The idea that comes out of this test with the best score is dubbed the winner.

Ranking top ideas according to stakeholder requirements.

Learning objectives:
Brainstorming ideas
Evaluation of ideas: what makes an effective solution?
Refinement of ideas

🔸 Phase 6 — The future: Journey conclusion & takeaways

Phase 6 — The future: Journey conclusion & takeaways

All they have to do now is to document their journey by taking a photo of the completed board. With this final documentation, each player has a record of what they did and they can always come back to reread what they have learned and their process.

photo documentation of the completed process.

Finally, the players can choose to send this image, together with an explanation of their artifact, to the organization that submitted the prompt. The organization could choose to develop the best idea that is submitted, this way the students see that their ideas can have a real-world impact.

Competition submission!

Learning objectives:
Your ideas are valued
Connecting to the community, wicked problems can only be solved together

Live Prototype

Next Steps

The next steps for this study include:

  • To test it out with our stakeholders in context. The main focus here would be to see if students remain engaged throughout the duration of the experience and if all the instructions are clear
  • Additionally, more work needs to be done in terms of fleshing out the concept. Up until now, we have focused on the preferred future storyline, thinking about how the storyline for the unpreferred future would be different is an interesting next step.
  • Once the experience for the students has been resolved, it would be time to do concept validation amongst organizations, how do we encourage them to think of preferred and unpreferred futures? And guide them with coming up with the materials needed for the monthly prompts.

Implications of our work

It is interesting to imagine what role schools can play in fostering an action-oriented change mindset amongst students. Luckily the CMU education we are receiving does this, however, we believe concepts like this could make this information more accessible to everybody.

Additionally, this concept can be a starting point for more tools and experiences like this which can motivate students to share their ideas and work together to drive change. Because there is a lot of work to do and perseverance necessary to solve the wicked problems that our world is currently facing. And we need everybody to work together to achieve a more positive future, nobody can do it alone!




Industrial/Experience Designer, Human Computer Interactions and Physical Computing at Carnegie Mellon University

Love podcasts or audiobooks? Learn on the go with our new app.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Patricia Yu

Patricia Yu

Industrial/Experience Designer, Human Computer Interactions and Physical Computing at Carnegie Mellon University