Designing a Better Tomorrow: Reflections on Simplifying, Improving, and Leapfrogging for Societal Impact

Uday Dandavate
3 min readDec 21, 2023

I have been traveling extensively for the past 18 months on my sabbatical to observe people with an open mind and to learn how I can use my skills and wisdom as an ethnographer of imagination and catalyst of co-creation to improve lives.

As I reflect on what I am learning, I recall an article I wrote several months ago where I suggested three ways of adding value through design: simplifying, improving, and leapfrogging. In this article, I would like to revisit my reflections from that time and elaborate on why this approach needs the attention of designers, engineers, planners, and policymakers.

Here are some observations:

Simplify:

In every aspect of life, there are opportunities to reduce physical and mental workload and to add comfort and delight.

While companies often focus on speed, productivity, and profitability, everyday people seek meaning and joy from every lived moment. They experience simplicity when they slow down, remove clutter (physical and mental), engage in building meaningful relationships, and explore their innate creativity.

How might we help people reduce clutter from their surroundings and enhance their sense of agency, comfort, and wonder?

Improve:

If not attended to in time, problems can become more complex or take on a new form. Therefore, problem identification and solving must be treated as an ongoing and iterative process. A good designer does not aim for an ideal solution. Rather, she/he strives for continuous improvement in how things work and how things work for people.

A focus on continuous improvement requires ecosystems and an ecological approach to design. Also necessary in such an approach is the study of how parts of an ecosystem or ecology work and coming up with ideas for them to work better together.

Leapfrog:

Leapfrogging is about preparing for the emerging future, not predicting it.

Among various futurists SonicRim has collaborated with in the past, I find the approach of Palo Alto, California-based Institute For The Future (IFTF) more aligned with my concept of leapfrogging.

IFTF expresses its mission as “to prepare the world to create better, more equitable futures by disrupting short-term thinking with visions of transformative possibilities.” This approach offers designers evidence-based and actionable ways of identifying future forces and trajectories.

The concept of leapfrogging also offers an alternative to the popular notion of disruptive innovation. My interactions with engineers and designers in the startup ecosystem have led me to better understand their obsession with disrupting traditional business models through innovation. The financial rewards as well as creative satisfaction of ending the dominance/monopoly of traditional business models can be quite compelling. However, my focus on design as a practice of improving lives motivates me to veer innovators from their obsession with disruption. As an alternative, I suggest that the idea of leapfrogging will turn their attention to societal forces.

In conclusion, my 18-month sabbatical journey has provided valuable insights into the principles of simplifying, improving, and leapfrogging for positive societal impact. Emphasizing the importance of simplicity in everyday life, the need for continuous improvement, and the forward-looking approach of leapfrogging, I envision a collaborative effort among designers, engineers, planners, and policymakers. By embracing these principles, we can collectively steer innovation toward enhancing the well-being of society. The ongoing quest for a simpler, improved future beckons, and through our commitment to these principles, we pave the way for transformative change.

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Uday Dandavate

A design activist and ethnographer of social imagination.