Designers want to generate products that meet their users’ needs and that delight them for a long time. Some products, like trains or aircraft, have lifespans of many decades. However, components or subsystem can endure for much longer as they are used across many product generations. Something that is designed now might well be used in 80 years’ time. This is difficult to think about for designers. To say we live in uncertain times has become a horrible cliché. We have little idea of how our children and grandchildren will live at this time.

I recently conducted a workshop in Gothenburg, while I was visiting Professor in Chalmers, the technical university of Gothenburg, on trends in product development in 2040. As a preparation, we interviewed 12 experienced engineering designers in the UK, Germany, Sweden and Ireland. At the workshop, we had over 40 academics and industrial participants from the UK and Sweden. Many commented on the uncertainties that we are facing in terms of the environment and the political situation.

One thing struck me in particular. The Swedish and European participants largely saw opportunities for their businesses and engineering in general in addressing environmental challenges and creating technical solutions that improved the lives of people. Digitalisation, integration of different engineering disciplines were all viewed as areas in which they can excel and lead the market. However, the UK participants painted a far darker picture of diminishing resources, crumbling infrastructures and global competition.

In some ways both groups were doing exactly the same: Faced with an uncertain future and multiple potential scenarios, they assumed that the current situation would continue as it is. The mood of the moment influenced strongly how they thought about the future.

But designers and engineers can also shape this future. When designing long-lived products it is important to consider the world in which these products will still be used. This requires to think through different scenarios, some are bright and others are much bleaker. We cannot know the future, but we can imagine it. One thing, however, we do know is that the future will not be like the present.