Designing for your future self

Designing for your future self

Ahead of this panel discussion at the Design MuseumDesigning for Your Future Self: Happy, healthy and wise — I have been thinking about our ultimate future self.

Paraphrasing JM Keynes I came to: our ultimate future self is dead.

Saying that aloud I thought of the friend who recently said to me I am the only person she knows who talks casually about death. Not without reason. I am conscious of how we have no control over the two things bookending our lives — our birth and our death.

Morbidity aside, death is the ultimate final truth, the only certainty (beside taxes). And dead indeed is our ultimate future self.

So how do we design for this ultimate future self?

By designing the path on which we arrive there, the state in which we arrive there, and getting right (more or less) the timing of when we arrive there. It would be a bonus to be able to choose the manner of dying.

In mere mortal terms, this means designing for a few things: optimal health, enough money, living a life of meaning and joy, and as things stand right now — a wider societal debate on elective and assisted dying.


Optimal health

Fitness related conversations in peer groups suggest running is a popular choice. It reminds me of something my ultra-runner neighbour once said to me: “Runners ask each other, what are you running from?”.

That aside I keep my counsel in these conversations. Yes, any time is good to start the journey to fitness. But if one has not worked on strength and flexibility in younger years, pounding one’s knees as one enters one’s third quarter of life may need some rethink. To wit, another ultra-runner friend of mine, who has run a 100-miler in Death Valley, (Why? No I do not understand either!) said to me: “I have two kinds of days, Shefaly: running days and tending-to-injury days”.

For my part I started with aerobic workouts, weights, walking and hiking in my early 20s. Via several years of weights, treadmill running, rowing, Pilates and yoga, I have now settled on a mix of walking, weights, yoga and Pilates.

This is however mostly about the outside of our bodies. The inside is a whole different thing. Well-functioning heart, liver, and kidneys, clean arteries without plaque, cholesterol and blood pressure in check, and optimal weight are the building blocks. As are drinking in moderation and not smoking. Preventative health checks are a privilege of the few, the worried well. Others make acquaintance of prescription drugs way too early. Yet others unfortunately experience health scares and incidents that force a rethink about optimal health.

And then there is the mind. Titles such as The Body Keeps The Score (by Bessel van der Kolk) or When the Body Says No (by Gabor Maté, lately known to people for interviewing Prince Harry about his mental health journey) make the link between the body and the mind clear. The healthcare system though still falters at delivering body and mind care seamlessly. Our collective wellbeing often floats up as a topic of concern when there is a celebrity suicide and then the drumbeat dies down.

The design consideration? To build health consciousness and awareness — nutrition, exercise, mental wellbeing — for a journey through life and not a fix of some kind in our old age, and to find activities and actions within reach for those without many resources, remembering that those poor in money are often poor in time and attention as they try to keep body and soul together.

Enough money

There is no point dying rich, I was advised recently. For it will come from saving and scrimping, when one could be enjoying life. But would that be life as marked by average life expectancy, or by longevity, and by life span? Confusing, right?

Pension calculators use average life expectancy — a statistical measure of the average time one can expect to live, based on year of birth, age, and demographic factors — for estimating how much money one may need to live on and to provide for decline in physical or mental health. Life expectancy is growing — naturally putting pensions under pressure.

The years by which we exceed the average life expectancy is our longevity, and as the Lancet writes: healthy longevity begins with child and adolescent health.

Pensions traditionally invested in equity markets which historically enjoyed high returns. Dimson et al however find “annualised returns for Gen Z of a mere 2% on a 70:30 portfolio of stocks and bonds—not even a third of the historical return of the baby boomers“. This means pensions need a rethink, dynamically, an appropriate mix of asset classes, balancing risk and long term returns that do not get eroded to meaninglessness by inflation and uncertain, unpredictable outcomes. That rethink is underway as pensions seek out private assets to invest in and that comes with its own risk/ reward considerations.

Tall order, eh? Yes, but we need it fulfilled. A design challenge for the future self if it is not to be penurious.

There are only two things really: what we do, and how we do it. In investing this is a question of deciding what we invest in and how our investment positions can help those organisations and visions to thrive sustainably while they serve the world — including the ageing and the aged. And no, I do not mean companies peddling “anti ageing” creams using 25yo models in their ads.

The design consideration? To invest to grow capital and income, while not extracting unfair rents from the one planet we share with the present and future generations.

A life of meaning and joy

Recently in a board directors’ book club, we read the book Stage Not Age, by Susan Wilner Golden. The thesis is that all “old” people — however we define old and I often joke “old is our age plus ten years” — are not created equal, and that in those edges lie opportunities to offer products and services.

The book is quite prescriptive and very how-to in its tone.

Our discussion however surfaced that it falls short on two counts: first, it did not delve into how life changes such as divorce or bereavement in the second or early third quarter of life can upend people’s ability to afford several goods and service, change their needs, and otherwise rejig their life’s structures; and second it barely skimmed the theme of the need for continual re-skilling and up-skilling that many may need to remain relevant in workplaces (including on boards) and other endeavours.

For the latter, many midlife transition programmes are stepping into the breach. Many still require taking a lot of time off for this exploration. The design assumptions need challenge, I’d posit. Life is more like building the plane while still flying it so I am currently sitting out all these programmes till something more suitable fitting around my life comes along. Relatedly the UK government is offering a midlife MOT to enable people to re-enter work.

And then there is the challenge of multigenerational dialogue and engagement, inside workplaces, where, it is suggested, five generations are working side by side for the first time in history, and in wider society. Leaving aside the pointlessness of segmenting people based on year of birth alone, at a business level, managing peaceful co-existence may become a surprising building block of operational resilience; in society, of greater societal harmony and resilience — both of which would use experience and inquisitiveness as their building blocks.

The design consideration here is multifaceted and transformational: to evolve and rebuild society and workplaces in the image of that which allows us all to thrive and benefit from one another’s presence and contributions.

A death we prefer

How would you like to die?” — if you have not had the experience of asking someone this question, you are fortunate. It is a question worth pondering though. We are so used to medicalised death — and this point is not entirely disconnected with the earlier point on optimal health but I digress — that few seem to have any idea what natural death may look like. Hospices do essential service here and that is on my mind as a very dear friend’s mum just passed away this week in a hospice.

But what about death in one’s own house or bed? In an environment we are familiar with rather than connected to medical devices keeping our bodies alive while our minds slip away?

Sir Terry Pratchett’s moving documentary on the BBC (links to YouTube video of part 1 of the documentary) brought Dignitas to many people’s awareness. The organisation was founded when I was living in Zurich. As a young person in my 20s then, I was fascinated by the compassion underpinning its foundation. That thinking is why years later, Million Dollar Baby entered the list of my all-time favourite films.

The question still stands — why do persons in suffering have to leave their homes and families to die in another country? At the time of writing, in the UK, “under section 2 of the Suicide Act 1961 it remains a criminal offence for a third party to assist or encourage another to commit suicide”.

We need a grown-up debate on dying. When I read Dylan Thomas’s famous poem, I read it as an exhortation to fight for a better death than we are currently afforded:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rage at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.


Our future selves demand of us dollops of critical thinking, empathy, creativity.

But also feasibility, sustainability, and cost effectiveness.

And collaboration across boundaries of disciplines, orthodoxies, approaches and tools.


Suggested further readings:

How would one address these design challenges? I wrote about it once. Read here.

Worried that designers do not care about the ageing folk? You are not alone. Read here.

Ever wonder how to be dead? Read here.

Atul Gawande’s book Being Mortal tackles many questions raised in A Death We Prefer.

(Disclaimer: These are my own views and do not reflect the views of the boards of JP Morgan US Smaller Co.s Investment Trust or Temple Bar Investment Trust or London Metropolitan University or Harmony Energy Income Trust, or Witan, where I serve as a non-exec director, and chair various committees at the time of writing.

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