Our work

Since 2011, we’ve been helping clients make things people want, rather than making people want things. So why do we do this, what does it look like, and where do we want to go next?

Client work

We have worked with over 90 clients on hundreds of projects since we started in 2011.

Below you will find a short descriptions of some of our most recent and favourite work. If you are interested in finding out about our work with other clients, which might align with your business or particular issue, please get in touch.

UNDP

Developing a Future Trends and Signals System

Since Autumn 2022, we have been working with the Strategy and Futures team from the Executive Office of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) to develop the Future Trends and Signals System (FTSS).

Alongside our regular collaborators and friends Changeist, we have been conducting research, running workshops, designing prototypes, building communities of practice and evaluating progress of the FTSS so far.

This work has been a privilege to be involved in; the FTSS is an important development that will help move UNDP to become a more anticipatory organisation in these challenging times.

Wellcome Trust

Scouting the emerging Climate and Health intersection

In 2023, we began work with the Climate & Health team at Wellcome Trust in a variety of different ways as they researched how climate emergency impacting the health of communities around the world, including adaptation and mitigation measures.

From facilitating reflections on how research funding can be improved in future, to building out frameworks for ongoing use by the team as they support community-led initiatives, we are committed to increasing the capacity and capabilities of the Wellcome Trust as they take on this vital work.

Unilever

Setting a strategy for building capabilities

Working with the team leading Unilever’s in-house academy, we worked during in 2021-22 to start shaping different ways of understanding and evaluating what was in place already, before helping structure a strategy to careful consider who and would be important in developing new skills.

Crucially, developing a systemic framework to categorise and prioritise initiatives became essential for a cross-disciplinary team in making major strides forward.

The Royal Society

Making Time Capsules from the Future

We were invited by The Royal Society to create a session for their fellowship of leading academics that demonstrated how design fiction could play a role in decision-making around policy.

We created the Time Capsule Retrieval Service, a fictional new department in The Royal Society that could reach forward into different future scenarios and find time capsules, which communities in that future had assembled to represent their lives.

We then asked the fellows what they felt these time capsules said about each future scenario, and what it should mean for setting policy for The Royal Society today.

Open to new projects and clients in 2024

We are open to conversations this year regarding new ad-hoc projects, and potentially one longer-term ongoing client, should our interests align.

“John is a truly inspiring person to learn from and to partner with. Always insightful, creative and generous with his thinking, ideas and delivery, he was instrumental in the marketing capabilities work we delivered for Unilever (2021/22) and a true partner in terms of ideating around the future of work, future skills and marketing innovation.  He is entirely unpretentious and pragmatic, whilst always stretching and challenging your assumptions and perspectives in the most motivating way.  A thoroughly enjoyable and effective, impactful partnership.”

Jo Royce

Unilever
“I’ve found that if you have half an idea that you are excited about – John probably has the other half. He has a generous imagination earthed in an intellectual rigour that makes him a rare bird. I have benefited from his eclectic frame of reference and uncanny ability to make generative connections between people, ideas, genres. Working with John feels like play – why isn’t all work like that?”

Tracey Camilleri

Thompson Harrison / Säid Business School
“Working with John is great. Not only do you get to experience his creative process, you also get exposure to the kaleidoscopic ecosystem that is Artefact Cards, Cardstock (all things cards), his amazingly insightful blogs and inspirational talks, and his network of other great craftspeople. I have learnt a lot. His easy manner and way with people, makes working with him a pleasure. He creates insightful outputs, with great passion and care, that inspired and influenced our stakeholders and allies.”

Jim Maltby

Principal Scientist, Dstl (MOD)
“We love working with John; he is an awesome source of brilliant ideas and endless energy in our creative process.”

Thomas Moradpour

The Glenmorangie Company
“Working with Smithery has been a brilliant adventure for my entire team. They are not afraid of a challenge and their creativity and passion have opened our minds up to more innovative ways of working by helping to shape our thinking, actions and behaviours. Their work has helped us to create the culture of change we’ve needed to continue on our path of growth.”

Julie Doleman

Experian
“John is the single most creatively fertile person I have met in the last five years”

Adam Morgan

Eat Big Fish
“Over the past four years John has supported our senior tutors by leading design and futures workshops, helped with career development for our students, provided expertise in a strategic capacity, and helped us reflect on our research approaches and practices. John is exceptionally trusted and has been invited back to the RCA Design Products programme on countless occasions. His professional approach, thought provoking expertise and outputs are still very welcome for the future.”

Dr Robert Phillips

Royal College of Art

Explorations

It has always been vital for us to push boundaries by working on our own research and projects.

We set aside time each year to work on a selection of projects, or teach experimental approaches in various different settings, in order to continually push both ourselves and the broader societal understanding of what is possible.

What follows is a small selection of some of the most interesting outputs that have changed the way we think and work. If you are interested in anything from the selection after reading, and want to talk about experiments we could do together, please get in touch.


Innovation and Future Thinking

Annual Summer Course at IED Barcelona

2024 marks the tenth anniversary of the Innovation and Future Thinking summer course John teaches with IED in Barcelona. It was originally started by Scott Smith of Changeist, and John taught two iterations of the course before taking over as the lead in 2017.

Each year we select a different theme specific to Barcelona (e.g. The Future of Food, Taking Care of Water), and bring in a raft of experts to help add context to that theme. It is an experimental teaching experience for the class and the teachers, and remains true to an initial vision set out by Scott and John to run a futures course ‘which could be taught on the streets’.


Light, not liquid

A transformative way of thinking about information today

At the core of our practice is a new philosophy about how to think about information. The language people use to describe information in organisations shapes all of our actions, especially when it comes to metaphors. Information is often described as if it were a liquid; a pool into which we plunge, a tank we seek to fill, a tidal wave from which we seek shelter.

It is more useful to think of information as light. Individual particles or pixels coming together to form a view, a glimpse, a perspective. If we shift our thinking as information as light, not liquid, we can begin to question every piece of information we see, understanding its true nature, and establish what happens when others see it.


Where the light gets in

A Regenerative Design Field Kit

Throughout 2023, we explored the shift from the concept of ‘sustainable’ to that of ‘regenerative’. The first output of this work is Where The Light Gets In, a Regenerative Design Field Kit to help expand your perspective as you reflect on the present and contemplate potential futures.

It contains a viewer to draw your focus to different objects or situations and a set of forty question cards to prompt further reflection. The questions were created by taking the four roles from the Design Council’s Systemic Design Framework, and pairing them with the capabilities from The RSA’s 10Cs framework. The first edition sold out in weeks, and the second edition is now available to buy.


The Steps Collective

Showing people where to start with their regenerative journey

The second output from our regeneration exploration is The Steps Collective, a group committed to sharing provocations that to get people thinking, doing and making in the regenerative space. Working with Dr. Rob Phillips (RCA), Lizzie Shupak (Curve) and Andy Thornton, we are committing to hosting and recording one sharing session each month during 2024, based on our Questions about Questions session from Autumn 2023.

We know taking the action that works for you is easier when you see and hear how others started. We want to help others take their own first steps towards a regenerative future, not necessarily as experts or professionals, but as parents, neighbours, colleagues and citizens.


Assemblage Space

Building a pragmatic extension to the futures cone

For the last ten years, the dominant mental framework in futures work has arguably been The Futures Cone, which we have used in both teaching and client work to help people think more broadly about what they may encounter over the long term. During this work, it became clear that the nature of the framework itself can be problematic at times.

Since 2020, we have been creating a framework called Assemblage Space, a new way for people to see themselves and their organisations situated in time. It considers not just the probable, plausible, possible and preposterous of the future, but guides you to contemplate the tangible, intangible, remembered and forgotten of your past. Most crucially, it makes you accept the ‘narrow now’, and how limiting single perspectives on both the past and the future can be.


Zenko Mapping

A non-linear strategic design framework

Since 2014, we been creating a framework that brings together two different scaling factors. Firstly, how we create meaning and intent socially, from individuals, through groups, in populations. Secondly, it considers how we make things materially, from an initial sketch, through a scaffolding phase, to the final construction.

This framework is called Zenko Mapping. It instinctively helps people and teams understand where they are in a process, where else they might look to advance, and what it means to do the next right thing. As well as using this framework ourselves on client projects and in teaching, we have created custom versions for several clients to help improve their effectiveness in developing new projects and evaluating existing processes.


Artefact Cards

High quality tools for playing with ideas

At the very beginning of Smithery, John was running a workshop where he decided to commission some blank playing cards to use instead of post-it notes. Originally, his hypothesis was that people would treat a better ‘artefact’ on which to write ideas with more respect and make something better as a result.

Whilst this happened, the group also started, without prompting, to use all the cards together as playing cards. They would shuffle, deal, stack, and reorder, lending the session an even greater sense of creativity and possibility. Artefact Cards soon became a highly successful side project which is still popular around the world today.

Our story

Smithery

(smith-uh-ree)

Noun.

i. the trade or craft of a smith
ii. the place where a smith works

I.

Smithery started in 2011 as an innovation consultancy, founded by John V Willshire. The guiding principle was to help organisations make things people want, rather than make people want things.

John was previously Chief Innovation Officer at a media agency in London, where he had worked for seven years. What he found curious was that despite the continuing rise of the internet, clients were still focussed only on short-term and shallow ways to use it to sell more of their existing products and services.

There was an opportunity to rebuild businesses with customers, from the initial research phase, through co-design, to marketing products and services at the end. It was possible to innovate in the 21st century in a completely different way, and there were enough visionary clients around who could glimpse it too.

II.

A few years into this first phase of Smithery, something became clear. The success of any innovation work was not simply dependent on the quality of it.

A new idea could be excellent, yet still bump into problems trying to get through an organisation; “We like it, but it’s not the right time”. To succeed in innovation, Smithery needed to operate with more systemic sensibilities.

Around 2014, Smithery became a Strategic Design practice, working in the liminal space between departments and disciplines, roles and responsibilities. Innovation work was a part of the process, but a broader scope was needed to understand how organisations could become more anticipatory and adaptable in rapidly changing times.

In 2016, Helen Willshire joined too, bringing a raft of public sector experience from the strategy department of Transport for London to complement John’s private sector experience. The nature of Smithery’s work expanded, taking more formal inspiration from futures thinking and systems thinking in order to shape pioneering new frameworks and practices.

III.

Today, Smithery is a vital partner for a variety of different organisations. We work especially well with those who value the benefits of combining deep thinking with exploratory action, in order to reframe and rethink a strategy fit for the future.

Rather than scaling to remain in one static domain, Smithery is a business which operates at scale when exploring new territories with clients. Our network of friends and collaborators are some of the brightest minds in any business, and where appropriate we will form amazingly inspiring teams to take on the toughest challenges.

Beyond this, Smithery is committed to expanding the knowledge base of these emergent ways of working. This means regularly working in the open to develop new frameworks and concepts, speaking at seminars and conferences, and releasing new experimental tools through the shop.

Open to new projects and clients in 2024

We are open to conversations this year regarding new ad-hoc projects, and potentially one longer-term ongoing client, should our interests align.