Foresee the future – make the future!

Written by:
Sirkka Heinonen
Professor, Finland Futures Research Centre (FFRC) University of Turku

As futures researchers, we build scenarios of possible futures and point out the probable ones, along with the threats and the opportunities they entail. We should, however, be paying more attention to preferred futures. What do we want the futures to be?

A preferred future is not necessarily a probable one, and while striving for it, we face major challenges. In order to identify these challenges as early as possible, we look for signals, strongest of them being megatrends, such as climate change, urbanization and digitalization.

From a climate perspective, a preferred future is undoubtedly emission-free. Today, an emission-free future also qualifies as a surprising future, as unexpected developments would be required to rid us of carbon emissions in some 50 years or so. Let’s take a closer look at what these unexpected things – surprises – might be.

Preparing for black swans and wild cards

As societies become more complex, there will be more and more surprises that break the linear path we think we’re on. Some of these surprises will radically change our societies, and will thereafter be referred to as black swans or wild cards.

By definition, surprises do just that – surprise us – but, we can still do our best to anticipate them by identifying the weak signals. We can prepare ourselves to embrace the wanted surprises and cope with unwanted ones, thus strengthening our resilience.

When considering an emission-free future and the path to achieving it, a dramatic, disrupting event could be, for example, a powerful backlash from the fossil fuel industry or countries which depend on it. A less dramatic but very powerful change is happening right now. Who would have predicted ten years ago the sharp drop in the cost of solar panels?

The fact that individuals can now produce electricity may function as a signal of a future where consumers have become producers on a larger scale, and a new business logic emerges in a peer-to-peer society.

As surprises tend to spread from one area to another, those of us in futures research, conduct so called PESTEC analyses that cover Politics, Economics, Society, Technology, Environment and Culture.

Desirable surprises by radical innovators

Avoiding or preparing for unwanted surprises is important, but the most successful individuals, companies and societies know how to promote wanted surprises. We need visionary leaders and radical innovators to grab our major challenges and offer surprising solutions. This is what Solar Foods is doing and what earned them the Pentti Malaska Futures Award.

Solar Foods has combined solid scientific research with bold business ideas. They have offered one solution to at least two extremely challenging megatrends – climate change and the unequal distribution of food. Solar Foods make protein rich food from CO2 and water and electricity.
In an emission-free future, CO2 emissions are turned into raw material. For that to happen, we need more positive surprises. And we will get them by envisioning the preferred future. We can make the future.