Living in a time of disruption creates opportunities for deep reflection. For most of us the last 12 months has been a sustained period of change and the questions that we have been pondering have been profound.
Many of us have been wondering; are our outputs important or even relevant in this new world? Do we find our jobs meaningful? Do we live in a sustainable way or are we adding the problems?
These are hard questions to answer. However, as a society, we are understanding that our ‘normal’ lives were not sustainable. They were depleting our mental, physical and environmental resources. This leads to an additional question. Who is responsible for this state of depletion? For most of us it is a mixture of our personal choices and ones that have been made for us. That is a troubling thing to contemplate. In some areas of our life, we have been living like spectators watching our future being created for us by others. And unfortunately, often those people do not hold our wellbeing as a top priority.
There is a saying, ‘Life is not a spectator sport’. This has never been truer as we move through a period of rapid transition. Being a spectator is problematic as it can lead to a dystopian future based on desires that are not our own.
It is important to start envisioning a desirable vision of the future, and then to actively start moving towards it. Shifting from a passive to an active stance is what creates new possibilities, providing reasons to dream of a better world and to start making different choices. The first step of creating a new future is to start building new scenarios based on what the world should be.
Strong Vs Weak Signals
One of the first steps towards building a new future scenario is discovering social and environmental trends that are or will influence our futures. These trends are called signals. Futurists use signals to start analysing how trends will grow and influence society over time. There are two types of signals, strong and weak.
A strong signal is a group of trends that are easy to identify and be aware of. An example of a strong signal is an aging population or shifts towards knowledge-based economies. Most organisations and individuals have no problems identifying and expanding on these trends. We are able to consider their consequences and be prepared for them as we approach the future.
A weak signal, on the other hand, is not as easy to identify. It is a small indicator of something that might emerge as a potential greater change. They differ from strong signals because it is not as easy to imagine the consequences of their expansion. Weak signals are used to identify trends that could one day influence the future in a profound way. To discover weak signals, one must look to the edges of mainstream movements and societies. This is where things just out of the ordinary emerge. In the future they could turn into strong signals that could have positive or negative consequences.
An example of a weak signal is a new social media channel that is growing in popularity or a new way of teaching at an academic institution or a start-up that has found a radical new solution to an old problem. It might even be passionate users of particular products and services that take on a culture of their own.
Paying attention to these micro trends are important, because some of them could go onto shape the future in big ways. And because their impact is still small it is possible to create different alternative futures based on their potential impacts. The more versions of futures are created, the easier it becomes to find the most desirable version of the future. Being able to imagine different possibilities requires creativity. The very best version of the future could be one that was difficult to imagine before.
Discovering Weak Signals
Paying attention to weak signals is one of the most important parts of speculating about the future. And while they are critical, it is important to not have a narrow focus. This can lead our thinking into pigeonholes.
When trying to discover weak signals it is important to keep an open mind. Try to look where very few people are investigating. Look into spaces that are relatively unknown. Fundamentally it is about going beyond the margins and diving deeper into non obvious facts.
Futurist Amy Webb has identified 11 sources of disruption or macro change that organisations should look out for when speculating about the future. Webb has developed a process called the Future Forces Theory. She has constructed a framework based on weak signals as sources of disruption.
Webb explains that, “Organisations must pay attention to all 11 as they track trends. Leaders must connect the dots back to their industries and companies and position teams to take incremental actions”.
After collecting obscure information and their related signals, use the power of speculation to make connections with some of the sources to start developing different scenarios. This is a start to speculating about the future. As a place to start, download Webb’s tool as a resource here.
Building A Vision Of The Future For Organisations
It is important to understand that a future vision, even if it is a desirable one for an organisation, is only one of many possibilities. Allow the vision and path forward to evolve over time. A good way to think about a desirable future vision is a light from a faraway beacon. It’s not clear enough to see the details but sets a direction to move towards. Once the path forward is set it is possible to create experiments to rapidly learn from. This helps to stay in the right direction and to detour when needed. Building a desirable future is like leading an innovation project. Innovation doesn’t occur in a straight line; it evolves through cycles of experimentation and learning. It requires an open mindset to examine what emerges from each stage of the journey.
Echos was engaged by a government agency that manages workplace health, safety and injuries in Australia. They recognised the importance of creating a new vision of the future for 2049. They were aware of troubling weak signals that could create a path towards an undesirable future. They needed to act now to create a new vision of what was possible and work towards that new future.
Echos helped to define a new possible future that moved them from an organisation focused on recovery from workplace injuries to one that prevented them and promoted wellbeing. A new future scenario for 2049 created a vision where injuries at work will be reduced by the proliferation of AI and automation technologies with machines doing physically and mentally unsafe tasks. In addition to this Illnesses will be reduced due to the development of predictive, wearable, embedded health and work technologies. Global digital health platforms like Google and Amazon health could set a higher baseline for wellbeing. In their preferred 2049 there will be a shift from recovery to wellbeing as new technologies solve for the key problems we face today.
This vision is now shaping the decisions made at every level of the organisation. Each new innovation and change in their processes will continue to guide them on this path towards this future scenario in 2049.
In another project we partnered with the Brazilian Government to redesign the private healthcare system’s remuneration model. Dealing with multiple stakeholders with different schedules on such a big scale, taught us that defining a shared purpose with the various stakeholders is crucial for reaching a desirable future. This brought the vision of the future into reality as each cohort could understand how this new future would benefit their lives.
What The Future Holds
There are no certainties about the future, only speculation. The importance of planning and creating possibilities has never been more critical. As we strive to redesign systems and discover better ways to live in the next normal, we will require a vision of where we want to be.
Paying attention to weak signals is only part of the process of designing desirable futures. To learn more about shaping the world to come explore our Desirable Futures Experience.
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