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  • Date: 5/8/2013

”There is no direct route to the future.“ 

Interview with Stephan Sigrist, Head of the W.I.R.E. think tank

Why research the future?

Stephan Sigrist: Everybody researches the future, I’d say they’re even doing it on a daily basis. You might just be thinking about your future career or simply wondering which clothes to put on. If we didn’t think about the future, we would make substantially inferior decisions. Future research provides us with security and a foundation for planning and ultimately impels us to consider trends that are not yet relevant but could become so in the future.

Your scientific approach to the subject of future research differs significantly from that of the layperson. What are the inherent challenges?

Stephan Sigrist: As we all know, the future cannot be predicted, at least not beyond a very limited degree. Nevertheless, there are exceptions. The first step in the scientific approach to future research is to distinguish between those areas in which reasonable predictions can be made and those where this is not possible. While predictions can clearly be made in Newtonian physics or astronomy, it is much more difficult when it comes to trends in society or the economy. In the latter case, there are numerous factors involved which do not fit into any descriptive models. This fact must be addressed. However, it is not the aim of our think tank to make precise forecasts predicting what certain aspects of the world will look like in 10 or 20 years’ time. The aim of our analysis is to make people think on a broader scale. We want companies and political institutions to assess various trends and develop resolution methods. With a range of different responses at hand, society and the economy stand a better chance when it comes to dealing with challenges.

How do you evaluate your research? Once again, there are probably no clear scientific criteria which forecasts can be measured against.

Stephan Sigrist: It is often postulated that future research is only successful if certain forecasts turn out to be true. In my opinion, it makes more sense to look at market success. The research we carry out is successful if our forecasts help companies or political institutions achieve a solid and sustainable position on the market or develop a strategy to resolve a current problem.

Do you empathize with people who fear the future? After all, there are a number of ominous trends on the horizon that threaten our current lifestyle or at least call it into question.

Stephan Sigrist: Yes, that is a feeling that I can understand. Fear is a fundamental disposition inherent in us all. However, if one looks back on the last few thousand years, the quality of life in the developed world has improved dramatically, especially where health, wealth and security are concerned. Globally, fewer people live in extreme poverty, the fundamental trend is therefore positive. Of course, this does not mean that we shouldn’t take a critical view of certain developments, such as global warming or the financial crisis. Nevertheless, I believe that one can, to some degree, trust in people’s ability to do the right thing when it comes to the crunch. We may make mistakes along the way, but that’s part of human nature – we learn from our mistakes.

Is the trial-and-error approach your tip on how to become fit for the future?

Stephan Sigrist: Absolutely! These days, we expect to have complete control of our private, business and political life. We are no longer used to dealing with unexpected developments. I believe we have to adopt a more humble attitude and recognize that there is no direct route to the future. The Excel tables and SAP systems in use suggest reliable planning conditions that ultimately do not exist. The only real way forward is to gather your courage and launch the projects you believe in regardless of whatever resistance you may meet. My specific profession aside, I personally believe that it really pays off to conduct systematic research into longterm developments because, ultimately, it helps us make sensible decisions.

Earlier, you mentioned global warming and the financial crisis. Are there any trends that have not yet appeared on the public radar which could become important in the future?

Stephan Sigrist: Yes, certainly, but it is more important to realize that, these days, we tend to focus exclusively on certain trends and analyze them with a one-dimensional frame of mind. We pick up on certain issues but don’t think them through to the end. One example of this is urbanization. Everybody is talking about megacities but few people are coming up with sustainable concepts for the rural areas surrounding these cities. Digitalization is another trend that is getting the onedimensional treatment. Since 2007, we have been producing more data than we can store. In the coming years, we will be confronted with the fact that more is not necessarily better and can actually have a negative effect on productivity. One should keep in mind that the internet does not provide us with a comprehensive basis for decision making but only with individual data points. We often jump from one subject to the next, which leads to a decline in logical thinking and creativity. Hence, the challenge of the coming years is not to generate more data but to derive useful foundations for decision making.

Could you suggest a suitable strategy for dealing with the imminent information and data overload?

Stephan Sigrist: We have to rethink our approach and develop a range of streamlining models. This could be achieved by simple methods and does not necessarily require new software algorithms. People could also choose to retreat from the flood of information, they don’t have to be reachable 24 hours a day. They could simply write emails when they are really necessary. We could perhaps learn from the past and approach emails as if we were writing a letter, i.e. think first about what is really important. This requires personal responsibility. Rather than using technology just because it is there, we should use it only when it results in actual benefits.

What will the workplace of the future look like?

Stephan Sigrist: With digitalization allowing us to access data no matter where we are and with meetings being held on Skype, it is often suggested that there will no longer be a need for physical workplaces. I am not one of those who believe that it is possible to virtualize interaction between people. On the contrary, due to the increase in electronic communication, interaction between people is likely to become even more important. However, this does not mean that we should all work in openplan offices; instead, we must distinguish between those aspects of our work that can be accomplished electronically and those that will continue to require personal contact. Hence, the workplace of the future will have to include both space for interaction and space where people can work without distraction. The issue at hand, however, is not just office design but also geographical location. In Zurich, many big enterprises, for example banks, are leaving the city center and moving to the outskirts. As a consequence, we’ll end up with districts dominated by certain industries without the counterbalance of people working in different sectors. In my point of view, this is a negative development. It is important for the different professions, be they bankers, researchers, designers or tradespersons, to meet and discuss matters. Otherwise, they will lose track of each other’s trades and crucial opportunities for innovation will be missed.

We have talked a lot about change. In your opinion, is there anything that will never change?

Stephan Sigrist: People will never change – as long as we don’t turn into cyborgs.

 

Interview: Sarah Hefti, Marketing & Communications

 

Stephan Sigrist

Stephan Sigrist

 

Head of the W.I.R.E. think tank