How to Think about the Future

July 12, 2021 10:24 am

More and more professionals are analysing future scenarios in order to prepare their companies for the challenges they may face. We spoke with several alumni who have analysed upcoming trends.

Futurists collect data, identify trends, study emerging technologies and design prototypes of the future to anticipate changes and provide guidance to business leaders.

By creating scenarios, they are able to imagine different futures as an extrapolation or divergence from current trends. Testing responses to such futures can help policy-makers develop resilient policies capable of withstanding uncertainty.

According to Forbes, Spain’s best futurists include several Esade alumni: Isabel de Salas (EMMV ‘11), Director of Strategy at Picnic; Lola Elejalde (Programme for Directors ‘20), Director of Foresight at the Basque Innovation Agency (Innobasque); Alfons Cornella (BBA ‘94), founder of Next Institute; Javier Creus (MBA ‘86), founder of Ideas for Change; Mónica Quintana (Promociona ‘20), founder and Director of Mindset; Pablo Rodríguez (Corporate Entrepreneurship ‘11), Ambassador at Google X; Iván Bofarull (CE Lic&MBA ‘97/Vicençs Vives), Chief Innovation Officer at Esade; Marcos Urarte (Business Opportunities ‘97), President of Pharos; and Ignacio Villoch (The Global CCO ‘13), Events and Innovation Activities Manager at BBVA.

We spoke with some of them

Javier Creus (MBA ’86), founder of Ideas for Change

At Ideas for Change, you conduct pioneering research on innovation with impact and design #FuturesThatRock. How do you identify future strategies?

My first tip is to look back “from” the future: place yourself mentally in the next wave of social and technological innovation. When you think from today into the future, you are projecting the known. Barriers appear close and insurmountable. By anticipating the new conditions of the system, you can broaden your vision of what is possible. The existing barriers look like anachronisms in terms of legitimate resistance.

My second tip is, from this future perspective, review the value of what you already have to contribute to the construction of the future. Assets that are critical in today’s context may become banal. Or vice versa: assets considered marginal today may become critical in the new scenario. If you already have a piece of the future puzzle in your pocket, you can face the future with more confidence and proactivity.

Then it’s just a matter of imagining better systems, disruptive combinations of what you have, what is coming and other things, so that you can do more with less and better.

What major challenges will companies be facing in 10 years’ time?
In my opinion, the relevant timeframe is actually shorter than that. A window of 5-7 years has opened up for us to redesign many of the basic systems of our lives: energy, mobility, education and healthcare. Structural transition periods cannot be too long, otherwise the emerging system will become hegemonic and begin its cycle of exploitation. The opportunity arises from the social plasticity of citizens and companies as they reorganise themselves for missions during the pandemic, take up forgotten pre-pandemic agendas – inequality, the planet – and leverage the next cycle of innovation in the environmental internet and citizen data governance.

Iván Bofarull (CE Lic&MBA 97/ Vicençs Vives 09), Chief Innovation Officer at Esade

What are your responsibilities as Chief Innovation Officer at Esade?
My main responsibility is to identify areas in which innovation can have a multiplier effect for Esade. To do this, not only is it important to know which startups and technologies are changing specific areas of learning, but you also need to have an in-depth understanding of what Esade’s strategy should be and why. The best companion of innovation is strategy, since you cannot innovate in everything, so you have to know how to make specific choices among multiple alternatives. Moreover, you have to see what is not obvious within those decisions, since innovation is not about replicating what others do simply to make yourself look good. We call that “innovation theatre” and it is very common in the corporate world.

You are a professor in disruptive innovation programmes and the author of the book Moonshot Thinking. How do you think disruptive innovation can be transformed into an opportunity?
Moonshot thinking is a mental model that requires getting into the habit of asking “What would have to happen in order to improve by 10x instead of 10%?” This is a catalytic question, because it forces you to rethink models – for example, our business model – from scratch, starting from first principles. It also forces you to think of a space where you could escape from competition, instead of competing against everyone. And it also forces you to think from the perspective of the problem, rather than the product. By forcing you to go to these extremes, this way of thinking allows you to anticipate possible areas of disruption that would otherwise have remained in your blind spot. So it gives you a window of time to become the disruptor.

What major challenges do you think companies will be facing in 10 years’ time?
The main challenge for companies is to put the future on the agenda of the present. We tend to do the opposite: plan for the future with the resources and capabilities of the present. This leads you to extrapolate linearly. The abundance of data only exacerbates this bias. In a data-driven world, since data looks backwards, we tend to create futures as extrapolations of the past. This is highly problematic, since disruptive innovation is not linear and is often not 100% backed by data evidence. The only way to overcome this paradox is to build optionality: make small bets, sometimes contrary to what the majority thinks, in order to experiment with possible future scenarios.

Lola Elejalde (Programme for Directors ‘20), Director of Foresight at the Basque Innovation Agency (Innobasque)

What are your responsibilities as Director of Foresight at Innobasque?

My responsibilities are a part of Innobasque’s efforts to ensure that foresight is systematically incorporated into the science, technology and innovation policies as well as the innovation strategies and processes of Basque organisations.

To this end, we carry out foresight studies and prepare reports aimed at raising awareness about trends in innovation, in innovation policies, systems and models, and about the megatrends that could have the greatest impact on the Basque Country. We also identify the main opportunities and threats to innovation in the medium and long term and prioritise the most relevant technologies to be developed or applied in various areas.

The ultimate goal is for our foresight reports to inform decisions about the future and translate into actions that begin in the present.

We also believe that organisations should cultivate a “foresight culture”. It is not enough for our agency to inform or provide guidance on general innovation issues. Each organisation or company needs to be able to translate our reports to their specific reality. They must also monitor megatrends and the most influential factors in their sector, business, etc., while also imagining futures and identifying opportunities and threats.

We organise sessions where we share good practices and provide organisations with a simple tool for understanding their foresight profile. Based on this result, they have access to training and support for specific projects through a network of expert organisations that have partnered with Innobasque.

We make the demand for solutions grow, connect it with supply, and work to make both supply and demand more sophisticated.

How do you identify future strategies?

We understand foresight exercises as participatory processes. We therefore carried out the identification and prioritisation of the impacts of megatrends, and the consequent prioritisation of opportunities and threats, in collaboration with more than 260 experts from the Basque science, technology and innovation ecosystem. Each agent then transfers these conclusions in the most appropriate way to their own innovation strategies and processes.

For our part, the information and knowledge derived from the foresight exercises inform policy-makers, specifically in the definition, implementation, monitoring and adaptation – if necessary – of the science, technology and innovation plan.

What major challenges do you think companies will be facing in 10 years’ time?

Companies and society in general are immersed in the digital and sustainable-circular transitions, which are already well known. From an innovation standpoint, these transitions require radical, profound and transformative changes in complete, complex systems. In this change process, companies will be key players in defining and implementing collective agendas oriented towards a shared vision. This is how society understands things. In the most recent Edelman trust barometer, for the first time in the 20 years that this global study has been carried out, businesses were found to be the most trusted institution (61% of Spaniards believe that business leaders should take the lead in solving social problems, 52% believe that they should take the initiative in change and 81% believe that they should speak publicly about social challenges).

We are already seeing this trend today in the growing strategic importance of environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues in corporate boardrooms.

Moreover, in an environment where change will continue to accelerate and become more far-reaching and profound, digital technologies and the convergence of multiple technologies have the potential to be disruptive. Against this backdrop, the challenge for companies will be to combine the optimisation of traditional businesses with the systematic exploration of new opportunities – that is, to combine incremental and disruptive innovation, connecting or creating ecosystems that complement capabilities and accelerate innovation.

Finally, companies are already facing the great challenge of talent, not only in terms of attracting people, but also in the adaptation of structures and forms of management for the coexistence of several generations with very different values and profiles, the continuous training of people and the search for diversity, which has a direct impact on innovation and business results. In this regard, my hope is that the gender gap will be eliminated at all levels of the business world within the next ten years.