24. May 2022
Six Ways to Create our Future Society
If we are to address the thorny challenges and crises facing our societies, our current approach to innovation is no longer sufficient. In our new book, EXPAND, my co-author Jens Martin Skibsted and I make six suggestions on the thinking we need for the journey ahead
New College at the University of Oxford was built in 1379. Particularly famous is the school’s beautiful dining room. The vaulted ceiling of giant oak beams evokes thoughts of scenes from Hogwarts in the Harry Potter films.
However, in the middle of the 20th century, a problem arose at New College. During a routine inspection, it turned out that the oak planks were infested with beetles. They had to be replaced – soon.
The school fellows were bewildered. Where should one get that amount of oak? And even worse: even if obtained, how would they pay for it?
Then one of the board members suggested that they could use some of the old oak trees that grew in a grove on the school grounds. The college forester responded promptly:
“Well, sirs, we was wonderin’ when you’d be askin’.”
Indeed, back in the 15th century, New College’s board had been so foresighted as to plant the oak trees if, in the future, there would be a need to replace the beams in the dining room ceiling. And there was – more than 500 years later.
The story illustrates the value of extremely long-term planning. It’s an example of the kind of thinking we need today if we are to address the world’s most complex and turbulent problems.
Six new ways of thinking
In the book EXPAND: Stretching the Future by Design, published on May 24, 2022, we point out six ways to expand our thinking and design the innovative solutions of the future – whether the starting point is startup management, corporations, foundations, or public sector organizations. Expanded thinking is essential for creating a sustainable society; humanity’s only hope for long-term survival.
The six ways of thinking are in brief:
We must radically expand the time horizon of our thinking. The science fiction genre is an excellent source of inspiration. It gives us wild, creative bids for possible futures. We should systematically build scenarios for more alternative futures to deal with uncertainty and qualify the future we want – far more than we do now. Specifically, we need to move away from quarterly accounts and three-year strategic plans. Instead, we need to move to strategic thinking in the long and ultra-long term – from 10 to 15 or 300 years or more. We have to do this because none of the planet’s biggest challenges will be solved in a decade or two. Most importantly, the transitions we need to a CO2-neutral society require long-term visions, alliances, and investments. Since 2015, we have used the UN World Goals for 2030 as a reference, and that time has soon passed. We need even longer and more ambitious goals next time.
One of the biggest challenges of our time is the lack of ethical action. An action that is performed with profound responsibility for people and our planet, not because we have to but because we should. To promote ethical action, we must rethink what it means to be “close” to a problem or another human being. Specifically, we need new grips that expand our empathy. An example is Olafur Eliasson’s melting ice blocks on Rådhuspladsen (to remind us of the climate crisis) or the Red Cross’ experience center in Østerbro, where you follow in the footsteps of a refugee through a virtual reality experience. Instead of just a few decision-makers being flown to a refugee camp to experience it in real life, thousands of people – from young activists to business leaders – can get a close, personal and hands-on experience of what it means to be a refugee. Closeness motivates action: more fundraising, more investment, more volunteering, and better decisions that benefit nature and people.
We are now in a place in technological development where we increasingly have to question what is alive and what is not. We can extend life through medicine, physical intervention, and avatars – digital versions of ourselves that live on when our bodies are dead. The development might lead to wild consequences, which the British series Black Mirror has explored (i.e., what happens if your digital self is revived as a physical robot?) At the same time, architects are experimenting with building materials of mycelium and other living organisms that can repair themselves. Will the houses of the future thus come to life? We need to broaden our perspective on what is alive and worth caring for. In some societies, nature, such as rivers, has been ascribed rights. One day we have to ask ourselves, what right do we have to cut down a tree? By beginning to take care of everything living, we ensure the planet’s biodiversity and thus the survival of our species.
Time has long since passed from a narrow economic perspective on value creation. Not only must we expand what is valuable from financially measurable parameters to environmental and social sustainability. At the same time, it is evident that we must change society’s value-creating model from linear to circular, where we keep resources in a continuous flow and regenerate the environment. We also have to extend the circular model to understand that all value creation occurs in mutual relations in networks. And we must increasingly create value openly and transparently rather than closed and protected.
Even today, Danish fund-owned companies like Grundfos and Leo Pharma dare to set long-term goals for societal value, such as clean drinking water or healthy skin. And Ørsted recently stated that it is ready to share knowledge and collaborate with competitors to create a sustainable market for energy solutions in the future. As a company, you have to stop thinking about value chains and start thinking about ecosystems.
You can only leave a positive impact on the world as an organization by expanding your perspective on all the relations you enter.
First of all, we need to think in several dimensions simultaneously: digital and physical; ultra-small and massive; human and machine. Silicon Valley tech giants have given us the notion that intelligent machines will take over everything one day – that’s what American technology guru Ray Kurzweil calls ‘the singularity’. But that future is neither necessary nor desirable. There is no doubt that we need even more intelligent machines if we want to solve the challenges of the future in, for example, health. But the most attractive future is one where we humans simultaneously retain our freedom. And here’s the good news. Who can beat the world’s best chess computer? A human being in collaboration with a chess computer. We must create new alliances with artificial intelligence and creative tasks within design and architecture – something the Danish architectural firm 3XN already does. With wise use of artificial intelligence, we can increase our freedom, not decrease it.
Finally, the time has come to rethink how we understand sectors. We have to let go of the prejudices. Far more innovation than most people think is driven and funded by the public sector. Think of the Internet, the GPS, and even Teflon – the latter was one of the countless by-products of the American mission to the moon. Conversely, the private sector is now gaining ground in traditional public areas such as aerospace. In addition, philanthropic foundations play an increasingly important role. Not least here in Denmark, where we would not have the research, cultural life, architecture, or social efforts we have today without them. The future belongs to the actors who expand their thinking, work synergistically between sectors, and create new mission-oriented hybrid organizations and platforms.
A specific example is the EU Commission’s ambitious New European Bauhaus project, which invests in bringing art, architecture, and design to the forefront of Europe’s green transformation. The effort focuses not only on climate goals but also on aesthetics and social cohesion. The Danish subproject works across research, the public, the private, and civil society with philanthropic foundations.
Leaders who want to expand their thinking and shape tomorrow’s solutions can bring these six ways of thinking into play right away. Either to challenge the way you understand problems or as a “creative leg brace” to drive idea and concept development. Or as a way to test new ideas.
And what about the story from Oxford’s New College? It turns out that the oak trees on the school grounds were probably not planted to replace the school’s roof structure. The school first took over the land ownership of the trees in the year 1441. However, this does not change the fact that the oak trees were planted for use far into the future, making it possible to renovate the school’s roof. History shows us that what must create a sustainable society is the same thing that has brought humanity to where we are today: our imagination.
Read a summary of ‘EXPAND: Stretching the Future by Design’, order your copy, and stay updated on relevant talks from the authors here.
Read the article in Danish in the news outlet Mandag Morgen here.
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