Lecturer Futures Research Tessa Cramer — on futures thinking

By Martijn Ros - November 28, 2018

At dim-sum, we believe valuable solutions spring from a combination of relevant insights, co-creation and futures-, and design thinking. Also, we love meeting people and learning from them. Plenty of reason, therefore, to interview inspiring people that can teach us more about specific topics that shape our work. First up: Tessa Cramer, lecturer futures studies, (trend) research and sociology.

Futures thinking

Businesses need reliable ways to plan for the future. If your work is only based on insights from the past, you’re planning for what has already happened. Basically, you’re navigating by looking in the rear view mirror.

When incorporating smart ways to look ahead, businesses become able to anticipate change and identify ideas that will change their industry before having to adapt, because others have changed it. It allows you to make choices today with an understanding of how they might turn out.

Listen to futurist Peter Schwartz, explaining how futures scenario planning helped Shell make strategic decisions and how this technique even contributed to Hollywood movies. Or get inspired by one of the most famous futurists of all times, Nikola Tesla, who graces one of the most news-worthy tech companies of our time.

While we believe methods of ‘design thinking’ help our clients to find, test and develop new ideas, adding elements of ‘futures thinking’ to this practice, helps them to base ideas on much more relevant insights. That’s why we’ve developed a workshop to help teams shape this way of thinking.

For this piece, we’ve talked to Tessa Cramer; lecturer futures studies, (trend) research and sociology. Also, at the time of writing, Tessa is just weeks away from finalizing a Ph.D. program on the professionalization of futures studies. In her research, she focused on how futurists work, how the futurism-industry (assuming that actually exists as such) functions, and what its impact is.

We’re very thankful Tessa carved some time out of her busy schedule to answer our questions on the subject of Futures Thinking.

d-s: Thank you for taking the time to share your vision on a subject that you have been diving so amazingly deep in, over the past few years. What was it, that initially attracted you to the subject of futures thinking?

TC: I was attracted to the richness of the stories that futurists are able to tell. In those stories, I sensed intuitive as well as analytical aspects. Initially, I found beauty in how futurists integrate those supposed opposites.

Maybe you wouldn’t expect it, but for futurist scholars, there is a rich body of knowledge to turn to. For example, the seminal work of Wendell Bell (2003), and journals like Futures are thought-provoking. I noticed that many of this type of futurists focus on enhancing methodology, they ask: “how can we examine possible, probable or alternative futures with even more accuracy?

Simultaneously, there are also futurists that take a rather intuitive approach. With Dutch trend forecaster Lidewij Edelkoort as a leading example. These futurists sense which designs, colors and patterns will be relevant in fashion or design worlds. Their analysis is usually based on what futurists see on the street, read in magazines, newspapers, and books and by having conversations with frontrunners in the creative industry.

d-s: How has this evolved since you’ve started to engage with it professionally?

TC: Over the years I have learned that futures thinking is not something that anyone can just learn in an instance. It requires time and patience to become wise enough to work with the future. It appeals to me that I am never done learning, the future is always in flux, the topics change, and the methods advance.

In my practice as a teacher, I notice that there is a high demand for quick crash-courses. The participants expect to be able to work with the tools right away. And to get acquainted with futures thinking, I would encourage everyone to take one of those courses.

But if someone really wants to incorporate futures thinking in work, for example, to strategize, or to keep an eye on the long term, I would advise them to take more time to evolve their knowledge on the future.

d-s: In one of your talks, you explain the importance of future-literacy in comparison to understanding history, and I believe you feel learning to understand the future is at least as important as understanding history. Can you explain more about this?

TC: Somehow, the notion that history has already happened and thus makes it ‘true’ and/or ‘trustworthy’, has sunk deeply into our minds. But, our history books are just as much a product of their time as for how we narrate stories about the future.

For example, in most history books the Golden Century was described as a thriving, creative century for the Dutch. Only in hindsight, I learned that many have suffered tremendously during that time. Why didn’t I learn about that too? This brought me to question why I didn’t learn anything about the future in my history classes. Aren’t these perceptions of time interlinked?

These thoughts led me to the notion of ‘future literacy’. This is a term that futurists use to explain that working with the future is like learning a new language. Learning a language requires attention, one needs to get acquainted with new words and get a feel for the grammar. After that essential work is done, the fun starts: being able to communicate with other people.

It requires attention and a willingness to get familiar with a new language and even more time to be able to use it.

d-s: You’ve extensively researched and analyzed futurology as a profession. Let’s go ‘meta’ for a minute. How do you see the future of futures thinking?

TC: I expect that the role of futurists will gradually evolve towards facilitating reflective conversations. I think attentive, thorough discussions about possible futures should be part of anyone’s curriculum/life.

Additionally, futurists will have a significant role in educating others about the urgency to think about the longer term. For example, by guiding policymakers, businesses, and brands how wicked themes of our times can and should be addressed.

d-s: This sure sounds like you see a strong correlation between futures thinking and the field of design. Is this true, and how do you see the two intertwine / how do you see these fields develop and interact together?

TC: Those attentive, thorough discussions about the future do not happen overnight. Futurists are gifted in providing tools to start the conversation. At the same time, I see them struggling with the materialization of those conversations. Futurists are still trying to refine how to communicate and visualize the outcomes to be able to make their work worthwhile for a broader audience.

To stay up to date, I visit the Dutch Design Week in Eindhoven for instance. During those visits, I have particularly grown fond of social- and speculative design, like the work of Yi-Fei Chen or Arvid & Marie.

After a while, I started to see that the intention of these particular designers is not far removed from what futurists do. Social and speculative designers have a similar ability as futurists to spark conversation. I am very curious to see what would happen when futurists and designers start working together on projects (I’m guessing: firework!).

d-s: Besides designers, who else do you feel is responsible for designing an as-good-as-possible future for the world?

TC: I am, you are, all of us are. Responsibility is a term that I like to make as personal as possible. Since I started to understand that change is in the small things, and much closer than you may think, I have made a habit of asking myself: in what kind of world do I want to live? The answer determines the big and small choices that I make in life. Developing a compass like that is useful. Especially in these challenging, distracting times.

d-s: Final question. (How) do you see brands and business play a role in this?

TC: On the levels of business and brands: the movement of using scrum, agile and lean methods worries me a bit sometimes. The underlying assumption of these methods is that ‘now’ matters most. And I agree it is essential, but we need historical knowledge and future vision just as much.

I do trust that there is a lot of positive change on the horizon. For example, Kate Raworth’s alternative view of the economy is gaining more and more ground. The same goes for the Commons Movement that questions how resources should be distributed. I find it fascinating how quickly these new ideas stick, and I am happy to see how swiftly businesses and brands adapt to this changing societal mindset.

By Martijn Ros - November 28, 2018

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