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7+1 tips for identifying weak signals

How to broaden our views of the future and recognise emergent phenomena?

Mikko Dufva

Writer

Mikko Dufva

Leading Specialist, Foresight, Sitra

Published

Mikko Dufva

Writer

Mikko Dufva

Leading Specialist, Foresight, Sitra

Published

The futurist Jim Dator has pointed out that all useful ideas about the future seem ridiculous in the present. In saying this, Dator wants to emphasise that it’s important to challenge your assumptions about the future and to try to think of as many different future scenarios as possible. On the one hand, this helps you prepare for different futures and, on the other, to have a richer debate on what kind of future we really want.

All useful ideas about the future seem ridiculous in the present.

Thinking about non-obvious future scenarios is especially important when there is much uncertainty, things are interdependent and complex and they involve a lot of contradictions. The futurist Ziaddin Sardar refers to this as the postnormal times. In this situation, it is important to challenge ideas about what is considered normal and to perceive the things that are not part of trend-oriented thinking about the future.

One way to expand your thinking about the future is to identify weak signals. A weak signal is a sign of a potential emerging issue or the first symptom of change. It is by definition new and surprising but also potentially significant. A weak signal may seem ridiculous or inconceivable because it challenges our existing views of the world and the future.

Tips for identifying weak signals

On 11 June 2018, Sitra organised the National Foresight Network’s Foresight Monday event on weak signals. The event was addressed by Jerome Glenn, an experienced futurist and CEO of  The Millennium Project. The following are his tips for identifying weak signals:

  1. Listen to a wide range of visionaries, innovators, futurists and other people who seem to be ahead of most people.
  2. Find out who those people monitor and where they get their inspiration for their ideas.
  3. Use crowdsourcing, Delphi surveys, social media and brainstorming workshops.
  4. Use automatic aggregators (such as RSS) to find news on a given topic.
  5. Seek inspiration from sci-fi literature to find new ideas on what to look for.
  6. Listen to people who think differently than you and find out what they think is important.
  7. Browse local news to identify topics and themes that are not yet covered by national media.

Use historical analogies to look for things that gave an early indication of the change to come.

Interpretation

After collecting weak signals, you need to interpret their meaning. Jerome Glenn recommended using the Futures Wheel for this purpose and conducting cross-impact analysis. With the Futures Wheel involves you first think about the impacts of a signal, then the impacts of those impacts and, ideally, the impacts of the impacts of the impacts. Cross-impact analysis, on the other hand, involves comparing the impacts between many different signals: how one thing described by one signal would affect another thing described by another signal.

What can a weak signal tell us about daily life in the future?

At our Foresight Monday event held on 11 June 2018, we applied a story-based approach. The aim was to make the future more tangible and familiar and to approach it from a human perspective. Each participant was assigned one weak signal and they were asked to think about what the signal is about and what its potential impacts might be. Based on this, the participants wrote a brief description of a future person and one of their daily activities, such as eating, travel or work. The participants then discussed their stories with the person seated next to them. The signals and templates used at the event can be downloaded here.

Theme

Foresight and insight

Sitra produces long-term foresight data in anticipation of the future. In addition, we aim to support Finnish society in interpreting and making use of this data. This work will help decision-makers, companies, communities and individuals, to prepare for the future.

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