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How to understand the future

Societal development is accelerating. Governments, authorities, companies and other actors need to become better at understanding the future to strengthen their ability to deal with change and new challenges. Vinnova is now stepping up the work of strategically analyzing what awaits around the corner.

This web page has been machine translated. If there are any uncertainties, please refer to the Swedish text.

Society is changing at an unprecedented rate. The challenges that need to be addressed are also of a different nature than what we are used to and the conditions are changing rapidly. The need to be able to look ahead has therefore increased.

Foresight, or future analysis as it is also called, is about identifying signals and information and based on that preparing for the future. It can be about changed behaviors, new business models or new services that in combination with new technology create completely new conditions for how we, for example, live, work and transport ourselves in the future.

It may be a weak signal in behaviors or technological changes that may become stronger or that can be seen in several parts of the world that gives a picture of the direction in which development is heading.

But it does not work to sit in your chamber and just speculate about the future, you need to systematically collect and analyze information from several different sources and based on that make analyzes of what is likely. There are a number of different methods and tools for this.

The future is unpredictable

Tamara Carleton, CEO of Innovation Leadership Group and author of Playbook for Strategic Foresight and Innovation, describes future analysis as the ability to plan for the future.

- Strategic foresight is based on choices we make today that aim to influence actions in the future. A way to not miss anything is to collect indicators for social, technological, economic, environmental and political trends, she says.

She also believes that in this type of analysis, one needs to accept or even acknowledge ambiguity.

- You often do not know the answers to begin with, sometimes not even what questions to ask. One method is to make future scenarios and look at whether something can happen, how likely it is and if it is something we want to happen, she says.
As soon as someone tells you what will happen, you can assume that they are wrong. Or as Nicklas Bergman, a serial entrepreneur and venture capitalist who works extensively with futures analysis, says:

- As soon as someone tells you what will happen, you can assume that they are wrong. No one can predict the future. However, we can use systems to prepare for uncertainty.

- I work with three parts. The first is to analyze and take in. The second is to see how it affects me. The third step is to see how I need to change and adapt to the scenarios that are likely, he says.

Basis for strategic decisions

Vinnova is now starting to work more focused with foresight in order to be able to make more strategic decisions. Joakim Skog leads Vinnova's work with emerging innovation areas.

- We are careful that it is not about making predictions or forecasts, but about painting scenarios based on what we can see here and now to be able to make more informed strategic decisions. The signals of what the world will look like in ten years' time already exist if we only look with the right glasses.

Instead of being shocked by what is happening, we can prepare and act proactively.

- How will society change when we have quantum computers, nanomaterials, autonomous transport solutions and the majority of those who can work from home? How are the developments in different areas connected? What obstacles do we need to overcome and what opportunities do we want to take advantage of? Instead of being shocked by what is happening, we can prepare and act proactively. The best way to control our future is to create it, says Joakim Skog.

How should Vinnova work with foresight?

- We work data-driven by, for example, looking at signals that we find in our own systems, by analyzing reports and applications. But also by including qualitative information in the dialogue we have with actors around us. There are many organizations in the world that work with signal acquisition and analysis, so we will to a large extent build on data that others produce. Based on what is most important to address, we select areas where we will create scenarios, says Joakim Skog.

Next year, Vinnova will develop the process for foresight through a number of practical project to establish this new ability and give Sweden better opportunities to steer towards a desirable future.

- For us, it is important that it becomes something that can be used both by us and by others, it must not be too theoretical and only result in different reports. We will be outward-looking and reach out with what we are doing to get as broad a representation as possible. We want to hear what other experts, researchers, business, government, citizens and others see, both nationally and internationally, says Joakim Skog.


Podcast: Can the future be predicted?

Strategic Foresight Report from the European Commission


Joakim Skog

Area manager

+46 8 473 32 32

Last updated 16 November 2020

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