posted 12 Apr 2007 in Volume 10 Issue 7
Feature: Future centres
Welcome to the future centre
Future centres are proliferating. But what are they and how do they differ from knowledge cities?
By Graeme Burton
It was almost exactly 50 years ago that the first ‘house of the future’ was opened in Disneyland in Orlando, Florida. Built by chemical company Monsanto and prominently located at the theme park, it was intended to show people how they would be living in the 21st century.
Naturally, it was made almost entirely of plastic and, creditably, the kitchen boasted a microwave oven and the living room a flat-screen, wall-mounted television.
However, the construction paid little heed to energy efficiency and was not easily recyclable, either. When builders tried to demolish it ten years later the wrecking balls simply bounced off the side and the demolition workers had to take it apart using hacksaws instead. At least it was durable…
Since then, many companies have built their versions of houses of the future – and some offices, too. These have more often than not been superficial, reflecting the interests of the companies involved (mostly computer companies) – will the refrigerator of the future really need to be internet-enabled, run the latest Microsoft operating system and be capable of automatically re-ordering food when it goes off?
But it is only in the last ten years or so that specialists have tried to examine more deeply the way in which new technology will change the way people live, work, share knowledge and generate wealth – as well as identifying the old standards and ‘way of doing things’ that are holding us back, but which we nevertheless cling to.
The work mirrors the development of the so-called knowledge city or knowledge innovation zone (see Inside Knowledge, March 2006). Governments in many parts of the world are rushing, often uncritically, to build such esoteric visions of the future. But the purpose of the future centre is to examine how people will work in such environments and how to maximise potential value. Not just old-fashioned economic value, but in terms of quality of life and sustainability, too.
Past, present and future
The key purpose of the future centre is to enable the organisation – often a company, rather than a government agency – to visualise the future and, thereby, to plan for what may be to come, says Ron Dvir, founder and CEO of Innovation Ecology.
Dvir has been involved in the establishment of a number of future centres in Israel and describes a future centre as a mechanism. “It's a very specific place or space. Usually, we see a physical space, a building, and usually we will see some organisational space. So it might be a unit, function or group of people belonging to one organisation,” says Dvir. Naturally, there is also an increasing virtual element to many future spaces, too, in a bid to engage a wider range of people.
A future centre is specifically about researching the possible shape of the future – not just the technology that will affect the way people will live and work, but how they will live and work, and the interactions between technology and people. A future centre needs to stimulate its users, to help them brainstorm. A knowledge city, in contrast, is solely about the development of that new technology and new ideas – value-generating technology and ideas.
While the idea of trying to peer into the future in that way may seem esoteric, it is not necessarily so far-fetched or limited to idealistic knowledge management (KM) players. Japanese consumer electronics giant Matsushita, for example, claims that it has a 100-year plan covering market trends and product development – a far-cry from US listed companies’ quarterly results fixation – and more and more future centres are becoming established across Europe, especially with the increased interest in so-called knowledge cities.
Future centres are not just of interest to electronics and computer companies. Swedish insurance giant Skandia set up arguably the first future centre organisation, Skandia Future Center (SFC), in Vaxholm, a small town of fewer than 10,000 inhabitants in Stockholm’s archipelago of islands, some ten years ago.
Ironically, perhaps, SFC occupies a picturesque nineteenth century building, clad in old-fashioned wooden clapper boards, rather than something more futuristic. Vaxholm was initially settled as a fortress to help defend Stockholm from sea-borne invaders, but today it openly invites people from all over the world to study and work there.
“[SFC] can be described as an organisational laboratory and ‘future lookout tower’. It is a gateway where information is switched globally, while serving as an arena for knowledge safaris, strategic knowledge meetings, knowledge games and simulations concerts and much more,” writes Gottfried Grafström in his book, ‘Accounting for Minds’.
Visitors are encouraged to participate in free thinking. He adds: “Many companies have laboratories where new products are developed, but very few have experimental workshops for testing prototypes of future organisational patterns and work methods.”
Grafström describes SFC as a ‘competence exchange’ where companies can trade experiences, monitor global developments and test new ideas, technologies and organisation structures on a limited, accessible and (perhaps crucially) inexpensive scale.
“At SFC, these experiences are defined and packaged as knowledge recipes and put on the menus of networking knowledge cafés. These recipes can be expressed in terms of knowledge labs, ‘futurity’ libraries, creative think tanks, cybercafés, wireless communication technologies or the role of the cultivator or spice gardens for scents…”
It is the combination of tradition and technology that Grafström believes makes SFC appealing – the smell of cinnamon bread wafting from the kitchens, combined with a powerful wireless network; the fast PC workstations next to elegant, but comfortable turn-of-the-century soft furnishings. The idea is that items from the past should stimulate discussion of the future.
Professor Leif Edvinsson was involved with SFC from the beginning. “Initially, it was our own laboratory for the future of [insurance giant] Skandia,” says Edvinsson. However, the SFC idea proved to be a magnet for all kinds of organisations and individuals across Europe. Today there are more than 20 such future centres across the continent, according to Edvinsson.
He describes future centres today as ‘experiential knowledge exploration’. “It means that you try to go into the future and return to the present. It means that you are trying to reduce the fear of what is emerging. It tries to help you to perceive the weak signals, to increase your intelligence,” says Edvinsson. “It’s also an organisational lab’ for early adaptation to the emerging future,” he adds.
Perhaps reflecting the more cerebral approach of Scandinavian business and society, the other example that researchers frequently reference is the Nordic City Network. This is a network encompassing urban planners in Finnish, Norwegian, Swedish and Danish cities – as well as Reykjavik in Iceland – who share a common belief that the city of the future will be a knowledge city.
Their need to ensure that their knowledge cities are, indeed, conducive to the generation of knowledge and that they and their developments are not blind-sided by something unforeseen.
Christer Larsson, urban planning director for Malmo City, describes the network as a “common forum for developing a better understanding of how a Nordic knowledge city functions and what type of urban development initiatives are needed to strengthen our cities as knowledge cities”. In short, the Nordic City Network is a virtual future centre of keenly interested parties with similar cultural backgrounds.
Down to business
The basic purpose of a future centre is prediction – forecasting what the future has in store so that it can be planned for. The reason? To avoid surprises and to enable organisations – both public and private – to develop products and services in anticipation, rather than to be taken by surprise when technology, lifestyles or attitudes change dramatically.
So why not just call in the experts – so-called futurologists, perhaps, or specialists in particular areas? Oliver Schwabe, CEO of Eurofocus International believes that the experts are often not-so-expert when it comes to forecasting the future – they can be blinkered by their own specialism. “If you have a sufficiently diverse population, their predictions of the future will be more accurate than those of the experts,” he says, “but the key is diversity.”
For example, a steel manufacturer might need to find out the market needs of the future, but only going to its existing customers, as well as enlisting its most illustrious scientists, may result in misleading conclusions – they need to find out what is happening elsewhere, too.
In the 1960s, after all, some eminent scientists more concerned with artificial intelligence predicted that by now, our daily post would be delivered by robots – no mention of the ‘network of networks’ that is the internet. Would their predictions have been any more accurate and less naïve if they had brainstormed with a variety of other people with different professional, social and cultural backgrounds?
Likewise, the participants must not be dominated by a single strong character or else their results will simply reflect their view, rather than the product of intense discussion and investigation. “Who would have thought that US efforts to de-centralise military command infrastructure [in the 1960s] would end up being the internet?” asks Schwabe.
Increasingly, as in the Nordic City Network example, future centres are becoming virtual and ad hoc – many organisations and individuals today use the SFC for their own ‘future investigations’, for example, rather than going to the time, trouble and expense of setting up their own.
Furthermore, the public sector is becoming more involved, too, says Entovation International CEO Debra Amidon, developer of the knowledge innovation zones concept. “It’s significant, but it’s really a combination of industry, government and academia… basically they are trying to leverage the resources of one another,” she says.
Such close collaboration would have been unlikely, say, thirty years ago. However, the more recent trend of people crossing between those three sectors at different times has helped to forge a more common language and outlook and, therefore, closer working relationships. Piero Formica, dean of the International University of Entrepreneurship in Amsterdam, calls the process ‘brain circulation’, and people’s perspectives are broadened as a result, he believes.
However, it is still early days for future centres – and many may disappear at the first hint of government and corporate belt-tightening. “What most of these examples have not yet done is review their activities based on the flow of knowledge to really understand how knowledge is created, how it is exchanged and, more importantly, how knowledge is applied,” says Amidon.
What Amidon is alluding to is not necessarily a return-on-investment spreadsheet, but anecdotal examples of how a future-centre initiative or project has successfully peered into the future and delivered tangible results to its sponsors – perhaps in terms of an altered business strategy or a changed government policy.
“One of the earlier observations [from SFC] was that hi-tech is scary for people. So we moved from hi-tech to ‘high-touch’ The way we did it was with old artefacts; antiques like old maps, old typewriters,” says Edvinsson. Participants could then examine these items and questions would inevitably follow: ‘Why do we have the qwerty [or azerty, in some cases] standard? Why did we get it? Do we need it today?’
“The conclusion was that we are living with a lot of standards that are obsolete, including some of the accounting standards,” says Edvinsson.
Yet knowing that is one thing, it is quite another to anticipate change and when it will happen. The shortcomings of the qwerty/azerty keyboard has been known for years, yet the standard is deeply entrenched.
Likewise, for example, the mass popularisation of the internet required both HTML and easy-to-use web browsers for that process to occur – would a future centre have successfully brainstormed those twin developments that ultimately occurred as a result of a combination of technical genius and serendipity?
That certainly remains to be seen.
Graeme Burton can be contacted by e-mail, email@example.com
Critical success factors for future centres
Ron Dvir has been involved in a number of future centre initiatives. Here, he outlines his recommendations for building effective and useful future centres:
1. Balance internal and external focus – make sure the centre is not over focusing on issues and people outside the organisation but, at the same time, insist on having continuous flow of ideas from the outside world. At Skandia Future Center, 50 per cent of the visitors were people from other organisations;
2. Leadership is critical. But, at the same time, make sure the centre is not dependent on one person and invest efforts in development of the complete team;
3. Partnerships are critical – firstly with other functions within the organisation, and then also with other organisations. Without genuine partnerships, there will not be ‘buy in’ from other parts of the organisation and the centre will be regarded as an ivory tower;
4. Balance the focus on long-range bold initiatives and smaller actions that lead to immediate results – tangible outcomes will help oil the future centre’s work;
5. Balance the need to create a unique centre that addresses the specific requirements of the organisation and fits its unique culture – with learning from other future centres and adopting best practices. Do not re-invent all the wheels;
6. Balance the physical and virtual spaces. While the ‘magic’ of meaningful conversations can happen naturally in face-to-face meetings, in many cases there are time and other constraints. A virtual extension of the centre, enabling some activities to be carried over the internet, makes sense;
7. Balance hi tech with ‘hi touch’. Do use every technology that can help the centre’s activities (for example, electronic meetings software and hardware) but at the same time try to retain the comfortable, casual environment, so people can feel at home;
8. Balance the stimulating intellectual discussion about future challenges and directions with concrete actions. In the PIGA Beer Sheva future centre, roughly half of the attention and efforts are invested in exploring the future by creating ‘future images’. The rest is invested in turning these images into reality through development and prototyping of solutions;
9. Balance the investment and attention to ‘the shell’. That is to say, the inviting physical environment with the essence and raison d’etre of the centre. Do not over focus on the physical space;
10. Remember the importance of continuous renewal. Over time, the needs of the ‘mother organisation’ as well as other conditions (for example, internal politics) change – make sure the centre’s vision and mode of operation is continuously renewed, updated and upgraded;
11. Clear vision is critical. All stakeholders must understand why the centre is needed and how it can provide value;
12. The vision, as well as the issues that the centre addresses every day, should be related to the very big challenges of the organisation. A future centre is about asking questions – so focus mainly on the big questions;
13. Find the right set of performance measures and economic justification factors. A simple return-on-investment spreadsheet is not the appropriate tool to justify the investment – you should go much deeper into the real potentials and value added of the centre – not only the tangible ones.
Source: Ron Dvir, Innovation Ecology
Innovation-zone trends and drivers
· Increasing pervasiveness of networks;
· Growing velocity of change;
· The next-generation internet;
· Pioneering of new business models;
· Quest for the best talent;
· Virtualisation of creative and knowledge markets;
· Cultural balance of local needs and globalisation;
· Increasing open source around the sharing of ideas;
· Growth in the value of intangibles;
· Shift from industrial to digital design economy;
· Opportunity to better leverage visualisation;
· Clustering of talent, techniques, teams and technology in innovation zones.
Source: Debra Amidon and Bryan Davies