Matthias Horx Futurist

Future Brain –
Why companies need future think tanks

The “Zukunftsinstitut” (future institute) was founded in the year 1999 and has developed into a think tank for companies. We plan, curate, organise and implement think rooms for strategic management. Our best results are achieved with long-term customer relations. But in which spirit and with which background?

The history of Think Tanks

What and how did earlier cultures think about the future? The Oracle of Delphi can be interpreted as the prototype of a thought factory in which the most intelligent and prudent forces of their time “produced future”. Societies’ meta guidance: many private individuals asked for personal help, the rulers asked for decision guidance. Delphi played not only the roll of the “reflector, but also as an integrator of the city states, which united them to the Athenian nation fighting again the Persians. The oracle stood for wisdom and moderation. Its motives can be read on the entry stones of the ruins even today:

Gnotis Seauton: Recognize yourself
Meden Agan: Nothing in extreme!

Photo: en.wikipedia.org

In Post-war era, the Cold War attention fell onto the American Think Tanks like the RAND corporation or the early M.I.T. These institutions were developed out of the pure necessity of having to cope with an extremely dangerous (nuclear) new world and handling and managing its complexities differently. Herman Kahn, the grand old man of Think Tanks embodies the the mystical function of provocative (provocare = evoke) dissidence like no other. Stanley Kubrick’s legendary movie “Dr. Strangelove” was made in his memory, him being impersonated by the crazy scientist Dr. Strangelove, who accidentally plunges the world into a nuclear war. The movie’s implication is obvious; genius leads to disaster, one who knows too much must fail.

“I’m against fashionable thinking” - Hermann Kahn

Photo: en.wikipedia.org

In reality people thinking outside the box such as Herman Kahn or John von Neumann, being the early game theory proponents they were, probably saved the world from nuclear Armageddon. By thinking the “unthinkable” they made politicians and military leaders think beyond the conventional pathways in which they would have completely disregarded reaction and counter-reaction. This stopped the Cuba crisis from being the gateway to the third world war. This tradition of complex impact reflection has not stopped playing an important role in crisis situation, as can be seen in todays Crimea conflict. Many of times it was not a coincidence thats crises accelerated the construction of think tanks.

In the modern era think tanks usually occur in the context of political consulting for parties and governments &nad in the Anglo Saxon sphere a grand tradition, in the German sphere with little to no impact or presence. The Scandinavian countries are an exception, future think tanks are deeply ingrained in their political process. Finland and Sweden for instance saved their pension and social system with the aid of independent think tanks.

The approach of the “Third way”, which is supposed to overcome the old right / center / left conflict also come from think-factories beyond the established institutions (e.g. DEMOS in London). California also places great trust into think tanks in order to construct reformations.

When complexity rises and the world becomes more and more intertwined, think tanks become spaces of the free / different/ networked / complex thinking about future re-discovery. Uncertain terrain requires different movement patterns than in stable calculable (market) environments. Think tanks also offer a space for possibilities and freedoms in which the time interval of quick decision can temporarily be abolished – resulting in the company / management having the breathing room to just “breath and behold”.

The Demand

In a certain way, every company is its own “Think Tank”. But due to the fact that management primary aims to make decisions, somewhat of a limitation of horizon surmises. The orientation for operability leads to tunnel vision. In our experience this cannot be stopped with internal “future researchers”, because also they get sucked into the company’s “bias”. Especially the soaring curve of a functioning net product model leads to the dangerous Confirmation Bias: becoming victim of one’s own propaganda which is created by desires and often idealised prosperity. Big bankruptcies from Kodak to Schlecker and nearly Nokia show how fatal mental linearity can be for a company’s future.

Think tanks can break this tunnel vision by enabling an extrinsic view. They can illuminate exactly what management wants to blind out. But how do they accomplish this? Through the element of GAME. Every management does future work by simulating processes and procedures in which they “play future”. But only in game do variables become visible, alternatives obvious. Playing or game is considered “childish” and “dubious” by most enterprises. This is why classic consultants always preach integrity – fixed on “truths”, “charts” and “processes”.

“We don’t want future. We want a present that never stops”
Phillip Blom

The real task Think Tanks have to accomplish is not the instruction consulting in the sense of operative safety. Their actual job is creative disruption for the purpose of BETTER THINKING – with high adaptability.

Productive irritation: Good think tanks have to question certainty. In order to do this, they require innovative communication technology that can create resonance up to the company-culture. Conscious ignorance: Think tanks can be defined as the “specific wire up of knowledge and spaces”. It however is not about knowing everything but instead organising knowledge in comparison to ignorance, and navigating in blurriness.

Complex affirmation: Think Tanks help not perceiving complexity as an enemy, but as one’s surrounding in which the company has to navigate.

The Economic Sense

Future Think Tanks' main purpose is learning thinking. It is their job to prepare companies / management for the inevitable cliffs and crisis. The success and value-adding cycles on which the company is based on at that very moment are to be questioned.

In contrast to robustness, resilience does not consist of “unswervingness”, which is why good think tanks cannot be situated around prognostic precision (e.g. “tell us our market share in ten years”). Robustness is static, resilience is flexible and adaptable. In relation to management this means shock-resistant thinking – the sober anticipation of surprises. “Overly summative intelligence is created in systems that do not supply themselves with annoyances and networks” (Kruse / Seemann). This is why Think Tanks have to be constructed in a way that can disturb themselves.

To configure a think tank for an enterprise, the following is to be considered:

Interdisciplinary: Think Tanks are coordinations of different competences. They require representatives of many diverse disciplines that can be crossed and hybridised with one another. Consequently a good balance between analytical, creative, “left”, “right” approaches and mindsets are of vital importance (Artists and mathematicians). The classic disciplines of marketing, economy and economics should be confronted with the new forms of system sciences: game theory, cognitive psychology, networking, complexity- and evolutionary- theory.

Character differentiation: The personal mixture within think tanks is of great importance. According to Peter Kruse a mixture of Creators (interferes, who always have new ideas), Owners (experts) and Brokers (people that know people that know things) is the most productive.

Knowledge Integration: Good company think tanks don’t work solely with external knowledge, they utilise and organise knowledge processes from inside the business: by transforming knowledge from implicit to explicit. This can be accomplished by integrating central knowledge carriers from the company into think tanks.

Direct leadership connection: Think Tanks cannot do a good job without the ongoing support of the most upper levels of conduct.

Vision Rooms - The concept of future spaces

To illustrate the idea of enterprise for dynamic room creation, the following stages can be understood as parts of an iterative thought process – a dramaturgy of insights.

The Orientation Space

To start off with, we use the formal analysis of recursion and differentiation to determine in which surrounding the company is situated in. The differences sequentially follow the succession of product technology, organisation, economy, society and individual. As every company is nothing more than a connection of these dimensions, a first diagnosis can be made to determine the direction of the think tank process.

The Insight Space

What can we know about the future and how is “future” configured within out minds? What can be said about processes of complexity, chaos and order? The core of this space emulates a basic int-roduction to the techniques and methods of systemic trend and future studies.

The Inspiration Space

Here the focus is on building creative energy. Presented on a big stage, theatrically insinuated “dangerous and fascinating ideas”. Inspiration for the new, emphasis and anticipation are stoked. In the form of a bigger Event (like a TED congress) “different” ideas from all fields of knowledge – art to physics, logistics to education – can be used as inspiration. The goal is to practise looking beyond one’s own horizon, the combination and understanding of connection within the societal (future) sphere.

The Chance Room

Alongside Megatrends, which define the Zukunftsinstituts main work, a new chance analysis occurs: Which trend developments will become usable in a company’s future? Which environments will force one’s company to change? This workshop module utilises the Trend-field method, cross innovation and other established methods.

The Fail Space

All enterprises have a half life. Every business model has a curve that is constantly closing in on the tipping point. This segment is used to make management realise the limits of its strategy – in catharsis. The aim is to anticipate, what will be the most likely cause of the company’s failure.

The Values Space

This space is to be taken over by an actual Philosopher, which leads the company to its authentic internal codes.

The Innovation Space

Now it is time to give ideas their well deserved protoyping. This can be accomplished by using a selected array of techniques from Design-Thinking swell as creative and artistic methods. The space itself is to be established at a place that reminds of a workshop, an old factory, atelier, church...

The Strategy Room

Here we can use the WARGAMING technique: Strategic playing with a big panorama benchmark. Complete business and innovation processes are hypothesised for throughout multiple years – in holistic interdependency. The final product is a general plan for the innovation campaign or company strategy for the coming years. As Clausewitz said:

“In oh so dangerous things, such as war, the errors that stem from good nature are the worst”.

Bibliography

Think Tanks - Die Beratung der Gesellschaft, Diaphanes, Zürich, Berlin 2010.
Herausgegeben von Thomas Brandstetter. Erhältlich bei www.amazon.de

The Worlds of Herman Kahn - The Intuitive Science of Thermonuclear War, Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi, 2005. Erhältlich bei www.amazon.de

Ihr werdet es erleben - Voraussagen der Wissenschaft bis zum Jahre 2000; Herman Kahn, Anthony Wiener, Molden 1968. Erhältlich bei www.amazon.de

Angriff auf die Zukunft - Die 70er und 80er Jahre, Herman Kahn, Molden, 1973.
Erhältlich bei www.amazon.de