Amsterdam-based futurist and anthropologist Timo Mashiyi-Veikkola doesn’t need a crystal ball to predict the future. It can be done through analysis based on data and techniques involving careful observation, interpretation of signals and informed intuition.
Who are you? Tell us a little bit about yourself and your work as a futurist and anthropologist. How did you end up studying the future?
I am a futurist and anthropologist, and look at the future in the sense of socio-cultural trends that influence what we will be doing in 5-10 years. I look at certain variables and drivers in society that affect our behaviour and in turn affect our consumption and behaviour regarding technology and user experiences, what we are interested in and what we desire in our future life.
I studied anthropology at the University of Tampere, in the social sciences department, and did my master’s degree there. I started to work for Nokia in 1999 as a Training Concept Designer in the Nokia Wireless Business Centre where we were developing new on-line training methods. Even then we were kind of looking at future behaviours and future technologies that would be embedded into people’s lives. I was working for NWBC when I was contacted by a sociologist in the Socialware team of Nokia Corporation in Helsinki. They were doing a cultural study of Brazil and I had done my Master’s thesis on Afro-Brazilian culture and the transfer of cultural memory, so they wanted to interview me. After the interview, I was very curious about the team -this was in 2001 and I didn’t know sociologists existed in the corporate world and that Nokia had a team of Social scientists! I offered to help them in the future if needed, and not long after was called in for an interview and accepted a position in the Socialware team. That’s how I became a futurist and that’s where the future started!
How can future be studied or predicted? Do you need a crystal ball for that?
I actually have a crystal ball! It was given to me by my colleagues at Nokia when I left the company, and I use it now… But seriously, anything can be predicted, it’s just a matter of accuracy. Very often the writing is on the wall before we have any kind of seismic change or seismic shifts in society. We simply need to be aware, keep our eyes open and understand where we are now, understand the past and observe the present to understand the future. We simply need methods that help turn signals into understandable and actionable forms. So, it’s really about interpreting these signals, utilising models and tools that can help us to interpret information and phenomena into viable strategies and viable executions. When we look at the future, we gather data and insights that directs our rational knowledge -actually all the data exists and all the information is out there for many people to see as it’s public. But when you do this for a living, as with any career, you build and develop certain skills on how to interpret those signs. Over the years, translation just becomes very natural and quick and when you observe or read something, you’re already filtering through different models and different processes.
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So, it’s really about having, in a way, heightened senses that enable you to notice things?
Exactly! And it’s really what I call informed intuition -a term that I coined back when I was presenting for Nokia. We all have intuition, but for us to listen to it, we need it to be informed. In informed intuition, the informed part is based on your education, the cultural background you were born into and have lived in and travelled in, the people you discuss with, the people you engage with, media influences etc. And at a certain point, all of these come together to create a thought that is a sum of all those data points collating and that creates an idea. This is how informed intuition helps us to create new possible ideas. An idea is already a hypothesis and we can then study it and can either challenge or affirm it. This is really how the process works.
Also, the future is not quantifiable. We do, however, have some metrics that we can start looking at in the sense of the likelihood of something happening. If you look at natural disasters, you have seismic measurements you can use, with wars you have the game theory where you have two opposites and which has been used to predict, with quite accurate results, political movements, financial crashes, and war – even if these events seem to depend on unexpected variables. Unless there’s a complete anomaly happening that really shakes things up, like the recent US presidential elections, things can be predicted. It’s about anticipating likely outcomes, utilising an analytic framework to make the study feasible.
We really need to look at why we study the future. That’s really to find a benefit and determine how things will best fit into people’s lives, for organisations and people to see where they are at present and to envision a path to something they want to achieve.
Humans in a way are very simple and not as complex as we tend to imagine. When we strip everything away, we get basic behaviours, instincts, reaction and habits. Our basic needs described in Maslow’s hierarchy don’t really change and therefore can be studied and quite accurately predicted. What changes around us are the sociocultural drivers and influencers and thus these are what we need to understand.
What is the one single trait or ability that helps you the most in your work?
I would say observation. It’s about your senses of listening, hearing, feeling, smelling and understanding. It’s really about being attuned to what’s happening around you and I think understanding that is the most important thing. Understanding when to put on a lens, as described by Mills, and when to look through it is important. It is, really, focused observation.
What general, overarching and overlapping trends do you see happening in the next 5 years or so? Global, societal, technological, behavioural?
As a futurist, and even more from an anthropological or socio-cultural point of view, I use PESTEL analysis, i.e. look at what’s happening in a wide-ranging spectrum in the Political, Economic, Social, Technological, Environmental and Legal etc. fields. The word trend is very much misunderstood – we’re looking at different shifts and different changes in a wide-ranging spectrum and the microtrends, which are faster moving phenomena. It’s about seeing what is the change and what is the rate of that change. The way I look at trends is more like a pendulum – it always tends to swing. A trend is the movement of the pendulum, whether a small or a great one. The pendulum could move just a bit to the left and then swing back to the right, for example in politics, but the movement is constant and our lives and the times and the world are constantly changing with that swing back and forth. I think the pendulum is quite a good tool because we see shifts, back and forth and whether small or large, within a 3-5-year timespan. This is what we look at: The shifts caused by the swing of the pendulum, in all areas from politics to fashion.
One of the shifts we’re seeing is hyper-urbanisation and thinking cities, which are really important trends as they affect and are affected by a lot of other things like politics, technology, social and economic developments. WHO predicts that 70% of people will be living in cities by 2050 and this leads to huge disparities that we are already seeing and there will be more tension and anxiety resulting from the urbanisation. As cities expand, we will see mass migration, congestion, pollution, crime and, in the future, also the lack of water and other resources, which is an important theme in the coming years.
In terms of work, this means even more remote work, a change in how people commute, new business models arising and new types of corporations who live in a different way. Commuting is such an important part of our daily lives – how it feels, how we commute, what we do during it. These important aspects connect hyper-urbanisation and the Thinking (or Smart) City. Already technology, such as navigation and the Internet of Things, helps people to live in a hyper-urbanised thinking city. As a result , people will not see the need to leave their local environment, and they spend more time in their areas. We saw signs of this about 10 years ago, and then the pendulum shifted away and the world became very global. But what I see for the future is very localised centres. We already have very localised services being used: If you don’t have a drill but need one, you can go to one of the sharing platforms and can get a drill from a neighbour down the street in return for another thing. This is tied to the New Models, which is another shift we see happening.
We are living on the cusp of the fourth industrial revolution. The first was about water and steam, and that changed how we lived and how we worked. Then there was electricity and mass production, and that’s when the factories came in. In many ways our lives are still tied to this revolution -we still tend to work 9-5 shifts, for example, even if we don’t work in factories. Then we had the information technology revolution. The next revolution is going to be the digital revolution which we’re now in the early stages of. It’s in its infancy in a lot of ways, but we’re really at the cusp of a whole new era and a huge change is going to come. Many areas from education to corporations will be shaken up. We’ve already seen the impacts on banking and how some banks aren’t keeping up with the times and are very lost with what to do. The whole idea of finance is going to be changed and the examples of the sharing economy (Uber, Airbnb) that we see already are just the beginning. We will move from old ledger-based monetary systems towards a more decentralised form of wealth. I think this is part of a bigger trend towards more equality, which can be seen in the trend for equal wage, for example.
In the business world, we’re going to see a move from centralised businesses to very decentralised businesses with groups of hyper-specialised people coming in. I see this as the evolution of a freelancer, which is still a relatively new trend. We will see swarming around a project, where all of these talents come in. This will require a totally new management system that will again dismantle the old organisational structures. We will have project-based initiatives instead of long-term employments, and freelancing and project-based employment will become much more acceptable. Already, your CV should be an array of different companies and occupations and show an entrepreneurial attitude.
Another trend worth mentioning is intelligent reduction: a lot of people getting rid of things. This trend is about moving to an ideology of “less but better”. It’s about moving towards an engagement and choice society where people carefully think about their choices and how they live. It’s less about greed and more about quality, and this will affect all areas of life where simplicity will be seen as the ultimate sophistication. I think intelligent reduction will also be seen in education as we’re seeing problems with the overload of information, affecting trust and what sources are legitimate. Artificial intelligence will help us to decipher and filter all the masses of knowledge to find exactly what you need. It is really a very transformational period of time we’re looking at.
How will these trends affect human potential? Ways of working? Our learning capability and ways of working?
Human potential has always been linked to our primitive and our innate ability to adapt. That’s what we do when facing a change. Change for humans is gradual. We cannot take big, sudden change. Thus, it may take time, but finally we find a solution -but it takes some time for behaviour to change and for us to start recognising certain patterns that then turn into behaviour. By looking at change with this perspective makes it easier to predict the state of mind three years on. The same goes with technology. People are very picky creatures, and only adapt to behaviours and technology that fit in their lives. In that sense, we haven’t really evolved as much as we think. Development still takes place in the same way as it did over centuries and millenniums, but the tools we use for those steps have changed with the onset and progression of technology and its accessibility, and this is changing how we work and how we will learn. We will go through quite a few of these cycles as it takes a while for humans to accept changes. It is the changing tools of change that make the development really interesting – the sharing economy, working together, the abundance of information and learning.
What kind of people will then be able to adapt to these changes in the best possible way?
It’s about being agile and free-flowing, and not being too stuck to old systems and organisational structures. We will see a lot of people who will panic when things aren’t like they used to be. This will happen with, for example, automation – it’s really going to help people by freeing up their time, and we’re already seeing successful cases in Scandinavia where the working week is getting shorter thanks to automation. But there will be a lot of people who will resist change, and it’s these people who are not agile who will not actually be successful.
Another thing is empathy, understanding people. We are moving away from rigid structures, and will utilise more of our “emotional” side and we will become more right-brained, more emotional, more creative, and we will be using that creativity – creativity not in the sense of art but as a way of thinking, analysing, accepting, looking at situations. Remote work and decentralised work environments enable this. But they require diligence and the ability to work on your own, and that is quite difficult for many people. A lot of people need structure. I have done quite a lot of work on the future of work, and the interesting thing is that the social side of work is as important as the performance. When you look at people working remotely, they need that social side, and a lot of places demand that you’re at the office for at least one day a week.
Future is about being very flexible, very fluid in both: Being able to work remotely and having those capabilities and also having that emotive connection through social interactions and social swarming. You only have to look at water coolers or fireplaces. They’ve changed in shape and in form, but we do conjugate around certain things as humans. That’s possibly just a very biological, innate thing we need for ourselves to justify sharing and to get self-awareness.
What will future organisations look like and what kind of organisations will be successful? How will they change? And can we even talk about organisations anymore, or is it just swarms?
Because of the need for decentralisation and the commuting aspects, the physical structures of organisations, companies and even office buildings will change to adapt to a more fluid workforce. Organisations that are agile and capable of change through the organisation, meaning management style, financial control, education, communication etc. will be successful.
Old management styles, systems, hierarchies and ownership are rapidly crumbling to give way to a new way of running a business. This does not mean hyper-technological, but it does mean purpose-driven – having a purpose and driving that purpose throughout the organisation and its values and conduct. In a period of change, this can be difficult because of internal resistance and external market turbulence and competition. The organisations that stay lean and focused on their purpose will succeed.
With lower hierarchies, we will have a lot more freedom in organisations than before so that we can “swarm” and come together in groups of different disciplines to work on solutions and then dismantle the group. Ways of working will become agile and free flowing and it will become socially more acceptable to take the morning off, float into work, then go pick up the children and then do some work from home. As we no longer need the “factory styled” 9-5 structured workdays, we can dip in and out of work to do other things and do only work when we are in the most effective and productive state. This is behind the shorter working weeks trialled in the Nordic countries.
People are living longer and staying active longer, and the retirement age is increasing, meaning that people will stay in the workforce for longer. As the retirement age increases, there will be larger numbers of elderly still in the workplace as the new, young employees enter. This leads us to the 5G society or multi-G workplaces, where multiple generations work within the organisation. As the values and behaviours of different generations differ, matching values and behaviours will be a challenge in many workplaces, since as humans, we are resistant to change. Corporate responsibility and understanding the 5G will be very important.
The generation now entering the work force have been given a lot of freedom and they believe they can actualise without hard work. Their whole Maslow’s hierarchy has in a way been tipped over. The early millennials who are in the workplace were told that they can actualise very fast, that they don’t have to go through a cycle of development but that they can be who they are. This is different from the older generations who have a different view of things because they were told that things happen through hard work and that things must happen in a certain order, and that they can go forward only by going through the necessary steps – there are no shortcuts. Younger generations view this differently and have and see those shortcuts, partly thanks to the technology available to them. Younger generations also can pause the game and go back to the same point, whereas for older generations there was no pausing. This, of course, has an impact on how people value work and how the different generations perceive rewards and how the rewards system has changed.
The way I see new organisations handling this is through intermixed groups of work and the ideas of fluidity and flexibility. Also, the idea of life-long learning is incredibly crucial and will become even more crucial. Through fluidity, flexibility and learning we are moving away from rigid corporate structures to a grass root-level model where the thinking will happen bottom-up and where the different values will be formed. We are already seeing this in many companies and, in the next 5-10 years we will see a huge change in the approach and perception of work and its values.
Your social and empathetic skills will become extremely important. Over the past few years, many books have been written about emotional intelligence, and only now we’re starting to see the practice and how they’re going to impact the work space. I don’t see companies having outcasts. I think more likely there will be more forums and tools that can be used to help in communication – these could be artificial intelligence or even artificial emotion. Through the democratisation of health products and services, we now have health monitoring based on data collection such as fitness gadgets. In the future, we could have emotive data collection or a system in a company where you could actually communicate your emotions in a group including those who are introverted or struggle verbalising. This would help groupwork and working in organisations.
Now a “devil’s advocate” question: Will the ever-increasing availability of data and information suffocate us as learners or workers? How will we be able to handle it all?
Is there really more data and information or is it a perception? We should speak of knowledge instead, which is a much more stable variable. Gaining knowledge is the ability to wade through massive amounts of resources to pull the most relevant but not necessarily absolute piece of information. This is increasingly done by AI, which has made our lives much easier. We still need to filter what we absorb and what we believe, but AI allows for a large reach on a wider landscape of information.
Life-long learning has been a rising trend, especially during tumultuous times when people have lost their jobs and had to re-educate. Moreover, social acceptance of leaving one’s employment to follow one’s dreams is quite new and this phenomenon coupled with technological capabilities, which may be as simple as video instructions, has created a totally new way of life-long learning: Classes, groups, communities to share knowledge and learn new skills. Not to mention that we have a large baby-boom generation who will with retirement also have more time and access to technology to “better” themselves and to find new avenues.
If you had to coin one pivotal, core theme for the next 5 years or so, what would that be?
We talk a lot about purpose-driven leadership and I think “purpose-driven” will be a very important theme in the next few years. In the next 5 years or so people will put that into action and this will be seen in politics, economics, technology, sociology and the legal field. We have to have a purpose: why are we doing it? If we don’t have a purpose, why would we do it? It’s the Age of Purpose. Through the purpose, we will have positive transformation. But it’s really just about understanding why something should exist. It really is about purpose.
- It’s possible to predict future trends through analysis based on data and techniques involving careful observation, interpretation of signals and informed intuition.
- Megatrends such as hyperurbanisation, thinking cities, intelligent reduction and 5G workplaces will challenge the ways organisations operate and how they can be successful.
- The way we work will change through more project-based employment, emphasis on social skills and emotional intelligence, fluidity and flexibility.
The author is Mira Isomäki.
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