Imagined vs. Data Led Futures

18th Oct, 2013

Some years ago, I watched Michael Willmott, my then boss, and Trajectory’s current Chairman, deliver the key note address at the Market Research Society conference. His topic was the difference between insight and foresight. Afterwards he was asked, rather angrily, how we could possibly claim to know anything about the future. Michael’s response included the line “unfortunately there are no data on the future”. That line has stuck with me ever since.

I was reminded of it again this week by an article posted on a LinkedIn group. It highlighted Nokia’s failure to see the potential of touch screen technology despite having access to it before Apple. It quoted Nokia’s ex-CEO, Jorma Ollila, who blamed the failure on “listening to customers”. Touch screen technology did not research well, apparently.

This example was used to make a claim for “imagined” futures approaches to innovation over “trend” or “data” based futures. The post went on: “What does this story tell about foresight, (it says)…. innovation creates futures that are fundamentally unpredictable. We do not have facts or data about things that do not exist yet…. When you ask about the future, the answer will always be about history.”

To claim that imagined futures have more use, and trends-based futures have no use, on the basis of this one example seems totally wrong to me. It certainly ignores the countless times that the intelligent extrapolation of trend data has made a useful contribution to innovation projects. Isn’t the truth that both approaches have a role to play? You might even argue that understanding both approaches, and applying them judiciously, is the key skill of the foresight professional.

History will not teach us everything, but it does teach us something.