top of page

To Shape the Future, We Must First Understand the Present: A Conversation with Johannes Kleske

Johannes Kleske is a Critical Futurist and one of Germany's most renowned Foresight experts. He was one of the co-founders and the managing director at Third Wave before Edenspiekermann acquired the consultancy last year. His clients include Deutsche Telekom, Deutsche Bahn, AOK and BVG. Kleske holds a master's degree in Futures Studies. He advocates for us to be proactive and creative in dealing with an increasingly volatile and complex world. His goal is to inspire people to shape the future consciously and responsibly.

How did you get into Foresight?

One doesn’t get into Foresight just like that. It's not like when you're twelve years old and say, "I don't want to be a firefighter anymore, I want to be a futurist." In my case, I've always been intrigued by change and the new. For me, change was never something threatening. Rather, I’ve always felt the need to develop myself, learn more, understand how change occurs and what impact it has. That's why I've always been an early adopter. For example, I started blogging and signed up to Twitter when these platforms just emerged, simply because I wanted to try things out, play around and see what works and what sticks.

At the same time, I’ve always been interested in a wide range of topics. A good example is my diploma in Media Systems Design which I completed in 2006 and which encompassed design, economics, and computer science. The degree program brought these areas together in all breadth, but perhaps in less depth. That suited me well, because it allowed me to get to know these different disciplines and understand their different languages, worldviews, and approaches, as well as how to combine them. This is another theme that runs through my work: transferring insider knowledge from one field to a completely different field and thereby creating new ideas, new knowledge, and new approaches.

That's how things developed for me. I've always kept up with Foresight and networked with people who work in this field, even if up until a few years ago there weren't that many who explicitly called themselves Futurists.

Five years ago, at Third Wave we realised that Foresight was an overarching bracket that worked for us. This solidified even more when I studied for my master’s degree in Futures Studies at the FU Berlin, and made it clear that this was my path.

In addition to deep curiosity, generalist understanding and the ability to make connections, are there other skills and competencies that help you in your work?

Being a generalist also comes from the feeling of not totally belonging to one thing. I've always felt most comfortable sitting on the fence. I can handle ambiguity. I'm not one or the other, but a little bit of both. The idea of a home discipline does not exist for me. I think that's very helpful, because you don't look at the future through one lens, but rather broaden your horizon by applying different lenses. For me, this is one of the most critical skills and the goal of Futures Studies and Foresight: to expand the realm of possibilities. I notice that the kind of people who feel comfortable in Foresight are the ones who previously thought they didn't belong anywhere and who suddenly found this overarching bracket for themselves in which anything is possible and just about anything is allowed.

Was there something you had to unlearn because it hampered expansive thinking?

The biggest limitation in dealing with futures, which I experience myself but also observe in my clients, is the question of practicability. What does that mean in concrete terms? What do I have to do now? What is the next step? While these questions are crucial, if I start with them, I keep my scope of action small from the beginning. If I only consider two obvious possibilities, my decision-making is limited. But if I allow myself to let go and imagine crazy things just to open up the space, I come up with more courses of action.

In organisations, there is the tendency to quickly move on to concrete next steps, whereby the steps then remain very small and on the pre-established path. But to succeed, it is critical to approach the future with an open mind, to remove any blinders, and to allow yourself to be surprised, instead of immediately following the obvious course of action.

You said earlier that you started focusing on Foresight five years ago. How did you make that decision? Did your clients show an increased interest in Foresight?

Yes, we started receiving more project requests that were previously unthinkable. For example, we were asked specifically for scenarios. It was very unusual not to have to guide our clients to work with scenarios, but for them to come to us on their own. That was a real change, and the pandemic only gave it an even stronger push. Before that, we worked a lot with trends, but the real switch happened when Futures thinking started to attract more attention.

This heightened attention was related to a larger shift in business thinking. Up until recently, everything was about agility. Projects were done in sprints and there was a fixation on speed and flexibility. This came as a reaction to a long-prevailing waterfall mentality, where you had a roadmap for the next three years and implemented it continuously. But when it became clear that this was very inflexible and not fit for a volatile world, agile methods became popular. Then, however, people realised that although they could act much faster, they lacked something to guide and ground their decision-making. In the search for something they could work towards and that would guide their actions, more focus was placed on the future to avoid being driven only by the present. The desire was to act, not just react. This was the decisive change: the sudden new openness to engage with the future.

You call yourself a Critical Futurist. What do you do differently compared to traditional Futurists?

Classical Futures Studies are primarily concerned with constructing new images of the future, for example in the form of scenarios. For the last sixty or seventy years, Futures Studies have sought to gain an understanding of the future.

Critical Futures Studies, on the other hand, begin by deconstructing the images of the future that are already there. We first look at what images are being proclaimed and what scenarios and images of the future are already circulating in society or in a specific industry. Then we ask: what kind of images are these, where do they come from, what worldview is encoded in them? Typical concerns also include: who wins and who loses in this future? Who doesn't appear at all? On what values is this image of the future based? Who influenced it? Who is propagating this future and what power interests could be behind it? This complete deconstruction of existing images of the future is always the entry point to Critical Futures Studies.

In Critical Futures Studies, we distinguish between two different futures states. The Future Present is a point in time in the future that will eventually become the present. In contrast, Present Futures deal with what’s in our minds in the here and now regarding our wishes, hopes, expectations and assumptions about the future. Because Futures Studies cannot examine what is not there, they cannot analyse the Future Present because it does not yet exist. The only thing Futures Studies can study are ideas about the future in the here and now. This can be examined using ethnological and sociological research.

Critical Futures Studies pursue two distinct goals. The first goal is to learn about the present. After all, if we have certain images of the future in our minds, they tell us little about the future and a great deal about the present. For example, if you look at what people in the 1960s thought about the year 2000, it reveals nothing about what the 2000s were actually like. Instead, it tells us about the priorities of society in the 1960s.

The second goal is to construct alternative images of the future. If we understand which image of the future, for instance, Elon Musk is propagating to sell his rockets and what values underlie this image, we can create alternatives to it. Often it is only then that we realise that there are certain ideas and values behind Elon Musk's vision that we may not have noticed before. Through reconstruction, we become aware of and expand the space of possible futures.

This requires you to question a lot of things that you take for granted. How does that work when you do this with organisations? How do they react when you take apart their images of the future?

I consider questioning the future images of companies to be an essential part of my work. However, you must set the stage from the very beginning of the project by clarifying questions around expectations, outcomes, and key issues. Most importantly, you must try to sense what unspoken assumptions are already prevalent. If I don't do that right at the beginning, then they manifest themselves later in the scenario building stage. It’s therefore crucial to identify these assumptions right at the beginning and to approach them together with the client to understand what’s behind them and what influences these images. This can be science fiction films or any books that the client has read, or discourses they follow. Only when you question this and show them that these things shape their images of the future, only then can you start the actual Foresight process.

Since the 1950s, thanks to sociologist Fred Polak, we know that images of the future influence our decision-making, but are not present in our day-to-day perception. Once we become aware of this, we can decide which images of the future we allow to influence us and even shape them. This is the actual underlying idea of Critical Futures.

The problem for me with Foresight and Futures Studies is that it is a highly under-theorised discipline. In that sense, we don't really have a proper theory of the future. What exactly is a future? How does it work? How is it constructed? What are its components? We don’t ask these questions enough; instead, we move straight to the application. This results in a poor reflection of the methods. For me, this is part of Critical Futures, to deconstruct the methods and our various understandings of the future and to ask how we can improve.

In turbulent times, it is imperative to rethink and reimagine more often. Adam Grant recently wrote a book about this. But it's difficult to let go of outdated ideas and opinions, especially when they become part of your identity. How do you deal with resistance from clients?

Dealing with the future requires a future muscle. If you haven't used it for a long time, it's very tough and exhausting at first. And the more you use it, the easier it becomes. You can warm it up faster and it grows if you do it regularly. That's why we often start a workshop by warming up the future muscle. To do this, we first look at general images of the future circulating in the client’s industry. Participants are allowed to criticise these and say what they find good or bad, as well as what is plausible or exaggerated and even absurd about them. After they have dealt with someone else’s images of the future and developed ideas on how to change them, they proceed to create their own images of the future. This has the advantage that you don't have to imagine your own futures out of thin air. Instead, you can first interact with existing futures and decide which components you want to reject, what you want to keep and what you want to add. After this warm-up exercise, it's easier to move on to the actual task.

This exercise can easily be incorporated into a one-day workshop or worked on with clients over time. The longer you work with a client, the easier it is for them to jump in quickly - even with new topics - and to start thinking about where the development could lead and what their role in it could be.

That’s why it’s frustrating that many futures projects we are involved with here in Germany are often one-off initiatives. You just do a trend report or a futures project, but it’s too rare for it to become permanent. It is more likely that a completely new project will be initiated much later. You then notice that the future muscle has become slack again because it was not used enough, and it must be built up again. The hope is that over the next few years there will be more continuity in many organisations and teams and that they will become more efficient at futures thinking as a result.

Dealing with the future requires a future muscle. If you haven't used it for a long time, it's very tough and exhausting at first. And the more you use it, the easier it becomes. You can warm it up faster and it grows if you do it regularly.

Why is it that only a few organisations rely on systematic Foresight?

It has a lot to do with effectiveness. For me, this is one of the biggest issues and blind spots in Foresight. What leads to it being done continuously is the question of whether there is any perceived benefit. And in my view, Foresight has simply rested for far too long on simply delivering scenarios or trends. Instead of sticking with it until scenarios can actually have an impact. Of course, it's difficult because we're talking about long periods of time, often ten years or more. However, it often takes less than ten years for a company to make meaningful progress. But it does take a period of implementation before customers perceive clear added value, for example by being better positioned to respond to new challenges. For many, the horizon of perception is simply too short. This is what’s on my mind a lot: how can we create a commitment to continuous foresight work?

Are business leaders increasingly more willing to think about the future?

It's difficult to generalise, but what I notice in discussions with clients is a growing openness to engaging with the future. However, many get so lost in the day-to-day business that they don’t see any chance of it happening. In my keynote I have a slide with the quote: "I don't have time to build fences, I have cows to catch". One of the things I'm thinking about is how can we help leaders spend more time building fences? So they can react less and act more. Shape the future instead of catching up or putting out fires. Unfortunately, the system is not built this way. I find that workshops are an effective way to disrupt this pattern provided they take place somewhere outside the company. The most exciting things happen then. But as soon as the workshop is over, the phones are switched on again and leaders are back in day-to-day business, where it becomes difficult to implement the additional measures from the workshop. This is a key area for improvement: how can we get leaders to spend only 80% of their time catching cows and 20% building fences?

By the way, Dan Heath's book "Upstream" deals with exactly this question.

Great, I'll check it out!

There are many different definitions of Foresight. Some define Foresight as "a set of tools", others as "practices or micro-activities". For some, foresight is an ability. What is Foresight for you?

Although I don’t work in academia, I have learned a lot while studying for my master's degree. It helped me discover Armin Grunwald, a fantastic technology philosopher, impact assessor and scientist, who wrote a fundamental article in which he describes the various components of a future image and in which he also defines the role of Futures Studies.

I use his take as guidance, to explain the basics of foresight in lectures and projects and to create a common vocabulary. Many are familiar with trends, but most clients do not yet have a basic understanding of futures. This means that we often must first explain the world of Foresight before the actual work can begin. A slide in my keynote simply stating "futures" illustrates how far behind we are still in the process. I could end it right there, because the idea that there is not just one, but several futures is already new to many.

But your question addresses exactly what we discussed earlier, the missing theory of the future. There is no common theoretical foundation for Foresight, nor for Futures Studies. There is no such thing as Futures Studies in the scientific sense. Each master's degree is based on its own foundations. This is an intrinsic disease of Futures Studies. Because it has always been applied, it is most concerned with what sells. That’s why we have so many proprietary frameworks. Although they may sell well, they often don't work so well because many lack a theoretical underpinning. It would be better if we created and further developed frameworks based on sound theories and methods. That would help a lot - also in the discourse with one another, to be able to refer to certain things again and again. At the moment, everyone is still doing their own thing and no joint progress is being made.

In addition to Futures Studies, we also need Futures Science – the pursuit of the future. That’s what’s missing and what would be highly beneficial. Above all, it would make Foresight more credible and effective.

Thank you for the interview, Johannes.
Further reading:

Follow Johannes on his Blog or Twitter

Find out more about Fred Polak and Armin Grunwald

Learn more about Casual Layered Analysis: A technique for creating alternative futures

Check out Adam Grant's "Think Again" and Dan Heath's "Upstream"


bottom of page