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Writing the New Story of Foresight: A Conversation with Keely Adler

"We are in between stories. The old stories aren't working, but the new ones aren't written yet."

Keely Adler's astute take on the time of transition we're living through sparked my interest in speaking with her. Not least because the same notion appears to apply to foresight, with Keely at the forefront of the emerging narrative. Keely is part of the core team at RADAR, a collective of future makers championing new ways of practicing foresight. During our conversation, I was eager to hear how the collective fosters effective collaboration among its 250+ members and how they put their findings into action. Naturally, I was curious about how some of RADAR's novel ideas and ways of working influence her day-to-day job at dentsu creative. We also discussed Keely's approach to building a foresight practice and how her early interests and passions shaped her thinking about culture and foresight.

You have a background in sports management. When did you realise that you are more passionate about exploring culture and creating better futures than about managing a sports team?

It’s funny, this is a topic that I never talk about. I only just started telling people that I have a background in sports because it seems to break their brains. They are surprised that I’m a sport fan and wonder why and how I ended up in futures. To answer your question, it was a couple of things. One was that I realised that as a deeply rooted sports fan, it was going to turn something that I was a fan of into work. I asked myself what if I developed this odd relationship with sports and lost my love for the game? At the same time, I was going through a phase in college, as we probably all do, where I was finding both comfort with what I’m interested in and confidence in the things that I like - even if they're really nerdy and a little bit off from what the norm would be.

I had also been working in sponsorship, so already in the world of brands and sports, where brands connect with fans over their love of sports. That made me realise that there's another world that I could play in where I'm connecting people and brands with culture as a vehicle. I realised that that was more interesting to me and that it would allow me to embrace the fact that I was a nerdy cultural omnivore who wanted to read academic papers about all these topics and sink my teeth into the spaces of those connections. Not just people connecting with brands over sports, but how people connect with others and the world around them through culture. That became the tie that binds.

There’re very few things in the world like sports. It's easy to think that it's not highbrow, not that deep, not that interesting. But it is such a fundamental expression of how people engage with other people and the world. It's often those same people who are also into music and art. They're just people who want to be fans in and of the world. That innate passion for culture exists in a certain subset of people who try to chase sports as a profession and naturally those people are curious and exploratory, and they want to use culture as a vehicle for connection. So, it’s not that surprising we end up in spaces like brand strategy and trends.

You have a unique way of looking at things - through the lens of fandom and connection.

You not only understand fan behaviour, but also how teams exist in urban contexts and what that means for social cohesion in a city or a community. There's this idea that stuck with me from a class in college called BERGing and CORFing. BERGing stands for “basking in reflected glory” and CORFing for “cutting off reflected failure.” It’s about embodiment. We feel like we are the team. When the team loses or when the team wins, we get so much out of that. It's deeply embedded in our identities. But I’m also someone who thinks critically about fandom and why sports exist in the world. As a huge nerd who was diving into culture and all these other topics alongside my fandom, I created a way of thinking that ultimately applied to other cultural spaces as well.

Are there any abilities and talents that you discovered about yourself while you were studying sports management that you bring into your foresight practice?

Again, this is not something I ever really thought about, but to me it's about understanding how to be in a culture, as well as how to evaluate those cultures. Fandom is something that's very personal to people. As someone who works in trends and foresight it’s easy to be an outside observer and not be deep in the cultures you're exploring. You’re on the outside looking in. Being part of a nerd culture makes you lose your objectivity, but in a good way. You understand what it's like to be part of a community that's kind of irrational and made up of a mix of people who've come together and bonded over something that connects them, even if they're utterly different people otherwise.

This isn't so much about what I’ve learned as a sports management major as it is about being a sports fan who also thinks critically. It gives you a lens to evaluate why things are important to people, why they are passionate about those things and how they express their passions. That’s the crucial point. It’s easy for me to relate to other subcultures where people have these deep-seated passions that are maybe hard to grok. But I get it because I have this weird thing that I’m deeply into and that translates into how I relate to different groups.

It makes a lot of sense that you ended up in trends and foresight since understanding culture is key to what we do, but also why RADAR appealed to you. The idea of a community or a collective is fairly new in our field. Building something, not individually, but as a community of people passionate about creating better futures...

Exactly. When I talk about what we're fixing or what's broken, I mention how things have been done historically. In my experience, we've worked so much in silos. I've spent a lot of time thinking on my own about these topics. It’s fulfilling in its own way. But the ability to hang out with like-minded people, to let ideas percolate together and bounce off one another, and to bring people from different backgrounds together over something that matters has been game-changing. It's similar to what I said earlier: we’re very different people in so many ways, but there's this tie that binds and it grows from there. It makes the work special. But it also makes the environment special, and those two things feed off one another.

How do you work together? Do you pursue projects as a collective, or are you tapping into the community for collecting and discussing signals?

It's all of those things. There are over 250 RADAR members on our Discord server, with probably a hundred or so who are active. The bedrock of RADAR is signal identification. There are about 30 signals channels, ranging from ideology to aesthetics to the environment and to fashion & beauty. People start forum-based conversations about what they're seeing, what they're interested in and what they're excited about. And then others engage in those conversations. While we're building on signals together, we start to surface overarching themes. Then about two to three times a year, based on these conversations we choose a big topic to pursue. We task a small group of super-curators with identifying and fleshing out the top ten things we're excited and passionate about. This year we framed them as resolutions, not predictions. We think of them as seeds we want to nourish in the world. Futures that we believe in, that we want to help bring to fruition, but that are also clearly emerging based on all the things we see and discuss. Then, as a community, we choose two or three topics to pursue in our cycles, which consist of research and incubation.

Last year, we did “A Future in Sync” as our first pilot project. Right now, we're in the middle of "A More Play-Full Future", which we pursue collectively in project mode. People can apply to join the community as research contributors, along our existing community members, to participate and contribute to conversations around the topic of Play. We have what we call Campfire sessions, where people come together to brainstorm the questions that we want to pursue and to start to connect dots from within the community.

This all happens in Miro. There's something very chaotic about doing this kind of work in a large community. That’s why we switch between Campfire and Cave working modes. During Cave time, the project team and community members go off and do some deep diving on their own. We'll then come back together to collate what we've found and to continue in Campfire mode.

The same ethos carries through to incubate. Incubation is one of the things that people are passionate about with RADAR: work doesn't just stop at research; it doesn't sit on a shelf. We are committed to the idea of resolutions and invested in these futures manifesting in the world. How do we bring a more playful future closer in? How do we inspire makers, creators, and builders to internalise a more playful future? How do we empower them to make things that will thrive in that future and create an ecosystem where it's almost a self-fulfilling culture?

We start from a rigorous base of what we see emerging – similar to when we work on a client project. But unlike the work we typically do for clients, we focus on the things we want to nurture and bring those through in a research process not beholden to client interests. This allows us to dig into the negative spaces or things we might not talk about in a typical client project. We can get esoteric or silly. We have a lot more freedom to play around. And then we use that to propel the future forward. It's totally experimental and strange to describe.

What is cool is that we've got so many people in the community who are very accomplished in their day-to-day jobs. They come from WGSN or the Future Laboratory, or they work in brand strategy and advertising. And this is a space for them to play and to try things. That can be both personally fulfilling and give us something to take back to those more traditional spaces, where we can hopefully change some of those stubborn traditional practices for the better.

Translating trends into action isn't always easy. So how does "resolution" work? How do you translate your research and the things you want to see manifested in the world into something actionable?

For the first iteration of this, off our “A Future in Sync” theme, we threw a “Futurethon” - our version of a hackathon. It was a week of online events built not to feel like a hackathon. It wasn't competitive. We didn't allow people to come in with pre-baked teams or ideas. Rather, we wanted those who joined us to be full of inspiration for the topic we wanted to pursue.

First, we did a deep dive into the report to give everyone the context. Think of it as a brief to the world on the types of things that could help us build this future. We framed it as new structures, stories, and behaviours. Then, we had a series of speakers come in and do inspirational talks. Based on these talks, we designed workshops to help people envision what this world could look and feel like in ten years. What are the three or five things that need to be true, so that in ten years this idea becomes true? And then we worked with the participants on a sort-of bastardised version of backcasting to map the types of things that we could do along that journey. What are the types of projects we could rally people around? What are the types of innovations we could create? What are grassroots campaigns that we could initiate?

As ideas bubbled up from these sessions, people were able to latch on to the ones they wanted to chase. They formed little teams around these ideas. Ultimately there were ten of them that went into a “build weekend.” We then hosted a “demo day” where those ideas were highlighted and fleshed out and where the community could vote and decide which three ideas would receive a grant. So, it was this funnel of action that started with the research and ended with “meming the future” - helping people understand the core of the idea but then helping them make it their own, be inspired by and rally around it.

You mentioned earlier that the work at RADAR inspires you to bring some of those ideas and ways of working into a more traditional agency structure. In what way does your experience at RADAR spill over to your day-to-day job?

In many ways it doesn't. And I think that's okay. I talk a lot about how we're in this space between stories: the old stories aren't working but the new stories aren't yet written. At RADAR, we're tinkering and trying to figure out what a new story could look like. Some of those learnings, from how we're riffing on ideas together to how we're working openly and in an unpolished way is something that I've brought into my work at dentsu. For example, the idea of not working in a polished deck but in an iterative Miro board is uncomfortable for people who are used to seeing things and interacting with things in a certain way. However, it proves valuable because it encourages a different type of collaboration and thinking.

Another thing I brought in was the exposure to different types of ideas and sources of signals from being in a global community of people with different backgrounds. We not only have people from all over the world, but also people who are classically trained in foresight or trends and people who were not, but who are curious and well read, often in totally different spaces than I am used to. This has diversified my information diet.

The other thing that I can add is a totally fresh perspective, which is desperately needed in so many of these traditional spaces. The more edge case ideas in RADAR: manifesting futures and thinking about research that doesn't just live as research. Some of that is what I'm trying to trickle over, but I think that it doesn't need to completely replace what we do at dentsu right now.

What we see at RADAR is a version of the future of work or the future of community. Maybe that just represents an overall new way; maybe those old structures can't hold something so new and so different. It depends on the ecosystem you're in. There are smaller studios that have popped up that are able to be experimental and different. Foam is an example of a smaller space, where I see awesome things happening. But in those more institutional structures, you do what you can to make impact around the edges, but you don't try to overhaul the thing.

As we speak of your work at densu, what does Cultural Futurism mean? I'm curious to learn whether it reflects a focus on culture or the belief that culture is relevant to the future?

It's a belief. Especially in the context of a creative agency like dentsu where people don't interact much with futures. It's not like a traditional foresight space. When people hear futures or futurist, they immediately think of Ready Player One sort of super-tech flying cars - superficial ideas of futurism that I think are problematic because they don’t represent what I do, and not what most of us do.

There was a lovely piece in Nautilus a few years ago about how futurism has a cultural blind spot. Among the things that stuck out to me in this article was the idea that we were able to predict cell phones, but not women in the workplace. That says it all. We tend to focus on the shiny, the new, and the innovative. What we think less about is the humanity of it all, the behaviour and the context. Context is a word that I use a lot because it’s vital for brands. How do people, communities, families, and societies react to change and to this future that is emerging? For me culture is the representation of that.

Cultural Futurism, therefore, is about helping people relate to what I do. I remember when I first got the title, people were asking me questions about the metaverse and web3. (This is how I ended up in RADAR in the first place.) I had to explain that this was not what I was doing. The name is a way for me to tell a story around the practice that I want to build, which is about how people and brands exist in this changing and evolving world.

You describe your role as helping brands understand themselves in shifting contexts. How do you approach it? What are the challenges that you solve for them?

I work on a lot of projects that are positioning-based. They start in what are almost therapy sessions with brands who don't necessarily know who they are or where they're going. But they know that they want to be important to people and that they need to exist in a world. I use the phrase “educated incapacity” to describe how a lot of clients spend their time working exclusively in one category. They know almost too much because they're so close to it. As a result, they're completely myopic in their approach to what is happening, both spatially and temporally: they can't look outside themselves and they're stuck in the short term. One of the ways I contribute is by bringing a totally different perspective. I'm not close to their category, or brand, or business. It's about breaking out of that and helping them understand that people don't care about their brand or category that much. People live in a world where they happen to encounter their brand, their category, or their product. It's important that they understand how to exist in that context. To help with that I present what I call the cultural headwinds and tailwinds of where things are moving, what that means for people, as well as what that means for who this brand can be and what it can offer them.

My work is about identifying these intersections between a deeply held truth about the brand or the product and a cultural craving or a human need and telling a pointed story about how these things exist in tandem. This gives the client a lens to relate to people and understand the role that they have to play in their world. It’s about breaking those walls down a little bit and helping clients think about the world in a way that isn’t just their bubble.

Do you use specific methods, like cultural immersion, to help brands break the walls and escape their bubble?

It depends on the appetites among clients and on what they're comfortable with. One of the first projects I did as Cultural Futurist was an immersion into barbecue culture. We flew to Austin and the project influenced where we took the clients to eat and what experiences we curated. We even did an activity in the Yeti store. Our observations and experiences informed the work sessions that we later held.

But ultimately, this was an outlier. It’s hard to sell this type of deep immersion to clients who are not used to it. Therefore, it all comes down to storytelling and how you lead a horse to water in a narrative way when you explain the tailwinds and headwinds. It's not just about presenting the information, but about taking the client on a journey, where at the end they're comfortable with the solution you offer them.

There's something special about writing. Narrative storytelling has always been my strategic superpower. Taking brands on those journeys and helping them see the opportunity. In this structural system that we live in it’s the most powerful tool that we have. Many people don't realise how important it is. I tell young strategists to never read a book about advertising and read about writing instead. That’s what they need to learn: how to tell a compelling story and help people see themselves in that story. Stories are what will help them get to “yes”.

You are building a futures practice at dentsu from scratch. How do you go about it?

I’m still part of the strategy group and the Futures practice is a formalisation of the things that I've always done and naturally excel at. Building the practice is about helping the rest of the department bring these types of tools into their practice. It's about influencing what I can which starts with helping people be curious and exploratory and see how certain outputs and outcomes can add value to the work that they're doing. In a non-traditional foresight space, it’s not necessarily what clients pay for, but it’s a tool set that is increasingly needed in a fast-changing world. People need ways to navigate uncertainty. Foresight is becoming an increasingly critical skill for people who have never encountered it before. So, my role is educational in a way.

Is it more an internal or an external challenge?

It's an internal challenge that is a client challenge at the same time. There are two jobs to be done. First, you have to demonstrate your value to the organisation and to the teams, not only strategy teams but also account teams who are working directly with clients. Secondly, you need to educate them in such a way that they can sell it to clients who will pay for it as a value-added service.

The change that I can most meaningfully affect in the near term is helping brand strategists think more in these ways and by doing so gradually shift client thinking in this direction. My goal is to blur the line between brand strategy and trend work.

What advice would you give to strategy departments seeking to set up a foresight practice?

It's about having a point of view. That’s the nice thing about the story I'm able to tell around Cultural Futurism. It’s easy to understand. You have to be able to tell a story about why you exist and what you bring to people. If you can't do that and if you can't do that in a compelling way that has a point of view, you won’t be able to sell it internally, which means you won’t be able to sell it externally either. It all comes back to storytelling.

About Keely Adler:

Keely is a brand strategist by trade, and a time-traveling futurist at heart. She’s the Research Instigator and part of the core team at RADAR, while also spearheading a Cultural Futurism practice at dentsu creative. She believes in understanding the present through the lens of the past in order to make sense of the future — and she loves helping makers, creators, and brands do the same.

Follow Keely on Twitter or Substack
Further Reading:

Check out RADAR and its A Future in Sync report


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