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Weak signals bring messages from the future

Weak signals help us see the present more precisely and build better futures.
Teemajutun kuvitus, kuva: Noora Typpö
The illustration of the article has been created by Noora Typpö, a student of visual communication design.

This year has changed our view of the world with unprecedented speed. The coronavirus shut down offices, universities and national borders as well as taught us to keep our distance from one another, disinfect our hands and handle meetings via video link.

The global pandemic came across as a sudden and completely unpredictable upheaval.

But was it really so surprising after all?

Perhaps the consequences of the coronavirus felt so sudden because we failed to notice the weak signals that presaged the waves of sickness flowing from one country to the next.

Virus researchers have been sounding warnings about diseases of animal origin that humans have no resistance to for a long time. For example, the SARS virus that appeared twenty years ago came from bats, while swine flu originated in pigs a decade ago.

Trade in wild animals at Chinese food markets has been considered risky. In addition to population growth and urbanisation, the threat has grown because of mass tourism, which helps dangerous viruses travel from one country to another at the speed of a jet aircraft.

In a sense, it was only a matter of time before an epidemic started spreading from a wet market selling live animals. 

Hints about future changes that manifest themselves in the present, but are easily overlooked, are what futurologists refer to as weak signals.

‘A weak signal is the first symptom of a possible change,’ says futurist Mikko Dufva.

Weak signals stimulate thought

The best known concepts of futures studies include the megatrend, which refers to colossal changes like digitisation and climate warming, as well as trend, which is used to describe lesser development tendencies.

Although megatrends affect both entire nations as well as individual citizens, sketching out the future relying solely on them would result in incorrect predictions. Sticking to known phenomena alone narrows our conception of the future too much.

Dufva, who works as the Leading Foresight Specialist at the Finnish Innovation Fund Sitra, says that this is precisely where weak signals show their strength. They broaden our view of what kinds of building blocks reality is made of.

‘This is essential in our current age of surprises, which requires us to challenge what we consider ordinary or normal. At the same time, it enables us to keep our eyes peeled for emerging phenomena.’

As a multidisciplinary field of research, futures studies is especially helpful in outlining surprises. Its practical applications involve the methods of prediction, in which hints about possible changes are observed and analysed with the aid of, for example, weak signals.

Dufva stresses that weak signals are not forecasts, but more like stimuli for thought.

‘They help us recognise different kinds of futures. Ideally, these will be of a type we could not have even imagined otherwise.’

Dumpster diving a hint of coming change

Dufva reminds us of an observation made by futurist Elina Hiltunen, who noted that, at first glance, weak signals can appear strange or even ludicrous.

Dufva mentions dumpster diving as an apt practical example of this.

During the last decade, the press portrayed rummaging through bins for discarded food as an eccentric lifestyle choice of the alternative scene. Supermarket chains also took a dim view of the independent recyclers digging through their garbage. 

Little by little, these attitudes changed. Nowadays, food past its best-before date is distributed free of charge to the needy, sold at a discount to knowledgeable customers in stores and even served up as dinner at zero-waste eateries.

Dufva says it usually takes five to ten years for a weak signal to mature into a phenomenon.

‘In hindsight, it can be said that dumpster diving has been a weak signal. This really shows us that we should challenge our way of thinking every so often.’

Researchers a source of weak signals

Recognition of weak signals is always subjective; the same things simply don’t surprise us all.

Dufva uses synthetic biology as an example. Microbes can produce biosynthetic silk, which resembles spider silk and could replace oil-based materials in consumer products.

Many people would be amazed by the prototype stereo headset made by researchers from Aalto University and VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland – it’s soft parts were created by growing mycelium.

‘But if you’ve studied synthetic biology, this is in no way surprising, it’s rather mundane in fact,’ says Dufva.

Researchers who generate fresh knowledge are quite often suitable sources of weak signals. Coming changes can just as well be foreseen by artists, NGOs that tackle social issues and various marginalised groups.

When Dufva was compiling a database on weak signals for Sitra a couple of years ago, he mined, for example, news flashes, Twitter accounts and prediction-themed blogs as sources. Individual signals related to issues ranging from body-tuning biohackers to China’s citizen rating scheme and the weakening of the Gulf Stream. 

Dufva classified signals using so-called PESTEC categorisation, in which political, economic, social, technological, environment-related and cultural signals are divided into their own groups.

Weak signals can be thought to perhaps anticipate a broader change only after a sufficient amount of observations, which point in the same direction, is accumulated in an individual category.

Studies on materials produced with genetically-modified microbes could, for example, predict a revolution in goods manufacture. Our everyday utensils may in future be grown directly out of the waste streams of households, agriculture and industry.

In this way, weak signals can help us broaden our ideas about the possible directions in which our world may shape itself, Dufva thinks.

‘We can identify possibilities that we might not otherwise see.’

Viestejä tulevaisuudesta -kuvituskuva, kuva: Noora Typpö

Insure yourself for the future

Weak signals don’t always point towards positive alternatives. Many of them are portents of dangerous futures.

This is why the systematic scrutiny of weak signals can be thought of as insuring against the future, says Aalto University Professor of Systems Analysis Ahti Salo.

Salo notes that many organisations have already learned to consider early recognition of possible futures important – at least on the level of speech.

Unfortunately, their talk does not always transform into action.

‘There’s awareness of how important it is to monitor weak signals, but it could be done quite a lot better in practice,’ Salo says.

Salo himself contributes to the work of the Government Foresight Group appointed by the Prime Minister’s Office. The Group forms part of Finland’s official foresight system that, among other things, helps draft the Government report on the future.

Systematic monitoring of weak signals could, according to Salo, alert companies to recognise, for example, rapid changes in the operating environment. Sometimes, these can foretell the upheaval of an entire sector or the erosion of a business model.

In recent years, changes like this have emanated especially from platform economy firms, the best-known of which include transport and accommodation service disruptors Uber and Airbnb.

Deal with vulnerabilities well in advance

Examining future risks through weak signals can reveal the surprising vulnerability of society.

Risk is increased by mutual dependencies in the production of energy, raw materials and electronics components, for example. These can create vulnerabilities that spread through society in a chain reaction.

For example, about twenty massive oil tankers cross the Gulf of Finland every day. In risk management, these tankers are seen not only as environmental hazards, but also as a potential electricity production vulnerability.

‘If a severe tanker accident were to happen on the Gulf of Finland, the oil spill might prevent power plants from taking cooling water from the sea,’ says Salo.

For its part, the coronavirus can be interpreted as a so-called wild card, i.e. a sudden, surprising and substantial change factor. Nevertheless, Salo points out that it is still possible to prepare for the risks associated with pandemics.

‘If a weak signal can be identified at the right stage, risk management and safety enhancement can fare much better. It is easier to take corrective measures in the early stages.’

Viestejä tulevaisuudesta -kuvituskuva, kuva: Noora Typpö

Employ signals as a competitive advantage

Corporate success hinges to an ever greater degree on the ability to foresee events. Accordingly, Salo says organisations should make the systematic charting of weak signals an integral part of their foresight process.

‘For example, before outlining major strategies it would be wise to go through a process to chart weak signals in order to become, at the very least, more aware.’

The tools for this exist. One futures studies tool that suits practical foresight work is the Delphi technique.

Delphi is a type of multi-stage survey in which the number of expert participants ranges from a few dozen to as many as several hundred.

In the first round, participants are asked about their views on, say, future product innovations. In the next round, the query is made more detailed based on the first round of answers. Finally, the results are analysed statistically and contextually.

In Elina Hiltunen’s futures windows method, the entire company is encouraged to gather weak signals.

The employees take part in the futures window by snapping pictures of things they consider interesting. The images are fitted with captions and then added to a presentation that is displayed in, for example, the company’s break room or conference space.

Salo says weak signals can grow into a significant competitive factor if companies react to them more rapidly. Results can manifest themselves in improved services and product innovations.

‘Ideally, you find gold nuggets. And foresight can be implemented quite lightly.’

Prediction should not be done only by companies and other organisations, however. Salo thinks we would all be wise to stay alert when confronting information associated with both the past and the future. The necessary abilities for this can be developed by attending courses belonging to Aalto University’s futures studies minor programme.

‘We live in a continuum. Understanding this continuum is part of the sounding board against which every expert’s insight is built.’

Consolidate ideas into scenarios

Could weak signals and foresight work also help in solving humanity’s greatest challenges?

As it happens, researchers more and more often ponder how information related to the future could lead to the emergence of better futures for us all.

Future alternatives are also at the heart of Aalto University Professor of Sustainable Design İdil Gaziulusoy’s work. She points out that the role of design has expanded over the last few decades.

‘Traditionally, design has been a servant of the consumer society. Part of design remains so, but our profession is taking an ever more critical view of its old role.’

Instead of physical products, a designer’s work may focus on, for example, an intangible service path, user experience or even a process to manage societal change.

Gaziulusoy’s own work deals with societal transition phases from the perspective of sustainable development.

‘Among other things, we emphasise processes of participation in which designers play an important role.’

Gaziulusoy’s research project in Australia makes for a good example. While at the University of Melbourne, she studied new alternatives for South Australian cities to develop sustainable and low-carbon futures.

About one hundred experts of different fields from research institutions, industry, NGOs and decision-making bodies took part in the futures workshops that launched the project.

Based on current phenomena, the workshops envisioned a future in which climate change-curbing emission restrictions had been implemented successfully.

Designers then gave the experts’ ideas concrete form by drafting them into imaginary news flashes from the year 2040. Some examples: Cycling becomes Melbourne’s most important mode of transport. Remaining cars assigned to public transport use. Drones handle post and goods deliveries. Buildings now harvest solar energy and their gardens are used to produce food.

The observations accumulated over the multi-year project were, in the end, condensed into scenarios that model future development paths. Among other things, they indicated that it is possible to aim for sustainable development from foundations built on entirely different sets of values.

‘In one scenario, strong government was the key actor, in the next, business dominated. In the third, communities took the lead and, in the fourth, micro-enterpreneurs.’

Gaziulusoy points out that the scenarios created in Australia were, above all, tools for testing differing perspectives, not agendas for the future.

‘In a world that is unbelievably uncertain and complex, it would be dangerous to commit too strongly to a defined future.’

The same idea applies to foresight work more generally. What’s important is not so much whether or not foresight hits the mark. More essential is that we learn to act smarter in the present.

Perhaps we could also detect weak signals in the coronavirus. At the very least, the pandemic has made us notice that the crisis cannot be resolved through the work of virus researchers and health authorities alone. Getting through it calls for the participation of all of us, whether this means working remotely, keeping safe distances or wearing a mask.

Perhaps a similar ability to cooperate could help us create a future in which even climate change has been halted.

Text: Panu Räty. Illustration: Noora Typpö.
This article is published in the Aalto University Magazine issue 27, October 2020.

Viestejä tulevaisuudesta -kuvituskuva, kuva: Noora Typpö

This is how you recognise weak signals

Recognising weak signals calls for the observer to keep an open mind, have the courage to challenge their own preconceptions and to halt when they come across curious details. The actual accumulation of signals is divided into three phases.

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