Patrick VAN DER DUIN's Interview

Interviewee
Patrick VAN DER DUIN, Delft University of Technology, United Kingdom
Mini CV

Patrick van der Duin is an assistant professor at Delft University of Technology, Faculty of Technology, Policy and Management, Section Technology, strategy and entrepreneurship. He receives his master in economics from the University of Amsterdam. He was a researcher and senior advisor at KPN Research where he participated in future studies research on use of telecommunication services and products. He has done a PhD on the use of qualitative methods of futures research in innovation processes in large corporations. His fields of interests are innovation management, innovation systems, futures research, and the link between futures research and innovation management.

Interview result

Do you have any initial questions about the iKNow project?
 
 The main question would be whether you would focus on the content of wild cards or merely the process of how to get there. I am not so much involved in predicting the future. I focus more on matters and process of future research.
 
 We are interested in how to define and classify wild cards and weak signals. We are also interested in the actual content. What is your background?
 
 I am a macro economist. I studied at the University of Amsterdam and then went to work in KPN Research, the incumbent telecom operator, the Dutch national PDT. They had a research facility and I did all sorts of future studies on telecommunications. We did scenarios and road mapping, particularly in the field of telecommunications and then societal and economic developments. We tried to avoid a purely technology approach, but also to look at the relevance of social and cultural change, to get a view or different views on the future. We would try to assess what it means to make decisions and connect decisions, particularly around innovation. I worked there for six years and then I switched to the Delft University of Technology. I am doing technical business administration, some technical policy analysis and my PhD was on companies’ use of methods of futures research in their innovations process. If you innovate as a company, it takes about seven years, and a formal study will take about 10 years. So we need some view of the future so that your current idea of innovation is future-proof and is focused on the right trends. I finished my PhD in 2006 and have been working as an Assistant Professor. I am still doing futures studies, sometimes about innovation and sometimes on the interface between futures studies and innovation. So my background is private research, then I switched to the academic field.
 
 Have you in noticed or can you envisage any major wild cards, positive or negative, that may occur in the next 20 years?
 

 The obvious wild cards are all kinds of natural disasters. But two years ago I was involved in a project for the Dutch Ministry of Internal Affairs, a workshop specifically organized for people outside government, because they were interested in what these people thought about possible disasters or things you cannot predict. They noticed that we as ‘non-experts’ were focusing on non-physical wild cards. We were thinking about what happens if governments try to violate our human rights – if a country turns into a non-democratic state, which is happening a little in Italy. There is also a risk of this happening in The Netherlands, where a right wing party got a lot of votes in the last election. If they were in power, this could affect not so much citizens’ rights, but how people deal with it, so people would become more disentangled. A clear example is Belgium, where there is a lot of difference between French-speaking and Flemish-speaking people, and that division is deepening and widening. That is an example of a non-physical wild card – a political one which might have a wide impact. Usually those changes are very slow, and you could predict them more easily than physical changes such as floods. But big changes in how people vote, in The Netherlands and other European countries, might cause problems and unrest in society. Many Dutch civil servants say that if that particular party in The Netherlands were in government, they would resign or would not follow certain orders, so there is some resistance to these changes. Even non-physical major changes in how people behave and vote can have a big impact.
 
So a widening division between government and the people?

 
 There is already the metaphor in The Netherlands of the gap between politics and society. People have a lot of influence over their daily lives, they decide themselves what to do, it is no longer determined by their background or upbringing. So there is a lot of power in their personal life, but in their political life they are only allowed to cast their vote once every four years. Some people are angry about the fact that they don’t influence that important domain of society. They don’t feel they influence politics and governments and this is in contrast to the power and freedom they have in their personal life over what to do, what to buy, where to go on holiday, who to pick as friends. It is a very dangerous gap, I would say. Gradual changes in how people think are becoming less gradual and more and more abrupt.
 
 If we think more about these as weak signals, what can you see as wild card that might come out of this?
 
 In Holland it is now very difficult to have a government, and a very important wild card could be that at a certain moment people no longer accept political power. An example would be the Euro. Already some financial experts and economists have predicted or suggested the disentanglement of the Eurozone, with one for Northern Europe and one for Southern Europe. That would be a specific wild card which shows people don’t accept the national authority of government. Also, a symbol for government like currencies can become endangered and acceptance of only certain currencies would be a very tricky moment.
 
 Can you imagine any other wild cards which in the next 20 years would be particularly relevant to Europewide research, something you should be focusing on?
 
 Something like nano or bio research, but I think they are already being done. Security is becoming more and more important, and causes people to have to make sacrifices, as in George Orwell’s novel, Nineteen Eighty-four. That is already happening and people very easily sacrifice their private personal space and private sphere in order to make sure that at a collective level there is more security. That is a strange trade-off that might become a weapon against people themselves. Those kinds of dilemmas might be interesting to research. In innovation, you have open innovation and innovation systems. It might be interesting to see how that relates to foresight. More and more companies are working in collaboration on innovation and that has some consequences as to how you deal with foresight. The main research agenda for Europe should be defined by problems. We are in a time squeeze regarding the fact that our climate is deteriorating. We need more green and sustainable technologies, but the take-off of these technologies is too slow and the diffusion curve is still not steep enough to ensure we have these in time. We don’t have the time to think things through and we cannot make any more mistakes and end up with the wrong sustainable technologies. The example of biofuels is illustrative of this. Using the wrong biofuels can turn out worse for our climate than we expected, and it takes many years and effort to develop the right biofuels. Another problem would be the ageing society. This is good in itself and I think there will be scientific discoveries which will extend our lifetimes. But more and more people are getting older and not always in a good state of health. We have an insufficient labour force to take care of these elderly people. More and more problems will be capitalized..Poverty is an example. We will have more and more impact of this problem in different places in the world. Sometimes it can be beneficial – a recovery of the European economy can be motivated by the growing Asian economy. When you look at poverty in Africa, more and more people will feel the consequence of that.
 
 Are there any scientific fields that you think should increase research to respond to these wild cards and weak signals?
 
 In the field of information and communication technology, most of these technologies are still about managing and coordinating communication and information, instead of giving individuals the possibilities and the rights to do their own thing in the ICT world. Social media is a good example of that. People can put anything they like on the internet, but the moment those services become too commercialized, the advances of social media can become a danger. For example, if you are on Twitter you can get emails offering to link your Twitter account with your Facebook account, your My Space account, etc. People might not want to connect these. That looks like a non-commercial venture, but there is often a large commercial interest involved and people might get mixed up or feel cheated. That might be a topic of interest – how ICT can deal with securing its individual character without constantly trying to link things together and make it more collective, so that governments or even large enterprises can interfere and monitor what people are doing on the internet.
 
 We have touched on quite a few wild cards. Have you noticed in your research or in the media any weak signals that indicate that these changes are happening?
 
A weak signal could be that the developing countries are not developing and that China is now trying to buy large areas of land in Africa to secure its basic materials. As we move into a world of more sparsity, these decisions by the Chinese government, the Chinese people and Chinese companies to buy basic materials from Africa are a clear weak signal of the crucial position of Africa in a world with more sparsity, where the people of Africa are still very poor and not developing. The other weak signal I mentioned is the difficulty we have in The Netherlands to form a government. This has almost become impossible, and at every new election it becomes more and more difficult to make a new cabinet, contrary to the UK. In terms of social media, there are certain occurrences on the internet, and certain websites that have a high impact on people. Traditional media, such as newspapers, are having difficult times and are barely able to keep up. More and more of the immediate landscape is becoming itemized, individualized and influenced by many more people. Twitter is a good example. In 2008 I wrote an article for a Dutch newspaper predicting that Twitter would become famous. In April 2009 there was an attack on the Royal Family and the first media coverage was on Twitter.It is now a serious phenomenon. People have got into trouble because they have said something on Twitter. In The Netherlands, Twitter has become an accepted social medium, not only by ordinary people but also by journalists and politicians. It has become a major news source, with reporters in the daily newspapers commonly quoting what people have said in Twitter. In Holland more recently someone was convicted for incitement to violence because on Twitter he asked people to come to a certain square and start a riot.
 
 If we look again towards the future of European research, which of the wild cards or weak signals you have mentioned would be a top priority in research?
 
 In general I would assume a lot of research is being done on technology. The main problem is that, once more, there is a big gap between technology and society. In Europe there is a view of innovation as being only technology inspired. So if policy makers and politicians talk about making us more innovative, they are speaking about us developing more technology. We talk about the ‘innovation paradox’ – that we are so good at basic science, but so bad at translating that into business opportunities. I would say that is the wrong view on innovation. It assumes a very linear and technology pull approach to innovation, whilst the most important success factor for innovation is about how people can deal with and understand new technology and whether it fits into their daily life. Just pumping more and newer technology into society and the economy will not make us more innovative. If people don’t learn how to use new technology or accept or understand it, then they won’t use it – or if they do, later on they will have some sort of backlash, because they will say I am so dependent on it that I don’t want it any more.
 
 So innovation is driven more by technology than actual need?
 
 I was suggesting not splitting technological research from nontechnological research. Research projects need to be funded to have some combination, in order to ensure we are developing the right technologies. For example, in The Netherlands there is a large research programme in nanotechnology, and one small part is a sociological assessment focused on what that means to society. How we look at technology and innovation is old-fashioned. We think technology is a great boon to society and will solve all our problems, not just our technological problems. That is not a good idea.
 
 Is there a wild card that you think in the future is related to this in the future?
 
Dependency on technology is too great, perhaps – it has become so specialized that only certain people understand things about very important technology. We can’t solve things any more by ourselves. In the past, car owners could fix things themselves and analyse what went wrong. Now to reset your car you have to go to a specialist. The division of labour is very much around technology; society has too many experts and too few generalists. According to colleague of mine who used to be an astronomer, and we no longer have the expertise to send people to the moon, because that knowledge was used once only, has not been used again, and has now been lost as the people involved are now retired or have passed away. Technology like that in cars becomes very obscure, very specialized and more and more people might have difficulty with that.
 
 In the iKNOW project we defined wild cards as a low probability, high impact event. Do you prefer other definitions or would you add something to our definition of a wild card?
 
 I think the definition is good. For the field of futures research it is important to have very wide discussions on things. The question is more a matter of judgement – how do you know something has a low probability? It is important to know the context of the wild card. Before the September 11th attacks, there were experts thinking this might happen. I have heard of a study that said assuming that terrorists will attack the United States, they might do that with planes because they are very insecure. So it is important to view wild cards in a context, and to relate wild cards to each other. We need to ask what situations can one wild card lead to, and from a policy perspective what can you do to change the consequences? So your definition seems good. I know what you mean, and that is the most important thing about a definition. The crucial thing will be that local policy makers will never anticipate based on this definition. They go for a high probability, which is one of the easiest ways for them. I would focus not only on possible wild cards, but also what are the subsequent events that might happen and what can you do as a policy maker, politician or manager to deal with those wild cards? Also, wild cards are often negative, but they can also be very positive.
 
 We have defined weak signals as observable changes in current trends or state of affairs. Some particularly important weak signals could be precursor events that make a wild card more probable or even inevitable. Do you think this is a good definition or would you add something or subtract something?
 
 I would just add one point. The change you are talking about should be a very essential change, a very important leading indicator. There are a lot of indicators with variables, but which change is the most crucial one? For example, when I worked for KPN it was a monopoly, so all phone calls were transferred via the KPN network and everyone had a subscription to KPN. The market changed and there was more competition, but still most of the traffic had to go via the KPN network. But about 12 years ago the first phone call in The Netherlands took place that did not go via a KPN network, and that was a really significant change. It stands out as a remarkable event. Decline in market share is gradual and incremental, and change should be illustrative of all overall changes. Therefore you have to find and choose what the most essential variables are for each domain. For instance, some people are thinking about the possible recovery of the financial sector. The price of copper has always turned out to be an important predictor of financial growth, and they are saying that once more that indicator is positive and therefore things might be recovering. We have to find really specific leading indicators. All indicators might be important, but there are always essential ones, and we have to look at changes in these really significant indicators. That is the art, that is the most difficult thing.
 
 Are there any interesting lessons from any previous foresight studies that have employed this weak signal method approach?

 
In one study we said you can measure weak signals and put them in a context, and we combined those weak signals with the scenario approach. Finding the lead indicator is very difficult, and by putting those indicators into a certain context, e.g. in the scenario method or the error method, you might get more grip on those possible leading indicators. It is a matter of brainstorming and asking experts, but if you use the method those indicators might be more powerful.
 
 What are the best methods to identify wild cards?
 
 It is important to invite people who are on the outskirts of society, from different industries. You look at innovation and in particular industries it comes from outside the industry and the same goes for futures research and wild cards. On television, writing in newspapers you have those agents of change, but they are more on the status quo and always bringing up the obvious. It is more about finding exotic people with exotic opinions.

Interviewer (Institution)

Manchester Institute of Innovation Research

Manchester Institute of Innovation Research

Innovations - new products, services and ways of making or doing things - are fundamental to business success and to economic growth and development. Manchester is one of the founding centres for the study of science, technology and innovation. The Manchester Institute of Innovation Research builds on a forty year old tradition of study in the area. More...

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