Philip SPIES's Interview

Philip SPIES, Creative Future Network CC, South Africa
Mini CV

Philip Spies was the Director of Futures Research at Stellenbosch University for 18 years, and after that he taught courses in the theory of futures studies. He has a PhD in economics, wealth economics and environmental economics from Iowa State University.

Interview result

Can you tell me a bit about your background?
 I am retired now, but I was the Director of Futures Research at Stellenbosch University for 18 years, and after that I taught courses in the theory of futures studies. I have a PhD in economics, wealth economics and environmental economics from Iowa State University.
 Can you envisage any major wild cards, positive or negative, that may occur in the next 20 years?
 One wild card is the expectations of high Chinese growth, confronted by serious environmental problems in China, which they are struggling to combat. Given the growth trends in China and the population, the great question is whether they can succeed in combating the environmental implications of their growth strategy. If not, the likelihood of serious problems arising in 20 years should be considered. The other one perhaps is the question of moving beyond the three-style technology transfer process. In other words, learning capabilities and the human development side – what I call the learning economy. At the moment we still are hooked onto the information revolution, but the next revolution will be the learning revolution, which is more the human embodiment of our capacity to use information data and to ask for better information. At the moment, the knowledge economy is driven by the hardware and the exogenous software. The next round will probably refer to the human capacity, in terms of judgement and thinking. So it is a serious wild card, because most of the problems that we face today in the world – environmental problems, international conflict problems, social problems – relate to the human mind and to how we think, how we understand reality and perhaps to the esoteric side of things, how you develop your own values and own judgement around these values. That, more than anything else, can shift patterns in the next 20 years significantly. It is not something that will happen in the next five years, but there is growing pressure for that kind of thing happening. I will highlight those two things: the growing Chinese dominance; and the great problem of coping with the extreme, human-created complexities of the world today.
 What would be the most dramatic impact of these wild cards and how do you think it should be addressed by future research or policy?
 Futures studies should become more involved with systems thinking capabilities. The role of systems thinking must increase, because the complexities problem is a systemic problem. The causal layered analysis approach and that kind of thing should become more dominant. These are all systemic approaches. Futures studies’ emphasis on the hard analytical approach should be complemented by the soft conceptual approaches, which are acquired human judgement and understanding each side. That is where futures studies should focus its efforts.
 Do you think futures studies is ill-equipped to handle these systemic problems?
 It is a bit bogged down by methodological approaches and analytical approaches. The thought processes are being ignored to a certain extent. A few people, like Rick Slaughter, do look at it more within that context, and this is the direction that we should put more emphasis on. The analytical approach has become so stereotypical. It is becoming almost a self-fulfilling tool, especially four dimension analysis scenario development.
 What are the weak signals that could hint at the likelihood or imminent realization of these wild cards happening?
 Everybody would like to look at weak signals for technological development, and that is rather easy to analyse. But a weak signal at the moment is the transformation of human insight and understanding. There is growing interest in that, and it just may transform the pattern of development in the future, especially things relating to spiritual, ethical and value systems. Look at t bottom line analysis. When I worked on my PhD in environmental economics, the only bottom line was the financial bottom line. In later years, the pressure of the Green movement, forced into this the environmental bottom line, and now the social bottom line is moving in, and maybe there should be a fourth bottom line forced into that, which is the inner view of the human being, like values and ethics. I think the 21st century will be forced by conditions and the growing complexity of our life to start looking deeper and trying to get a better understanding, because we are blooming into a less analytical world, which will be driven by better judgement, and value judgement is the human thing. This is appearing around the beliefs of religious dogma and moving into spirituality. I can observe that this is an area of concern and interest.
 Can you identify any causal or other relationships between the wild cards and weak signals that you have mentioned?
 The Chinese thing is a major shift in economic and perhaps also political domination in the world. It is difficult to imagine it now, because we are so wrapped up with the European and American model of the world. Even with South Africa in 1981 and 1982 I wrote a scenario that apartheid would break down in South Africa in 1990, but I did not believe it myself. It was a pure understanding of what was happening. We see today a major transformation in the world – the increased role of China, the expectations of the Chinese future, but the possibility of a breakdown in that future, due to the problems of managing its major environmental implications. In order to manage it, different conceptual models and value systems are necessary, and better day-to-day decision making and judgements. It is not so much the plan, as the formulation of judgements behind the plan that is important. There is a relationship between the esoteric or internal model and the external model in these two wild cards. If Brazil should develop rapidly, what will happen to the rainforests, what will be the implications and how will the day-to-day judgements and value systems govern the decisions that lie behind the plans that are formulated?  That is another example. You can talk of the Russian model, but that is not so much threatened as the Chinese thing, because the Russian population is not so overbearing and it is a resource-rich country. That might bring China and Russia in another model closer together, not in the ideological framework but in the economic framework. China is a resource-poor country, which makes it highly dependent on other countries.
 Which of the wild cards and weak signals you have mentioned should be given top priority as a research topic?Is there one that is more urgent than another?
 For the future of the world, I think that research centring on ethics, values and the commonality in the religious and value frameworks of the world should be looked into. One should see an ethical approach as long-term, because the question of the right values and ethics should support sustainability: the role of ethics, values and thinking models, such as systems thinking in applications and planning. If you have good systems thinking inside, in terms of relationships, multiple causality, complexity and so on, you can understand how to interpret the implications of what you do today. Then it is supported by your ethics and values, rather than the presence of business.
 Have you worked in the past with wild cards and weak signals?

 A weak signal is something that you observe that potentially can evolve into a major thing. The weak signal and the wild card is a field of possibilities, that is an expanse of thinking. This is the type of thing that is borne out of great brainstorming sessions. Your wild card is exactly that, and the weak signal is almost like something that you pick up and if you follow that goal ultimately you can turn that into an important force.
 Would you agree that weak signals always come before wild cards? Would you say there is always a link?
 There are two thinking modes: expansive thinking, which is wild cards; and reflective thinking, trying to interpret what you observe and thinking about where it will all end if it continues, which is weak signals. For example, if you talk about compound growth, a small change in the inflation rate may end up as a major disaster because of its compounding effect. Another way a weak signal can evolve is systemic repercussions – one thing leading to another and starting up two or three different things at the same time. So the thinking process for weak signals is quite different to wild card thinking, which is expansive thinking. Totally different approaches are needed in terms of how you should manage them. You probably need two different personalities. In a planning framework, you will get the arty guy determined to start throwing out wild card thinking, and other kinds of individuals, who can go through a logical process and look at all the systemic repercussions and be interested in that. This is how you can pick it up and understand it.
 What are the best methods to identify weak signals and wild cards?
 In the case of weak signals, you probably need to talk to different experts. For example, a weak signal can be a new discovery in the biological sciences or in physics or in the social sciences or in the medical profession. You would probably go to some of these specialists and talk to someone with an open mind and a capability to think about implications and ask them ‘What is happening in your field and how do you think it will evolve? ’ For wild cards, I would use a different kind of personality, with a different kind of expertise. It would be more mindblowing and more brainstorming. I used this approach years ago. I used coordinators. At my institute there was a very highly qualified person in the region, and I asked them to write about the things that interested them. Then I selected out what they said. In 1989 we wrote papers on, say, the narrowing of the gene pool in the world. Nobody observed it, but we picked it up and we said what about that, where will it end up?  Then we discovered all kinds of things around the world that confirmed this, and the danger in narrowing the gene gap in the world – the continuous selection process and throwing way of gene pools. These days this is generally accepted. Another weak signal I picked up was from a study of the American CIA. It was prepared by Stamford Research on cyclical processes in the world. They did a study on the Russian agricultural sector for political reasons and discovered that was a cyclical process. We did a study on a similar possibility in the Southern hemisphere and somebody talked about the El Nino effect. When I talked to business people they said I was crazy, but some fertilizer companies ended up losing their businesses due to the El Nino effect in the Southern hemisphere. Farmers stopped buying their fertilizer because of the drought. What we picked up in the US was a weak signal. You observe something and it requires reflective thinking to discover what is happening. A weak signal is really your ability to interpret the evolving dangers or potentials emerging from things that are already happening.
 Where would be the best places to look?Is it media or other places or research?

 Talk to the experts. You find brilliant researchers, and you may talk to 20 and pick up one or two of these signals. Once they are excited about what you are talking about, they do the work for you. You have to talk to the right experts with a depth in a specific field.
 Are there interesting lessons from your previous foresight studies that you could share with us, anything with hindsight you would do or not do again?
The field of foresight or futures studies is really a field of discovery and it is dangerous – you have to throw away a lot of stuff to arrive at something worthwhile. If you are not inquisitive or curious about things, you don’t have the personality to work in this field. If you are rigid and analytical, you will struggle to do a good job in determining weak signals or playing with wild cards, because your tolerance for ambiguity is too low. You can make use of people with a low tolerance of ambiguity. These are usually highly respected, good scientists; they don’t have a tolerance for ambiguity, but can tell you a lot if you are open-minded. I would not narrow it down in this exploration. In your scoping process, you have to decide where to draw the line, otherwise you end up doing so many things you can’t complete anything. You draw the line by scoping and the best way of scoping is to formulate a series of questions. One good approach is the rolled out series of questions that Shell use in their planning department to their executive, which I have used in the past. You have to ask the right questions. Your profiling starts with a questions process. Beyond that, you should look at as many things as possible, because you will probably have to throw away 90 percent of what you have looked at. These are the things that are important and can make a difference. Like all research processes, you have to keep an open mind and apply yourself.

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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