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"The future can be planned"

Illustration | Bosch Rexroth AG
Marginal Column
Photo | Marion A. Weissenberger-Eibl

University Professor Dr. Marion A. Weissenberger-Eibl has directed her attention to futures research since the year 2000. For seven years she has been the directress of the Fraunhofer Institute for System and Innovation Research (ISI) in Karlsruhe.

She also holds the chair for Innovation and Technology Management at the Institute for Entrepreneurship, Technology Management and Innovation (EnTechnon) at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT).

Networked communications, cloud computing, assembly lines that monitor themselves. Technical innovations shape our lives. Will technology dominate us completely in the near future? “No,” says university professor Dr. Marion A. Weissenberger-Eibl.


Is the future plannable?

The question posed by every technical innovation is: Will the user adopt this, realizing the advantages it will bring about? Making a reliable prediction is a challenge. That is why human beings and their needs have moved into the center of futures research today. Acceptance by society elevates the chances that a technical development will make its breakthrough. We study this by polling experts and by using the so-called participative process.

This means that scenarios will be developed not only by consultation with the principals, but also with those who are impacted by innovations. Beyond that, the more exactly we can identify the environment which promotes or hinders innovations, the more plannable the future will become.

Can you clarify that – using an example from current research?

Among the questions we are dealing with is the subject of safety. Here the framework for use, mentioned before, plays a primary role. The networked person discloses personal data everywhere – often without giving much thought to it. This might happen, for example, when using discount cards or in social networks. Revealing personal information can often trigger conflicts elsewhere if, for example, it is published in the interest of public safety and security.

Using a survey covering the entire EU, we are exploring the connection between public security and preserving individuals’ spheres of personal privacy. It is necessary to construct security measures so that there is the least possible intervention in individuals’ private lives. We are examining the circumstances under which technical developments – like intelligent video surveillance – increase the citizenry’s feeling of safety and when they are unsettling. Participative methods are important in this field.

Do changes in the system of values also play a part?

Yes. In modern societies the possibility of self-development has become very important. At the same time, the significance of sustainability and ecological responsibility has been growing for years. This transition can be readily seen, using mobility as the example. In many countries, the principle of “using instead of owning” has moved into the foreground.

This means that multi-modal transport concepts are gaining importance. A phenomenon already coming to the fore in freight transportation, i.e. using various modes of transport to meet specific needs, will also be determinant in private transportation, too. Technological advances in communications are simplifying the use of interlinked mobility concepts. The task is now is to make them simpler and more flexible in design by integrating intelligent business models, such as car and bike sharing programs.

Does the desire for self-development mean that citizens are expecting to have a greater say in every area?

The desire for greater self-realization goes along with the desires for opening up structures, dismantling hierarchies, and involvement in design. One scenario here is known as “open everything”. Included here are open government, open innovation, open access, and open education. Network-based innovations create transparency and offer new participation options. In the business world, open innovation implies rethinking. It means moving away from rigid organizational hierarchies and toward new, flexible models – like idea or innovation management that goes beyond the boundaries of the company.

Are there differences in the needs of older and younger people?

One important aspect is how each of them deal with technology, depending on past experiences or due to their own stage in life. This is important in successful introduction of innovations. That is why, in our scenarios, we always depict the various interest groups in society. It has been shown that the acceptance of innovations is not just a question of age.

Demographic change is, in many respects, a chance. Our research has shown that teams of mixed ages have a great deal of potential. Our experience shows that companies that make use of the empirical knowledge of older employees, coupled with the technical savvy of younger people just out of college, are more successful in introducing new technologies and procedures into processes.