In the last couple days I’ve seen several friends from Europe, who were over here for eTech and came north. First, I had lunch with the Innovation Lab’s Mads Thimmer; that evening, I got together with Peter Hesseldahl, an author and futurist at Danfoss Universe. In professional years, both are old friends: I first met Mads in 2004 when I spoke at Next 2004, and I met Peter even earlier, when he was at Lego and doing a project with the Institute.
The next day, I gave a talk at an innovation journalism program that brings international journalists (mainly Scandinavian, from what I can tell) to the Bay Area for a few weeks. The program’s basic premise is that reporting about technology and innovation plays a role in the development of regional innovation networks– an interesting claim, and one that dovetails with my observations about the co-evolution of technology reporting and technology marketing in Silicon Valley (something I noticed when I was working on the history of the Macintosh).
Finally, Friday I had an early dinner with Nicolas Nova, a really interesting computer science researcher who’s based in Switzerland. He’s one of the co-founders of the LIFT conference series, a technology-related event that alternates between Europe and Asia; more recently, he and Julian Bleeker have just started something called the Near Future Laboratory, which is doing some pretty interesting stuff.
I’m fascinated with the European futures scene, and I think it’s not just because my contact with it has been wonderfully privileged (they know how to treat their guests). In some ways, the futures world there seems more vibrant than the American– though it may just be interesting because it’s different. The EU seems to be pretty interested in futures work, and there are a number of corporate-sponsored innovation labs there.
They also seem to me to be better at developing multi-institutional networks: American futurists are very good at networking with people other than futurists, but we tend not to work together very much. Partly this reflects the fact that in the U.S. we’re all– or always have the potential to be– competitors; in Europe, in contrast, the situation is a little different. As one person put it, futures groups in Germany, Spain, England, Finland, and Denmark can work together because the futures market is still pretty national. They can share ideas with less concern that they’ll end up enabling their competition.
This ability to cooperate is important because the futures world is both small and pretty atomized, and any efforts to link researchers and institutions together in any meaningful way, and to begin to generate some coordinated (or at least collectively-informed) action is likely to yield some significant benefits.
I’m also starting to think seriously that the whole field of futures as we know it is ripe for a revolution, and that the intellectual tools and institutional models developed by the founding generation of futurists– a generation that is now retiring or dying off– will not be useful for much longer. They’re certainly not going to be useful for the rest of my professional life.
The challenge is to figure out how to do futures work for a world that’s rather different than the world of the 1960s and 1970s; and it seems to me that the Europeans have a better shot than we do of making the next great methodological leap.
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