Weak signals & future signs

Nik Baerten
Feb 8, 2016 · 12 min read

Note: back in 2008, I interviewed fellow futures explorer Elina Hiltunen for Pantopicon’s blog “a thousand tomorrows” on her notion of the future sign, weak signals, research methods etc. By request, I hereby repost the original interview as the blog meanwhile went offline.

Elina Hiltunen

Change often starts with a ripple before it turns into a wave washing over us. Spotting signals of change early — when they are still murmur on the sideline — often means a strategic advantage, if one can interpret the signal correctly, anticipate and act upon it successfully.

We dive into the world of weak signals together with Elina Hiltunen, a Finnish weak signals hunter and discuss both theory and practice in this fascinating realm of futures studies.

Elina was also one of the keynote speakers at the European Futurists Conference in Lucerne last October.

Nik (Baerten — Pantopicon): Hi Elina … As a weak signals hunter, could you briefly show us a hunting trophy of yours, an example of a fascinating weak signal you were able to capture recently and tell us something more about it?

Elina (Hiltunen): I have an example of an interesting weak signal from Finland, where a college in Lapland is starting a course to educate people to become ‘elves‘, helpers to Santa. Everyone knows that Santa Claus lives in Finland. It is about time now to put an education system in place to train better elves. On the serious side: this elf course aims to train people to serve tourists that come to Lapland to visit Santa Claus in a better way.

Nik: The field of futures studies and strategic foresight is littered with — what are to many people — ‘obscure’ concepts such as weak signals, wildcards, trends, discontinuities, perspectival shifts etc. … Without getting into a definition war, how would you characterize weak signals?

Elina: Sometimes weak signals are confused with wild cards, which they are not. While wild cards are mostly dramatic, big events, weak signals refer to small, odd, strange events. I have defined weak signals as “signals of emerging issues”. In practice they can be news stories, observations etc. about technological or social innovations.

Nik: In which way is your hunt for weak signals different from that of a trendwatcher, a coolhunter, etc. ? Are it the places in which you look, the way in which you look, what you look for, … ?

Elina: I think that trend- or coolhunters are looking for changes that will happen within a smaller timeframe (nearby time horizon). Often they are also used for/by the fashion industry. In a way, weak signal hunting is similar to coolhunting. Looking at lead users is important to spot weak signals as well. However, when the time perspective is long and includes aspects of life other than fashion, lead users can be found in many different places. Lead users are for example also people who are enthusiastic about using the newest technological gadgets and who continuously want to (re)invent things. These people often create something new because of the thrill to innovate.

I believe that also in science, there are lead users. There, researchers are often the innovators, the lead users who constantly think about new solutions and thereby create the future.

In a nutshell: personally, as a weak signal hunter, I am very interested in changes about all aspects of life. Because I am an engineer, technology is especially fascinating to me. So I spot weak signals everywhere using my cameraphone. The Internet, especially blogs, remain among the most valuable hunting areas.

It is important to distinguish between what people are talking about (signals) and what is really happening (issues).

Nik: Some would argue that the Internet is also a medium that — in bringing the world within reach — is also very much exposed to the ‘moment’, to fashion, the latest cool, the hype of the moment, etc. (cf. Digg, reddit, blogs etc.) which leads to the rapid inflation and deflation of certain ‘excerpts’ from society compared to their ‘natural’ occurrences in everyday social life. Is it always the best place to look for weak signals, or is careful observation in one’s direct environment sometimes a better choice, especially to get a more integrative, grounded view of things instead of mere loose bits and pieces of often ‘decontextualized’ information?

Elina: This is a good point! In my theoretical new concept of the future sign (see below) I underline this when we are talking about weak signals. It is important to distinguish between what people are talking about (signals) and what is really happening (issues).

This means that while you can get a lot of valuable information from the internet and blogs, you do have to compare or match that information to reality, to that which is really happening. Yet still, I think that both the internet and reality as we live it in our daily ‘offline’ environment, remain important sources for future changes (weak signals).

Nik: A (weak) signal is more than a pulse, it revolves around meaning. Let’s for a moment consider them signs instead of mere signals. The famous semiotician Charles S. Peirce used to say: “Nothing is a sign unless it is interpreted as a sign”. How does the current theory and practice of weak signals take the whole process of sense-making, of interpretation etc. into account?

EH: Funny that you happen to mention Peirce! I have based my model of the future sign — which describes change more holistically than only focusing on signals of it — on his concept of a three dimensional sign (see Futures, 2007). Applying Peirce’s model of a sign to the future sign it has three dimensions: signal, issue and interpretation. In the future sign signals stand for the concrete form of a sign, the observation of the issue. The issue is the thing in itself and the interpretation is the sense made out of the issue’s possibilities for the future.

I have visualized the future sign as a cube where signal, issue and interpretation stand for various dimensions. The distance of the single sign from the origin of the future sign cube tells the strength of the sign.

An example of that was a major story in the Helsingin Sanomat (Finland’s main newspaper) about Hennes & Mauritz, the famous fashion retailer, which started to sell old clothes (with the price of new ones) under the “vintage” label. Only 1% of their shops were doing that. So from the point of view of the future sign the amount of signal (visibility of the signal) was huge (which makes it tempting to name this a weak signal). But the reality (the issue: only 1% of H&M shops did that) was small. To me the meaning of this for the future was unclear: will this be a bigger trend? I don’t know. So assessing this sign using the three dimensional future sign cube shows that the future sign is actually rather weak — because two dimensions of it were weak. The key point of future sign thinking is that sometimes there is great media attention regarding some issue, while the issue itself never becomes anything big. So be careful about hypes! Dr.Kuusi and myself have further refined this idea.

Nik: There appears to be some debate in the foresight community about the status of weak signals, more particularly about the adjective ‘weak’. To some there is no such thing as a ‘weak signal’, there are but signals: either there is one, either there is not. To others, the strength of the signal depends on its distribution pattern (how much is it distributed and to whom) but measuring this turns out to be problematic. In that respect there are similarities with memetics and the propagation of memes throughout society, culture etc. How do you look at this whole debate?

Elina: My article in Futures about the future sign tried to formulate an answer to the debate about the characteristics of weak signals. I think that it succeeded to clarify some of the discussion. Academically I prefer to talk about weak future signs rather than weak signals because the term covers more dimensions.

Nik: If you come across something that qualifies as a weak signal according to your criteria, how do you dissect it so to say? In which way, with which goals in mind do you analyze it?

Elina: I think that the point is not to try to analyze a single weak signal at all. The point is to collect a lot of weak signals and try to make sense out of them by uncovering patterns (trends) in/behind them. The key thing is to be open minded and not to use any filters in the early stage of the process.

Making sense out of a huge amount of weak signals is facilitated nowadays by community tools or text mining applications. I have been developing a tool called TrendWiki for that purpose together with a company called Data Rangers.

TrendWiki can be used in organizations to collect weak signals. The basic assumptions for the tool were: weak signals should be collected inside organization and every employee should (be able to) act as an antenna for future change. Hence everybody in the organization should have a possibility to collect and share weak signals. Also, collecting weak signals ought to be fun and addictive!

TrendWiki includes a toolbar which every employee can install in their internet browser. When they see an interesting webpage about some type of innovation, a new thing, they just click the button and add in a few details about the page. The signal is then saved inside the database, which can be browsed to search for specific kinds of signals by keywords, tags, dates or location of the signal. The tool also features wiki type pages where employees can combine signals into trends. The software itself also does this. With its textmining features you can analyze texts for various types of things, such as connections between trends and keywords etc.

The point is to collect a lot of weak signals and try to make sense out of them by uncovering patterns (trends) in/behind them.

Nik: Is there something like a ‘signal to noise ratio’ in the study of weak signals in your opinion? How do you deal with it?

Elina: The key thing is to try to understand the noise. Only then true weak signals can be spotted. In practice this can be done by deepening the understanding of the latest developments and by trying to pick up the same type of signal from various sources.

Nik: Spotting weak signals is one thing, using them to a certain aim is another. Which value do they have in your experience, with respect to the needs of companies, governments, societies, etc.?

Elina: Several companies and organizations in Finland have approached me with serious interest in weak signals. Today in Finland, weak signals are highly valuated as “key tools” to anticipate upon future changes in the business environment. I also wish to underline that they are an excellent means to be used in innovating towards futures (as in product development). For both I have developed tools for organizations.

Nik: Yes, you did some fascinating work with your Futures Window experiments in corporate contexts. Can you tell us something more about what they were, how you went about them, what you learned and what surprised you?

Elina: Futures Windows are about a method that shows weak signals in a visual way (e.g. images of weak signals) on big monitors within the physical context of an organization’s facilities. My original idea about the Futures Windows included a possibility for the employees to send weak signals to the monitors, but unfortunately I have not had the possibility to test that yet. Yet the ‘showcase’ part of the idea I have tested in a couple of organizations and the feedback has been very positive. In one pilot test about 80 % of the respondents said that they did get new ideas from the tool and about the same amount of the respondents wanted to have the Futures Window in their cafeteria on a permanent basis.

I was positively surprised about the enthusiastic feedback. One thing that surprised me as well was that the lobby was not considered a good place for the monitor, because Finns felt too unsure about themselves to just be standing still and looking at the images, “doing nothing”. Instead, for brainstorming sessions, the tool was felt to be excellent!

Futures Windows are about a method that shows weak signals in a visual way on big monitors within the physical context of an organization’s facilities.

Nik: In a sense, in such a context, weak signals become like triggers for people which a) bring something to their attention that might have slipped below their radar (awareness) and b) make them think about it, e.g. “What if … this small change becomes something bigger?”, “What would it mean in terms of change within your context, effects on your products, your business, your policy?” As such they are also powerful tools for what we would call ‘mindstretching’. In that respect, what were your findings concerning how people picked up the weak signals? I assume also in your case, examples of weak signals often come from other fields/contexts than the one of the company is generally involved in. Did they sometimes have difficulties in picking up the message and/or translating it to their context?

Elina: I think that the other key importance for weak signals is what you call the mindstreching. I underline that weak signals are not only good to anticipate upon the future but to innovate it as well. When I worked with the Futures Window within organizations I tried to show images that were related to something else than their core business, which they are already familiar with. I always tried to show images that were sometimes new and sometimes even shocking to them. I think that people have been really good in translating the signals to their specific context. They always seemed to find some link with both old as well as new issues, which I think is very positive. However, I also tried to link signals to their context, hence making it easier for them to see the possibilities such a future might bring.

For the Futures Windows I have provided the signals myself, according to my clients’ wishes. However, once my clients realized that finding weak signals is easy and even fun they want to do it themselves as well.

Nik: At Pantopicon for instance, we sometimes take the underlying pattern of a set of weak signals and translate it into a series of possible ‘things or events/situations in the future’ closer to the context of the audience (e.g. future artifacts). Is that something you sometimes did or needed to do as well, i.e. to translate or ‘predigest’ the content depending on your audience for the signal to get through better?

Elina: Yes, also for me this is sometimes a necessity. I do it like: what if this emerging issue (weak signal) would be something big in your business in the future. How would it change the way in which you operate?

Nik: Now that we are discussing the Finnish context: interest in and research on the topic of weak signals appears to be especially high in Finland for the moment. How do you explain this?

Elina: A couple of books have been published recently about weak signals by Mika Mannermaa and Sissi Silvan (CEO, Lollipop Management Consulting Oy Ltd) in Finland. For some reason the media have been interested in my work a lot as well. The exact reason is a mystery to me, but probably a red haired (reasonably) young lady talking about weird things concerning the future is something different and interesting to them?

When articles about my work on weak signals started to appear in some of the main Finnish news papers, companies started showing interest in the kind of work I was doing and started asking me to help them out with their futures thinking. I guess also writing my weak signals blog and column helped to raise interest in the topic.

Nik: Indeed, your work seems to have led to an outbreak of ‘the weak signals virus’, not just in Finland but also elsewhere.

Elina: Oh, you think so? That is great!

Nik: How do you see the future of weak signals?

Elina: The future of weak signals is good as long as there is the future. I am now very much involved in the TrendWiki tool and many companies in Finland have shown interest in it. There seems to be a “weak signal tool gap” which TrendWikiappears to be helping to bridge. So based on the strong signals of today I see the future of weak signals a very prosperous one!

Nik: Do you have any dreams or nightmares for the field?

Elina: A nightmare would be for people to take anticipating the future too seriously in organizations, as well as for them to trust and rely too much on numbers.
As for dreams, I would like to see for people to have more courage, to be more child-like, also in companies: i.e. to be curious about little things, to ask silly questions and do things differently and definitely play more as well! As a mother of two small kids I am a continuous target for difficult questions and I do not know the right answers. “Why do we have the fork in our left hand and the knife in our right one?” Questions such as these are really good as they challenge our traditions and make us innovate!

a thousand tomorrows

a series of interviews on the exploration of times ahead

Nik Baerten

Written by

co-founder of Pantopicon, foresight & design studio in Antwerp (Belgium)

a thousand tomorrows

a series of interviews on the exploration of times ahead

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