Finding ‘weak signals’ from the future

20th November 2020
Opportunity is all around, if you know where to look. But have you ever turned your gaze to signals of the future? One thing is true, we perceive change to come out of nowhere and more rapidly than ever before. Where does this perception of acceleration come from? Firstly, information is abundant, at the same time, it is hard to make sense of what really is relevant. There is simply so much going on. How can we separate background noise from important signals of change?

At Imperial Tech Foresight, we believe in anticipating the future by identifying ‘weak signals of change’. This is nothing new. In 1970s, Igor Ansoff, a Russian American mathematician and business manager, coined the term ‘weak signals’. In essence, they are murmurs of the future that can prelude a significant disruption or change. They are called ‘weak’ as they are emerging, often odd and quirky coming from the fringes of society. Which means they often stand out from ‘what we know’. They are also rarely quantifiable. If they were, they would no longer be weak. You might say, wait? Is a weak signal not just a fad or a craze? Not at all. These signals often emerge from the artists, the creatives, those who are brave enough to think beyond the current paradigm.

A weak signal is often an indicator of a shift, whether in culture, technology or society. Often seen as odd. An example is which initially was seen as a fad and strange. Why would young tweens want to mime to music online? Many said, “They would never take over from Facebook or Instagram.” was taken over by Bytedance for as much as 1 billion USD. Merging the users into their other app TikTok now worth over $75 billion. A more recent example is the Randonautica app; it is a service aimed to get people out and explore in the local area. As you are generating a location, you set a location and the service then generates a random place through a quantum random number generator. It helps users create location-based ‘synchronocities’ coincidences or occurrences outside usual patterns of experiences. The idea here is to start asking, why would people want this? Is it about a reaction to lockdown fatigue and a desire for new adventures in local areas? Or does it have a connection to the future of automated creativity and decision-making? Will we all rely on quantum sages. It is important to explore and try to understand what this means and potential future consequences.

Finding these signals early comes with a strategic advantage. We have the weak signals around us, but they are hard to find, identify and make sense of due to their obscure nature. As the science fiction writer William Gibson wrote: “The future is already here, it is just unevenly distributed”.  Identifying weak signals of change can be the difference between survival and death for start-ups and major corporations. Many of the organisations that we today see as leaders were initially seen as radical quirky organisations. But signals can also help organisations understand and pivot their organisation. An example of an organisation that pivoted and changed its business model is Netflix—initially created as a movie rental service in 1997, where they would post DVDs for individuals to rent. We now know Netflix as a streaming service. Their investment of producing their own series and films came from an understanding of how the big production companies would start to remove content from their service.

Many organisations also fail in spotting signals of change. Why is it so hard for organisations to identify and act on external changes in the contextual environment? We wanted to leave some quick tips on how you can start honing in on your own perceptual radar:

  • Pay attention to the fringes: Be curious and frequent the fringes, the scientific labs, the artists and other emerging spaces. Don’t be concerned about the emerging signals be curious about them to find what is new and emergent. Some things might just be plain crazy, but others can point to something relevant. Could nanobionic light-sources help with light pollution? Could quantum random number applications maybe help us become more creative?
  • Step away from the numbers: As a quant obsessed society, we often want numbers to back up our opportunities and help us make the right decisions. However, weak signals are often unquantifiable. In this case, numbers become deceptive rather than helpful, as they most often don’t show the emergent possibility and trajectory of this change. And if they do, they are often no longer a ‘weak signal’. Instead, explore the change across a variety of different sources to ensure that it is actually happening. Ask yourself, where else is this happening and what could it mean?
  • Expand your perceptual horizon:As Donald Rumsfeld said in his famous speech in the early 2000s: “there are no knowns”. We need to consider we are restricted with our own cognitive biases and can’t know everything. We often discount future threats and opportunities for present gains. Often changes happening outside your own industry will have an impact on your business. Start seeing the boundaries of your organisation as continuously evolving. Gaming platforms, such as Twitch and Fortnite, have extended their offering to include music and live performances during the COVID-pandemic. Where could your organizational boundaries stretch to?

There is no magic crystal ball. But we can become better at anticipating these ‘weak signals’ by questioning them, investigating them and maybe even debunking some of them. Remember that most of the next million-dollar start-ups will come from the next weird or strange. Pay attention to the fringes, the labs, and talk to those that seem to see the things no one else sees. And when you find it, act on it, stick to your idea and be brave. People might not understand it at first. But maybe you will be the next billion-dollar company that saw what no one else did.

Originally published in D/srupt magazine