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The key to the future is trust

Social scientist Gerhard de Haan studies the future. He believes a society can only be persuaded to embrace change by building trust in innovations.

02/09/2021 Interview: Bernd Zerelles – Artwork: Dean Giffin – Photo: Markus Rock Reading Time: 11 min

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Professor de Haan, how would you define the future? Is the future a projection determined by past events, or is it a field of open possibilities?

It’s always both. Essentially, with everything we’ve done in the past and are doing now in the present, we’ve already arrived in the future, because that’s where the consequences of our actions take effect. On the other hand, things aren’t fixed in a way that means we can’t work with projections and come up with new ideas ourselves. Otherwise, we’d have to say there are forecasts that tell us what the future will be like, in which case we could lean back and think “I don’t need to take action, because the future will bring what it will bring anyway – it’s fixed.” But it isn’t. Even a forecaster only operates with probabilities. Take climate change as an example. The way forecasters argue is that they say there’s evidence for further temperature rises on the horizon, and if you don’t change your behavior that’s what will happen. Futures researchers say that further temperature rises are probable, and if we want to avoid potential global impacts, we need to identify new options for the future in terms of how we run our economy, how we live, how we get around.

 

Are futures researchers like yourself in particular demand during uncertain times like the present?

That’s been our experience, yes. There’s clear interest in answers that go beyond getting to grips with the pandemic in the short term. Compared with just few years ago, there’s far greater demand for us to present new or modified options for action within the context of the highly dynamic social change and high levels of innovation that exist today. We always try to take a participatory approach, often working with people on the ground, to generate ideas for the future and then situate these options within a larger context. That means we don’t just consider a single industry, like the automotive industry, or a single institution, like a school, but are always also interested in the larger context, like the megatrends that impact on industries or institutions.

 

You analyze processes of social change. How does that work?

Futures studies isn’t primarily about forecasting in the narrow sense of calculating statistical probabilities. We operate with what you’d call probabilities in the everyday sense: probable developments rooted in plausible explanations. We try to identify good reasons for why certain developments might occur. Forecasting is only very occasionally helpful in that process. Only rarely can you extrapolate a linear or exponential progression from how things are now, even if some people do try to do so. We look at good reasons for why a certain development might continue or come to an end. But we also pay a lot of attention to the past, considering what the French so eloquently call longue durée. Are there developments that have already been going on for a long time? You can learn a lot from them too.

Aestheticization is a universal trend. We invest things and events with a very personal significance.

Liquid mirror

Could you give us an example?

One example is the whole process of individualization that began two centuries ago, and in essence is far older even than that. For hundreds of years, our culture has been preoccupied with presenting and articulating ourselves as individuals, with being able to live our lives in our own individual way. Just think of the abolition of the guild system and inherited offices, or our changing patterns of relationships. A hundred and forty years ago, people were bound to their marriages for life. Nowadays, we speak of serial monogamy. And there’s no longer a fixed gender binary either. Everything has changed, and it can all be very lucidly described in terms of processes of individualization. At the same time, there’s been a marked long-term shift towards a desire for greater participation, greater involvement in decision-making processes. Nowadays, this desire for participation mobilizes large numbers of people right across society. We can be confident that this trend will continue, because it’s underpinned by interests that don’t change quickly but have been built up over a very long period of time.

 

How are societies across the world changing at the moment? And what’s driving this change?

This desire for individualization is clearly observable all over the world, even in highly collectivist countries like China. Aestheticization – the process of shaping our self-presentation – is also a universal trend. Not just in the sense of presenting oneself as a member of a group by wearing a certain piece of clothing; rather, we invest things and events with a very personal significance. Objects, like cars of a certain brand for example, are no longer simply traditional status symbols. No, it’s more about needing an object because you yourself have infused it with meaning. It doesn’t matter what the product costs, but what value it has for me. You could clearly see a shift a few years back. People with lots of money, who always bought their champagne from luxury stores, realized that champagne from discount supermarkets is just as good. They no longer balk at shopping at those supermarkets, because they can get the products they need to express themselves there too. They’re no longer hung up on the label on the bottle.

Attitudes signal expectations of the future within a society.

When do people push for change? Or to put it another way: Could you say that future is a mindset, an attitude?

Yes, definitely. The rediscovered concept of “attitude” combines a person’s norms, values, feelings, and other aspects of their mindset. Attitudes also signal expectations of the future within a society. For instance, we can observe an attitude that involves a certain openness to the future and processes of change, as well as contrary attitudes of resistance to 

change. The latter kind of attitude is evident in populist groups, for instance, which cling to the old and familiar because they’re no longer on board with innovations, can no longer keep up with them or no longer feel included in them. Meanwhile, other, younger groups are fashioning new lifestyles that embrace a digital world and regard it as central to their lives.

 

How can societies open up possibilities, create sustainable futures, produce innovations?

Just a few years ago, I would have said that you need a high level of individual freedom and liberalism, or that you need to cultivate individual creativity. Now I’m not so sure. You can no longer say those things are preconditions for innovation: the ability to design or develop something yourself. “Twenty-first century skills” like creativity and critical thinking are, fundamentally speaking, imparted not by an educational system focused on individuals, but almost always by initiatives based in new social groupings. So it’s collaborative systems, collective development, that contribute to innovations, rather than the actions of individuals. In other words, the creative intelligence of a heterogeneous team is greater than that of its individual members.

Projections

Do societies tend to change slowly? Or are there factors that drive change more quickly?

Attitudes, which you mentioned earlier, always develop slowly. You can see that clearly in shifts in lifestyles. Many of the lifestyle variants that have replaced traditional models of social class demonstrate that these sorts of changes don’t happen very fast. But of course there are also very strong drivers of change. For instance, disruptions resulting from highly dynamic new technologies that open up entirely new possibilities. I’m thinking of wearables, where people’s clothes communicate with each other. Or augmented senses, where information about other people is displayed to us when we meet them. There we can see something wholly new emerging. The question isn’t whether these innovations make sense or not when viewed from some higher vantage point. What matters is that they resonate with people. In an ideal scenario, potential users would say, “Fantastic! I didn’t even realize that was exactly what I needed.”

 

In a recent interview, you said that crises like the pandemic now have a fairly short-term impact in terms of change, and that people will return relatively quickly to their old patterns of behavior.

Yes, indeed. Our habits are extremely stable, as anyone who attempts to make changes will have discovered. Every New Year, we say we’ll do more exercise this year. But how long do we keep it up? Or people who try to change their diet; most of them won’t stick with it. In both cases, we tend to fall back into our old ways of doing things, because those are very strong habits that we’re very accustomed to. On the other hand, during this pandemic we’ve seen a drive towards working from home. I think that in the future, we’ll apply a new criterion of efficiency: Do we need to take this business trip? Do we need to be there ourselves? Or would it be enough to link in digitally for a 45-minute discussion? It’s possible we could see new habits forming. But there’s also a strong desire to return to familiar patterns of behavior. To go to the restaurants we always used to go to, to meet in the clubs where we always used to meet.

 

People’s habits or, to put it more positively, societies’ resilience are stronger than fears of change?

Those fears are greater in Germany than in many other countries. People here say that if we don’t know what consequences innovations will have, we should just leave things as they are. There are other cultures, like Brazil, the UK, or Vietnam, that think differently. The dominant attitude there is that if we don’t know what the consequences will be, well, we can at least try it out first.

Prof. Dr. Gerhard de Haan

Prof. Gerhard de Haan

Prof. Gerhard de Haan is a professor of futures and education studies at the Freie Universität Berlin’s Institut Futur, where in 2010 he established the first MA in futures studies in the German-speaking world. Prof. de Haan studied education, psychology, and sociology at undergraduate level before completing a doctorate on “nature and education” and a postdoctoral treatise on “time in pedagogy.” His research focuses on futures and innovation studies, knowledge societies, and sustainable development. At present, he is chiefly interested in two questions: (1) How does a society need to position itself today in order to be fit for the future as a knowledge society? (2) How is it possible to study the future?

 

Prof. de Haan has been working in education studies for over 20 years and has conducted many research and development projects. Among other roles, he served as scientific advisor to the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research for the UNESCO Global Action Program on Education for Sustainable Development (2015–2019) and works with a variety of national and international organizations. He has over 300 publications to his name, on topics such as “education to promote sustainable development,” “knowledge societies,” “studying risk,” “cultural history,” and “education and the future.” Prof. de Haan has been awarded the Federal Republic of Germany’s Cross of Merit.

So our perceptions of the future always depend on more than our own highly personal perspective?

Yes. People’s perspectives on the future vary greatly. One group that we might call “lovers of life” are very open to innovations. They judge the future in terms of what appeals to them. This group is very focused on leisure activities, they’re very dynamic, they’re always looking for new events and new things to surround themselves with. On the other hand, there’s a conservative milieu that doesn’t set much store by change. But what’s now become more important than these broad categories are small collaborative systems with just 50 or 150 people that form on social media. Not everything is decided collectively within these groups, because they too have their opinion leaders who say that so-and-so is important in this context and so-and-so in that one. But the crucial thing is that in these groups people feel like they’re not going down a certain path all by themselves, but rather as part of a community.

 

So a strong collective We with a sense of community can help foster belief in the possibility of change and pave the way for the future?

When it comes to change, this collective viewpoint, this feeling that we all want the same thing, is critical in order to be able to take action. Take the example of sustainable development. The most affected group is younger people, say 14 to 24-year-olds. But the people who feel most strongly about the issue don’t act any differently than people who couldn’t care less. How come? Because they feel like they’re pretty much the only ones who care. If you ask them how their friends or family see things, they’ll unanimously reply that the issue isn’t really on other people’s radars in the same way. And so they feel isolated and don’t change anything. To bring about change, you need this sense of community, this feeling of being part of a strong collective We.

 

So people’s peer groups are crucial to change?

Yes, they play a very significant role. One very, very important issue in futures studies is trust. Which sources of information do we trust? Some people’s horizons are set by their trusted local paper. Or else they put their faith in the accuracy of their Sunday broadsheet. Others trust different channels, like YouTube, and still others trust their peer group. When it comes to issues relating to the future, the question is always: How do people develop trust in what you’re saying? One example: I’m a member of the German National Academy of Science and Engineering. As a social scientist, other academy members often ask me how we can build acceptance for new technologies. I always reply that that’s not the first step. Before you can build acceptance, you need to ensure the technologies resonate with people. And that resonance needs to be based in trust in the innovations you’ve developed.

The future essentially consists of projections.

So acceptance of the future is based on trust?

That’s how I see it, yes. Because what’s your point of reference for the future? It’s not a reality we can observe. And in a dynamic society, we can’t address our expectations of the future by looking to past experiences. The future essentially consists of projections. And if you’re presenting these projections to people, you need to win their trust. Otherwise, they won’t believe the projections and they won’t become reality. The same applies to companies. They need to win trust in the ideas they develop. That’s a critical point.

 

And do you personally have trust in the future? Are you optimistic and positive, or apprehensive?

In some respects I am apprehensive about the future, in terms of sustainable development in general and climate change in particular. The data doesn’t exactly fill me with joy. I’ve learned to take a more nuanced view of many issues. There may be some attractive innovations, including ones that allow us to adapt to climate change. But then I ask myself not just what the consequences of these innovations will be, but also the consequences of those consequences. Only then can you see the risks and dangers that make me skeptical about even well-intentioned changes. Of course, a lot’s possible with modern technology. Just think of changes in terms of energy recovery or new forms of mobility. But change is a global challenge. And globally speaking, we’re not on a path to a sustainable society, even with the new drive systems in modern cars – at least not if four billion people want to drive these cars. But this skepticism may just be my age speaking.

 

So your way of thinking about the future reflects your life experiences. But the younger generation can approach the topic with less baggage. 

Definitely. The wise old men have come up with a solution for almost everything, and then the younger generation is supposed to just accept these solutions. I’d advise young people not to follow what’s gone before but to find their own answers to the big problems of their time, true to the motto: “If that’s supposed to be the solution, then I want the problem back.” It’d be better for them to think things through themselves from scratch and develop innovations that other people couldn’t yet see back in their day. The younger generation needs to be given an opportunity to come up with their own creative ideas, rather than following in the footsteps of those who came before them.

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German model shown. Stated specifications apply only in Germany and are not applicable in other regions.

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