Weak signals bring messages from the future
This year has changed our view of the world with unprecedented speed. The coronavirus shut down offices, universities and national borders as well as taught us to keep our distance from one another, disinfect our hands and handle meetings via video link.
The global pandemic came across as a sudden and completely unpredictable upheaval.
But was it really so surprising after all?
Perhaps the consequences of the coronavirus felt so sudden because we failed to notice the weak signals that presaged the waves of sickness flowing from one country to the next.
Virus researchers have been sounding warnings about diseases of animal origin that humans have no resistance to for a long time. For example, the SARS virus that appeared twenty years ago came from bats, while swine flu originated in pigs a decade ago.
Trade in wild animals at Chinese food markets has been considered risky. In addition to population growth and urbanization, the threat has grown because of mass tourism, which helps dangerous viruses travel from one country to another at the speed of a jet aircraft.
In a sense, it was only a matter of time before an epidemic started spreading from a wet market selling live animals.
Hints about future changes that manifest themselves in the present, but are easily overlooked, are what futurologists refer to as weak signals.
"A weak signal is the first symptom of a possible change," says futurist Mikko Dufva.
Weak signals stimulate thought
The best known concepts of futures studies include the megatrend, which refers to colossal changes like digitisation and climate warming, as well as trend, which is used to describe lesser development tendencies.
Although megatrends affect both entire nations as well as individual citizens, sketching out the future relying solely on them would result in incorrect predictions. Sticking to known phenomena alone narrows our conception of the future too much.
Dufva, who works as the Leading Foresight Specialist at the Finnish Innovation Fund Sitra, says that this is precisely where weak signals show their strength. They broaden our view of what kinds of building blocks reality is made of.
"This is essential in our current age of surprises, which requires us to challenge what we consider ordinary or normal. At the same time, it enables us to keep our eyes peeled for emerging phenomena."
As a multidisciplinary field of research, futures studies is especially helpful in outlining surprises. Its practical applications involve the methods of prediction, in which hints about possible changes are observed and analyzed with the aid of, for example, weak signals.
Dufva stresses that weak signals are not forecasts, but more like stimuli for thought.
"They help us recognize different kinds of futures. Ideally, these will be of a type we could not have even imagined otherwise."