Future Researcher Aleksi Neuvonen: Collaboration helps combine achieving both business and social goals

18. Jul 2018
Photo: Maria Laanjärv
Across the gulf works an organisation named Demos Helsinki – an independent think-tank, focused on bringing together actors from all sectors of society and prepare them for a more sustainable, knowledge-based and democratic future. Maria Laanjärv and Andrei Liimets asked one of the founders ALEKI NEUVONEN about the future.

Your title says “futures researcher”. What does it mean exactly?

It means having expertise in understanding how different types of possible futures can come about. It means combining different changes and emerging topics in society and understanding how to construct logical pathways and causal processes out of that. Based on understanding the current society and what has happened in the past you can construct a multitude of alternative future scenarios.

What are the biggest challenges you see societies facing during the next ten years?

There are a few very big challenges. First, humans have a very limited time to react to climate change. Second, the erosion of our societies in terms of the governance systems. The democratic system has been most efficient way to govern societies for a long time, but  what if democracy fails to react to long-term changes? And of course the third big challenge is what to do with the emerging technologies, how to make them serve the well-being of the majority of people instead of accumulating wealth to a limited number of big companies and their individual owners.

Could you explain how Demos Helsinki works? Where do you get your projects from, how do you collaborate with different stakeholders?

We are 100% project funded, we don’t have a charity or a foundation behind us nor do we get any basic funding from the state or municipality. Whatever we do is funded by the project with an external partner. There are different types of processes ranging from writing a research document to running a change process within an organisation, or a combination of these two. Quite often we wish to get a publication out of the project so it won’t be only serving the partner organisation but initiate a broader discussion – bring people together to co-create solutions for different new topics. We work both with public organisations,  local municipalities, cities, both in Finland and other Nordic countries and the rest of the world. We also collaborate with universities and different private enterprises and NGOs.

Please describe your collaboration with the private sector. How do you influence companies and get them on board?

Whatever type of project we do, there is usually a certain topic that is part of a bigger change. So we approach the businesses and discuss whether they feel they would need some help in navigating that change. Or we propose them a broader range of topics that are changing and possibly affecting their business. Then we initiate some type of process, which could either elevate their understanding of the significance of this topic for their business in the long-term, or it could be an innovation process where they could discover new things to work on. It can be a co-creational process, where they activate their stakeholders to work together on this and find new partners.

How forward-thinking and socially conscious are the businesses you work with?

Out of all the businesses we tend to work with organisations that already have some previous ideas of the changes the world is going through and a longer-term vision. Typically they are in fields that are gradually entering big change.

So they already see some changes that influence their businesses and then they come to you?

Yes. But these are not businesses that are already in total downfall but rather the ones who see it coming.

Very often the primary goal of companies is making making as much money as possible. This leads to conflict with principles of sustainability. How do you convince the companies to make changes? How do they react to it?

In certain businesses they see that their current business model, the one that has been providing them with money for a long time, might be eroding or there might be new competitors coming to the market. Of cours it is always very difficult if you have some dominant field of business and you initiate something new that will take a long time to evolve. Usually it is not a straightforward conflict between their current business and the new thing, it is merely a matter of showing that the thing they are initiating now could become significant at some point.

Are Finnish companies generally socially conscious?

Yes, they do quite well. What they still lack, is a way of thinking about how this awareness could be incorporated into a proper business – how to jump from minimising the damage towards maximising the good things and finding solutions, finding innovation through sustainability. And that’s where we want to be with Demos – helping them to combine the business side with responsibility, sustainability and innovation. Or starting the innovation from addressing the wicked problems and finding business opportunities out of that.

Estonian businesses are still rather far away from that…

I think it is also a matter of how international the businesses are. Very many Finnish companies that were operating internationally understood that they have to find some factors that differentiate them from others. They will never be the biggest or will never have the biggest markets so they have to have something else that makes them attractive and better than others.

You work in collaboration with multiple sectors. Who needs to take the leadership to change a society – does the initiative need to come from the public sector, from business, from the civil society?

It could be anyone, any of these. I think overall we now have much better opportunities for collaboration due to new communication tools and erosion of traditional professions. We have much better tools to work between organisations. In my opinion forward-looking businesses that are already working with consumers with user-centric design and user-centric approach should take it to the next stage to collaborate not with single consumers but with groups and NGOs or movements who wish to do certain things. That’s definitely a way forward for them business-wise also helps the civil society to understand who the possible allies are among the companies, who could be interested in providing solutions for the NGOs for the problems they are addressing, who would find business opportunities out of solving problems.

What have been the biggest challenges for your organisation in finding partners and getting people on board with your mission?

You definitely need skills and experienec. The biggest challenge has probably been understanding the partner well enough – what are their internal processes, what are the goals they are really aiming at. It usually takes time and also previous experience to understand how you can move things forward. It’s not just initiating partnership, but also working with them for some period of time. Occasionally it can be just a matter of timing, whether a project succeeds or not. If there is something competing happening in the organisation, even a very good initiative may fail. Different organisations also work in different timeframes. For example, some big organisations move very slowly but then they might have some king of urgency, which changes the working processes.

What are the biggest success stories for Demos Helsinki?

Our success stories are the projects that have long-lasting impact. In several universities in Finland, University of Helsinki for example, we managed to launch a new type of process in which researchers have to work with other stakeholders. They have held challenge competitions on how to open doors for students to use their skills in their own discipline to initiate new businesses. At the University of Eastern Finland we managed to change their entire strategy – now they focus on societal challenges and opening themselves to external influences, on how to develop current disciplines by framing them through what the society needs.

These are good stories and there are also several others from different fields. For example, there was a hardware store that we collaborated with, that changed their business model so that they would educate their workers to advise customers to buy energy efficient appliances. So we managed to change their services to promote energy efficiency in renovation. Another example is a workplace cafeteria that started promoting sustainably produced and healthy foods.

You use backcasting and other co-creation tools. Please describe the methods you work with.

Yes, we use different types of scenario methods such as backcasting to indicate the possibilities that might be opening and to show how the future might differ from today and the past. We also hold challenge competitions, where we pose a challenge, and teams combining researchers and business people are formed to propose solutions for a problem. Furthermore, we run different experimentations which are of course part of longer processes. We do preliminary studies, initiate a small scale experiment and then evaluate, how it went, and afterwards we can scale it up from there.

So your organisation mostly do background research and someone else then executes the plan?

We partly work on execution as well – the experiments being one example. But mainly we are at the phase of initiating the change. We aren’t making the change happen through our people replacing someone, it has to be someone taking the responsibility from within the organisation.

Finally, you base your work on research and facts. Has this become a more difficult task during what has become to be known as the “post-fact era”?

As we are moving towards a society, where there are technologies that spread really fast, we cannot predict what the future will be like, based on the things we know about the past. That is how we justify the use of future studies. The research and the facts have to be combined with concrete proposals on what to do next, and these are to some extent no more than educated guesses. Then you just need to experiment – the only way to find out what is fact, is to show something to be true or false in practice. So instead of presuming, whether something is good or bad, you have to experiment and check, what works and then discuss the results. This is also how I view the future of policymaking.