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Trends and Future of Sustainable Development. The significance of wild cards and weak signals for sustainability – case of water services Ossi Heino & Annina Takala Tampere University of Technology, Finland 9.-10.6.2011 . Sustainable development.

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Trends and future of sustainable development

Trends and Future of Sustainable Development

The significance of wild cards and weak signals for sustainability

– case of water services

Ossi Heino & Annina Takala

Tampere University of Technology, Finland


Sustainable development

Sustainable development

Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs

Future oriented: how can development be sustained in the future

How to anticipate future risks, prevent them and adapt to them?

Complex and dynamic paradigm

Futures research methodologies can be used to scan the environment

Water services

Water services

Water supply and sanitation

30 000 people every day die because the lack of adequate drinking water and/or sanitation

Significant consequences if something goes wrong

6000 people were taken ill during Nokia water crisis 2007

Thus, decisions made on water services must be considered carefully

Water services1

Water services

Conservative: no significant changes after adaptation of centralised water distribution and water based sanitation -> slow to embrace new technological innovations

Conservative: not very agile reacting to changes

Life cycle of infrastructure is remarkable long -> pressure to sustainability of decisions

Thus, need for long-term strategic thinking and planning

Scanning for weak signals and wild cards may be needed

Method weak signals

Method: Weak signals

Igor Ansoff: warnings that are too incomplete to permit an accurate estimation of their impact, and/or to determine a complete response

Not quite obvious what weak signals are -> few different determinations:

some use terms ”emerging issues”, ”seeds of change”, ”wild cards”

weak signal itself is a changing phenomenon that will strenghten in future (Moijanen)

weak signal is a cause of a new phenomenon or change

weak signal is a symptom or sign that indicate change in future

Weak signals objectivity vs subjectivity

Weak signalsobjectivity vs. subjectivity

Objective view: exist as such

Objective view: weak signals are independent of interpreter

Subjective view: always need a recipient who interprets the signal

Subjective view: interpretation depends on the context

Method wild cards

Method: Wild cards

Rapid, surprising events with huge disastrous, destructive, catastrophic or anomalous consequences

Planned management processes cannot respond to it

make organisations highly vulnerable

It is now more relevant than ever to study wild cards (Petersen & Steinmüller)

prepare for, prevent or provoke them

they can also be benefical events

Sometimes defined as synonyms for weak signals – depends on definitions

if weak signals can be both events and signs of events -> interchangeables

if weak signals are not events themselves -> cannot be synonyms

Sometimes confused with gradual change (Hiltunen)

significant impacts but not so rapid that it is possible to adapt to it

Nokia water crisis

Nokia water crisis

An example of wild card could be Nokia water crisis, 2007

Wild card

relatively rapid

very surprising

disastrous consequences

Weak signals

notifications from customers on weird appearance, smell, taste and foaming of drinking water

signals were not taken seriously

after two days people got stomach problems -> issue was taken seriously

Lessons have been learned -> prevention of such wild cards

Used method

Used method

Most of methods have been created for organisations

anticipating future

scenario processes


We were not looking them for scenarios or strategies

methodology was quite loose, data-driven

started by discussing the possible problems and issues

Used materials

Used materials

Water sector is rather conservative

not beneficial to use writings of water sector

is it even possible to find any WEAK signal from ”inside the box”?

we chose Finnish newspapers and magazines that were not directly related to our sector

other, accidentally found sources e.g. internet blogs

We covered a time span of 1 year (March 2010 – March 2011)


Lapin Kansa





Result examples

Result examples

Customers’ changing expecatation

we should focus more multiple purpose of service and think what customer really want

younger generations want to make individual choises and take their personal values and needs into consideration

Apprehension about chemicals

people expect more information about chemicals of different products

information should be persented in understandable way

Political decision making

people are bored with toothless political decision-making

politicians do not want to make hard decisions, discuss values of carry their responsibility

Improved political decision making

civil servants participated in open coffee meeting to discuss about puzzling issues with citizens

utilizing Internet and Social media in public services

Assessment of results

Assessment of results

Actual value or worth of weak signals can only be judged hindsight (Hiltunen)

we cannot know if our interpretations are correct / useful or not

Weak signals can be divided into primary & secondary exosignals (Hiltunen)

primary: directly connected to emerging issue, e.g. visual observations

secondary: when primary signals are interpreted and presented e.g. in newspapers

we used mainly newspapers and magazines -> scanning secondary signals

Objectivity vs. subjectivity

majority of our findings were somehow related to problems discussed earlier

they are not descriptions itself but interpretations -> strenghten our previous understanding


Mainly based on assessing the relevance of signals in water services sector

It is tempting idea that we could scan our environment without conceptions

Assessment of results1

Assessment of results

Including more people in the process could have improved results

Too loose approach?

requires systematic search -> distinguish signals from backround noise (Moijanen)

Signals / Trends

results presented in combination with interpretations and clustered together

number of weak signals can tell something about emerging trends (Hiltunen)



It is debatable if any of the weak signals were weak by scientific definition

Similarly, we were no able to identify wild cards

However, this was not useless

Can help one to step out of comfort zone

Can help one to think also about inconvenient issues

Even if they would not materialize in the future, it is useful to challenge oneself to think differently

The potential of weak signals and wild cards approach lies in the practical application, not in scientific strict methodology and rigid interpretations of what weak signals and wild cards are



Hiltunen, Elina (2006) Was it a Wild Card or Just Our Blindness to Gradual Change? Journal of Future Studies, Vol. 11(2), 61-74.

Hiltunen, Elina (2008a) The future sign and its three dimensions. Futures, Vol. 40(3), 247–260.

Hiltunen, Elina (2008b) Good Sources of Weak Signals: A Global Study of Where Futurists Look For Weak Signals. Journal of Futures Studies, Vol. 12(4), 21-44.

Hiltunen, Elina (2010) Weak Signals in Organizational Futures Learning. Doctoral Dissertation, Helsinki School of Economics A-365.

Moijanen, Maisa (2003) Heikot signaalit tulevaisuudentutkimuksessa. Futura 4/03, 43-60.

Petersen, John L. – Steinmüller, Karlheinz (2009) Wild Cards. In Glenn, Jerome C. – Gordon, Theodore J. (Eds.) Futures Research Methodology Version 3.0. Electronic resource. The Millennium Project, Washington DC.