BY BUGGE HOLM HANSEN FOR ADELLO MAGAZINE
Let’s imagine a future where the physical and virtual worlds have merged. Where our surroundings are enhanced with virtual layers, allowing us to experience, learn and interact in completely new ways.
A future in which we have progressed from being on the internet to being in the internet with the content surrounding us visualized in our environment. This is how we see the metaverse unfolding at the Copenhagen Institute for Futures Studies.
We are already seeing an increase in the number of immersive and generative technologies being implemented into our daily lives, from augmented lenses on our smartphones to virtual reality meetings, but how will it develop in the future? What might the different possible futures of the metaverse look like? Who will be shaping the metaverse? How will it affect our society? And not least, how can we improve organizational decision-making so organizations, companies and decision-makers can act on the future’s metaverse, today.
In this piece, I will give my perspective on how to approach and navigate the metaverse using a futurist’s toolbox, embracing uncertainties, and resisting the urge to draw conclusions about the direction it is taking. Our approach at the institute is to combine futures thinking and strategic management. A grip that is often referred to under the term ‘strategic foresight’.
So, what is strategic foresight, and why do we need it?
The short answer is that it is a set of techniques designed to improve organizational future-readiness and inform decision-making. It is not a way to predict the future, but a way to uncover the perspectives of many different futures in order to facilitate decisions based on that knowledge today.
The goal of strategic foresight is not to predict the future, but to discover the perspectives of many different futures and use those perspectives to make decisions today. Strategic foresight is therefore based on two premises: that there is not one future but many possible futures; and that it is possible today to make choices that influence future developments. At the same time, the process and decision-making include relevant stakeholders who can lead developments in the desired direction.
By rejecting the notion of a predictable future, strategic foresight seeks to include many different plausible and possible outcomes, drawing attention to assumptions and potential blind spots. Though, strategic foresight works with exploring the future, the goal is to expand the assumptions and alternative futures that form the basis of discussion and present-day decision-making.
Making decisions about the future is something we all do all the time, both as individuals and on an organizational level. But we are rarely very conscious about what hidden psychological mechanisms impact our choices. That’s why we also need close attention to the biases that cloud our thinking is a necessity in good decision-making.
The pandemic, the war in Ukraine and the energy crisis has shown the importance of planning for the unforeseen. Understandably, this is often easier said than done. There are a great number of unexpected ‘wild cards’ looming on the horizon, each with the potential to drastically change the course of history, so how do we choose which ones to prepare for – and how much to prepare for them? In fact, prediction is not the use of wild cards. Rather, they should be used to test the robustness of strategies: could your organization survive such scenarios – or even thrive in them?
Futures studies and strategic foresight have been around for decades. The main question is how are we adapting to new technological opportunities and making those opportunities useful to the stakeholders in the future metaverse? Second, we need to explore how technology can also power new ways of conveying the future in more compelling and impactful ways that create more relevance for strategic decision-making.
In the spring of 2022, we published a whitepaper at the Institute where we explored plausible future scenarios on the immersive metaverse. We did this to challenge and inspire perspectives on the future, as well as gain a better and deeper understanding of the critical uncertainties shaping the metaverse. They were also designed to frame and develop robust alternative futures scenarios and to discover alternative futures perspectives that have high relevance for decision-making.
Our position was that the development of the metaverse will be dependent on a set of technologies that have been fully developed, scaled, and adopted by the mass market; technologies that will enable a more seamless convergence of our physical and digital reality.
At the Copenhagen Institute for Future Studies, we distinguish between immersive elements and the underlying infrastructure that may shift toward decentralization. This has been conceptualized as Web3 and primarily concerns who will own and govern the Internet of the future. It is enabled through technologies such as blockchain, social tokens, non-fungible tokens (NFTs) and, in general, a higher degree of user participation like Decentralized Autonomous Organizations (DAOs). In contrast, the immersive metaverse is more concerned with how people will interact and experience the internet of the future, not so much the infrastructure.
There are a lot of uncertainties related to the development of the metaverse that will be crucial in determining how it will evolve: What technologies will be included? Who will implement it? How will it be accessed? Will it be centralized or decentralized?
Among the many uncertainties, we have identified the following two as the most critical due to their significant impact: Open vs. Proprietary and Convergent vs. Separate. We create four scenarios based on these uncertainties using the classical 2x2 scenario axis, one of the methods we use at the Institute.
The scenarios are: ‘The Free Metaverse’, ’The Nerdverse’, ‘Betaverses disunited’ and ‘One Metaverse to Rule them All’.
I will not be diving into the scenarios in this article, however, instead, I will draw attention to the value of using scenarios when dealing with the metaverse. Scenarios allow us to understand the various dynamics of possible futures and ensure that we do not limit ourselves to focus on a single potential development of the metaverse.
The all-encompassing and expansive nature of the metaverse means that there is an incredibly diverse range of potential industry stakeholders and, thus, views on how the metaverse will unfold in the future. At the institute, we are currently working on the world’s first Delphi Study on the future of the metaverse to advance our understanding and develop insights and orientation about the future of the Metaverse.
The Delphi study builds upon the collective intelligence and perspectives of a diverse expert panel that has been carefully vetted and based on a diversity of backgrounds, perspectives, and opinions — from thinkers and artists to entrepreneurs and practitioners working in the field.
By highlighting similarities and differences among industry experts, the Delphi Study advances our understanding and develops insights and orientation about the future of the metaverse by leveraging the collective intelligence and perspectives of a diverse expert panel.
As we have entered the year 2023, those working on the metaverse are transitioning from a fascination with the concept’s novelty toward embracing long-term thinking with an emphasis on how it may affect us as individuals and as a society in the long run. The consequences of social media and the attention economy are beginning to rise on the priority list of decision-makers and regulators, resulting in a greater emphasis on safeguarding and protecting the users with a focus on long-term user welfare.
The question is how we, both as individuals, brands, and organizations, will embrace the merge of our physical and virtual lives and the massive quantities of data in the future metaverse. Will we see public opposition towards collecting data? Will we accept algorithms and digital assistants as a natural part of our lives in the metaverse? The questions and uncertainties seem endless.
As futurists, it is our responsibility to delve into these uncertainties by monitoring signals, identifying new patterns, and translating them into future scenarios in which we can examine potential drivers and blockers as well as determine potential blind spots and pitfalls. We seek to understand the strategic implications of alternative futures and how to transition the newly gained insights into futures-informed strategic decision-making.
It is important to view the metaverse from a long-term perspective since it is an evolution, not a revolution. The cornerstone of a sustainable metaverse must be the wellbeing of its users in the long term.
Therefore, its development over the next years will be crucial. We must have the courage to establish awareness and the confidence to challenge current strategic assumptions by creating insights into different futures while ensuring that stakeholders understand the potential implications.
The Copenhagen Institute for Futures Studies is an independent, non-profit futures think tank founded in 1969 by Thorkil Kristensen, former OECD Secretary-General, for the betterment of society. Essentially, what we do at the Institute is to monitor critical trends and uncertainties to help individuals and organisations make better decisions about the future.
 Mogensen, K., Hansen, B., Hvitved, S. et.al. 2022: ”The Future of the Metaverse”, Copenhagen Institute for Futures Studies, https://cifs.dk/metaverse