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Rolf Jensen: Beyond the Information Age

Rolf Jensen: Beyond the Information Age

Rolf Jensen began his career working and traveling for the Danish Ministries of Defense and Fisheries, and the Foreign Office. In the 1980s, he took over as director of The Copenhagen Institute for Future Studies, which grew into one of the world's largest future-oriented think tanks under him. In the last two decades, the Institute acted as strategic adviser to more than 100 leading international companies and government agencies. Jensen was also council adviser to The Futures Council of the Conference Board in Europe. With the international success of his books The Dream Society and Heartstorm, Jensen founded his own enterprise, Dream Company Inc., which allowed him to devote more time to research.

Q: Your international best seller, The Dream Society, sprang from an interesting question I've never heard anyone ask before: What comes after the Information Age? So perhaps that's the best place to start. How do you answer that question?

A: That question arose some years ago. I had been studying the future for many years, and one morning while briefing a couple of major clients on the changes to expect in the business environment in the next five to 10 years, one asked, "What comes after the Information Age?" My first reaction was to say, "Maybe nothing comes after." I assured them the Information Society would be around for quite a while. I told them if I ever came up with anything on that, I would call them.

After the meeting I sat for some time thinking about what the next shift would be. We began looking at that in earnest and especially looking at the marketplace for clues on what the future held. One thing we considered was why people bought what they did. At that time, the fashion in Denmark was buying eggs from free-range hens. These would sell for a premium price, although in essence, the product was the same. Whether free-range or not, each type of egg has the same look, the same nutrition.

But the emotional value is different. People did not want hens to live their lives in small cages. They wanted eggs produced using the technology and methods of their grandparents, even if this meant they were a lot more expensive. Free-range eggs had taken over 50 percent of the egg market. The egg market had acquired a new dimension -- it no longer was dominated by the standardized, mass-produced commodity produced at the lowest possible price.

We then took a look at another market: the watch market. I would say more than 50 percent of the turnover in the watch market comes from emotional or value factors. If you are simply buying for function, then for a few dollars you can get a watch that is precise. Today, with quartz technology, even a cheap watch is precise. So why buy a Rolex, a Swatch or what have you? You buy for style, but cheap watches also offer many styles. So people also buy for the design and for the signals a product sends about them. The idea here is that we seem to be moving from information toward values and emotions in the marketplace.

So what about jobs? What about companies? The same thing is happening here. Today we are talking about values-based management, not control management. We are talking about team building. Under team building we have such things as walking on glowing coals, building kites or what have you -- things that have nothing to do with the job as such. Look at Daniel Goleman's best-selling book, Emotional Intelligence, where he is saying intellectual intelligence is OK, but emotional intelligence is becoming more and more important in government and business. These were the clues or ideas we felt pointed toward the future age.

We then discussed different products: Could you add emotional value to any product? What about bottled water? Yes, if you brand the bottled water, then you can sell it -- except if you know that tap water is an excellent product in most places in the United States, Canada and Denmark. But if you put it in bottles, you can demand a premium price -- actually several thousand percent if you call it "Perrier" or what have you. These and many other examples are an indication that we are leaving the rational, logical, scientific Information Age, and gradually approaching a society oriented toward values and emotion. I would suggest people in the rich part of the world -- I'm only talking about the rich part of the world here -- are standing with one foot in the Information Age and the other foot in what I've called the "dream society." Gradually we are moving the last foot away from the Information Age. I would say it is moving like a glacier, slowly but surely.

Q: This might explain the anti-globalization movement ? as this is an interesting example of widespread political mobilization. Without arguing the merits of the case they make, it seems to me much of the actual support is not too well thought out. Rather it seemed a shift in values and emotional judgments were driving the protests as much any real empirical information.

A: Yes, I guess so, because you have a declining belief in authority. That's what you see in different value surveys -- that just because this politician, this police officer, this professor, this expert says such and such, we no longer believe it outright. We allow ourselves to disagree. That is the trend in North America. It is the trend in Europe. So when presented with these rational arguments saying globalization is good for you, people allow themselves to disagree and say, "Maybe it's not."

At one time, for instance, people were told they needed nuclear power because the oil is running out. A lot of people accepted that, thinking the authorities must know better. But as time has gone on, more and more people are saying, "I don't care what this professor says. I don't like the idea of nuclear power." Now comes globalization, and all the suits are saying, "This will be good for you." And people react and say, "We are not so sure."

Q: In The Dream Society you brought all this down to the importance of storytelling in marketing. You mentioned the idea, for instance, that in this coming age it's the company telling the best story or attaching the best story to their product that will win the marketing game.

A: The average citizen has become six or seven times richer during the past 100 years. That goes for Europe. That goes for North America. It may even be higher for the United States. But let's say seven times. Then we are on firm ground. That doesn't mean the end of materialism. But it means we are buying for emotional reasons a lot of the time. Of course, when we come home, we have to rationalize what we did. But the buying happens with our emotion. That would mean companies best at telling their story and appealing to emotion will win. In the last century, by and large, the best products won, the ones with the best features. But in this new century, the best story will win.

Q: So storytelling comes into it because traditionally that has been the medium that appeals directly to emotion? The essence of good storytelling is often said to be emotional appeal built on the values people respond to.

A: It goes beyond that. If you look at the Native Americans 200 or 300 years ago, they were storytelling people. They were not about materialism. If they had been, they would have improved their tents instead of their dancing and rituals. In between, we have had this materialistic era. So I see storytelling as a way of getting a better balance now between the rational and the emotional.

Q: So for governments and their efforts to communicate with citizens, they won't be able to do it on the basis of just efficiency -- they will need to reach citizens by selling their programs in a different way?

A: Yes, I think so. Politicians have become more and more knowledgeable, more and more scientific, more and more rational, and increasingly, that doesn't work with the voter. Politicians, at least in Europe, are talking a lot about the control and less about human values. On this score, I think American politicians are a bit better equipped than European ones.

The first rule for the storyteller is what is strongly believed by the storyteller is also believed by others. People often don't think the politician really believes in what he or she is saying. That is the first rule they often break. These politicians speak and the first thing people think is, "Why are they saying that?" People no longer assume politicians and other people in authority really mean what they say. That's rule No. 1 in storytelling. Unless you really believe in what you talk about, forget it.

Q: So when we talk about sustainability and government, there are two broad general areas -- sustainability in terms of the environment and the economy, and sustainability of government itself. If most of the population does not support its government for whatever reason, good governance becomes much more difficult. So if what you are proposing happens, must governments understand this as much -- and perhaps even more thoroughly -- than big corporations interested in their long-term sustainability?

A: That's right. With the declining belief in authority, any regulation or idea directed at a lot of people from this or that government institution would have a difficult time. People form their own opinions, their own values. So how can you handle a city, a county or a country when you have belief in authority that comes from each individual person? That can make governing and the issue of regulations increasingly difficult. Traditionally institutions were built on the premise that most people will comply. They will do what is expected. And add to that the move from rational things to emotional things. Sustainability is a good example. Look at the talk about electricity these days. Should it come from windmills? Should it come from coal? Should it come from oil or gas or what have you? People form opinions about that. I remember 10 years ago in Denmark we made scenarios for the future of electricity production. As for the green issue, everybody said it wouldn't happen because it would be too expensive. And today, 20 percent of our energy comes from windmills, even though any engineer can prove this is more costly.

Q: It seems to me, what we are seeing in the sustainability and the environmental movements is not the best science in terms of assessing priorities and concerns. There seems to be a lot of misinformation out there.

A: Yes, I think we have the emotional side of it, and we have the rational side of it. On the emotional side, you have the spotted owl in California. That is an emotional issue. And then you have the rational side that says, "Yes, the spotted owl. Doesn't it have wings? It could fly and perhaps find a new habitat." And as I see it, the emotional side is winning and winning.

Q: Then the danger is that the real issues -- what is important and what is becoming a serious concern -- simply get clouded?

A: Right. As you say, we are seduced by stories. But on the other hand, we are seduced by fact too, because often you can select them as you please to make whatever case you want.

Q: So for someone in government, working perhaps in a government agency or department, based on your vision of the future, how does he or she approach things differently?

A: I would suggest two things. Internally, for the institution, there is values-based management. This means finding out values, core values and having them acted upon. And not just on paper. What are the values? What do we stand for? Then perhaps collecting stories that illustrate when these values have been acted upon with good results. In other words, stories that offer good examples for the institution to follow. That would be the internal application. The external one would be communicating with the citizen. Realize the citizen is both rational and emotional. So how could we apply storytelling in our communication to get the attention of the citizen? We would, to some degree, have to move away from the rational way of using figures and facts to make a case, and turn to the dramatic and the emotional by effectively telling the story. That might involve, for example, explaining the decision-making processes that are undertaken. Tell citizens. "Here is the problem, and we have been discussing whether we should do this or that. Should we have this regulation or that regulation? After discussing the matter at length, we think that perhaps is the best course. But we aren't completely sure. What do you think?"

In operating that way, government institutions would start to appear more as human institutions, which means admitting you are not perfect. When anyone tries to act like they are perfect or don't make mistakes, he or she will run into a problem. People will go out of their way to try to show they are not perfect. That's what you have, for example, all these anti-McDonald's home pages accusing them of whatever. If you present yourself as being too good or too perfect, then you get a negative reaction.

In government, that would mean a lot more openness about dilemmas, about mistakes and how you resolve the problems and all these kind of things government institutions have to deal with. They have a tradition of saying, "We are perfect. We don't make mistakes. And if someone is accusing us of making mistakes, we deny it." Well, that is not good storytelling.

Q: And we are seeing more and more that this will blow up in their faces.

A: It will. Here's a funny twist on that. Here in Denmark, one consultant I know made a lot of money, so he bought a Rolls Royce. In social democratic Denmark, it is not exactly forbidden to buy a Rolls Royce, but you do have a problem in how people start to perceive you. So people were coming up to him and saying, "Hey, you bought a Rolls?" At first, he would justify the extravagance by saying he did a lot of driving. That didn't really go over too well. So the next time he got criticized for buying a Rolls, he changed his answer. He said, "It's to show off." And then people started responding, "Yeah, but you are driving a lot too, aren't you?" The conclusion from that one: If you are open and talk honestly about what you do, you are likely to get more support. But if your answer is not believable, if it isn't credible, then you don't get the support.

Q: Openness now needs to involve access to the processes, access to the mistakes, and access to all those things that humanize the government?

A: Exactly. We had this meeting and came up with three possible courses of action. At one point, it looked like we should do this. But then we realized perhaps this other was the best alternative. Still some of us don't sleep well at the moment, but we think we did the best for the citizen under the circumstances -- that type of openness.

Q: So the real story -- not the manufactured story by some PR consultant -- and advertising has got to change?

A: Yes. It is expensive. It costs a lot. And what you get out of it is cynicism. People don't really believe advertising. They think advertisers aren't telling the truth. This applies not just to political or government advertising, but commercial advertising as well.

Q: Taking a broader look at all this -- one of the other big futurists we've interviewed in the past, Alvin Toffler, has talked about the whole power structure changing as a result of the Information Age. You are more cautious in many of your predictions. But if what you are saying bears out, is it going to have the same kind of profound effect?

A: I think so. I think a lot of futurists agree on this. They use different words to talk about the same thing. Consider John Naisbitt and "high tech, high touch." One time I was making a presentation in the morning, and he was on in the afternoon. Afterwards he came up to me and said, "We are singing in harmony."

Q: Which emphasizes the point that there is something here governments at all levels need to understand. Otherwise, they are going to start failing in their efforts to reach and involve citizens.

A: Absolutely. The thing about storytelling is the principles are simple. But we have been so oriented toward the head, toward the rational, that it becomes difficult to relate to the heart, to emotion. If you ask your friends why are they working, the first answer you get would be money. But then if you go on asking, you find out maybe it's for social reasons. Maybe it's for recognition. Maybe they just don't think about it, because it is part of life. But the rational answer is on top. It is only when you discuss at some length that you reach the emotional level that also drives or motivates them.

Q: It seems to me the rational and the scientific could get pushed too far out of the way.

A: That's the danger, I agree. Because if all you are dealing with is the emotional, then it goes wrong. But what I'm talking about is a better balance. The emotional side has been lacking at the moment. The rational is too dominating. So if you had to pick one megatrend for this century, I would suggest it involves getting better balance between heart and mind.

Q: So speculating a bit here, what might minimize the liability or danger is scientists and technologists have to become the best storytellers.

A: Yes. Look at the mobile phone companies. At the moment they are concentrating on design and color -- the look of the mobile phone -- because they found out people are buying for design and color. So top management of the mobile phone companies don't have that much time for the engineers. They want to talk to the designers instead. But of course, the scientists will have to develop storytelling. That would go for biotechnology, for nanotechnology, the genes, all these new technologies. If you don't tell the right story, you lose.

Q: So what will the future look like as this plays out?

A: Well I would suggest at the end of this century, in almost 100 years, we could have some anthropologist interviewing the last materialistic guy with the sticker on his car saying he who has the most toys when he dies has won. But in the meantime, it will be a mix.

Q: So really, what it amounts to is that materialistically, we have won so far that now the game changes back to nonmaterialistic things. We've solved the materialistic survival problems for the most part. So we now turn to other survival problems.

A: Yes. Only some of us have not realized it yet. So we are like Donald Duck when he runs off a cliff. He won't stop running in the air until he realizes there is no ground underneath. Then he [starts] dropping.