Ville Korpela was eight years old when he decided he had to learn the Japanese language. To that end, he approached his parents and voiced his desire only to be told that neither was there anyone in town who knew the language and could teach him, nor a centre where he could go to learn the language. Little Ville, however, refused to take no for an answer and, if anything, his desire soon snowballed into an obsession.
Flummoxed, his parents didn’t know how to help their son. They were, you see, living in a rural part of Finland, more than 7,500 km away from the Land of the Rising Sun!
"I’d watched some movies on Japanese martial arts and fell in love with the language," says the now 37-year-old professional futurist working for the Dubai Future Foundation. Seated in a coffee shop at Emirates Towers that houses the Foundation and also overlooks the futuristic-looking, oval-shaped iconic structure in Dubai – the Museum of the Future – he smiles as he recalls the memory.
But why this obsession with the Japanese language, I ask Ville.
"I don’t know, I just felt I had to learn it," he says, with a laugh.
By a strange quirk of coincidence, a couple of months later, he came upon a newspaper report about a Japanese company purchasing a Finnish paper factory in the neighbouring town. "I convinced my parents to request the Japanese managers of the company to let me visit them every Sunday so I could learn the language," he says.
They agreed and Ville got to learn the language for some eight years.
This sense of curiosity and burning desire to explore new frontiers, however foreign they may appear at first, is something that has remained with Ville. It has led him to push his personal, academic and professional boundaries further, including one time requesting a group of academic and scientific advisers to guide him in a NASA competition to design a space settlement.
"That was my first voyage into the world of futures studies and foresight," says the Finn, talking about his school days. Contestants were expected to imagine what life in a space settlement would look like and answer questions related to power production, housing, agriculture and education in a human settlement located in outer space. "The most important thing I learned from the competition was that asking the right questions is much more important than having the right answers," he says.
Finding answers to questions at an academic setting, though, was sadly disappointing for young Ville.
"Student life at the Turku School of Economics where I pursued a course in international business was boring," he admits. "I wanted to discuss great ideas and philosophies, but my co-students were more interested in clothing and parties."
A chance meeting with a leading businessman led to Ville heading off to Russia "which had become my obsession after Japan". Barely in his early 20s at the time, he began dabbling in investment banking where he found some success but after some forgettable experiences in that country, returned to academics earning a Master’s in economics before applying for a doctorate in future studies. "My topic was the future of finance," says the doctoral researcher at the Finland Futures Research Centre. "I felt finance was broken as a system. Futures Studies tries to look at human systems and the nature from a holistic systems perspective."
Even as he pursued his doctorate, Ville worked in the financial sector in several countries including Cyprus, South Africa, Albania and Serbia, before co-founding Impact Innovation Institute, a non-profit think tank focused on drafting foresight-based strategies for asset managers and family offices around the world. "The idea was to put impact at the core of what we do," he says.
Then late last year, Ville was offered a fellowship by the Dubai Future Academy to carry out research and train government and private sector employees and managers in the emirate on technology foresight and other emerging topics relating to the future.
Set up in 2016 by His Highness Shaikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, Dubai Future Foundation has become known for launching several ground breaking initiatives, such as the Museum of the Future, the world’s first fully 3D printed building, the Office of the Future, and several other initiatives designed to make Dubai the testbed and an open laboratory for attracting the best global talents.
Amazed at the rapid strides Dubai and the UAE has taken to be at the cutting edge of innovation, Ville is convinced the emirate is the most futuristic city on the planet. "Dubai embraces the exponential technologies at every opportunity," says the future studies expert, looking out over the city.
"The leadership of Dubai has made the future the single most important part of the ‘Dubai DNA’. The city looks firmly into the future and is actively pursuing the future by making bold and courageous actions today. Other cities and countries have a lot to learn from the Dubai experience, how visionary leadership and empowered communities can radically transform the ways we do business and live our lives.
"The future," says the futurist, "gains its true meaning only if you can experience it in the now, as the only truth about the future is that it doesn’t exist. Yet. We first have to go and create it."
Excerpts from an exclusive interview with Ville Korpela:
How would you define futurism?
Futurism, or futures studies, is the study of alternative futures, including the discussion of what are the plausible and possible scenarios and what is the preferred future for us as individuals, organisations and nations. The objective of foresight is to have a scientific method to map long term strategies and align our actions today to shape the future in ways which secure good life for all.
Give us a look at 2030. What are the five trends you foresee?
Dubai government will operate paperless.
We will have become the global leader in attracting creative professionals.
Most of the energy produced for the citizens, residents and tourists will come from renewable sources. Dubai will be a green city, full of gardens and pedestrian pathways and it will be easy to commute from one place to another with the bicycle. Autonomous taxis will be the norm and people will opt for car-sharing instead of owning their own vehicles.
People will work mostly remotely or flexibly switching between working from home, co-working spaces and the more traditional offices.
Virtual and augmented spaces for connecting with people in our lives will be commonplace. Cities will become major players in international relations and city investment holdings will overtake the role currently played by venture capital funds as major funders of innovative projects.
What 5 short-term changes to society do you forecast?
We have already become much more environmentally conscious due to wide acceptance that we have entered the age of the Anthropocene, where human activity has altered the way our planet functions. This trend will continue and we will introduce new technologies based on mimicking the ways natural systems function. We will see a whole set of radical nature-based technologies emerge. Mobility is a huge topic and we are going to see urban planning evolve towards building natural human machine ecosystems. We will continue to shop online but also human creativity and artisan solutions and small brands will begin to dominate big corporations. Our education systems will radically shift towards project and experience-based learning consisting of micro-modules and continuous learning instead of set degree programs. Longevity is another big trend, as we are living longer and many people will opt to continue working and pursuing their passions in old age instead of retiring.
A few drivers of change you think will be shaping the near future in Dubai?
Education is one of them, how we will approach learning in the future. Most of the job positions in the market in 2030 do not even exist today. To develop future readiness we need to radically transform how we see the role universities and vocational institutions play in the future. We will see the blending of the differences of these two fields, with vocational professions requiring much more trainings in the field of adopting the right mindset, and vice versa, with universities becoming ‘makerspaces’, where new innovations are being put into practice to test the theories in applied contexts.
3D printing will revolutionise how the retail sector will function. Instead of massive warehouses and complex logistical systems, people will be able to 3D print most of the everyday products they purchase in their homes, buying the designs and raw materials and themselves becoming manufacturers. Augmented reality and the ability to produce full digital twins of ourselves will enable us to test clothing and design custom-made diet plans and medical products tailored for our bodies will be made possible with the advances of quantum computing and AI.
What is the future of offices?
Office as a place where people meet, interact and work together can be anywhere. Mostly these spaces will take hybrid forms of both virtual and physical elements interacting with each other. You don’t need to be physically in the same office to get the job or project done but at the same time it is important to have those moments of physical interaction to maintain the feeling of human connectedness in the digital era and to allow for spontaneous encounters between people. This is crucially important both for the quality of life and embracing creativity.
We are becoming more individualistic. Is that a good thing? How will that impact our life in the future?
We need to distinguish being individual from being alone or, worse, lonely. We need the feeling of connectedness in order to be alright as individuals. Becoming an individual, looking at it philosophically, can only take place when you connect all the different pieces of what makes you together in a meaningful way. This can only happen through interaction with others. The point is that we are not meant to be the same person, you are who you are for a reason, a needed piece of the larger puzzle of being part of humanity and the nature. One of the most important skills for the future will be empathy skills, the ability to relate and connect with one another.
Do you worry about humankind’s future? That we are losing our humaneness and becoming techies? That gadgets are everything today?
In a connected world where we develop more and more digital and AI based solutions, we must continue to develop Human Intelligence on par with Artificial Intelligence. We need to maintain our human connectedness and the best way to do this is by looking within, to find the values and principles which make you the person you are. As the world is becoming more globalised, we need to learn to accept the diversity and communicate our intentions more explicitly, rather than assuming that others should know what we mean without us stating it. This is hard and difficult, but it will enrichen our relationships and will allow us to have more meaningful encounters with each other.
Ville’s 5 tips for managers/marketeers to spot key trends and incorporate them in their business plans
I like the old saying that in order to become interesting, be interested. Read as much as you can on diverse topics. Systems theorist Russell Ackoff has said that the greatest breakthroughs in science take place not within insiders looking at their own field but by outsiders looking at a field. Learn about advances in disciplines outside of your field of expertise and build teams with diverse backgrounds to get as many diverse views on the future. Embrace open flow of information, realise that everyone can be a teacher regardless of their role within the organisation. Making the right decisions is less important that having a culture of learning from mistakes. Learning how to learn will be the biggest single source of competitiveness in the new era of uncertainty. Also mapping a compelling vision and a preferred future for yourself and your organisation is the key, and then aligning your short-term plans to reach that preferred future and learning as you go and sharing those insights with others. In order to keep something, we must share it with others.