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Tamira Snell - Studying the future for a living, you get used to uncertainty

Tamira Snell - Studying the future for a living, you get used to uncertainty

The Copenhagen-based futurist explains how an open mindset and an exploratory approach can improve decision-making and make us better equipped to deal with a range of “potential plausible futures”.
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Being known as a futurist is a complicated business. The uninitiated tend to think you must have the gift of foresight, believing you can somehow stare into a crystal ball and predict the future. For Tamira Snell, this is a complete misunderstanding of a futurist’s approach and what it seeks to achieve. “There are multiple futures,” she says. “When we’re standing here in the present, we cannot predict what will happen, and the future isn’t linear.” As she describes it, a futurist’s unique skill is in taking an “explorative approach” in order to identify and understand what she calls “potential plausible futures”.

Tamira has spent most of her career trying to understand both human behaviour and broader societal trends, often concentrating on those points at which the two intersect and collide. Born and raised in Denmark, she moved to London to do her Bachelor’s degree in Sociology and Cultural Studies, before travelling to Malmö in Sweden for a Master’s in Culture and Media. Since graduating, she has worked for a variety of trend companies and consultancy firms, including KPMG, often focused on trend forecasting, emerging patterns of human behaviour and business models. Today, she is a Senior Advisor and Futurist at the Copenhagen Institute for Futures Studies, an independent, non-profit think tank.

Across her nearly 20-year career focused on the future, Tamira has had to become very comfortable with one thing: uncertainty. This is a skill in itself, and in her experience of working with and advising business executives, it’s a relatively rare one. It often means confronting a primarily data-driven business discourse, and adding in a greater understanding of complex uncertainties to unearth insights in decision-making processes. “We always have a lot of dialogue when we’re working with top management around exploring uncertainty, moving away from trying to make predictions,” Tamira explains. “When you’re working with potential futures, it is uncertain. We don’t have all the measures available, and we cannot use data for everything.”

Certain trends are more inevitable than others, however. Megatrends, for instance, which Tamira defines as “broader societal currents and high-level drivers of change that will define the future of global societies”, typically have a time horizon of between 10 and 15 years. They are expected trajectories, but even they do not occur in a linear fashion. Moreover, they are often interconnected, which means there are synergistic opportunities among them. One example of a megatrend that Tamira’s recent work has concentrated on is urbanisation.

In 2008, 50% of the global population lived in urban areas, whereas it’s predicted that by 2050 the figure will be more like 80%. Yet even a force like that, which feels as unavoidable as the tide, still brings questions bubbling to the surface. “What will it mean in terms of new needs arising?” Tamira asks. “We are already living in smaller and smaller spaces. So, what will this mean for how we socialise, for instance?”

“When you’re working with potential futures, it is uncertain. We don’t have all the measures available, and we cannot use data for everything.”

As this makes clear, her deepest interest lies in exploring where societal trends and human behaviours intersect, how they influence each other and the frictions this causes. Indeed, one of the main reasons the future remains so unpredictable is because human beings are involved, and we act in irrational and hard-to-predict ways. Nowhere is this more obvious than in health, according to Tamira. “The area of health really shows the dynamic between more structural changes and how we as people act within that landscape, ”she says. “We are painfully aware of what is healthy for us and still we can lead unhealthy lives/display poor behaviours. Why are we so irrational when we know what is good for us? That’s what makes the future of health really intriguing.” And this is why being a futurist doesn’t involve an exact equation with an end result – even if a megatrend points in one obvious direction, humans always have the potential to act in surprising ways. An understanding of human nature and human decision-making is essential.

Tamira is also at pains to stress that the future isn’t “linear”. Take, for example, the education sector. A decade ago, many respected education experts argued that screens were close to replacing books in the classroom. “Now in 2024, more and more schools are actually prohibiting the use of mobiles,” she says. “There are interesting shifts going on all the time, opening up opportunities and closing them down as well.” If Francis Fukuyama learned to his chagrin that there is no “end of history”, then there is seemingly no end of the future either.

So, if it is so fluid and impossible to predict, then what is the use in studying the future? Why be a futurist at all? As an advisor, Tamira works with a range of businesses, helping them to be better prepared for a range of possible plausible futures. "What surprises me is sometimes the absence of unfolding uncertainties as a default,” she says. “We need to understand the uncertainties in order to make us better decision-makers and equip ourselves to make action plans when things don’t follow the strategic path we’ve set.” What Tamira tries to instil in those entrepreneurs and executives she consults for is a fundamental curiosity, an explorative mindset that is comfortable with blurriness and that is more focused on asking questions than constantly searching for answers. “Be curious,” she advises. “Keep on exploring what might be unknown and always be prepared for uncertainty. And then when the winds change, adjust your sails.”

“We need to understand the uncertainties in order to make us better decision-makers.”

The other central piece of advice that Tamira shares is less to do with examining the future and more to do with the real heart and soul of entrepreneurship. “Don’t be afraid to follow your dream,” she says, “because it’s dreams that are a big part of innovation and progress.” One of her most recent projects was for the European Space Policy Institute about the future of European space exploration beyond 2050. Through this project she was reminded of the famous John F. Kennedy quotation from 1962: “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” In a time of geopolitical tensions and ongoing climate change, it reminded her why entrepreneurship is so vital. “There’s so much uncertainty and instability,” she says. “Starting a business, yes, that is also uncertain. But if we stop dreaming, we will go nowhere.”