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Guest blog: Guess What? We Don’t Have a Clue About the Future of Pulp, Paper and Fibre

Alf Rehn / July 14, 2021

Let me begin by stating the obvious. I do not know what the state of the Pulp, Paper and Fibre industry will be in 10 years. Nor do I know what it will be in 20, or 30, or 50 years. You might think this is odd, as I am a strategic advisor for numerous industries, and that seems to indicate that I should have at least some clue. Yet I don’t, and nor do I feel at all ashamed.

The reason this doesn’t bother me all that much is the simple and irrefutable fact that I am well aware, and even certain, that not even the most knowledgeable person in the field really knows this future any better than I do. In fact, one could well argue that their knowledge means that they are far less certain to know it than I do. So, to make my point almost painfully obvious, I don’t know the future of the industry – but neither does anyone else!

Safety of the safe future prediction

As Yogi Berra famously pointed out, it’s tricky to make predictions, especially about the future. Just about anyone can tell you that what is going on today might be going on tomorrow as well, and that whatever is exciting right now is likely to be interesting in the months to follow. The problem is that when you go beyond such simple statements and basic timeframes, futures tend to get a whole lot more complicated. Try to say anything very specific or challenging beyond the futures we all expect and can fit into our current timeframes, and you are more likely to be seen as a crank or crazy person than you are to be seen as a seer or somebody insightful. We like the safety of the safe future prediction, and the tales that do not surprise us much.

The reason for this is simple, yet difficult to process. As humans, we tend to stick to what we know, and what makes sense to us. Anything that challenges this we’re likely to discount as noise or as frivolous, and the more we know, the stronger this likelihood will be. In fact, if you are an expert, you’re far more likely to discount a new idea or ignore a disruptive one than if you’re just averagely knowledgeable. This is what one might call “the knowledge trap” of futures thinking. The more you know, the more you’re likely to unconsciously protect your knowledge and your standing in the industry, and this quickly leads to not spotting truly impactful changes. The best people in the camera industry did not see the digital camera coming, and the smartest people in hospitality laughed at Airbnb. The interesting question is, what are the smartest people in pulp, paper and fibre ignoring right now?

Stop thinking we know what the future will bring

The sad and tricky thing about futures thinking is that the people who were best equipped to get the company to where it is today may well be the least equipped to lead it to success in an uncertain future. We don’t like to acknowledge this, as the people who were best equipped to get us where we are today are often… us. What we all need to work on is to stop thinking we know what the future will bring. We need to get better at imagining strange, curious, taboo futures. We need to let go of our arrogance and realize that sometimes our knowledge and our expertise isn’t the solution – it’s the problem.

I don’t know the future of pulp, paper and fibre, and it’s a wonderful feeling. It makes it easier for me to spot the strange new things, the odd occurrences, the unexpected. I may not know the future, but at least I’m walking into it with eyes wide open.

Alf Rehn
Professor of Innovation, Design and Management

Alf is a globally noted thought leader in innovation, trends, and creativity. His research has spanned numerous fields and has been published in top academic journals as well as in a series of bestselling books, challenging preconceived notions and provoking thought across the world. 

www.alfrehn.com

 

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Alf Rehn

Professor of Innovation, Design and Management

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