Interview with Dr. Juliane Welz, Annamaria Riemer, and Inga Döbel

Spotlights of Tomorrow – The project “Foresight-Fraunhofer” identifies future trends for 2030

Can we gaze into our crystal ball and predict the future? Using science rather than occultism, Fraunhofer researchers are looking into the future to identify scientific and technological trends for 2030. In order to use this knowledge systematically, they are developing a foresight tool that will assist researchers in establishing long-term perspectives. Dr. Juliane Welz, Annamaria Riemer, and Inga Döbel from Fraunhofer IMW are all involved in the joint project "Foresight-Fraunhofer." In an interview, they explain how their foresight tool works, what their focus is, and what will be possible with their results.

Dr. Welz, the "Foresight-Fraunhofer" project is a joint venture involving Fraunhofer IAO, ISI, INT, and IMW. You are managing the project at Fraunhofer IMW. What exactly do you mean by "foresight," and what is the "Foresight Method" all about?

By "foresight," we mean taking a systematic look into the future in order to decide what we should and should not do in the present. Using foresighted behavior, systematic decisions can be made for activities over a longer time span. Foresight means developing strategic orientation knowledge and includes not only knowledge about current requirements or short-term challenges, but also knowledge about long-term future perspectives.

The aim of the "Foresight-Fraunhofer" project is to identify technical developments and social trends with high innovation potential and market proximity as part of a systematic foresight process, and to analyze their relevance for the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft. The validation of these trends is carried out through an analysis of potential on the one hand, and by a broad involvement of the Fraunhofer Institutes via an online survey on the other hand. In addition, procedures, instruments, and new methodological elements - such as the use of an AI tool - will be tested, which can support a systematic foresight process for the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft in the future.

Which scientific methods does the project use to predict upcoming trends?

Various methods are used in the "Foresight-Fraunhofer" project. The first phase deals with identifying, describing, and evaluating topics that have the potential to become vitally important for applied research in ten or more years. The project does not start from scratch. We began by scanning developments and trends identified in national and international foresight projects carried out by our project partners (especially RIBRI, FRAME, OBSERVE, and CIMULACT). These topics were then reviewed by our project team in a systematic process, prepared, and condensed into a collection of approximately 50 topics for subsequent evaluation.

The evaluation of these 50 topics’ potential is based in the Fraunhofer Institutes' expertise. In an online survey, institute managers, executives, and employees were given the opportunity to submit their assessments.

Some theories seeking to quantify knowledge assume that human knowledge doubles in a cycle of less than ten years. How can we actually predict what might be relevant in 2030 with the knowledge we have today?

Two essential elements in futurology are "networked thinking" and "multiple futures." The former stands for an integrative approach in which context and the complex relationships between various influencing factors are taken into account. A future trend is regarded as part of a comprehensive system that is subject to myriad networked and dynamic influences from the surrounding environment. We can think of, for example, ongoing globalization or technological changes. The concept of "multiple futures" requires the simultaneous consideration of several alternative possibilities for development. As a rule, the results of such futurology should include several (three to six) alternative visions for the future, which then can be strategically interpreted.

Ms. Riemer, you're head of the Professionalizing Knowledge Transfer Processes Unit at Fraunhofer IMW. Naturally, Fraunhofer research is closely linked with input from more practical stakeholders, such as small and medium-sized enterprises and family businesses. How do the findings from researchers in your unit's foresight projects differ from the suggestions you receive from industry?

In order to be able to develop future visions or scenarios, we first need a comprehensive understanding of the field under consideration today. For this, theoretical assumptions, as well as different research perspectives and data - which often have to be actively collected - are equally important. In addition, practical input is of particular relevance both in selecting pertinent influencing factors and in validating future visions or scenarios, especially if companies are the intended beneficiaries of our insights into the future. This is the case, for example, for the AGENT-3D and Data Mining and Value Creation projects.

What can a company gain from using future scenarios?

Let's take the example of additive manufacturing (AM). These processes have the potential to revolutionize product development and production in the future. For example, they enable completely new design freedom as well as function-adapted, individualized products that can be produced according to demand, be it from a central or secondary location. Companies can also develop an advantage by eliminating storage and transport costs, gaining in flexibility and time. However, while these advantages are often obvious for OEMs, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) often hesitate before investing in equipment or competence building. It's not just a question of financing. Often, there is also a lack of orientation knowledge regarding alternative "futures." This is where future scenarios can help, as they are aimed at assisting strategic decision making.

At the moment, Fridays for Future strikes are taking place every week to draw attention to socially relevant issues. What role do topics such as sustainability and climate change play in future value creation?

These topics are undoubtedly very important. How much we examine them in detail in the course of our work always depends on the objective of the task at hand. For environmental analyses, factors such as the availability of natural resources or the possible effects of climate change are often very relevant.

Ms. Döbel, back to the "Foresight-Fraunhofer" initiative: you are deputy head of the Professionalizing Knowledge Transfer Processes Unit and work closely together with Ms. Riemer and Dr. Welz on this project. At the end of the first phase, 51 so-called "spotlights" were outlined. What does this mean?

The "spotlights" are topics or trends that could be in the spotlight of applied research in the future and involve a high potential for change or development. These include both technological and socially relevant topics from the fields of data, materials, society, algorithms and hybrid architecture, humans, and planet. As part of the project, they were systematically selected using various methods such as analyzing publications, patents, and social media, and evaluated and validated by a broad circle of Fraunhofer researchers and external international experts.

A look at the spotlights reveals that technology, people, and society will be increasingly intertwined. What does this mean for the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft and application-oriented research?

Many topics for the future are interdisciplinary. This is particularly relevant for information science, medical sciences, and environmental technologies, where (for example) many new questions are arising regarding ethics, changing values in society, and data sovereignty. For application-oriented research, this means a greater convergence with basic research on the one hand, but also increasing cooperation with practice on the other. That said, there are new demands in terms of the content orientation of research projects as well as integrative, interdisciplinary research approaches. New cooperation and knowledge transfer frameworks among organizations are also in demand, which would, for example, enable non-scientific stakeholders from society or politics to play a greater role.

Dr. Welz, the Foresight Initiative has recently presented its first results and published them in the report, "Foresight Fraunhofer." What are the key findings of this publication?

The project has identified future issues that will bring about fundamental changes and therefore require special attention. These topics include deep learning/AI, re-economy, and the use and conservation of biodiversity. In addition, we've identified topics that have particularly high innovation dynamics. Some of these topics, such as the bio-hybrid, water harvesting membranes, and pHealth, are already very relevant for applied research today. Other spotlights are so far rather niche topics, but they are developing dynamically and could therefore soon meet with broader interest. Many topics from this series are related to microelectronics, such as the neuromorphic computing chip or quantum communication. In addition, the study has identified another series of topics with particular social relevance. These topics, some of which are highly controversial, include geoengineering, civic technologies, and the reprogramming of human cells.

The Foresight Process was conceived as a broad look into the future, focusing in particular on emerging technologies, but also on social developments and the connections between different subject areas (technology, economy, and society). The results form a sound knowledge base for future orientation and numerous points of reference for further research, with specific questions for cooperation partners from industry, politics, and the public sector.

You're now entering into the second research phase. What steps will you need to take?

The second research phase will focus on the "Revised Scanning" process, and will include a verification along with an update of the identified topics. In order to develop an innovative, longer-term foresight process by and for the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft, we will carry out another scanning process together with our project partners ISI, IAO, and INT, on the basis of available results and experience. These new elements will relate to future socioeconomic perspectives as well as technological developments and their integration. Further developing or fusing these methods will contribute to the creation of a long-term scanning and scouting process. Our aim is to create a set of instruments that can be used to establish a continuous, systematic foresight process for the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft.