Jensen, Rolf

jensen.jpgRolf Jensen is Director of The Copenhagen Institute for Future Studies, one of the world's largest future-oriented think thanks. Strategic advisor to over 100 leading international companies and government agencies, he is also Council Advisor to The Futures Council of The Conference Board, Europe. His articles on future issues and business strategy have been published in numerous periodicals, including the Futurist. The Institute regularly organizes conferences and roundtable discussions providing international businesses, futurists, economists, and sociologists with the opportunity to share vision and research. Dr. Jensen is a member of the World Future Society based in Washington, D.C.

Jensenbook asks …

We’re talking about your book, The Dream Society. What do you mean by “the dream society?”

RJ: I mean the society where emotions and values account for more when there is a better balance between the brain and the heart, between the rational and the emotional. And this includes product markets, companies, our working lives, and our personal lives.

It is not the end of materialism, but it’s the beginning of the end. This was my observation, at least, in 1999 looking at the marketplace, the mega trends of what is happening. The idea was that, please, we have become rich. Now, I’m talking about the rich part of the world, meaning North America, Western Europe, Japan.

If you look at statistics from the past 100 years, you will find that the average citizen has become six or seven times richer during that period, which is a lot. Gradually we are taking a lot of products for granted, and can buy something extra. I think more and more products today, you’re buying equipment for self-portraits, as I see it, because you take function for granted. When you buy a mobile phone, you don’t ask if it’s got good sound. That’s basic. But you look at the design and the colors, whether it suits your lifestyle, if its physical appearance sends the right signals about who you are.

I was speaking with, and you probably know them, Kjell Nordström and Jonas Ridderstråle.

RJ: Yes, Funky Business.

The Funky Business guys, about just that idea, how you used to ask people what they did for work. It seems there’s less and less of that. In a way, we evaluate each other. I evaluate you by the clothes you buy, by what electronics you get, what model of cell phone you have. It does say a lot about us, what we get.

RJ: It’s not the materialistic side, it’s the value side, the emotional side. We’re expressing ourselves through the products.

Isn’t it still a materialism in that it’s the product now that defines us? It’s the physical thing. Maybe it has an emotional connection within us, but it still defines us in a physical way.

RJ: I think you’re right. But to me, that would be the beginning. What would be the next step? That would be trying to paint our self-portrait without having the help of the products. That would occur in an era with a lot of yoga and spiritual things. But it’s going to be a number of years before spirituality is a big part of the marketplace.

I recently spoke with Michael Silverstein who’s written this book called Trading Up. I think it’s along the continuum of what you speak because he noted that-it’s mostly from an American point of view-Americans have six, seven, or ten times as much money now as they did in the 1950s.

So we have access to a lot more. But also, we’re spending a lot of money in a particular area that has meaning for us, such as somebody spending a lot of money on wines because he likes wine, but an inordinate amount of money. To free up money in the budget for these high-priced things, they skimp in other areas. Clearly, it’s an emotional need because the physical need isn’t there any longer. They don’t have to have that expensive car or they don’t need that particular appliance, but they want to have it as part of their personal story.

RJ: I think it’s moving from presenting your outer self to exploring your inner self.

Why is that happening?

RJ: I’m not sure. I realize I sound like an old hippie. [Laughter] But one theory goes that, if you look at hunter/gatherer societies, everything was part of their religion, nature typically, trees, rocks, the fields. For example, Ayers Rock in Australia is really a holy place for the Aboriginals.

Then agriculture came along, conquering nature in a way. At which point God moved up into heaven. And now we have explored space, heaven in a way. We’ve conquered and explored those physical spaces that were once only spiritual. So where would our idea of something stronger than man go? One explanation would be to the individual person, herself or himself. That could explain why you have more and more alternative ways of exploring yourself, your inner self, through meditation, eastern religions, eternity religions, what have you.

Is it that this consuming society has finally gotten everything it needs physically, and so the only thing left is to look towards their spiritual side? Have we been fulfilled?

RJ: That’s what I believe. It has already happened. But it may take a lot of years before we discover it. People have been so invested in striving to get more money, to get more products, that it will take some time for this shift to become evident. Right now, we still think it’s important to get more stuff. But gradually we’ll realize, please, we don’t really need it.

Do you have any opponents to this idea?

RJ: No. It’s mostly the time frame we are talking about, whether it’s in ten years’ time or in a hundred years’ time. Some people are saying, “Please, human beings won’t become that spiritual. They will still need their Ferraris or their Cadillacs or whatever.” And I guess, yeah, some people will.

But you think, as a society, we’ll actually move beyond that kind of conspicuous consumption.

RJ: Yes, yes. But it may take 50 years.

What role does nature play in this?

RJ: An important role because, first, we had the idea that nature was something to be conquered. Now it’s something precious, to be preserved and more or less to admire. Visiting nature, playing together with nature will become more and more important. And even some religion connected to nature could come around.

For instance, I scuba dive. Most recreational diving occurs around coral reefs, but the divers, while admiring this part of nature, are also responsible for wear and tear on those reefs. How does that dynamic change as we move into this dream society?

RJ: I think that there will be more and more restrictions. Then we will try to build a theme park for it. If you look at the Eden Theme Park in southern U.K., it’s similar to the Biosphere that was erected in the American southwest.

Eden is a more moderate theme park, a more moderate attempt to recreate nature artificially. But it’s a very big thing. And they’re really trying to have all kinds of nature for people to admire. You really have a dialogue with nature in this Eden. And please note the name “Eden.” [Laughter] As soon as you have the restrictions on the real nature, then you can recreate it, and have a better dialogue, admire it close up. Then you can learn more about it.

I don’t want to go down this path. My first reaction would be, but then we’re not even dealing with the real thing any longer, we’re dealing with an experience once removed.

RJ: But there are not a lot of real experiences left.

Speaking of experience, we’ve got a lot of gurus here in the States talking about how we’re living in an experience economy where the reason we pick one place to shop as opposed to another is that it’s like an event, going there is a positive experience in itself. It goes above and beyond getting whatever it is we’re going there for. Is that part and parcel of the dream society?

RJ: Yes.

Is that just a step along the way?

RJ: No, that would be at the center of it. The next step after saying experiences is to define what kind of experiences we are talking about. Do you visit one mall as opposed to another because of how you are taken care of? Or is it because it has new and challenging products? Is it that you feel like an explorer? Or is it because you get recognition, because you feel important when you are there?

There is that experience, but there’s a story with it or wrapped around it as well. We’re hearing that a lot now from marketing people, from companies, is that you’ve got to have a story to engage people. We’re clearly very responsive to it because we like stories. Why are we responsive?

RJ: Well, my next book, it was out last year, deals with this issue. It’s called Heartstorm, instead of brainstorm. It’s about storytelling. It’s not published in English yet.

The need for storytelling is as old as human beings. Nothing new there. But in the past hundred years, we have been emphasizing the facts and the rational way of behaving too much. So we have to rediscover what we once knew and did to find the better balance. When I’m talking about The Dream Society book, I say, “Well, the dream society is the theory, storytelling is the tool.”

The Dream Society book is about the theory of the future of the marketplace. And the Heartstorm book about storytelling is the tool. To explain this briefly, consider the book, Who Moved My Cheese? According to the publishers, it has sold more than 14 million copies around the world. It’s a story. It’s a metaphor. And it appeals directly to the heart, to your emotions. It’s about being prepared for change in companies.

There’s nothing rational in this book. It’s about mice in a maze. [Laughter] On the surface of it, it’s completely stupid that you can convince managers and employees to become ready for change by reading such a small, stupid story. But it works. It bypasses your brain. When you are reading it, you say, “Yes, of course. We must be ready for change.”

I use it as an example. Then, on the other side, you have a Harvard Business School Press book about change management. It talks to the brain. The author of that book writes that 75 percent of failed change initiatives don’t succeed because the motivation for change was not in place. Employees are not ready. They’re not motivated enough to accept change. And that’s why it goes wrong. So I think that proves the point, please, talk to the heart instead.

We have to rediscover storytelling because it’s a better way of communicating. It’s more effective. And, of course, we are seduced by stories.

You meet people, and you might even say to them, “Tell me your story. What’s your story?” And so we expect that people will, in a way, have formulated or kept track of their own story as well. To the degree that we find people interesting is probably the degree to which they have worked on their story.

RJ: That’s it. When you watch The Godfather movie, you really hope that this “Godfather” family will prevail and succeed. Afterwards, if you ask people, “Are you for or against organized crime?” they will say, “Of course I am against organized crime.” But of course they were still hoping the “Godfather” family would win.”

Well it’s true. Right now, on American TV, we’ve got The Sopranos, which is sort of The Godfather story updated. But it’s a very human Don of the family, and he’s seeing a psychiatrist. It’s very complex. And I’m sure that’s what people love about it.

RJ: No. Of course, we sympathize, even though they are breaking the law.

It’s like we take a time out from reality. As you’ve said, we’re caught up in the emotional. Here is a guy who still is trying to discover something about himself. And that’s what appeals to us, I think.

RJ: So, it’s only by way of illustrating the power of a story.

You make a statement at some point where you say, “The visual image will be the most important form of communication in the future,” or “in the dream society.”

RJ: I think the first point would be it’s already happening. That would go for TV. It would go for mobile phones. They’re gradually getting visual. And the next thing is video. If you have the facts, you can add emotions to the picture so you can have a more balanced way of communicating. The good picture, the good video can send more information both factually and emotionally than can the written word.

You talk about Greenland as a dream society destination. Why is that? I’m personally interested in Greenland because it seems like this very inviting, big hunk of ice out in the North Atlantic. But why do you mention it in your book?

RJ: Well, for several reasons. One would be that, really, the nature is magnificent. And then you have lots of good stories connected to Greenland. You have the explorers’ stories about crossing Greenland ice on skis. You have the fabulous storytelling of the Greenlanders. They have fairytales, they have myths and legends. And they can tell them still. So I’m suggesting that that would be why it would be a good dream society country.

So do places where they’re still closer to their myths or they’re still in the process of retelling them, are they going to become entry points for other places to get back in touch with their own stories?

RJ: Yes. If you ask the Native Americans on the West Coast of the U.S. and Canada, a lot of these people are making quite a lot of money out of storytelling by designing masks and theme parks, and what have you. So it has begun. And one of the next places could be Greenland.

We’ve been talking about the market. And then you also deal with the person in this dream society. And at one point, you talk about this concept, which I like, which is hard fun. Can you talk briefly about what you mean by that?

RJ: We have this old concept of work, which is that in order to finance family life, we have to work. But the reasons for work are changing fast. You’re working for recognition. It’s part of your life. It’s an integrated part of your life. Work must be fun, and it doesn’t matter if it’s hard, as long as it’s part of your life.

It’s the old socialist blue-collar worker definition of work that is changing. That’s why I called it from hard work to hard fun, that you have a positive definition of work gradually emerging. There are some countertrends in the U.S., though. But as I see it, it’s happening in the Nordic countries.

Well it brings to mind, for me, one of our cool friends, Sally Helgesen, who has done a lot about the workplace and the woman in the workplace. But her last book was called Thriving in 24/7 in which she is talking about the same tendencies, the workplace and work and fun becoming blurred. And she actually spoke about this model where you don’t really have weekends anymore, and you just kind of do everything you do in your life, but each day.

So I may get up and work for a while, and then I go out and run some errands, or I might get the dry cleaning that I might normally have done on a Saturday. But that it all just becomes part of a day, and we just don’t bother to make a distinction between what’s personal and what’s work. It’s just kind of all one.

RJ: I think that could be the possible positive outcome. But of course, nowadays, most people have a conflict between family life and work. This will change. More and more people have a nice day working. It may be hard, but it’s still fun. It’s like when you are playing chess, for example. Are you enjoying yourself? Yes. But you don’t laugh. I’m still enjoying myself because it’s a challenge. And playing cards, for example. But then what if you are playing Monopoly? Then you are laughing a lot. [Laughter] So maybe Monopoly could be the metaphor for the future of work.

I see that with my friends and colleagues is that they love what they’re doing for work, and just throw themselves into it. I have a picture of my dad. He got off work at five, and was home right away, and just sort of seemed to hate every minute of his eight-hour workday.

RJ: And are we working just now? Yeah, sort of. But on the other hand, are we just discussing some interesting subject? Yes. Hopefully, we think we are. From an old-fashioned worker, it would seem like we are doing nothing, we are just talking on the phone. [Laughter]

Thank you.

Email: rj (at)

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