When they talk about innovation, people often think they are talking about the future. Examined more closely, however, most innovation turns out to be oriented to the present. It is about finding clever solutions to today’s problems, or catering to the wishes of today’s clients.

Truly transformational innovations reveal opportunities no one had thought of before, as in Steve Jobs’ famous quip that people often don’t know what they want until you show it to them. Companies that want to be innovative will want to find their way into this space of unforeseen opportunity. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done. Just ask De Bono’s ant.

Which way, please?

As the philosopher and renowned creativity expert Edward De Bono pointed out, great ideas often seem completely logical in hindsight. We say, “that makes sense, I could have thought of that,” yet when we try to apply logic to coming up with great ideas ourselves, we generally fail.

That’s due to a great asymmetry in the world of future research: while the path from a great new idea back to the present is always clear, the path from the present to some future state is obscure. To illustrate, De Bono used the example of an ant at the bottom of a large tree. If you put a fantastic invention on one of the tree’s thousands of leaves and ask the ant to crawl up and find it without ever being able to retrace its steps, the task would be almost impossible. Put the ant on the desired leaf, and it will always find its way down without any problems.

Logic it turns out is of little use when trying to explore the future’s possibilities. If however we had a way to envision leaves we would like to reach, and then find paths backwards to where we are today, we might stand a better chance of finding our way to the future’s best opportunities.

Thinking what (if) and Y

This is one way to describe what we do at the UBS Y Think Tank. Started in 2014, UBS Y is an independent organization set up by UBS Group Technology tasked with exploring future scenarios and finding opportunities and innovative views on how organizations in general – and UBS in particular – could do business in the coming decades. Our team is made up of a number of experts from diverse fields, from anthropology to philosophy to design (on purpose, none of us are bankers). Pooling our varied perspectives, we work to come up with alternative visions of the future, concentrating on those that we think would be beneficial for UBS.

We then employ a process we call "reverse engineering of time" to work out a pathway from that vision back through the worlds of possibilities and opportunities to our present state today. It’s important to note that we don’t make predictions. We simply uncover pathways through possibilities and visions, and share these insights with the business.

Looking ahead

Our world is increasingly complex and interconnected. Think tanks like ours are therefore becoming more important for organizations, as they provide a means for companies to carry out thought experiments and broaden their thinking about the future in a relatively cost-effective way.

We don't have a crystal ball, but the techniques we use can bring clarity to thinking about the future. In today's world, any such clarity is surely welcome.

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