Perspectives on the value of ethnography in a future-focused world

In an uncertain world, the safe bet to futures is to explore, identify and invest in what will most likely not change.

Ethnographers operating in the future-focused context of business consultancy face a core challenge, write Louise Vang Jensen and Lea Møller Svendsen of the Danish strategic innovation agency Is It A Bird. Clients want them to predict future behaviours, aspirations and dreams; to demonstrate what will change, what will disrupt and how people will be different. Yet clients think that ethnography is a toolkit limited to exploring present worlds, with limited value to futures work and business strategies.

Business problems are often related to time in a very linear way, they say, what are we up to today, what are our strategies going forward? Understanding and acting on human problems requires a different contextual understanding. They are related to the different spatial dimensions of our everyday worlds; our social, cultural and structural surroundings.

Innovation potential lies in the ability to identify what values will persist, and how to hold on to value in the customer relationship when setting off to achieve new business goals.