Dr Oliver Som is Professor and Study Coordinator for Innovation Management & Innovation Economics at MCI, Innsbruck’s Entrepreneurial School®. He is a researcher, author and thinker on innovation strategies, innovation behaviour, and innovation policy.

Dr Som spent more than 10 years at Fraunhofer-Institute for Systems & Innovation Research (ISI), working within their ecosystem of creativity and innovation. He has delivered expert talks to the European Innovation Council, has worked as a consulting expert for the European Commission, and, more recently, has begun to deliver critical keynote speeches to different interest groups within the Chamber of Commerce in Tirol. Topics covered include today’s challenges faced by entrepreneurs in terms of innovation, sustainability, economics, societal changes and scarcity of resources.

LM:  In the face of today’s challenges, do you find it hard to remain optimistic in your work around innovation?

OS: “Basically, I am an optimistic person and I always believe in the good of humanity and people. But I must admit, at the moment, I’m feeling a little jaded. Especially in the evenings when we put our daughter [who is 6] to bed. I watch her sleeping and sometimes I really think Oh, my gosh, what kind of world is she going to live in? And what are the challenges that she’s going to face? And this worries me a little bit.”

But your work has stimulated policy discussion at national government level. As a catalyst for change, do you feel that you’re making a difference and does this give you hope about the future?

OS: “Well, yes, while at Fraunhofer-Institute for Systems & Innovation Research (ISI), I would talk to and advise policymakers within government organisations, and most of them were aged 50 to 60 and coming to the end of their careers.

When I left ISI, I grabbed the chance to support and stimulate the minds of the next generation through my work with students at MCI who I think are a much bigger multiplier when it comes to innovative thinking.

I believe that if we manage to inspire the mindset of 10 students out of 500, then yes, it will make an impact because they – the next generation – will adopt professional roles where they can influence thinking and bring about change, and do this while young enough to witness the impact of their work within their lifetime.

LM: What highlights can you share that amplifies this?

OS: The biggest honour, for me, is when students complete their studies and they come back and tell me the exact point in one lecture where I planted the seed that inspired them to make a difference.

There was one student, who was struggling to decide what she wanted to do. There was an expectation in her family that she would become an engineer, like both of her parents. We had a lecture on innovation and sustainability and, a year later, this student wrote me an email and said, “now I have fun!”. She pin-pointed that lecture as the pivotal moment of her time at MCI, and she is now managing the sustainability projects in emerging and developing countries for a large NGO. So yes, it’s like, wow, that does fill me with hope that the work I do is making a difference.”

LM: You’ve explained to me that Strategic Foresight is about looking ahead and bringing insight from what life might be like in the future, to help us make decisions today that make preferable futures a reality. How do you inspire students to act today, to make more sustainable decisions that help avoid the worst-case scenarios of climate disruption?

OS: “It’s about options. There are many different methods for different examples of future thinking.

For instance, I develop scenarios with my students that can be quite sophisticated because I think the mainstream model of analysing today, i.e., analysing the desired future, and then attempting to close the gap is outdated, as it does not work anymore for the societal challenges ahead.

In today’s world, the first thing that students (and businesses, for that matter) must understand is the struggle of long-term planning because who would have thought one year ago that we would have a war in Europe?

So, with volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity, how can we rationally anticipate or plan strategically? Therefore, students first have to learn that there are many contradictory options in the future, and they need to embrace these by scenario-building.

They look at, for example, what will Alpine Tourism or Carpenter artisanship in Tirol might look like in 2030. And they have to figure out what are the driving factors, which ones can be influenced, which factors influence others. Then they have to do a lot of research and apply different models.

In the end, they come up with two or three scenarios about the future , which might be contradictory to each other, but consistent within a theme.

Then they have to tell the story using visuals, pictures, animations, maybe comics, or movie snippets; they must tell the story in such an immersive way that you can dive into the different scenarios.

I would say for the most of them, it’s really hard because they’ve never had the chance to think in such ways in the past. And they have to learn to deal with the contradictions. What happens if there is no more funding? Or what would happen to this scenario in the context of a basic unconditional income? So we give them the opportunity to think about different possibilities.

At the end they are more open-minded, and they are able to see things from various points of view and can apply a sense of understanding about the differences they find.”

LM: Do you think optimism can be an important driver to help change people’s behaviours with relation to climate change?

OS: “When children are young and they are not yet living by or following conventions, they are perfectly optimistic. Everything is possible and natural for them at a young age because they are still able to dream, to imagine, to think creatively without borders. So, I am looking forward to reading and analysing any patterns within the (hopefully) positive climate-fiction stories that are submitted by Tirolean pupils taking part in your project!

I think when it comes to citizenship engagement, and changing and doing something, it has never been easier to start something that can make a global difference.

When we look back in time, there has always been crises and threats and dystopian dynamics, but at that time science was not as developed and social media didn’t exist.

Now, we’re all connected. And that’s the positive side of social media. We know what’s going on. We have most of the solutions on the table.

So I think it’s easier than ever for people to engage to save the world, at least at an individual level. And I think maybe that we should not wait until policy sets the direction. I think we need to find ways to shape the future ourselves.”

Read more about The Anthology Project (in German and English).

Find out more about the MCI research study to be conducted by Dr Som and Dr Antje Bierwisch of MCI, Innsbruck’s Entrepreneurial School®. 

Other information and links:
Oliver Som – LinkedIn profile
Leanne Mills – LinkedIn profile, The English Wordsmith