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Profile of a futurist: tamira snell

Photo: Nathalie Walker

If Tamira Snell had to point to one lesson for any aspiring futurist it would be this: pay equal attention to the structural determinants of human life (economics, technology and so on) and the more elusive and intangible areas related to culture and social norms. It is in the interplay between the ‘hard’ and the ‘soft’ – and between structure and agency – that the future is created.

It may sound like an obvious thing to state, but far too often, Tamira says, futures analyses tend to favour the formulaic and predictable while failing to adequately address the difficult questions of how social and cultural change occur.

“Smart phones, space travel, the internet, and electric cars are all things that were predicted decades before becoming reality, but radical upsets to social norms once thought permanent and unassailable – these are things that few past observers have ever had luck anticipating”, she explains. Tamira attempts to apply this lesson to all the work she does at the Copenhagen Institute for Futures Studies.

Before joining the Institute, Tamira worked as a trend forecaster, which took her to Milan, London, and New York, followed by a foray into corporate strategy. During this time, she developed a capacity for using knowledge of market and consumer trends to inform the strategic choices of companies and organisations working to target emerging consumer segments with novel products.

“At one point, I was part of a team working with a client who was developing
a meat analogue food product. This was before plant-based meats had become mainstream and well before veggie-burgers could be found on restaurant menus or on shelves in supermarkets, so no one really knew how to market this stuff. Understandably, the client was challenged by whether they should try to sell it as a meat, dairy, or vegetarian product. It was so new that they didn’t know how to communicate it to the consumer.”

photo: nathalie walker

Experiences like this offered a practical way of combining trend research with actionable strategy. It also gave Tamira a deep understanding of what kinds of challenges companies grapple with when they operate at the cutting edge of shifts in consumption patterns.

“It’s valuable to understand the significance of the changes we see at the ‘micro’ level of society, specifically with regards to how changes in lifestyle and consumption go hand in hand. But it isn’t the full picture, and I had a strong sense that the ‘micro’ needed to be supplemented by the ‘macro’.”

The desire to move beyond this short-term focus of trend forecasting and corporate strategy drew Tamira towards futures studies and foresight. She joined the Institute in 2013, where she now works with projects and initiatives relating to the future of health and changes in consumption. Her expertise lies in identifying emerging needs and the drivers behind why we live, think, work, and behave the way we do, and in investigating the consequences of broader societal currents on consumer markets.

“What continues to drive me is still this interest in understanding human behaviour. I want to know why our lifestyles change, and how this affects our needs and wishes for the future. When we talk about megatrends like individualisation and empowerment, it’s important to remember that the degree to which individuals (especially those belonging to younger generations) can ‘self-actualise’ depends on a range of factors, many of which are beyond their control, such as demographic and economic trends.”

This, Tamira says, is crucial to explain why trends come across differently across regions and countries, and why megatrends can never be viewed in isolation: they are often intersecting and impacting each other in a range of complex ways.

“As an example, in a future with ageing populations and rising costs for senior welfare, we can expect larger economic responsibilities to be placed on the younger generations, which in turn means that the push towards more individualised ways of living and working might become more difficult to pursue. It goes without saying that self-actualisation and empowerment can only be achieved once other crucial needs are met”, she explains.

The question of how generational differences shape behaviour is one that Tamira pays a great deal of attention to in her work. She believes it is crucial to understanding how societies and markets evolve although she is weary of using it as a catch-all explanation for differences in behaviours across populations.

“I’m sceptical of how the discourse around generational differences is often simplified into “boomers think A and Millennials think B” simply by virtue of them being either old or young. The truth is that there’s a huge difference of attitudes within generational cohorts – typically defined as spanning 15 years – especially when we compare the younger and older members of that generation.”

“I’m sceptical of how the discourse around generational differences is often simplified into “boomers think A and Millennials think B” simply by virtue of them being either old or young. The truth is that there’s a huge difference of attitudes within generational cohorts.”

“With that said, generational thinking makes sense in contexts where you can point to shared experiences of world-changing events that have shaped mentalities – the fall of the Berlin Wall or 9/11 are examples. We can also point to how certain technologies, like the contraceptive pill or the iPhone, relate to rapid social change that probably wouldn’t have happened without them. We then need to take these lessons from the past and apply the same kind of thinking to our work with constructing scenarios and doing other kinds of futures analyses. That’s the tricky part. We can easily get locked into patterns of thought and confined to our own cultural bubbles.”

Tamira is doubtful that there is any way for professional futurists to avoid this completely.

“We are all situated in our own specific cultural context. Anytime you are an observer of the world, self-reflection is incredibly important. There’s no such thing as complete neutrality, but self-awareness can get us closer to that goal. I also think that for any group of people working seriously with the future, interdisciplinarity is a great strength – as is having diversity in backgrounds and nationalities. It helps all of us see things in a new way.”

This shift of perspective, Tamira explains, can sometimes be found in places we least expect. That’s why whenever she travels, she makes an effort to break out of the role of tourist and have real conversations with the people she meets – specifically cab drivers.

“They have a unique understanding of life among ordinary people. That inspires me. It’s also sobering in the sense that you realise that life can unfold in countless different ways. We can’t read and study our way to everything”, she says.

“Social media gives us so many stories, but those stories are curated for the medium. It’s not real life. I love talking to elderly ladies when I ride the bus for the same reason. And it’s always a good experience. They’re a source of knowledge and wisdom that we tend to forget about”, she explains.

“At its heart, the work I do concerns people. I am driven by a curiosity to talk to them – as many of them as I can, and from as many different places and walks of life as possible.