In the Spotlight: Dr. Sebastian Knab on Foresight, AI, and Sustainability in 2024
On building strategic resilience in times of polycrisis, practicing “underground Foresight,” and expanding the Rohrbeck Heger portfolio in 2024 with a new service offering
By Bhavana Sawant
Stepping into the new year with its promises of expansive opportunities and growth, we sat down with Dr. Sebastian Knab to discuss what 2024 has in store for foresight-driven strategy and innovation.
With a tenure of over 15 years immersed in foresight, strategy, innovation and sustainability, Sebastian stands as the driving force behind the strategic foresight division at Creative Dock. Taking over the reins of Rohrbeck Heger from Dr. Tobias Heger as our new Managing Director late last year, he brings invaluable expertise and experience to the table.
In this interview, we delve into an array of topics, exploring leadership lessons, the disruptive impact of Generative AI across the company, and exclusive insight into our Foresight Community, all shared by Sebastian himself.
Let’s jump right in:
What did your experiences as Director of Foresight teach you in 2023, and what do you want to focus on in 2024?
Sebastian: In late 2022, I took on a role that required more people management than before. Responsible for a 30-member team of experts, I was surprised to see the level of skillful management required from my end. My time on projects, sales and client relationships drastically went down. This is something I had not anticipated, but I was glad to have to constantly learn and grow alongside my team. In 2024, I want to shift back to what I think my role is truly all about: coaching people and building strong client relationships.
This past year also showed me that as a leader, you really depend on a strong team to do all the things that you no longer have time for. Many tasks and projects are not under my direct control, so I’m required to rely on my team to deliver based on the limited guidance I can provide. This has worked out extremely well so far because I think (and know) that I have the best possible team!
Furthermore, I’m a person who strives for excellence all the time and I absolutely dislike it when someone, whether they are a team member or a client, is unhappy. One lesson I have had to learn is that it is nearly impossible to achieve complete satisfaction from all members when you’re leading a team of 30 people. There will be trade offs, and while I might achieve something that benefits some people, others may not be happy with it. I have learned to manage these trade-offs, to live with it, and to listen more to myself. I have to judge what is the right thing to do.
What was your main motivation behind starting your own Sustainability initiative?
Sebastian: We live in a time in which we simply cannot ignore the topic of sustainable development in business. Quite the opposite! Everybody needs to think about how we can achieve it or at least how we can contribute towards it. You cannot stand in front of a burning house and think about how to make the internet connection in the house better going forward. You really need to think about how to get the fire out or how you can contribute to putting it out.
I think with what we do at Rohrbeck Heger and Creative Dock, we are really in an excellent position to make a difference, advising the largest global companies on strategy and innovation. That’s why I pushed the topic of sustainability in the first place. Sustainability Fridays is an initiative to increase awareness of and knowledge around sustainable development applied to business. It is a monthly event for the entire company where we invite an external expert for a keynote and Q&A session for an hour over lunch on Fridays.
I realized that knowledge and awareness across the company is key to driving this topic in everything we do. We are doing a lot of creative work, envisioning and creating the future. As everyone becomes more knowledgeable about sustainable development, is made more aware of its importance, and has the right tools at hand to drive it forward, it will seamlessly become a part of our work and influence it positively.
You can read this article on 5 ways in which Foresight can help you launch your Sustainability Strategy to learn more.
Foresight constantly deals with uncertainty. How do you plan for it and effectively help organizations tackle it?
Sebastian: Yes, that’s exactly what foresight essentially does – manage uncertainty. My favorite example here is a project we did with a large airline network before the COVID-19 Crisis. In this case, we built scenarios in collaboration with our client, based on multiple plausible futures. One of these scenarios detailed implications of “grounded flights”, due to changes in environmental regulations. While it was initially considered an unlikely scenario by our client, it turned into reality during the pandemic. The scenario went up to board level, helping them navigate the COVID-19 crisis. Although the reason for the crisis was different, the scenario we developed helped them prepare for what was to come.
Strategic Foresight helps companies navigate uncertainty, not by predicting a future that might most likely become true, but preparing for alternative (and very different) futures, considering multiple scenarios and planning for them accordingly. You can read about how we deal with uncertainty in this free Crisis Foresight Sprint – a step-by-step guide for when a crisis strikes, inspired by strategic foresight.
Rohrbeck Heger is developing a new service offering around AI. What can you share about it?
Yes, one of Creative Dock’s strategic pillars is jumping all-in on incorporating and leveraging AI. This is a smart strategic move as it builds on our existing capabilities in that area and makes it clear that we will not only go with the flow but lead the development. We now offer Artificial Intelligence Transformation as our newest expert capability and service. For my team, this means that we will be top notch in AI for Foresight, leveraging the latest developments in the area and implementing everything AI can offer into our work – something we are already very good at.
On top of this, my team has been assigned the task to develop the whole Creative Dock AI Transformation offering and we have a pretty solid end-to-end offering already.
Essentially, it consists of three pillars:
– AI foresight, strategy, and innovation planning: This is at the heart of what my team has always done, but now we’re leveraging AI and gearing our work specifically towards AI. This piece will be crucial in 2024. Last year, we saw a lot of companies that just “wanted to do something” with AI, but now realize that they need a more strategic approach. They seek priorities and focus to really leverage the value of AI.
– AI technological competency: Creative Dock’s AI and data scientist teams are extremely well prepared for the hands-on, tool-building aspect.
– Implementation and change management: One thing we learned in our AI Transformation Projects this year is that the bulk of the work is not technical, but change management. It doesn’t matter if it’s automation, AI or any other transformation – you need to master the art of change management.
You can read about the Future of Generative AI in our detailed report here. Dive into our progressive scenario that imagines the world in 2026, explore 30 critical Generative AI trends to monitor, and get inspired by 40 emerging business opportunities all in one comprehensive foresight study.
What can we expect and look forward to in 2024?
Sebastian: I am looking forward to three things:
– The need for Foresight will further increase exponentially.
We are living in an age defined by polycrises. Uncertainty is growing steadily and it’s here to stay. We have seen this in the past year and it will only continue. Dealing with, managing, and even benefiting from uncertainty is at the heart of what we do in Foresight. I believe that soon, no organization will be able to conduct meaningful strategy and innovation work without doing it with a foresight-based approach.
– Developments in AI will accelerate and turn many things upside-down.
We are extremely well positioned to take a leading role here. Creative Dock is an AI-obsessed company, we are top notch in AI for Foresight, strategy and innovation work, and we have a strong end-to-end AI Transformation offering for our clients.
– We will push the sustainability topic even more in 2024.
We had an exciting and successful sustainability strategy and innovation project with one of the largest global food and beverage companies in 2023. We are on course to publish a foresight study on decarbonization soon, and with AI transformation we have learned a lot about building new offerings for transformative topics including sustainability. We will have someone in the team explicitly driving this topic, and everyone is quite excited about it.
What advice would you give aspiring foresight consultants and analysts?
Sebastian: My advice is not new but still valid – if you want to become an excellent Foresight consultant you need to learn about application areas such as strategy and innovation, how to become a trusted advisor to clients, how dynamics in large organizations function, and how to manage stakeholders. I’ve seen many futurists and foresight experts in my career who know everything about foresight methodology but then fail to have a significant impact, because methodology alone doesn’t create impact. You need additional skills to make Foresight work. This is what we do at Rohrbeck Heger and what every aspiring consultant and analyst in my team should strive for.
What are some developments in strategy and innovation that you’re excited about in 2024? What topics do people need to keep on their radar?
Sebastian: I would say there are these four topics: Make Foresight Work, Integrate Foresight into all strategy and innovation work, Embrace AI, and Drive Sustainability.
The latter is still underestimated. I say it every year at this time, but it’s truer than ever. With burning topics such as geopolitical crises and now AI flying in, organizations get distracted from the sustainability topic all the time, only to later realize that it’s still there and more urgent than ever. I’m excited about these pressing topics and really looking forward to working on them, whilst driving change and leveraging the opportunities that come with it.
And last but in no way the least, can you share information about Rohrbeck Heger’s exclusive foresight community?
Sebastian: Our Foresight Community is one for Foresighters by Foresighters. The Foresight That Works event that we hosted in September 2023 at our Berlin office was great in many ways. Over the past years we’ve seen Foresight becoming more important in companies across the board. Jobs with an explicit Foresight mandate have emerged out of strategy and innovation functions and even entire Foresight teams have been set up. Foresight is professionalizing but Foresight professionals are still somewhat unique in their organizations. We know many Foresight professionals who are the first generation in their companies. There is a strong desire to connect across companies and industries, to share best practices, and to support each other. This is what we are trying to facilitate with our community.
There are some challenges that everyone seems to share but also fascinating solutions to these challenges. Some foresight experts are already practicing:
– Varying priority of foresight
One of the participants shared the notion of “underground foresight,” so whenever foresight got deprioritized, this foresighter continued to work on it below the radar only to be prepared for when it picked up again. With this approach they were ready when Foresight finally became fully established as a corporate function. This foresighter is now heading the team.
– Moving from one-time foresight exercises to continuous foresight
This seems to be the name of the game now. After successful trials, companies now want the process to be systematically built into their routines. At Rohrbeck Heger, we streamline foresight adoption in a few efficient and effective steps including showcasing value via pilot sprints, customizing playbooks within existing processes, strategizing for engagement, occasionally introducing software, and seamlessly integrating foresight into strategy and innovation processes for tangible, direct benefits. These proven strategies engage our community in thought-provoking and future-oriented conversations.
Finally, do you have any extra positive or motivating words to share?
Sebastian: Looking back at 2023, it was not a particularly easy year with lots of work still going into properly integrating into the Creative Dock Group and serving clients with sometimes tight budgets. However, as a team we reached all of our goals and mastered all of the challenges we faced. My team is extremely motivated and just such great people to work with, also on a personal level, that I think whatever we want to achieve, we can do it.