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Debunking Conspiracy Theories Using Strategic Foresight

Sami Mäkeläinen, Head of Strategic Foresight

"In my work, I prefer to focus on asking better questions rather than providing straight answers."

This episode takes us down under, where we welcome Finnish-born Sami Mäkeläinen. In his role as Head of Strategic Foresight at Telstra, Australia's largest telecommunications company, Sami tries to ensure - as he says himself - that the company is not caught by surprise by the future. Next to a brief look at the structure and organization of strategic foresight at Telstra, we take up the issue of the 5g conspiracy theory that Telstra faced at the time of the introduction of this new technology and learn how Sami's work fed into developing strategies to counter this world of misinformation and disinformation. Curious to learn more? Then tune in!

Below you will find the full transcript for the episode.

Countering 5G conspiracy theories with strategic foresight

Chris: Hi, and welcome back to Innovation Rockstars! My name is Chris Mühlroth, and in this episode, I am happy to welcome Sami Mäkeläinen. Sami is Head of Strategic Foresight at Telstra, Australia's largest telecommunications company by market share that builds and operates telecommunications networks and markets voice, mobile, internet access, paid television, and other products and services. So Sami, thanks very much for joining us; it's great to have you on the show.

Sami: Thank you for having me; it's a pleasure to be here.

Chris: Alright so let's kick things off, as always, with a 60 seconds introduction sprint. So these 60 seconds are all about you, your career, and your current role at Telstra. So I'll get the countdown ready, and for the next 60 seconds, the stage is all yours. Let's go!

Sami: I'm originally from Finland, which is obvious to anyone who knows how Finnish names work. I grew up mostly in Finland, too, though with high school detours in the US and Canada, and at some point after that, I even managed to eke out a master's degree in computer science from the University of Helsinki. My career sort of spanned quite a few interesting roles from the beginning of being a software developer, leading the dot-com boom in the US and in Finland, to then doing my national duty for Nokia back when their phones were cool, to half a dozen different roles at Telstra where I've been since 2009. At present, I'm the Head of Strategic Foresight here, and what that means we'll no doubt get to later in the show.

Chris: Alright, that was a sprint. Shorter than 40 seconds; that's a new record, I guess. Okay, for the next thing, so I do have three sentence starters for you, and I'd like you to ask to complete them. So let's start with number one: “In the most simple terms, my job can be described as…”

Sami: Trying to make sure the company doesn't get caught by surprise by the future.

Chris: Number two: “I usually end my days with…”

Sami: Sleep. That may sound like a bit of a cop-out, but thanks to a sort of flexible working arrangement, my days often look a little unusual. I might get like a two-hour bush walk in the middle of the day, spend the early evening hours with family, then get back to work at 9 p.m. and just carry on as long as need be. It may sound like a nightmare from like a work-life balance perspective, but I actually enjoy the freedom and mostly come and go as I please and fit in activities when I find convenient. Also means that I get to spend more time with family and friends and recharge during the day in a variety of ways.

Chris: Right, so actually, that sounds like a great work-life balance, to be honest, at least to me. And finally, number three: “If my career had taken a different path, I would probably be…”

Sami: A pilot. That was the only completely different career I had a close call with.

Chris: A pilot, alright, tell me more about that. How did that come?

Sami: So I've always had this interest in aviation since as far as I can remember. To become a pilot in Finland, you have three paths. You have the army, which I was too tall for. The Air Force, where you have private training, and I didn't feel like having like 200,000 euros of debt when I graduated as a pilot. And then there's the Finnair Training Academy, which I failed at the very last step of that. But the interest in the industry never kind of left me, and people who know me describe anything from a passion to an obsession, depending on who you ask. And in recent years, I've sort of discovered many overlaps that are interesting with the aviation industry and other industries, which has brought it a little bit closer to current work, away from just a hobby.

Chris: Wow, that's a cool story. All right, well, thanks for sharing. And I think we got a lot to discuss about strategic foresight and how it's deployed at Telstra. Before we get to that, I would love to talk about a very interesting story that Telstra actually experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic. Being Australia's largest telecommunications company by market share, what's interesting is you guys have actually been on the other end of the 5G conspiracy theory, right? And thus, there were quite a few of them. Like 5G networks cause radiation, which in turn triggers the virus, and so on. Tell me about that story. How did that start, and at what point did the company actually notice it?

Sami: So everyone in the mobile industry knows that there are always concerns about radiation ever since the birth of mobile phones. Whenever a new G comes out, whether it's 2G, 3G, 4G, and most recently 5G, it sparks a fresh wave of these concerns, despite now decades of research showing that the technology is indeed very safe. So from that perspective, we've always been aware of some levels of concerns in the community that the technology causes, often from the fringes of society. However, with 5G, several conspiracy theories sort of became emerging prior to COVID and then somehow got tangled with the pandemic. And while we were aware of these theories and nobody could escape them, it was by the industry still seen mostly as a fringe phenomenon until in 2020 it wasn't when operators globally, including us, began to experience some material negative impacts from that, including our field workforce being verbally assaulted, physically assaulted, people burning base stations and vandalism like that.

Chris: So, how did that go? I mean, you know, what happened next?

Sami: So as that happened, some of the people in the company wanted to understand a little bit better the process of what drives conspiracy theorists and whether there will be some responses that would be effective in mitigating these impacts. So that led me to me embarking on this kind of three-month research deep dive into conspiracy theories, conspiratorial thinking, the psychology of that, misinformation, disinformation, malinformation world, and all the wonderful related aspects of the field. And that resulted in a relatively comprehensive report of what's been tried in various settings globally and some strategies did seem more effective than others.

Chris: How do you get in touch with that topic? I mean, obviously, there was a lot of buzz around that, right? But did they kind of deliberately ask you to do that? Did they say “Hey, Sami, you're the expert for conspiracy theories”? Probably not, right? So how did that come?

Sami: Nobody really considered me an expert in conspiracy theories, but I was sort of the foresight person that I'd done a little bit, a few of these kinds of left field tasks before. So I was kind of the natural port of call for our electromagnetic emissions guys to come to for potential help.

Chris: Understood. So they kind of reached out to you asking for your support. And what did you actually do to support the business? You did the research, and what happens next? What was the result? What did the business then do to actually address the conspiracy theories? And how does it kind of connect to strategic foresight?

"We uncovered some strategies that have been shown to be effective in mitigating this kind of thinking…one of them is this light-hearted, ridiculing strategy."

Sami: It led to a few things. I mean, first, we now know a little bit better what we were up against, if you will. And it wasn't what you might expect. Conspiracies are not as much of a fringe phenomenon as you might want or imagine. But luckily, the hardcore conspiracists are still rare. And we also uncovered some strategies that have been shown to be quite effective, not super effective. Nothing can touch these a 100%. But we uncovered some strategies that have been shown to be effective in mitigating this kind of thinking. And one of them is this light-hearted, ridiculing strategy. We ended up producing a series of these humorous 5G facts videos that directly address some of the conspiracies that were out there in a light-hearted and humorous way. I might even say an extremely funny way. And that was quite a successful campaign that was noticed internationally as well. But of course, we still maintain the traditional factual information being available and promoted so that people who generally want to know the facts will have the facts available to them, not just from us, but also from government, authorities, and international organizations.

Chris: That's a great story. This really demonstrates what you can actually do with strategic foresight tools. And I definitely would love to take a deeper look at strategic foresight at Telstra. But before we do that, I want to play a quick round of Either-Or. The game works like this. I'm going to give you two options, and you choose one of the options and then spend one or two sentences to briefly explain your opinion on that. So let's have a try. First one: Would you either have a close group work in innovation, for example, in a lab, or have cross-functional innovation?

Sami: I would say cross-functional innovation but with resources from a lab-style environment that can then offer support for the projects.

Chris: OK, great answer. Next one: Either remote work or office work?

Sami: So this is a trick question, right? It's obviously always been both, but somehow it only took the pandemic to drive point the home for many companies that, indeed, this was the case. What that split looks like will depend on the organization and the work in question, but there will be organizations at both ends of the spectrum as well. There will be fully remote and fully office work, but most will settle somewhere in the middle.

Chris: Got it. OK, thank you. And finally, number three: What do you think - this is obviously about your personal opinion and experiences - are we either still living in a VUCA world, VUCA stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ubiquity, or have actually transitioned to live now in a BANI world, which is brittle, anxious, nonlinear, incomprehensible. What do you say?

Sami: I think the two concepts are actually quite complementary. So VUCA has served us well for decades to describe the overall state of the world. But it's clear that from many perspectives that we now live in more of a BANI world, which elaborates more on how people feel about things. In recent years, I've also highlighted some elements of the world that are clearly brittle, such as supply chains, while also driving anxiety to extremely high levels.

How strategic foresight works at Telstra

Chris: Got it. All right. So ultimately, it's a combination. OK, now let's move on to strategic foresight at Telstra. You already highlighted a very prominent and also very interesting and effective example of your strategic foresight work when we talked about the 5G conspiracy theories. Now, in prior episodes on strategic foresight, we actually have talked a lot about how to build effective and impactful foresight teams, how to design processes, how to generate insights, both, of course, qualitatively and quantitatively, how to use trend radars, and so on and so on. So let's maybe focus on another important aspect, which is positioning, marketing, and networking. But first, let's get an overview of how strategic foresight actually works at Telstra. How is that organized at Telstra? Who do you report to? Is there a team? Can you talk about that?

Sami: So Telstra has in recent years moved most functions into an agile kind of an operating model. The way things are structured now is that all strategy-related capabilities are organized in several chapters, in a chapter strategy/ chapter area. And “chapter” is Telstra terminology for tribe in normal agile terminology. And that's where foresight sits as well, along with the strategy folks. So there is no team per se, but it's a pool of resources that then gets pulled into projects as needed.

Chris: OK, cool. That's nice. I know this from kind of agile software engineering and stuff, right? They also talk about tribes and squads and whatnot. But it actually tries to, you know, point back to similar concepts. And, you know, there are different foresight models, right? There is Foresight-Insights-Action. There are other process models or frameworks. And specifically for you at Telstra, how many steps of the foresight models, for example, the Foresight-Insights-Action model, do you actually cover in your work?

Sami: I like to think I cover about two and a half of them, foresight, certainly, as well as insight. And the action part comes more in the form of suggestions and guidelines or proposed scenarios and directions. And why is that from my perspective? Well, many of my customers are really experts in their own fields. So I could never have the expertise or the deep domain knowledge these people and organizations have. That's why I prefer to aim at sort of enlightening the overall situation and the future possibilities, the future scenarios, and focusing on asking better questions rather than providing straight answers. And I want people to think for themselves and, after perhaps opening their horizons a little bit to both the opportunities and potential challenges and then for them to come up with actions that work for them.

Chris: Got it. I mean, you know, taking back on the example you shared earlier, the conspiracy theory debunking, if you will, obviously you were not producing the videos and all the marketing stuff yourself, right? So you, of course, were kind of guiding that action, initiating that based on your research, based on your foresight and insights and recommendations. But obviously, it was not you publishing that. So that kind of makes sense. And can you maybe guide us through - if there is - what a typical work day for you actually looks like?

Sami: So there probably isn't a typical day, per se, but there's a distinct pattern that kind of repeats over time. My work, my time, is split into what I like to call three different kinds of activities. How time is distributed among them varies. But the activities are first a category I call “business as usual”. Much of this is reading and maintaining situational awareness. And many people think that it means looking at news and stuff, but that's not the case. I mean, heavy news consumption will lead you to miscalibrate it with reality. So that's not it. What I mostly read are books as well as several hundred online resources, which deal more with research and emerging technologies type of material. The “business as usual” category also includes building some regular deliverables for broad distribution, as well as various regular activities relating to internal and external advisory groups, boards, and so forth. And the second part is more planned project work, which can be engagement lasting from a few days to a few months, depending on what the task at hand may be. And the third part of my typical day would be made up of ad hoc requests. So that obviously happens outside of all planning cycles. But I always try to keep enough slack, if you will, or compressible time in other ways in my weeks to be able to take on questions or assignments at short notice. So when an executive needs an answer or review now, I can do that.

Chris: Right. OK. And you already kind of referred to that, but what resources do you get the information from? You said, well, not reading the news, watching the news all the time, and books and stuff. But is there kind of a specific pattern or specific database you actually get back to over time?

Sami: It's a bit of everything. So I mentioned books already. Books are probably my primary source of in-depth material for any issue, whether it's about quantum computing or blockchain, or the implications of AI. I do subscribe to several hundred RSS feeds from across the Internet. This ranges from select publications to individual researchers and universities and corporate labs and government agencies, and so on. Which provides a few hundred items to see through on a skimming basis on a daily basis. Finally, there are some pre-curated sources, if you will, such as the feed from the IFTF Institute for the Future, who are sort of our main foresight partners.

Chris: OK, interesting. So there's a lot of information to digest, actually. How do you organize that information? I mean, do you store this somewhere, like on a notebook or PowerPoint? How do you do that?

Sami: I use Feedly Pro as sort of the main curation organizer, and then items that need further attention, I take them outside to a local database.

Chris: Got it. OK, that's kind of how you operate. And now about positioning. How are strategic foresight and all the value you deliver to your organization and to the different teams actually positioned at Telstra? Is it a service? Is it a push? Is it a pull? Do you have kind of a purpose statement or something? So how do you position yourself and the services at Telstra?

Sami: As I mentioned earlier, it's part of the strategy organization of the business and operates mostly in a pull model. So not so much push. Part of that is very deliberate. Though partly, it's also a resourcing issue. We simply don't have enough people to push everything everywhere or even try to sell, in other words, foresight into much of the decision-making processes as we would want. So I'll be the first to say that while we have dozens of people who've gone through, for example, the IFTF foresight practitioner training, there's still much work to be done on how to properly utilize all those capabilities and embed more of the thinking into existing processes.

Chris: OK, so if this is more a pull, then let's talk marketing. How do you generate awareness for all the materials and services you have?

Sami: Most of the marketing I've done has been built over time as sort of a word-of-mouth kind of manner. Then there is a newsletter that I produce that's one of the widest distributed things, which has grown out and gradually been sort of repurposed of a newsletter that originated 10 years ago. That's continued to be extremely well received and the distribution list for that keeps growing through word of mouth. There are also some, what I'd maybe classify as guerrilla tactics, like seeding certain people and groups with interesting views, presentations or items of work, which then tend to result in more engagements with other groups when they go on and say “Hey, did you know that this interesting stuff is happening here?”.

Chris: Cool, all right. Interesting. So guerrilla marketing is part of it. And how do you identify these individuals? Just by chance and then build over time? Or is there a specific kind of systematic way in how you build your subscribers over time, aside from word of mouth?

Sami: Some are just, I guess you could call them cold calling even, and some are just building relationships over time.

Chris: Interesting. So you just pick up the phone or Slack or MS Teams or whatever kind of collaboration tools you use and say, “Hey, you're interested in that because I've seen you work in this and that - join; it's free”. I guess one of the benefits it actually provides to them is also cutting through the noise, right? So you're basically just reading all the data ingestion/ information ingestion, but then, of course, obviously filter what might be relevant to them and then say, well, I'm basically a personal filter based on some industry expertise, industry topics, whatever we have. That's, I guess, part of why they kind of love the service, right?

Sami: Right. And it usually provides a little bit of a broader context to people who are working on a topic who may not necessarily think about the longer-term trends and where this is going. Quite a few product lines, for example, are more focused on what needs to happen this quarter, what needs to happen this year, how do we deliver on these? But then, you know, they often appreciate the longer-term perspective into how your decisions today are going to either enable or exclude from capturing some opportunities further down the road.

Chris: Yeah, OK. And now moving forward, how do you actually spark these pull requests? I mean, of course, now you have awareness, right? You deliver some value and stuff. But is this just a natural thing? Like they say, OK, this is interesting, Sami. Now, can you do this for me, too? Or is there some other way how you actually spark those pull requests over time? Like going back to the conspiracy case study earlier, how does that work?

"You do something interesting and watch stuff happen. And if stuff doesn't happen, then, you know, maybe it’s not interesting."

Sami: Yeah, so that's pretty much it. It relates to the above points of planting interesting seeds into various parts of the organization that will tend to generate pull - at least if it's interesting content - from elsewhere in the organization over time. So there was a metaverse presentation I gave a few months ago that has since sparked a dozen presentation requests from all around the organization, the largest of that was to a thousand people or so. So, yeah, that's basically my experience on generating pull. You do something interesting and watch stuff happen. And if stuff doesn't happen, then, you know, maybe it’s not interesting.

Chris: Yeah, right. Is there any way how you actually measure success of that? I mean, it's not easy, right? It's not purely quantitative, like numbers of reports created, numbers of people you influence, maybe the size of the newsletter subscriptions, whatever. But is anybody asking you, actually, “Hey, Sami, show me your success and report to me”?, or is it not that way? How do you do that at Telstra?

Sami: So, yes, of course, there will always be people who ask for that, especially if you're in finance. These people want to quantify everything. But that is the million-dollar question, isn't it? I'm quite adamant that not only is quantification of all that value impossible, but attempts to do so will sort of inevitably mean neglecting areas that are valuable, but do not lend themselves to quantification. That's not to say that foresight work should somehow be exempt from providing quantifiable value. I'm not saying that. But what I am saying is that the traditional tools for financial ROI, especially in the short term, are not the appropriate metrics for something that is specifically about longer-term thinking.

Chris: Yeah. So there need to be different metrics. Are you kind of using some different metrics than the traditional ROI so far?

Sami: I don't have a dashboard. But I do have like a collection of things that have resulted from the various foresight activities.

Chris: So it's case studies, showcases, success stories, and stuff.

Sami: Right.

Three key takeaways

Chris: OK, that's cool. All right. So, let's try to summarize what we've discussed so far. If I were to ask you what are the three key takeaways you want listeners to take away from that episode, what would you say?

“Foresight is not about prediction, as many people think. It's about exploring the range of plausible and probable futures and making sure that the future doesn't catch us by surprise, and being able to rapidly adapt to changing conditions.”

Sami: First, I think we're coming back to the conspiracy work. We're deep in the era of misinformation and disinformation, and that can be pretty disheartening at times. I mean, the good news is that there are ways of tackling it. The bad news is that it's complex and requires collaboration between a large number of parties, the entire society, really. But the other good bit of news is that we can and should all play a role in tackling it. So nobody gets to say that it's somebody else's problem. So it's all of our problem, which means that it's also all of our solution. Second, touching on the VUCA versus BANI point again. We do live in a VUCA and BANI world where it might appear that unpredictable events happen at such a rapid clip. So what good is foresight? Because nobody can see it all coming. There's a two-part answer to that, I think. First, as like point 2a, we can see many things coming, not everything, but we can see many things. I mean, we always knew, for example, that we're going to get into a pandemic. That was as far from a black swan event as one can possibly get. We could have and should have prepared much better for it. And that's where foresight would have been valuable. Second, as sort of a point 2b, foresight is not about prediction, as many people think. It's about exploring the range of plausible and probable futures and making sure that the future doesn't catch us by surprise, and being able to rapidly adapt to changing conditions. And that's a skill we definitely need more of, not less. And finally, while many people are looking for answers and direct this kind of “tell me what to do” advice, as I mentioned earlier, I find it's more valuable when you ask better questions. So expanding horizons a little, providing some information and knowledge, and helping people make better decisions themselves through better questions. Now, that's what I find is more impactful than just providing “Do this kind of advice”, even though that has its place as well.

A look into the future: Automation as a game-changer for various industries

Chris: Right. These are three very important key takeaways. And I actually love the last one. So make sure you actually ask the right questions, getting people to think themselves, right. Empowering them, providing them with tools and information. But obviously, you are not going to do that job, right? So that's interesting. Now let's look into the future. What's on your radar? What do you see as the next emerging most impactful developments, signals, trends? For Telstra or maybe even the entire telecommunications industry.

Sami: So that's a good question. If for no other reason that I want to avoid saying metaverse or edge computing or some other hype-up kind of thing like that, instead of any particular technology, I'm going to say automation will be the most impactful thing, not just for Telstra and not just for telecommunications, but really almost every other industry as well. And how we manage that automation will determine whether it's a good trend or something else. And this is a whole other conversation topic, but the key here will be to deploy what I call mindful automation, automation that will retain and enhance human skill, not something that tries to automate tasks by displacing the human element from it.

"The key here will be to deploy what I call mindful automation, automation that will retain and enhance human skill, not something that tries to automate tasks by displacing the human element from it."

Chris: Yeah. All right. And how would that play out for Telstra, for example, like mindful automation? Is it on internal processes? Is it also customer-touching processes? What do you think?

Sami: It's everywhere, obviously. So there are many organizations, including Telstra, that have deployed chatbots that are, I should say, occasionally rather frustrating for people to use. And this is not necessarily doing automation, right? I mean, yes, you can get to a person from that easily. And that's a critical feature. So if you don't want to talk to the chatbot, you don't have to talk to the chatbot. But it really impacts both the customer-facing staff. And this is not, by the way, a call to say no to chatbots, like all chatbots are evil. No, chatbots can be very useful for a limited number of uses. But no organization should expect to be able to deploy a chatbot and then get rid of half of their customer-facing staff. The automation is just not ready for that yet. But obviously, there are a lot of internal processes as well. You know, robotic process automation and things like that, that need to be done thoughtfully to the people involved there so that you don't feel like you're taking agency away from the people who are doing it. But you're helping build their capabilities and make them into a more skilled individual rather than less skilled through automation.

Chris: Yeah, and also maybe enhance instead of only replace, right. That's also one thing that we see over time.

Sami: Yeah. And then there is also the concept of moral crumbles on. I don't know if that's come up in previous episodes that, you know, where responsibility and accountability are kind of separated. So people are accountable for something that they are no longer responsible for when automation has taken over part of their job.

Chris: Very fair point. All right. And finally, Sami, looking back on your professional career at Telstra specifically, I would love to hear about your personal Innovation Rockstar moment.

Sami: I thought a lot about this. I don't have a big rockstar moment in mind. I prefer the little moments, and there are many of those. So these would be times when people tell me that I've made them think about things they haven't thought of before or think about something from a different perspective or show them some of the unintended consequences. It's those little moments where you can play a role in facilitating people to think broader or deeper or in some other new way that are kind of most precious to me.

Chris: So you're collecting moments. That's also great. Thanks for sharing. And with this, we already wrap up this episode. Sami, it was great talking to you, and thanks for sharing the insight and the stories at Telstra. Thanks for joining!

Sami: Thanks for having me. It was a pleasure to be here.

Chris: All right. And to everybody listening or watching, if you like the show, then leave us a rating or a review and share the podcast with colleagues, with whomever you want to. And if you want to get in touch, simply shoot us a message at Now, that's it. Thanks for your time. See you in the next episode. Take care and bye-bye.

About the authors

Dr. Christian Mühlroth is the host of the Innovation Rockstars podcast and CEO of ITONICS. Sami Mäkeläinen is Head of Strategic Foresight at Telstra.

The Innovation Rockstars podcast is a production of ITONICS, provider of the world’s leading Operating System for Innovation. Do you also have an inspiring story to tell about innovation, foresight, strategy or growth? Then shoot us a note!



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