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Featured image: The Principle of Positive Futures - Turning the Dark into Inspiration

The Principle of Positive Futures - Turning the Dark into Inspiration

Dr. Gabriele Rizzo, Director of Research

"When I was eight years old, I read an article in Scientific American about black holes and how crossing the event horizon is a non-event. That was the moment I decided to become a physicist."

Our today's guest has a very impressive list of references:

  • He is a futurist and an executive advisor.
  • He has a Ph.D. in String Theory and Astrophysics and has grown into a Defense expert in foresight, up to being the NATO’s Member at Large for Strategic Foresight and Futures Studies.
  • He founded the Swiss Center for Positive Futures at the University of Lausanne, and serves as its Director of Research; plus, he is the 2022 UNESCO Chair candidate for Positive Futures, Futures Literacy, and Anticipation.
  • He is the Futures Advisor to the Chief Scientist of the U.S. Air Force and the Futures Advisor to the Chief Scientist of the U.S. Space Force and leads futures thinking in the General Office for Defense Innovation in the Italian Ministry of Defense, reporting to the Vice Chief of Defense.
  • And last, but not least, he previously has been the ministerial advisor for Futures to the Italian Minister of Defense.

In this episode, we welcome Dr. Gabriele Rizzo in his role as Director of Research of the Swiss Center for Positive Futures at the University of Lausanne. Since the age of 8, Gabriele was fascinated by how nature works and what it hides. At the time, however, no one knew that these early inspirations would one day be the key to Gabriele becoming a futurist.

In this sometimes almost philosophical exchange, Gabriele introduces us to the Swiss Center for Positive Futures and explains what exactly lies behind the idea of “Positive Futures” and what role the theme of "hope" plays as a driving force in this thought model. We also take a look at Gabriele’s latest book, HR Futures 2030, a futurist guide to the challenges and changes in the world of work backed up by evidence-based trends and signals, offering pragmatic upskilling pathways. If you want to learn more about the principle of “Positive Futures” and how to turn the dark into inspiration or how to maintain the importance of humans in a future that will be even more machine-driven, this is your episode.

Below you will find the full transcript for the episode.

Unleashing the power of positive futures

Chris: Hi, and welcome back to Innovation Rockstars. My name is Chris Mühlroth, and in this episode, I am excited to welcome Gabriele Rizzo. Gabriele did his Ph.D. in string theory and astrophysics, and he founded the Swiss Center for Positive Futures - the new research institute and Summit of Futures Thinking at the University of Lausanne, where he also serves as the Director of Research. He is also the UNESCO chair candidate for Positive Futures Literacy and Anticipation, futures adviser to the chief scientist to the United States Space Force and the United States Air Force, member at large strategic foresight in future studies at NATO, national lead on futures thinking at the General Office for Defense Innovation at the Italian Ministry of Defense, and a former ministerial adviser for futures to the Italian minister of defense. That’s a lot. Gabriele, I hope I got all of this right. Thank you so much for joining us. I'm excited to have you on the show.

Gabriele: Chris, it's great to be here with you. You got it all 100% right.

Chris: Awesome. We start straight away with a short 60 seconds introduction sprint. It's all about you and your professional career. So for the next 60 seconds, the stage is all yours. Let's go.

Gabriele: Thanks, Chris. When I was a kid, I was fascinated by how nature works and what nature hides. When I was eight, reading an article in Scientific American about black holes and how crossing the event horizon is a non-event, I decided I had to become a physicist. And that bliss is dear to me. I can't help it. I am fascinated by imagination, by people, and their creativity. I didn't know back then, but that inspiration was the key for me to become a futurist. Because in the future, everything can be possible. You create your own limits and unleash the power of imagination - alone, in a small group, or a large group. You turn boundaries into limits. A boundary is what prevents wielding the power of the act. Limits are the intrinsic condition for the production of new possibilities. Because for something to be possible, it can be possible anything. If anything is possible, nothing is real.

Chris: Alright, Gabriele. So next, here are three sentence starters. I would like to ask you to complete them. Let's start with number one: "Being a futures advisor means…."

Gabriele: Providing a seamless transition from near to far with incredible sharpness so that leaders can see no limits in their opportunities. If I could have another sentence here, I'd say that there's a whole lot more to being a futures advisor. And one of the things is that most of the time, whenever you try to advise people and think twenty years out or forty years out, people think that every decision accumulates at the foot of their hand of the time horizon. And that's simply not true. But we'll talk about this later on.

Chris: Absolutely. Let's talk about this later on. Number two: "One of the most important things I've learned from my doctorate in string theory and astrophysics is…"

Gabriele: Is thinking in terms of organizing principles. Physics, as a model of reality, a model of nature, helps you to think with fundamental principles, and that’s extremely helpful. It's probably the most precious compass you can have when navigating complexity.

Chris: It probably is, thank you. Finally, number three: "If I could give you exactly one book recommendation, it would be this…."

Gabriele: I'm stealing your single book recommendation and turning it into multiple. So if there's a casual reader interested in the future, I'd recommend ‘Future Shock’ by Alvin Toffler. That's a masterpiece written in the 70s, and it's so compelling, even today. If you're learning about futures, I'd suggest ‘Thinking about the Future’ by Andy Hines and Peter Bishop. And I could suggest my book, ‘HR Futures 2030’. For the future’s professional; definitely, I would recommend ‘Transforming the Future’, edited by Riel Miller. And I could also suggest my latest handbook of foresight, strategy, and future studies for defense and security.

Chris: Awesome, thanks. I'll take all five of them. Gabriele, it's really great to have such a visionary futurist and innovator here in the show today. So I got a lot of questions for you, but let's start with the basics. As I learned, you founded the Swiss Center for Positive Futures. Now, the term ‘positive futures’ sounds like a deliberately chosen expression to me, so can you maybe, at first, please explain how you define the term ‘positive futures’.

Gabriele: First, you're exactly right here. It was a deliberate choice because we do not see positive as the opposite of negative. So it's about being all-encompassing; it's being able to involve all the aspects of a certain part that you're trying to study. And in this case, it's about having presence rather than the absence of the thing with distinguishing traits. So positive futures are all-encompassing and constructive. And you know, getting more in-depth in the content is also about the highest hope we can try to have.

“Positive futures are all-encompassing and constructive... it's about the highest hope we can try to have."

Chris: Got it. So it means all-encompassing and constructive. So does that mean that there are no negative futures? I suppose you get asked this question quite a lot, but just to confirm.

Gabriele: Absolutely. That's always the number one question I get. And no, you're not looking at this in the right way. You're attributing a judgment to negative futures. Positive futures is about holding back judgment and trying to integrate all the parts in this, you know, future orientation, this forward view that you're trying to build. It's also about reframing our narrative about the dark. The idea of positive futures is twofold. On the one hand, it’s about changing the way we think about the dark, and we use the dark to change it from a place filled up with monsters to a place that is a source of creativity and inspiration. On the other hand, it's about preparing the preconditions for a step-change in the long-term civilization. There's a lot of background; I'm sure we'll get into that later.

Chris: Got it. Okay, and aside from that question, whether or not there are negative futures, what is the number one or then maybe number two question you get asked all the time about positive futures, and what is your answer to it?

Gabriele: Well, definitely, the number one question is about the negative ones, and then it's ‘How do you do this?’. So how can you be so integrative, so all-encompassing and so high hoping for this kind of perspective. And in this case, there is a whole structure to it. The moment we're willing to create something that is so powerful and driving for people, then to create such a massive change and shift in the way we interpret civilization as an entire concept. There's something that can drive you, and in reframing the way we think about the dark, we understand that we can reframe the way we think about ourselves and hope. Hope is the most important driver we can have when exploring uncharted waters of uncertainty, unknown, and complexity. What can we hope for? There's a whole branch of philosophy about hope and how we can attribute value to hope, and we follow this approach that attributes a value to hope, the value of the object of hope. So, if you are into this approach, the highest value you can have is the divine. So what we can do is hope for the qualities of the divine. So we are able to impress this decisive, deliberate, and groundbreaking change in art or the direction of travel of our entire civilization over the long term, the moment we are hoping, or we are aspiring to the qualities of the divine. There’s an entire field in the philosophy of theology about the qualities of the divine, but these are all very practical. Because they're metaphors. To understand how we can interpret these qualities in a technology-driven, pragmatic, and actionable way, we have to be able to understand these directions as metaphors. So omnipresence, perfect knowledge, perfect goodness, and all the others. These are three, for instance, just off the top of my hand. We can interpret them as metaphors.

“Limits are what makes it possible to unleash the might of creativity.”

Metaphors are a very important part of the methodologies and techniques we use within the Swiss Center for Positive Futures. So, after that, we've got to reframe the narrative about the dark. The dark doesn't just have the outside part; it has an inside part - that's our inner dimensions. So one of the other things that we do is understand how our biases and resistances are driving us and are bounding our imagination and our creativity so that we are able to unleash this power by using these biases and resistances. Not anymore as boundaries, so something that’s just avoiding and stonewalling. The power to create, so from being boundaries to being limits - that’s the lines and the field where to play. Without the lines and the field, you can’t play; you don't know what games you're playing. But limits are what make it possible to unleash the might of creativity. And that's something that’s very dear to us in the way we're framing resistances and biases, as compasses, as limits, not as boundaries.

The Swiss Center For Positive Futures

Chris: That's great. Let's now get directly to the Swiss Center for Positive Futures. You are the founder and the Director of Research there. So what you just described, can I understand this to be the purpose and also the mission of that center?

Gabriele: That's a great question, Chris. And that also allows me to continue my sermon here. Because once we have this whole vision about positive futures, as I said, how do we actually implement this? Well, it turns out that what is crucial in this is the human part - having the human as the core of strategies and designs that are willing to aspire to positive futures. And so what we do at the center is to develop futures literacy for human sustainability toward positive futures.

Chris: Got it. How do you do this exactly? There’s probably a founding story to that center, I guess, and I’d be really interested to hear how come. How did you do that? Why at Lausanne? And then I’d also love to hear more about the actual implementations. But let’s start with the founding story first. 

Gabriele: Oh, there's a wonderful story behind the founding of the Swiss Center for Positive Futures, and I'm very happy to share this with you and our audience today. It all started before COVID and it seems ages ago. Before COVID, at Lausanne, there was a  Future Skills Lab - so the very seeds of futures thinking, very experimental, very ambitious, but also very niche. The founder of the Future Skills Lab, Isabelle Chappuis - who’s now the co-founder of the Swiss Center of Positive Futures - was willing to start her journey through futures and foresight. She founded the Executive Education Department and brought that to impressive heights at the University of Lausanne. Then people entered this other adventure, and she felt that futures were important in this, but she didn't quite have the grasp to work in futures. So she reached out to who is doing this in best possible way, which is in the defense world. And she reached out to the Head of the Swiss Armed Forces, who coincidentally is a friend of mine; it's a small crowd in the field of defense foresight. So she reached out to him, and he reached out to me, and we made the connection. What happened is that she wanted to do something about HR. And you can imagine that HR was not very entited for this. But she was extremely well prepared. She delivered a great pitch and the bottom line was: Well, look, education is our first line of defense. And I told her that she had done her homework.

Chris: So she used the word 'first line of defense’?

Gabriele: Exactly, and that’s how the journey started.

Chris: Beautiful. And on the topic of HR, I found that you, and I guess together with her, released a book on HR futures. Its title is ‘HR Futures 2030: A Design for Future-Ready Human Resources’. Can you tell me what future-ready HR looks like?

Gabriele: That's a wonderful question. We held a symposium on this. In just a few words: first of all, future-ready human resources will have to be complex to take advantage of the complexity of the environment. And by being organizational complex, then you are also able to be anti-fragile. So you are able to thrive under stress rather than break down. You’re not just withstanding stress - that’s being robust -  you transition to being anti-fragile. Now it's interesting to know that antifragility, as described by Nassim Taleb, is not about being able to control antifragility; it’s an emerging property. So to be anti-fragile, you have to give up control. Now, this is not something that most organizations would like to do. So that's the first point. You need to give away the right measure of control so that your organization can perform better in stressful times. And there is another couple of points. One is that we use metaphors in our work. So in the book, there's an entire chapter about mythology. We're using mythological figures as a means to grasp the incoming disruptions. Wittgenstein used to say that ‘the limits of my language are the limits of my world’. So to understand the new world, you need a new language. And how can we build this new language? - By using the language we have in a way it's not supposed to be used. And that's what metaphors are. Metaphors are a way to use language in a way it's not supposed to be used. And in our work on mythology, we're looking at the human-machine continuum by pinpointing five places. So we have demigods, centaurs, knights, minotaurs, and monks, depending on where you are on the human-machine continuum.

“You need to give away the right measure of control so that your organization can perform better in stressful times.“

Very important: there's no judgment in any of them. All of the five are very important for the entire organization. You can’t have an organization that’s just done by demigods or just by centaurs; you need all five figures. You need diversity, even in metaphors, even in complexity, and even in your organization. And then, we go through 22 new disciplines for the human resources function that’s ready for the 22nd century. And we look at several of the ways and means by which you can not just manage but empower your capital. And so we have, for instance, aspirations in life design. So that's something you can offer to your workforce, not employees, but the workforce. So, designing their entire career path, not just within the organization, but looking at their entire span of life. There's human autonomy teaming capital management, not just looking at humans and thinking of machines as part of your capital. There's something that no one was looking at when we wrote the book because we wrote the book before Meta and the Metaverse. We're looking at the mirror world, and we have employee branding and avatars as a function of the future-ready human resources. So there are plenty of prompts and cues for thinking in the book. And it’s very actionable.

Chris: It sounds like it is, and you can probably derive a lot of practical implications from that. And I guess this is tightly connected with something you touched on earlier in our conversation: human sustainability. I think there are many different aspects to that. Given that life expectancy - the time a human being will be on Earth - is rising, and I guess soon it will be no surprise anymore to see people getting to be 100 years or older as a new standard; how does this all connect? The increased life span for humans on Earth, then you have certainly a longer period in your life where you are working in several different organizations, plus touching human sustainability. So I guess this is all addressing and pointing toward one of the ultimate goals, which might be human sustainability. But how does it connect in detail?

Gabriele: You really hit the nail on the head here. The idea is that human sustainability is about increasing the importance of relevance of human beings, regardless of race, culture, and preferences of any kind. So is a more equitable, fair, and open way of growing as a civilization by putting humans at the center. So looking at human sustainability means understanding how we can maintain the relevance of humans in the future that's being even more disrupted by machines? That’s the point: Being able to anticipate these changes. Being able to develop a workforce and talents that are fit for the future is at the core of the work that we've done for HR Futures 2030. For instance, when you look at human predictive maintenance, the idea is to be able to have an evolution of what Stanford calls skilled prints. So the idea in the 2025 vision of Stanford is to have like these fingerprints, but for skills. How we see this, however, is not just having pictures of your skills because your skills evolve over time. The way you connect your skills is across time. To do this, it's very important to have this vision of skills evolving over time. We do that through what we call a skills DNA or a skill picture. So a sculpture, but with skills. That enables us to have these three-dimensional, spatial-temporal representations of skills for a single profile, so we’re able to capture these cross-correlations. If we're able to seize this, then we’re also able to develop and deliver much more meaningful strategies for human sustainability.

The long waves of innovation and futures planning

Chris: That sounds brilliant. Now, let's turn our focus maybe to some recent projects. Where do you actually apply these principles and these approaches for the better? Can you share some examples or cooperations? And what approaches did you use? How far did you look into the future? Was it 10 years, 20, 50, or 100 in that project?

Gabriele: We have several projects that are currently ongoing. One of them is with the Swiss Armed Forces, and it's called Tech Plus. Because when you look at technology foresight, it's not just tech; it's plus. So Tech Plus looks at what we call a technology spectrum. We’re the Center of Positive Futures, but we're also part of several NATO research task groups. I'm in several of them. One of them is how technology can change the way we look at the future operating environment. How technology developments can impact the future operating environment. Now, a nice trivia is that this group was once called Tech Rocks with an entire acronym. But I mean the idea is that looking at a technology, you need to understand what's at the core of technology; what’s the ontological existence of technology when it comes to understanding how the nature of technology will evolve in a time of exponential progress. And the nature of technology is that it’s something that lets us interact with nature. So to understand how technology evolves or can evolve, you have to look at what are the possible or impossible developments of technology. You have to look at how you can understand nature. And there's this technology spectrum that's about space, time perception, permission, and choice. That is one of the ways we are looking at pushing the envelope of future status by looking at radical notions today. 

“By definition, nothing that's less than ten years is foresight. So if you're doing foresight, the minimum is ten years.”

How far do we look? That's an interesting question. By definition, nothing that's less than ten years is foresight. So if you're doing foresight, the minimum is ten years. So it can be a matter of conversation when you hear the industry saying that their strategic horizon is five years or three years. I would argue that in that case, what you're doing is not a strategy; you're executing the present. So how far can you pick to look forward then? There's research that the time you need to grasp an entirely new capability is twenty years. So from the moment you think of having a big red button on your desk to the moment you can have the big red button on your desk is about twenty years. So a capability development wave, as it's called, is a twenty years timespan. So either you look at multiples of 20, or you can look at infrastructure development waves. Research shows that infrastructure develops over waves of 55 years. That's the timespan of a Kondratieff wave. So if you look at the development of the railway, for instance, in the United States, it took 110 years. Setting up the infrastructure for air travel took 55 years to develop. So either it’s multiple 20, or it’s multiple 55.

Chris: Understood. On the Kondratieff waves: Isn’t it true that the cycles of the Kondratieff waves actually are getting shorter over time? I mean, yes, 55 years might be our assumption for now. But given technological progress and maybe even exponential acceleration, does that still hold true in the future that you're trying to project?

Gabriele: Chris, I love this question because it gets to a halfway explanation of why Kondratieff waves will still be 55 years. Because it’s true that we do have an exponential acceleration of technology. In this sense, what we are able to achieve compresses exponentially. It's also true, however, that the intensity of the wave increases exponentially. So what we are able to achieve with one infrastructural wave is not what we were able to do with the previous infrastructural wave. I'll give you an example. There's a lot of discussion about using modeling and simulation for design and accelerating the 20-year capability waves. People show how they can reproduce previous developments in like five years. And that's the entire point. So you're able to use the next wave technology to compress the previous wave, and that's perfectly fine. But the point is, where is it that you can land by using that 20-year technology to develop that way? What I'm saying is the way the time is fixed. It’s the intensity that increases exponentially, so we will still have infrastructural waves and capability waves that long, but what we'll be able to achieve at the very end is exponentially more.

Chris:  Okay, got it. That makes sense. Can you talk about some of the methodologies you are applying in the project with the Swiss Armed Forces? Is it a rather qualitative or a quantitative approach? Is there some mixing between qualitative and quantitative data? 

Gabriele: We have a very broad toolbox. So I'm coming up with more than a couple of 100 techniques and methodologies from the defense world. The idea is that we are able to tailor a single pipeline for each of the issues we have, so there's not a single methodology that we're using every time because otherwise, you will have someone going around with a hammer and everything they see is a nail. You can’t do that in defense because failure in that sector usually means people will die. So you have to be extremely careful in tackling problems in the defense world. So I'm bringing this attitude and posture to what I do with governments, education, academia, and business. So I'm looking at problems in the broadest way possible so that we can deliver something specific to that problem. Now, most of the issues in foresight go through brainstorming, a lot of literature review, and understanding signals. We are part of the Association of Professional Futures; we latch on to the foresight competency model. We go through the six-step competency model. We can deliver the exact things to the exact place, so designing, scanning, future visioning, and the final part of delivering. So is it qualitative or quantitative? There’s no matter of fact about the future, first data’s law. So it can be quantitative. It is qualitative, always; can it be quali-quantitative? To a point. Well, if you’re doing something that is very in-depth, you can imagine starting to create key performance indicators, for instance, a portfolio of scenarios. 

"Scenario planning is about delivering a portfolio of scenarios around some dimensions. You decide on several dimensions, and then you explore your ability to create worlds that respond to these knobs being turned."

If you do scenario planning, you are not merely focusing on one scenario but potentially several ones simultaneously. Scenario planning is about delivering a portfolio of scenarios around some dimensions. You decide on several dimensions, and then you explore your ability to create worlds that respond to these knobs being turned. If you do this in-depth, you can also look for quantitative indicators within each of the scenarios and then look across scenarios to understand the impact. And that can be sort of quantitative, because if you're looking across 64 scenarios, for instance, you're able to assess the impact of several factors across them. Then you do have some metrics on the perceived importance of some factors across this range of scenarios.

Chris: So, like a cross-impact matrix, for example, and other techniques that can be used. But of course, they rely on human judgment, don’t they?

Gabriele: They do.

Chris: All right. I could listen to you for many more hours, and we've already come far in this episode. It's just about time to wrap it up. But before we do that, I have two more questions that I would like your answers to. Number one is: What is your take on the future if you had a crystal ball to use? What can we expect on the broader horizon?

Gabriele: That's a great question. I'll pick it up from one of my latest keynotes. So I'd say that 100 years from now, we would have been able to work and react faster than light travel. So because there are significant signals today and being able to travel faster than the light of the astronomical trajectory of our civilization will open up to a way we are unable to grasp as of today. That silence across the universe is also a signal that we are too far behind the entire universe's level of development. So going faster than light helps and facilitates the understanding of how serious Mother Nature is about the speed of light. The goal is to provide all civilizations on Earth and the solar system with something to use and play with.

Chris: That is beautiful, and indeed that would be a radical thing humanity would look out for. Last but not least, I need to ask you the signature rockstar question. Looking back at your career, Gabriele, what was your most impactful innovation rockstar moment so far?

Gabriele: I was in a location in Colorado, and I was with the chief scientist of the Space Force, and we were running a workshop on space futures. That was in November 2019. We were running this workshop with many people running around the room with sticky notes all over the place. The entire room was packed, and you could feel the buzz in the air of something great happening. He eventually called me to his side and said: "Look, Michelangelo had stone, Leonardo had inventions, and you’ve got post-its. You’re the Michelangelo of post-its."

Chris: That's brilliant. And that sounds like a great rockstar moment, Gabriele. And with that, we wrap up this episode with the Michelangelo of post-its. Thank you for taking the time and being part of Innovation Rockstars.

Gabriele: A great pleasure, Chris. Thanks for having me. 

Chris: To everybody listening or watching, if you liked the show, leave us a rating or a review and share the podcast with friends and colleagues. And if you want to get in touch, simply shoot us a message at That's it! Thanks for your time, and 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. Dr. Gabriele Rizzo is Director of Research of the Swiss Center for Positive Futures at the University of Lausanne.

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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