Thinking ahead: Futures researcher Markku Wilenius

Since the end of 2007, Professor Markku Wilenius has been working as a consultant to the Allianz management on questions regarding the future. As senior vice president, Group Development of Allianz SE, he is working to expand the company's academic network. The 45-year-old scholar from Finland managed the Finland Futures Research Center at the Turku School of Economics for several years, and is a member of the Club of Rome, an international non-governmental organization which advocates long-term global thinking and action.

Markku Wilenius: "Futures studies is much more than simply gazing into a crystal ball"

Futures studies is much more than simply gazing into a crystal ball. The discipline not only identifies future developments and risks, but provides suggestions as how to react to them. Labeling major economic, technical or social trends is just the first step. The key question that follows is: How do individual lives change in light of this knowledge?

Naturally, insurers are always very busy estimating possible risks. What is the likelihood of our having a severe storm? What do the accident statistics say about traffic? Or: What danger do terrorist organizations represent? The entire business model of the insurance industry is based on such calculations.

The interaction between customers and insurance companies was also technical for a long time. The one paid their premiums on time, the other reliably adjusted claims. Personal contacts were the exception. That's no longer how things are done these days. Today, insurance customers expect – and rightly so – that their providers also perform immaterial services, so-called "assistance services", and incorporate their expertise in their consulting and services. Thus it is also always immensely important for companies like Allianz to give some thought to the customers of the future, and to changing needs and preferences.

I wouldn't put it that way. That's a little too short-sighted in my opinion. Naturally, Allianz is first and foremost a profit- and growth-oriented company that deals with a certain commodity. However, this commodity is not so tangible. We are not a computer manufacturer that can say: "Look at this nice high-tech toy we made."

Allianz's area of business is a "business of care." The challenge lies in building trust in the company and its promise, which is namely to provide support. Here, futures studies can be a source of ideas. How can the Allianz brand stay attractive over the long term? How can it meet future customer requirements, without losing sight of its long and rich tradition? This involves a great deal of responsibility which goes far beyond the administration of insurance policies.

Companies can only be successful if they increasingly perform social tasks

Companies can only be successful if they increasingly perform social tasks as well, and demonstrate a certain commitment to the community. Compared to the US and my native Finland, Germany has not yet come very far in this regard. Both the politics and the people here often look upon initiatives organized by the private sector with skepticism.

The companies themselves are at least partially responsible for this. For a long time, they did not recognize all of the socially relevant expertise present in their own companies, among their own staff, and how they could use it responsibly. My understanding of corporate re-sponsibility is as follows: If we identify problems, we must also take part in their solutions.

Let's take the demographic trends and their effects on the social security system. The fact that the public coffers are empty and that social security payments are therefore anything but secure is no secret. This is where so-called "public-private partnerships" come in. A good example is the Riester pension, in which government aid dovetails with a private-sector product.

For insurers, the subject of pension plans naturally represents a great business opportunity but also an area where they could contribute significant expertise. Companies with extensive experience, such as Allianz, have expertise in the development of forward-looking solutions that does not exist anywhere else. The research, which is ultimately beneficial to the general public, is accelerated quite significantly when business and science work together.

What exactly will dominate the future agenda is hard to say. Just think: Ten years ago, who would have predicted the everyday risk of terrorist attacks or the significance of the Internet? A very important topic – probably the biggest challenge of our century – is the observation of the global climate, a research discipline which, by the way, had only began to be taken seriously in the 1990s. Industrial nations such as Germany play a pioneering role here – and must continue to do so in the future!

Incidentally, the subject of climate change offers another opportunity to underscore the importance of cooperation between public and private players. A current example is our cooperation with the nature conservation organization World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). Internationally active companies like Allianz could start "wake-up calls" and campaigns that reach across national and political borders. This would be in our own interest as well. The message behind the somewhat cumbersome term "sustainability" – or in other words using our resources efficiently and thinking about what we really need in the future – must be reflected in everything we do.

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