Photos by Jelka von Langen
Questions by Frank Wagner
Johannes Kleske, 38, is a strategy consultant and futures researcher. He has spent the last ten years investigating possible futures of work, communications, and cities with a critical perspective. His mission is to give people agency in an increasingly complex world. He is co-CEO (with Igor Schwarzmann) of Berlin-based strategy consultancy Third Wave; founded in 2010, the company advises clients including Deutsche Bahn, Alucobond, BVG, Peta and Postbank. In his talks, Kleske advocates a confident and considered approach to the digital transformation.
Johannes, to kick things off I’d like to take a brief look at your life up to now. How did you become a digital “thought leader”?
That’s not a term I’m keen on. For me, thought leader conjures up an image of a remote philosopher, sitting alone in his room and devising new theories. I see the world more as a network in which people, shaped by those around them, do many different things. While few of those things are actually new, innovations do emerge from the network. In this context, I see my role as observing movements at the periphery of the network, connecting and communicating them. Like a cross between a scout and a translator.
I have always been driven by the desire to gather information and knowledge, always on the lookout for the next trend. That was how I discovered computers during my teenage years, then the internet and blogging at the turn of the millennium another huge step in the direction of the network I mentioned above. I still have fond feelings of nostalgia for the time when blogs first appeared. We would write pieces nearly every day and read other people’s articles, comment on them and meet more and more often at conferences and BarCamps (conferences where the agenda is decided by the attendees). It was here that I met my later co-founder of Third Wave, the consultancy company we founded in 2010, which still focuses on discovering, evaluating and communicating innovations.
Evaluating has come to play an increasingly prominent role. For me, it’s no longer about discovering something new and making it available. I also seek to challenge developments, not because I’m against them on principle but because I believe that in many cases we can do better. Much of the debate over technology in Germany is centred on the dichotomy of technological determinism progress is inevitable and will solve problems somehow or other versus technological pessimism progress is bad and ruins everything. However, what’s actually happening is that people are no longer interested in examining the social consequences of technology in greater detail, meaning that no ideas are put forward as to how things can be designed better. I therefore increasingly see my role as offering critical assessments and making more suggestions as to how we can deal with innovations with greater self-awareness and reflection.
Digitalisation, or rather the unrestricted exploitation of its possibilities, has made us transparent to the providers of this technology. Our actions leave traces, eroding any safe havens for our personal identity. Digitalisation has consumed our lives more than any other technology before it. When did you become aware that this development was inescapable?
One of the most important strategies in my approach to the digital world is not necessarily to stem the increase in complexity, but rather to learn how to withstand and handle it. Seeking to simplify the complex often leads to false representations and conclusions. This allows digital technologies to better observe and portray certain certain being the operative word! behavioural patterns. And without wanting to come to the defence of tech companies or the Secret Service, I would question whether we really have become completely transparent. It’s an issue worth considering when companies and services try to make use of records of our behaviour be it as recommendations on Amazon or metadata on drone strikes. But whatever form those attempts take, a lot still tends to go wrong. Not just because algorithms are still significantly less smart than the industry would have us believe, but also because as individuals, we are much more complex. We have moods, we live in diverse contextual scenarios which can change from minute to minute. We are often unsure in our own minds, changing our opinion more often than we probably care to admit. In short, we are very far from being mathematically calculable machines.
And it is for precisely this reason that our bodies will remain the definitive shelter for our personal identities, despite all the progress made in neuroscience.
have much more of a problem with the fact that we are moving in a direction where a digital representation of my behaviour is taken at face value as my actual behaviour, and decisions are taken based on this. “You clicked such-and-such, so you must be left-wing.” “You ordered this material online, so you’re obviously a terrorist bomb-maker!” “Your mobile phone was in the same cellular network as known rebels, so they must know you.”