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The Dream Society

| Text: Björn Lindahl

Rolf Jensen is the Director of The Copenhagen Institute for Future Studies. It is one of the world’s largest institutes for creating scenarios and making forecasts about the future. Nevertheless, at a meeting, he was unable to answer a simple question from one of his clients: What will follow the information society?

After reassuring the client that the information society surely wouldn’t disappear that quickly, this presumably rather embarrassed director of future studies began to formulate an answer. It became a task that eventually involved large parts of the Institute.The answer is presented in the book entitled «The Dream Society».

The thesis put forward is that it is no longer sufficient for companies to compete in terms of price and quality only. Goods need a story. As an example, Jensen cites that eggs from free range hen have won half the market for eggs in Denmark in spite of them being 10-15 % dearer than ordinary eggs. Consumers don’t like hens being imprisoned in small cages. Even though the quality of the eggs is no better than that from battery hens, consumers prefer the eggs with the best story.

According to Jensen, the sun has already begun to set on the information society. Whereas the agricultural society lasted for 10 000 years, and the industrial society lasted 200 years, the information society will be even more shortlived.

Perhaps only a few more decades will be needed to automate most intellectual effort. What shall we do then?
The answer is that we still have feelings.The most successful companies are those that can weave a story around their products together with their consumers.

The motorcycle manufacturer Harley-Davidson nowadays sells a complete lifestyle of rebels, independence and freedom. Special Harley Owners Groups have 360 000 members.
One of the most important aspects of products in the future will thus be stories. Businesses turning over billions of dollars can be based around the best stories. While Bill Gates personifies the Information Society, Steven Spielberg is the person who comes closest to embodying the Dream Society.

Today, those who manipulate data earn most money. Tomorrow it will be the storytellers.

You have only to look at the British author J. K. Rowling’s enormous success with the Harry Potter books, which are bought as much by adults as by children! But it is not just authors who tell stories. Sportspeople, musicians,TV
presenters and comedians are already topping the high-earnings lists. Company bosses who justify their salaries on the basis that football players earn even more, have not understood what is taking place. Football players are the new entrepreneurs.

The Dream Society is an effervescent book, written with a lot of humour. It asks important questions about the professions of the future and the ways it might be possible to manage companies’ intellectual capital.

The one shortcoming is that most of the book is anecdotal. Rolf Jensen doesn’t go into detail and describe the costs involved in creating a company story, and how they are apportioned. He refers to a pharmaceuticals company looking for genetic resources in the Amazon region, and writes that well-to-do countries are materially rich but poor when it comes to myths. He predicts that Greenland’s principle export in 2025 will be legends and sagas, and that the Australian Aborigines will earn more from their legends than the current turnover of the entire Australian raw materials industry.

Just as with genetic resources there are however major problems with respect to patent rights – and exaggerated notions of how much the aboriginal population or emerging nations will actually earn. One of the few studies that have been made (by the International Plant Genetic Resource Institute, 1995) reckons that just 0.025% of the end price of a new pharmaceutical will go to those that supplied the genetic raw material.

It would have been interesting if Jensen had taken a look at how much the Disney corporation is willing to pay for its raw materials, mainly stolen from the Grimm Brothers’ collections of German sagas.

The Danes, with their H. C. Andersen, have always appreciated a good story. But, occasionally, the story of the Dream Society is too good to be true.

This article was published in October 2000

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