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Merging Human Insight and Technological Foresight

April 9, 2018

Mikkel Rasmussen is one of the co-founders of ReD Associates, a group of social scientists who work with big companies to help them better understand their market and clients through human sciences. The best ideas, according to Mikkel, come from a true interest in the real world and a deep exploration into human behavior. His work has led to several disruptive technologies and products in markets such as toys, sports goods, healthcare, and more. This March, Mikkel taught a masterclass as part of our EMBA in Creative Leadership. We had the chance to chat about the intersection between social sciences and business, as well as the ethics of data.

Tell us a bit about your work with ReD Associates...

I'm one of the founders of ReD Associates based in Copenhagen, New York, and London. We are a group of social human scientists that work with big businesses to help them grow and discover their future by helping them understand people on a deeper level. We do this by applying human sciences like anthropology, humanities, sociology, and so on to big business problems

Through your masterclass, you presented a number of case studies that demonstrated how effective these approaches are. Was it challenging, in the beginning, to convince these big companies of the importance of observing their clients through the lens of humanities?

When we started the company almost 15 years ago, applying human sciences to big business problems was not ordinary. It was strange. Most businesses were used to making decisions on quantitive research and never really engaged on a deeper level. A lot of companies have research departments that conduct marketing research on an individual product level, but it was not applied to big decisions such as strategy or digital investments.

A lot of the observational research is based on data, but data is becoming more and more of a controversial issue, if you will. Will we see a shift in how responsible companies are with data?

That is a huge question. I think we will, but I can't predict where and when it will happen. In the social sciences, you talk about two types of data. First, there's data – numbers on people. For instance, when do you use your phone, how do much you shop etc. Then there's understanding; why do you do the things you do? It doesn't really matter how much data you have if you don't have a understanding. You can't really apply it to good decision-making. I think one of the things we're going to see more of, and this is something we are currently working on, is human sciences working with the hard sciences to make sense of this data. It could be anything from traffic patterns in the city to how people become healthy or feel better in hospitals, how to help kids to learn more, and so on. You'll see a merger of the human sciences and the natural sciences in extracting understanding out of data.

In doing that, I think it's interesting now that in this year, many companies like Facebook end up on the front page with questions over their ethics and whether it is a good or sustainable business model. There's a good debate, but where it goes, I don't know. Many big businesses are making money by giving you free stuff for only your data. If one thing is for sure, it's that this model has a limit – a social limit. First of all, 'do you want to be surveyed'? Second of all, 'how much contact do you want to have with these companies'? That's a social issue not just a tech issue.

A lot of your findings, particularly those focussing on young people, are fascinating because they challenge preconceived ideas of what we expect young people and kids to want. Is there a healthy exchange between the sociological world and the business world, or do they remain exclusive?

We have a very simple idea. You can change the world in three ways: You can revolt, you can vote for a party and hope the government will fix it, or you can work with the commercial world to work with them to make it better. All three are great means to change the world. We work mostly with corporations, not only to make them profitable but to make them more humane. We help them build services and products that are meaningful and helpful. I think it's very old thinking to split the world into two with the commercial sector that's only interested in money and the public sector that's only for common good.

I think most companies have a bigger drive. There's a purpose there. For instance, the sports companies like Adidas that I discussed in my session. Sure, they're making money through shoes but they also want more people to change their lives through sports; to use the power of sports to change our world. It's not a bad thing to make a good running shoe, as well as getting people to run and be healthier. What I'm interested in is when the social and the business angles meet.