5 things foresight can learn from Kalevala

Kalevala, the national epic of Finland, is 181 years old and the poems it contains date even further back into history. Despite its age, it contains stories and insights that are relevant even today, even for a future-oriented foresight professional. Here are five things foresight can learn from Kalevala.

1. Metaphors

Kalevala contains numerous metaphors and expressions that can prove useful when describing alternative futures. This is of course true for any piece of literature with colorful language, but the classics have had more time to influence our language and the metaphors they contain are thus more accessible and widely recognized. Country-specific classics, such as Kalevala, are especially useful sources of metaphors, as they will help paint the images of futures with colors familiar in the local cultural context. Will the future of Finland be one where we are sung to the swamp or will we forge a new mythical Sampo? In addition to providing metaphors, Kalevala and other great works of literature help to connect the metaphor to the bigger picture. What will happen to the Sampo? Why are we being sung to the swamp?

2. The power of the word

In many of the stories in Kalevala, especially those that describe the acts of Väinämöinen, emphasise the power that is captured in words. The right words can be used to whisk reluctant smiths to Pohjola and to defeat arrogant Joukahainen. Words are more powerful than swords. In a similar vein, the words that are used in foresight and when making scenarios influence how the future is perceived. Are we currently in a immigrant crisis, in an uncontrollable flood of refugees, or are we in a situation of helping those in need? Words frame the view to the future and restrict what is seen as possible and plausible.

3. The importance of knowing the origin of things

In addition to knowing individual words, it is important to know their history. This is depicted as the path to controlling the thing the word represents. Iron bends to the will of the smith, when its birth is described and bleeding is stopped when the reason for the cut is known. In foresight, knowing the hostory of concepts and words is important in order to understand how it has been shaped in the past. In order to have room for new interpretations and perceptions, foresight is often about challenging the present. But in order to do that, knowing the past – and the origin – is vital.

4. Whole from the parts

Kalevala consists of poems, which have been collected all over Finland. Elias Lönnrot edited a somewhat coherent whole from the many poems, describing a mythical and long-gone but still somewhat familiar world. Similarly, although on a much smaller scale, images of futures are formed drawing from multiple sources and the opinions of various stakeholders, resulting in a neatly packaged set of scenarios or similar. However, it is beneficial to understand that this outcome has been made by someone and at least implicitly represents the views of that someone (or someones), in much the same way that Lönnrot decided to include some versions of the poems instead of others and emphasise some thing more than others.

5. Reinterpretation

The whole from the parts is always open for reinterpretation. Even though the language of Kalevala may seem to be a bit dated nowadays, its stories are reflected over and over again both in arts as well as in political debates. Metaphors and stories are powerful and will live on and shape our action and consequently our future. This is worth keeping in mind in foresight.