Forecasting the future

Karndee Leopairote near monitors in FutureTales Lab

In a world brimming with uncertainty, Dr. Karndee Leopairote stands at the forefront of futuristic thinking, offering a beacon of insight in an ever-evolving landscape. Leopairote’s forecasts are not guesswork; they are rooted in data, facts, trends, and figures, bolstered by her reputation as a leader and scholar. As chief foresight and digital assets officer for Thailand’s FutureTales Lab, Leopairote drives foresight and innovation to help navigate the complexities of tomorrow.

Located in Bangkok, FutureTales Lab (FTL) is a pioneering research center that brings together experts from various fields to explore future trends and scenarios, informing strategic planning and innovation. By gathering, analyzing, and interpreting data, FTL forecasts likely futures in sustainability, leisure, work, living, and mobility. These insights provide windows into possible challenges and solutions at local, regional, and global scales, guiding leaders in making strategic decisions and developing new solutions to shared problems. The lab collaborates with academic institutions, businesses, and government agencies to create a comprehensive understanding of potential futures and foster proactive solutions. FTL was established in 2020 by Magnolia Development Corporation Limited (MQDC), one of Thailand’s leading property developers.

“We always think how factors are going to impact 10 years down the road, but more importantly, we think about consequences and then consider what our actions should be today,” Leopairote said. “We share this information and hope that this will trigger actions in different aspects at different levels.”

Even with ample data, forecasting the future can be daunting. Leopairote explained that her team often starts with a macro view of a problem before breaking it down into smaller gradients to be considered on national, regional, and city levels, while also exploring the issue through numerous lenses.

For example, when examining income inequality, Leopairote and her team look beyond surface-level economic issues, focusing on factors like technological disruption, which can rapidly leave others behind if they cannot adopt new platforms.

“Especially in the Thai context, if you cannot become a smart user of technology, you’re practically going to be left behind,” Leopairote said. “We point out that for so-called underprivileged people to move into the privileged category, they must do so within a certain time period, or they will be left behind, making life difficult for them and their children.”

“We don’t see every detail in the futures, but it helps us understand enough about where action should be taken,” she added.

As someone involved in forecasting future scenarios, Leopairote sees areas for optimism, particularly in the willingness to acknowledge and act on challenges.

“I’m hopeful for the future, to be honest. I see change, especially with younger generations. People are more active and receptive to bad news and react quickly, which is much better than before when there was a lack of willingness if the immediate present was not impacted.”

Leopairote’s journey toward the future

Leopairote’s career has spanned academia and the private sector, marked by her courageous pursuit of new opportunities and intellectual challenges.

Leopairote was an assistant professor at her alma mater, Thammasat University, from 2003 to 2014. Her experience includes roles such as executive director of the Thammasat Business Consulting Center (2005–2009), director of the Future Innovative Thailand Institute (2013–2016), and managing director of C asean (2015–2017), where she led efforts to catalyze the startup ecosystem across Southeast Asia. She also holds leadership roles in organizations such as ICORA Asia, the Creative Economy Agency, and the Electronic Transactions Development Agency.

“I’m grateful that while I was teaching at Thammasat University, they allowed faculty to pursue additional opportunities beyond instruction, research, and publishing,” Leopairote said. “They were supportive of engaging in consultancy and advising. So, at a point I decided I wanted to shift and gain a broader perspective, to create something or initiate something.”

Leopairote continues to maintain a strong relationship with Thammasat University, regularly returning to campus to lecture.

Industrial engineering at UW–Madison

Leopairote first became familiar with UW–Madison during her senior year of high school while studying abroad in Dorr, Michigan. She was encouraged to consider UW by her aunt in Chicago, and a visit to the campus left a lasting impression. Despite enrolling at Thammasat University in industrial engineering, UW–Madison remained on her mind, leading her to return for her master’s and PhD in industrial engineering.

While at UW, Leopairote connected with fellow scholars, particularly enjoying an engineering club where peers socialized over pizza and discussed improving concepts in the field. She also valued hearing from alumni who shared their experiences with current students.

“What I like about UW–Madison is that the university is very big, so it gives you a lot of opportunities to learn outside of your chosen field. I was able to pursue not only engineering but also courses in business and computer science.”

She fondly recalls Professor Urban Wemmerlöv, professor emeritus of operations and information management.

“Professor Wemmerlöv was the toughest guy ever,” Leopairote said. “Many students asked me why I took his course since it was so difficult. But I like tough challenges and appreciated that the course was cross-shared by both the School of Engineering and the School of Business. This opened me up to business and management perspectives.”

Leopairote maintains connections with professors Wemmerlöv and Raj Veeramani from industrial and systems engineering, staying in touch with them to this day.

“Returning and connecting with past professors—it feels like family,” Leopairote said. “Madison is just a loving place.”