I am working on a presentation on global trends for a large private bank and its clients. For me it’s quite nostalgic as a task - a throwback to 10 years ago. Back to when I was invited to apply for the role as “head of trends” at a TV station finding future hot topics that could lead to TV programme and/or audience opportunities. I was flattered to be asked (it’s a cool sounding job at a creative, trendy company). But I could immediately see a problem with long term job security: ie how to have a second year in that job? (given that most predictions fail to come true).
Perhaps getting it right didn’t matter. The trend I saw discussed most often at the time in client meetings was “cocooning”. Whereas the study of American time use for the 1990s showed that people spent more time at work and in commute and dramatically less time at home. Fact didn’t seem in this case to get in the way of a good theory. (The other “hot trend” at this time being “the Y2K bug”). Even if it doesn’t matter though it bothered me at some level to be producing potentially misleading predictions – out of professional pride.
During the “new economy” years, I did have regular consulting work on trends reporting to clients – particularly in the area of new media. This would be used to fuel innovation. Here it was a matter of stimulating new thinking rather than definite predictions. Management consultants told me they were taking me to meetings to “add wow!” The bottom seemed to drop out of that market after the dotcom crash. People became wary of wild blue skies prophesies that “the internet changes everything” or (from John Chambers at Cisco) that “eLearning will make email look like a rounding error”
What people meant then by trends was a kind of “management fad”. In one workshop instead of using my prepared presentation on key trends I asked the participants to come up with their own list; only to discover they got to 9 out of 10 of my list. This was because we were all parroting the consensus – the ideas that were doing the rounds. For instance “mass customisation”. The role of a trends consultant would be to ensure that this particular client was up to date on that consensus. It’s a pretty fair methodology, especially in any area where the predictions have a tendency to be self-fulfilling (as they are in financial markets). But despite the much-vaunted wisdom of crowds, the consensus is seldom exactly “cutting edge”.
I’m not going to rule out the possibility that some futurists have a genuine spooky, prescient ability to “read the future”. Some I have met have often struck me as “prophetic types” – complete with wild eyes, strange moods and hairstyles or mad dress sense to match.
What interests me more than the content of trends though is the methodology. The famous astrologer Nostradamus had a surprisingly scientific method. In simple terms he assumed that astrological correspondences ensured that history would repeat itself. When the celestial patterns associated with for instance Julius Caesar were repeated then there would be “a new Julius Caesar”.
Leaving astrology aside, it is perfectly valid to ask questions like “what happened last time we experienced xyz”. A few years ago it was current to wonder about what changes a recession would bring to brands; something I built into my Green Marketing presentations. For instance in a recession you usually see a cultural regression to past certainties – the comforting and familiar. In the UK we drink more coffee in boom times and more tea in downturns.
In any article on trends you must of course have “ a 10 point list”. Not to disappoint, here are some of the other methods I’ve deployed in innovation and similar work (methods that happen to be associated with predicting or interpreting “trends” but are more generally useful):
1. Fashionability: looking at what is in the American term “trendy” or “cool”…. (The only catch being discerning which avant-garde trends will go mainstream, or prove lasting).
2. “Say goodbye too”: I’ve often found it’s sharper and more revealing to look at what we wont be doing in future. I once predicted we’d “say goodbye to luggage” (because of the risks and costs associated with travel, ideas would travel more than people).
3. the remake: the recent return to 3D cinema would have been a great thing to predict (most predictions on the future of games ten years ago saw new fangled interfaces like the hologram, or the virtual reality headset, but not this).
4. Sci-fi. I predict that in future we will wear data tags and these will shape what we can access – for instance whether we are given access to shops, clubs, offers. The killer application will be in dating and socialising (I don’t know if this will happen… but it’s horrific enough as a prospect to make good sci-fi!).
5. Logical conclusions of long running changes. For instance I once predicted to Coca Cola that they (as the American Dream brand) could start to struggle in The Chinese Century.
6. Cross-pollinate. My suggestion back to the TV company was that instead of hiring me as trends analyst, that we convene a forum of leading innovators from different creative industries (you know what the ‘in colour’ will be for 2012 if you work in fashion – because you are already ordering the fabric).
7. Counter trends. Take a dominant trend and reverse it. For instance the recent American trend to “Domestic Goddess” was a natural counter-reaction to the last 50 years of feminism.
8. Curation. Pick any old theme and bombard blog readers or clients with current examples. (The insight being that we really learn from and copy the examples, not the general themes).
9. Combination. Take the client field plus a trend from another sector and create a new hybrid. For instance I can imagine iPhone style “apps” being added to my internet bank account?
10. The underlying pattern. This is the only type of trend that genuinely interests me – and is what I’ll mainly cover in my upcoming bank presentation. “Co-opportunity” (the book I brought out last year) was about one such trend: a new pattern of collaboration in networks (social networks, but also in real communities) – taking in examples as diverse as Obama’s election campaign, microcredit and crowd sourcing.
The truth about trends? The future is as baffling, beautifully unpredictable and compelling as a new baby arriving in a settled family. Of course we look forward to this arrival. But proper response to the topic of trends is perhaps using it as a way to see past the tyranny of past habits of thoughts, and inculcate a fresh way of looking at the present?
John Grant is author of Co-opportunity (Jan10) and the award winning 'Green Marketing Manifesto' (Oct07), and three previous books. John was a co-founder of St Luke's the socially aware ad agency and is the co-founder of Ecoinomy which applies community self organising principles and social web platforms to greening the office through behaviour change. Contact me at john.grant(AT)ecoinomy.com