For a child who grew up in the 80s, with the obligatory bad taste in hair, music and clothes, I remember reading these fantastical books on tomorrow’s world. They were full of vivid illustrations of moon bases, of flying cars, and mega cities. The future that was illustrated was bright, full optimism, with unlimited resources and boundless imagination.
Over the past few days I’ve been collating and evaluating future trends for 2012, with a view to providing a curated service for clients at work. There are number of findings that were uncovered that lends weight to a more pragmatic and dare I say it less optimistic view of humanity and the future:
- Future trends from different sources have certain common themes at the core with more outlandish thinking at the edges
- Big future thinking of the past has been replaced by smaller ideas
- Real value in trend prediction comes not from focusing on technology but giving equal weighting to social-political and economic influences
Boxing up Trends
What was surprising going through the number of trend reports was the commonality on certain themes. Whilst sources sometimes contradicted themselves on a perspective, it was easy to box up the points of views into broader themes. For example, in our increasingly connected online lives, there is a whole range of thinking as to how this will be develop in the future, from the concept of Big Data where everything about a consumer’s habits is known and used, to the always on, always available flow of data at our finger tips.
But what was of interest within the context of this broader theme of digital were those contrary examples that went against the grain of conventional trend thinking. For example we uncovered examples of consumers fetishising the physical. As our music, films, photos, and memories (Facebook Timeline) become increasingly intangible in nature, there is a subtle move to get back to the tangible.
Another interesting example that ran counter to an all pervasive connected life was the concept of embracing ‘cold spots’, e.g. people deliberately seeking to find or create a space where they are temporarily disconnected from disruption.
It was these left field trends that in my opinion provide the real validation of the broader trend themes that we uncovered, that elevated them from the superficial and the trivial.
Sum of Parts
What has struck me, and I still don’t know the answer, is whether the big ideas on future thinking have given way to smaller ideas. The big ideas of my childhood revolved around a bright future for humanity, with unlimited resources, increased leisure time, and expansive exploration into space. A lot of the trends we evaluated and rejected from our 2012 curated list wereÂ narrow in scope. They were too focused on innovation in a particular product or service space that meant it was difficult to truly disassociate them from their origins and elevate them to a broader trend. If, for example, tougher plastics are the future how is that applicable to the categories of trends?
Perhaps the sum of these smaller ideas are greater then the whole? This could be regarded as a positive step by demonstrating that innovation and change is more diffuse and democratic. That a broad base of smaller ideas and concepts shape the future. Or it could be that the big vision, much like the thinking around big government in the 1960-80′s, became passÃ©.
The End of History
It’s been over 20 years since Francis Fukuyama wrote that with the fall of communism, a new chapter in humanity had arrived and that the future would be characterised by boredom in the absence of conflict. Political philosopher John Gray argued that the trouble with Fukuyama’s assertion, was that it rooted in the myth that humanity was on the path to reaching a universal set of values and institutions.
As progress continues, these supposedly hard-headed people believe the gains that have been made in the past will be conserved, while lingering evils will gradually diminish.
Current political, economic, and sociological events paint a very different picture to such a utopian vision.
However, it is these (gradual or seismic) shifts in socio-political and economic in values and institutions that contextualises trend thinking. When curating the list of trends, talking about technological advancements in isolation is of little value. Real value comes from assessing the impact of these technologies will have socio-political and economic life and vice versa.
A good example would be a trend towards self diagnosis and lifestyle monitoring. With an ageing population, and the rising cost of health care, governments, insurance companies, and employers are already giving serious consideration towards people taking responsibility themselves for monitoring their health.
In this uncertain world we live in, people and organisations are crying out for clarity in understanding where the future will take them. Trend reporting in that respect is like an insurance policy that we can take (false) comfort in. Hedging your bets that technology in itself will bring a new dawn is wishful thinking (sorry). When ever you see the top trends for 2o12 list we take comfort that some of our hunches will be validated.
However it is the broader themes influenced by the combination of technology, and political-economic and social factors that offers real value.