Do a search for “trends” on Amazon, and you will find that there is a book written on the subject every 15 minutes. This mountain of books is due to the fact that many people believe trends to be the beating heart of futures thinking and foresight. Such an idea may have been effective in an era when life seemed simple, decisions were straightforward and the entire world was summarized in the Daily Gazette. Of course, life was never really that simple, but the world was certainly less connected, less open, and less complex.
In such a world, looking at issues in isolation seemed to make perfect sense, and the identification of “Mega Trends” as a byproduct of linear thinking became a well established concept alongside other Industrial Age heirlooms such as unlimited progress or steam-powered electricity–all attempts to run the world like a well-oiled machine. Pinpointing and analyzing Mega Trends sounds like a great way to adjust strategy or develop a competitive innovation portfolio, but it has become an outdated practice in the 21st-century landscape of convergence, complexity, and disruptive creativity.
To understand our fascination with finding and cataloging Mega Trends, one needs only to look at the storied past of the RAND Corporation. In the late 1940’s, the United States Air Force established Project RAND in order to create long-range planning for weapons development. A few years later, RAND became an independent, nonprofit organization that expanded its forecasting efforts to include areas of concern for national security such as economic development, public policy, crisis management, and intelligence. Continuing its 20th Century mission of identifying trends in order to mitigate risk and solve big world problems, RAND utilizes methods such as quantitative research, game theory and data studies. RAND certainly did not popularize isolated trend hunting and scouting, but they have become a poster-child for our modern Mega Trend appetite.
About the same time that RAND broke away from the United States military and established itself as an independent nonprofit organization, famous children’s author and illustrator Theodor Geisel–better known as the beloved Dr. Seuss–wrote one of his most outlandish books, On Beyond Zebra!. Like most of his work, the book uses nonsensical elements and playful rhymes to defy logic and create humor for the reader. At first glance, the serious work being done at RAND has absolutely no connection to the frivolity and absurdity found in a Dr. Seuss book. However, whenever we consider the overwhelming emphasis we have placed on quantifying, analyzing, and dissecting Mega Trends in government, technology and business, this whimsical but insightful story serves as the perfect counterpoint.
In case you aren’t familiar with the story, On Beyond Zebra! tells the tale of two young school boys, each with a very different take on the world. One of the boys is a stickler for perfecting his knowledge of the alphabet, taking great pride in the proficiency and precision of his penmanship. Expressing an opposing view, the other boy believes the existing alphabet is only the inception for true understanding, a launching pad for greater knowledge about the world around and beyond us. Through a series of imaginary journeys, the two boys explore a mysterious and exciting world that begins after the letter Z, discovering new ideas that can only be spelled–and acknowledged–through the recognition of a whole new set of letters.
When we read this story, we are reminded of our infatuation with trend-spotting. Like the first boy in On Beyond Zebra!, our goal is to perfect our knowledge of existing and emerging issues, researching their details so that the very best trend report can be penned. We voraciously dissect the trends, making sure that we have carefully analyzed how many people are participating, which regions they live in, what keywords they are using, what demographics they come from, and so much more. This Industrial Age obsession for counting widgets and calibrating gears can be seen across media outlets at the end of every calendar year when articles appear proclaiming the “10 Mega Trends That Will Change Your Life.”
While we too care about researching the details of current trends in order to understand their short and long-term forecasts for organizations and society, we also realize that good futures thinking and foresight in our era of accelerating volatility requires that we transition to new practices that focus on more than the latest Mega Trends. Trends tend to keep us connected to what is immediate and surrounding us, but fail to stretch us to see what is changing, what is emerging, and what is possible. We must move beyond trends to recognize a new world of guiding narratives driven by values, implications, systems, design, and aspirations. Simply stated, if trends have been the beating heart of futures thinking, then it’s time for a transplant.
This expands our worldview to include the impact of social and collaborative myths, metaphors and belief systems. When we discover the values that are underpinning our present trends, we begin to understand their deeper impact on society and human advancement, while also gaining insight into what new beliefs are arising and how they will result in alternative futures.
A good example of this is in the shifting attitudes towards currency and regional economics. Our global monetary woes have certainly affected our beliefs around money, but we are also seeing a move toward sharing, open source designing and community collaboration becoming the catalyst for creating new ways of buying, selling and redefining wealth. Values not only spur today’s trends, but they also thrust us into the next wave of the future.
These allow us to envision“ what’s next” in a way that is not obvious and accessible in traditional trend research and analysis. Whereas trends are most often expressed as what’s unfolding now, implications probe the possible risks and opportunities that stem from those trends. Our Industrial Age thinking has assumed unfettered growth and linear progression, but complexity plays by a different set of rules where good ideas can create bad outcomes, and vice versa.
It’s not enough in this day and age to understand trends; we must also map out the near and far ramifications of our decisions and ideas. For example, wearable computing can certainly help us to be more connected and productive, but what issues will manifest around security, privacy, or social interaction? What business models might such technology disrupt or make obsolete? How might wearables change education or job creation?
We must recognize that trends do not exist in isolation; instead they collide, mesh, and interact with one another. It is this intricate behavior, this unique dance between political, environmental, economic, technological and social issues that can never be accurately captured in a one dimensional Mega Trend list. To understand what is emerging, we must make sense of the patterns that are forming as a result of these collisions.
In recent years we have seen a trend toward anti-bullying campaigns in our schools, and organizations the world over are implementing their own programs to thwart peer victimization. However, new studies are suggesting that these programs may actually be creating more bullies due to the videos and images that define such activity. Instead of targeting the trend to inform change, we need to think about the social, educational, political and economic forces at play within the system that make up our schools and communities.
A broader concept that allows us to address future outcomes. Thinking about the future without action has little value. We must be able to actuate our futures, leveraging the knowledge developed through trends, values, implications and systems. Rather than being shackled by the events of today,design within the landscape of futures thinking allows us to hijack alternative landscapes and pull ourselves toward where we want to be.
Design Fiction, a foresight method which involves prototyping the future, is one tool within this much broader concept. However, in the context of futures thinking, design must go far beyond the creation of products and services. Efforts at urban development like the New Cities Foundation are an example of foresight as a means to transformational futures.
These elevate trend hunting from a past-time to an Olympic sport. Traditional trend scouting purports to remain agnostic at all costs, but the reality is that every individual and every organization has at least one goal for their future (whether that goal is expressed or remains unspoken). By acknowledging these visions, our scanning efforts become a much more effective compass in navigating our complex and volatile landscape. Consumer goods giant, Unilever demonstrates how to progress past tracking sustainability trends to impact company culture. Their CEO, Paul Polman, has established a clear aspiration to reinvent capitalism and has implemented radical changes in organizational processes to support this vision.
Ultimately, values, implications, systems, design and aspirations must combine to create Guiding Narratives. These are more than just stories, they help us to explain the world in which the trends exist, why different trends have not emerged, what new trends and patterns might arise, and how designing new outcomes can change our dominant culture and trajectory. Stories have always been a powerful element in futures thinking due to a focus on scenario planning, but the latter have often been misused as a showcase for individual trends and their linear ramifications. Guiding Narratives are much bigger, catapulting us far beyond trends by illustrating values, implications, systems, design, and every other component that details who we are, where we have come from, and where we are going.
So, the next time you see a list of the top trends in business or technology, just remember these words from Dr. Seuss: “My alphabet starts where your alphabet ends.”