Technology has made it difficult to tell a trend from something that’s merely trendy because of the ways in which tech changes are often complicated, confusing, or invisible. It’s easy to fixate on what’s trendy—the latest app, gadget, or platform—but harder to track how technology is shaping our organizations, government, education, economy, and culture.
At any moment, hundreds of small shifts are taking place in technology—beginning as developments on the fringe—that will impact our lives in the future. Not all of them will prove authentic trends, though. A real trend is a new manifestation of sustained change—whether it’s within an industry, the public sector, society, or in the ways we behave toward one another.
Understanding trends can help us meet the demands of the present while planning for the future. They’re the analogies our minds make in order to grapple with change, but our minds can often mislead us. Here’s how to know when something that’s trending really is a trend worth paying attention to.
All trends intersect with other aspects of daily life, and they share a set of conspicuous, universal features. But as a general rule of thumb, a trend is driven by a basic human need, often one catalyzed by new technology.
Take the (very real) trend of autonomous transportation, for example. As society evolves, we require progressively advanced technologies to serve our busy lifestyles. We need to spend less time traveling from place to place. With busier schedules, we’re traveling more, which makes our roads, trains, and airports more and more crowded.
Better transportation and technology results in more meetings, events, and opportunities, which cycles back to a need for additional travel. We experience “road rage” and a lack of freedom to use our time as we choose. Or we try to multitask as we drive, answering email messages, participating in teleconferences, or clicking through mobile apps.
Trends usually fulfill three other key criteria, too.
Transportation has always been about fulfilling our need for efficiency, speed, and automation. Could the army of King Ennatumh, one of the ancient Sumerian rulers, have defeated his enemies and conquered the city of Umma without having invented the chariot? Possibly, but having access to a wheeled cart meant faster attacks on the battlefield, and it also spared their soldiers and horses from the exhaustion caused by carrying heavy loads. For thousands of years, we’ve been trying to lighten our loads and move around more quickly.
We didn’t progress in a straight line from wheeled carts to self-driving Google cars. Technological innovations lead to new ways of thinking, and, as a result, new kinds of vehicles. Every iteration includes learning from past successes and failures.
In the 1950s, General Motors and RCA developed an automated highway prototype using radio control for speed and steering. A steel cable was paved into the asphalt to keep self-driving cars on the road. The autonomous-vehicle trend evolved over the next six decades, and Google eventually put a fleet of self-driving cars onto the roads of Mountain View, California, and Austin, Texas. Google uses an algorithm-powered driver’s education course: The cars “learn” to sense and avoid things, like a teenager riding on a skateboard, that they haven’t been explicitly taught to recognize.
A decade from now—in the late 2020s—will we all own and drive Google cars that are just like the ones being tested now? Probably not. But we will no doubt be driving cars that require significantly less of our attention and direct supervision behind the wheel as a result of Google’s research.
With the benefit of hindsight, here are several dots from the year 2004 that, at first glance, don’t seem to connect:
- The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the arm of the U.S. Department of Defense that’s responsible for creating the future of military technology, launched a Grand Challenge for 15 self-driving military vehicles, which had to navigate 142 miles of desert road between California and Nevada.
- That same year, the R&D department at DaimlerChrysler was studying the future of telematics—that is, the system of sending, receiving, and storing information related to vehicles and telecommunications devices (like a GPS)—and intelligent transportation systems.
- Motor Trend’s Car of the Year was the brand-new Toyota Prius, praised by reviewers for its newfangled computerized dashboard. The magazine said that “the cockpit may look like it came from a NASA clean room, but the Prius is as easy to use as a TV. Press ‘Power’ to bring the vehicle to life, select ‘D’ with the joystick, press on the electronic ‘drive-by-wire’ throttle pedal, and you’re off.”
- Google acquired the digital mapping company Keyhole.
- Developers at Google were working on an early version of an advanced mobile operating system called Android that would be aware of the owner’s location.
- Another operating system, this one for cars, was built by QNX and soon acquired by Harman International Industries, which wanted to expand the technology for use in infotainment and navigation units.
How do these dots connect? Technology begets technology. DARPA learned from the original experiment by General Motors and RCA in autonomous cars, adding telemetry and computerized controls. Separately, car manufacturers like Toyota were building electronic and “drive by wire” technologies to replace mechanical linkages.
Eventually, Google could incorporate all of this work, combine advanced navigation into a new kind of operating system, and develop and test its first fleet of self-driving cars. It’s easy to connect the dots in hindsight, but with the right foresight, you can identify simultaneous developments on the fringe and recognize patterns as they materialize into trends.
When new tools, services, or ideas burst onto the scene, they may very well start trending. But just because what’s novel is getting a lot of attention right now doesn’t mean it’s going to stick around or prove transformational. Trendiness makes trend spotting difficult, like so much else about forecasting what’s to come. 2016 hasn’t been short on surprises, but with this checklist and a little practice, whatever happens in the months and years ahead doesn’t have to be quite so unexpected.
This article is adapted from The The Signals Are Talking: Why Today’s Fringe Is Tomorrow’s Mainstream by Amy Webb. Copyright 2016 by PublicAffairs, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc. It is reprinted with permission.