In my line of work, I seem to come across the term ‘trend’ on almost a daily basis; I read my fair share of ‘trend reports’, often find myself in ‘trend briefings’, and find several news items coming my way discussing the next big trend in any given field, covering everything from the smart office to millennials filling their lonely lives with houseplants.
When I first got involved in futures work, it seemed that spotting, analysing and mapping trends would be an integral part of the practice. However increasingly, the term ‘trend’ has started to make the hair on the back of my neck stand up, and for a long time I couldn’t quite figure out why.
At first I thought I had issues with the word itself, the term ‘trend’ is a much too neat word to refer to the messy process of change, and it also encourages people to focus on superficial factors — that is, things that are ‘trendy,’ or even ‘on trend.’ But at some point, after months of internal turmoil, I came to the conclusion that the term itself isn’t really the issue. I think the stimulus for my angst was more related to the never-ending deluge of trend reports and articles about the ‘next big thing’ that were assaulting my inbox (recently I got one about cauliflower). The issue is that all these articles are in some dimension about ‘the future,’ and at Andthen exploring futures is a cornerstone of our methodology, yet our philosophy and mindset seems so misaligned with those producing these trend reports and articles about the future of cauliflower. For the purposes of simplicity, I am going to refer to those cauliflower futurists and trend report authors as ‘trend forecasters,’ although in reality it should be noted that only some of them would refer to themselves as professional forecasters. Trend forecasting is a huge industry (the Telegraph valued it at £35bn in 2011), and is historically associated with fashion, although more recently it has taken a foothold in other sectors, such as FMCG, hospitality, and other more experiential and service driven sectors.
In essence, while we champion anticipation of the future, trend forecasters champion prediction of the future; which has subtle yet crucial differences.
Side note: As you may be starting to figure out, I can’t really promise much more from this post than an ill advised, semi-structured rant about trend forecasting, but if that’s your cup of tea — enjoy!
One of my main niggles about this topic is that embedded in trend forecasting is a laughable assumption that the future can be predicted. I’m not going to delve much deeper into this point here, but if you want more on my thoughts about the hopelessness of predicting the future read my previous article ‘It’s More than What’s Next,’ although I think the following appropriately summarises my sentiment:
“No serious futurist deals with ‘predictions’. These are left for television oracles and newspaper astrologers.“
— Alvin Toffler, Future Shock, 1970
Instead, I am going to talk about three ‘trend forecasting attitudes’ that I find problematic, and which I feel a) are pillars of an outdated approach to futurism, and b) have no place in the world of innovation.
Problematic Attitude 1: Let’s just call it a trend.
The term ‘trend’ is itself very fluffy, and is often used to describe a really broad range of things. Meanwhile, there is little rigour behind the process of identifying a trend.
Problematic Attitude 2: How can we make boost short-term profits?
Burying ourselves in trend analysis can often encourage a focus on a limited range of factors, and actually push us towards thinking about the short-term gains that can be made from an emerging trend, forgetting about longer term strategic goals.
Problematic Attitude 3 (Dessert) We are really, really clever, and if you don’t work with us, you are going to miss out on the future.
All too often, FOMO is used to sell trend forecasting services — ‘the future is a terrifying place that you can’t possible handle on your own. You are lucky to have us by your side.’
However, before I start unpacking these three points in any detail, I think it is important to briefly frame what I am talking about when I refer to the term ‘trend.’
The actual Introduction
At the beginning of the 20th century the term ‘trend’ was more familiar to economists or mathematicians who would use the term to describe some kind of data correlation. Over the 20th century, the term also crept into the sphere of innovation and design and has started to be associated with softer cultural and psychological observations about human behaviour. Colloquially, the term has become attached to consumer culture — i.e. something is ‘trendy’, or something is ‘on trend.’ One of the issues I will explore in this post is the lack of tight definition for the term, but for now, this will do:
“It is not, as some people think, a term exclusively associated with the world of fashion. Nor is it a term that simply refers to processes which affect physical or aesthetic changes in our culture. A trend can be emotional, intellectual and even spiritual. At its most basic, a trend can be defined as the direction in which something (and that something can be anything) tends to move and which has consequential impact on the culture, society or business sector which it moves through.”
— Martin Raymond, The Trend Forecaster’s Handbook
Just to be crystal clear, for the purposes of this article we are going to be talking about trends in the context of design and innovation — so mainly socio-cultural trends about how people behave, what they believe, and how they interact with the world.
So, now that’s over, let’s continue the rant…
Problematic Attitude 1. Let’s just call it a trend.
This is a pretty basic place to start, but is probably the most important point to make. ‘Trend’ is used to describe a really wide range of things, and its application is at best, fluffy. Forecasters seem to call absolutely everything a trend, regardless of scope and size, and have confusing narratives around ‘trends shaping change,’ which aren’t quite correct. I haven’t found a ubiquitous and tight definition for the term within futures, so I think a good place to start is by making a clear distinction between a ‘driver’ and a ‘trend,’ a distinction that is often forgotten or confused.
A driver is a factor causing some kind of change, while a trend is the movement in a particular direction over time (which usually has some kind of lifespan). A good way to think about it is that a trend bubbles up to the surface as a result of a driver. Trends don’t shape change, drivers do. (Adapted from the Forward Thinking Platform’s Glossary of terms commonly used in futures studies)
This might seem like an overly dogmatic point to make, but failure to adhere to proper standards makes the whole futures industry look like a mess.
“By calling everything a trend, we (…) lead the business community to believe that futurism, as a field, is no better than a room full of chimpanzees throwing darts at pages of buzzwords. This loss of faith in the value of futurism in turn, leads to increased short-termism among businesses which inevitably leads to unforeseen problems.”
— Doug Stephens, Trend Forecasts Are Trending. And That’s A Problem.
On the subject of rigour, a phenomena I see all too often (unfortunately in the work of professional forecasters) is something I call ‘off the shelf futures.’ This is where someone sees something that is extremely niche but slightly futuristic, and immediately identifies it as a trend.
The most common template I have seen is one where a prestigious brand, or famous artist/designer creates a concept product or project. That concept product has something slightly unusual about it, perhaps Nike have produced a pair of concept shoes that are connected to your smart home, or an artist has grown or surgically implanted an ear into their skin. Suddenly these incredibly niche concepts are packaged by a forecaster as compelling evidence that trends akin to connected clothing and bodyhacking are soon to become ubiquitous. They are then filed away, ready for the next client who comes along to learn from the wisdom of the revered trend spotter.
Suppose for a moment there’s an asteroid heading for earth. You’d likely want to know a few things. How big is it, how likely is it to impact the planet and, if it does, how much devastation will it cause? Fortunately for us, NASA tracks exactly this sort of information in excruciating detail, avoiding the chaos and panic that might otherwise accompany this kind of event.
Unfortunately, the same level of rigor is less frequently applied to consumer trend forecasts and the degree to which they may impact businesses. And as you’ve undoubtedly noticed, there are literally thousands of trend forecasts being published and the degree of research discipline they’re built with varies wildly, so separating reality from hype and the truth from the trite can be difficult.
— Doug Stephens, Trend Forecasts Are Trending. And That’s A Problem.
Here’s a template for you to make up your own baseless trends:
[insert brand/designer/artist name] made a [insert concept product/artwork] that is [insert description of one unique characteristic]. Therefore we expect [unique characteristic] to be a prominent force in the next [insert arbitrary number] years.
Problematic Attitude 2. How can we boost short-term profits?
Trend reports, forecasts, and briefings, at first glance appear to be about the future; about being forward thinking and preempting change. But look a little closer and you will noticed that hidden under the disguise of long-termism, trend forecasting is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and it has at its heart the same old short-termist thinking that is in vast supply elsewhere.
Trends are often talked about as having lifecycles. A trend is ‘born’ and a trend ‘dies.’ Martin Raymond, co-founder and owner of the Future Laboratory, states in ‘The Trend Forecaster’s Handbook:’
“When forecasters see a trend becoming ubiquitous in the ‘Late Majority’ group, they know that days are numbered.”
He is referring here to a measure with which forecasters can identify the lifespan of a trend. Implicit in this comment is an assumption that a trend is ephemeral. That all you can hope to do is surf the wave while it’s around, and then look to the next trend cycle.
Of course, it is important to balance short term goals with long term direction, but all too often organisations get caught up in superficial trend cycles, and forget to make considered progress towards a strategic goal. In the end, working with trends and commissioning a myriad of trend reports becomes a way to excuse yourself from doing deep, critical research while still convincing yourself that you are forward-thinking and future-oriented.
Problematic Attitude 3. We are really, really clever, and if you don’t work with us, you are going to miss out on the future.
This problematic attitude is all about ‘the future’ being framed as an extremely privileged place, and the related manipulative tactics used to encourage businesses to commission forecasting services.
There tends to be an assumption that a forecaster must be a certain type of person — the lone expert, attuned to all types of change and embedded in groups of people at the cutting edge of innovation (usually ‘innovation’ in this context refers to westernised, business-driven innovation, and not any kind of bottom-up change). These people are positioned almost like classical Greek Oracles — one must make a pilgrimage to the temple and make an offering to be blessed with the valuable knowledge of what the future (might) hold.
By maintaining forecasting as the preserve of the elite few, it becomes acutely apparent that the source material used for ‘trend spotting’ comes from observations about behaviours, attitudes, products and services of the elite.
“‘Cross-cultural analysis’ is the term used by forecasters to describe how they ‘graze’ across cultures and different industry sectors to determine if a trend spotted in one industry is beginning to emerge in another.[…] The Hella Jongerius lamp, Land Rover’s LRX car and the Miguel Ángel Llácer salon in Valencia were brought together using this process.”
— Martin Raymond, The Trend Forecaster’s Handbook
As if that weren’t enough, forecasting agencies rub it in further by employing FOMO tactics in their marketing. The general message is that ‘the future is a really scary place, but don’t worry, if you work with us, your organisation won’t become irrelevant.’
Once you buy into that message, you’re screwed, because guess what? The future is always changing, the goalposts are always moving, and there is always a trend around the corner ready to ‘disrupt’* the present. You are doomed to forever suck from the teat of the trend forecaster.
*Side note: Trends are always ‘disruptive,’ rarely constructive. Even if they are constructive, they are framed as disruptive. I wonder why…
While I started this journey with the assumption that there was something wrong with ‘trends,’ I have concluded that this isn’t the case. Trend analysis is a useful tool to keep in the tool belt, and I occasionally look to identify the odd trend or two in my own work at Andthen.
Here I’ve ranted at length about my issues with forecasting, but taking a step back, the real point I am trying to make isn’t about forecasting at all.
On reflection, my frustration stems from the fact that trend analysis is such a narrow part of what the futures thinker can do, yet so often it becomes the focus. Futures thinking is about so much more than gathering a little market data. The bigger game here is not just to examine the next few things that might happen in a sector, but to build a new mindset, a new way of understanding the world, and a new approach to innovation that is more comfortable with managing change.
Recently, a member of a client’s team (who will remain unnamed), mentioned to me that thinking about the future was becoming infectious:
“I hadn’t ever really engaged in futures or futures approaches, but since we started this project, I find that I am applying that kind of thinking to everything I do!”
— Andthen Client
This, is the goal. While it is important to deliver a successful project, which can make impact in the near future, the bigger win here would be to foster a new pre-emptive approach to innovation that can permeate across layers of the organisation.
So I think my troublesome (and unnecessarily dramatic) relationship with the ‘trend’ ends here. While once, I seemed to be locked in a western standoff with the term, now I have finally understood the role of ‘trends’ and ‘trendiness’ in the wider landscape of futures practice.