Trend-watching beyond trend research
Trend-watching: a look into past and future
Foresight as an anticipatory method was born in the aftermath of WWII as a strategic asset to win wars and developed through the second half of the 1900’s into an approach to govern corporate enterprises. On the other hand, trend-watching was generated through the 1970’s – 1980’s within a hybrid mix of disciplines and sources, from fashion to pop culture. Great pioneers and protagonists of trendwatching included the likes of Lidewij Edelkoort, whose work for Nissan determined a new aesthetic grammar for the 1990’s Micra, Professor Carl Rohde, who established trend research as an applied science field in various Dutch universities, and Faith Popcorn, whose mid 1990’s book, “Clicking”, anticipated emerging internet lifestyle trends. During those early days, there was no real study track to professionally validate oneself as a trend researcher, with the exception of advanced institutes like Jim Dator’s at the University of Hawaii. The charisma of “genius forecasters”, often working in small firms with a team of disciples, intensely scanning various domains of culture, was based on intuition, insight and storytelling, with ingenious formats like the “box from the future” (normally including a selection of objects from Japan) or other techniques to inspire corporate audiences.
The futures research professional field has greatly consolidated, with a number of academic courses and the institutionalization of foresight and trend watching by corporations within their design, marketing and strategic teams. Initiatives like Teach the Future (www.teachthefuture.org), created by Peter Bishop, aim at expanding the reach of future thinking within the education system, starting from primary schools. At the same time, in The Netherlands only, university of applied sciences deliver to the labor market an unsustainable number of aspiring trend watchers, lifestyle strategists, and the alike. Departing from its 1980’s roots in fashion, trend researching is now among “the” fashionable professional choices. In the early 2000’s, this small army of young professionals might have populated an optimistic market craving to anticipate change and profit from globalization and the internationalization of taste. After the economic crisis of 2008, however, trend research has taken a different twist, since the future itself is source of angst and concern, and the corporate present is way more about cost cutting efficiencies than extravaganza. Furthermore, Millennials and native digitals do not need to fly to Tokyo and retrieve boxes of everyday objects, as the Japanese everyday –just like any everyday- is fully documented on social media, with a high degree of professional curation being displayed by selected lifestyle bloggers like Vicky Heiler of www.bikinisandpassports.com in Vienna or the world star Chiara Ferragni in Italy. Departed from fashion, trend research goes back to fashion in the form of hybrid personalities, working across the lines of editing, advertising and ultimately marketing themselves through their universe of consumption, and viceversa.
Trend-watching new tools
For the other 99% freshmen and young graduates with the dream to follow the steps of Edelkoort or Popcorn, there might be bad news. The high intensity, high capacity, high-cost task of scanning media, magazines, museums, design masterpieces, and more, to build posits of possible futures, might be redundant. Artificial Intelligence will likely replace trend watchers and trend scanning teams of all sizes by means of systems like Shaping Tomorrow’sAthena (www.shapingtomorrow.com). Athena has already evolved into a sophisticated system of indexing, cataloguing, storytelling, visualizing and archiving emerging change information. Developed in the last decade by Mike Jackson and his team, Athena can automatically and continuously read, classify and analyse hundreds of future-focused documents daily, in a matter of minutes, providing near real-time strategic foresight diagnosis, complete with a self-assessment of biases and of the overall quality of the analysis. Already adopted by corporate teams, NGO’s and governmental departments, Athena will increasingly supply the rationalized and validated equivalent of the “wisdom of the crowds” by scanning a complete set of online and media sources, from academic publishers to professional articles and reports contributed online without human intervention. The partial or total elimination of scanning as a people activity will mean that trendwatchers will focus more on making better decisions from the information than finding information.
A new approach to trend-watching?
Question is, what role is left for the human factor in trend research, at the time of Artificial Intelligence? One might say, the most crucial and mission-critical; once patterns are outlined and possibilities identified, the role of decision making with regards to the actual interpretation and translation of the output of Artificial Intelligence at work, into potential action. For this kind of trend activation role, however, the best knowledge might not lie in trendwatching courses, whereas in the structural study and deep understanding of Humanities, from philosophy to psychology, from sociology to history. Because it is only by understanding the past and the archetypes of mankind that future researchers of the future will truly leverage the power of Artificial Intelligence, turning the scanning of Big Data into visioning triggers.