A trend watcher’s far-fetched stories may be critical to your organisation’s survival

  • Trends fundamentally change the landscape
  • Some companies are surprisingly incurious about tech trends
  • A trend watcher tells fictional and provocative yet plausible stories about the future
  • Science fiction can be used to design future technologies and societies
  • Could the appeal of futurism lie in the fact that perfect prediction is impossible?

Many companies and organisations are surprisingly incurious about the tech trends and exponential developments that are happening today. They keep themselves occupied with day-to-day business and focus on the short-term rather than reflect on the long-term. In their eyes, that future is so far away that it feels irrelevant. Contemplating the long-term, however, is what will allow them to survive the rapid changes of the 21st century. The future, in fact, is in many senses already here, and companies should at least be starting conversations about the trends most likely to affect them. This is where trend watchers and futurists are valuable.

“The future is not set. There is no fate but what we make for ourselves.”
-Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines-

When is a trend a trend and not a hype?

A trend can be described as ‘an upcoming change in overall attitude’ or ‘a movement in the collective mind’. Trends develop in the past as something out of the ordinary, but in the future, they become the norm. Trends share similar patterns. Someone adopts an innovation, an idea, or a way of life. Others copy this until the ‘innovative’ and ‘novel’ becomes the norm, a part of everyday life. By contrast, a hype is fleeting. It’s something that quickly gains popularity before fading away again just as quickly. Think hairstyles, clothing, slang and food. A hype is often driven by social media. In fact, social media itself was at one time thought of as a hype, but has now evolved into a trend. When the hype is over, things are essentially the same. A trend takes a little longer to develop but has staying power and fundamentally changes the landscape.

Compass needle pointing at the word trend
A trend can be described as ‘an upcoming change in overall attitude’ or ‘a movement in the collective mind’

A trend watcher tells fictional and provocative yet plausible stories about the future

According to Wiktionary, a trend watcher or futurist is ‘one who studies trends and attempts to predict future trends.’ Their job is to observe and predict. They often work for large organisations such as energy companies, the military, government and businesses in the manufacturing industry. They study how things are changing. Trends emerge as innovators and disruptors, addressing the needs and wants of customers in creative, new ways. Trend watchers spot these trends at the root of their development and determine whether they are here to stay. They talk to people from various industries and from various backgrounds and make predictions about how people will interact with technology in 10 to 25 years time. A lot of what a trend watcher does is based on social science and they even use science fiction to facilitate discussions about the future with anthropologists and ethnographers.

They research social, economic, environmental, political and technological developments to try and understand the global forces that are likely to shape our values, beliefs and attitudes, and the demands of consumers. Then they determine what impact all of this will have on the future of a business or organisation and present you with actionable insights and opportunities for innovation. A trend watcher basically invents potentially true tales; telling fictional and provocative yet plausible stories about the future. These stories are grounded in current trends and facts and are relevant to all of society, both the private and public sector, and not only to global organisations, Fortune 500 CEOs and strategy teams.

Who employs or subcontracts trend watchers?

Trend watchers are primarily employed or subcontracted by companies, industries, and organisations such as NASA, DARPA, Google, car manufacturers, global NGO’s, home improvement stores, the agricultural sector and the hospitality industry, to name but a few. Some examples of car manufacturers appointing trend watchers are Tesla (Elon Musk), Cisco (Dave Evans), Ford (Sheryl Connelly) and Google (Ray Kurzweil) but also Procter & Gamble, Intel and General Motors. Ford has been working with futurists and trend watchers for the past fifty years. In fact, their futurist played a prominent role in the alliance between Ford, Google and Uber. Google places great importance on trend watchers. Apart from co-founder Ray Kurzweil, Google’s futurist teams also subcontract outside futurists for strategic foresight and business planning. And car companies are far from alone: for their survival and relevancy in the market, home improvement stores are completely dependent on home economics, which is why they are always concerned with what our homes will look like in the future. For instance, as soon as we start 3D printing our meals, the kitchen of the future will look completely different.

Agriculture, too, has been impacted by the changes in the service and information economy during the past ten years. Governments all over the world are setting up ‘rural futures’ programs to deal with the evolving demographics of the agricultural sector. The tourism industry, for instance, will be affected by emerging technologies like VR and AR and by the fact that we are becoming an increasingly multiracial society. Global NGOs are also concerned with the future, and it was futurists who inspired the current trend towards ‘giving people a hand up, not a handout’. Many other industries are increasingly making use of trend watchers and futurists, especially those in which there’s no participation in emerging markets, leading to limited future opportunities.

A trend watcher’s far-fetched stories may be critical to your organisation’s survival

Many companies have survived years without trend watchers and futurists, but it is becoming increasingly complex to launch new products and services. Expectations about product quality are continuously rising and startups and disrupters in the industry are increasingly offering on-demand products and services, specifically tailored to the individual customer. Companies are also expected to move faster, which is particularly complicated for older, established organisations whose product development timelines are usually quite long. Intel, for instance, took ten years to produce a new chip, and a trend watcher at Ford once said that a great new idea for a car could take up to three years to materialise. With product spaces growing increasingly overcrowded and small startups and innovators being much more agile, established companies have a hard time meeting the expectations of today’s customers.

As many organisations struggle to gain a proper understanding of what the future holds, futurists and trend watchers are becoming increasingly valuable. They can provide critical insights into how sectors and customers are likely to evolve, giving companies a competitive edge over not only their existing, but also their potential future competitors. They provide a vision and translate it into concepts and strategies. Organisations that are prepared to take the necessary steps to translate uncovered trends into promising innovations will greatly benefit from hiring a trend watcher. For those who have no interest in adapting and prefer to hang on to tried and tested methods, however, hiring a trend watcher will be a waste of time. Companies and organisations of all shapes and sizes will have to get actively involved in these never-ending changes to succeed in the 21st century. Creating the best possible outcome requires everyone to play a part. In fact, companies who fail to adapt and get involved will likely not survive.

Trend watchers, futurists and the role of science fiction

Intellectual movements such as Humanity+ and transhumanism insist that we can (and should) use advanced technologies to elevate the human condition. Most transhumanists and some futurists are of the opinion that we have evolved in such a way that we are now able to use science and technology to provide a type of artificial evolution and shape our future directly. Scientists and trend watchers are collaborating in various areas of research such as medicine, artificial intelligence, robotics, nanotechnology and microbiology, and science fiction is incorporating more real science and real fact than we may think. But sometimes, unbridled imagination helps. Did you know that many NASA engineers got started in their field growing up as children watching Star Trek? Science fiction is also an incredible recruitment tool to get kids into STEM. Science fiction can make an important contribution to innovation and strategy. A good example of a company that has been working with science fiction for many years is IBM. Even the US Department of Defence collaborates with science fiction writers on a regular basis. It isn’t so much fiction as it is a technique they use for thinking ahead to predict future technologies and influence strategies and policies. Science fiction creates debates by pondering, “what if?,” and it can be used to imagine future technologies and societies.

The future of futurism and trend watching

Because of the rapid pace of technological and scientific developments, we will probably see many more companies and organisations hiring futurists and trend watchers in the near future. In the past, companies could take years to develop a product. Now, all we have to do is imagine something and we can almost instantly create it. We have the tools and technologies. We can print any prototype we like, get crowd funding for production and use social networks for marketing. What we are able to create is limited only by our imaginations. Some people are of the opinion that talking about what might happen in the future is futile; that we are simply unable to predict the future. In fact, the appeal of futurism may well lie in the fact that perfect prediction is impossible. Could this be the reason why the work of a trend watcher is so meaningful and endlessly fascinating?

This article is written by Richard van Hooijdonk

This article is written by Richard van Hooijdonk

Trendwatcher, futurist and international keynote speaker Richard van Hooijdonk takes you to an inspiring future that will dramatically change the way we live, work and do business.

All lectures