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Mapping the future | Research World


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In the world of forecasting, strategy
and cool hunting, the trend, too often looks like an empty lifeboat floating in
the North Atlantic. Where did it come from? Who did it carry? Where was it
going? We don’t know. 

It’s time to rethink what a trend is.

The trouble with the “life boat” model
is that it gives us the future in tiny chunks. Trends are offered up as
discrete objects, divorced from one another and from their origins and their
futures.

The other forecasting strategy is to
overwhelm the clients with data. There is one trend watcher who now reports on
200,000 trends. I believe this is the equivalent of filling a building lot with
stacks of lumber and bags of cement, and a note that reads, “You do it.”

Poor client! It’s up to them to assess
whether and how the trend will trend. But we have given them too little data or
too much, all of it disaggregated, free floating and indecipherable.

I hear clients asking for a sense of
depth and continuity, for bigger pictures and more nuanced treatments.

They have played out the “agility”
response to the world. There is only so much strategic value to responding “in
real time.” Now it’s time to restore the strategic thinking that agility helped
dislodge. It turns out we can’t get to the future by occupying the present in a
feverish state of reaction. We need a plan.

For another, Consumer Package Goods
brands are changing their tune. Once the implicit question of much marketing
was “what are the change makers doing? What’s new?” Those days are ending. Clients
are no longer looking for latest thing or a one-time adaptation. The game now
depends upon the exquisite management of a great river of data and decision-
making.

Put it this way, clients are piloting
a spacecraft through a dense debris field. The last thing they need is an
excited performance from the cool hunter who says, “we think this chunk is the
one to watch!” “Really?” says the client, “how about a map?”

Maps

Maps are precisely what our clients
need: a picture of all the trends that matter, a sense of their weight and
velocity, and of the diffusion mechanics now bringing them to market. Each
trend will have it’s own set of adoption mechanics because each will have a
different set of audiences motivated by a variety of ideas and discouraged by a
series of barriers, or as Moore calls them, “chasms.”

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We are looking for the opposite of a lifeboat
lost at sea. We want to see a trend as something
with origins, destinations, and a set of social and cultural drivers from which
it takes propulsion and direction. And we want this as a map or an airport
radar tracking many things in motion at once.

The problem with trend spotting was
that we were acting as if the act of detection completed our
responsibility to the client. But surely it’s just the beginning. What we want is
a triad of offerings: mapping, predicting and collaboration.

First, we map. And this presupposes
that we are not focused on one trend but all the trends we think will matter.
And this puts an end to that desperate game of catch up that ensues when brands
pursue “what the cool kids care about” only to discover that they get to the
party too late.

Once we map, we can make predictions.
Where will the trend in question be in 3, 6 and 12 months? We need to offer our
best guess and revise as data pours in and our decision-making gets more
sophisticated.

Once we make predictions, we can get
more strategic. For virtually the whole of the 20th century, the work of
marketing and the agency was to coax the client to get into the ‘next new
thing.’ Now we need to give them “exit points” as well. “We want you into this
thing in 9 months. And we think you should be planning to be out again 18
months after that.”

Once we map, we can collaborate. Our
map will act as a strategic visual array around which senior managers and others
will gather to contemplate what’s happening in the future. Forecasting will
become a collaborative exercise in which smart people inside and outside the
corporation meet, to work with data that is deep, rich and highly visual.

A mapping approach will not show the
future without giving us the past and the present as well.

Data

Too often, the futurist explains a
choice by saying he or she “just really has a good feeling about a prediction.”
It is indisputably true that as we work with forecasting materials, we get
better. Our instincts improve. But a client can be forgiven feeling that they
don’t really want to risk the corporate spaceship on our gut instinct.

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The world is now awash with data. We
need to figure out how to use these data. Once we have maps of the world, we
can see that the SKU data for bitters would have been an excellent way to track
the mixology trend. But we can also use consumer footfall and parking lot
activity, social media data, geolocation data, stock market data, fan fiction
data, and data from Amazon, Audible, and Pinterest. We can put these data to
new uses and to use qualitative data (aka thick data) as a way to uncover the
why of the quantitative data. Big data is widely collected and effortlessly
(though not inexpensively) available. It’s not clear to me that we are
extracting full intelligence. We the forecaster can create new applications and
new value.

Mission

Let’s not have one, ok? Too many
players in the forecasting field tell us that they are committed to some social
change or purpose. Clearly, they are engaged in an act of advocacy. But the future
does not care what we hope will happen. If we insist on looking for preferred
futures what we are likely to find is bad thinking and disappointment.

Scenarios

Scenarios are key. They help us wrap
our heads around what a variety of futures might look like and also help build
a platform for collaboration. Our futures are now so complicated no one can
hope to understand them on their own. There is a great deal of development to
be done here. For starters, we want to get scenarios off the page and out of
Powerpoint into big, beautiful visual displays.

It’s time to rethink trends and to
rescue them from their “life boat” status. We need to give them origins,
destinations, trajectories, diffusion mechanics, and track them with big data,
thick data, and good thinking. We want to build the clients a map of and to the
future.



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