Life after trends

In the memorable phrase of Ged Davis, a trend is a trend until it bends…or breaks.

For many of us, the pandemic era has been a reminder of this, as the course of events has not always followed the trajectory we were expecting.

Today, we sometimes hear talk of “megatrends”, too; Stefan Hajkowicz of Australia’s Data61 told me you could compare these to the powerful rip currents which pull swimmers out to sea.

Sometimes such currents are hard to spot, and researchers put dye in the seawater to make them visible. Savvy surfers can use rips to swiftly travel out from the shore to the point where they can catch a wave.

Perhaps thinking in terms of trends can work this way, too: using foresight to make a previously unseen tendency visible, using strategy to take advantage of it.

But what happens when the perceived tendency, mega or otherwise, bends or breaks? Our expectations are thwarted and we are reminded that a trend is a projection from the past into times yet to come. The ghost of yesterday’s future haunts our thinking in the here and now.

It’s not that tendencies don’t ever endure – sometimes they do. But it doesn’t always tell us much about what is coming next. After all, we can’t gather one shred of evidence or data from events which haven’t happened yet.

At an event in Plymouth earlier this year, where people gathered to address the question of regional development for England’s “Ocean City”, Fiona Tuck of the economic development consultancy Brand Dynamics spoke not of trends, but “sticky” issues that seemed to accumulate and endure, proving intractable to policymakers’ attempts to change their course.

Fiona’s words made me think of the Scots word “flench“, used to describe unreliable weather where the promise of improvement proves deceitful. After a season of rain, a “flinchin Friday” offers a brief false hope of brightening skies, before the downpour resumes.

In this flenched season of the 2020s, we have been reminded of the hold that expectations of the future can have on us – especially when we assume that a trend will play out in accordance with our projections.

For example, the arrival of COVID-19 was an exemplary lesson in the human struggle to think about exponential, rather than linear, change.

As Trudi Lang and Rafael Ramírez wrote for the Oxford Answers blog in January 2022, “Growth that multiplies and then multiplies again for a period of time (exponential), is very different to growth that is additive, building incrementally in equal chunks over time (linear).” Mistaking one for the other can confuse our understanding of a situation and hamper effective decision-making.

In such situations, our thoughts and words can scramble in the rush to make sense of what is going on and to assuage the discomforting feeling of having been wrong about the future.

At one event I attended during the earlier stages of the pandemic, a speaker said: “The trend accelerated, and 2030 arrived ten years early.”

Of course, what they really meant was that their model was wrong. It had told them that a state of affairs would come to pass in 2030, and in fact that state of affairs was realised a decade before. But it sounds better to say “2030 arrived early”.

In some senses, the future never really arrives anyway. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “the time that will come after the present or the events that will happen then”.

When I was a kindergarten teacher, kids would sometimes come to school and ask me: “Is it tomorrow yet?”

“No,” I’d tell them. “Tomorrow is the next day, this is today.”

The next day, they’d arrive and ask again, “Is it tomorrow yet?”

“No, it’s today again. Tomorrow is always the next day.” Part of the work of learning to make sense of time when we are little kids, is understanding that tomorrow is relative, it is built out of expectations, and in some senses, it is never going to arrive.

So what’s to be done? How do we counter the human bias against perceiving exponential growth? How do we avoid getting blindsided because we’re so focussed on identified trends which may then bend or break?

In the Oxford Scenario Planning Approach and related methods such as Islands in the Sky, we talk about the transactional and contextual environments for a given entity.

The transactional environment consists of actors and dynamics which that entity perceives it can influence: in effect, the “island” on which it operates.

The contextual environment comprises those factors which are perceived to be out of our direct control: the “sea” surrounding the island. Uncertainties within that sea have the power to come ashore in different ways, at different intensities, and in different combinations, redrawing the map of the island on which the central entity operates.

Imagining different ways that the sea of uncertainty could come ashore and redraw the map lets us think about future contexts which lie outside of our current assumptions and expectations; this leads to the “strategic reframing” described by Rafael Ramírez and Angela Wilkinson in their book of the same name.

Strategy and policy can then become a matter of preparing ourselves to operate on different potential islands, or of orchestrating relationships on our island to mutual benefit and greater resilience.

We can also work with others to “reclaim land from the sea” and create a situation where factors previously thought to be outside of our control now become part of the set of dynamics and relationships which we perceive we can influence. A farmer may not be able to control whether it rains or shines tomorrow, but if they contribute to collective efforts to manage, mitigate, and adapt to climate change, they may be able to ensure that the land is still farmable for generations to come.

You could even argue that these approaches are not really “futurist” at all, in any meaningful sense. They’re just mapping contemporary uncertainties as perceived in the environment of a given actor. We only manufacture plausible future scenarios – maps of how the island might be in time to come – in order that we can really get to grips with those uncertainties and their implications.

Factors in the sea of uncertainty may run the gamut from climate change or demographics to technological shifts or changing social values. They may be global in scale or small and highly specific. What they have in common is their relationship to that central entity at the heart of the scenario building process: they are factors perceived to be outside of that entity’s direct influence or control, lying offshore from the island on which the entity operates.

And these factors don’t have to be trends.

In some ways, I’d argue, it’s actually more powerful if we frame them as uncertainties. “There is a growing trend towards automation of higher level cognitive tasks” is a statement of expectation about the future – the machines are coming for the jobs of the lawyers and teachers and novelists now! This expectation can deceive us. It can be thwarted. Competitors can even use it against us, if they know what future we are betting on.

Expressed as an uncertainty, this becomes a question which can be usefully debated: “Which cognitive tasks and processes may prove possible to automate in the future? What about social and emotional tasks? Do we need to challenge our own expectations about such automation? In what settings, industries, and sectors, and for what roles, could it apply? And what does all this imply for us?”

You’ll get a lot more from discussing those questions than just bluntly stating the trend. You might even notice something that you weren’t previously aware of at all…and find that you are able to do something useful about it – individually or collectively.

And isn’t that the point of conducting strategic foresight?

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