We all have ideas of how we think the future will pan out. Consciously (or even subconsciously) we all have an idea of not only how we think the future will pan out (the probable future), but we also have ideas of possible and preferable futures.
For the past couple of weeks we have been looking at ways to identify trends. Now we need to start interpreting what we’ve found. Future studies offers a number of ways of analysing trends.
The goal of trend analysis if to help you organise your thinking about the possible trends you’ve identified so you can form a clearer picture of the important things that will not only happen in the future, but how the trends that you’ve identified are affecting the present.
Here are some ideas on tools you can use to help you formulate your stories about the future.#
1. Percolating the Trends
When I discussed environmental scanning a few weeks ago, I mentioned that it’s useful to scan several environments to get as complete a picture of what is happening out there. To briefly recap, I suggested that you need to be looking at the following areas:
- Politics / Institutional
Now that you have identified some trends from these different areas, you need to consider the implication of the trends you’ve identified on your organisation. One way of looking at the impact is to consider how the trend would impact on each of the following areas:
- Society / Culture
Simply put, you need to ask yourself, “what does this mean for demographics?”, “what does this mean for the economy?”, etc. until you have run through each of the six areas identified. I’ve always found this to be a useful way of developing the storyline of what impact a trend will have on your organisation.
Applying this filtering process is also a useful way to make sure that you’re thinking as widely as possible so that you can try identify areas of uncertainty. However, as I’ve mentioned in previous weeks’ postings, you need to be as comfortable as possible with uncertainty given that you may not be able to identify “unknown unknowns”.
2. How Far Ahead Should You Be Looking?
It’s important to bear in mind that the further out you’re trying to look, the more uncertain the future will become. It’s one thing to try consider what the future may look like 10 / 20 years down the line. It’s another thing to try consider what the future will look like 50 years down the line.
I would argue that while it may be possible to have a fairly good idea of what the future will look like anywhere from 5 – 20 years out, trying to anticipate a future 50 years out is impossible. There are simply too many variables at play.
So while some people may publish books about what the world will look like in 50 years’ time, I think that this is more “pop futures” work than anything else but it is fun to sometimes let you mind wander and think about the infinite possibilities out there.
3. Trying to Determine the Moment of Impact …
No trend analysis is complete without considering when you expect the trends to start making an impact. In other words, when will the debris start washing ashore? In the case of debris from the Fukushima disaster it took about 9 months to start reaching America. You may have a bit more time than that, depending on how the trend you’re analysing is developing.
There are a couple of ways of doing this portion of the trend impact analysis. One way is to make use of computer software. Another way is to ask the respondents who take part in a Delphi exercise. For the purposes of this blog I am going to assume that you don’t have access software, in which case you can ask your respondents the following questions:
- When do you expect the trend to first start making an impact?
- When do you expect the trend to make the most impact?
- When do you expect the system to start levelling out or reach a “steady state”?
Based on the responses you receive you should be able to construct an idea of possible timeframes for a best-case scenario, a worst-case scenario and a middle-of-the-road scenario. These three scenarios are just rules of thumb. Of course, if you get four different timeframes from different experts, you should include those, if you feel that the additional information will add value to the overall analysis.
4. Six Possible Megatrends
In addition to identifying the trends specific to your project, it’s always a good idea (I think) to keep an eye on what is happening at a broader level of analysis. In essence, how will pre-identified megatrends impact the trends you’ve identified?
Here are six possible megatrends for you to consider and my thoughts on each of these megatrends:
- Economic Growth: but increased economic inequality both within and between societies.
- Environmental Degradation: this megatrend is, in my opinion, directly related to the megatrend of economic growth. As economic growth expands, unless solutions are found shortly, the environment will suffer.
- Improving Health: which could lead to an increase in population sizes in some societies but also increasingly older populations in other societies.
- Increased Movement: this may be voluntary or involuntary movement of people, with one of the possible drivers of mobility being environmental decline.
- Increasing Deculturalisation: in essence, this megatrend alludes to the continued dominance of Western culture as a result of globalisation.
- Technological Advancement: technology will keep progressing, but will everyone enjoy the benefits of these technological advances? I doubt it, someone will be left behind.
5. What May Not Change?
So all of the above assumes that things will change. But what if some things just stay the same? As the French saying goes “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”.
When considering the question of what may / may not change, it may be useful to ask yourself the following questions:
- How likely will a cause-and-effect relationship you’ve identified continue?
- If things are changing now, how likely are they to continue changing in the future? When will the system possibly stabilise?
- How likely will the product / system you’re analysing still be around within the given timeframe?
- How likely will a pattern that you’ve identified continue existing?
Your answers to a lot of these questions will be a matter of conjecture. Hopefully the outcome of the Delphi process you conducted, before you started analysing the trends, may offer some clues about what forms of continuity will be at play in the research you’re conducting.
6. Capturing Your Analysis
There are a variety of ways of capturing your analysis. Next week I will look at some tools that will help provide you with a way of constructing your storyline of what the possible, probable and preferable futures may look like.
Thought from the Lifeguard’s Hut
Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past
– Karl Marx