Being neither the beginning of a decade nor the much-awaited 2012 when finally , the London Olympics will be upon us, it is not surprising that a number of trend watchers are attempting to jazz up the idea of 2011 with a breathless list of coming trends. Actually, just from a publicity perspective, such lists are not a bad idea given the acres of news print journalists have to continue to fill at what is a generally a slow news period although this year, it seems that the continuing cold weather and snow may well be enough to plug the gap ad nauseam, if recent news programmes are anything to judge by.
The challenge for us at the Future Foundation in response to journalistic approaches for content is that our trends aren’t just for the New Year. Any trend worth its salt, as we highlighted in an earlier post, has to be strong enough for at least a three year period to make it beyond our nascent trend lab for nVision (now called nVitro) and therefore a one year time horizon can seem too short and insignificant. In one year, we can expect to see a shift in emphasis, fads and fashions accentuated and new sentiments emerge in response to shifting political and economic conditions – but not a genuine trend playing out across the full gamut of possibilities. Thus we can be sure that Maximising, War on Waste and the Quantified Self are all going to remain big in 2011 – but it isn’t really news.
But there is a serious question that comes up again and again – particularly on scenario or strategic futures projects, when it isn’t just trends that we are looking at, but the creation of a holistic, logically consistent future world that is sufficiently different from today to inspire the imagination and serve as basis for decision making and strategy formulation. The Future of Insight report, published last month by the Future Foundation, identified that more and more insight teams are going to be acting as the think tank within – and if this is the case, the question of the most appropriate timescale will become pertinent to creating useful company-wide scenarios. Simply put, the question is how long should the future time horizon for a project be?
Having worked on over 200 futures projects in my 20 years as a forecaster – with time horizons ranging from 5 years to 350,000 (the half life of radioactive waste, which was the subject of a unique project for Nirex) – there are some general guidelines to bear in mind, although many projects just end up getting targeted for a year with nice ring to it at some sufficiently distant date to represent the future – 2020, 2025 or 2030 are all doing quite well at the moment!
By and large, it is a challenge to really create scenarios for anything less than 10 years into future, since scenario work is about describing alternative future worlds. Less than ten years can’t really provide the opportunity to imagine things being substantially different, except perhaps with technology applications. However, if there is any ambition to include quantitative measures, going beyond 10 years can be a challenge on the forecasting front. Thus selecting a 20, 30 and even 50 (which we worked to on our Rural Futures scenarios for DEFRA) years suggest that the scenarios are designed to highlight big issues, underlying drivers and encourage long term thinking in the organisation. We found fifty years quite a stretch, but they did work to focus the mind on some radically different possible outcomes – using blue sky thinking and inviting contributions from a range of academic and long term thinkers.
Ideally too, strategic futures projects should have a minimum of a 5 year time horizon. But these often end up with a shorter term focus due to pressures on businesses and organisations and the tyranny of the three-year planning cycle. And certainly if the purpose of a project is to generate ideas for product and service developments with immediate effect then a three year view can be feasible. The question is whether resources can be mobilised fast enough to get products or services into the market to capitalise on the emerging opportunity ahead of competitors. Many of our future proofing projects (now called nViable) are really about identifying consumer needs in this time span – the emphasis increasingly in such projects is how to turn this into actionable insight and develop tangible outcomes.
The very long term view is always interesting to contemplate, and can be essential in some areas of policy and resource planning. The Nirex work we were involved in was designed exploring how consumers respond to the idea of the very long term in order to help make decisions about where radioactive waste should be stored in the short term. Actually, it proved that people are able to get to grips with these issues given the right information and conducive circumstances to think about it and debate. Scenarios for the longer time scales are invaluable to encouraging deep thought about the environment, societal values, equity and ethics in decision making, which can benefit us all, which makes me think – perhaps we shouldn’t be obsessed with what 2011 should bring, but treat this time as a chance to think about where we are all going to be in 20, 30 or even, 50 years time. What will your brand and business be doing? Will you still be relevant, thriving and valuable to your customers in their changing lives? If the answer is no – perhaps now is the time to start imagining that world and what your place it in it might be like.