Spotting trends: the tricks used by trend catchers

"Research is to see what everybody else has seen, and think what nobody has thought." In essence, this quote from Albert Szent-Györgyi, Hungarian scientist and Nobel Prize winner in 1937, sums up what trend detection is all about quite well.

Numerous experts, true predictors of the future, have made it their mission to identify the strong and weak signals that infuse our society. What do they have in common? A thirst for discovery, boundless curiosity but also, and this is important, a certain sense of imagination. I went to meet some of these modern-day explorers from all across the globe — among the best trend analysts of our time — to find out more about their best practices. Here are their stories.

1. David Mattin: Serving Human Needs.

My approach to trends is all about the collision between a changing world and fundamental human needs. Essentially, I’m on the lookout for how emerging technologies are unlocking new ways to serve the fundamental needs we all share, such as convenience, value, security and status.

One way to spot that happening is simply to look to new products, services and experiences that serve a basic need in a new way. Look, for example, at the way that NFTs are making possible ownership of new kinds of virtual objects that are exclusive and thus serve people’s need for status, in the same way that a designer handbag or expensive car has done in the past. This new expression of the age-old quest for status – and these new virtual status symbols – are an emerging trend.

Another method that I’ve been interested in recently is looking to the patents that big technology companies and others are filing. This gives you a look ahead at the experiments innovators are attempting when it comes to using new technologies to serve fundamental needs. Earlier this year, for example, it was reported that Microsoft has been filing patents around a planned AI-powered chatbot that will emulate the personality of loved ones who have died. Obviously that sounds creepy as hell, but it is also founded in the deep human need for emotional connection, so it’s worth thinking about.

At its broadest, my trend spotting advice is to think at least as hard about people and their shared nature as you do about new technologies. Futurists and trend spotters tend to get hung up on the next exciting shiny object. But trend spotting is really about asking: how can this technology give people something they have always wanted?

David Mattin is the founder of New World Same Humans, a newsletter about trends, technology and society that reaches 18K inboxes each week.

2. Katelyn Donnelly: The Avalanche Metaphor.

  1.  Listen. Listen deeply to what your friends do and what they say, mainly when it's on the fringe of something you don't understand.

  2. Pay attention to pain points. What generates complaints? Where is there pain and annoyance? Where does the pain point seem to be compounding on itself? There is often an emerging trend that is the inverse of another long-standing pattern. For example, we know the cost of university tuition has been going up for the last 20 years at 4x+ the rate of inflation while the value of a college degree in the market has remained stagnant. The price of university tuition is not going down any time soon, nor is that trend line changing. So, pressure is building underneath the surface. Similarly, with psychedelics as medicine, we see mental health issues like depression and PTSD on the constant rise while the existing treatments have low efficacy. There are large incentives on all sides for that problem to be solved. That means that society might be more open to treatments that were once disregarded and stigmatized for reasons of narrative and politics rather than logic.

  1. What I like about the avalanche metaphor is that you look for the minor changes under the surface. Timing is the most tricky part, but you know eventually there is a build-up that will force a major change.

Katelyn Donnelly invests in trends in the future of work, learning and ownership at Avalanche. You can find her at http://katelyndonnelly.com or on Twitter @krdonnelly.

3. Matt Klein: Never Discount Age. 

I have three little tricks to spot trends that aren't really common practice

  1. Firstly, check job boards. Job boards of your brands' competitors and job boards of innovative companies. Oftentimes roadmaps are exposed... for free... for all. What's about to be built, but not known, is frequently revealed. 

  2. Secondly, browse Kickstarter and Indiegogo identifying wildly founded projects. What this reveals are concepts, products or services, which don't exist in the market, but people are dying for. This is pure innovation. Leverage accordingly, though. Don't squash the upstarts. 

  3. And thirdly, connect with the youths. Whether it's via online forums or siblings or nephews, pick the brains of those far out of your stratosphere (directly or indirectly). They're consuming media you're likely not exposed to, and speaking in ways which sound foreign. What they care about today, will soon bubble into something larger tomorrow. Never discount age

Matt Klein works as a Trend Analyst at Reddit. He writes a newsletter analyzing cultural trends and our relationship with tech.

4. Noémie Aubron: Fiction Serving Perspective.

I am more interested in behavioral changes than in trends. That's why I don't focus on data but on "connecting the dots" and listening to aspirations.

1. Look for unexpected intersections.

I explore a few verticals quite finely, including the evolution of our career aspirations. I listen to how experts analyze the future of work, but also how sociologists interpret the main lines of fracture in our society, or how designers try to solve these problems. At the same time, I observe what the youngest, the smartest and the weirdest are doing. The future certainly already exists among them. All of this brings me to the intersection of topics that are rarely related to work. Where, finally, change emerges.

2.  Filter by also considering what won't change.

We often think of a trend as something new. But it is, above all, the alignment between this emergence, a spirit of the moment and the great invariants of human nature. We will always need security, a social link, a status... Using the question "What if, tomorrow...?" allows us to articulate these observations. What if, tomorrow, we generalized this trend? Would a fundamental human need be satisfied?

3. Bringing perspective through fiction.

I use narrative to make these standouts tangible. What would this trend look like if it became mainstream? What new balances would it create, politically or sociologically? Who would support it, who would oppose it? What would be the new uses, words or behaviors? Embodying these changes in a personified way allows us to draw the thread of possible consequences.

Noémie Aubron is the creator of the French newsletter "La Mutante" and director of the innovation agency 15marches. At the intersection of society and digital, she explores behavioral changes and possible futures through fiction.

5. Rhiannon Jones: Adopting New Approaches.

FemTech, women's and marginalized health requires a unique understanding of the varied influences and influencers driving innovation forward. Since launching the first and only future forecasting agency in this space, I’ve really had to challenge myself to go back to the basics of forecasting methodology and unpack some of the processes that have, over the years, become second nature to me.

Tracking innovation in an area that is shrouded in taboos means having to adopt new approaches. Trends, even at their peak, are not as visible as in markets such as fashion or interiors. There are some amazing brands and influencers out there driving the conversation forward, but if you really want to find the early adopters, then you must infiltrate beta programs, track clinical trials and be a part of the brand communities where the mavens are working in conjunction with brands to improve products in order to gain proof of concept prior to fundraising.

It’s also important for us to consider the entire ecosystem, understanding not only how consumer attitudes are shifting, but how investor attitudes are becoming more evolved. We’ve seen some incredible innovations halted due to the short-sightedness of male investors (as well as some wholly unnecessary innovations scoop up sizeable cash prizes).

As a result, our forecasts take on a different role to that of any industry I’ve worked in before as they are not only geared to brands and businesses, but to investors and funds who are looking to make purposeful investments by understanding the future consumer in this rapidly evolving market.

Rhiannon is the co-founder and futures director of Ultra Violet Futures, the first and only future forecasting agency specializing in FemTech, women's and marginalized health innovation. To download her latest study on the Future of Cycle Care.

6. Petah Marian: Social Psychology.

My process tends to be very much oriented around the macro and then distilling it down to the micro, and joining dots between different things to come up with the next big thing. My approach tends to be very informed by psychology (which is what I studied at university). If x or y happens, then how will people feel and what will they want off the back of that? And then I look at the innovations that are taking place in the market and see where those ideas intersect. I am spending more time on TikTok, but I'm pretty concerned that the algorithm is directing my experience.

For instance, one of the things I picked up early on in the pandemic was the rise of collective compound trauma, this idea that all of these negative emotional experiences were going to place us under a space of ongoing threat — from Covid, to police violence, but then also to an increased sense of financial insecurity, climate instability... so on and so forth and that this would be an ongoing state that would color people's judgements for a long time.

And from that came a number of recommendations around how businesses should respond. For instance, I predicted a rise in compassion fatigue, so businesses would have to shift away from strategies that position purchasing as a charitable act, and reduce cognitive load through simpler choice architecture, as well ensuring that messaging doesn't create a sense of toxic positivity.

On the positive side, that it would lead to post-traumatic growth, and that businesses should start to ensure that they are empowering entrepreneurs as people look to create businesses that are more meaningful to them.

Petah Marian is a futurist who describes herself as "fascinated by humans." She is the founder of Future Narrative, a strategic futures agency.

7. Sarah Owen: Shape-Memory Trends.

While there's no perfect formula for trend forecasting, just like there isn't a measured recipe for creating viral memes, I've developed my own methodology that keeps me focused on the fringe. The fringe of societies, sectors and subcultures, is where a lot of early indicators emerge, and the ability to embrace pattern recognition that goes beyond category, region or demographics helps to understand trends in both a micro → macro + macro → micro context.

At SOON Future Studies, we have built a databank that has a detailed tagging and taxonomy system so we can start to synthesize and contextualize signals into holistic trends and narratives. I might save an Instagram post by a 3D designer who is exploring aesthetics for the metaverse, collect a signal on Reddit that details anecdotal evidence on people's evolving relationship with the current economic system, or track a new product release by a beauty brand that highlights their pivot into the wellness industry.

Pattern recognition becomes part of your muscle memory and it's almost impossible to turn it off. I can't stop connecting themes in my head. The trick is to have a system that allows you to capture and contextualize those signals in a way that tells a bigger, more zoomed in — but also zoomed out — story.

Sarah Owen is a futurist, specializing in assisting organizations with strategic foresight, scenario planning and trend analysis. To follow her news on LinkedIn, click here.

“See what everybody else has seen, and think what nobody has thought.”

Yes it’s true, but there is more to it. These testimonies demonstrate the richness of the discipline and also highlight the need to do, sometimes, things differently. Because if you search where everyone else is searching, you will inevitably find what everyone else is finding.

This is my opportunity to announce that I am working on a book on trend detection to be released in 2022. I'll tell you more soon.

Until then, stay curious :)

Marie

PS: If you are interested by the topic of trend detection, you can read my previous posts like this one, or that one.

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