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The Future of Futures
Anticipating tomorrow, demystifying the hype, making the ambient chaos a little more intelligible... Faced with a world in crisis, the futures industry is experiencing a 'big bang'!
Media taking on tomorrow
1.2 million— the number of times the term "trends" was searched on Google in May 2022, double the number five years ago. Let's face it: trends are trending — so trending that they've even been mocked on SNL in a recurring segment! In an information overloaded world, where one piece of information chases another, where uncertainty has become the only constant, being able to detect what tomorrow will be made of has become the talk of the town.
The agencies and consulting firms specialized in trends — I'm thinking in particular of WGSN, Future Laboratory, Peclers, NellyRodi, Trendwatching or Stylus & Co. — are now complemented by a renewed media offer acting as a mainstream cultural oracle. At Usbek et Rica, the French magazine that explores the future, the focus is on "making philosophical astonishment a new journalistic approach, preferring the virtues of wonder to those of morality". On the other side of the Atlantic, it is interesting to note that it is primarily the major media outlets that have taken on the subject under a very timely holistic and transdisciplinary prism. In 2015, the Wall Street Journal kicked off "The Future of Everything", a platform dedicated to future-oriented, multimedia content (magazine, podcast, festival, etc.) that explores how science, technology and innovation are changing our daily lives. In 2019, the ever-sharp New York Times launched "Op-Eds From the Future" where science fiction writers, futurists, philosophers and scientists imagine the editorials we might read in 10, 20 or even 100 years.
Since then, everything has been picking up speed fast. At the beginning of the year, Axios inaugurated its "What’s Next" newsletter with a dedicated event, while Vogue Business launched a TikTok trend tracker supported by exclusive data from a partnership with the social network. The idea? To highlight emerging creators and major trends driven by GenZ. And these examples are just a taste of the plethoric offer that is taking shape, sometimes with a Hollywood flair: the result of a collaboration between Netflix and The Verge, the docu-series "The Future Of" appeared in the streaming giant's catalog a few weeks ago... Mention should also be made of the Dubai Museum of the Future — opened in February — which aims to "travel through possible futures and bring hope and knowledge back to the present".
Trends to inform strategy
It must be said that in the current context of permacrisis, exploring visions of the future that transcend anxiety-provoking uncertainties has become a crucial issue, especially for companies. However, it is essential to be able to guarantee the relevance of such visions and, above all, their ability to fuel actionable strategies.
As Matt Klein, trend lead at Reddit and author of the Zine newsletter, very wisely explains, "Overwhelmed with data and headlines, we have more opportunities to connect the dots and identify trends. But without a framework or ability to actually differentiate worthy signal versus noise, we become conspirators cooking up meaningless and ephemeral things (...) It's not enough to just paint a picture of the zeitgeist. Analysts, consultants and service providers need to help their clients decode a trend’s drivers, opportunities and threats, and then strategize." A view shared by David Mattin: according to the trend expert and former Trendwatching consulting director, the pandemic has accelerated the growing awareness within many organizations of the need for some form of structured thinking around the future. "There is a necessary shift away from tactical trends and toward strategic thinking and transformation of organizations and systems. There is also a need for new and more rigorous ways to combine quantitative and qualitative data with future thinking," he says.
Thoroughness, of course, but above all, transparency. As Adrien Cadiot and Elodie Marteau of the independent foresight agency 2sight point out, "before, the way we worked was based more on an artistic approach where intuition and style predominated over recommendations and foresight scenarios. At least until Sam Cole's practices of envisioning, polling and forecasting. But today, the framework to be redefined is taking advantage of an opportunity that hardly existed in the past. The confidentiality of the sector that used to be its heyday is less present today," they analyze. "With more players in the trend market, competition has also led to sharing for a new generation of practitioners who are used to pooling and value transparency."
And this is already happening. Design fiction — which consists of imagining the future through different personified scenarios — is developing and experts are now appropriating it with their own sensitivity. The Near Future Laboratory collective, for example, is dedicating a podcast, a newsletter, and soon a book to it. As for the French innovation consulting agency 15 Marches, it regularly details and documents its methodology in weekly newsletters. However, keep in mind that design fiction does not have a monopoly on future strategies: the NGFP program — which positions itself as a foresight leadership accelerator program for foresight practitioners — has launched a call to identify, support and amplify other foresight methodologies.
It's also, in the broadest sense, about developing future-proof disruptive thinking. In the midst of the COVID crisis, Jeremy Gutsche, founder of Trend Hunter, published "Create the Future", a manual on innovation that lists his framework and tactics for thinking outside the box. Bob Johansen, former president of the American research center Institute for the Future, has published a book dedicated to what he calls "full-spectrum thinking", i.e., "the ability to look for patterns and clarity outside, across, beyond, or perhaps even without any box or category, while resisting false certainties and simplistic binary choices". It’s a way of thinking that, in short, cultivates the ability to notice something unseen, to reconsider something we took for granted, to look out for the weird, to do things differently. Tomorrow's soft skill at its finest?
The power of the collective
However, beware, since these new schemes cannot be imagined in the silo of a person or a company. While more and more companies will hire cultural analysts (a term that tends to be more representative than "futurist" or " foresight analyst") to better fit their internal mission/vision/goals with the cultures they want to align with, this is not without danger. As Matt Klein reminds us, "an effective cultural strategy must consider the horizontal. Therefore, if you are in an internal position working on a single brand, your work cannot be siloed. You must retain the freedom to explore outside your vertical. That’s where inspiration and disruption originates from."
And yet this does not prevent the development of more specialized offerings, such as Ultra Violet, a foresight agency specialized in the field of FemTech. Here, niches are fed by the strength of the collective. As Estefania Simon-Sasyk, founder of Mycelium, an innovation network in the field of gastronomy, explains, "we are witnessing the rise of transdisciplinarity, a crossing of borders to create a holistic framework that allows us to look complexity in the face".
This reality is well-understood by investment fund a16z, which last year launched its collaborative site "Future", intended to give a voice to entrepreneurs, investors and experienced forward thinkers. However, in the creator economy and Web3 era, other foresight collectives are emerging to give value back to the insight and its creator. Keely Galgano and Katie Drake, two innovation consultants, mention these foresight DAOs like @Radarxyz, which allows trend experts to find a community, or even to "own" one's ideas through tokenization and Web3 mechanics.
It’s a phenomenon that has been explored once again by Adrien Cadiot and Elodie Marteau, for whom "tokenization allows to give back a value to the production of methods and foresight scenarios, even if NFT schemes (editor's note: a reference to the NFTs by the former collective K-hole, which minted its famous concept of normcore into an NFT) are only symbolic, these symbols are necessary and will not be limited to the non-fungible token format. Giving value to what we detect is valuable."
Surely, as Corneille put it, “valor doesn't await the passing of years”. All the more so when it comes to foresight.
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