Dr Seuss, futurist?

By Robert Hickson 27/11/2013

Once you’ve read one mega trend report, you’ve read ’em all. Or so it often seems. This is a point succinctly made by Spencer & Salvatico. They suggest that the popularity of publications on trends is because

“… many people believe trends to be the beating heart of futures thinking and foresight.”

You can go to town analyzing mega trends (ie long term trends, such as an increasingly older national population, likely to influence a broad range of factors).  That often appeals to the commercial and government sectors who may like the illusion of certainty from an apparently robust analysis. Spencer & Salvatico note that conditions have changed, and the focus of foresight should too.

“Pinpointing and analyzing Mega Trends sounds like a great way to adjust strategy or develop a competitive innovation portfolio, but it has become an outdated practice in the 21st-century landscape of convergence, complexity, and disruptive creativity.”

They make a good point. A big failing in futures is the consultants producing a nice glossy/interactive trend report for the leadership team who then don’t change that much at all. However, Spencer & Salvatico seem a bit hard on trend analysis – focussing more on the quick end of year “top trends in X for next year” types of articles, rather than giving some acknowledgement to the more thoughtful mega trend reports that have been produced, and have subsequently been used to good effect.

Trend analyses are useful if they are part of a bigger piece of futures work. Such trend reports serve to make their audience aware that its not going to be business/policy as usual. As I noted in my post from last week, its the questions that such analyses raise that are the useful bit. But I whole heartedly agree that describing trends is not enough.

They note that important components of any foresight or futures activities should be

  • Identifying values that underpin trends – so you can understand and not just describe
  • Exploring the implications of trends – this is usually a given in good mega trend analysis, but it is the hardest part
  • Systems thinking – this is all the rage now, but certainly we aren’t very good at it currently
  • Design – don’t be passive, bring action into play to help you shape the future
  • Aspirations – don’t be agnostic, be clear about the type of future you want
  • Guiding narrative – to tie all these together and help explain where we’ve come from and where we are going. [Narrative, in my opinion, is already in danger of becoming an over-used phrase in many fields, but it is still often the most effective means for grabbing the CEOs or Minister’s attention, and giving them something they can use in their discussions]

They use Dr Seuss’s On Beyond Zebra! to illustrate their main point – don’t stop when you have described your trends.

Some would possibly consider The Lorax as Dr Seuss’s futures piece. I hadn’t heard of On Beyond Zebra!, but S&S use it to illustrate that futures work shouldn’t be too constrained by our current conditions and commonly held views. One of the boys in the story invents letters beyond Z, and great fun and creativity ensue. So too, hopefully, with 21st century foresighting (as well as making our world better).