Why it's worth thinking in trends

Sensemaking / Why it's worth thinking in trends

We need to understand the process of change, so that we can influence it, says James Goodman.

By James Goodman / 26 Jan 2015

“Life is flux”, wrote Heraclitus, 2,500 years ago. Nothing has changed on that front. The world is in constant flux, altering in ways that are often baffling and unimaginable until they happen.

We need to understand as much as we can about the process of change, so that we can influence it. Identifying and tracking trends – from global population growth to the rise of non-communicable diseases – can help to break a very complex picture down into manageable chunks.

We have to be wary when thinking in this way: in reality no trend exists in isolation but is connected to many other trajectories. And there’s always an element of subjectivity in how we identify and narrate trends. Even so, trends give us a good starting point for imagining what the future might be like, and asking how we would like to shape it.

Take the increasing trend towards ‘augmented humans’ as an example. It’s fascinating to think about how advanced prosthetics, performance-enhancing drugs, neural implants and all manner of wearable networked technologies might change our lives in the future. How could this affect healthcare and medical ethics? How might it affect policing? Could it seriously exacerbate the already growing gap between rich and poor? At some point, might there be a move to integrate digitally networked, augmented humans with smart, connected cities? The imagination begins to fire up – and that’s OK: imagination is a route to stepping out of the constraints of current systems and coming up with better, more sustainable, solutions.

That is why Forum for the Future has made public the 30+ trends that are most important to us in the work we do. You can access them all on our new Futures Centre platform: for each one, we explain what we mean by them, and describe their current trajectories with reference to the latest and most authoritative data. Crucially, we explore their implications, for business, governments and other organisations, and for the long-term wellbeing of our societies and ecosystems. We also track how they evolve, and look for ‘signals of change’: new developments that might affect the path the trend ultimately takes. These signals are themselves changing all the time.

Any set of trends is imperfect, and should come with a long list of caveats. Our selection is based primarily on what has come up in our work over the past decade. Some of the trends you’ll see on the Futures Centre related clearly and directly to sustainability. ‘Ecosystems in decline’ is one such example. Ecosystems provide essential goods and services, such as clean water or pollination by insects, which sustain both human and non-human life. They are being systematically undermined as a result of pollution, habitat loss, climate change, poor land management and a welter of other factors. This is clearly important for companies to understand: not only does it threaten their ability to operate but they also have an essential role in doing something about it. For ‘ecosystems in decline’, one signal of change is the emergence of an embryonic ‘net positive’ movement, in which companies aim not just to reduce their environmental impact but to restore natural systems.

We also follow trends that may seem to have less to do with sustainability at first sight: for example, we include ‘global economic shifts’ and ‘public perceptions of science and technology’. Neither of these are, as yet, likely to appear in a company’s sustainability strategy, but both have a huge influence on the context within which organisations operate. Some of the trends we feature are long-established, such as ‘population growth’ and ‘urbanisation’. Others are recent or are still emerging, such as ‘distributed manufacturing’ or ‘ubiquity of data’. Read them, use them, share them and comment on them, so they can become ever better starting points for imagining a sustainable future.

James Goodman is Director of Futures at Forum for the Future

Image credit: We are all the same - by Steve Jones

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