Future Shock!


I have always been fascinated by people who write about the future, about how things would be thirty, fifty or hundred years from now.  There are futurists who had written about changes that would happen in the future and they have been proved right. On the other hand, since forecasting is tricky business, there are others who have got things pretty wrong.

In the late 19th century and early 20th century, we had writers like Edward Bellamy, Jules Verne and H. G. Wells who, though not identified as futurists, painted pictures of the future through their writings. 20th century science fiction writers such as Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke and Frank Herbert, too, described the future as they envisioned it.

During and after World War II, ‘futurist’ consulting institutions like RAND and SRI began to engage in long-range planning, systematic trend watching, scenario development, and visioning, first for the government and later for companies. It was from that time that the foundation of the modern futures studies took root.

Trendspotting is something that marketers should take seriously. I remember how we had bought a report on the likely future trends in India that had been prepared by one of the better research agencies. The trends were sensible enough for us to gain some valuable insights on the likely changes in consumer behaviour and habits in urban and rural India.

There are some futurists that I have followed carefully. Of course, some of them wrote their best works years ago so what they had to say then have now either been ratified or have still not seen the light of day. And some have written about things that may not be of relevance to you and your line of business. But it is still instructive to know what they had predicted; some have come eerily true!

The two futurists that I would recommend that you get to know better are Faith Popcorn and Alvin Toffler. Popcorn is still very active and has her own successful firm – Brainreserve – that comes out with future trends. Alvin Toffler wrote his seminal book ‘Future Shock’ in 1970; many of the predictions that he made at that time have come true.

Faith Popcorn: Faith Popcorn was once dubbed the ‘Nostradamus of marketing’ by Fortune magazine. Today, she has a number of multinational corporations as her clients. Over the years, she has come out with a number of future trends relating to how people live, work and shop.

  • She was the one who spotted the emerging trend of ‘cocooning,’ in which people overloaded with stimulation tend to stay at home and watch videos instead of going to movie theatres, and have take-out food from restaurants delivered to their addresses.
  • She accurately predicted that many women who had gained professional opportunities eventually would become disillusioned with the corporate ‘rat race’ and quit in search of healthier, simpler lives.
  • Popcorn had also predicted the rising demand for cosmetic surgery, tattooing and other forms of body modification.
  • Popcorn had predicted that young consumers would begin rejecting name brands and altering designer clothes and logos to express their individuality; this trend has yet to take hold.

Faith Popcorn has recently come out with her ‘17 Trends That Reveal the Future.’ You can read about them here.

Alvin Toffler: Toffler’s amazing 1970 book ‘Future Shock.’ written 45 years ago, had predictions that today’s marketers can learn from even today.

  • Toffler argued that society would undergo an enormous structural change, a revolution from an industrial society to a ‘super-industrial society.’ This change would overwhelm people. He believed that the accelerated rate of technological and social change would leave people disconnected and suffering from ‘shattering stress and disorientation’—future shocked. Toffler stated that the majority of social problems would be symptoms of future shock. In his discussion of the components of such shock, he popularized the term ‘information overload.’
  • The increasingly fast pace of technological progress – in particular, the rise of computers – could be a disruptive force in society, because many people would struggle to keep up with changes they found bewildering and disorienting. Toffler also advanced the idea that rapid change could fundamentally alter how humans interacted with one another. The result? A state of being what Toffler calls ‘high transience,’ in which relationships would last for shorter and shorter periods of time, and people, ideas and organizations would get ‘used up’ more and more quickly. In that world of increasing impermanence, Toffler predicted that consumers would increasingly evolve into a ‘throw-away society,’ buying disposable products designed to fill temporary needs, driven by fads that were consciously created to stimulate buying.
  • Toffler also predicted: ‘Ironically, the people of the future may suffer not from an absence of choice, but from a paralysing surfeit of it. They could turn out to be the victims of that peculiar super-industrial dilemma: overchoice.’ We in India are still not in the unenvious situation that many in the West and some other countries find themselves in – overchoice. Overchoice leads to unnecessary complexity and wastage of time for the consumer. In the next few years, India will possibly reach a similar situation and it would be critical for brands to ‘simplify’ themselves to get consumers to choose them over competitive brands. Increasingly, companies are working towards simplifying their brands, systems and processes.
  • The design of goods would become outdated quickly. (And so, for example, a second generation of computers appears before the end of the expected period of usability of the first generation). It would be possible to rent almost everything (from a ladder to a wedding dress), thus eliminating the need for ownership.
  • Whole branches of industry would die off and new branches of industry arise. This would impact unskilled workers who would be compelled to change their residence to find new jobs. The constant change in the market would also pose a problem for advertisers who would have to deal with moving targets.
  • To follow transient jobs, people would become nomads. For example, immigrants from Algeria, Turkey and other countries would go to Europe to find work. Transient people would be forced to change residence, phone number, school, friends, car license, and contact with family. As a result, relationships would tend to be superficial with a large number of people, instead of being intimate or close relationships that are more stable.

Good marketers always have a pulse on the present and the future. Understanding the changes that are likely to happen, in the quasi-long run at least, would give marketers an added advantage in many aspects of marketing, including product development. So do spend quality time reading about what futurists have said or are saying.

Sources: Wikipedia; 10 of the World’s Most Groundbreaking Futurists – howstuffworks.com.

Visual courtesy: https://www.flickr.com/photos/hckyso/

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This article was written by andy

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