What do you use to look in the future?
Trends, Driving Forces or maybe Attractors?
You know the feeling. The media hypes a specific technology, telling us it will change everything. Then suddenly, it is forgotten. But then a surprising event occurs, and the trend is back more vital than ever — plausible and a social necessity.
Many elements of change define our society. Sometimes we hear about events that drive change or a revolution for new technology. Others search for “Black Swans” and/or explore the Technology’s Progressive reality with its Singularities. Finally, you might work with trends and have heard of “Driving Forces.” Let us now examine the key Types of Change.
Our reality summarizes numerous varieties of individual, societal, and technological changes. These small entities are entirely fluid. Each day, new variables die and are born. Some stay isolated or inactive; others connect and become part of a more significant shift. Reality is a soup of possibilities defined by its infinite elements and opportunities. It is also the base of what we define as truth. Over time, we create how we perceive reality. This interpretation of “what we believe we know” determines our present decisions and how we can imagine the future. So the objective is constantly expanding our perception of society, exploring the unknown, and broadening our view, driven by curiosity.
When variables from similar contexts start moving in a specific direction, we call them vectors (or emerging trends, weak signals). They represent forming patterns that are hard to validate for their longer-term implications. Yet scanning for weak signals acts as an early-warning system and identifies issues that should be validated. For example, vectors are used in foresight using Horizon Scanning. Still, they are also commercially exploited in the creative practice of Cool Hunting — spotting cultural trends — and exploring fast-changing elements such as color, style, and forms. Vectors may transform into critical trends, but we can only be confident if we follow up regularly.
If variables from increasingly heterogeneous contexts move in the same direction and gain momentum, then we talk about Trends. They can start in the past or present and represent a great pool of insights. Trends allow us to immerse ourselves in different contexts we might not have been aware of and investigate relationships between the other variables and vectors. In general, they illustrate value shifts already begun with existing underlying past logic. Trends are not the final delivery of a foresight process, but more represent the starting point to navigate and question further.
Only if we understand what drives the trend, contextualize it, and explore implications will its potential for the organization unfold. But time pressures and resource restrictions often don’t limit the process beyond high-level summaries. With thousands of organizations using the same “summarized” information, the strategic potential of trends is limited.
A countermovement is a measure opposed to any technological leap or social change. Whenever one social movement embraces change, another group works against it. In general, there is a countermovement to everything. For example, the women’s pro-choice movement is a countermovement to the anti-abortion movement; the fast-paced society with Slow Education, the European culture of welcoming migrants counters PEGIDA. Any change creates a counter-reaction, and we must explore how quickly it expands and its relevance to our research.
Although we cannot be sure about the future, we know about specific events. Structural Certainties represent mostly large scheduled international projects or happenings such as massive scientific projects, conventions, or sporting events like the Olympic Games, which have a set date with an outcome that changes the status quo.
For example, CERN — referring to the particle accelerator — was sure to be built, even when it suffered delays. China has announced it will make a super-super collider, initiating construction around 2020. Both change the research agenda. By knowing about the new structures, the scientific community starts to undertake further experiments that drive the research agenda even before the implementation of the event occurs. Other Structural Certainties are related to significant events of any subject matter. For example, hacking/security conventions like DEF CON or Black Hat keep pushing security limits and provoking what is possible and where vulnerabilities exist. They force the development of new technological solutions.
Drivers, or Driving Forces, represent one of the critical changes in the Portfolio of Changes. They combine several trends, early signs, and events (shocks) and share a common characteristic —momentum, moving together in a similar direction. They also represent structures with the highest probability of change.
We analyze Driving Forces by connecting different trend reports, understanding the implications of multiple events, causal layer analysis, or, for example, cross-impact analysis. In simpler terms, a process that connects several types of information/changes from different contexts.
A snapshot example of such a Driving Force is #humanization. We can see people connect in new collaborative networks, freelancers and startups striking out independently, and polarization of giant corporations with many smaller ones. Where smaller organizations focus on contextualized value generation, larger ones create technological structures. At the same time, with the progress of AI and robotic research, we see that the automation of processes will liberate many individuals, enabling them to change and create different values.
Abilities normal in the past will arise again, only differently, such as creativity, intuition, critical thinking, synthesizing, and defining the right questions. We see increasing mental illness, and pharmaceutical corporations are doing less research on new drugs for psychiatric medicine. Mental illness, and especially depression, will challenge us. Still, revitalizing communities, personal contact, and support networks is a critical step for balancing this. Technology, such as Virtual/Augmented reality, will give us access to new realities, allowing us to walk in the shoes of others and increasing our understanding and level of empathy.
Driving Forces are a bundle, a mix of changes that define a critical transformation. Still, they can also die, reduce speed, change their composition, or speed up suddenly. This is why the Portfolio of Changes cannot be static but has to be part of a validation process integrated into the organizational strategic formulation and implementation process.
John Quincy Stewart, an American astrophysicist, first introduced Attractors to social physics around 1947. He suggests the concept of “gravitational forces” that affect and attract more people. Today, logic is fundamental to finding significant yet nested societal changes. We don’t know when and if they start moving and changing our reality, so they are part of the Possible Future.
Attractors are a “gravitational force” that describes the accumulation of changes around a Key Topic. This can be a technology, a change in values, or events that took place. Attractors don’t draw attention but instead slowly accumulate or move… but this can change abruptly.
Such Attractors are, for example, food scarcity, depression, or Carbon Nanotubes, calling for entrepreneurs, scientists, or networks to experiment and research until their action triggers movement. This can come from many developments, such as technological breakthroughs, new commercial applications, an increasing community, or media attention.
A stimulus that crosses a threshold is enough to transform an Attractor into a “wildfire” or even a “Gray Swan,” one of those “small changes that can make a difference” or so-called “tipping points.” As Attractors build up slowly, the organization might argue that the transformation is already integrated into their strategy or deny that the change exists. Interestingly, positive Black Swans build up slowly, and the opportunity passes if we are not exposed to them. Then, all the connected variables suddenly shift together, creating a strong momentum and changing the game’s rules. In the case of the mentioned Carbon Nanotubes, the tip would represent a technological breakthrough that allows mass production and economic feasibility not in around 20 years but in 5. By doing so, superior technologies, from body modification to new materials, will become mainstream and create a new reality. We might not foresee the “when,” but we can increase our awareness and preparedness for the changes. We don’t know when they’ll start to move, but dramatic changes will result when they do.
Summary of the changes: Before we explore the future and the present changes, we have to question the reasons why critically. Are you worried about possible shocks and risks that might challenge your business logic? Do you want to shape the future reality proactively? Is it a combination of the two?
All valid options. The decision of how much risk or opportunity to consider defines what types of information we utilize in our research and what is part of the Portfolio of Changes.
Risk awareness follows an underlying resilience strategy, which focuses on mitigating shock and stress and increasing preparedness to act using emergency protocols or similar. The primary goal isn’t new value generation but increasing readiness for Gray Swans or other disrupting events. The final delivery of a risk strategy is developing risk policies/protocols. In such a scenario, the foresight process should explore Attractors more intensively than Drivers.
Suppose the strategic choice is a focus on identifying new value opportunities and creating new offerings. In that case, the process should prioritize Driving Forces. This supports proactively identifying how the organization can adapt and explore new value for stakeholders. Yet, it shall not let Attractors out of sight, as they might disrupt the path to the future and, with it, the opportunity for Value Generation.
The organization must define where priorities lie. This decision contextualizes and prioritizes specific paths to the future.