What do you use to look in the future?
Trends, Driving Forces or maybe Attractors?
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.
Understanding Different Types of Change, 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 comprises 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 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 represent the starting point to navigate and question further.
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.
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 critical for balancing this. Technology, such as Virtual/Augmented reality, will give us access to new facts, allowing us to walk in the shoes of others and increasing our understanding and level of empathy.
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 will 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 or, as we see in 2023, the wave of gAI (Updates 2023), 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. Then, all the connected variables suddenly shift together, creating a solid 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.
Before delving into the future and present changes, it is essential to examine the underlying reasons critically. For example, are you concerned about potential shocks and risks that may challenge your business model? Do you aim to shape the future landscape proactively? Or is it a blend of both?All options are valid. The decision regarding how much risk or opportunity to consider determines the types of information we use in our research and what comprises the Portfolio of Changes.
Risk awareness is grounded in a resilience strategy, concentrating on mitigating shocks and stress while enhancing preparedness through emergency protocols or similar measures. The primary objective is not new value creation but increased readiness for Gray Swans or other disruptive events. In such a scenario, the foresight process should prioritize Attractors over Drivers.
On the other hand, if the strategic focus is on identifying new value opportunities and developing novel offerings, the process should emphasize Driving Forces. This approach aids in proactively pinpointing how the organization can adapt and explore new value for stakeholders. Nevertheless, it should not disregard Attractors, as they may disrupt the path to the future and, consequently, the potential for value generation.
Ultimately, the organization must establish its priorities. This decision helps contextualize and prioritize specific paths to the future.