No future like the present
The art and science of trend forecasting
“Are you an astrologer? Maybe some other kind of fortune teller? What can you tell me about fashion trends? How about entertainment trends?”
When I started trend forecasting, these are the types of questions that people asked me. I would reply that I was neither a fortune teller, tarot card reader or astrologer. In fact, I was not predicting the future. Rather, my work was to analyze the myriad social, geo-political, cultural and economic events that occur daily. My mission was to assess their implications and forecast how those trends would affect us near and long term. To me it was quite simple: cause and effect.
But before I could fully explain my unique Globalnomics® methodology that identifies, analyzes and synthesizes information from over 300 trend categories on a macro level, I had lost them.
The initial reaction to my work was a bit startling. I could not understand why so many seemingly open-minded, intelligent people were offended by the concept that forecasting trends extended beyond fashion, music and pop culture. What put them on the defensive?
We can see it in our own lives. We are who we are and we live the lives we do as a consequence of our actions. The same holds true for a society. Individually and collectively, our actions and inactions shape our destiny.
And then there are the wild cards. Despite all the analysis and the most sophisticated models, no one can predict the wild cards. Thus, no one can predict the future.
In fact, as I was writing this passage, my good friend Joseph Hurwitz nearly died. Fit, smart, athletic and in his 70’s, Joseph was a crew member on a sailboat competing in a race on the Hudson River. The winds were blowing at about 25 knots from all directions. Suddenly, the winds shifted. The boom swung into Joseph’s chest, knocking him overboard. Luckily, a crew member had the sense to throw him a life-preserver. And fortunately, Joseph kept his cool. He was not seriously hurt. He was able to swim to the donut and hang on until the boat picked him up.
Had the situation unfolded just a bit differently — if the boom had hit Joseph in the head or a crew member hadn’t seen what happened — I would be attending his funeral.
The other wild card was that the sailing team, despite having an insurmountable lead before Joseph was knocked overboard, ended up in last place.
A wild boom, a wild card — it’s all the same. No one can predict them and that’s why no one can predict the future. Hurricanes, tornadoes, cyclones, flooding, wars, murder, illness, accidents — the best laid plans of mice and men often go astray.
There’s No Future Like the Present
I began forecasting trends in those 1980’s pre-globalization days when America was still the undisputed World Superpower. The prevailing corporate, business and political mindset was, “Why plan ahead in an era of planned obsolescence?”
To keep consumers consuming, durable goods were manufactured with deliberate levels of low quality so that they would break down and have to be replaced. Besides, since there was no competitive foreign threat to its corporate/ industrial dominance, American business could do as it pleased.
As a young man in the early 1970’s, I remember the implicit warnings I received from my boss when I joined the corporate ranks: “Welcome aboard, don’t rock the boat.” Another of his often repeated lines was, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Needless to say, having been taught by my dear father, may his soul rest in peace, to “Think for yourself,” and as a boat-rocker since childhood (I ran away from kindergarten), I didn’t have it in me to be a “yes man.” So, after working as the assistant to the Secretary of the New York State Senate, designing and teaching a course in American Politics and Campaign Technology at St. John’s University, and serving several years as a government affairs specialist for the chemical industry and as the number two man in an international trade association, I took my knowledge and experience with me and went on to create my own future.
I incorporated my business in New York in 1981 under the name, The Socio-Economic Research Institute of America, to identify, forecast and analyze socio-economic, geo-political, business, consumer, environmental and cultural trends. (I’ve been at it longer than just about anyone else in the profession.)
As with most start ups, the first several years of my trend forecasting business were both rewarding and challenging. But I never wavered in my belief that current events formed future trends. My model, as I would learn later, was an extension of what Friedrich von Schiller, the 18th century German poet, playwright and philosopher observed over 200 years ago: “In today, already walks tomorrow.”
And, as with any skill, the more I practiced the better I got at it. And since I study my trade virtually every day, my skills base keeps evolving and expanding. The more I study, the more I learn.
I believe that if you miss three days of studying the current events that are forming future trends, it’s like walking into the second act of a play. If you don’t know how it started, you cannot understand how the trends evolved and assess where they’re going.
By the mid-1980s, as “trends” were becoming more trendy, thanks in part to some bestselling trend books (including my 1988 Trend Tracking — “Far Better than Megatrends” — Time magazine), I was widely featured in the media. I also began providing customized trend forecasts to multi-national corporations, teaching trend forecasting skills to businesses and making the rounds as a keynote speaker to businesses, governments, and trade and professional associations around the world.
I scored national recognition when my January 1987 forecast that the stock market would crash before year’s end came to pass:
“Not long ago in this space, the Socio Economic Research Institute of America, based in the sleepy Hudson River community of Rhinebeck, N.Y., was credited with predicting last Jan. 20 that a world stock market collapse was likely in 1987.”
The Wall Street Journal, 11 November 1987
One after another, I was calling trends and making forecasts that proved both accurate and timely. I spoke and wrote about the growing gap between rich and poor in my book Trend Tracking and how it would create a “bi-modal” consumer marketplace long before the Walmarts, Family Dollars and other deep discounters swept the nation.
From organic food, to health food stores, to “clean foods” (a term I coined in the early 1990s), to bottled water and gourmet coffee, I saw the trends coming, showed where they were heading and how businesses could seize the profit opportunities they presented.
I remember the joy I felt when Gary Abatelli (an original member of the Institute) and I walked into a new health food store in the West Village in New York in the 1980s. The owner, having recognized me from media exposure, said that thanks to me, he had quit his job as an advertising executive and opened a health food store. It became a huge success. He eventually sold it for a small fortune.
It wasn’t until the early 1990s when being “on-trend” and knowing the “next big thing” was recognized as a vital business strategy, that we changed our name to The Trend Research Institute. But even today, as much as business, government and the media talk “trends” and “trending,” they’re mainly concerned with empty passing fads.
And most professional trend forecasters in the business sector focus on products and consumers. There are no top-level government positions, such as Secretary of Trends and Consequences. And with few exceptions, “How to identify, track and forecast trends” is not taught at universities.
Then and Now
While much of our work is still marketing and product oriented, a significant cultural shift has strongly influenced the entire field of trends.
Geopolitics: Go back to the 1980’s. “Terrorism” wasn’t ingrained in mainstream culture. Security and surveillance were not concerns. People could board airplanes, go to concerts or sporting events — go anywhere they wanted — without being patted down, felt up and sent through metal detectors.
By the early 1990’s, the Cold War was over, and with it “The End of History,” the false belief of a new era in which “Western liberal democracy would dominate as the final form of human government.”
History has not ended, but it is repeating itself. The War on Terror and Al Qaeda have replaced the Red Scare. Speaking to Marines at Camp Pendleton in early August, President Obama declared, “Al Qaeda affiliates and like-minded extremists still threaten our homeland.”
And, the Cold War is again heating up. President Barack Obama recently canceled a scheduled summit meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. This was the first time since the end of the Cold War that the US canceled a scheduled meeting with a Russian leader. The White House said that, in part, the president would not meet with Mr. Putin because of “Russia’s disappointing decision” to grant whistleblower Edward Snowden temporary asylum.
Globalization: The brave new world of globalization has changed the entire industrial, commercial and consumer landscape. Back in 1980, multinationals, free trade and outsourcing were not major business or employment considerations. In 1992, for example, a dozen European nations merged into a united trading bloc. According to a late 1988 Commerce Department survey, four out of five American senior executives didn’t know about the changes to come with a united Europe. And, as of June 1989, three out of four American industrial companies didn’t have a strategic plan to deal with them.
China — the 10th largest economy back in 1988; number two in 2013 — was not even accepted into the World Trade Organization until 2001.
While both geopolitics and globalization are commonly understood and recognized today as the way of the world, it has been the exponential growth of these two dominant forces that have influenced how we track trends, which trends we track, and why we focus so much of the Trends Journal on the global trends shaping the future.
But some things never change. There is nearly universal agreement that to plan ahead you have to look ahead. In the real world people may talk trends, but are they actually living them?