Why everything we know is wrong

Predicting long-term 'gigatrends' is no mean feat. It requires a certain amount of self-sacrifice, including giving up business class. Magnus Lindkvist offers tips on five planner pitfalls and how to avoid them.

Whenever I mentioned that I was a planner to Swedish clients a decade ago, they assumed I held some sort of logistics position. Being a less mature market than the UK in marketing terms, it took us a while to get around to the idea of having a strategic planner as a part of a communications team, which may be the reason our agencies mostly won prizes for style, not substance.

In the past five years, I've focused exclusively on one aspect of strategic planning - gathering, following and predicting trends in the broader sense of the word. If you Google the word "trend" - and nine out of ten marketing executives unfortunately view trendspotting solely as desk research - most of the results will focus on microtrends. These are short-term fads, gimmicks, ideas and fashion statements that are gone tomorrow. From fancy new gadgets and the latest online application to buzzwords, disposable celebrities and gloomy news headlines, these kinds of trends are brilliant if you want to craft a marketing campaign or update fashion-driven products, yet they are useless, even misleading, if we want to build long-term business models and gain an insight into where society is heading.

That's where invisible, long-term trends come in. Invisible because they can't be Googled with the same ease or detected with the naked eye on the street. They force us to dig deeper.

These gigatrends may have a life-span of 30-plus years and show us how society, organisations, consumers and marketing have changed ... and give us clues about where they might be heading. "Gigatrendspotting" requires different tools and new ways of thinking about the world as it presents itself. So how do strategic planners gigatrendspot and avoid getting stuck in the hyperbole of microtrends?

1. We are blind

The first trap that many planners fall into is that they believe themselves to be more knowledgeable about the world in general and about consumer behaviour in particular. Knowledge is great when playing Trivial Pursuit but it can easily get in the way of acquiring new knowledge. When planners are given a fancy title like "senior strategic insight director", they can easily become lazy and start regurgitating the same insights they first had a decade ago and have clung to since.

Saying "I don't know" doesn't come naturally to these people but it should to you. We are blind to long-term, slow changes (just imagine how different your response would have been to climate change had it happened in the space of a lunch break). We are blind to quick changes. We are blind to the complex layers that often drive decisions and behaviour. If we don't admit to this blindness, we become overconfident, we start to simplify and generalise and we're left wondering why our "insights" didn't produce the expected results. Remember the words of the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska: "Whatever inspiration is, it's born from a continuous 'I don't know'."

2. It's about what you think, not about what you see

Nobody can argue that they have access to unique information in the 21st century. Sure, there's the odd expert to whom only you have direct access and there's that expensive survey, but, in general, all information is out there for anyone to grab, often for free. A former boss would require me to sift through magazines and journals and scan articles relevant to the client. That was his idea of strategic planning.

This approach sent a strong signal that we were working hard for the fee the client paid us but it seldom led to groundbreaking insights that would boost business for them. The reason is that we didn't have a systematic way of applying our brain to the information. Information only becomes unique when it filters through our individual, unique minds. That's when discovery happens, not when the survey is conducted or the article scanned. Take a thinking time out whenever you stumble upon something of interest.

3. Create an information diet

Finding pornography in 1985 was hard work. Since no sensible person would buy it at the local newsagent, we were forced to climb into dumpsters or take long walks into the forest where there was bound to be some crumpled up pages of Parade magazine or similar. Finding pornography today is about pressing a button. What you had to work very hard to get in 1985 comes to you for free today. This isn't necessarily a good thing. Take the mathematical number pi, for instance. Few people are able to recite it beyond two decimals yet pi is profoundly useful in science and mathematical calculation. It is as close to a fact as we are able to get. What many people do know, however, is who slept with whom in the latest round of Celebrity Big Brother. Or who Paris Hilton is currently dating. Or who was really behind the atrocities of 11 September. These are lies, gossip and slander, yet they are sexy lies as opposed to pi, which is a boring truth. Most people find greater social utility in a sexy lie - the "did you know" factor tends to be higher - which is why they fill their brains with them instead of pi's intricate decimals. The web has enabled sexy lies, pornography and other easy-to-digest kinds of information to thrive. That's why we need to create a diet of information for ourselves to follow. Don't just go to the blogs, magazines and people that you are used to. Make it a point to seek out complicated, challenging information from new sources continuously.

4. Study everydayness

Many planners and trendspotters love to dig out and show extraordinary things - like birdwatchers collecting the rarest specimen on earth. What we tend to forget in these instances are the ordinary things, the "everydayness". News functions the same way. The only reason murder becomes news is that it's rare. The only reason big layoffs make the headlines is that most people keep their jobs even in a deep recession. A good trendspotter follows the adage of the botanist Carl Linnaeus: "Omni Mirari Etiam Tritissima" - marvel over everything, especially the most ordinary things.

5. Turn right when boarding an aircraft

Business class is a wonderful perk if you can get it. It's also a highly effective means of shielding yourself from the real world. Instead of studying people in the real world, you'll have a business lounge full of like-minded people or a large flatbed seat all to yourself. To a worm in an apple, the world is made of apple and to businessclass travellers, the world is covered within the pages of a pink newspaper or in a spreadsheet. Toyota has a phrase for getting out into the real world: "Genchi Genbutsu" - go to the source, don't trust secondary information.

These five pitfalls and remedies are, as you can see, not particularly easy to follow and that's the point. Everyone can do what's easy but only the experts have the discipline to follow through with time-consuming practice.

- Magnus Lindkvist is a trendspotter and futurologist based in Stockholm, Sweden. He is the founder of the trend agency Pattern Recognition and the author of Everything We Know Is Wrong, published by Marshall Cavendish.


Love your library. Screw the newsstand! Libraries are where we can find perspective. Read history books, study historical portraits of your city, study old maps.

Get out of your comfort zone. Make sure you visit at least one new country every year and meet people from emerging industries once a month. The ultimate blinder is your daily routine and if that never changes, you'll miss most of what's happening in the world out there.

Work with people you don't like. It may seem sadomasochistic but forcing yourself into the company of people that don't appeal to you directly may help you to see new perspectives and, more importantly, work with some really brilliant people.

Technology needs to become boring to change society. Don't rave about new inventions. Try to envision how society is changing and how we might eventually use this particular technology. Remember that it took the aeroplane almost half-a-century to become cheap enough for anyone to fly.

Study the bigger picture. What trajectory is society on? Linear trends may indeed be deceiving but long-term developments might uncover hidden truths about the world we live in, things that we take for granted and don't consider part of a larger change.

Look back at least as far as you're looking forward. This advice, from Institute for the Future's Paul Saffo, is vital when it comes from speculating about a future society. Ask yourself: "What if they're right?" Only fundamentalists continually reject any attempts to dissuade them. Consider new views and opinions as if you didn't have one of your own.

Be sceptical of the words "latest trend". Most things we see and do are merely reincarnations of earlier versions. Try to find historical equivalents of present phenomena. There is bound to be a number of them.

Practice optimism (if you're a pessimist and vice versa). Developing a new world view is like losing weight: it takes time and effort. Don't revert to the other side, though. Strive to master both views and you will be a masterful trendspotter.

Beware of The Halo Effect. Sometimes we revere a person and a company so much that we start seeing them as infallible. That's a dangerous view to have. Everything has a downside. Similarly, there's a "Devil's Horn Effect" where something or someone is continually vilified. Neither of these extremist views have a place in a balanced mind like yours.

Be incompetent. The marketing author Seth Godin once claimed that competent people resist change since all they want to do is look good and seem competent which they cannot do when too many things are changing around them. Make it a point to be incompetent and proudly proclaim "I don't know" whenever society changes the way it has in the past decade.