Human machines and brands as educators: the year ahead for cultural trends
A view from Trevor Hardy

The year ahead for cultural trends

The forces that will shape 2017 are new social contracts between consumers and brands, more 'human' machines, taking it slow and a focus on learning.

The events of 2016 leave us in no doubt that we are living in an increasingly complex and accelerating world. 

Beyond the various changes and developments, a systemic problem came to light: the institutions designed to hold society together have lost the authority they once had. Public trust in government, the financial sector, the church, the media and companies is at an all-time low. The things that once provided certainty now seem to have withered away. 

More significantly, many now feel there is a vacuum between the old system, which is rapidly being disrupted, and a new one that has not yet been found.

This feeling of disconnection or dislocation – perhaps surprisingly – is not entirely negative as it may bring about a backlash and fundamental change to broken or outdated systems. 

But it is causing a problem – a problem for our future. The wonderfully named Larry Fink, chief executive of investment management company BlackRock, believes the single biggest driver of human suffering and damage to the planet is the ruthless pursuit of profit at any cost.

"Today’s culture of quarterly earnings hysteria is totally contrary to the long-term approach we need," he explains. 

In times of rapid change and uncertainty, a fixation on the immediate term is an unfortunate – if understandable – default position. But it doesn’t allow brands to be "future fit". So instead of wallowing in the dislocation of last year, we should look forward to the possibilities of this year. Here are four forces that could shape a brighter 2017. 

Time for a new covenant

With declining trust, new social contracts must be created. Forward-thinking brands will rewrite the rules towards a new covenant by setting out a clear vision for the future. Relying on the past to create connections and credibility will not be as effective; using heritage and past successes will become less important than a brand’s journey ahead. 

It will not be good enough to be good. There is an overwhelming feeling that people are being let down by governments, businesses and society. To counter this, organisations that will accrue trust in the future will not necessarily be those that deliver excellence, but rather the ones that have an absence of deficiency – those that do what they say they will do and never let people down. 

Radical transparency will become more popular to overcome a feeling that many organisations have ulterior motives and hidden agendas. This goes far beyond corporate social responsibility – we will see brands take on roles that were normally fulfilled by states and society. 

Man + machine or man vs machine?

Over the past five years, we have witnessed humans becoming more like machines: striving for efficiency, productivity and predictability. We have been outsourcing our lives to robotic assistants and giving decision-making power to algorithms. From 2017, machines will become more human: understanding our emotions, desires and dreams. Artificial emotional intelligence will move from the lab to a high-street shop near you. The lines between man and machine may blur to the point of non-existence – we may not be able to tell where an Amazon Echo ends and a friend begins. 

Terminal velocity

In recent research in the UK and the US, we found that one of the greatest luxuries will be time rather than the accumulation of more stuff. 

For years, there has been a growing sense that speed is good, that it should be aspired to. That speed in decision-making, action, consumption and response signals modernity, accomplishment and dynamism. In 2017, "fast" will come under attack as we accept that immediate gratification is leading to long-term regret. That a live-for-today approach might have caused irreparable harm to our bodies, businesses, communities and planet. 

We will take inspiration from long-term projects such as the New Horizons space probe, which had to travel for almost a decade before beginning its mission. This will be the beginning of the end for the culture of "fail faster" and striving for minimum viable products instead of taking the time to make something great. 

Brands become educators

Education has changed from an early-life to a life-long activity, but the state and traditional institutions have failed to keep up with consumers. In recent years, there has been a gradual devaluing of training, to the point where "doing" is worth more than "learning". As Marc Andreessen suggests: "We are overvaluing the value of just jumping in the pool – most people who just jump in the pool drown." 

"Schooling is an act of social responsibility, which has given us a great competitive advantage to become the leader in luxury ecommerce," Federico Marchetti, chief executive of Yoox Net-A-Porter Group, says. His company joined forces with Italy’s Bologna Business School to launch the first master’s programme designed specifically for digital business.

The acquisition of skills has become dramatically underrated, but this will correct itself in 2017. And it creates a significant opportunity for brands to step in as partners in a continuing process of self-improvement, thereby establishing a new valuable connection and social contract with consumers. 

This year has the potential to be as uncertain and disruptive as 2016. But brands that form new bonds with people and a new covenant; brands that reject a tech-dominant future and reclaim what it means to be human and unpredictable; brands that take it slow; and brands that embrace their role in the learning economy – they will be the ones that not only survive but thrive in the year ahead. 

Trevor Hardy is the chief executive of The Future Laboratory