Non-predictions for 2009

07 Jan 2009|Lee Shupp

Those of us trained in foresight (futures) are often asked to predict hot new trends at the beginning of each year. Good futurists never predict what “the” future will be, although we are often asked to do so. We instead consider alternative futures, using scenarios, visioning, and other foresight tools to examine alternative outcomes. Uncertainty interests us most, as we try to identify “critical uncertainties” which can act as levers that lead to particular scenarios. What are the most critical things to understand that create change?

As a “street futurist” I can’t wait to see how consumers react to the unprecedented uncertainty and change that we are facing now. My job will be fascinating this year. Here’s what I expect:

We are already seeing people pull back spending. Will this be a temporary pullback, just waiting for good times to return? Or will this be deeper and longer lasting change, as people realize that they cannot keep spending beyond their means? I think this will vary lots by category and context; while pulling back across the board consumers are likely to reserve some luxuries both big and small for themselves in categories and contexts that they value highly. Marketers will need to monitor their product/service categories carefully, to see how spending patterns are changing within specific categories and contexts. What makes your product or service worth purchasing in tight times? What makes people have to have it, and feel smart for purchasing it now?

I believe that uncertainty and change will act as incubators for many interesting new consumer behaviors. Sure, we’ll see some retrenchment to more simple, survivalist behavior, as people worry about money, jobs, and the future. But I think we’ll see some interesting new behaviors too, as many widely held assumptions about the future are shattered. For instance:

Will consumers continue to believe in the stock market as the gateway to retirement security, after losing a significant chunk of their nest eggs in 2008? Can you trust stocks for long term growth when they have been essentially flat over the last decade? What will be the impact on the struggling financial services sector?

Will people continue to seek jobs and careers in the safe corporate environments that used to promise job security, when many of those companies are shedding people the fastest now? Will we see an increase in entrepreneurship, with people deciding to take control of their own destiny rather than relying on corporate leaders who have made such huge miscalculations? What new jobs and careers will people invent because they have to? What new products and services? Will this be the birth of Web 3.0? Or Web 2.5, as people leverage social networks in interesting and unexpected new ways?

Will we see a pushback to the instant obsolescence of so many tech products? Why continue to upgrade a computer OS when it does all of the basic functions that you need it to do? Why should you have to buy software upgrades every year? What does this mean for the future of software as a service? Will people be willing to pay software subscriptions? How will technology change?

How will people react to so much uncertainty and change? How will they release pressure and let off steam? Will they drink more? Pray more? Immerse in virtual fantasy worlds to escape? Embrace a new reality of austerity to cope?

How will leisure time change, with some people getting lots more of it (the downsized) and some people getting less of it (those now doing 2-3 people’s previous jobs)? Will we move down Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to focus on survival, or look to transcendence as the way to get through tough times?

Yes, I have many more questions than answers right now. And I like it that way. I’m so curious to see how all of this turns out. Remember, I did tell you that futurists don’t predict the future 🙂

What a year for futurists. I can’t remember a time when so much was in flux, and so much change was underway. Bring it on!

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