Interview: How We Can Shape The Future Thoughtfully
Devon Powers, PhD in media, culture and communication, shares insights from her research on the trends industry, futurism and consumer culture ahead of her talk at PSFK's CXI 2018 conference
Trend forecasters and innovation experts tend to be extremely passionate about their jobs, but the casual observer might look at them and simply wonder, what, how and why? Even people within the industry can benefit from taking a step back to consider those questions. Following the broader movements of trends around the world is exactly what Devon Powers does in her research on consumer culture.
Devon is an associate professor at Temple University’s Klein College of Media and Communication, and her next book, On Trend: Marketing the Cultural Future, is due out in 2019. Before she joins PSFK as a keynote speaker at the CXI 2018 conference on May 18, she shared some of her insights on trends and futurism with our founder and editor-in-chief Piers Fawkes.
Piers Fawkes: Devon, we’re super excited about having you come present at CXI 2018, especially as you seem to be one of the pioneering academics who is analyzing the futurist trends and innovation space. What drew you to this sector?
Devon Powers: I’ve always been interested in how culture moves around the world. What makes something popular? How do people gravitate towards one idea or another?
Then I started to think about trends as one of these cultural dynamics that moves around the world. When something gets assigned as a trend or becomes a trend, it has a certain gravitational pull to it.
This study started as a way to try to understand that dynamic and how things become trends. Through that, I started to learn about the trend industry itself, about futurism and about the whole professional class of people whose job it is to try to track this stuff.
Did your presumptions about the sector ring true? What are some of the key reveals from your work?
I would start by saying that initially, with almost anyone that you tell about this industry who doesn’t know anything about it, there’s a little bit of skepticism because people tend to think, “How can you predict the future? How can you even forecast the future?” The future seems to be this big unknown.
The thing that I’ve come to believe most certainly is that there is a lot about the future that can be managed, that can be thought through, that can be thoughtfully anticipated. Most importantly, there’s a lot about the future that can be shaped by actions that we take in the present.
The biggest thing that I’ve learned is how important it is for all of us to take an active role in thinking about the future that we want to happen and doing what we can right now to construct that future.
Obviously, there are different types of companies, different types of needs. Are there futurists all around the world? Do they provide the same insights?
There are futurists all around the world. A lot of the futurist industry you’re going to see is concentrated in the big, industrialized economies like the U.S. and Western Europe. There are increasingly futurists who are working in Asia. There are, obviously, futurists who are working in Australia, who are working in Africa.
The thing that is common about all of those places is this understanding that trends move globally. That there’s a connection among these different places and that certain places become hotbeds of trends.
Then, they export those trends or those trends tend to travel from those hotbeds to other places. You can see, for instance, the Netherlands is a real geographic center of trends. It always has been.
The Netherlands has an enormous trend industry. They have an enormous trend educational structure. You even have people who are pushing to have trend education put into elementary schools. You have seven and eight-year-olds who are learning to think about the future, who are learning to do forecasting and who are learning futurist methods.
That is one place that is a real center but there are other centers. There are other ways of thinking about the future that don’t necessarily require that big educational structure like you’ll see in a place like the Netherlands.
The Netherlands is a relatively small country. Obviously, it has some major international companies situated there. It’s interesting that they pursue trends research and futurism as such an important part of academic life and the economy.
In the Netherlands, the future is just part of the atmosphere. It’s just a way that they think about the world. It’s a very design-centric country. It’s very forward-thinking in terms of architecture, in terms of the environment.
They have a very intimate relationship with their environment. Many of the futurists that I spoke there said that the reason that the Netherlands was so future-focused is because of the water. They’re a culture that’s always had to make plans about the future because they’ve had to keep their land habitable and dry.
It’s also, as I said, a very design-forward country. You have people like Li Edelkoort in the Netherlands, who is among the top fashion trend people in the world. She’s almost an oracle of trends, if you will. She’s been so influential over the entire industry and over the entire perspective of seeing trends as something that can be embraced as a business. I’ve had people tell me trends is more popular there than advertising. It’s on equal footing as advertising and marketing.
When you come and speak on May 18th, what insights will you share with the audience?
The first is the importance of taking an active role in the future, and how companies are embracing that. I have a lot of insights that are academic insights. I’m thinking about how to translate those into something that someone can take to a boardroom on Monday.