Being able to see into the future would be the obvious superpower to choose. It would render any other option pointless. If you knew what was going to happen and when it was going to happen, you could either mitigate the negative effects of it, or more excitingly, you could profit from it. No need for invisibility, x-ray vision, shapeshifting, or teleportation. Just by knowing what is going to happen, when others don’t, you would possess the most super of superpowers.
Alas, no such superpower exists, not to any great extent anyway. We are able to predict some events in the short term, tomorrow’s weather for example, but mostly the future is shrouded behind a veil of ignorance. Having said that, my grandfather did know the exact date and time that he would die. But as he was given this information by a judge, I don’t think it counts.
Just because we can’t be certain of the future it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to anticipate it. Businesses have no choice but to place bets on the future, the trick, as any professional gambler will tell you, is to bet judiciously. And while there exists several tools and frameworks to help you do this, this is not the place to discuss them. Instead, we are going to look to the recent past.
As we reach the end of a decade it is as good a time as any to take a retrospective look at the trends that actually made a difference over the past ten years and to ask ourselves a few questions; could we have predicted these ten years ago? Were we looking in the right places? Asking the right questions? What we have done differently if we knew then what we know now? What can we do to prepare for the next ten years? Which trends will continue? What countertrends will appear as a consequence? What new trends will emerge?
So here is my take on the ten trends that shaped the decade. You may not agree with my choices, you may think I have missed some critical trends out. Which is almost certainly true. So substitute your own list but, whatever you end up with, ask yourself the same questions.
let’s start with the biggest economic driver of the decade – austerity. In 2008 the world as we know it almost ceased to be. We came close to starring in our own post-apocalyptic reality show. Although this wasn’t caused by zombies or aliens – it was caused by spreadsheets.
The global response to the financial crisis was to pump trillions into the banking system and simultaneously pull money from public spending and welfare. Which may have worked in its primary goal of avoiding disaster but lead to a decade of low economic growth, stagnant incomes and low investment across many of the largest economies. Which led, in part, to…
When times are tough, people love a charismatic leader who promises simple solutions to complex problems. Simply repeating “Make (insert country name here) great again!” can be enough of a manifesto to get elected. It helps if you have an enemy to rage against. Welfare ‘scroungers’, economic migrants, corrupt politicians, greedy corporations, The EU, etc. all make good villains.
Our politicians tend to be more like weathervanes than road signs. The direction they point depends on the prevailing wind rather than any deeply held conviction. Consequently, policies get adopted to appease and therefore propagate, the current popular mood rather than challenging it. Unlike previous flirtations with populism (spoiler alert: they never end well), this one has been turbocharged by…
3) Social Media
Perhaps nothing has changed society more in this past decade than the rise of social media. At the start of the decade people would use social media, perhaps a couple of times a day to share stories and see what their circle of friends were up to. But as the number of users grew into the hundreds of millions and occasionally logging on gave way to constant, frequent usage, the latent power of the connected world was ripe for exploitation.
When the abundant data that users create met the powerful algorithms developed by the tech giants, they were able to exert a huge influence over the opinions we heard, the news we saw and the adverts we were exposed to. Following Cambridge Analytica and other scandals, regulation, (or more drastic action?) may yet curb the worst excesses. But none of this ‘hyper usage’ would have been possible without…
Smartphones arrived in 2007 but they became an ever-present part of modern life over the past decade. Now almost half the world’s population, over 3 billion people, have a smart phone. Calling them ‘phones’, smart or otherwise, seems almost anachronistic. The name speaks more to their origins than their function. They are central to the lives of many people from communication to entertainment, from education to running a business.
Smartphones are also the reason we are always online. No need to ‘connect’ as you are always connected. This ubiquitous and reliable connection, be it 4G or broadband, has enabled other trends such as…
On Christmas day, at the start of the decade, many gifts under the tree were about 14cm square and about 1cm thick. While the specifics may have been a surprise, the fact you were about to open a CD wasn’t. Yes, kids, we used to consume music via a physical medium back in the day. Thanks to iTunes in 2001 and Spotify in 2006 we now stream music as and when we fancy it. The technology allowing this increased choice and convenience changed not only the way we consumed music but also TV and movies, thanks mostly to Netflix.
On-demand continues to replace scheduled events and instant access is trumping ownership. Nobody needs to own DVDs or CDs anymore. Your personal library is pretty much infinite yet takes up no space and requires no packaging or physical distribution. Which is just as well given…
6) The War on Plastic
Environmental concerns have been with us for over fifty years but have dramatically increased in the collective conscience over the past decade. Paradoxically, the more information we have about the damage we are causing the less we seem to care. It’s as if there is too much in general to worry about and not enough specific to focus on.
Step forward the plastic bag and plastic drinking straw. Two examples of disposable, single-use plastic that we can all relate to and, crucially, see the harmful consequences of. Governments are legislating to ban or restrict single-use plastic and society is frowning on its casual use. This step-change from broad concern to narrow action is part of the trend towards environmental activism, which includes…
7) Green Energy
Carbon has been a by-product of energy generation for over a century. Unfortunately, it is the prime contributor to climate change. If we continue unchecked, we will make the only planet, in the entire universe, that we know can support life into one that can’t. A dickmove of cosmic proportions.
But we aren’t continuing unchecked. Over the last decade, renewable energy from wind, solar, hydro etc now accounts for over 10% of world energy and is growing fast. Driven by plunging costs of production and massive investment, the journey towards zero emissions is now possible. But this past decade wasn’t only when started to use renewable energy to power our electric cars, it was also when we began to…
8) Eat Less Meat
A segment of the population has always enjoyed a meat-free diet, from vegetarians who won’t eat dead animals (or indeed live ones), pescatarians, who make an exception for fish, to vegans who refuse to consume any animal products, including eggs and dairy. But now these, previously rather niche, consumers are becoming mainstream as their numbers have swelled over the past ten years.
Some people reduce their meat intake because of health concerns, other due to animal welfare and others, especially over the past decade, because of the environmental impact. Livestock farming produces between 20% and 50% of manmade carbon emissions, depending on whom you ask and how you calculate it. Even at the low end, it is significant. But Vegans weren’t the only marginal group to see their position in society elevated towards the mainstream, there was a general shift across a range of…
9) Individual Rights
The past decade saw the legalisation of same-sex marriage in the USA, UK and many other countries. This represented a milestone in the long journey from illegality to mainstream acceptance. For other groups, the journey towards recognition and equality only began to make progress in the last decade. Trans and non-binary people achieved legal recognition as governments around the world accepted that gender was a fluid state, the consequences of which still have a long road ahead.
Women’s rights made significant progress in the last decade. From access to contraception to early years education, the global indicators moved positively but leaving a lot yet to do. Sexual violence and harassment was called out with the #metoo movement and political representation of women was at its highest ever.
The power has shifted towards the individual and away from institutions of power and control. The last decade is not close to being the end of the fight but perhaps will be looked back upon as a pivotal moment. With all that is going on in the world right now, it is just as well that we have also become more comfortable discussing…
10) Mental Health
In the past, It was never a smart move to discuss your mental health. Seen as a sign of weakness or possibly self-indulgent nobody wanted to hear about it. We preferred our illnesses to be physical and, if possible, self-evident. Broken bones we could deal with but broken minds, not so much.
This past decade has seen significant change. People are talking about mental health and it is beginning to lose its stigma. It is Ok not to be Ok and talking is good.
So that’s was the decade that was. I am sure there are many other important trends I have missed and some that I have included that you won’t agree with. The critical question, as ever, is so what? What am I supposed to do with this?
Well that is the skill. To consider the next wave of trends and to extrapolate from the general to the specific actions that your business can take to minimise risk and maximise opportunity. It isn’t easy or necessarily obvious but that is the nature of strategy and why I, and my partners at Impact Planning, spend an awful lot of our time helping our clients to do just this.
Have a happy new year and a prosperous new decade!