Future imperfect?

Ashgrove Marketing’s Terry van Rhyn looks at some of the trends identified by futurist Faith Popcorn and how they might impact on the way businesses move forward

Born in the middle of the previous century, I was a product of a science magazine called Popular Mechanics. This was a magazine that inspired the imagination of any twelve-year-old boy dreaming of flying cars, building your own personal jetpack or helicopter. It even had instructions on how to survive in the wilderness or a space colony. What is there not to like about that?!

Through these amazing inventions or contraptions that pushed the boundaries of the mundane I could dream big and see the future. My imagination could run wild and we predicted piloting cool-looking flying cars in our lifetime – at the very least by the year 2000, which seemed a million miles away from our perspective at the time.

It is probably no surprise then that I ended up in advertising where I could exercise my imagination and push the boundaries of convention and conformity. Part of my job is to predict how an audience will react in the future, especially when you are pushing an idea or concept close to the edge and away from the safe and comfort of the familiar. Creating dissonance is, after all, how we grow and expand our minds.

It was in the early 90s when I discovered The Popcorn Report written by Faith Popcorn, a futurist, with exciting ideas about evolving environments and resulting consumer behaviour in years to come. Something like the advertising’s version of Popular Mechanics!

Not everyone bought into these rather strange ideas and predictions at the time, especially the more conservative business leaders. Those who did pay attention reaped the benefits in the noughties.

Faith predicted a trend termed “cashing out” which indicated people were done with the fast pace and the trappings of the 80s yuppie lifestyle and wanted to return to a “good life” at a slower pace and closer to nature. A more balanced life became the ideal. If you were involved in anything outdoorsy you would have done well to invest in off-road SUV vehicles, camping equipment, mountain bicycles, second homes in the country etc.

Similarly, the sharp increase in home entertainment related to her “cocooning” trend and if you were involved with anything to do with home kitchen appliances, you would have been riding an early wave of what now seems to be the norm – TV cooking programmes.

So, I took a peek at what Faith’s company – BrainReserve – is predicting for the next decade and beyond, now that we are in the midst of a quite dramatic shift in our day-to-day behaviour. Here are five interesting forces Faith identifies that she believes will radically change the way we work and the workplace environment:

  1. The wandering workplace: Office space has certainly become quite redundant in many cases and you can already see the shift in how quickly technology has moved to accommodate this new virtual office environment. According to this report, Zoom is already old-fashioned as Microsoft’s “Hololens” and Magic Leap’s “Mimesys” and “Vizible” allow you to create VR presentations. The early adopter companies will be the winners and things are going to move at a blinding pace. You can no longer dither or procrastinate – you have to move and move quickly.
  1. Big Brother is here, there and everywhere: We all worked remotely at some stage and it requires discipline and structure to get it right. I have worked from my home throughout my life for various reasons and under different circumstances, not only during Covid-19, and it is not ideal. You either work all the time because it’s easy and you never switch off, or you are distracted by temptations like an episode of a Friends rerun that you have never seen that gives the perfect excuse for a quick break. Who’s to know? Many will be unable to get the balance right. So yes – managers will now want to make sure we are productive while we are working from home and surveillance of our activity will become a natural part of our lives. Productivity monitoring with software like “Hubstaff” will become the norm.
  1. Communication recreated: Humans are social animals and we need touch and emotional interaction to stay in tune with our environment. Part of our corporate survival instinct is to read body language and we need all our tactile senses on high alert to stay ahead of the game. This is no different to our early ancestors in the wild making sure they give predators higher up the food chain a wide berth.

Here the report pushes the boundaries of convention a lot but it’s not unrealistic to expect that we will be able to create hyper-realistic avatars to represent us in virtual meetings. AI, like the “Replika” app, will evolve to become more and more representative of us as individuals and tech will be developed to measure the physiological response of those we interface with via pupil dilation and voice cadence.

  1. The boss reborn: This trend is already taking shape naturally in many virtual office environments. The emotional stresses of a workforce forced into an unnatural situation are compelling companies to change how they treat their staff. It is no longer a matter of a dismissive “snap out of it” or “shake it off”, especially with our younger millennials at the workplace. Managers should now become a compassionate caregiver to employees.

In reality, managers are often not prepared, or are simply ill-equipped, to fulfil this role – so education and training must start at the very top. What I found interesting is that Jaguar Land Rover is already experimenting with AI that allows cars to adjust to and optimise the driver’s mood. The report predicts that soon workers will be similarly scanned, enhanced and uplifted via tech solutions like “Cogito” which improves human interactions.

  1. Capitalism capsizes: We are probably all waiting for the inevitable to happen. Nicholas Brown, an economist at Stanford University, has said the path to economic recovery will take longer and look grimmer than first thought. Many of the layoffs during Covid-19 may become permanent and then those stimulus cheques for citizens may become the norm. As automation outstrips job growth, government payments will fill the gaps.

I’m a bit iffy on this last trend as I’m sure our online world will expand and take up the slack, allowing capitalism to remain alive and well for the foreseeable future.

What I am quite excited about is to get ahead of the curve and become part of the solution in marketing and selling an exciting new world to consumers.

So how about those flying cars? I know the much talked-about drone taxis are pretty close, and there are some interesting tests going on around the world – but, sadly, still no cigar.