New Year is a time to look forward and ponder how the world will change in the months and years to come. It’s not necessarily something you would expect from an automotive company, though – yet that is what the US carmaker Ford has done. The company has recently publishedLooking Further with Ford, a look at the trends that will drive consumer behaviour in the year ahead and it highlights some interesting ideas, few if any of them focused on cars.
While the world may seem stagnated by gridlocked governments and economic uncertainty, the truth is that this is an era of constant and rapid change, the company says.
However, this sustained explosion in technology and innovation worldwide “demands a corresponding mindfulness of the precious resources we too often take for granted: our time, our health, our population and our planet,” says Sheryl Connelly, head of global consumer trends and futuring at Ford. “Out of a world of hyper-stimulation, a culture of reflection is emerging, driving us to re-examine what matters most.”
The company headlines its 10 trends as follows:
Innovation’s Quiet Riot
The way we work, play and communicate is being transformed by a rapid progression of disruptive innovation – smart phones, drones and 3D printing are just some examples. This phenomenon is being driven by unconventional financing mechanisms such as crowd-funding, while open source collaborations are bringing to bear the brainpower of the crowd to many of the world’s problems. There is a wave of innovation leapfrogging going on that is affecting even the world’s biggest industries – the combination of renewable energy, energy storage, big data and smart grids is leaving electricity utilities looking like a field of horses at the dawn of the automobile age, for example. Ford itself has shown how technology is bringing different sectors together with its latest concept, an electric car that includes a roof of solar panels to help power it.
“In an age of economics defined by pendulum swings, austerity squeezes and endless finger-pointing, it’s easy to look back on an earlier era as the good old days,” says Connelly. In an age of uncertainty, we find comfort and connection in products, brands and experiences that evoke nostalgia. This is leading to a boom in heritage brands and nostalgia-based advertising, while even newer brands are tapping into the trend with a focus on “the type of distinctive craftsmanship that existed before globalisation flooded us with mass-produced and impersonal goods”. In the US, there was a huge outcry when it looked like the Hostess Twinkie cake would disappear from the shelves, while something similar happened in the UK with Heinz salad cream. In Germany, there is huge nostalgia for the culture and products of the former East Germany, known as “ostalgie”, while vinyl records, digital watches and even hand-written letters are now the height of cool, along with all things bespoke and vintage.
Related to this is the idea of Meaningful v. the Middle Man; people want to feel connected to the things they buy and the people who make them. “There is a rising feeling that the middle man has scrubbed the consumer experience to the point of nothingness,” the report says. “As a result, consumers and suppliers are seeking more intimate connections with retailers and service providers, hunting for stories of identity and meaning in the products they buy and the services they use.” This hunt manifests itself in the popularity of craft beers and farmers’ markets, but also in the growth of crowdfunding sites that allow people to literally take a stake in the products they buy.
In an age of growing transparency, there is also an increasing awareness, suspicion and resentment of the fees paid to middlemen – whether they are fund managers, car salesmen or charity fundraisers.
Meanwhile, the post-recession climate of austerity is colliding with a growing dematerialisation of consumption – we no longer need to own cars, music or films to enjoy them. In what Ford calls the Statusphere, conspicuous consumption is out. “A growing contingent of educated youth see material ownership as an unnecessary burden when it comes to enjoying life,” Connelly says, while 86% of Americans say what you do with your money is more important than how much you have.
Vying for Validation
At the same time, we live in a world of “selfies”, blogs, tweets and incessant Facebook updates. As the private becomes ever more public, we find ourselves judged on everything we do, leading to 62% of adults globally agreeing that “when people react positively to the things I share on social media, I feel better about myself”.
This, in turn, leads to FOMO/JOMO (fear of missing out/joy of missing out), says Ford. In a world where it is possible to see virtually everything that is going on, how do we know we’re not missing out on something? But equally, some people are reacting to this “always on” trend by opting out of digital distraction and rediscovering the joys of solitude or experiencing the things that are right in front of us rather than coming out of a screen.
Linked to the concept of FOMO are Micro-Moments. As Ford says, “cross immediate gratification with attention deficit and we get an escalating appetite for micro-moments—bite-sized chunks of information, education and entertainment—rendering downtime as a thing of the past”. But while this suggests a slavish addiction to social media, it does have a positive side – “seemingly trivial, these micro-moments are powerful in the aggregate – allowing us to block out larger chunks of time later to fulfill more meaningful goals, including, maybe, a little old-fashioned downtime”.
Myth of Multitasking
As the trend for micro-moments increases, in our multi-media, multi-screen world multitasking has become ubiquitous. But there is increasing evidence that this is not doing us any favours, not just socially but economically as well. Multitasking is being seen less as an impressive ability to stay on top of everything and more as the practice of doing several things badly rather than one thing well – it ties in with the desire for products associated with craftsmanship and quality. “More and more, companies are recognising that mindfulness, rather than multitasking, can yield better productivity, and with it, higher profits,” the report says.
Last year saw a greater focus on the lack of women in senior positions in the workforce, the struggle in Saudi Arabia to overturn the increasingly anachronistic ban on women driving, as well as on atrocities such as the fatal attack on a student in India and the attempted murder of Malala Yousufzai by the Taliban in Pakistan simply for wanting to go to school. These high-profile examples are symptomatic of a more general realisation that “rigid gender constructs are hindering our economic development”. Thanks to improvements in women’s education and demographic shifts that are changing household dynamics and the definitions of family worldwide, Ford suggests, women are playing an ever-more central role economically as well as socially.
But at the same time as progress is being made in many areas, many sustainability issues remain unresolved. And while the focus in recent years has been on the importance of going green, the fragility of the blue portion of the planet is an increasing concern, whether it is massive droughts, uncontrollable floods, compromised shipping routes or contaminated drinking water. With population growth continuing and the amount of water each person is using doubling, our use of water is increasingly unsustainable.
For many companies in sectors ranging from energy to smart phone manufacturing, water will be the key limiting factor, not carbon emissions. Ford itself has cut its global water consumption from 64 million litres to 24 million litres. Water shortages mean that in future, we will have to reuse more of our water – as the Arizona Snowbowl does by creating snow entirely out of water recycled from sewage.
These trends do not particularly add up to a coherent whole, but they point to a world that is moving away from the mass production and consumption that globalisation has engendered, to one that is more focused on the individualised product or experience, where time and health are as important as possessions and where businesses that succeed will be mindful of the need to steward resources and people responsibly and decouple their output from their resource use. Whether such mindfulness will survive a global economic recovery remains to be seen.