Here is a document sent by Prof Ronald Jones meant to answer: “why trendspotting in a design school?” It was requested by an international business magazine who wants to do a story on NID and Konstfack’s trendspotting initiative!
How Do You Know That?
For Internal Use Only
The future is already out there, it’s just unevenly distributed.
There is almost no such thing as an early-adopter when it comes to a newly proposed course or innovative curriculum at university. Bring those proposals forward, with claims for their relevance, and you’ll have no better opportunity to witness academic skepticism, the lifeblood of a university, bristle with all too often a piqued majesty. And academic skepticism doesn’t just surge when the institution is faced with accepting or implementing a fresh way of teaching, or a newborn subject; in the best universities it is ubiquitous in the classroom. In a recent seminar where we were preparing students for a think tank in India dedicated to capturing local, emerging trends with global implications, a faculty member, who is also a professional trendspotter, casually mentioned that we were all becoming more religious - whether we happened to realize it or not. One student interrupted: “How do you know that?” she challenged. Whether we were becoming more religious or not, was beside the point; she was asking for accountability, now that trendspotting had been given a seat in the ivory tower.
What do trendspotters know? It’s an oxymoronic question; if they knew they wouldn’t be in the business of locating emerging counterintuitive trends in society, only to predict that they are powerful enough to shape the future, often without us realizing it, until the future arrives. Trendspotters don’t know anything, but they forecast everything and as a result their general reputation can hover somewhere between hucksterism and fortune telling.
If Popcorn is any kind of genius, it is only for marketing and self promotion, for she has packaged pure fantasy and sold it to some of the highest-level executives in U.S. industry.
William Sherdan on Faith Popcorn
The Fortune Sellers: The Big Business of Buying and Selling Predictions
Should trendspotting be given a seat in academic circles as a bona fide discipline? InformationWeek describes trendspotting as “a popular hobby for business gurus and magazines . . .” Why? Because, they conclude, “there's nothing worse than being the last to know . . .” The answer is hardly convincing. Trendspotting is an unregulated business, which provides plenty of mystique, but how can its relevance be tied to accountability and measured, by the multiple disciplines it supposedly serves? Trendspotting’s relevance and creditability, academic or otherwise, raises many questions. Should trendspotting deliverables become deliverables only when they come to pass? Trendspotters are in the business of future forecasting and just like predicting the weather, perhaps creditability only arrives hand-in-hand with the falling snow just as they foretold. Or do we learn far more when predictions go awry? How should we preserve trendspotting’s dependence on the free play of intuition and insight against quantifying it as transferable knowledge in the classroom where too often success is measured by the pre-determined outcomes? That’s the game.
A truism about culture producers is that we supposedly supply the future. This should make artists and trendspotters or designers and trendspotters kissing cousins. What if the producers of our cultural future got in the prediction business, but instead of limiting themselves to their own discipline, adopted a panoptical vision? The Department of Interdisciplinary Studies at Konstfack University College of Arts, Craft and Design, in conjunction with India’s National Institute of Design and the Stockholm School of Entrepreneurship, is developing a trendspotting curriculum; our experience is that students and faculty are already using it as a recreational practice, and should it become a transferable skill it would serve an indispensable tool for practice-based research in art and design and especially within interdisciplinary settings. In effect, we are trendspotting trendspotting as a relevant academic subject. The question is how to make it accountable like all systematic instruction?
On the cover of the January 2008 issue of AMICA, the German fashion magazine the headline reads: Die Erfolgreichen: 20 Trendsetter aus MODE, KUNST, MUSIK, FILM & DESIGN. Die Erfolgreichen, or “the successful ones,” at least tells us that cultural trendsetters (the prey of trendspotters) are tied to the idea of “success” in the common vernacular. But what kind of success do trendspotters themselves enjoy and how is it measured, beyond the sensationalism Sherdan saw in Faith Popcorn? Others will invariably come, but an early conclusion is to oblige the discipline of trendspotting to measuring success by the localized metrics used by the disciplines it serves. This means that above all, trendspotting must be fluent across disciplines as an interdisciplinarity synthesis of two or more disciplines where concepts, methodologies, practices and epistemologies are explicitly exchanged and integrated. If trendspotting is unequivocally interdisciplinary then, at the very least, it becomes a practice of informed guessing, subject to objective measures of relevancy set forth by the disciplines it assesses. Some of the nay-sayers about Global Warming are no more than trendspotters but their predictions of the future, once measured by the best science available, makes us suspect that there may be partisan reasons for their conclusions.
Informed guessing. Can trendspotting be more than that without reducing it to rote learning tied to past standards and not to probability, intuition, and insight? Likely not, but time will tell; the discipline is too new to say more. Here’s an even better question. If graduate studies are above all devoted to discovering or creating new knowledge what will this discipline discover? One way to answer is to say that trendspotting discovers microtrends which are commonly thought of as emerging, or counterintuitive trends that will gain value if they shape the future with significance or usefulness. More importantly, trendspotting will gain a magnitude of power in shaping the future when it can create, and not merely detect micro and other sorts of trends. Making trendsetters into trendspotters is the goal of our curriculum.
What methodologies will be used to detect and create microtrends? Trendspotting already shares methods with a variety of existing disciplines from Statistics, to Morphological Analysis to Scenario Analysis. Yet it seems to be different in fundamental ways. Scenario analysts, for example, evaluate possible future events by considering alternative possible outcomes (scenarios). The analysis is designed to allow improved decision-making by allowing more complete consideration of outcomes and their implications. But who, in the first place, describes “possible future events?” Trendspotters do, and while they use methodologies related to scenario analysis the primary objective of this curriculum is to develop the ability to create microtrends as new knowledge with the capacity to shape the future, while building new methodologies around that creative process. Of use to this new discipline will be a methodology developed by Dr. Ronald Burt known as The Network Structure of Social Capital (http://faculty.chicagogsb.edu/ronald.burt/research/NSSC.pdf ). To apply Burt’s theory in practice is to become a renegade (both as noun, but especially verb) who trades on an economy of borrowed ideas. Burt writes: “Tracing the origin of an idea is an interesting academic exercise, but it’s largely irrelevant. The trick is, can you get an idea which is mundane and well known in one place to another place where people would get value out of it.” Burt’s “Network Structure” theory will be a methodology we can adapt to trendspotting but does not produce the ideas we can exploit across disciplines. What those ideas will be is up to the trendspotter; this is where the creative avenues of intuition and perception play key roles. But methodologies are significant because they imply techniques, systems, processes, and procedures. How do we describe what they are, turning them into transferable skills without encumbering intuition and insight?
One must be open to alien and allied information at the periphery of your discipline, while being speculative and prepared to perceive relevance - often furthest from your own discipline - and then convert it into new forms of collaboration and finally into new forms of knowledge. In such a creative environment there is no room for a “high noise to low signal” approach, because you must at least begin with the assumption that nothing is noise. From Carl Woese, the world's foremost expert in the field of microbial taxonomy, trendspotters can lift an “eyes-up” methodology useful in shaping the new discipline. Woese discovered the large-scale structure of the tree of life, with all living creatures descended from three primordial branches. But Woese's main theme is the obsolescence of reductionist biology as it has been practiced for the last hundred years, with its assumption that biological processes can be understood by studying genes and molecules. He writes:
The time has come to replace the purely reductionist “eyes-down” molecular perspective with a new and genuinely holistic, “eyes-up,” view of the living world, one whose primary focus is on evolution, emergence, and biology’s innate complexity.
What is needed he tells us is a new synthetic biology based on emergent patterns of organization (rather than a fundamental reductivist method) and this he has provided beneath the unassuming title of the “New Biology.” Woese’s academic trend, the New Biology, forecloses on Darwinian evolution which was based on the competition for survival of noninterbreeding species, and in its place provides for the possibility of creating horizontal gene transfer, or the sharing of genes between unrelated species. This is commonly known as creating hybrids, whether orchids or transgenic species. The ability to recognize the emergent patterns of organization that create hybrids, without one seat of origin, and predict their future impact is the work of trendspotters today. What we wish to do is to train artists and designers not only to recognize emerging trends that will shape our future, but to create trends across disciplines as critical and creative thinkers who are highly speculative, while remaining practically engaged socially, culturally and ethically.