I attended the Trendforum in Munich last week, a two-day conference that gathered European innovation, marketing, and R&D executives to explore emerging technologies, social trends, and innovative business models. The program was eclectic and the content mostly of high quality. I was particularly intrigued by the opening session that intersected macro-economic forecasting with geeky trend evangelism as well as a humanistic pledge for meaning-driven business (in fact, the other sessions didn’t even come close, including special guest Ray Kurzweil, whose remote keynote, given by way of 3D-holographic projection, remained utterly flat).
As the first speaker, Markku Wilenius, senior vice president of economic research and corporate development with Allianz SE, set the framework by introducing overarching future themes, key challenges facing mankind, from climate change to water scarcity to demographic developments. Forecasting the economic development over the next two decades, he predicted redefined notions and metrics of both societal progress and individual success, and heralded “true-value accounting” that would ultimately “decouple consumption from growth.” In 10 years, he argued, easy and seamless sustainable choices would have become the norm, as would have “smarter systems.” Wilenius identified four key consumer trends, all to be filed under Consumer Empowerment: Downshifting (simplicity -> value for money, price sensitivity, discounts); Transparency (clarity -> open communications, clear essence); Selfness (control -> self-governance, tangibility); and Age of Less (substance -> long-term thinking, lightness). Despite the daunting challenges in these times of crisis, his outlook remained optimistic: “Material scarcity always creates an abundance of ideas.” If that is true, we can look forward to innovative times in which creativity will not only become a crucial skill but an existential means of survival.
Christine Woesler de Panafieu, founder of CoSight, an international trend research and marketing consulting firm in Paris, picked up the ball and described how the macro-trends Wilenius had pinpointed would alter the lives of consumers. She argued that we were moving from "post- to ultramodernity," resulting in a renaissance of the renaissance: “the man as measure of all things.” This neo-humanistic mindset would bear a new spiritual quest--“an individual, open-path-seeking direct resonance with the sacred,” as she put it. The number of pilgrimages is indeed on the rise, as is the number of new religions (and meta-religions such as the recent Charter of Compassion or the portal Beliefnet). “The 21st century will be spiritual or it won’t be at all,” Woesler de Panafieu said, quoting a French philosopher. Morality is in high demand, but doing good is shifting from convention to conviction, from a humanitarian to an empowerment approach. For brands, this means they need to become the “right thing to do.” And one only has to look as far as Foursquare to see that converting social currency into real value will the business model of the future.
Nils Müller, founder and CEO of TrendONE, a trend research firm, finally took the audience on a riveting tour de force through much buzzed-about emerging tech trends, envisioning the future in 2020 as a seamless blend between the real and virtual worlds, dominated by location-based, real-time, and social computing applications that turn the Internet into an "Outernet" and “every interface into a surface”--from printed electronics to face recognition to augmented social shopping. He depicted an evolution from “lean back” to “move forward” to “jump in” to “always-on” to “plug in” media. And he showed tons of videos: the "Siftables" (see picture above); the inevitable Microsoft Natal clip; a demo of brainwave-based voiceless communications (theaudeo.com), and a clip on augmented vision enabled by eye chips (tat.se). Their common thread: technology in disguise, with front ends that are becoming touchable, intuitive, and human-centric. Mueller coined the term “Shytech” for this phenomenon: technology that can afford to be nonintrusive because it is fully immersive.
In the concluding panel discussion, Woesler de Panafieu was asked what’s left to do for designers when everything was immersive and one great computing cloud. “Designers’ task will be to make the invisible visible,” she said, “creating the new interaction codes of our societies.” That again alluded to the big mega-trend of Good Computing--without Computers. Designers are the ones who can translate data (and meta-data) into meaning and make morality tangible amidst a flood of information. As they visualize the dematerialization of products and services, how long will it take before the dematerialized world becomes the ideal one?