When it comes to thinking about the future, just about everyone will at some point come around to talking about trends. A trend speaks to changes that we have been measuring, which means there’s normally quantitative data points (doesn’t that make everyone feel better J), and we can’t but help extrapolate into the future whatever trend line we see in a graph, and thus do we often think of trends as if they are speaking to us about the future. Despite its ubiquity in the typical organization’s discussions about the future, a trend is just one of the key “building blocks” that trained futurists use when forecasting alternative futures.
As I layout in my book, 4 Steps to the Future: A Quick and Clean Guide to Creating Foresight, trained futurists will often use the phrase “trends and emerging issues” as if they are talking about a single thing, when in fact they are referencing two key – and distinct – building blocks of foresight work. They have a tendency to speak of them at the same time in no small part because they are both generally identified and examined in the research and scanning phase of a foresight project, yet they need to be treated in very different ways.
Strictly speaking, a trend is a historical change over time. A trend describes history. At some point we decided that, for any particular issue, certain variables or changes were important and we decided to collect data on that variable over time. The rising price of a barrel of oil, the growing number of individuals with an iPhone, and the diminishing number of individuals with a middle class income are all examples of trends.
Now, many of us have a tendency to talk about trends as if they actually saying something about the future rather than merely describing the past. We do this in large part because, as human beings with incredible pattern-completing brains, we intuitively see (and create) patterns in the world around us and so, when we look at that nice little trend line on a graph, we cannot help but extrapolate that line into the future. While trends do imply something about the future – which is way they often are very important in discussions about the future – they don’t actually say anything about it. That would come from a trend forecast.
And long experience with trend extrapolation and trend forecasting teaches us that all trends at some point bend or break. Our trend forecasts are very, very often more or less wrong because of any and all of the following:
- The model used to make the forecast didn’t have all of the relevant variables
- The model used to make the forecast didn’t have all of the relationships between variables correct
- The historical relationships between our chosen variables has – unbeknownst to us – actually changed, breaking a historical pattern
- The issue we are trying to model inherently produces emergent and unpredictable outcomes
One of the ways in which the field of futures studies tries to address some of these inherent trend forecasting issues is by focusing specifically on some of the emergent developments that – in the future – may play roles in bending or breaking historical trends. Thus do we end up with emerging issues analysis.
If a trend is a historical change up until the present, then an emerging issue is a possible new technology, a potential public policy issue, or a new concept or idea that, while perhaps fringe thinking today, could mature and develop into a critical mainstream issue in the future or become a major trend in its own right. Standing in the present right now and casting our gaze into the futures, examples of emerging issues include autonomous corporations that have software and robots instead of human management or staff, the emergence of digital bodyguards for children to combat cyber bullying, and the dismantling/transformation of traditional education institutions as the Millennial generation takes leadership positions.
Whereas with trends we (that is to say, experts somewhere) have defined important changes for which people collect data points (like, how much GDP grew in the last quarter), with emerging issues we are looking at new things that may become important in the future. In fact, these emerging issues are not yet mature: the tech is still in a lab somewhere, politicians don’t yet feel the heat enough to address a “future” policy problem, and only fringe thinkers are talking about some “radical” new concept.
What we work with to identify emerging issues are what are commonly referred to as “weak signals.” With some issues – those that are maybe more mature – we have more “data points” in the form of experiments, thought pieces, and early debates. In other cases, there are very few data points, but there will be something so compelling about the possibility that we decide to start tracking its development.
Tracing Emerging Issues
Before we look at an example of an emerging issue, let’s first look at the professional futurist’s favorite thumbnail chart: the emerging issues s-curve. Following from the work of public policy researchers such as Graham Molitor, trained futurists use the s-curve as a guide for doing scanning and for doing emerging issues analysis. In essence, the s-curve depicts the archetypical life cycle of a new technology or public policy issue. At the bottom left, things generally have a long, slow initial development, in which more fringe thinkers and doers are pursing some “crazy” new idea. If things continue, then they slowly move up through places like universities or research centers, with more people doing more extensive research. With more success comes more attention and resources (corporate funding, venture capital interest, some think tank research). Eventually, if things keep going, the technology or issue enters the mainstream and eventually becomes commonplace or get legislated.
As an example of an emerging issue that followed this path, we can look to the issue of the civil rights of robots. Jim Dator, founder and professor emeritus at the futures studies program at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, was the first person to introduce this emerging issue to me. For decades he spoke to students about the possibility in the future of society having to address the rights of robots. In classic example, most students found this to be a silly notion and partly assumed that it was really just used to introduce the concept of emerging issues. Dator continued to reference this issue across his teaching career and today, as computing, robotics, and internet access have continued to evolve, you can now read increasingly serious discussions about the need for law and federal regulation to adapt to robotics, and about how we need to address the “ethical treatment of robots.” What seemed science fiction in the 1980s has moved up the s-curve and is now approaching the mainstream. Score one for emerging issues analysis!
Trends and Emerging Issues
Futurists use both trends and emerging issues in their work as they try to understand and anticipate change in society. Both are key building blocks in foresight work and they are often used hand-in-hand, yet they are very different things and have to be thought of – and treated – differently. Most organizations are used to talking about trends, and are new to the concept of emerging issues. A few simple frameworks and tools, however, can go a long way towards creating a more robust conversation about the future. For those interested in learning more about how to incorporate emerging issues into their organizational conversations, my book 4 Steps to the Future has additional frameworks and exercises to help develop rigorous foresight projects.