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The power of context

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Sometimes, it takes a dead cockatoo to understand the power of context.

Let me explain.

One day, I was driving to work. It was a bit of a trek as I was living about 30 miles away from Stranger HQ. Over the months I’d been going the distance, I’d developed a checkpoint driving routine; past the village pub at 8.30, the riding stables at 8.45, under the bridge at 9.11.  That morning, I found myself hitting the first landmark a whole ten minutes behind time. “Bugger”, I thought.

As the car got closer, I looked harder – and there it was.

And then I saw it. A flash of off-white crumpled against the side of the road. A plastic bag, I presumed. But as the car got closer, I looked harder – and there it was.

A cockatoo, slightly stained and definitely dead.

It is quite rare to stumble upon an exotic bird on the side of the road in West Penwith. “I should stop. Pick up the bird. Alert the poor publicans of their tropical bird’s demise”, I thought, as I carried on driving down the A30.

That bird situation haunted me for weeks. I kept asking myself why I didn’t stop and do something. Not that I could have done anything to change the fact that it was a dead bird. But the answer to my existential question was ‘because I was late’. And on any other day, I would have stopped.

My out of character behaviour that day was a matter of context.

Why is this tenuous tale relevant to a post about trend forecasting? My out of character behaviour that day was a matter of context. People behave differently sometimes to how you’d expect. Certain tensions, circumstances, outside factors can pull what we’d like to think of as our usual behaviour off course – and this is a massive factor when it comes to looking at why trends come about at different times.

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While the bird is a very small example, wider contexts in society can be the embers stoking the fire to all manner of social trends.

Think about the very scary circumstances surrounding Trump’s rise in the race for the Whitehouse.  A lot of seemingly sane people across America have actively abandoned their liberal tendencies to follow a xenophobic megalomaniac. Why? Because of the context of the moment – a surplus of fear and uncertainty. It’s this emotional context that has allowed his rhetoric to even enter the political agenda of America, a country that once felt invincible.

The power of context is a notion that social commentator Malcolm Gladwell explored in his best-selling book The Tipping Point – a canon of the trend forecasting genre. Gladwell likens trends to epidemics. An idea or behavioural epidemic that mimics the way a virus spreads, he says that “epidemics are sensitive to the conditions and circumstances of the times and places in which they occur.”

So when it boils down to why some ideas make it and others don’t, a lot has to be said about the power of context. Sometimes the world just isn’t ready, or sometimes it’s looking the other way towards things like Kim Kardashian’s Champagne-soaked rear. Send a good idea out into the wrong context, and its potential can trickle into the puddle of ‘what could have been’ where it’ll join earth-shattering inventions that never took off, and social movements that never gathered pace. Adapt the idea to fit its context however, and you could have something very special on your hands.

Take for example the phenomenal rise of Air BnB, a company that laid its roots in the perfect context:

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 Key context factors leading to Air BnB’s Success

  1. The sharing economy is booming, and sleeping in a stranger’s home is no longer a big deal. (Note: they have to know you’re coming).
  2. The digital native generation is made up of savvy consumers on the lookout for a better deal.
  3. Many of us don’t blink at becoming DIY travel agents, pulling together unique off-the-shelf experiences.
  4. Tech evolution means that it’s a seamless digital experience that’s sometimes easier than booking a hotel room.
  5. We’re in the ‘age of experience’, where we’re aspiring to better life experiences rather than doing overtime so we can buy more things and get on the ever more inaccessible property ladder.
  6. Rising rents and mortgages mean that Air BnB fulfils a monetary need for both hosts and travellers – benefitting both sides of the deal.

Just like the science experiments we laboured over at school, launching a new idea, concept or a business, it’s interesting to consider all of the intricate variables to work out whether it compliments and answers a contextual need. Like most future-forecasting, the rules for understanding what will make a trend ‘tip’, nestle between peering into a magic eight ball, a huge amount of research and a good old dose of luck.

Retrospectively mapping out the contextual success of some brands and ideas,  may help us harness what might come next. But a dead cockatoo in West Penwith, that, you never see coming.

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