Feeding on the future: What is trend forecasting anyway?

Trend forecasting. Is it science, art or just a stab in the dark?

By: Nicola Robey,   4 minutes

future forecasting

In the first of a three-part series delving into trend forecasting, Nicola asks –  is predicting the future always a wild stab in the dark? Or is there method in mapping what lies ahead?

The clothes we wear and the drinks we order, the cars we drive and the way we act with our friends. Whether we’re repelling, embracing, or simply commenting on them as they pass us by (au revoir shell suits) each and every one of us plays our part in the emergence of society’s trends.

With the influx of LinkedIn profiles claiming the job title Trend Forecaster, it seems certain consumer-driven businesses are realising that plotting patterns in society, from what we buy to how we choose to spend our time, could be the key to knowing how to grow when tomorrow dawns. Everyone from strategists to designers to international brands now see trend prediction as a way to go beyond being relevant to being a trailblazer.

Over the next three Feed posts, I’ll be looking into the art and practices of trend forecasting; harnessing techniques and even making some predictions myself.

What exactly defines a trend?

Taking things back to the barest of bones, while it’s tempting to think that trends only apply to the world of fashion and art, they are in fact ubiquitous, stretching through every iota of the material and societal worlds.

Trends stretch through every iota of the material and societal worlds.

A trend can be the very quick emergence of a product, fashion, idea, attitude or habit,  or it can have a longer arch.  It can appear as a broad-based acceptance of something, or it can be an “A-Ha” moment, like the increased use of tablets over desktops, or the flurry of bearded men who appeared in 2014.

From economics to ethnography, scientific discoveries to artistic developments, many outward and intrinsic societal factors come into play where trends are concerned. The true skill is identifying converging patterns.

To many, trend forecasting seems like a stab in the dark. When in fact, accurately plotting, predicting and harnessing a trend involves an unfathomable amount of maths.

Gauging the numbers and correlating enormous amounts of data to see a clear synthesis is really the only sure-fire way to have a broader picture of how the world is shifting around us. And that’s how big trend companies like LSN Global operate. For example, they’ll plot how many people are buying wearable tech, or how people are digesting different types of online content.

But numbers alone are never enough. They can tell us what people are doing right now, and they can give a clear indication how a trend arch might arise. And while this can transform a leap of faith into a eureka moment, a lot of trend forecasting rests on the intangible.

Boiling people down to numbers alone leaves out a vital step in perceiving a pattern: human observation; the role of the individual. There’s not much quantifying the sudden appearance of people walking around Tesco’s sporting a centre-nose piercing, or a 90s Buffalo shoe (the type that Baby Spice used to parade around in). These are the emergences that require a different kind of observation.

Trend Tablet

Observations of this kind are valuable, and are capitalised on by trend forecasters like Lidewij Edelkoort, with her regularly updated Trend Tablet, the beyond-the-curve bunch at Future Laboratory, and Stranger friend Bella Towse from Bulletproof, all of whom are lauded for their exceptional talents of observation. These trend voyeurs’ fingers are so poised on the pulse that most of the trends they’re forecasting haven’t even sprung to life yet. Employed by businesses the world over to pinpoint the tastemakers and trend breakers, these trendspotters are called on to track down the pioneers of the new, the different and the subversive.

So how exactly can you spot a trend without crunching the numbers?

According to Dave Mitten from consumer insight company Trend Watching, the first step is to understand that the world is changing all the time. Whether it’s tech advancements, social or attitudinal change. But the second step is to think about fundamental human needs and wants, such as human interaction, food, safety, security and communication. These are all relatively stable, and don’t shift too much.

Mitten explains here that new trends emerge when an external change unlocks some way of better serving these fundamental human needs and wants. Look at Skype for example. This global giant was founded on the simple idea of making it easier and cheaper for people all over the world to talk. And if you think about it, Mark Zuckerberg didn’t invent the need for social connection, he just found a different, easier way to make it happen.

Mark Zuckerberg didn’t invent the need for social connection.

You can spot new trends emerging when you look at innovations too. With products and tech innovations that help find better ways of serving these fundamentals. For example, the reason the sharing economy seems to be dragging its heels a little, even though its premise and ideas are so clever, is because it’s difficult to orchestrate a seamless sharing economy experience. And as we’re now in ‘the age of experience’, without this vital link in the user experience, things just won’t take off.


This is why trend forecasters are predicting the convergence of the Internet of Things with the sharing economy. This means smart devices and digital services will be better placed to help share physical resources. For instance, Bitlock, a company where you can email a key to a friend or stranger for your bike, are allowing people a better, more seamless sharing experience. With these two elements combining, this trend unlocks a better way of serving those basic human desires.

But while this is a fascinating way of looking at how ideas emerge and take off, it doesn’t answer the question of why some trends succeed while other things disappear, like the rise of Facebook and the fall of MySpace.

My next post explores this question by asking why certain trends surface at certain times, and how surveying the landscape around an audience can make or break an idea. See you then…

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