To learn more about the future of work and strategic foresight, we sat down for an interview with Nicolas Arroyo – one of the founding Partners at Bespoke, a Copenhagen-based strategic foresight & design thinking firm. Taking his experiences and methodologies adopted by Bespoke as a starting point, Nicolas talked to us about the human need to innovate, the opportunities and challenges behind the trends in technology and how to use insights to develop business strategies for the future. Enjoy the interview:
Let’s start with the basics. Nicolas, what is a trend?
A trend is a pattern or behavior that we can observe and see it repeating itself in different contexts or situations. A trend has a certain frequency and a certain volume on a critical mass.
How does a trend start and how does it die?
This is really hard to answer since most trends are systemic – starting in different contexts and environments and at different times. I’ll refer to its frequency and critical mass: when you start seeing a pattern or a behavior that becomes more frequent, with more people adopting it or using it, that’s when you could say a trend is getting steamed. The same when it dies: less people start talking about it, less people start adopting it or using it so there is less frequency to it.
How do you spot the difference between a trend and a fad?
I will again refer to critical mass: more people using and adopting it. Once a trend starts to affect different aspects of life and business – that’s a relevant trend. But you don’t know it yet, so you can look at a lot of numbers and make a lot of predictions but sometimes there are things that we think will revolutionize everything… but they don’t.
That’s the reality one has to live with when you work with trend research – you are painting landscapes. You are making certain images but you should never think about prediction and predicting what the future is gonna be like or even being 100% certain about certain trends, because you can’t predict the future. That’s impossible. We always work with the mindset that we are gaining knowledge about different future opportunities and possibilities but we are not in the “prediction business”.
Can you share a successful story of a company that spotted a trend and implement innovation strategies?
I believe Netflix is a good example. They really saw drivers and signals pointing towards people wanting to own less physical things and people wanting to consume content differently through the internet. They based their business growth strategy on several aspects they saw a social transformation into how people want to consume content and entertainment that maybe it’s not just through traditional tv or cinema, people now want a more “on demand” approach to it and of course Netflix saw the technological trend of the internet growing and kind of growing their critical mass of reach as well. They saw the opportunity to launch a streaming service on top of that. I think Netflix has a story and Netflix as a company is a really good example of a business that saw different drivers happening simultaneously – not just in tech, but also in social changes even political and economical changes.
What got you started in trend research as a business?
I’m not so much a fan of the word “trend research” as a discipline — but I do work within the field and something that excites me about it is the ability to look at the world through different glasses, to be curious about the world and to learn more about the different industries and fields and disciplines that I don’t know. It is a way of constantly accessing my own ignorance and a way of being exposed to new topics, new people and learning about new things that I did not had access to before. It’s a good way of being alert and on your toes about what’s happening around you.
Most of the innovation we hear about this days include AI, robots, etc. What is your take on this? Where is this going? Will most of our jobs really be replaced by robots?
A concept that I really like regarding this hype on robots and AI is the idea of displacement rather than replacement. I think they will displace us in certain ways, so they will take over some jobs and they will move us towards other kinds of jobs and other kinds of occupations. This is the interesting part: what will we be able to do as humans when robots will take care of some jobs? I don’t believe they will replace us, but rather displace us. And that’s a great opportunity for humans to think about what are the human qualities that we want to enhance and what kind of values and skills and competences do we want to develop within this landscape?
Let’s look into health care, for instance. A robot can easily replace a doctor because it can process much more faster and accurately and efficiently huge amounts of data whereas a doctor is limited by the size of his/her brain. In that sense, AI or a robot could make much more accurate diagnosis because they have more access to data points and input but it would hardly replace a nurse, because nurses they do a job that is much more related to empathy, to the human touch, to the human connection and I think a lot of jobs will move towards that side where empathy and human connection will be key. There is an opportunity there that is quite interesting.
Do you believe there is more innovation happening today or 20 years ago?
Innovation has always been happening. For me innovation is just the ability to creatively solve problems and challenges and we’ve always been doing that. Now we call it “innovation” but through human history we have always been creating. That concept of innovation as we know today – yes, for sure there is much more people doing more of those things but, as a concept, we have always been innovating. It’s our human nature: to create new things and to solve problems and find ways. Maybe now we have more resources and more access to information than before, which makes some of those developments faster and more interdisciplinary as well and intercultural, so they don’t need to happen in one specific place like Silicon Valley, they could happen all around the world and all over the internet, with people involved from all kind of different cultures. That’s the interesting part today but I don’t think there is necessarily more innovation happening.
What are the best resources/platforms/tools to stay up to date regarding trends?
A combination of two things: getting curated information from reliable sources but then always emerging yourself as much as you can on a certain environment and talking to people. There are some interesting websites that curate information: Fast Company, Wired Magazine, Monocle – they do a really good job curating information of all kinds of sources. They are looking at social elements, technology, economy, environment etc, making it possible for you to gather different perspectives, that’s really good.
Apart from that, immersion and talking to people. For example rather than reading about AI, having a conversation with somebody working with that is much much valuable because it allows you to see how real is this hype. When you read in some magazines or on the internet it sounds like it’s going to revolutionize everything really fast, and when you talk to the people doing that technology they are way more chilled about that, saying that it will take longer or it it not as radical as it sounds. They tend to put things down to Earth and as a researcher that’s really valuable. And the same with social or cultural trends as well: when you go out and talk to people, young people, people from a subculture or of a certain environment or context than you really get what are the real implications of a certain trend, or a certain driver in their lives.
Is it more likely for a startup to succeed if it starts based on a trend? Or on a big existing market, that grows slowly?
Doing a company based in one trend is not good enough. We usually use the concept of a “wave of trends” and if you have a project or a company that is aligned within a wave of trends (or a lot of drivers happening simultaneously) you have more chances of succeeding because you might hit something right in one dimension or the other. Like the example with Netflix. So, yes trends can have a very positive impact when establishing a business.
That being said, we also see a lot of examples of companies that create their own trends: they have a very strong vision and create a trend from their work – that’s also quite interesting and radical. Sometimes when you are too focused on following trends you lose authenticity and purpose, becoming more of a follower of what you believe the world wants. It’s a thin balance between understanding the context and how can you ride that wave of trends successfully but also not forgetting that you also have a free space to create something new and maybe then other people will follow you.
Within our work we always try to help people become trendsetters rather than following the trends – and that’s a really hard job. I think both are very important: to understand the context and the landscape of your industry in order to create something that is aligned with that and then be creative in order to disrupt it.