Trend-spotters and futurologists have become the evangelists of the modern business world. Spend more than 10 minutes listening to their breezy uplift about what is around the corner, however, and two questions begin to well up inside you ¡X how come they know this stuff, and how does one go about separating the wheat from the chaff? Built into the discipline, after all, is a tendency to exaggerate the shock of the new: It helps to drum up business. And by the time their prognostications have failed to materialize, it is safe to predict that most of them will have scampered.
No matter. The business of short-range futurology ¡X that hybrid of science and intuition that reads the runes of business and consumer trends in an effort to predict what will whistle its way into the mainstream within the next 12 to 18 months ¡X is now in high demand. So what do the crystal ball gazers reckon will be the top 10 trends of 2008?
SOCIAL NETWORKING GROWS UP
PHOTO: COURTESY OF ETSY
Next year will see online social networking cease to be the preserve of the young. According to data recently released by the European Interactive Advertising Association, 18 percent of Europeans over 55 now visit a social networking site at least once a month, not far behind the ¡§digital generation¡‥ of 16- to 34-year-olds, where 28 percent access such sites. The past year has seen a 12 percent jump in these so- called silver surfers, and new social networking forums such as MyChumsClub and Saga Zone are appearing to accommodate older users.
Online social networking is maturing in other ways, too. Following concerns that office-bound staff were spending too much of their day on social networking sites such as Facebook, many British firms are now mounting crackdowns against their use. As people get used to juggling a multiplicity of new roles and new rules, says London-based trend-spotter Tamar Kasriel, the result will be to fuel confusion about how personal the personal computer is when it¡¦s at work. Twitchiness among employers, says Kasriel, is largely responsible for the latest Internet abbreviation, NSFW, or ¡§not suitable for work,¡‥ which bored office workers are increasingly using to preface any material they forward to their friends.
Reverse knowledge migration, another solid basis for futurological speculation is to follow the flow of people. Paul Saffo, a respected California-based forecaster, argues that the next few years will see the beginnings of a ¡§reverse knowledge migration¡‥ in which, as well as bright and well-educated workers coming from the developing world to the west, people will start to move in the opposite direction.
This new global class of ¡§cyber-gypsies,¡‥ says Saffo, will not only include American and European Asians returning ¡§home,¡‥ but also highly educated, non-Asian Americans and Europeans going off to make their fortunes in places such as China. The trend, he argues, will soon move from a source of sociological curiosity to a source of alarm for governments and businesses. Companies, universities and think tanks in Europe and America, he warns, who often smugly assumed that they would be a magnet for the world¡¦s talent, are going to discover that this is no longer the case.
HANDMADE ON THE NET
For some years now, one staple of futurological speculation has been the quest for authenticity in what seems like an anonymous and artificial world. Witness, for example, the young fashionistas who self-consciously reclaim dreary leisure activities ¡X everything from bingo to choir practice, from quiz nights to knitting ¡X that would have bored even their parents rigid. A new twist on all this, says Reinier Evers of the Amsterdam firm Trendwatching.com, is the sprouting of Internet-based ventures that purvey handmade and highly traditional fare.
In Switzerland, for example, Netgranny (netgranny.ch) is a collective comprised of 15 cheerful-looking grannies who knit socks on demand and sell them online. Customers can choose their favorite granny by picture, pick the color of their socks, or opt for a granny ¡§surprise¡‥ design. It takes two weeks for a granny to knit a pair of socks; at US$37.40 apiece, including delivery, they make an excellent idea for a Christmas gift.
Something very similar is being touted by the Danish company Mormor.nu (www.mormor.nu), which sells traditional handmade baby and children¡¦s wear online. Mormor.nu is Danish for ¡§Grandma.now.¡‥ All its products are handmade from pure wool, alpaca or cotton. Old knitting and crochet techniques and patterns have been revived, while the colors and materials have been updated. For a dash of extra authenticity, the company¡¦s workers are as steeped in tradition as its products; the youngest member of staff is 68. Likewise, Etsy (www.etsy.com) is an online marketplace for handmade goods that features more than 26,000 vendors from across the world and sells everything from scented soy candles to a tennis-ball chair. It is only two years old, but so far more than 1 million items have been sold and 300,000 people have joined as members.
THE NEW VICARIOUS CONSUMPTION
Ambitious futurologists need credible buzzwords, but good ones are in perilously short supply. One option is to take an old trend off the peg, dust it down a bit and give it a whole new twist. The idea of ¡§vicarious consumption¡‥ was first coined 100 years ago by the economist Thorstein Veblen to describe the thrill rich people get when they buy their butler a lovely new uniform. Nowadays, reckons Evers, it is making a comeback in a whole new form. Just as book reviews have become a substitute among many of us for reading books, Evers says, our enthusiasm for endless product reviews is becoming a way through which we can vicariously experience almost anything through the eyes (and sometimes ears) of people who have already been there. Sites dedicated to reading reviews on other people¡¦s experiences, such as Iliketotallyloveit.com and Ballofdirt.com, offer a heady mixture of entertainment, voyeurism and exhibitionism, and are already quietly attracting millions on the Web.
The rise of blogging and self-broadcasting sites such as YouTube as an alternative to TV, says Gutsche, has brought with it a burgeoning demand among people to learn new skills, not from professional educators but from their peers. A good example, he says, is the proliferation of virtual cooking classes on YouTube, in which people persuade each other to experiment with their favorite recipes. Then there are the home videos that take people through the easiest way to unlock or otherwise manipulate their iPhones or other gadgets. The ¡§education¡‥ on offer at such sites does not have to be improving. Willitblend.com, for example, spoofs the growth of DIY education videos by showing viewers how to granulate their iPhones or iPods in a blender. Then there is the popularity of bizarre videos demonstrating that if, for example, you shove a packet of Mentos mints into a bottle of Diet Coke, the whole thing explodes ¡X the YouTube equivalent, it would appear, of the school chemistry experiment.
VIRTUAL IDENTITY MANAGERS
Another consequence of the public display of ourselves on the Net is that many of us are going to end up hiring professional stand-ins.
By 2011, reckon the researchers at technology advice firm Gartner, 80 percent of Internet users and major companies will have avatars, or digital replicas of themselves, for online work and play. Kasriel predicts that this will give rise to a new cadre of independent advisers ¡X what she calls ¡§holistic identity managers¡‥ ¡X whose job it will be to garden the Internet profiles of business people and keep them on the straight and narrow. Very soon, she believes, it will come as no surprise at all when we learn that high-ranking executives are not writing and updating their own profiles but paying someone else to do it for them. Already, sites such as FakeWebcam.com allow paying people to pre-record videos of themselves and play them on a loop as if they were visible on their Webcam.
The aesthetically challenged might even think about hiring more attractive stand-ins as well as scriptwriters. For those who can afford it, smile ¡X it¡¦s not you on candid camera
OPEN CLOSET POLICY
If at first his or her predictions don¡¦t come to pass, the seasoned futurologist can simply hunker down and wait. Nearly a decade ago, for example, the American futurologist Jeremy Rifkin argued that we were all moving into ¡§the age of access¡‥ ¡X from an economy in which it was good to own stuff into one in which people would prefer to rent it. Nothing much happened, and people quickly moved on, but just recently the idea is beginning to look more plausible. For those who want to take out a time-share in a dog, for example, 2007 saw the launch in California of a ¡§shared pet ownership¡‥ company, FlexPetz; the firm is fast expanding, and is now opening a branch in London. Meanwhile, a new Germany company called Lutte-Leihen is renting out baby clothes to parents of fast-growing young children; several companies, such as Bag, Borrow or Steal in America and Be a Fashionista in the UK, are renting out designer handbags; and the Dutch company Rent-a-Garden is leasing out sculptures and potted plants to those who want to give their back gardens a much needed summertime makeover.
Sharing the costs, Salzman points out, is becoming increasingly popular in many different retail sectors. The inexorable rise of ¡§fractional luxury,¡‥ for example, is giving not-quite-wealthy-enough people the opportunity to buy a time-share in anything from a racehorse to a jumbo jet. Outfits such as PartialOwner.com and Fractionallife.com are extending the partial-ownership model to everything from homes to luxury cars and restaurants. Art lovers, too, can now buy into syndicates to purchase artwork. ARTvest in Glasgow, for example, was set up last year to enable people to pool their funds and get a foothold in the expensive market for contemporary art. Sharing the costs can be fun, too. Young women in Argentina and elsewhere, Salzman says, are holding clothes-swapping parties in order to share out the costs of getting hold of the latest fashion gear.
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