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26 February 2024

Forecasting the future of business

By Simon O’Connell and Primrose Skelton



When Vogue hails the death of the bootcut and the rise of the skinny, says it is time to throw out the tulip and grab an egg and tells women everywhere to invest in gold jewellery – readers need no persuasion to act.


But the people behind our constant wardrobe changes are not just the magazine editors or fashion designers. Trend forecasters – experts who predict what colours, fabrics and products consumers will be wearing and buying a year from now – are at the forefront of that information. And every year hundreds of thousands of dollars are spent on their services.


Even in the internet age when a new trend can spread from Dubai to Dublin within seconds, forecasters are used by many companies who rely on their insight to develop new products, while ad agencies use them to form the creative content of their campaigns.


There are a large number of people and industries devoted to forecasting the future. Futurologists, insight directors, trend observers, inventors, colourists, planners, hedge-fund managers and new product developers who all claim to know what we will be wearing (bamboo), buying (luxury toilet paper), and investing in (gold) over the following months and years.


Several trend-spotters say 2008 will be the year in which marketers roll out more “premium” products and services from airline tickets to laptops in order to satisfy status-hungry consumers. Women will continue to gain more clout in the economic, political and professional spheres and rise in the boardroom. The mobile phone will become ever more capable and indispensable and consumers, not corporations, will be in control.


Two years ago forecasters said in 2008 marketeers would link environmental messages with the colour blue rather than green.


Ann Mack, director of trend spotting at JWT, says this is happening already. “Some eco-fatigue has set in. The idea of green has been so overused that it has ceased to mean anything. Climate change, the environment and clean water are more associated with blue than green and advertising companies are starting to use this information,” she said.


WGSN is the biggest and most influential of the trend forecasters and is viewed by virtually every major brand in the fashion, interiors and retail industries.


What you see in stores this autumn will most likely have been flagged by companies such as WGSN, Textile View, Design Intelligence and Trend Union as long ago as the summer of 2005.


WGSN’s editor-in-chief Roger Tredre says: “We combine the skills of designers, journalists, photographers and researchers to create a new kind of hybrid content. We avoid the word ‘predict’ because it makes us sound like crystal ball gazers. We rigorously analyse what’s out there and then make a decision.”


In essence the job of the trend forecaster is to absorb vast amounts of information from almost everywhere and to make sense of it.


“We look at everything. Contemporary art has been a big influence in recent years. Besides that, we do a lot of street work – photographing people in Beijing, Tokyo, Rio or Sydney and identifying new trend messages,” says Tredre.


But forget trying to log on and use their information. Buying trend forecasts can cost in excess of $25,000 (Dh91,812) a year.


Martin Raymond, futures director at London-based The Future Laboratory, says it is all about knowing where to look. “Certain areas or cities or social groups are ahead of others when it comes to fashion, design, technology, architecture and interiors. So the trick is identifying who or where these are, and then observing them as they play out a particular scenario. If I am looking at technology and gaming I look to Tokyo, if I am looking at street fashion I focus on London.”


Li Edelkoort was one of the first to realise the potential of trend forecasting, setting up her company Trend Union in Paris in 1986. She says: “I travel constantly, listening, shopping and searching the world over, tapping into everything: political, ethnological, artistic, literary and consumer.”


Another type of trend analysis is business trend forecasting. The business forecaster is not predicting the next hot colour but the state of the economy and social factors.


This process involves collecting and collating a wide variety of data including scientific, environmental, political and social research before forecasting.


The Trends Research Institute and its director Gerald Celente have been predicting trends since 1980 and provide clients with an understanding of what to expect in the future and how best to deal with it.


Celente has earned his reputation as “the most trusted name in trends” by accurately forecasting hundreds. Among them the sustained growth in organic products in 1988, the rise in gold prices and the fall of the dollar in 2005 and years before Starbucks he forecast the popularity of coffee shops.


Beyond these short-term aesthetic predictions lies another world in which agencies such as Artisan and The Future Laboratory imagine the world in 10 years time. This is a demanding, imprecise discipline, and as Inga Clausen, founder of Artisan explains, it is more about imagining and creating the future than forecasting it.


“Our select panel of visionaries apply their expertise and wisdom to specific commercial challenges in order to arrive at future scenarios,” she says.