Putting people and culture back into the future

Visions of the future these days tend to focus on uncertainty and chaos, with technology in a key role. Brands need to put people and culture back into those futures in order to connect with consumers.

Adam Chmielowski, Annie Auerbach
Adam Chmielowski, Annie Auerbach

VUCCA has a lot to answer for. The 'volatility, uncertainty, chaos, complexity, ambiguity' model borrowed from military strategy and imported into the business world has become shorthand for 'the future's scary, keep up or be doomed'.

It encourages a certain vision of the future, one based on constant churn, instability, and the primacy of disruption.

But it narrows our perspective on time. It makes it feel as if this moment of change and volatility is exclusive to the present time. But in fact we’ve been here before.

The most dangerous four words in the English language are ‘this time is different’, according to Harvard economist Ken Rogoff in his book Eight Centuries of Financial Folly. Rogoff laments how often people have persuaded themselves that they live in an exceptional time and how that has limited their perspectives in disastrous ways.

If you look at many trend and futures reports in circulation today, you’ll see how the language of volatility, disruption and churn dominates the landscape. Because of this, these reports are adding to a narrow and limiting narrative that elevates technological over human possibility and vision. Therefore, if anything, they fuel uncertainty and instability rather than informing how brands can help consumers navigate times of tension.

So what are the alternatives?

We believe there are two key principles, which we use to help brands steer a better course for a future more closely connected to people and culture.

The first principle is to prioritise culture over churn.

Instead of simply focusing on the churn of ‘what’s new’, we find it more instructive to put a cultural lens on our collective experience and examine the building blocks of what makes us human—the parts of life that matter to us most.

This article is part of the Cultural Radar series

Dimensions such as our relationships, beliefs about body and mind, work and play, gender roles—these are the universal and foundational lenses relevant to people across demographics and geographies. No matter whether you are a mum in Leeds or a student in Bangalore you will have a relationship with each of these. By examining the changing nature of these dimensions and our collective experiences within them, brands can open up the most powerful narratives to connect with.

An instructive example is the Nest Learning Thermostat. The history of the smart or connected home is a graveyard of ‘disruptive’ technologies that had been predicted to revolutionise the home. Central to their shortcomings was an approach of tech-solutionism, an unwavering belief that the home needed to be automated and made seamless from top-to-bottom—for the home to be smart and the inhabitants dumb.

Nest, in contrast, has gained great traction precisely because of a focus not on the ‘smart’ home but on the ‘thoughtful’ home. The company got to the 'thoughtful' theme, we wager, because it understood how the increasing messiness of family routines and lifestyles was aspirational, as well as people’s desire to retain agency and control in that environment, rather than relinquish to technology a function so basic as heating the home.

So it ‘learns’ rather than dictates. It understands the culture of the home as paramount to its technological success.

The second principle is to tell stories of people-centred futures.

If you look at the language of futures work, it is pretty cold and mechanical: scenario planning, forces, forecasts. This language often drives outputs that have little emotional connection with the audience because it leaves people out of the picture, prioritising the macro over the micro. This often leads to a report being filed away because the lack of emotional engagement with the reader translates to a lack of commercial usefulness.

Matt Locke of consultancy Storythings, a studio that helps brands with new ways of telling stories and is involved with author Steven Johnson’s How We Get to Next innovation project describes a shift in thinking about where people need to come into stories about the future:

“It’s now easier to see the activities and desires of micro-communities across the globe, and to develop stories about the future based on their needs and aspirations," Locke writes. "The most important future stories now start from the perspective of people, and trace our potential futures with us as the lead actors, not as bit-part players.”

So we need more tools and approaches that are based on putting people and culture back into the future, in order to create stories of collective experiences and how they are shifting.

Jim Carroll reminds us “in the age of the empowered, atomised consumer, we should never forget that, fundamentally, brands are shared beliefs". We have been forgetting, and we would do well to re-assert this as our starting point for thinking about the future.

Adam Chmielowski is group head of cultural intelligence and Annie Auerbach is senior director of cultural intelligence at Flamingo


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