JWT's Future 100 report, released late in November, gave a comprehensive insight into the trends of the near-future. While some may be easily understandable - a widespread social media backlash and the rise of the meat-free diet, for example - others are perhaps more left-field, such as lichen becoming one of the in-vogue foods of the next year.
Understanding the report requires understanding how the report is compiled and written. To this effect we interviewed the Director of JWT Innovation, Lucie Greene, and asked her all about it.
How do you compile the report?
LG: Throughout the year in addition to our big in-depth reports, we publish weekly trends, interviews and insights across all key lifestyle verticals. We select these based on things we've noticed that seem part of a bigger seed of change among consumers, their behaviour and outlook. And they're almost like our trend pulse. The Future 100 is like our 'macro trend pulse' moment. We sit in a trend war room looking at what we've seen gather momentum, what the latest shifts are, and what – based on the context of all our other research – we see becoming a bigger phenomenon. The items in Future 100 are all short - intentionally, like a cheat sheet for the year ahead - but they are all selected based on something we see as part of a bigger phenomenon. And are linked to a bigger bank of research.
You mention a social media backlash in the report. Where do you believe that this will come from? Does it come from an audience sick of being treated badly by social media companies, or simply a weariness to their platforms, or something else?
LG: Instagram continues to be a key focus for people's daily social media sharing and consumption habits. The backlash is coming from the more commercial use of the platform as it becomes a key influence on consumer spending and trends. What started off innocently as a place for people to share snaps of their favourite things, their travels and friends has become a highly evolved brand eco-system and one which consumers are increasingly catching wise to. We're seeing this emerge in a number of different ways. The trend for designing interiors, experiences and packaging in visually novel cartoonish fashion, specifically to inspire visual sharing and viral reach is being seen for what it is — transactional and cynical.
Consumers are starting to reject not-so-subtle branded 'instagram' moments. We're seeing murky influencer culture and the realms of fake followers and lucrative endorsements get push-back from both brands - sick of paying and annoyed with lack of transparency and ROI, and consumers too. In the bigger picture, the idealized Instagram life that seems to have become integral to people's personal brand and projected online identity is also being viewed more critically. Beyond being seen in more real light as a fake construct people create, it's also being connected to isolation, mental health issues, anxiety and more.
It's interesting that the report features "Consumer-champion tech" and an "ethical Internet" as well as the aforementioned backlash. Are these concepts interconnected and do you therefore believe that the next phase of Internet usage will be from fairer companies - perhaps bound by consumer-championing laws? What will happen to Silicon Valley?
LG: Yes, they are 100% interconnected. At a governmental level, you have much more active moves to try and curtail these groups – which has prompted many to try and be proactive, as they have in the US, in defining new legislation around privacy. Aware of consumer sentiment, you're seeing rising calls for 'chief ethics officers' as the next hot hire - the new CSR. All of this is creating rising consumer awareness of tech company behaviour and creating more demand for transparency and privacy protections. The response is brands recognizing the market opportunity.
Apple is the most obvious example of this - talking about a digital bill of human rights, but you also have enterprising companies like Snips, switching up the expectation that consumers must share personal data in order to get services. Apple is the most significant in this. It's not only one of the most powerful global brands but it is in many ways a thought leader in consumer tech. Trends and products it creates often impact the wider market. In this case, it may singlehandedly create the consumer demand necessary for tech companies to clear up their act.
With regards to new tech cities such as Alphabet's work in Toronto, could this in fact reinforce a have/have not culture? Would it be better investing in some more down-at-heel towns, perhaps former manufacturing towns, rather than try to build new ones?
LG: The tech companies are, on a multitude of different levels, driving inequality – not least through automation. It goes beyond environment design, but this is a key factor. You see it already in the big headquarters in Silicon Valley, and even in London, where they are described as open, porous, and part of the community but are really anything but. They have not been designed with a civic mind to be inclusive – but that makes sense because these are commercial companies and these are private spaces - even if they are promoted differently. When their headquarters move in to cities, it's also well-storied that they raise property prices and create gentrification while putting pressure on local resources from transport to school and healthcare.
Amazon's controversial HQ2 is a good example of this, coming soon to New York and Virginia. The Big Tech companies are creating new headquarters as a form of 3D hardware for their philosophy, but also as a marketing tool for talent. They're commissioning big name architects and creating beautiful spaces. There is altruistic rhetoric baked in to marketing, but these are commercial spaces designed to get PR and attract top workers.
With regard to connected cities, environmental design is a new venture to further extend vast data pools on consumer behavior and therefore advertising revenue. Attractive urban environments with affluent residents are most attractive for this for the spending power.
If Uber becomes our transport provider of choice – the "transport everything store", to paraphrase the Amazon slogan – what happens to public transport?
LG: Uber is already being used as a form of private/public transport by millennials in cities like New York. The impact of this is displaced revenue for subway systems, which could ghettoize them. It's also creating a more decentralized on-demand climate for travel which means the traditional hubs – the train stations, the platforms, may need to change.
Experts predict that automated cars and ride-sharing generally will transform the urban environment as garages will no longer be necessary with residential developments. Parking spaces, same. Meanwhile, it unlocks the arena for the connected car to become an entertainment and shopping consul, particularly as 5G high speed internet becomes a reality.
Are we in - pardon the political reference - a transitionary period, where we are currently, as society, re-establishing what our individual and collective selves are, and the interrelationship between the two?
LG: I would say so. On-demand culture is having an interesting impact on people's connection to communities and the idea of the state. From dates, to food delivery, to transport, it's making the experience very insular and individual, negating any need to interact with other consumers or participate in shared spaces and resources like stores or stations, and creating a sense of disconnection from collective communities.
The rise of platform-based services like Airbnb and Uber, and delivery ecosystems like Amazon Prime, are reducing the cost of former luxuries for middle class consumers but they are commercially oriented. In other words, they are not 100% solutions to transport and accommodation issues but are being taken up in great numbers by people who can afford them. It's also well documented that with record screen time, smartphone usage and digital behaviors, millennials and Generation Zs are starting to show feelings of anxiety and isolation from the world around them. This could be changing though.
The rising wave of active political activism, new politicians like Alexandra Ocasio Cortez talking about Amazon's impact on community, and the socio economic bias of climate change, are starting to awaken millennial and Gen Z audiences to what's at stake if private companies become more dominant. You saw this with increased engagement in the US mid-terms, and you're seeing it with more Gen Z activism - online and offline.