What do Chelsea tractors and email overload tell us about forecasting?

Picture yourself in a trends workshop, innovation brainstorm or scenario planning day, one day in the not-too-distant past.  Your task is to help an automotive company see what sort of vehicles people in Europe will want in the future. Here’s what you’re being told. Fuel prices are rising. There’s a lot of talk about “peak oil” (whatever happened to that?). There are more and more cars on the roads, which are getting ever more crowded. Many of these cars have only one person in them on most journeys, which are taking longer as the roads fill up. Pollution is a concern, as is parking. In some urban areas there are so many cars that people can’t always park near their home.

So what might you come up with? Obviously the trend must be to smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles. They’d be easier to park, more efficient to run, and if we all had them there’d be a lot less congestion on the roads so we’d all get around faster.

Now then, what did we get? There are some smaller cars, like the Smart, but they’re still not mainstream. Lower-polluting electric cars are even more of a novelty. In fact, one of the biggest phenomena of UK motoring in the past twenty years has been the rise of the thirstiest thing on the roads after a Sherman tank: the sports utility vehicle, or 4×4. Looking around London’s streets, you might think the pothole problem is very serious indeed, such is the prevalence of these four-wheel drive beasts. As for parking them: if you can fight your way into a multi-storey in one of those, and squeeze it into a space, then good luck trying to open the door and get out. Doesn’t that seem really perverse? How on earth is that a rational response to the state of motoring in the UK?

Of course it isn’t a rational response – that’s the flaw in your logic right there, Spock. We are not rational beings. Any attempt at forecasting the future and planning for it can’t be totally rational either. If, back in our hypothetical future-gazing workshop, we’d looked at how people feel about being on the roads, instead of looking only at the functional aspects of motoring, we might have spotted something.

The current fuss about limiting the use of email at work shines a light on another case of unintended, and unexpected, consequences. On the face of it, emailing is an efficient way to communicate: no small talk, just straight to the point. Yet it’s become massively inefficient. Instead of helping us work smarter and get out of the office sooner, it eats our time at work, and at home. You can list the reasons – but who’d have thought we’d all love to type instead of speaking?  I didn’t imagine ten years ago that companies would experiment with no-email days, or that governments would consider legislating against the use of work email after work officially ends.

That’s how hard it is to predict the future. It’s so easy to get it totally wrong, especially when you look at trends at scale, and with a rational focus.  Data and trends provide a way of aggregating current and projected behaviour to describe the external world. But we respond to this macro environment as individuals, and not wholly rationally. What is best for a herd might not be what is best for me as an individual. That’s part of the challenge for those trying to get us to reduce our environmental impact. So with motoring, my individual response to feeling threatened on the roads is to get a bigger car.

So what to do? One way to counter this is to take each trend or data set down to an individual level, so as to start thinking how it feels to one person. I find that stepping in to a customer’s shoes is a stimulating and productive thing to do. Even that’s not enough, if it becomes overly rational – as is so often the expectation in the workplace.  Marketers, as the people who connect the capabilities of the business with the needs of customers, need to keep our emotional being alive and active at work.  In the era of big data, we have to be extra vigilant. Gloria Steinem wrote, “Without leaps of imagination, or dreaming, we lose the excitement of possibilities. Dreaming, after all, is a form of planning.” It’s our job to keep dreaming.


Previous posts on inspiration for innovation:

Desperately seeking dissatisfied customers

Getting customers to do it your way

Why be different when you could just be better?

What coat hangers teach us about business-to-business marketing

Thought leadership | April 2014