The Need for a Future-Oriented Perspective
In today’s unpredictable and complex world organizations are facing a tension between the need to produce and the need to innovate. Innovation requires us to go beyond the short term. The question is what role if any can research play in helping organizations develop a more future-oriented perspective?
Different Perspectives of the Future
There already exist different ways that organizations think about the future.
1) Trend analysis: Organizations scout for consumer trends by looking at the current and making short term predictions. These trends spark new ideas that will become the next thing.
2) Futuring: This emphasizes uncertainty and is defined by long term scenarios or imaginations
Somewhere in the middle of this lies another approach that also has a future-oriented outlook but it comes from looking at the fringes of change. It’s a space we call Emergence.
What is Emergent Research?
It is about understanding change to develop future possibilities and then putting plans into place to make this future happen.
In 1984 Dr. Ingvar a neurobiologist, published research that shows that the human brain is constantly attempting to make sense of the future. Every moment we are creating plans for the future i.e. time paths
One of the reasons it does this is that our brain is bombarded with many sensory cues. The brain cannot give priority to all the information. But our memories of the future provide a subconscious guide of what information is relevant.
So the more memories of the future we develop the more receptive we will be to what the outside world presents to us.
It becomes important to create these memories of the future so that organizations become more sensitive to the unfolding changes and can maximize the opportunity in a more sustainable way.
Emergent Research in Practice
Our client was focusing its attention on the Indian market. With rapid urbanization, a focus on the current would be too limiting. The challenge was not just to be relevant today but also in the future.
The question was: How might we inspire designers/ product developers to develop future-ready products? Underlying this was a broader question on what assumptions should be questioned/put aside about Indian consumers.
Developing a Focal Point
A workshop was conducted among key stakeholders. A range of global trends was discussed. These were powerful, transformative forces that could change the global economy, business and society and the way we live. In addition, inputs were also collected by stakeholders from their own work and markets. An Affinity mapping of the trends and observations led to 5 key clusters. These were then narrowed down to 3 based on the overall company objectives
Scoping the Areas of Investigation
Armed with a focal point it was important to understand how these were being manifested in India. Secondary research revealed where we might expect to find these trends e.g. new brands/ business models, new behaviors, social issues, etc.
In addition, we spoke to a panel of experts (branding and youth thought leaders, design and product development experts, culture experts). The interviews provided more granular insight into the origins of change, inputs into local language articulations and specific examples to pursue further.
Deep Dive into the Fringes of Change
With the rich insights gathered from the secondary research and expert interviews, it was time to immerse ourselves in the change. And so we set off on a learning journey in India.
Our learning journey spanned across several days and included Immersions and Conversations.
Immersions were designed so that the team could experience shifts in a sensorial way. Our immersions were of different types.
Immersions into spaces that represented the changes taking place. For example, a wellness retreat on the outskirts of Bangalore to represent the experience economy
- Guided tours with experts to understand the social and cultural context within which the changes manifest
- Breaks at meal times which were meant to provide us a further experience of how daily life was being influenced.
- Conversations with people who were change-makers and were breaking stereotypes
Our immersion into the fringes of change had provided us a unique perspective on the consumer. It had sharpened our senses “to see closer and further”
Analysis and Implementation
The final stage was to put all our learning together to determine a way forward. To do this we worked together to bring together all our learning and observations. A wall of observations helped us see how things were connected. Analysis by grouping helped us develop a shared framework of the evolving consumer in India and the forces of change.
The findings were captured in a “country book” that became the basis for further brainstorming and the starting point for other projects.
Overview of the Emergent Process
In a complex world, it is important for us to step out of the current and the immediate to think about the possibilities. In research, we need to move from studying the now to enable discussions that question how things can be.
We can do this by adopting the 5 steps and creating a space for reflection and to move towards emergence.
1: Develop the focal point
2: Identify the local manifestations
3: Immersion into the fringes of change
4: Inductive analysis
Benefits of Emergent Thinking
With a focus on change, it can bring to light new opportunities:
- It inspires stakeholder’s to think about things differently
- It creates a shared understanding of the future for more effective decision making
- What it means for research and brands
Brands and organizations today are confronted with disruptive forces and it is paramount to be innovative. What is required is for research to not just show expertise but to enable interaction. Not just be evidence-based but also allow for creativity in our thinking and doing. A more foresight driven approach enables us to do that.
It means 3 things are required:
- That we go beyond the confines of the category to consider social, cultural, economic, business changes taking place
- It is important for us to be able to deal with ambiguity as the objective of generative research is to provide inspiration and ask questions
- We need to work in more collaborative ways both with stakeholders but also with informants. Approaches that look at the future also require organizations to go beyond their departmental focus/silos.
It is time for brands and stakeholders to get out of their comfort zone and think about the possibilities. It is time to create space for Emergence.