14 April 2008

Trend Letter: A report on the forces transforming the economy, business, technology, society and the world

Spotlight Interview With Eric Garland

Look beyond the iPod
Overcome media hype to discover the real trends that influence business

Eric Garland is the author of Future Inc., published by AMACOM. He is a professional futurist and has provided insight in areas such as agriculture, energy, nanotechnology, health care and information technology. His clients include General Motors, Coca-Cola, Nestlé, Siemens, Eli Lilly and several government agencies.

Trend Letter Editor: What are some of the obstacles to futuristic thinking? Eric Garland: The problem is not that people are lacking information. We all wake up each day with a 6,000-pound meatball of information in front of us. Most people turn to the media to try to make sense of things. However, with a 24/7 news cycle, many news outlets simply are trying to keep viewers’ attention until the next advertisement. So they use sex, death and calamity stories or random stories about fads that are of little utility to someone who wants to invest or make a significant business decision. TL: Is there a simple and reliable way to determine when a trend is more than a passing fad? Garland: The difference is numbers and basic analysis. Not everyone is going to be a strategic intelligence analyst, but most people can learn how to do basic analysis of social trends, demographics and technology trends and then come to their own conclusions. Most mass media outlets are not helping the

“We all wake up each day with a 6,000-pound meatball of information in front of us.”
business investor. For example, in the chapter in my book called “Analyzing Trends: Real Change vs. Media Hype,” I point out that the hot trend in the summer of 2001 was the threat of shark attacks. Every few days there was a story about a shark attack. The immediate conclusion would be that shark attacks are escalating, except for one problem: Shark attacks were down that year and for the third year in a row. However, reporting of shark attacks was up. In 1995, Peter Drucker said: “Do not confuse the difference between

big and important. The Internet is big; ball bearings are important.” I should amend that to: The iPhone is big; ball bearings are still important. We can live without the iPhone, but we can’t live without certain industrial equipment. TL: Please give us an example of a current trend, and tell us how you are tracking it for future implications. Garland: Much of what I do is to get to the root of the issue and look at the unsexy stuff that forms the basis of economics—the type of information that is not reportable by most media. For example, we are looking at a report on the future of urbanization. As of three months ago, the majority of people live in cities for the first time in 20,000 years. So what are the implications of that? There will be demand for sewage systems, water infrastructure and transportation. We are going to be living on top of each other, so soundproofing may be an increasing need. Although there is a lot of talk about iPhones and the Prius, there are huge movements right now in copper, rebar, concrete, steel and iron. The demand for metal has become so intense in part because of the huge growth in building Chinese cities. In fact, people are stealing
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Trend Letter: A report on the forces transforming the economy, business, technology, society and the world

April 2008



(continued from Page 14)

manhole covers and breaking into old buildings to rip out copper wiring to sell them for scrap metal. TL: How does someone begin the process of predicting future trends? Garland: The first steps are to organize your thinking and to understand the system you play in. When you look for trends, there is a lot of information on any single topic. For example, if you sign up for Google News updates, you are likely to receive many messages each day. Although this type of service is free, consider whether you can realistically sift through and interpret a deluge of information. Large organizations have people whose jobs are to track trends. However, for small businesses that cannot hire a futurist or pay someone full time to track trends, I suggest setting aside five or 10 minutes a week to do trend research. It is about changing the way you think of things and changing your culture. You are always going to be trying to hit a moving target. A director of business intelligence recently told me that there is no such thing as right intelligence and good decisions anymore. Instead, you must track a moving marketplace with vigilance. A meeting once a year to discuss trends and changes won’t cut it anymore. Start a blog or a wiki and share information with others in your industry, but, most important, consider the meaning of the information collected. Whittle it down to a few scenarios and consider what your competitors will do with the same information. That analysis should lead to a few decisions. TL: Although you mention many important future trends in

your book, please discuss one and its impact on U.S. businesses and the economy. Garland: One that comes to mind is the upcoming talent crisis. As the baby boomers prepare for retirement, America is poised to lose many experts in a wide variety of industries. For example, Lockheed will lose two-thirds of its engineers in the next six years. The lack of experienced workers could be so damaging to organizations that I suggest investors determine whether every business that they own stock in has a succession plan. The businesses that are planning for a shortage of workers are the ones to invest in. TL: Is it easier for small organizations to react to future trends than it is for large organizations?

Garland: Dinosaurs don’t do well in terms of evolution. A good example is the pharmaceutical industry. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, drug manufacturers were acquiring other pharmaceutical businesses with the goal of developing huge research and development operations that would crank out new products. It didn’t happen. The organizations underperformed. In the end, the industry’s innovation came from small shops in niche markets. Innovation usually comes from the margins. Many people think huge organizations have the upper hand in creating new technologies, but large outfits generally buy innovation from small ones. An organization can have deep pockets, but in general, a bureaucratic structure works against it.

The STEEP method of futuristic thinking
Futurists use the STEEP method to explore possible impact areas for a certain topic, product or trend. STEEP stands for trends in Society, Technology, Ecology, Economics and Politics.

• • • • Demography Family life Public health Religion

• Globalization of commerce and labor • Poverty and the rich/poor gap • Inflation • Currency fluctuations

• • • • • Biotechnology Chemistry and materials science Information technology Manufacturing Nanotechnology

• International governing bodies • Wars and regional conflicts • Government regulations and agency oversight • Legislative trends, new bills • Lawsuits and litigiousness

• • • • Global warming Supplies of clean water Topsoil and agricultural systems Air quality

Source:Future Inc., Eric Garland, AMACOM, www.amacombooks.org.

2807 N. Parham Road • Suite 200 • Richmond, VA 23294 • (800)791-8699 or (570)567-1982 • Fax: (212)918-1568 • www.briefings.com

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