A Professional Trend Forecaster Looks 10 Years Into the Future

5 trends that will affect us slightly more than shoes

04.06.17
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While we’re busy predicting trends for summer 2017, Zuzanna Skalska is already 10 years ahead of us. She’s concerned with massive cultural shifts in how humans live, interact and behave rather than style cues, and it’s a slightly trickier science than looking outside. Skalska has been a trend forecaster for over 20 years, and typically performs her analyses for the benefit of large tech companies. It’s more than just her career, though — she lives and breathes this way of looking at the world, which is probably why she didn’t hesitate to jump on the phone with me for an hour to let me pick her analytical brain. Eager to look beyond our current…situation, I wondered if she could help me see our world through a different lens.

“I don’t watch fashion, beauty or consumer trends,” Skalska tells me over FaceTime from her office in Eindhoven, where she runs her consultancy 360 Inspiration. “Those are merely the end products of innovation. My focus is way ahead of those innovations.” She helps companies roadmap their five- and ten-year plans by highlighting subtrends within respective industries (like those in consumer electronics, for example). She does so by looking at megatrends, a way of assessing the shifting tides of humanity on a much broader level.

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Megatrends fall within five categories: society, technology, economy, environment and politics. Skalska tracks these by, “constantly monitoring the news across tons of different outlets in several countries and in several different languages.” She speaks three languages fluently, but can read and understand far more.

She pays special mind to a three specific “influencers” that hold a surprising amount of sway: space exploration, professional sports and the military. She explains that the massive amount of investment and testing done in all three of these spaces has a ripple effect that’s ultimately felt by everyone. The military gave us GPS navigation, for example.

In an effort to better understand her work and our world, I ask her to tell me about one trend within each vertical. What follows feels like a fascinating college lecture. Aside from fulfilling my latent dream of returning to school with a better attention span, I learn a lot. Here’s what she says.

1. Society: the Silver Tsunami

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One of the most compelling trends coming out of society right now – which she defines as the shifting demographics of the human race — is what she refers to as the “silver tsunami.” It’s a cute term (sounds like a Disney Channel movie) that just means our population is aging. “Our parents are not dying,” Skalska tells me. “They’re staying healthy much longer.” But their inevitably decreasing agility has implications for everyday living that we need to consider. “We will have 73% more elderly people within 50 years,” she explains, noting that everything from tough-to-open packaging and hard-to-read signs will need to be rethought as the shape of our population shifts upward and our collective senses dull.

2. Technology: silicon can’t go any smaller

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Skalska explains that while we’re still very much in the age of silicon technology, we’re fast approaching what will most likely be a huge material overhaul in the tech space. “We cannot make silicon any smaller,” she notes. “We’ve hit the limit. If we want to continue to make smaller and smaller chips – like, say, ones that can eventually implant in human skin – we need to find a new material with which to do it. A replacement.” Failure to find this material will mean a halt or slowing of technological advancement.

3. Economy: China, China, China

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It’s becoming increasingly impossible to discuss any facet of the economy without bringing up China. Skalska agrees, marking bolstering innovation in China as the major trend to watch for the global economy. “China has more new and innovative companies than any other country in the world. In the coming years they’ll have the most important currency, too.” She believes western reliance on China for production ultimately lent the country the resources it needed to become a powerhouse. As China’s economy continues to grow, she sees the cost of Chinese labor outpacing that of western counties, at which point she sees companies and countries rethinking how they do business. “The impact will be huge.”

4. Politics: Facebook is changing everything

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“Before social media, many people elected to not tune into nor care about politics,” Skalska says. The internet and social media have changed this landscape dramatically. She credits social media for Trump’s election and the nationalist movements spreading across several countries. “While the Internet has made everyone more informed, it most intensely and drastically transformed the engagement of lower-educated classes, which are concentrated away from cultural centers and who wouldn’t have otherwise been as engaged.” In her view, the problem is that information is being filtered through narrow frames of reference that don’t capture the whole picture. “Facebook is beginning to be used interchangeably with ‘internet’ in some parts of the country, and that’s a problem.”

5. Environment: the Trash Generation

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“The trash problem is so bad we’ve created a floating continent in the ocean,” Skalska tells me, referring to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The pace of production for our consumerist lifestyle is throwing the environment completely out of wack. She notes that as we plow through our limited natural-mineral resources, we will need to continue to innovate where production and energy are concerned. “There are so many ways we’re currently interacting with our climate that we’ll need to seriously rethink in the next decade,” she says. “Soon, it won’t be an option.”

It’s easy to look at these megatrends and see a dire outlook on culture and the future, but Sklaska has no sense of panic about her. She mentions a burgeoning focus on age-accessibility in the design world; an opportunity to find a more sustainable material with which to rebuild our tech world; improving working conditions in China; unprecedented political engagement across all socio-economic groups; and a new, global focus on human health and environmental sustainability. It’s her job to view human trends as opportunities to rethink the status quo. She sees them not as tipping points, but rather creative reset buttons. It’s a refreshing perspective, isn’t it?

Graphics by Maria Jia Ling Pitt.

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  • Autumn

    Oh my god this is the most interesting article/interview you’ve ever done! Nerd Alert: I legit took notes on this.

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    • Jenelle

      Agree, I wrote a lot of this down in my notebook because it was stuff that I had never even thought of before.

    • Facebook is totally the new Wikipedia in the WURST WAY.

  • Jennifer

    This was such a great article, Haley! I could see you working on Vice News!

  • Sophie

    Super interesting! Thank you for this.

  • xtyb

    Speaking of trash, I’m here as the resident old lady hippie (sometimes I feel like that-lotsa times actually)…
    Fashion is the second largest global polluter after the petroleum industry-how can we address that?

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    • Meg S

      I know some designers are becoming more sustainable, but that doesn’t change the nature of fast fashion. I’m 100% sure Forever 21/H&M/Zara don’t think about the environment in their business models. I work in an office that focuses on environmental restoration. Finding a balance between fashion and being environmentally responsible is hard. I find that a combination of buying lasting pieces and thrifting is a good option for now, but it’s certainly not ideal. I’d like to see fashion become more sustainable in the future.

      • Suzan

        H&M is actually not too bad when it comes to sustainability: http://about.hm.com/en/sustainability.html

        But I do agree that your advice of buying lasting pieces and thrifting is a great and effective one! And the most fun version of shopping/the hunt if you have the time for it!

        • Anna

          Depends on If you really want to believe that. A lot of companies just greenwash and consumers are happy to believe it and to be relieved of their guilty conscience. Fast fashion can never really be sustainable. It needs too many resources to produce new clothes all the time. Working conditions of the producers are also still very poor. Sustainable consumption means less consumption

          • Meg S

            “Sustainable consumption means less consumption”

            THIS. This is so important in so many aspects of life. Food, fashion, energy usage, transportation, etc. I’m sure I could keep this list going all day, but there are simple ways to lead a more sustainable life without much effort or sacrifice.

          • Suzan

            Yes, good point. Personally I only believe such reports when backed up by independent sources. There’s a lot that can be omitted too, to present a good story to the world. Nevertheless like I mentioned to Meg above, H&M is doing better in the sustainability regard than for instance Zara. But that is very relative.

            In the bigger picture that perhaps makes hardly a difference (although it’s not a bad tone to set for a chain). And the real difference indeed can be better made by reducing (& reusing & recycling :)).

        • Meg S

          I take sustainability reports at face value. Sustainability isn’t cheap, and H&M has lots of stores worldwide that use up lots of resources. Between the energy used to run all of their shops and delivery methods, I feel they could probably do better. I’m also sure they could do worse. That’s true of pretty much every large fashion retailer & department store across the board.

          • Suzan

            That is absolutely true about the resources, and I meant that they aren’t too bad for a chain store (they often get mentioned in the same breath with Zara and Mango, which are chains that do way worse in sustainability).

            But you’re right, that’s just relative, in an absolute manner, all chain stores (even the “better” ones) don’t help the environment. At all.

          • Meg S

            I don’t think there’s a perfect solution either. Even with online shopping, there’s still resources used for shipping that aren’t exactly eco-friendly. For every potential solution I think of, I think of at least one potential issue to go with it.

            We could all stop buying things from chain stores, but who am I kidding? I can’t expect that from myself, much less expect that from other people.

        • rolaroid

          How can anything mass-produced be sustainable? It makes no sense. I’m actually shocked you posted something from their own website as though that should be reliable — some journalism, sure, but something their own PR team came up with? Really? Am I too cynical or are some people just not aware of branding and lies?

          • Suzan

            Hi Rolaroid, my first comment was just in reply to Meg who said that big chains don’t think about the environment. H&M does: there’s a sustainability report in the link I posted. A report that has to come from them and where secondary sources of journalism get their information from too. So just linking the primary source 🙂

            But – like I said in other replies that were already posted in this thread here before your comment – this doesn’t make H&M good at sustainability, this only makes them a bit less bad than other fast fashion chains.
            Always better to buy less/thrift.

        • Carolyn

          I used to work for H&M; this is many years ago and things may have changed, but their Conscious Collection items came with each individual garment packaged in its own nonrecyclable plastic bag. They left a pretty bad smell and sticky film on our hands.

  • Jackie
    • Thank you for linking this. Fascinating stuff.

  • Jessica Downing

    I just took a class last term about fashion forecasting and we spent a few weeks talking about megatrends just like this! It’s really interesting to me to think about the future this way. The aging population aspect is huge and is going to have a big impact on fashion, particularly with easier closures on garments and more stores catering to an older population with merchandise that is still fashionable. I’m so excited to see what happens!

  • Suzan

    I feel like if you follow the world news a little bit that these “forecasts” or “trends” should already be known to you, shouldn’t they?
    These issues should hardly come as a surprise especially not when you’re a bit politically engaged (at least for me, some of these issues I take into account when for instance I vote municipally/nationally).

  • rolaroid

    Excellent piece that goes way beyond fashion. I wish there were more sources, maybe some more info! But it’s a start and is thought-provoking and relevant! Well done!