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.
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.
Society: the Silver Tsunami
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.
Technology: silicon can’t go any smaller
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.
Economy: China, China, China
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.”
Politics: Facebook is changing everything
“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.”
Environment: the Trash Generation
“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.