2014: A year of complexity and conflicting signals

19th Dec, 2014

2014 has been an interesting year for those of us seeking to understand the drivers shaping consumer behaviour. It has been a year of complexity and subtly conflicting signals, sometimes making it hard to discern the true direction of things. In the UK, we saw faster growth than any other OECD country and the economy finally grew beyond its pre-recession peak. Yet incomes are still lower than in 2008 and public services face five more years of austerity, regardless of the outcome of next May’s General Election.

In politics, apathy gave way to intense interest in the Scottish referendum. Party politics has generally been enlivened by the emergence of UKIP (regardless of what you think of their policies). It is perhaps too early to talk of a new age of political engagement, but the previous, disengagement narrative no longer seems to fit.

In socio-demographics, usually the most predictable element of any PESTLE or horizon scanning analysis, the UK is adjusting to the combined challenges of both an ageing society and a mini-baby boom. Even here we have a nuanced story.

Globally, the pattern is no different. The recently established economic order of booming emerging markets and stagnant developed ones is no more. Russia, a BRIC economy, faces recession, if not turmoil. Of course, there is sense in which Russian’s problems are not all of its own making, but do you remember how invincible these engine rooms of global economic growth were meant to be? Even in Brazil and India, this year’s national elections were fought against a backdrop of declining growth and demands for economic reform. Yet the United States is growing steadily again, though not enough to stop China becoming the world’s biggest economy. But China too is worried about slowing growth, and we now look to the MINTS and others to pick up the economic slack.

As the excellent ‘State of the Future’ report by The Millennium Project points out, if we look at major indicators of progress such as health, education and poverty alleviation it is clear that ‘we are winning more than we are losing – but where we are losing is very serious’. This strikes me as spot on. Particularly with 2015 in mind, when world leaders will again gather, this time in Paris, in an attempt to thrash out a deal on climate change, perhaps our greatest future challenge.

You might say that all this subtlety and complexity makes trends analysis and forecasting a futile exercise, even a mugs game. Certainly, the FT has been scathing about futurologists and the futures business at times this year (some of it thoroughly deserved). However, as a trends analyst and forecaster, ultimately, I couldn’t disagree more. Instead, our new environment places an emphasis on understanding which trends and drivers apply to your consumers and your markets. In the midst of uncertainty, it is crucially important to think ahead and plan. But we no longer live in an age where futures and foresight can be generic. With our multi-speed world and polarising domestic markets, futures analysis must be bespoke.

Finally, in this endeavour to understand our futures we would do well to observe some more sage words from the authors of the State of the Future report “we will be better informed if we realise that the world is improving better than most pessimists know and that future dangers are worse than most optimists indicate.”  This is a mantra that should serve you well in 2015 and beyond.