The real problem of this discipline is that it is wrongly mistaken for forecast. Socio-cultural research is not a tool to see the future. It is a method that can help companies design it. Understanding how to create new innovative solutions today can be a tricky business.

In wealthy societies, shopping has progressively turned into a leisure activity and people’s buying patterns have grown volatile, changing from one shopping expedition to the other and sometimes from one moment to the next.

The same person could be driven by impulse purchase on one day and by rational thinking on the other. He could be going for the top brands today and for the unknown, cheap product tomorrow.

To make matters more complex, people today look for sensorial, personal and physical engagement whilst they shop and they want their imagination to be stimulated as much as their emotions. And let us not forget about people’s intellects and souls!

Brands are nowadays judged not only on what they deliver in terms of products, services or experiences but also on how they get to deliver them. Is their corporate behaviour in line with my values and ethics? This is a question that people are increasingly asking themselves and the answer will influence their purchase.

If someone is still tempted to frame consumers in target groups or even life style groups, then they should at least consider them as ‘moving targets’ or as ‘evolving life styles’.

What this means for companies is that if they want to talk to their public and create innovations that will be relevant to their audience, they need to use different techniques than the traditional quantitative researches.

Traditionally, consumer research or usability testing are good means to validate a product with consumers once that product is in advanced development but they do not contribute in defining what developers should be working on in the next few years.

And this is really where the key to innovation lies: in creating solutions that people will need and want tomorrow, but they may not even be dreaming about today. “You cannot ask people today: ‘what would you like to have in the future?’ They simply would not know.

"They do not have the tools and the insights into emerging technologies that would help them to imagine all that will be possible tomorrow”, says Josephine Green, Director of Trends and Strategy at Philips Design in the Netherlands.

So, how can companies today think up new attractive solutions that will sustain their business and be relevant to people? This problem can become an actual opportunity if faced in the right way.

We have asked this question to three agencies that provide companies with advice and concrete support in understanding people and in developing relevant solutions for the future. The Future Concept Lab, based in Milan, Italy, is a research institute specialising in consultancy work on future solutions, and is directed by sociologist, writer and lecturer Francesco Morace.

Philips Design, based in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, is the in-house design studio of electronics giant Philips and its Trends and Strategy group is directed by historian and lecturer Josephine Green. Trendbüro, based in Hamburg, Germany, is a consultancy for social change and provides its clients with trends related information.

The three work to help companies anticipate on future needs, by delivering insights on social contexts both locally and globally. They all believe that using quantitative analysis that provides data about today to forecast people’s sensitivities and values tomorrow will not work.

The value is not in the forecast but in appreciating the evolution of emerging value systems and in responding accordingly by co-creating the future together with the audience that is addressed. As Morace says: “The key nowadays is to understand the contexts in which people live, and the specifics of cultures”.

Human sciences, such as sociology, anthropology and ethnography – disciplines that until a decade ago were excluded from the business world – have started to appear on the corporate agenda.

They are the weapons that can help companies enter the new, unexplored and fluctuating world of emotions, of cultural change, of social involvement. These sciences do not provide numbers and hard data but ‘indicators’.

For this reason, perhaps, whilst traditional consumer research (the ‘would you buy this?’ type of research) is understood by most, socio-cultural insights tend to be still quite mysterious, and so is the way in which their input can be used to develop actionable strategies. 

The greatest misunderstanding is the use of the word ‘trend’. Whereas most people use it as a synonym of ‘fashion’, trends consultants use it to mean ‘socio-cultural sensitivities’ and to indicate mid to long term changes in peoples’ value systems.

“We speak of cultural phenomena that follow a deeper human longing or motivation,” explains Birgit Gebhardt of Trendbüro. “Trends cannot be artificially implanted into society by a few brands. In that case they would be a passing fashion.

"Trends that are there to stay are those that respond to a general attitude and value system. The ability of qualitative research to detect and predict such trends makes it an indispensable contributor to corporate, brand and product strategy.”

At the Future Concept Lab, ‘cool hunters’ located in several locations around the world, scan the cultural arena and provide a visual insight into what new sensitivities are emerging. Such information is often of a very visual nature, and it relies heavily on the individual’s actual immersion into his or her own specific cultural background.

“Our cool hunters do not have a scientific background: they do not have the mindset that would push them to analyse what they see immediately. They just spot what they see around them,” explains Morace.

After they have delivered the information, the social scientists filter the information and use it to validate their findings and to spot new, emerging social sensitivities. “This is the difficult part of the work,” explains Morace, “the one that requires a lot of experience and scientific knowledge. It is vital that in this process we treasure what is relevant and discard what is just a passing manifestation.”

“We scan the cultural arena at 360 degrees,” explains Josephine Green. “We have a process called Culture-Scan that looks at the ‘surface’: our researchers in Europe, Asia and the US explore ten areas of popular culture, ranging from contemporary art and food to automotive design and advertising in order to offer insights into shorter-term design qualities.

"On the other hand, we look deeper through a three folded type of research: on society, on people and on generations, and we do that in four regions that are of vital interest for our clients: Europe, US, China and India.

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