Don’t Use “Trends”; Use “Trend-Systems”

Don’t Use “Trends”; Use “Trend-Systems”

Apr 11, 2022

This was part 1 of a small series in thinking about trends. Part 2, where I further develop this with Aristotle’s Four Causes, is here.

What is a trend?

The question seems innocuous: “what is a trend?” I get this because I’m involved in the business of asking people to think about “driving forces”, which itself involves thinking about “trends.” It has been a question that has bugged me, and some of the guides in the area of foresight are none the wiser about what a “trend” really is. After some years of reflection, I’m thinking of the phrase “trend-system” as a way to put it better, as it reflects the systems that trends are enmeshed in.

In “How to Future”, Scott Smith (and Madeline Ashby) say that a “trend” is an “emerging or ongoing pattern of change.” “Emerging” refers to newness or recency, and “ongoing pattern” means that it is still present. And “change” means that it is different from what came before. “Drivers” affect “trends” and therefore are the “driving forces” that are shaping (or could shape) the focus of concern.

That’s a very good definition of what a “trend” is. However, I still feel… uncomfortable with it. I feel the definition is too malleable. At one point, one could even be flippant about it — anything can be a trend.

I have thought about trends from a several directions. A trend is oftentimes, the sum of collective actions. Many tiny small individual actions, when brought together, bear on a particular phenomenon. I find this easiest to think about in terms of social phenomena but this can be further expanded. It is easy to think of individuals together thinking about marriage and having children. They are pulling together different factors, economic, ethical, and other factors, and they make a choice. The choice they make, combined, over the span of many years, in a bounded time horizon, is the trend that we see. Perhaps if we do a survey on these couples, or if we have data on their financial or time-use choices, we might “see” the “driving forces” shaping their fertility choices.

Similarly, the way individual consumers or companies choose to buy or sell things in the market, or allocate their financials or attention in research or markets — collectively they create a “trend”, again in a bounded period. Many decisions add up, over time, into a “trend”, and the factors behind those decisions, when added up, become the basis of the “driving forces.”

One of my discomforts with the word “trend” with how it usually is used, is how … fickle it seems to be. Something is a “trend” until it is not. That to me, did not seem a valid use of the word “trend.” I would prefer that the term be grounded on something firmer, something more precise, rather than used in such casual terms that it loses its meaning.

I had even thought about trends as “narratives X vectors” — that trends are a kind of mathematical abstractions with an overlay of narrative, but that didn’t seem right either. Or a polynomial with other factors? That assumes that one can separate out the independent and dependent variables. I thought about another approach.

Trend-Systems — A Better Alternative

Personally I prefer the phrase, “trend-systems.” I feel that the phrase captures a lot more of the dynamic that I have intuitions. A single trend by itself doesn’t seem too rigorous to me. Trends in themselves are often one side of the story, and they are often embedded in different contexts. Many economic trends are embedded within our context of neoliberal-globalisation — the idea of minimal state regulations for companies to seek the best national deals. Many technological trends are also dependent on a different aspect of capitalism — the idea of scaling companies up to monopolise niches and then expanding. Scientific research is often enmeshed with capitalism although inter-mixed with a sense of public good — research is funded on the basis of promising science and at least some component of relevance to a public concern. Our global temperature anomaly — the warming trend — is based on physics and chemistry of the human activities that we do and that physical effect it has on the climate. Social trends are often enmeshed with the way human psychological has a social effect across communities and human networks, mediated through technology platforms, which in and of itself, could amplify or attenuate some human behaviours. And even there, there is also a capitalism contribution in it, as businesses are optimising for pro-corporate purposes rather than pro-social or even pro-human purposes.

Driving Forces — the Goal of the Trend-Systems

Did you spot it? I have also provided a new definition of “driving forces.” Whereas previously it was about the factors motivating the direction of the trend, the driving force can be simply described as the “goals” of the “trend-system”, and we can fall back on systems thinking for the language.

It provides a way to reframe the question around trends. We can quickly get to asking, what are the factors that are motivating the different “trend-systems”, and to coalesce around these concepts, taking a different route from the traditional “driving force” kinds of approach. At this point though, although capitalism has been mentioned in the different points in the examples, I should say that capitalism need not be the only driving force there is. Scientific research might be one when it comes to technology. The way social preferences are changing from the deluge of information might be another. Something like trust in government is not immediately tied to capitalism.

So here’s a way to think about “trends” — not as something that exists by itself, but more often, part of a wider system and a context.

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