Trend-Systems (not trends!)— now with fo ...

Trend-Systems (not trends!)— now with four examples!

Apr 11, 2022

In a previous post, I mentioned my discomfort with the notion of “trends” and how it was vague. I thought about the various bottom-up processes that might lead to something called a “trend”, and then reasoning about the factors behind the trend as trying to get the process of “driving forces.”

Instead, I proposed “trend-systems” as an alternative way to look at it, understanding that trends in themselves are usually part of a larger system. In this iteration, I also add the Aristotelian Four Causes framework:

As a reminder, Aristotle explained that causes usually needed up to four kinds of causes as an explanation.

  • the formal cause — in what form/format does something comes about

  • the efficient cause — the process by which something comes about

  • the material cause — the actual matter/material/object composition by which something comes about.

  • the teleological cause — the purpose driving something.

Example 1: Social Media

I mentioned how many of the trends we see are bounded in the context of a capitalist system. Many of the digital innovations we see have come about as new platforms meet with the market and society, and people learning to use it various ways while companies attempt to monetise the various activities.

Within this framework then, we can tell what the nature of the trend is. I’ll use social media as an example — technologies and societies are in an act of bricolage — finding out whether a series of social and technical activities make sense, is interesting, and importantly, whether they can capture people’s attention and how that can be monetised in the broader market. While the exact form of technology and the exact form of behaviour remain unknown, we now at least have established the engine that drives innovation in that particular space. So whether is it posts, pictures, podcasts, videos, or in the future, virtual reality interfaces, we now have a trend-system framework that can apply to the various contexts. Of course, the details matter and there are many aspects to this, but I have at least given a description of the dynamic that drives the exploration of the process.

And now we see as social media has unintended effects, we see efforts to manage the efforts of the companies through regulation, which would ultimately come about through new regulations.

Example 2: Net-Zero Economy in the United States

Let’s take a second example: the transition towards a net-zero economy in say, the United States.

The “economy” is obviously a very piece, and to avoid boiling the ocean, we need to break it down into several pieces and look at them. Transportation is the largest source, so let’s consider it first.

It looks like Tesla, the electric car company, is indeed a catalyst for the other carmakers to jump on the electric car bandwagon, for one. There also appear to be several companies attempting to build electric trucks. Across several organisations, including public organisations. It does look like the “trend” is going to continue, even if at a slow pace. And then we would go into the factors, of how rising fossil fuel energy prices might prompt people to consider electric vehicles as a more cost-effective purchases, and as bulk buying from institutions accelerate efficiency in manufacturing of these cars at scale. And hopefully we have a feedback loop — as the initial purchasers allow manufacturers to reap efficiencies of scale in manufacturing, lowering unit cost, attracting more purchases and increasing scale… and so forth.

The second component is electricity production, and there the issues might be permits for solar power and wind power, both of which are much more land-intensive. Another issue might be the upfront cost. I’ve not done the research on this exhaustively — but just to give a sense of how to go about the process. If it is indeed the case that permitting might be an issue, then we can get into regulatory issues, and here we see perhaps, the polarisation of the country might result in changing rules… but at this point all these is just a guess.

And from there it’s another insight, that regulatory efforts are a key determinant, and the stability of those rules in either directions — pro-transition vs pro-status quo and their volatility and swings are going to affect the pace of transition. Stable, pro-transition policies are going to be a catalyst for the transition. Another factor might be the rule making of critical agencies in the United States, such as the Federal Reserve or the SEC, which can change markets without the need for politics. It might be that major changes in financing and an implied cost of carbon might be enough to catalyse change in the markets and financing rules.

I suppose that would be the job of facilitators to nudge the group along the work. In the previous example, we have moved from talking about a technical-economic subject to one on regulations and political circumstances. Perhaps that is a better boundary for discussion in terms of talking about the net-zero carbon economy rather than just purely technical and economic rationales.

Example 3: Climate Implications for Southeast Asia

A third example to consider might be for instance, the changing climate and its implications for say, Southeast Asia. A changing climate is going to bring about challenges for food security. The IPCC Working Group 2 does mention that there could be adverse impacts on crop production in the region. We don’t know the extent of the adverse impacts, but they are likely. The factor behind the changing climate is known — the earth’s climate system, and our various attempts at trying to model the physical effects. I include this example because it’s about something about the physical sciences, and helps us to understand how a trends-systems approach might differ from the previous trends-only approach.

Here we know that the changing climate will have implications but now we also are understanding the urgency of the climate situation, and that might bring about a more robust response to decarbonise the global economy. On the other hand, there’s also a different strand that for instance, will want to address specifically the food security issue. One of the implied assumptions of the question is that food remains largely soil-based and susceptible to the changing climate. So then we can zoom out of the question and focus and look at the two aspects. It might be true that the climate system will have inertia and that adverse weather and the impact on food will already set in. On the other hand, there are possible balancing loops that could reduce the magnitude of the impacts, such as, climate-resilient crops, or changing the food system altogether. Perhaps in the space of 10 years things are not scaled up yet and might not have an impact, but over the span of 20 years, it might, and over 5-years, some kind of alleviation might be possible.

So what have I just done? I have placed the focus of the question in a wider context, and examined two or three key causal connections and their linkages within a wider system.

Example 4: Child-less families in Advanced Societies

For the sake of completeness, let’s consider a socio-political example. For instance, one might be interested in the trend in the idea of child-less families in advanced societies. It does seem that fertility rates continue to fall in advanced societies. One could justifiably point to values such as individualism becoming ascendant, and that pursuing individual fulfilment might be the overriding concern ahead of family formation. That is still in the realm of previous paradigm of being concerned about the trend. To continue on this path, we might consider values such as generalised anxiety and uncertain, unclear visions of the future making it difficult to plan — that might be another factor — to continue the paradigm.

A trend-systems perspective could try to insert the trend in the context of society and economy, and in terms of broader discourse. The economic arguments of costs might be one factor, as would the other points raised above. There might be other factors at work as well — such as concerns of the environment. The anxiety element also needs to be expanded to include pro-corporate measures that reduce the obligations of companies for their workers and reduce labour protections and entitlements. So the broader context; placing the contextual first could defer the need to chasing the trend.

Good practitioners would do something similar, perhaps with a futures wheel and described the second- and third-order impacts, or a concept map that might be later draw on other domains, and that’s fine. I suppose a trends-systems approach just tries to do the latter things first — examining the subject of focus within a wider context with some immediacy.

So here are some thoughts about the questions arising from Trend-Systems might be:

What is this trend interacting with?

What is the “source” of this trend, and what is the “end-use” of the trend?

What affects the “source” of the trend, and what affects the “end-use” of the trend? How is the trend “sustained”?

What are the implications and reactions of the trend?

How might these implications and reactions affect the sources of the trend?


I hope the illustrations are useful enough for you to start think about how you might deepen the explorations of trend-systems wherever you have to. I hope we might be able to pause and reflect on these trend-systems, and re-embed them in the systems they belong to. And at the end, that we might have a better understanding of the dynamics of trends/trend-systems and come to a mature understanding of their evolution.

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