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Trends, megatrends - and supertrend?

Comments from Futureorientation 5/2006

By Johan Peter Paludan

Copenhagen Institute for Futures Studies' mantra is - if anyone has any doubt - that the future does not exist and therefore cannot be predicted. It could be a good argument for packing up, getting on with one's life and focusing on the present right now. As we haven't already a long time ago packed up, it is because decisions must be made in the present but work in the unpredictable future. Thus: Back to the future.

When the future in principal cannot be predicted, then trends (short-term tendencies for up to the next five years) and megatrends (tendencies which are expected to last for the next 10 to 15 years) do not make much sense. It is tempting to call them the future researcher's learning support teachers. They are of course not just plucked out of the thin air but they can end up proving unsustainable. Demographic perspectives can be put to the test by a quick epidemic. Globalization can be brought into so much disrepute that it comes to a halt. Without socialism's countervailing force, the capitalist system appears to be so brutal that the market system is seen in a bad light and commercialization stops. This can also alter the picture of welfare that characterizes our part of the world. Interest in health and the environment disappears because medical, environmental and technological development ensures that everything can be repaired. So, go ahead, smoke, and pollute as much as you like.

It is no skill to present possible developments that can make megatrends irrelevant. When we use them anyway, it is because they appear fairly robust and because the probabi-lity of them holding true is therefore greater than not. This is, however, also because one must seize something - learning support, teachers, crutches or whatever one calls them - when one has to say something about something one can't say anything about. One of philosopher Wittgenstein's last and most cryptic statements was "that whatever you can't say something about, you must be quiet about," and while that is maybe true in a philosophical sense, in the real world it does not hold water. There is no dear mother here. Decisions have to be made. The strength in utilizing trends and megatrends is therefore that they both have a certain likelihood and that they are part of promoting an awareness of which assumptions about the future one actually bases one's decisions on. Then one can at least see when one has made a mistake and that is not to be taken lightly. It can mean the world to change course in time.

Trends and megatrends are however to a greater or lesser extent limited in time. They are not so flimsy as fads and the like, but over time, they nonetheless change focus. Some even turn out to be wrong. One did not use the expression mega-trends in the 1970's, but if one had done so one would probably have called the leisure society a megatrend. It turned out that for various reasons the leisure society was cancelled due to a lack of support. It might pop up again even though now there is no sign whatsoever of this.

The question is, however, whether one should not add to the trend-like comparison so that there is not only a trend and a megatrend but also a supertrend. There is maybe only this one. On the other hand, it is probably more sustainable than all the others put together. One could call that time or changes, or "time equals changes." Changes take time; without changes, the concept of time becomes meaningless.

The supertrend is really the mother of all megatrends. If society does not change, if things come to a halt, if events, days and years repeat the same pattern then there are no trends and definitely no megatrends. In the film "Groundhog Day," Bill Murray is sentenced to eternal recurrence. Every day is like the day before and that is not funny.

And so what?

Without changes, there is no need for future research, because the future will in principal be predictable. It is exactly like the present. Nor is there a need for past research, sorry dear history, because the past is also a known entity. "For eternal idleness is death," writes Kaalund in the song I love the colorful world, and that is what those who are against changes should maybe make a note of. In a general sense, and particularly for the Copenhagen Institute for Futures Studies, one must hope that time, like change, is a supertrend that has come to stay. This super trend can of course vary. Sometimes things go faster than other times. It is thus the megatrend we call 'acceleration'. There are several changes per unit of time. The direction of the super trend is not debatable. Time has a clear development direction, and the past is behind us. When something is over, we put it behind us. The future is in front of us and it was therefore a bit of a sensation when an Indian tribe in Latin America, in their language, clearly expressed that they were standing and looking forward to the past and that the future came crashing in from behind. Even though we use the expression "something took us by surprise," it is the same exception that confirms the rule about which way time goes: from the past and into the future.

This does not necessarily mean progress. Being the pessimist he was, Kai Friis Møller said many years ago that: "Development continues even though progress seems to be stopped." This implies however a basic assumption that development is irreversible. The pendulum is therefore a bad metaphor for the progress of time. A spiral is maybe a better metaphor. Now and again, one finds oneself in situations that resemble the past. The difference between optimists and pessimists is however in the understanding of the spiral's movement.

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20. november 2006

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Johan Peter Paludan

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