Archive for March, 2011

The happiness question

Rebecca Nash writes:

If you’ve been following the ‘happiness debate’, you’ll know that policy makers are increasingly asking if it is potentially a better indicator of social progress than the economic measures represented by GDP. But diving into the happiness sciences you quickly find that it raises as many questions as answers: What is happiness? According to whom? Can it be measured? And if we can measure it, what will the policy response be to unhappiness? What practical steps can be taken to make people happier?

And another question from our end: What does happiness mean to business? Generating happy moods is nothing new to consumer goods manufacturers, where short-term happiness and consumption go hand in hand. But there are a number of potential happiness platforms which business can work from to create more sustainable happiness – building social justice, delivering meaning and value, employee satisfaction on organisational levels, and simply being associated with happiness in its pure form (but beware of ‘happy wash’).

In the research on this which I’m leading for The Futures Company, I’ve become really interested in ‘restoration’ – an approach to happiness which involves making people happy who once were not, and I think it produces challenges that matter to both business and government. When I attended a happiness panel earlier this year at the Institute for Contemporary Arts in London, panellists drew strong links between happiness sciences, psychotherapy, and opportunities to self-repair. Psychotherapist Phillipa Perry advised a laughing audience that, if we want to be happy, we should ‘choose our mothers very, very carefully’. She also gave us tips on how to be happier if early childhood didn’t give us the personal tools we needed for a happy life.

Perry’s take on happiness as something that needs to be re-learned drew some connections for me between what is happening on individual and broader social levels. It reminded me of a recent drivers scan we did for our Government 2020 project, a project on the future of government. One of the most influential drivers of change which emerged – to our surprise – was a trend toward anger, which shaped a few of the future worlds we brought to life. Happiness is more private (although the notion of ‘social wellbeing’ can give it a public face).  Anger is evident and more public, and we’re seeing more of it, more often, in public protest, in generational conflict and in economic frustration.

A key challenge, then, for any organisation taking on happiness, is how to tackle other complex emotions – because as we’re seeing, if happiness goes public, so too can its opposite.

The picture at the top of this post is taken from Stephanie Price’s Borderline Personality blog, and is used with thanks.

25 March 2011 at 12:43 pm 2 comments

A future made of screens

Alex Steer writes:

There was a lot of discussion in our London and New York offices last week about a short video called A Day Made of Glass. It’s produced by Corning, which makes specialized glass products, including mobile and tablet touchscreens, and the video explores a day in the life of a family in a not-too-distant future in which (surprise) there are screens, especially touchscreens, in just about everything.

The first thing that struck us was Corning’s imaginative approach to the dry task of selling high-tech glass. It’s a great illustration of what can happen when you apply a bit of futures thinking to your brand. It’s also smart as a piece of brand planning, focusing on the consumers at the end of the supply chain, not Corning’s B2B customers. Creatively, it’s well executed.

But it’s the futures aspect which has provoked the debate. The video is cheerfully optimistic about the screenification of the entire world, as you’d expect from a sales tool, and cheery optimism runs through the creative work too, presenting a perfect upper-middle-class family – mum, dad, kids, all so happy and healthy-looking – that feels more like a nod to the heyday of Madison Avenue than a look to the future.

Some of the futures thinking isn’t bad. Consumerism is one of the strongest forces defining technology innovation, and this trend is everywhere in A Day Made of Glass. Glassland is about user experience, good design and straightforward, seamless interaction. All the devices assume a world of rich information and always-on connectivity.

Which is what also makes this an extreme scenario.It assumes there are no limits to our attention, or our wish to interact with everything in the way we currently interact with our phones or tablets. The prevalence of touchscreens led one of our Senior Consultants to compare it to another video, for Microsoft’s Future of Work scenarios. In both, ‘the future looks very much like the waiting room at Heathrow Terminal 5’.

In information-rich markets like the US or the UK, the desire to stay updated is already clashing with the recognition that there’s too much information, and we’re looking for more efficient filters. There’s also an emerging awareness of the importance of continuous partial attention in our interaction with media, and the need for interfaces that are useful even when they don’t have our full attention (such as radio or TV).

The continuous interested multitasking imagined in Corning’s world seems, frankly, exhausting. Said one of our SVPs: ‘The woman emailing from her bathroom? I can pretty much guarantee that if you email me anything before I’ve washed my face and brushed my teeth in the morning you’re not going to get a “yes”.’

So in the end we were a bit sceptical. We also worried about the sheer energy cost of all those screens. But hats off to Corning for producing a thought-provoking piece of work that got us talking about the future of media and technology.

21 March 2011 at 9:00 am 1 comment

The World in 2020

Andrew Curry writes:

I’ve been working on a Futures Company report on The World in 2020 for the last couple of months, and since I’ve end up doing much of the work in the evening I’m delighted to say that we’ve just published the summary edition, and the full version has just gone into production. The summary edition can be downloaded from our website, although registration is required.

The World in 2020 is the first in a series of ‘Futures Perspectives’ reports which we’re publishing over the next few months.

It takes a high level view of the big drivers which are shaping the world, and looks at some of the innovation spaces which may emerge as a result. Here’s are a couple of extracts:

The financial crisis of 2008 represented an ending, but not a beginning. We are in a liminal moment, betwixt and between, when there are more questions than answers, but when, increasingly, our assumptions about how the world works are open to challenge and interrogation. … Liminal moments such as this one can last a decade or more, before opinion coalesces around a new set of operating assumptions about how the world works.

Over the next decade, we’ll see much tougher resource constraints – energy, food and water, and resources will all be under pressure – as well as the continuing long economic shift towards Asia. Issues involving technology and inequality will also be influential. It will be harder to make money in the coming decade. As a result, businesses will have to rethink their approach:

The changing economic environment creates the dilemma of new yet alternative prospects for different types of customers. The emerging middle class across much of Asia and Latin America will be very different from the debt constrained consumers of Europe and the United States. Globally, the
costs of basics such as food and energy are likely to rise over the next decade, so discretionary income will be lower than some project. In the richer countries, the experience of recession will create demands for more social behavior from businesses.

Business critic Umair Haque talks of the “meaning organization” that builds “authentic prosperity.” As he writes in a blog post, “An isolated notion of ’profit’ is obsolete: it’s an arid industrial-age conception of a currency-focused construct that’s built to trivialize everything but what a firm owes its ’owners’.

14 March 2011 at 9:16 am 3 comments


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The Futures Company was created through the merger of Henley Centre HeadlightVision and Yankelovich in 2008. This is the blog of the new company - but the former posts from the former Henley Centre Headlightvision blog still can be found here.


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