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The blog has moved

We’ve now moved to http://blog.thefuturescompany.com/

We’re now easier to find on the website, and this is the link if you want to bookmark our new location. Also if have an RSS feed and the last post you saw was ‘Anxious and angry: the view to 2013’, then please follow the link and re-subscribe to the RSS feed.

See you again after the jump.

24 October 2012 at 4:04 pm Leave a comment

Holiday collection #3

Joe Ballantyne  Lightning Field

This October, I spent 24 hours with Walter de Maria’s Lightning Field artwork. It’s miles from anywhere, in the high desert of New Mexico about 3 hours outside of Albuquerque: a one mile by one kilometre grid of 400 stainless steel rods, averaging 20ft in height, which attract lightning. You have to stay the night (a little cabin sleeps six) which is just as well because when you first get there, there’s not a lot going on. In the early afternoon when the sun is high, the rods are almost invisible and so spread out it seems there’s little to see or do. And then, gradually, as the light changes, you realise you’re in the grip of an experience which needs time as well as space. I highly recommend it.

Andre Furstenberg, on untranslatable words

The Oxford English Dictionary claims there are at least a quarter of a million distinct English words in use. It estimates that English probably has more words than any other comparable world language. So, it struck me that when it comes to the most personal, our closest interactions with others, English still sometimes fail us.

How many times have we experienced Mamihlapinatapei, but failed to verbalise it? Nor have we one word for that hesitating look when you both know you want to initiate something but are reluctant to take the first step. Or cafune; tenderly running our fingers through someone’s hair?

It’s good to be reminded that in our media swamped world, our languages still sometimes come up short.

Andrew Curry, Don Paterson’s Rain

Sometimes consultancy has its privileges. So it was for me this year, when, delivering a keynote to the UK Independent Publishers’ Guild, the IPG, I was also able to hear their after-dinner speaker, the Scottish poet Don Paterson. Most of it was a light affair, as custom dictates, and he started with the conceit that he had forgotten which organisation he was speaking to, reminiscing about the chequered history of the fictitious International Paintballing Group. But Paterson is one of Britain’s finest poets, and this was an audience of publishers, so we were also treated to a reading of ‘Rain‘, the title poem of his best collection. It is dark and cinematographic, as this extract conveys:

I love all films that start with rain:

rain, braiding a windowpane

or darkening a hung-out dress

or streaming down her upturned face;

His reading sent me back to the collection. As it should.

30 December 2011 at 8:41 am Leave a comment

Holiday collection #2

Andy Stubbings,  The Toaster Project

I’ve been thinking a lot about technology this year, with the writing of our Technology 2020 report amongst other things, and more specifically about the amount of technology embedded in everyday objects. So I was delighted when I heard about The Toaster Project, a short description of an attempt (originally an MA project) to construct a toaster, from scratch, without recourse to industrial technologies. There seems to be a tradition of using toasters as the archetypical everyday object that appears simple but is in fact tremendously complex when unpacked and deconstructed: from Harvey Moloch’s tremendous study of the design of everyday objects Where Stuff Comes From, to the story this year of toaster patent trolling in an episode of This American Life, to the character of Arthur Dent in Douglas Adams’ Mostly Harmless, who, when stranded on a prehistoric alien planet “left to his own devices..couldn’t build a toaster” (he can make sandwiches though). The Toaster Project doesn’t disappoint, and is cutely pieced together as a kind of cento of email exchanges with professors and oil company executives, with travelogue and photos. It’s more of a study of materials by way of metallurgy than electronics or computing technology per se, but no less entertaining for that. I guarantee that you won’t look the same way at a toaster again after reading it.

Eleanor Cooksey,  Turner Contemporary, Margate

I was brought up in Kent, not the wealthy commuter-belt part, but the more depressed heel of  Canterbury and the Isle of Thanet. The arrival of the Turner Contemporary this year in Margate had the opportunity to be very exciting. We now expect architecture to be spectacular – new buildings should be strange, wonderful, otherworldly, possibly distracting us far too much from thinking about what they are meant to house. Turner Contemporary isn’t one of those; it is a modest affair, probably linked to its pretty modest budget. Having visited it, I was ready to head back to London singing its praises, but for a small hitch. It is a habit of mine to get a postcard wbever I visit a gallery – and the Turner Contemporary failed the ‘postcard test’. The building doesn’t lend itself to the iconic view by which it can impress itself upon our memories. Instead, we have a view of what looks like some big warehouses on the seafront. Other angles were no better. David Chipperfield (he’s the architect) – don’t forget the postcard shot!

The image of Turner Contemporary comes from ArtRabbit, the picture of the toaster from The Toaster Project. Both are used with thanks.

28 December 2011 at 8:33 am Leave a comment

Holiday collection #1

To mark the end of the year – as is now traditional on the blog – we asked people across the company to share something they’d found interesting this year. We’ll be publishing the responses on the blog between now and New Year’s Day.

Anita Beveridge, Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother

The most touching book I have read this year was Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother by the journalist and author Xinran. In it she extends her exploration into the implications of the one child policy first touched upon in her seminal work The Good Women of China (also a ‘must-read’). The tales Xinran recounts are heart wrenching and enchanting in equal measure, and remind us of the emotional implications of the Chinese social policies which are too often only viewed through an economic lens. It is a wonderful read, but have a box of tissues to hand.

Tom Morley and Ann Clurman on layaway angels

‘Layaway’ is a way in which Americans can purchase an item without paying the entire cost at once. But the item stays in the store until it’s completely paid off. We’ve noticed several articles about strangers paying off layaway bills anonymously on behalf of people who can’t afford to do this themselves. It’s a tangible example of the growing economic divide in the United States, this country; the story speaks to the fact that people recognize the divide (it’s not just the economists, demographers and market researchers) and want to help. And it’s not about approbation and  applause. One of our MONITOR themes this year, “Small Is Getting Bigger” is about avoiding grand, sweeping gestures, to stay clear of the grandiose. These good samaritans already know that.

The image above comes from the First Preston HT blog, and is used with thanks.

26 December 2011 at 8:36 am Leave a comment

The taking part that counts

Alex Oliver and Lawrence Wykes write: As the wave of Olympic test events comes to a close in London, it seemed a good moment to think about the other half of the sports equation – participation by people who just get involved for fun. As it happens, we recently brought together a number of cross-sector experts from different disciplines for a sports roundtable, to try to answer one question: as a society how can we get more people physically active?

Staggeringly, almost half of us in the UK don’t participate in any form of regular exercise. Men are more active than women and participation levels vary significantly by region, often with a worrying correlation to deprivation.

All the experts who participated in the roundtable, in one way or another, had an interest in getting this missing half of the population more active.

So what was their view? Well, the point was quickly made that the missing half weren’t just missing from sport – they were missing from the room. At The Futures Company we’ve done a lot of research for sports clients over the years, and in the course of this research we’ve learned that any plan to get people more active has to be co-created with the audience it is intended to benefit.

And this brings us to the s-word. A key theme that came through in the discussions and one which is mirrored in our own research is that for some people a word like ‘sport’ can itself be a barrier to participation.

But when we talk about getting people active, we don’t just mean formalised sports, of the kind promoted by the National Governing Bodies and lined up for the Olympics.  Increasing the population’s physical activity can also mean getting parents off the park bench to run around and play with the kids, or cycling to the station instead of driving. Whatever  we want people to do, we need to make sure we don’t put them off before we even start with the language we use. This again means getting to know the people you’re engaging

If we want to have a long-term impact on participation we have to plan for tomorrow and act today.  Our experts round the table  agreed that above all sport needs to be fun, accessible and normal – something for everyone and anyone.  People need to feel that they can take part regardless of what they wear, where they live, who and what size they are.  So what new ways can we find to involve people in ‘sport’ in a way that works for them – in schools, in parks, in streets and at the sports events themselves?

The image at the top of this post is a still from the T-mobile ‘Life’s for Sharing’ dancing at Liverpool Street Station website, and is used with thanks.

1 September 2011 at 5:10 pm Leave a comment

Water pressures

Lindsay Kunkle writes:

A group of us from the Chapel Hill office went to a lecture at the University of North Carolina’s business school this week on the future of water. The speaker was Charles Fishman (author of The Big Thirst, as well as The Wal-Mart Effect). Mr. Fishman was quite engaging, and the clear implication of his talk was that our perceptions of water – that it is safe, free, and unlimited – are already out of date.

Some of the stories that he told about water issues, in the US and elsewhere, were alarming. A few highlights:

  • Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the U.S., and the water source for Las Vegas, is now half empty; areas of the reservoir that were once 100 feet deep are now bone dry.
  • 70% of the people in India’s hospitals are there because of water related problems (treatment of diarrhoea is a huge cost for the country—and could be resolved almost completely by providing the population with safe drinking water)
  • Still in India, one-sixth of the population still relies on “foot carried” water—in order for a family to have water the wife and daughters transport water from a well (often not close) to the family’s home.

However, Fishman stresses there is no ‘global water crisis,’ but rather there are local and regional water problems—conserving water in North Carolina will not help India have more water (just as cleaning one’s plate every night as a child did not help feed starving children in Africa, no matter what parents said.

And despite the portents, Mr. Fishman was hopeful about the future of ‘smart water’. In the U.S., Las Vegas is the poster child as the ‘smartest water city.’ The city has enacted many laws to control water use and to increase the amount of water that can safely be recycled for continued use. For example, it is illegal to let sprinkler water hit the sidewalk; new homes aren’t permitted to have pretty green front lawns; and as a result, 94% of the city’s water can be be reused.

And there are implications for the future of how we manage water.

  • As long as water is ‘free’, it decreases consumer and business willingness to invest money or time in smart water solutions. And since American consumers drink on average 4 bottles of water per a week, they are not completely unfamiliar with the idea of actually paying for water.
  • There is an emotional connection to water (think a hot bath on a cold day or diving into the cool ocean as a kid) that can be promoted to drive more creative smart water solutions as well as more creative water management in general.
  • Water needs to be marketed! Promoting water through marketing campaigns that educate consumers on their water sources and how water gets to their homes is a good first step in working towards solving the water problems so many face.

It happens that this is an area in which The Futures Company has already engaged with a wide range of clients, both commercial and in government. It’s clear that water needs to rise up the agenda of most businesses and organisations – wherever they are based.

The photograph of Lake Mead at the top of the post is from the Scripps Institute at UCSD, and is used here with thanks.

6 May 2011 at 9:14 am Leave a comment

The new normal is still here, and here to stay

Eleanor Cooksey writes:

“I’ve found the cost of living has gone up substantially and it has had a huge impact on my life. I am not buying luxuries as often and I will change the way I deal with my finances.”

This sobering quote comes from a Scottish man we spoke to as part of our fifth in-depth review of how UK consumers are responding to the current economic situation. In our breakfast briefing held in London last week to launch this review, we highlighted four themes which describe the current environment:

  1. The New Normal is firmly embedded: Reflecting the broader economic uncertainty, individuals feel the outlook is gloomy: 25% feel the UK economy is going very badly these days, an increase of 10% compared to when the survey was last carried out six months ago. People are even less optimistic about their personal financial situation with almost half thinking they will be worse off over the next 12 months. The message is clear: no one expects things to go back to how they were and we are learning how to cope.
  2. Rising prices are hurting:Though inflation has recently dropped a fraction, our data showed levels of anxiety about rising prices similar to those seen in 2008. Many of the people we spoke to were highly sensitive to these changes, whether this was about an increase in the cost of petrol or bell peppers.
  3. Savvy shopping matters to consumers: 43% of consumers have had to dip into savings to make ends meet and they are trying hard to make their money going further. Deals and special offers are still very much part of this, but consumers are doing more than that: they are giving serious thought to what they really need and what they really don’t. One lady in Staines realised she didn’t have to spend £70 every six weeks at the hairdresser and could use a £3.50 home dye kit instead. However, she wasn’t going to cut back on her expensive make-up and perfume.
  4. It’s a constant struggle to stay on top of things: In our last survey, we identified three groups who represent the various responses to the current financial downturn, and this time round, ‘All Hands on Deck’ were the only group which had increased in size. Though people in this group feel the struggle to make ends meet most acutely, making the most of your budget is relevant to everyone, even for the relatively unaffected ‘Plain Sailing’ group. All want to feel they can loosen their belt without losing it.

I’ll finish with a quote from a young woman in Sheffield which sums up the dilemma the New Normal presents for some:
“I could lose my job tomorrow, so I should plan to protect myself against that – but then again, I could lose my job tomorrow…so why not live for the moment?”.

There are limited places available for a repeat of this breakfast briefing on 12th May. To find out more please contact Karen Kidson.

20 April 2011 at 2:09 pm 1 comment

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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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