What does the future look like? What does it have in store for us? What are the short- and long-term consequences of COVID-19? These are the kinds of questions Harry Gatterer deals with as Managing Director of Zukunftsinstitut (The Future Institute). Here, Markus Schüller speaks to Mr. Gatterer about “megatrends” and the impact they have on business and society.
Markus Schüller: Mr. Gatterer, as Managing Director of Zukunftsinstitut, you deal with trend research and futurology on a daily basis. Your work focuses in particular on “megatrends”. Could you explain exactly what is meant by that term?
Harry Gatterer: : Short-term trends frequently come and go, but when we’re talking about megatrends, there are four main criteria that have to be met. The trend must have a duration of at least 50 years and it must apply to or affect all areas of life. Aside from this, the term “megatrend” is used to describe highly complex global phenomena that are multi-layered and multi-dimensional in nature. Megatrends don’t simply “emerge”. They’re the precise result of systematic observation, description and evaluation of new developments in business and society. We’ve identified 12 megatrends according to this definition: gender shift, health, globalisation, connectivity, individualisation, mobility, New Work, neo-ecology, security, urbanisation, silver society and knowledge culture. Our focus is primarily on the different relationships that emerge as a result of the development of these megatrends – which we are often not consciously aware of at all in our everyday lives. Our modern world is incredibly complex and can no longer easily be compressed into the pages of a daily newspaper. That’s why it’s important for us to consider the context and look at the bigger picture. This helps us to understand what it means when a new future emerges or changes occur.
Markus Schüller: As you mentioned before, megatrends are large-scale transformations that shape and change society over several decades. These changes have an impact on many different aspects of our daily lives and take place on a global scale. The pandemic has brought the concept of megatrends back into the spotlight. What have your own observations been?
Harry Gatterer: Nowadays, we’re more connected by technology than ever before. What's new is the fact that we now consciously accept technology and handle it in a different way. I see this adaptation as a big step forward. It's not that technology has become more interesting or far-reaching. We’ve simply become better adapted to working with it. Meetings are now taking place online and will continue to do so – though of course there will be exceptions. In person meetings and interactions are essential for relationships, so personal human communication and interaction will start to play an increasingly important role once again. This means we’ll take a hybrid approach to work in the future. We now have the mental capacity to assess technology and we know how to get the most out of it. Technology is no longer a mystery belonging to some distant future. It’s a tool we can use. Most importantly, the current status quo cannot be reversed. In fact the opposite is the case – the future will be heavily shaped by technology. It makes no sense to fight against it in my opinion. The question is how we react to it and whether or not we find the right balance. This will be the biggest challenge over the coming years. If we try to push technology too far – for example installing an LED lamp, motor and smart home device in every last cupboard, regardless of whether it makes sense to do so – then we’ve overshot the mark. But at the same time, it’s obviously not possible to do without technology completely. There’s an art to finding an appropriate balance between how much technology we utilise as companies and individuals, and deciding which technologies we can do without.
Markus Schüller: You’ve also observed great progress with regards to ecology, characterised partly by more conscious shopping and an increase in consumption of organic and local food, but more significantly by a demand for higher quality products in general. What sort of an impact could this megatrend have in our kitchens and our lives in general?
Harry Gatterer: When activities such as travel suddenly became impossible, many people decided to invest in a better quality of life. Of course, the situation won’t remain exactly the same forever, but we now have more awareness of quality, both in general and from an ecological perspective. What’s even more crucial, however, is the shift happening across the entire economy towards innovation through ecological approaches. We no longer consider the subject of ecology simply as a warning of collapse. It now represents new opportunities for the future. In the coming years, we’ll see an increase in ecological concepts coming from both new and existing companies, which will boost innovation. This shift will be so profound that it will change the way we think about the concept of service. What if we simply used washing machines rather than buying and selling them? What if we thought of devices as services? This concept of using machines rather than buying them is becoming increasingly established as an industry standard. It’s only a matter of time before this idea spills over into the consumer sphere.
Markus Schüller: Individualisation is one of the most significant megatrends to have emerged in recent years. The expression of one’s own personality, needs and lifestyle remain important criteria for consumers before making a purchase decision. But slowly, this trend is beginning to change. What direction do you see it taking?
Harry Gatterer: People are overwhelmed by having to make decision after decision. Every one of us thinks of ourselves as an individual. But if we take a look around, we quickly realise that we are not that different from others. A “we” culture is currently beginning to emerge in our society – and it’s one that's being embraced by younger generations. The focus is less on ourselves, our own lifestyles and careers, and more on the question “who’s with me?”. Commonality and the collective are becoming increasingly important. The focus is not necessarily on solidarity in general, but on individual groups that relate strongly to one another and are networked to one another. In the field of sociology, this phenomenon is sometimes described as “neo-tribes”. In a few years’ time, for example, it may no longer be normal for a family to simply buy a new kitchen. Instead, four or five other people will be involved in the process because the kitchen will be shared. We can expect a cultural recoding that will shift the focus from the unique characteristics of the individual to those of small groups. This is a significant step we are taking as a society. This shift had begun even before COVID-19, but it became stronger as a result of the extreme isolation people were experiencing. The development of this trend towards a stronger sense of togetherness should not be underestimated because it’s a very dominant need of the society that’s currently emerging.
Markus Schüller: Our ageing society and a demographic shift towards what you call a “silver society” is another megatrend that has emerged. What do you mean by the term “universal design” when used in this context?
Harry Gatterer: The fields of design and product development as a whole will be increasingly governed by the concept of universal design. This means that more products will appear that aren’t specifically targeted towards older or younger people. The target group of a product will no longer be determined by the age of the buyer, but by the requirements specific to the product itself. These requirements will be driven by a need for minimalism. Our society will be shaped by a desire for less. We’ve reached a stage where we have too much: too much information, too much to do, too much activity. Our society is characterised by a high level of stress, which is triggered by technology, and this won’t necessarily decrease. Consumer desires will therefore be shaped by a need for things that don’t create any further stress. This applies to all age groups.
Markus Schüller: Do you see the “cocooning” trend (i.e. the idea of the home as a place for retreat) as a short-term trend or is it here to stay?
Harry Gatterer: The furnishings industry could certainly benefit from people isolating at home. Of course, this will become slightly less prevalent once people are able to move around again. In structural terms, however, the concept of the home as a place people use as their base will continue to be extremely relevant in the future. Our new ways of working will also make the home a place where many different spheres of life converge and come together. Accordingly, boundaries between different zones within the home will become a very essential concept in spatial planning. The home can no longer be divided into spaces such as the kitchen or the living room. Instead, zones will be created that serve specific needs.
Markus Schüller: Are there any megatrends that went into decline as a result of COVID-19?
Harry Gatterer: None of the megatrends we have been observing have completely reversed, but there have been changes in terms of their level of prominence. Mobility has once more become more individual and the use of cars has increased. Unfortunately, knowledge culture, or the way we learn, has also fallen out of focus in favour of stronger trends such as safety, health and new forms of work. The weighting of these trends has shifted, but nothing has been completely reversed. A crisis that takes place over such a short space of time doesn’t tend to create a new megatrend, or bring an existing one to a halt overnight.
Markus Schüller: Planning a kitchen is a complex process that requires a lot of personalised advice from different trading partners. Do you think this could change?
Harry Gatterer: The change I can see happening has more to do with user concepts and the fact that there will no longer be a single customer in the classic sense. But it’ll still be necessary to have a place where things are shown and displayed. There will still be a place for studio and furniture store culture because things like kitchens have a level of complexity that goes well beyond the configuration of a car, for example. This complexity lies not only in the sales process, but also in the assembly process. Perhaps we’ll see new purchase or rental concepts emerging – new ideas surrounding how the kitchen is used. I’m convinced we’ll see new experiments in this regards in years to come. However, these experiments won’t simply erase everything that already exists in one go. It’s more likely that they’ll consolidate the current approach to a certain extent.
Markus Schüller: Many thanks, Mr Gatterer, for this fascinating conversation and your engaging insights on the subject of megatrends.