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Shifting Perspectives: A Conversation with Thomas Klaffke

If you are interested in alternative societal visions, chances are you’re subscribed to Creative Destruction, a newsletter by Thomas Klaffke. In his role as TrendWatching's head of research, Thomas assists businesses in becoming more purpose-driven, aligning with his interest in exploring novel narratives and imagining a better future. Our conversation covered Thomas' work at TrendWatching and the company's pivot towards purpose. Additionally, we discussed Thomas' research process for his newsletter and his current interest in societal value systems.

What led you to trend intelligence?

It's a long story, but I try to be brief. During my bachelor’s degree, I moved to Jakarta for an internship at a German political foundation. My job there was to read English-speaking newspapers and compile a monthly report on social, political, and economic developments in Indonesia. This introduced me to the idea of looking at developments and trends within a country. And it also sparked my interest in research as a discipline. At the same time, I don't really remember what triggered it, but I became interested in transhumanism and the idea of merging with technology and acquiring superhuman capabilities and skills. It's not something I enjoy nowadays, but back then I was totally into Ray Kurzweil and other out-there futurists. This got me more and more interested in futures, and I started looking for a master’s degree in this field. Eventually, I found the futures studies program at the Freie Universität here in Berlin. And that's how I got into this field. Before taking the master’s course, I interned at different foresight and trend consultancies. So I already had some practical work experience, and the master’s degree provided the theoretical background.

You also moved to South Africa to work and live there...

Yes. While completing my master’s degree, I worked for a company called Ionics. They provide software for foresight, scenario planning, and the like. And back then, they collaborated with a South African company called Lacuna. I was lucky enough to spend half a year there and help build the company. As part of my role, I researched trends for different companies and put together some of their first materials and methodologies.

Did they have different questions and challenges than we do in Europe?

We mostly worked with companies from South Africa, which had similar challenges to their European counterparts, so the work was not that different. However, some of our clients were multinationals trying to enter the market. Because they needed a deeper understanding of their audience, we focused on ethnographic research and combined that with foresight. In that sense, it was more special and different from my work in Germany.

How did you come to TrendWatching?

After graduating from university, I worked for an innovation agency. But I wasn't very happy there. I thought that my work didn't really have that much of an impact and was mostly about convincing people to buy more things. My goal was to change that. So I started looking around. I was already a member of Twin, a TrendWatching community. One day, I saw that they were hosting a meetup in Berlin and decided to attend. That’s where I met TrendWatching founder Reinier Evers, who also happened to be there. We connected immediately. He told me about his upcoming venture called Business of Purpose. I liked this idea so much I decided to join the company. I worked on Business of Purpose until we merged with TrendWatching in 2020. I then took on a bigger role, and my involvement in Business of Purpose became more of a side gig.

Did TrendWatching become more purpose-driven as a result of the merger?

Yes. What we did in 2020 was overhaul our company's mission statement and purpose. This was inspired by the Business of Purpose project. Before that, TrendWatching leaned toward topics like sustainability and ethical business. However, it wasn't really emphasised that much in the work we did. The focus was on helping companies improve their innovation efforts. Now our mission is to help companies tap into meaningful opportunities related to sustainability and inclusivity. In addition to overhauling our mission, we have also evolved our methodology and adapted our company culture.

What is the methodology you use at TrendWatching, and how has it evolved since you joined?

The original TrendWatching methodology was put together in 2014–2015 and released in a book called Trend-Driven Innovation. TrendWatching has always been consumer-focused. And as a human-focused trend agency, we don't just look at technological trends, political trends, or any other single trend category. We look at what consumers want. Our methodology consists of three parts that come together in a Venn diagram. One is basic human needs. These are things like convenience, positive impact, simplicity, health, and things like that. Then we have what we call macrotrends or drivers of change. These are the big shifts, such as climate change, the well-being economy, and social and political polarisation. And then there are innovations. Our efforts always revolve around real-world things that already exist. We then look at the intersection of these three dimensions and consider how they spur new consumer expectations. These consumer expectations are what we call consumer trends.

There are different ways to start, but we always begin our research process by exploring innovations. Looking at the latest products and services helps us decipher the basic human needs that they address and the macrotrends that they are linked to. This process evolved from the way TrendWatching was built. Back in the early days, our founder travelled around the world, meeting new people and building a community of trendspotters from different parts of the world. They shared with him what they had spotted in terms of new businesses and innovations. That's where our innovation focus comes from. Three years ago, we adjusted this methodology a little bit and added a "purpose" element to it. We believe that one of the biggest trends is a shift towards a purpose-driven economy. We also think that's what the world desperately needs. In fact, we think it's so influential that we made it part of our mission statement. Thus, whatever we're looking at, be it innovations, basic human needs, or macrotrends, everything passes through a purpose filter. That way, we can discern how innovations relate to sustainability, equitable business, and well-being.

Is this how you define purpose: sustainability, well-being, and equity?

Yes, we usually look at three dimensions of purpose. One is environmental sustainability. Right now, many people talk about regeneration. But for us, the broader topic is environmental sustainability. The second one we call equity. This is about inclusive and diverse business models that include people from marginalised communities or those who are underrepresented or ignored in society. It's also about sharing ownership and profits in a more equitable, just, and inclusive way. Lastly, the third pillar is well-being. It's about workplace well-being and looking after people and their health, both mental and physical. This notion applies to animals too.

What if a client was interested in finding new growth opportunities, but not in any of those three areas?

We would probably reject them, but it really depends on the project. Currently, we work with companies that may not be considered purpose-driven. However, they may be interested in becoming more purposeful in the future and have certain projects leading in that direction. While we still work with these companies if their projects fit our idea of being purpose-driven, we do not do business with certain sectors, such as tobacco, guns, or similar sectors.

It seems to me that trend consulting firms are taking more responsibility in shaping the future together with their clients...

Agreed. I want to emphasize that it's tricky to discern whether a company is serious about embarking on this purpose-driven path or not. And another factor is the seniority of the team we work with. We understand that large corporations can be difficult to transform. Once we've worked with a more senior team, we find it easier to spark discussions about systemic transformation. Of course, we don't want to ignore the smaller teams that are taking proactive steps to implement a more purpose-driven way of doing business within the organization. It always depends on the type of project or inquiry we receive from a company.

That’s the crux of many purpose-driven initiatives. They are well-intentioned and sound good, but they often don’t really change anything on a deeper level. In most cases, it's difficult to tell if companies are merely responding to the latest marketing trends or if they're serious about implementing systemic changes.

Yeah, totally. And I think, especially in our field, we oftentimes work on projects that will only have an effect in the future. As a consultant, you don't know what will happen after leaving the project. After you wrap it up, the client does their own thing with it. So yeah, it's tricky.

Could you tell me more about how your interests and natural talents have shaped your approach to trends?

What I'm very interested in, and have been since childhood, are diverse perspectives and different ways of looking at the world. I was always very interested in talking to people or reading about ideas different from what I was used to. And working on different continents and in several countries forced me to shift my worldview quite a bit. It also showed me how influential a certain viewpoint can be and the biases that come with it.

I find this skill of being able to shift or being okay with shifting your viewpoint very valuable for foresight. Quite often, you come across certain topics and ideas that are out there. Your own biases, how you see the world, and even what you're focusing on and where you place your attention will influence how you analyse these topics. So, I think it's critical to be tolerant of new ideas and views, even if they don’t align with your value system right away.

It is also important to remember that you do not have to like something in order to be interested in it. I'm interested in many things I don't support or find beneficial for humanity. I'm still curious about them because many people are working on them and others are passionate about them. That's why I'm interested in learning what's happening and why. Take transhumanism as an example. Back in the day, I was very into this and the whole idea of hacking your body. It's not something I'm enthusiastic about anymore. However, I'm still reading about it in order to get a better understanding of what's going on there. I'm also curious why transhumanism proponents continue to have this worldview and subscribe to the idea that we should merge with technology. Although it's not always easy to practice, tolerance of various worldviews and mindsets is key in our field.

What would you recommend to someone who wanted to learn how to shift their perspective?

There are some practical things that can help you move outside your comfort zone. Travelling is an excellent way to challenge your ideas, as is meeting people from diverse backgrounds, having a more diverse friendship circle, and attending different kinds of events. There are so many interesting things happening in the larger cities where you can really immerse yourself in a variety of cultures. You can go to a punk concert one day and a classical opera the next. In addition, you can look at these types of experiences analytically if you are curious about these sub-cultures and want to learn more about them. In my master's studies, I read a lot about different philosophies and sociological theories. In my view, knowing different philosophical theories is critical for foresight. These are the underlying structures that define how we think about the world. As an example, I studied constructivism as a philosophical theory. Researching radical constructivism for my master's thesis got me more into this topic of perspective shifts.

Pushing yourself to do things you're not sure you'll enjoy isn't always easy.

True. At the same time, it can also go the other way, to the other extreme, where you jump on every hype. I’m thinking of topics like the metaverse and generative AI. When looking at these trends, there's the possibility that you accept the hype too much. You may get too excited about one topic or become too immersed in one field. It’s critical to have the right balance between being interested in the latest things and keeping track of other developments and ideas.

What is the topic you are currently interested in?

Right now, I'm mostly interested in new narratives for the future. I believe that there's a lack of original ideas and visions that bring together certain movements that already exist. There's lots of talk about the damaging effects of capitalism. There's lots of talk about rising inequality and the climate crisis, which is becoming a reality for more and more people. And then there are various ideas about how to resolve these issues, but I don’t think they're really that connected yet. There is no one vision or several visions that bring these together in a way that is meaningful for a variety of people. There are many bubbles. But what's missing is this kind of broader story for the future. That's what I'm super interested in right now.

Do you want your newsletter, Creative Destruction, to weave those stories together into a coherent narrative?

Yeah, exactly. That was the second reason I started it. The first is to present what we just discussed: perspective shifts and the importance of looking at out-of-the-box ideas. It's these two things that made me start this newsletter. I was doing lots of research, and I needed some way of sharing my findings and not just having them in my head. So that’s what I’m trying to do: identify the different movements that introduce original visions, narratives, and ideas, and figure out how they can be connected to some coherent overarching story.

For whom do you write it?

Currently, the audience consists of people engaged in trends and innovation. There are lots of people who define themselves as changemakers in their discipline. Last week, I did a small survey and found out that many people work on big topics. These topics include changing cities, big sustainability projects, or the future of work. And my newsletter offers things they haven't seen anywhere else; they may be overwhelmed with the same kind of information spread here and there, and they're looking for a deeper understanding and a fresh perspective.

I love your newsletter because it presents fresh ideas I haven't found elsewhere. Where do you find those viewpoints and new perspectives?

I wish I could say I had a structured research system. I don't. I mean, there is some kind of structure, but I'm still building it. But basically, it ties back to what I said earlier. There are a couple of movements that are trying to create a new narrative or an alternative societal vision, which I am following. I then identify certain experts within these movements, as well as magazines, blogs, and so on that are quite popular within those distinct bubbles. Then I monitor to see if there are any articles or opinion pieces that fit the focus of my newsletter, which is about exploring deeper ideas and narratives. Oftentimes, I find things almost randomly, for example, in other newsletters I subscribe to. I might come across a compelling idea, and after a bit more research, I find a report or article that links to it. It's still a little bit too random for my liking. But the problem is that with my focus on bringing people very out-of-the-box ideas, I also have to break out of the box myself with my research system. So I don't want it to be too structured or rigid.

Which movement excites you most or is most promising at the moment?

There are so many, it's difficult to choose. The topic that is still very blurry to me but that I find most interesting right now is societal value systems. What do we really value when it comes to the most basic things? I've been exploring the value systems prevalent in different societies. Convenience, for example, is a big priority right now. There are so many businesses that focus on convenience and helping people have an easier life. Think of Amazon, for example. I’m interested in understanding how these value systems came into being in the first place and how they might be proxies for other things that are more critical. For example, if you have a busy work life, you need convenience to get things done. But maybe taking a step back would benefit you more—reducing your workload, for example. These values have become so ingrained in our societies. I'm interested in learning whether they represent a deeper longing for different things. In my view, a new narrative and vision for the future must be rooted in a revised value system.

Is this rethinking of the value system something you incorporate into your consulting work?

Yes, this is something we are looking into at TrendWatching. My newsletter, however, explores it in greater detail. At TrendWatching, we're trying to distinguish between meaningful and less meaningful convenience. Criticising convenience doesn't mean all convenience services are bullshit. There's definitely something to it. What we do is deconstruct this trend of convenience and frictionless services and its evolution. We want to understand what true convenience is, what is useful about it, and what might be less so.

Right now, we're looking at one specific trend that represents a revision of values in technology. In recent months, there's been talk about banning phones in schools in countries like the Netherlands, Sweden, and Denmark. The UN also recommended banning phones in schools. There's some rethinking taking place. In addition, car makers are reintroducing physical buttons and moving away from touchscreens. This idea of making everything more frictionless is being disrupted due to negative effects on mental health, especially for younger generations. This is also a sign that our relationship with technology is maturing.

While we're looking at these deeper narrative evolutions at TrendWatching, we're trying to make it less philosophical, like I would with my newsletter. Instead, we're trying to make it more practical and show an emerging, meaningful, trend-driven opportunity for businesses or organisations. We also work with many NGOs to support this shift towards more meaningful technology use.

It's a good development that trend consultants question their recommendations more and apply a more nuanced view regarding emerging needs and shifting values.

Totally. One reason for doing that is that many systems—and this sounds a bit radical—are collapsing in front of our eyes right now. Whether it's the climate, the economy, or education—what we're teaching our kids and how that relates to actual jobs out there or will be in the future. We're seeing that these systems do not fit the realities we live in. It opens up the opportunity to question more and criticise more.

And in terms of trends, and this is a specific field-related opinion that I have, they have become so abundant. This poses a challenge for professionals in this field. All kinds of newspapers and entities talk about trends these days. That wasn't the case ten or even five years ago. It's also easier than ever to research trends and put trend knowledge and insight together. So, I think this means we have to level up our expertise. We need to improve the way we do trend research and dial up the effort we put into analysing different factors. Trend consultants need to step up their game.

About Thomas Klaffke:

Thomas publishes the newsletter Creative Destruction which explores out-of-the-box ideas that shift minds and help imagine a better future. He also works as Head of Research and Senior Trend Analyst at consumer insights firm TrendWatching and manages Business of Purpose, a newsletter for purpose-driven business professionals.


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