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Reading the future culture coming our way

Sky and mirror

Spoiler alert! Or maybe not. If you haven’t yet seen Tenet, Christopher Nolan’s thought-provoking film, what follows won’t be a plot spoiler, because it’s nigh on impossible to explain the plot. 

In a nutshell

  1. The future will be built from today’s assumptions and the path forged by those before us, and cultural context determines how we make use of what technology and science will enable.  
  2. Organisations need to sharpen their cultural vision because any new developments will need to bend and flex to meet the needs of the cultural context. 
  3. Culture is not a single fixed point in time. Cultural shifts happen in different parts of the world and hit us at different points in time and at different speeds.  
  4. Although we cannot yet see into the future, we can see the future of culture and that will determine what people care about and how they make meaning in their lives.

One of Tenet’s concepts is the notion of ‘temporal pincer movement’, whereby some people move forward in time in the usual fashion, while others move backwards from a time in the future, to a point when both groups are in the same time. Baffling. It was written before Covid-19, but like all great art, Tenet anticipates the big social upheavals and feels very on code. Who could have seen Covid coming when we don’t have people in the future running backwards to tell us what to expect? Can we ever plan for such events?  

You have to wonder where Nolan gets his ideas and wonder with envy. Here is a brilliant creative mind who can create new realities, while always connecting to real human characteristics. The tricks our memories play, our unconscious, our sense of time, our universal emotions – love, fear, joy, sadness. It is this human connection that oils our suspension of belief and lets us go with the story. 

Filmmakers and artists focus on their stories, not on predicting the real likelihood of what the future might look like. Kubrik’s 2001: A Space Odyssey was prescient with big themes like anxiety around AI in the form of HAL – but not so much on the detail. The sci-fi technology enabled people to live on a space station, but they were calling home to landlines and failing to speak to people because they weren’t home. It worked for the story but today seems anachronistic. By way of balance, people argue that the movie gave us a glimpse of tablets, video calls, and the now ubiquitous Zoom. 

Human needs don’t change, it is the context of our lives that change

In short, the future will be built from today’s assumptions and the path forged by those before us. We can speculate, attempt to stay apace of technological and scientific developments, and scenario plan for the future. But, when it comes to technological innovation, what is shiny is not always best. You may build it, but there’s no guarantee that people will buy it. 

If we hope to augment and enrich peoples’ lives, we must understand the context in which people live and breathe. Human needs don’t change, it is the context of our lives that change. That context determines how we make use of what technology and science will enable.  

Context is culturally driven – would we have had the acceleration in low emission vehicles and the shift to electric had the climate change movement failed to gain momentum? It’s not climate change that caused the rapid development of alternative fuels, it’s that people started to care about climate change. 

To make sure they are future ready, organisations need to sharpen their cultural vision because any new developments will need to bend and flex to meet the needs of the cultural context. And it also requires a shift in perspective. Again, spoilers lie ahead for the film Arrival.  

In Arrival, earth is visited by aliens who are dubbed ‘heptapods’. Louise Banks, a linguist, is tasked to decode their language and communicate with them to determine if they are friend or foe. When Banks masters the heptapod’s language, the way she perceives time changes. She is no longer restricted by human’s linear experience of time; she becomes able to “see” the future through memories.  

We can read the future culture that is heading our way. 

While we may not be able to gain abilities like Banks, possessing a cultural vision allows us to move from a fixed-point perspective towards a dynamic, multi-faceted view of experience. Culture is not a single fixed point in time. Cultural shifts happen in different parts of the world and hit us at different points in time and at different speeds.

What is past or present for some, may be future for others. People do not operate in a vacuum - they are both the influencer and the influenced.  

And though we cannot yet see into the future, we can see the future of culture and that will determine what people care about and how they make meaning in their lives. Cultural signals are like messages from the future and when cultural currents start flowing, they rarely stop because they carry their own energy. Like a rolling stone, they grow and change shape as they progress. 

Computer power, AI, text analysis and image recognition has gifted us the ability to scan the global signals of cultural shifts and then to read the patterns. We no longer have to rely on reading the tea leaves. We can read the future culture that is heading our way. 

So how do we do it and what can you do in your organisation? It’s not science fiction, it’s proper science: 

1. Continuously scrape and shape the global signals. At TRA we focus on the 12 indicator currents

2. Monitor the four elemental forces that these indicator currents accrete around to understand the dynamic of the system to predict how and at what speed it is changing. 

3. Overlay our knowledge of people to model how these currents will mold to New Zealand or Australia's own culture

4. Apply this cultural framework to a create a cultural compass unique to each organisation to future proof the direction of their development.  

5. Map the cultural landscape for niche and targeted audiences that will determine the future context of their lives. 

 This article was published in the latest issue of Frame magazine.

Frame magazine

Colleen Ryan
Partner at TRA

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