I think the standard Annual Trend Report is an oxymoron: trends don’t make their debut on January 1 each year, rather they evolve slowly over long periods of time. In futurist parlance, these slow-moving trends are known as “future potentials.” We wait and watch for them to mature, when all they need are the right conditions—a tipping point—that converts a long-term trend from a potential into a mainstream phenomenon.
For instance, though the specter of security breaches has been looming since the 1970s, it wasn’t until 2013 that this concern finally met its tipping point in Edward Snowden. When Snowden revealed that the NSA, along with many businesses, are already collecting your data, “Privacy” moved from a potential problem (a scenario first described by George Orwell in 1949) to a front-and-center issue.
Now privacy is a bonafide trend that will shape values and behaviors, and is spawning a whole new industry. As 2014 introduces the Internet of Things (IoT) to the consumer market with all things “smart”—homes, watches, cars, cities—the collection of personal data will grow with it. This is a tipping point for privacy protection: new regulations, products, and services—and more security breaches too—are now just part of the new normal.
Other trends that tipped in 2013 were the legalization of gay marriage by seven more states (aided by the Supreme Court’s ruling against DOMA); the use of drones outside the military (Amazon’s commitment to make delivery-by-drone a reality); triumph of new models of content production and distribution (Netflix, Beyoncé, 3D printers), and much more.
Tipping points for trends generally come as unexpected events, such as a natural disaster, a scandal, a social uprising, a discovery or an unexpected hero that makes a trend pop to the forefront.
So, rather than a typical trend report, I prefer to focus on long-term trends that are ripe for “popping,” along with a list of tipping points that might surface in 2014. It’s what I’m calling “Most Likely to Succeed in 2014.”
1. Internet of Things
Sometimes referred to as the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the Internet of Things will reshape our work and home lives, business models and, with surveillance capabilities, our relationship to government. Home automation (smart homes) is one of the biggest components here. In the very near future most of the electronic devices and appliances within our homes will communicate with one another, with our cell phones acting as remote controls for anything in the house that has an on/off switch. Such automated devices will be appliances, entertainment and security systems, lighting, energy, and the like.
Also big will be wearable technology and smart clothes. These devices will track our heart rate and blood pressure (like the Nike Fuel Band and other smart watches); our temperature and hydration levels (like smart athletic wear) or even emotions (such as smart clothing that changes colors based on your feelings).
Finally, 3-D printing is about to tip, as the technology is becoming more accessible and the awareness of it is spreading. What once was an intimidating, futuristic technology has become something approachable for businesses and individuals alike.
2. Brain Research
The past couple of years have seen a massive influx in brain research. We’re delving much deeper into how the brain functions; learning more about how animals think and if they experience emotions; and are deep in exploration about the human imagination. These studies are riveting and are resulting in smart devices and machines that are very closely mimicking the way we think and perform.
3. Political Drama
This is something that will likely make the list year after year, but I envision the political climate to be an especially frothy in the next two years. With midterm elections coming up, and positioning of candidates for the 2016 presidential election, political dramas will be a regular part of our entertainment diet.
The usual incendiaries—Social Security, taxes, privacy, healthcare and geopolitical tensions—are as close to the fire pit as they’ve ever been. The issue that is nearing its tipping point, however, is the one of income inequality.
Nearly twenty percent of household income went to the top 1 percent of U.S. earners last year – the widest gap between rich and poor since 1920s (Pew). Yet, American identity is so wedded to a view of itself as a meritocracy, where everyone has a chance at the American Dream, that it takes a long time for people to accept that the wealth gap is real and that it’s a structural, not a cultural, problem. All it would take is an unexpected hit to the economy, a natural disaster, a story or incident that stands as a rallying cry for change, and this issue could explode.
Pollution is becoming an issue of epic proportions and China leads the pack as the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases. That said, China is also poised to be the leader in alternative energy and conservation technologies.
China’s environmental challenges are at a tipping point. Extreme pollution has lowered average life expectancy in North China; tourism has dropped due to pollution advisories; wealthy Chinese take “lung-clearing” vacations; and heavy smog is migrating not just across the China mainland, but across the Pacific Ocean to the U.S.
Fortunately, China makes long-term bets on technology and infrastructure when it wants to, and as the health and environmental hazards threaten economic growth, the country is investing in new technologies (including American solar and energy companies that, as the technology matures, puts China in a great position to drive the global market in alternative energy). Recognizing both the need and the opportunity, the Chinese government is committed to growing its environmental protection industry by 15 percent annually. The return on investment is already promising: they expect roughly $810 billion by 2015.
One such plan is an electric car vending machine in Beijing. It’s essentially a parking garage full of electric cars that people can rent by the hour, day or even month. It’s far more cost-effective than buying a car, plus it’s more environmentally friendly than driving the typical Chinese vehicle. If all goes well, China will have created the first booming infrastructure that really supports electric cars. Countries like the U.S. will look to China as it works toward its eco-friendly efforts.
5. Tipping Points
There is immense potential within each of the above “trends” to set off a tipping point. Be it an act of terrorism large or small, local or global (perpetual crises in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and South Sudan threaten to destabilize larger regions); a big financial change (projections for 2014 are generally positive, as the global economy is expected to grow faster this year than it has in a long while); a conflict between any number of countries (nationalism friction has resurfaced between China, Japan and Korea and is a constant in many other countries around the world); or a natural disaster (forecasts include a worsening of drought conditions in southern Europe, the Middle East, southwestern U.S. and likely in Australia).
It’s impossible to predict which trends will collide with which tipping points in 2014. However, knowing which are most likely to succeed should help you recognize when a long-term trend is ready to pop.