Photo: Thorsten Schmidt/Henrik Bjerre

“Don’t despair: Despair suggests you are in total control and know what is coming. You don’t – surrender to events with hope.” Alain de Botton, Author

This is a small excerpt (page 142-144) from the book ‘Trendsociology v. 2.0’, published by pej gruppen. Buy the book here.

In the 1970s, mathematician and businessman Igor Ansoff discovered that there was a correlation between a lack of strategic leadership and the inability to perceive and react to what he called weak signals. These signals, characterised as vague, abnormal and ambiguous, were easy to overlook, but essential information for the management. For Ansoff, weak signals were the first indicators of a possible change that might at first seem insignificant, but potentially could be very disruptive for the plans which were otherwise decided. A few examples of products that might have at first seemed trivial were the computer and the digital camera. For these two products, there were early signs that they could disturb or change the norms. The small changes manifested themselves with individuals, organisations and society as a whole. The requirement for working with weak signals is that you can see what potential effect a product may have in the long-term if it moves forward from idea to final product.

“We don’t like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out”.
Decca Recording Company, which rejected the Beatles in 1962.

“Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?”
Harry Warner, the founder of Warner Bros., on the next step after the silent
film in 1927.

“The potential world market for copying machines is 5,000, at most”.
IBM, which rejected an agreement about cooperation with Xerox in 1959.

“I think there is a world market for about five computers”.
Thomas Watson, Chairman of the Board at IBM, 1943.

Weak signals are not trends (yet), and the study of weak signals requires enormous breadth and the ability to scan, sort and absorb an unusually high number of signals with the aim of identifying the factors that lead to a change. The process of scanning, identifying, processing and augmentation of weak signals to create scenarios is described in many books.


create an overview in a sea of signals

The Finnish trend sociologist Elina Hiltunen is known for her study of and work with weak signals and is the only trend expert who has dealt with this via her PhD (incidentally, please read the interview with her here in the book).
To the question of how she knows if a weak signal is relevant or not, she responds: “You don’t know! If you knew,
then it wouldn’t be a weak signal anymore. Therefore I advise people not to filter things too much and to remain open to change”.

To create an overview and meaning out of a sea of signals is difficult, and therefore Hiltunen, together with Data Rangers, has developed a tool that can monitor and analyse vast amounts of information. It’s called TrendWiki and is based on the same logic as social media and includes a sophisticated tool for text analysis. The program is downloaded and integrated with your usual search engine. When you come upon something interesting, click on it and add a category and/or a comment, and it is stored in a database. More employees in the same company or a trend group across companies can track the weak signals in the same database and then analyse the massive amounts of data.

Statistician Mark J. Penn believes that microtrends are forces that drive our society, more than the other way around. In the book ‘Microtrends’ he identified 75 trends across 15 categories which have emerged in smaller groups (or intense identity groups), have spread rapidly and are going to be crucial in the long-term. He does
not reject the idea of megatrends that can explain the major changes, but he advocates that in the highly individualised, digitised and global world there is a need to place greater focus on microtrends because they have greatly increased in numbers, can exist in multiple locations, are completely independent of each other and can be
crucial in the long-term – and thus can be dangerous to overlook. Penn’s thoughts have a clear connection with the study of weak signals and slightly lean towards the thinking behind cool hunting.

His basic idea is that in the Western world there is a growing diversity and that we have become much less homogeneous. Consequently, product and service development become targeted at small groups with their own closed system, where trends emerge and die. He also sees the growing diversity as a symbol of the declining relevance of major trends that apply to masses of people. He also believes that many small trends are often opposites; for example, a great deal of interest in healthy food, while fast food is prevalent.

Instead of being confused about the many conflicting trends, he chooses to see them as reliable indicators of many subgroups, where a given trend dominates. He calls it “microtargeting” and describes it as the identification of small, intense subgroups and communicates with them to identify their wants and needs. He goes against the conventional idea of reaching 5 percent to be able to talk about a new trend and believes that connection from only 1 percent can be enough to create a trend that should not be overlooked. The 5 percent is in fact based on sociological studies of animals and humans, where it is concluded that extensive groups move as gregarious animals when a smaller group decides to move, and then the rest follow. In these studies, the understanding is that the small group will only need to make up 5 percent to have a decisive or transformational effect on the rest of the group.

”A microtrend is an intense identity group that is growing,
which has needs and wants unmet by the current crop of
companies, marketers, policy makers and others who would
influence society’s behaviour.”
Mark J. Penn, Political Strategist

Interested in getting your hands on the entire book, (it’s 400 pages), it is possible to buy here.
The book consists of three parts:

  1. Theory and practical description of what a trend is, how it is spread and what effect it may have.
  2. Interview with 17 of the world’s top trend researchers
  3. Practical process description (5 phased process) with concrete methods and tools for working with trends.