Market research needs to travel bravely into multiple futures

In 2020, marketers need research approaches that help us explore the world as it really is: chaotic, uneven and simultaneously totally mundane and wildly unpredictable.  

This pandemic is an important reminder that as marketers we cannot always foresee or influence new needs and behaviours.  With an unprecedented, but widely predicted, environmental crisis unfolding we should already understand that the needs and desires we seek to serve or generate might not remain relevant, and might even be accelerating environmental collapse.  We therefore have a responsibility to critically explore the multiple future scenarios that are likely, possible and some of those that right now seem preposterous.  It’s tempting when exploring futures to fall into simplistic utopia and dystopia narratives, but as Covid-19 demonstrates, the reality is usually a mix of both depending on where you’re sitting.  Great futures practice deftly handles the grey areas, looking for a mix of signals from different cultures and contexts and exploring a diverse range of scenarios.

The emergent field of speculative design asks us to explore these scenarios through creating artefacts, symbols and systems as if sent from the future. These are futures we can then interact with, to feel and experience how they might be to live in for the everyday person.  In this way the researcher engages in a kind of reverse archaeology. Exploring hypotheses about a different time through constructing the behaviours, rituals and beliefs that characterise everyday life: the micro telling us so much about the meaning of the macro context.  

During this pandemic period we find ourselves plunged into exactly the kind of speculative scenario that futurists eagerly explore.  And we are all active participants in a co-created futures research project. The parameters of our new context, urging us to prototype and test new ways of working, paradigms for socialising and entire economic models.  The things we miss and the surprise novelties which we hope will stay, are collectively generated insights into how we hope to be, and how we might best cope with disruption on a massive scale

This kind of futures exploration is not about innovating to solve a consumer problem or even identifying the ‘jobs to be done’, but engaging in a thorough questioning of the problem itself and the assumptions structuring our strategy. How might we have conceived of the role for conferencing platforms differently had we been imagining users living with enforced social distancing and global travel restrictions rather than iteratively solving for efficiency? Exploring futures also highlights lateral connections for our expertise and offering because we’re exploring outside of our typical context.  How might the rapid prototyping of remote education during Covid-19 lead us to better understand the context for educating millions of displaced people?

Enriching our research process with these kinds of tools and approaches helps us build more resilient brands, training teams to flexibly imagine their role in the lives of consumers and users across multiple scenarios.  It also holds a mirror up to the kinds of beliefs and ideals that underpin our businesses - that continuous growth is the goal, that brand distinctiveness is king. Bravely treading this unknown ground is not only intriguing but commercially, socially and environmentally necessary.

These methods sound academic and detached from mainstream business and consumer culture - and they can be.  But there’s currently plenty of brilliant work being done co-creating futures research with consumers, users and families and to bring toolkits to businesses that help them think critically about their impact on the world and their readiness for huge paradigm change.  

Using speculative design and futures exploration as part of your insight process builds resilience, raises new future-relevant questions and helps businesses reflect on how their current ways of thinking might be better tuned to a future full of the ‘unprecedented’.   

Gemma Jones is a researcher and strategist specialising in cross-cultural insights and design futures.  She is also a co-founder of School of Critical Design.