Trend briefing: More convenience versus more sustainability

Futuristic technologies have advanced a long way from their past as the stuff of dystopian fantasy. If cutting-edge developments can help to eliminate global hunger, solve the energy problem, and also produce precisely tailored market analyses on top, high tech starts to take a far more positive turn. However, a healthy dose of skepticism is still advisable given the rapid pace of developments and the unpredictability of political events.


The news from trend and innovation consultancy Trendbüro could certainly be better. Once again, SHIFT moderator Marc Schumacher presented the latest developments from the worlds of technology and society under the title of “Don’t Believe the Hype.” This time the “Don’t” in the title was struck through to create a flavor of ambiguity. A particularly apt twist, given that these days it’s hard to know what we should believe any more. Schumacher described this as “the inherent contradiction in the system.”

People no longer call the system into question, yet the things they do are becoming more and more contradictory. To take one example, the climate crisis is widely viewed as the biggest problem facing us today. And yet when a crisis looms, everybody’s ego marches up to take center stage. The result: disposable vapes with disposable batteries become the next big thing, an almost unprecedentedly effective way of combining damage to health with damage to the environment. “More convenience versus more sustainability is a conflict that will continue to occupy us for a good while to come,” warned Schumacher.

In another and equally baffling example, the consumer climate is taking a nosedive and there is widespread fear of a recession, yet the Germans seem to be aiming to break the world record for traveling and are collectively spending money like water. Advertising for package vacations trumpets the fact that everything is so much cheaper abroad. Why bother slaving over a hot (gas) stove in your own kitchen when you can eat out on Mallorca?

But hey, wasn’t there a 1.5 degree climate target? Psst: that ship has long since sailed, with no chance of ever catching up. Any easing on the employment market? Nope, nothing in sight. Trendbüro’s analyses show that many industries will have to get used to permanent understaffing. Job loyalty is continuing to plunge, with only 14 percent of employees claiming to feel commitment to their company. The only solution that will save the economy is mass immigration. Hard to swallow against a rising tide of right-wing politics and refugees dying in the Mediterranean.

While Schumacher also had a few nuggets of better news––for instance, the energy generated by solar panels is increasingly approaching the levels produced by nuclear power stations––his overall conclusion was: “For the first time, I’m concerned about the future.”

Fortunately, Schumacher had also invited Lukas Pierre Bessis along. The well-traveled Marco Polo of futures studies took a slightly less gloomy view. His keynote, entitled “Mensch 2035 – wir Superhumans” [People in 2035 – We Superhumans] was the last item on the agenda before a group visit to the Oktoberfest, so Bessis gave his talk clad in traditional Bavarian lederhosen complete with decorative “charivari” chain. Bessis is a knowledge-hunter who regularly meets scientists, academics, and thinkers in the realm of ground-breaking ideas. Listening to his distilled expertise made us wonder whether we weren’t already in a beer tent with a good few liters already inside us. To give a flavor of Bessis’ ideas, how about this: “Life expectancy of 120 years is in the can. Around 1000 years is still work in progress.” Or this: “If we want, we’ll soon be able to download Chinese directly to our brain.” Using our built-in processors. Dizzying ideas.

Quoting Moore’s law of the advancement of computing power, Bessis affirmed that because the possibilities of technology are progressing exponentially, our tiny brains with their linear operation are unable to grasp the opportunities that lie just around the corner. He predicted that medical diagnostics will soon be able to repair any kind of physical damage. “Survive the next ten years, and you’ll live to be 120,” was his summary.

And there are further achievements that technology has catapulted into the fast lane and that will soon revolutionize the markets. Take VR headsets, or even contact lenses; hearts and lungs from 3D printers, using the body’s cells as “ink”; proteins produced from microbes that can grow outside of agricultural settings using simply hydrogen (from electricity) and carbon dioxide (from the ambient air); drones that can distribute seeds to plant 100,000 new trees in a single day; and chips implanted in the brain that enable paraplegics to walk again, and blind people to see (by the way, the last one is true).

It’s clear to see that moral and legal queries will mushroom from all these potentially transformational developments. The same applies to the use of artificial intelligence (AI) in business, and in market research in particular. XPAI’s founder and CEO Karl Sponholz and his Berlin-based team are working on voice and gesture-based ways of measuring the success of physical events.

If retailers could evaluate pleasure or annoyance, wellbeing or discomfort––in other words, their customers’ emotions––and if those customers could also be categorized using facial recognition, this ability would open up a whole wealth of new and exclusive opportunities. For example, stores could adjust their inhouse advertising, music, or even ambient temperature if, say, all their customers at a particular time happened to be male; and they could pursue their own marketing analysis using XPAI’s “experience score,” to assess customers’ reception of sales ideas and products. Could expensive, complex, and often artificial market analysis soon be a thing of the past?

The high-tech pioneers at XPAI have a secret up their sleeve––a patent application to enable these data to be collected completely legally, because the risk of data misuse is reduced to the minimum.

So is the future black as night, or rosy as a new dawn? The answer is: probably somewhere between the two. And although the three keynote talks weren’t all entirely in harmony, they were all singing from the same hymn sheet: the technology is out there, we only have to reach out and take it! Ground-breaking thinkers have never had so many opportunities to take the future into their own hands. The only question is: what will we humans make of it?