Asking good questions: the difference between Trend-hunting & Foresight

A friend forwarded me these 10 questions from an ad agency that runs a 'global scout network', soliciting opinions on '10 key elements of Culture' (to be answered, btw, in 10 minutes).

Looking at them, it strikes me that the difference between how advertising and foresight practices look forward and operationalize concepts like 'culture' lies significantly in the quality of the questions they ask. After all, both practices spend time looking at what is happening in the world (which is often interesting enough by itself) and synthesizing what they found.

However, to have foresight you must have more than just an awareness of new developments: you must be able to cast them in a way that allow you to see their impacts. This means asking questions that are inspired by (requiring some theoretical perspective), but not directly derived from, the new events in the world.

Deconstruction

A deconstruction of the questions I received is instructive, as it illuminates the difference between being able to say "this is cool" and "this matters":

“1. Are we more morally conscious today than we were 10 years ago? Do you think morality is on the rise or declining? Why?”

Why this question? Why now? How is one expected to make a statement on the degree of morality for the world when we don't even know what is happening all over? Who is the 'we' referred to here? How does one calculate the amount of moral consciousness: does the increased emphasis on, say, local production & consumption offset the 'decreased' morality of, say, the Islamic State barbarity? Why is 10 years the horizon? (It's not like this is a new concern) This is a graduate thesis masquerading as an opinion question.

“2. Given that people have hacked everything from code to parenting to education to travel to manufacturing… what do you think will be next? Why?”

It's arrogant to assume education, among other things, has been 'hacked'. Why is it good for something for something to be hacked? How do we know it has, indeed, been hacked successfully? The word is doing too much work here, has too many implied meanings. If it is used to mean 'disrupted', then again so many things stated here have barely been disrupted; sped up, made more effective or cheap, yes. And not always for the good of everyone. So what do they really want to know... where someone will try to make a splash with a new tech startup?

“3. What does the post-Uber sharing economy look like? Why?”

Interesting because it is inspired by a specific development. Assumes Uber has basically cracked the secret, when the real issues - legislation, monopsonies, insurance & safety, service design, the ethics of data-driven contract management etc, have just started to become visible. Also assumes the outcome to be driven by technology (an Uber-like form of 'sharing') when Uber does a lot of lobbying, political work, and borderline unethical business practices to win. It is still unclear that Uber is about sharing, and it is definitely too early to answer this question.

“4. Do you think different cultures will become more or less distinctive in the future? Why?”

This is indeed interesting: are technology and globalization homogenizing forces? However, the answer will look very different depending on what is meant by 'culture' - are we talking about blue denim and music, off-grid survivalism, or politics? Are we talking about the global middle-class, the modern slum-dwellers, the factory cities, or the dying hunter-gatherer tribes? Do we think cultures arise sui generis and blend together over time, or are there sources that generate new 'culture stuff'? Can we even talk about distinctiveness without discussing ourselves as the instruments that find the distinctions?

“5. How do you think people will leverage networks (social, political, technological) in the future? Why?”

Both interesting and answerable: there are fairly limited and well-known ways in which networks are made visible and can be operated on. We have done a poor job so far, but that is only because the experience is extremely hard to craft.

“6. In what ways will technology and devices become more frictionless? Why?”

Assumes that less 'friction' is desirable. Why is this interesting? Because "less friction = faster = more efficiency = good"?

“7. What will a good user experience look like in the future? Why?”

Which future? Never ask a foresight question with no time-boundary.. Also, depending on the level of design abstraction, the answers can be clear and direct (we kinda know how to design for mobile, for instance), probable but debatable (multi-device/ecosystem experiences), or vague and unclear (the impact of sensor infrastructures.) Hard to answer definitively without better definition of terms.

“8. Do you think we are becoming more or less honest? Do we value story more than reality/truth? Why?”

Again, as in question #1, this questions considers aspects of human experience that are rarely measured systematically, and almost never for the world as a whole. So, to begin with, since the empirical data is extremely hard to acquire, this question is likely to be anecdotal opinion instead. By compressing all humanity into a single hypothetical 'we', the question also renders invisible social distinctions, the context of interaction, and power structures. Assuming no deus ex, that human nature didn't suddenly change with Zuckerberg's proclamation on the obsolescence of privacy, it would be more interesting to think about what kinds of things might be shaping how people can enact or resist honesty and the revelation of truth.

“9. How do you think the ability to “visit” and “experience” places through our screens will impact travel in the future? What else will [we] be able to explore in the future without leaving home?”

Assumes that we can actually visit and experience places in any real way. Yes, you can scroll on screen between the exhibits in the Louvre, but you may as well be swiping pictures on a tablet. Also assumes a definition of travel ("= physically going places"), and hence frames the traveler as a tourist ("= somebody who goes places to see things").

“10. Now that YouTube and Vine stars are getting sponsorship deals and TV shows, what do you think is next for this space? What does celebrity/entertainment culture look like in 10 years?”

This is actually the most focused question of the lot: it takes a development and asks about what it might imply. It positions the development in the context of a broader set of activities and concerns. It sets a time-frame that bounds the act of speculation.

Asking good questions

There are a few things I've learned about asking good questions in interviews and analysis that suggest principles for asking good foresight questions:

  1. Use precise terms: limit assumptions, and make sure openness of meaning is intentional.
  2. Look beyond the headlines: don't base your framing on language designed to encourage traffic
  3. Work out the consequences, then ask a question at the limit of your understanding: X is happening. How will it play out? What are the obvious consequences? What do we know about the context that will help envision possible futures?
  4. Situate it in a new context: how would this work in...? What does it mean for...?
  5. Pivot around a concept: make a map of component and related concepts. Make one of them the primary lens, and rewrite the question.
  6. Check it is answerable: asking a question that doesn't have enough empirical evidence to help answer will help uncover the way in which you think about the issue, but won't illuminate futures.
  7. Set a time-frame: some things move slowly, some innovations take longer than others, some transformation are easier to understand in the short-term. Select your time-frame carefully based on the context.
  8. Do the research: chances are, there's an expert who understands this development much better than you do. Get their input.
  9. Get historical: is this a new question? How long ago was it first asked? Things shift slowly in human values and behaviors - does this issue point to something slow & deep or quick & superficial?
  10. Make it interesting: ask something no one else is asking. Use some creativity skills. The future often comes from a non-obvious angle. Perhaps you'll catch it this time.

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