Factors driving change today will ultimately deliver a different tomorrow, one that accommodates the technological, demographic, social and environmental forces that we see now. For example, the evolution and adoption of artificial intelligence (AI) will transform productivity and ways of working, but will also have a deep and sustained impact on the lifestyles and choices made by consumers. However, consumer companies grappling with current market disruption often focus efforts on their immediate needs rather than what’s five or 10 years ahead — in not planning for tomorrow, they risk being left behind.
When the speed of change reaches a tipping point, it can transform consumer habits. We’ve seen this before, with smartphones, the internet and more recently the COVID-19 pandemic shifting the way that consumers shop and what they buy. These behaviors quickly become the accepted norm. Companies that anticipate change or adapt quickly thrive.
But how do you build a business for a future consumer when you don’t know what the future might hold? How do you choose the consumer future you want to design for?
Companies often follow consumer trends to consider their future implications; they also track consumer behaviors to understand how they are changing. But understanding the direction of travel will not be enough to build for the future. Instead, companies must also harness the power of storytelling and even science fiction to fire their imagination and create future world scenarios.
Building future scenarios
At EY, using a future-back approach has become an established tool in helping to understand the implications that tomorrow might have. The EY Future Consumer program identified different future world scenarios and sought to build a picture of the types of consumers that might live in them: how they would shop, what they would buy, how they would be influenced by technology, what a day in their life might look like.
This may sound like science fiction. It is... and there is nothing wrong with that. Many innovations of today, and tomorrow, have long been anticipated in the genre. AI, virtual reality and connected devices were all imagined long before they became a reality. Science fiction is one of the first resources that futurists use in their predictions and a growing number of consumer-facing companies use science fiction writers to help anticipate future trends.
Through imagining future scenarios, we can ascertain common threads and disruptive outliers that help enable better business planning and more robust strategies. Our scenarios identified themes around sustainability, ownership, working practices, data and AI to consider, as well as distinct insights from individual scenarios, such as the breakup of dominant market platforms or the integration of AI into consumer lifestyles. One scenario eerily predicted that in 2020 a global pandemic would radically alter consumer perceptions around wellness and civil liberties.