Trends, megatrends, wild cards and weak signals

(sources: Practical foresight, The handbook of technology foresight)

The future can be anticipated by looking at the direction of current developments (trends and megatrends) or trying to sense the possible but improbable events (weak signals and wild cards). As these are central concepts in many of the methods, these are explained briefly below.

Trend is a general tendency or direction evident from past events increasing or decreasing in strength of frequency of observation. It usually suggests a pattern.

Megatrends are long-term processes of transformation with a broad scope and a dramatic impact. They are considered to be powerful factors which shape future markets. Megatrends differ from other trends in three ways:

  • Time horizon: Megatrends can be observed over decades
  • Reach: Megatrends impact comprehensively on all regions, and result in multidimensional transformations of all societal subsystems, whether in politics, society, or economy
  • Intensity of impact: Megatrends impact powerfully and extensively on all actors, whether it is governments, individuals and their consumption patterns, or corporations and their strategies.

Weak signals are early signs of currently small change. They can presage a strategic discontinuity. The search for weak signals is one where you do not know what you are looking for. It involves the identification of “not necessarily important things” which do not seem to have a strong impact in the present but which could be the trigger for major events in the future. Finding weak signals is one of the most challenging tasks in futures research and their analysis often leads to the identification of wild cards.

Wild Cards are high-impact events that seem too incredible, or are considered too unlikely, to happen; yet many do. They are warnings (external or internal), events and developments that are still too incomplete to permit an accurate estimation of their impact and/or to determine their complete response. Wild cards make your colleagues laugh, people say it will never happen, makes people wonder, few people have heard about it before, and are taboos. They are a rich source for further research in later opportunity and risk assessment.

A collection of wild cards and weak signals as well as trends can be found on the iKnowFutures website.

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