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Action and Reaction: Perspectives for the “New World”

Richard Eckersley [The Futurist Nov-Dec 2001] presents interesting perspectives for a "societal mood barometer." Government and business are dominated by "linear optimism." Opposing this is the "linea...


April 1, 2002
By Pulp & Paper Canada

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Richard Eckersley [The Futurist Nov-Dec 2001] presents interesting perspectives for a “societal mood barometer.” Government and business are dominated by “linear optimism.” Opposing this is the “linear pessimism.” Although these themes anticipate dramatically different outcomes for the future, advocates of both extremes are still thinking within the context of “business as usual.” Society is ill-prepared for any “spikes” or trend-break disruptions. One way of analysing these societal dichotomies is to consider inner- and outer- oriented perspectives, which Richard Eckersley has labeled “cheap thrills” and “inner harmony.” These states-of-mind might be described as a “mood barometer.”

The preoccupation of modern Western societies with forms of consumption that offer pleasure, fun and excitement, are contrasted with tranquility and a new awareness of self and its relationship with nature. These two states reflect the tension between our professional values [a desire to live simpler, less materialistic lives] and our actual lifestyle [dominated by a consumer economy and culture]. The Sept 11 spike has moved the barometric mood dial over to the right; will the dial position stay on the right or move back to its pre-spike position, somewhere on the left? Has the dial position moved in the last six months? Will the dial position oscillate, reflecting an unstable social and business environment? Where do different societies place on this dial?

Like a weather barometer, it is violent shifts in mood that are disruptive, rather than the position itself on the dial. The events of Sept 11 contributed significant disruption to certain sectors of the economy, yet some sectors remained relatively unaffected. As the economy creeps out of downturn or recession [depending on your economic statistics], how will the consumer mood dial be influenced?

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Another perspective on consumer mood may be gained from Maslow’s Needs Hierarchy. Human needs are represented by a pyramid, as shown in the figure. Sept 11 has fractured the security slice that underpins the higher levels of need. This has created a void that must be filled before the higher-level needs can be addressed. For many individual consumers, security needs might center around family, community, culture or homeland, with an overriding theme of “back to basics.” This mood change translates into a disruptive buying pattern — a change-mix in the consumer choice menu. Travel, tourism, and hospitality have experienced a heavy jolt as consumers reallocated their discretionary spending following Sept 11. However, home improvement and consumer electronics have seen an upsurge in sales [notwithstanding the economic downturn as a backdrop] as consumers concentrate on cocooning. As with any mood change or economic slowdown, there is always a market for “little indulgences’ — chocolates, movies, CDs, etc. Income, education and demographics will all influence these choices in a multidimensional way.

Why is this important?

The prevailing position of society’s barometric mood dial holds great significance for the business world, especially with respect to different regions of the world. Signals that might indicate position on the mood dial need to be defined. For developed economies, these might be: reading habits [where are people focusing their attention?], outreach interests, leisure travel patterns, family and home time, and charitable donations. We also need to think more deeply about our situation and our destiny, and less about a linear time-line future. There is a danger in thinking that we can tackle today’s problems with yesterday’s rules. We need new tools to deal with turbulence, which in turn will lead to new solutions. Mark Steyn of the National Post [Canada] said “If we have learned one thing from history, make it this one: History repeats itself until it doesn’t.” From a longer-term perspective: “…it is still unclear if we are entering a new Dark Age or a New Renaissance.” – Richard Eckersley.

Alan R. Procter is an international consultant helping organizations exploit the future in their business strategies. He can be reached through futureviews@alanprocter.com