3_Trends_Vol.6: Thomas Klaffke: Decentral Dropout, Mindsumers + City Evolution

Vol.6

3_TRENDS is an interview series with experts who have their ear to culture, identifying the overlooked ripples turning into swells.

Thomas Klaffke (TK) is Head of Research at TrendWatching, working closely with the content team on all things trend and innovation analysis. Living in Berlin with a Master’s degree in Future Studies, Thomas also heads up Business of Purpose, a global community transforming business into a force for good.

MK: Thomas, what’s on your mind?

Decentral Dropout

TK: What do blockchains and crypto, remote work, the Creator Economy, micro-schools and the metaverse have in common? People are leaving “the Man,” i.e. institutions. Whether it is our monetary system, big banks, mass media, industrial education, the 9-to-5 rat race or overall employment, a divergence of trends is pointing to a decentralization movement with people striving to take back power.

This is not the hippie dropout, living in the woods tale though, and even digital nomadism comes way too short here. However, what drove these early movements is also boosting this new one: a growing distrust in institutions and the desire for living a self-directed and fulfilling life.

What’s new is that this time the exit from established institutions is accompanied by an increase in tools and connectedness: blockchain-based trust systems, social networking platforms, co-working spaces, online communities, etc.

What we are seeing is therefore almost a resurgence of cyber-libertarian ideals from the early days of the internet.

MK: Power to the players. The exodus is here.

I don’t think we can discuss this dropout though without addressing its driving force: rampant (and growing) inequality. It’s mass dissatisfaction with a legacy system which no longer works for the people (figuratively and literally).

The Man is embodied in Hollywood awards and Weinstein, and big banks and corporate cubicles. We’ve reached the tipping point where the 99% has had too much, or two, our voices are finally loud enough thanks to our tools. Likely both.

James McCombs, a member of r/WallStreetBets shared that he was not motivated by the profits of the GameStop stock, but by the ability to punch up, back at the firms which led us to the global financial crisis. "Now we have an opportunity to take it back," says McCombs.

As I’ve written, GameStop, BLM, Karens, Ok Boomer and a decline in Hollywood are all interconnected. Today’s viral social movements are a retaliation against abusive, corrosive and conservative institutions. Evidently, memes, hashtags, NFTs, subreddits and the Creator Long Tail are the tools to fight back.

The devilish caveat here is not all tools are as pro-human as we thought (ahem, Robinhood). Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.

And most noteworthy, this isn’t just a fight for mere “power,” but a fight for a financial livelihood. The Gig, Influencer and Creator Economy are all symbolic of the same thing: Economic Individualism.

Power begets independence. Or is it vice-versa?

Mindsumers

TK: Better, cheaper, faster, more stylish, more entertaining, more convenience...More! The constant, capitalist scream for never-ending growth is increasingly seeing its fair share of reality check. It’s the Marie Kondo moment of consumerism, with people redefining status and value, ultimately becoming more mindful about their consumption habits.

Over recent years, there has been a steady uptake in anti-capitalist resentments amongst younger generations. People are seeing the inadvertent and neglected detrimental impact of growth and profit maximalism on the environment, on workers and on marginalized groups, and are demanding alternatives. Moreover, a year in lockdown with well-stocked but useless wardrobes, too much information and media to digest, and yet another looming crisis our growth-focused economic system is unable to handle, is making people rethink.

While the death of the traditional consumer is still far out, a rise of reuse and buy-back schemes, reselling platforms and minimalist lifestyles are all set to further accentuate the question: how can we consume (more) mindfully?

MK: We’re in a strange limbo with Mindful Consumerism. It feels oxymoronic. We’re still 2-Day Shipping, but at least we’re thinking about how we shouldn’t. Remembering doesn’t always nudge the behavior, though.

Protesting via purchases, flashing luxury sustainability, and YouTubing Goodwill hauls reveals this alien middle-ground we’re situated in. Disgusted enough to question, too entrenched to reject. We’re quite vocal against our own traditional destructive habits, yet we’re still buying more than we need on Depop.

To eat my own words, I don’t even know if Mindful Consumerism can even be a true limbo. It can’t be a middle, because what would the other side of the spectrum to mindless consumerism be? “Choiceless” or “Sacrificial” or “Anti” Consumerism? I doubt we want that. I sure hope we break through, but, pessimistically, Mindful Consumerism feels like today’s current limit.

In my 2020 Meta Trend Report, “Questionable Consumption” was the 11th shift to rise to the surface. Both JWT and Springwise coincidently reported their trend as “Anti-Excess Consumerism,” where in the face of our climate crisis, the carbon footprint to ship those shoes makes the impulse buy all too uncomfortable.

The cognitive dissonance is dizzying.

City Evolution

TK: The pandemic has disrupted the idea of a city and has been shedding extra light on some of the most pressing issues within the world’s current status quo of city life: from overcrowding to inequality, traffic congestion, air pollution and rising real estate costs. Cities now, however, have lost their core engine: jobs.

As the decoupling of work and the office means that employment becomes less of a pull factor for cities post-COVID, they will have to focus on other areas to attract or retain citizens. Losing that core value proposition poses both a challenge but also an opportunity for cities to evolve by tackling the shortcomings caused by an unproportionate focus on putting economy and jobs first.

How will this evolution pan out? What we might ultimately see is the triumph of quality over efficiency within cities, fueling investments in culture, creativity, sustainability, affordability and resilience.

MK: I sure hope so.

When we think about Post-Covid “Recovery,” we often insinuate we’re heading back to the usual. Back to normal. Fuck normal. Never before have we had such a refreshing blank slate to create whatever we want. And not for anything, normal wasn’t working out too great anyway.

The number of photos I’ve seen across social of closed streets hosting events and diners with the caption “Why can’t it always be like this?” is as thrilling as terrifying – we may soon lose our “workarounds” which have been better than the original “solutions.” Outdoor dining will successfully sustain, but there are many more opportunities.

We standing on the bedrock for preferred futures here.

And cities are symbolic of the larger opportunity at hand.

This tabula rasa, clean slate applies to our social lives and work-life balances too. Our 2020 approach of essentialism can persist.

We get to keep what’s worked for us — in cities and in our homes.

This entire pandemic has been a Master Class in how fail with language, and “Return” is our final lesson.

We can redeem ourselves with this one.

We don’t have to return to everything.