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The end of this world as we know it? A 2020 Trends interview with Fjord's Mark Curtis

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The human experience is growing increasingly complex. We know more and care more about our world and our impact upon it, and our changing priorities are filtering through to all areas of business and design. Changing mindsets, accelerated by rising digital adoption, have reached the C-suite, forcing leaders to reconsider the very principles their organisations are built on. 

This is according to Fjord Trends 2020, the 13th annual report from creative agency Fjord (part of Accenture Interactive), which examines the seven major technology, digital and cultural trends expected to shape the business of experience in the coming year and that have emerged as a result of the complexities of 2019. The report notes that economics and politics, capitalism and resources, and technology and society have long been entwined, but only now have the consequences of their entanglement burst into the public consciousness.

I was lucky enough to catch up with Mark Curtis, co-founder and chief client officer at Fjord, to discuss the report and how it reflects on both what 2019 has given us to consider and what 2020 has in store.

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Hi Mark, can you start by telling us about your Fjord Trends 2020 report?

Every year, we work with our global network of over 1,200 creatives across 33 different studios and collectively envision the technological, digital and cultural trends that will be most important for organisations, employees and consumers in the coming year. 

2019 has given us much to consider. It’s been a year of climate crisis activism, Big Tech accountability, the booms and busts of the gig economy and the commitment of 181 top CEOs to redefine the Statement of Purpose of a Corporation. Changing mindsets, accelerated by rising digital adoption, have reached the C-suite, forcing leaders to reconsider the very principles their organisations are built on. 

With this in mind, the Fjord Trends 2020 report identifies a bold overarching trend; the need for organisations across every industry to realign the fundamentals and consider the importance of purpose-driven values over shareholder values. For companies with the courage to realign their strategy around this new definition of ‘value’, there are many opportunities to move beyond a purely profit-driven outlook towards a sense of affinity with customers and employees that’s spurred by purpose and innovation. 

2019 has been a year of great political discourse that has drawn more people into the political conversation than ever before. What kind of impact do you think that’s had on the creative industries?

With consumers increasingly bringing a political agenda to consumption, brands are increasingly using their platforms to make a statement of their own, and are receiving a slap on the wrist for tackling the political agenda insensitively, or not taking it into account at all.

On the other hand, brands that use their platforms and campaigns to drive equality amongst all races, genders and sexualities are helping to drive an affinity with the consumer. However, as Hallmark’s recent decision to pull its LGBTQ+ ads shows, the statement must be made not just in the conception of the campaign, but in the execution too. 

It means those responsible for the creative idea must consider how the current conversation could be interpreted in their outputs for better or for worse, or risk customers jumping to brands that show a broader and more sensitive understanding of how they integrate with the political sphere.

We’ve also seen a considerable rise in environmental consciousness, but do you think some brands are guilty of simply greenwashing and paying lip-service to the great green cause without actually doing much to further it?

Yes – but let’s acknowledge that it’s hard to change – culture and the need for profit often stand in the way, or the erroneous belief that you make green adjustments and maintain margins. This past year has seen a noticeable shift in attitudes towards consumption, redefining what it means for a product to be desirable. Concerns around climate impact, provenance and sustainability have been more prevalent in the public consciousness than ever before and customers want to know that brands care about the same issues they do. Increasing customer focus on sustainability and ethics is, therefore, putting growing pressure on companies to revaluate their purpose, practices and priorities. 

With 2020 set to see a rise in ethical investors and shoppers that place their wallets with ethical businesses, organisations need to place customer (and employee) values above shareholders in order to drive their bottom line. Brands must prioritise purpose-driven growth and development to attract and retain customers who are calling for environmental, social and corporate governance. It’s also fair to say that customers are not angels – they too make environmental trade-offs. But I suspect that a few years back few would have done so at all – the trade-off challenge is itself a signal.

However, this must be done authentically, and brands must offer full transparency on how, where and why their products are made. If they don’t – or don’t live up to their green promises – customers will simply go elsewhere and find an organisation that matches their values. And in the same sense that innovation is a continuous cycle, whether it’s in digital, design or product, organisations must ensure that their commitment to purpose is a locus of innovation too. Customers will be quick to spot the brands that are ticking the purpose box, and those that have baked purpose into their business from the ground up.

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Take us through the three creative/design-focused trends you’ve settled on in the report. How did you arrive at each trend, what do they mean and what do they mean to you? 

Throughout 2020 and beyond, we will witness ‘human-centred’ design elevated to something bigger – a ‘life-centred’ approach that’s designed for the benefit of the collective, not just the individual. This could be incorporating recycled materials into the product, using ‘vegan’ leathers or designing products so they can easily be dismantled and recycled instead of becoming landfill. 

In fact, human-centred design will be perceived as an increasingly ‘selfish’ act from businesses. Businesses will need to look at what's in it for the consumer, as well as their collective cause across the political spectrum, such as sustainable living or positive societal impact. Winning brands will increasingly be those that help people navigate their ethical anxieties about consumption and deliver alternative engaging experiences. 

Our fourth trend, Liquid People, notes the increasing backlash against being defined by the possessions you buy and the job you have. In short, consumption habits are changing and the trend we’ve observed is that people perceive and define their identity and priorities in ever more fluid ways. This shift is driven by several factors including a growing understanding of mental health and wellbeing, climate change and sustainability. People now look for jobs, products and organisations that align with their values, and this opens up opportunities for brands to provide new experiences that design products and services that support customers’ increasingly changeable desires.

Finally, with AI becoming a part of our everyday lives, we must embrace its future and move on from the current automation mindset. The trend we’ve seen is a move towards ‘Designing Intelligence’ that weaves human intelligence into the technology to ensure that it reaches its full potential. Organisations must have better tools and more careful consideration for AI’s economic and social effects and understand the value of making it a part of the strategic decision-making process. The advancing technology also offers immeasurable opportunities for creative design, from being able to reimagine great works of art to designing innovative packing and products. But to make the most of AI, it’s imperative we work with the technology – not leave it to its own devices. This isn’t about replacing creative roles but trusting AI data and allowing the technology to have more of a say. 

Do you feel the creative industries are inherently progressive and liberal?

Yes, I do. Most of the bigger and more successful companies operate out of the centre of large metropolitan areas throughout the world. This typically means more of their staff come from a diverse range of cultures which contributes to liberal culture. 

At Fjord, our designers spend a lot of time carrying out research with end-users across all sections of society in over 20 countries, and this gives us a powerful bedrock of diverse insight. That said, recent politics in many countries should make us very aware that a liberal bias is not universal. We face an interesting question: do we design for our beliefs or, as far as is possible, adopt a neutral position?

Personally, and I hope many designers share this view, I would argue that the climate crisis overrides all other concerns. We absolutely have the responsibility to design to improve our chances of a stable world on a liveable planet.

What examples can you share with us of work that Fjord has created in the last 12 months that embody your 2020 trends?

This year, we partnered with RBS and NatWest to create a stand-alone digital bank, Bó, which adapts to each user’s individual situation to help them create healthier financial habits and learn more about money along this way. In the UK, 75% of people are living financially unsustainable lives. They either spend everything they earn each month, or they spend more than they earn and rely on expensive credit. Bó was built to challenge this status quo. 

This initiative embodies our overarching trend of purpose-driven business. With Bó, control stays in the customer’s hands and all the decisions are their own. It was designed to work together with people who help them recognise and change their regular financial habits for the better.

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