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From a volcanic eruption to the corn tax: reading the future from the fall out

volcano erupting in cloud

Chaos theory was very popular a few years ago.

In a nutshell

  1. We can look at data about macro global movements in population, climate, the physical world, technology, and political and economic structures to explain the systemic changes, sudden pivots and subtle shifts that we see in society. 
  2. There’s little we can do to control these giants societal shifts, but we can monitor the eddies that spin off these big storms and ultimately become the cultural drivers of our lives.
  3. We do this by using technology to search for and collect cultural signals data and analyse these to predict the shifts in our society. 

The idea that a butterfly flapping its wings could cause an output that was distant and seemingly unrelated helped to explain the disturbingly random nature of events.

Yet now we can look at a more all-encompassing explanation for the systemic changes, sudden pivots and subtle shifts that we see in society by looking at the data gathered from macro global movements in population, climate, the physical world, technology, and political and economic structures.

The physical world

In 1815 Mt. Tambora in Indonesia erupted. It caused the year without a summer many miles away in Europe. The crops across Europe failed. A starving population became one of the first waves of economic refugees looking for a better life in America. Corn became a scarce and valuable commodity, so the concept of import and export tariffs was born – the ‘corn tax’ in England – and the rural population rioted against unfair land rules which were subsequently reformed.

Technology

In the 14th Century, Guttenberg invented the printing press and thereby transformed the political, artistic and social landscape because ideas could be spread and shared in a way and at a speed that was unprecedented. It transformed the standardisation of language and made political sedition go viral. And the industrial revolution of the 18th Century, some would argue, was the trigger for climate change.

Climate to politics

In 2010 climate change caused a crop failure in Russia and China, the largest suppliers of wheat to the Middle East, that in turn caused a bread shortage and inflated prices. The government failed to take action, the Arab Spring was the result.

20th Century macro influences

Today, climate change, population growth, water scarcity, an astonishing political and economic scene and technological development are all having an impact on the world we live in. There’s nothing we can do about these massive global upheavals, but we can monitor the eddies that spin off these big storms and ultimately become the cultural drivers of our lives.

Monitoring is empowering

"While we’d like to say the machines are good but nothing like as good as humans are, we can’t."

We do this by searching for and collecting cultural signals, the signs that accrete around a particular eddy and become what we call cultural currents. Now that’s all well and good in theory and our cultural strategists and insights team spend their time doing just that, but there are a lot of signals out there and that’s just for one current. Multiply that by our twelve currents that we’ve identified and it’s a very big noisy wall of sound.

However, technology and specifically the developments in AI and machine learning are enabling us to harness the power of text analysis and AI to supplement the work of our humans and to increase exponentially the volume of signals we can collect.

And while we’d like to say the machines are good but nothing like as good as humans are, we can’t. Taking just one of our cultural currents, Optimised Self, our cultural engine is achieving 91% accuracy compared to us coding the input manually. And of course what an intelligent engine can do is look for the early signs that a current is fracturing or where a new current is beginning to form. It can map the rise and fall and read the beat of the incoming signals.

What the engine gives us is access to cultural signals from around the world drawn from blogs, media, posts, product platforms, websites and a whole lot of super smart nooks and crannies on the internet from which we can suck content. Then we can decode the content and assign it to the cultural current that it reflects. So that’s how we collect and curate – and it goes to show that data is not just numbers.

We use it is as both a database to draw on to fill out the picture of how a cultural current is playing out – maybe in particular reference to a market category or to a group of people – and how that impacts on your business decisions. We can use that picture to help companies set the context for the world into which their new product ideas will fit or to guide strategy for comms, for example.

The other thing the engine can do is chart the progress of the cultural currents. For example which are in the ascendency and which are treading water, creating a dynamic model of the currents as they are shaped by the signals that build them. This charts the sources of influence that will have the most impact on people’s behaviour, aspirations, expectations and the cultural signals that they will be most open to. Because it is ‘always on’ it is a triage tool for business to be able to use culture to make responsive and reliable decisions in order to be ready to execute.

The human part

But thankfully there is still a crucial role for humans – and that is the ‘so what’. Our human team are the interpreters and applied cultural strategists.

We absolutely know that cultural currents influence behaviour today and we also know that they set the context for what people will want from life in the future. Applying cultural intelligence to innovation programmes, to internal talent management, to ensuring comms signals are on code, to leveraging culture to influence behaviour all future proofs decision making and provides a lens that keeps a brand relevant to people’s lives.

Our cultural engine is our power plant, but our applied cultural strategy is the compass to steer by.

Colleen Ryan
Partner at TRA

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