David Mattin: the trends that will define our future

Trends are tricky things: they rarely turn out how you expect. But David Mattin makes them work for businesses by focusing on the human tab the heart of them. Here's how.

In the first episode of a new season of the NEXT–Show, Isabelle Schnellbuegel interviews trend watcher David Mattin on the merger between the physical and the digital — and the Life Trends report 2024. Here’s what he said.

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How do you spot and track the trends that matter? David works with the framework that fundamental challenges bring change in a chaotic way, but you can make sense of that through the underlying anchor that humans fundamentally do not change. Our basic needs are stable and do not change, decade to decade, and century to century. Hence the name of his newsletter: New World, Same Humans.

The word “trends” is, as he points out, quite vague, and can mean any number of things. But what he’s interested in is those trends that are generated by the intersection of fundamental human needs and a changing world.

“What I’m doing is being very observant about what’s happening now, and looking for changes, often new technologies, that unlock a new way to serve a fundamental human need,” David explains. “That is when you get powerful new human behaviours, expectations and mindset that create opportunities for innovators.”

To give an example, he’s been talking about virtual companions for over a decade. If you’ve ever asked Siri, or any of its competitors, a question with an emotional component, you’ve already started down that path. “But people looked at me like I was crazy in 2012, but now it doesn’t feel so crazy at all…”

Making space for innovation

The challenge of getting people to look ahead when so much of their time is consumed with the day-to-day business of making money and keeping businesses afloat is never going to go away. Sure, they know it’s important to think about the medium and long-term future. But what we need to do is build an environment to give them the emotional and intellectual confidence to think about it.

“History is littered with companies that didn’t think meaningful about the medium to long-term future and what is changing,” says David. “Those companies are now in the graveyard.

“In 2023, we all have the feeling that we’re on the cusp of some hugely significant technological change, when you look at what happens with AI, with robotics, with genetic manipulation. It feels like we’re on the verge of a deep and profound wave of change.”

And he’s given that wave of change a great deal of thought. The tentative answer he’s working on is that, at its heart, what’s happening is the merging of the world of the digital and the world of the physical. He calls this the “unified digital-physical field”.

The process of physical and digital unifying isn’t new — we’ve been talking about it for years — but we’re at an inflection point right now. There are three dimensions of it, suggests David:

  1. A super network of connected objects, where we run this layer of data through the physical objects around us. It’s a world where every object talks to every object, which creates a tsunami of data that empowers us to build the second dimensions.
  2. Bringing the physical world into digital space, via incredibly sophisticated simulations. We can model changes in the physical realm before implementing them for real.
  3. These two merge in augmented reality, where we drop a digital layer over our view of the world around us. The word “metaverse” will probably have to be retired, because the huge hype cycle damaged it, he suggests. But what was interesting about it is still interesting — and it’s still evolving. The boundaries between what is reality and what is representation will begin to blur away.

There are, of course, really big problems in the hardware needed for true augmented reality. Apple’s Vision Pro is another step in the right direction — but it probably won’t be the iPhone moment for AR. That will only come when the tech is as easy and intuitive as putting on a pair of glasses. But David thinks we’ll get there.

“These things tend to happen gradually and then all at once — at least that’s our experience of them,” says David. And he cites the last 18 months of AI being it shifting from “gradually” to “all at once”. “The power of this technology is too great for me to think we’re not going to take that journey,” says David.

“What is at the end of this long journey technology is taking us on? That’s the thought I’d really like to explore,” says David. “When every domain of human activity can be turned into a procedure, a technique that technology can perform for us, even writing and art, what is left for human beings? The only answer to that is each other.”

We can build a world where technology can do everything for us — except be human for each other. To see each other, be with each other and care for each other, that’s what will be left for us.

“I hope that some people are able to avail themselves of these opportunities. It’s going to be very exciting to watch — but it will probably be a bit scary as well.”

A case in point: there are some long-term trends that he’s been tracking for years that have played out somewhat differently from the way he expected. Back in 2013/4, he and the team he was working with at the time started talking about the “awokening”, based on a word nobody had heard of at the time: “woke”.

“It was a new word we were introducing to our clients,” he says “It was an enlightenment shift in society, about equality and equity and all these exciting things.”

They saw many brands attempt to adopt it, but what they missed was the polarising nature of that social shift, and the backlashes it would give rise to. “I’m not sure we were alive to the dissenting voices that you feel very strongly in the culture now.”

One invaluable check-in on the current trends that really matter is Accenture’s annual Life Trends report, the latest edition of which was just published. David was involved in its production, and he chose three of the trends he’d like to highlight:

The end of the life milestones

We’re seeing a disruption of traditional life milestones. There’s the traditional life part of education, career, house, marriage, children and so on. But we all sense that the availability of that path is declining. Even the idea of spending your entire life on one career is fading. Careers are being wiped out by technology and new ones are emerging.

Some of this is very positive. David gives the example of people constructing their own identities and lifestyles, rather than having them imposed by society.

How do brands respond in this new world? What’s the language of this new way of living? The old way of demographics doesn’t make sense here. Those models are breaking down.

The commodification of creativity

There’s been a commodification of creativity and content, with AI rising to the challenge. But we can all sense that we’re moving towards a world where a lot of creative output is being commodified — but is travelling a mediocre path towards sameness. Some of that is about cost-cutting, and wanting to do creativity cheaply. Some of it is the tools we use that put templates on what we create. Data can lead to us doing the same high-performing thing again and again.

“It’s hard to cut through if you sound and look the same as everyone else, so there’s a huge opportunity to strike out and do something different,” says David. “True creativity cannot be instant, quick and without failure. It probably can’t be cheap, because it requires humans and time.“

The degradation of the consumer experience

And lastly, he’s interested in the degradation of the consumer experience during the cost of living crisis. We can really feel that, even if we’re not articulating it. When these experiences degrade, it has quite a fundamental impact on your life. And we’re coming off a decade of many young people’s urban lifestyles being subsidised by Silicon Valley VCs. That money has dried up — and you can feel that lifestyle being taken away. But we’ve been rewired to expect this level of experience.

This post is based on the conversation between Isabelle Schnellbuegel, the Chief Strategy & Transformation Officer of Accenture Song and David Mattin, founder of New World Same Humans, on the NEXT–Show in September 2023.