Cycles are embedded throughout this world and our own individual existence. Whether the stages of life, the rotation of the earth, or the movement of products from creation to disposal to new products, cycles are so present that we frequently do not acknowledge their existence. Often, it is the progress and forward movement, especially with technology, that grabs our attention. But when shaping and anticipating what may come next, cycles may be giving us more hints than we realize, from small everyday cycles to those on a historical scale.
On one end of the spectrum are large historical cycles with patterns that suggest what comes next. Certain aspects of human behavior have been consistent over time and provide clues, if we are watching and listening. Seeing these cycles, though, requires an understanding of history – which is not a segment of knowledge that is in high demand. Many just want to know what is next and leave the past behind. But
, as the cliché’s have reminded us again and again, history repeats itself and we need to keep looking back as we look forward.
This notion first hit me after watching the keynotes by Jeremy Gutsche during the last two Future Festivals (2020 and 2021). In both cases he kicked off the conference by looking back before looking forward, which is even recorded in his two-part book Create the Future + The Innovation Handbook. You can also find similar themes, on a much larger scale, in Ray Dalio’s The Changing World Order, which focus on how nations and economies rise and fall and the cycles that reoccur in that process repeatedly. Another example, albeit on a smaller scale, is Ted Gioia’s exploration on “Why Netflix Will Falter”. He explores how different technologies have evolved in remarkably similar ways over time, and that companies like Netflix would benefit by paying attention to that recurring cycle. In all cases, finding cyclical patterns and seeing how they apply to today and to the future can help you anticipate what may come next.
Another reason for looking back is the power of nostalgia. Reminiscing about one’s childhood, or a past era, can create strong emotional connections. Nostalgia has the power to grab attention and cause you to try something new. For example, Pokemon GO used the connection to a video game to entice people to try a new way of playing and interacting. And yet, it is a cycle that comes and goes. From the late 90’s to the early 2000’s there was a string of automotive concepts that hearkened back to past models, such as the VW New Beetle, Ford Mustang, and PT Cruiser. Two of those no longer exist and one has already had a less than nostalgic facelift. Music, TV, fashion, and other media periodically look back to past ideas, forms, or directly reference past decades. It seems like we are in a futuristic phase at the moment, with new technologies, the metaverse, and NFTs (Non Fungible Tokens), but it may not be long before the past draws some of us back to our childhoods.
Speaking of nostalgia, one trend gaining steam is vinyl records. And while it can be seen as nostalgic, it also plays on a different type of cycle that I refer to as course correction. In the case of records, it is not just the past but transitioning to a more hands-on technology that is also a better listening experience. As culture and/or technology progresses, there are moments when a minority of the crowd decides that what has been done in the past is better than what the “new” has to offer.
Other current examples could be regenerative agriculture, which has both high-tech and low-tech manifestations, the styles of homes being built, or even experimenting with the layout of cities to make them more walkable. The key to seeing a course correction coming is determining whether an aspect of culture or technology is starting to lose a critical component of the process or experience. Once that happens, it is likely that a minority, if not more, will abandon the new for the old.
Open Your Eyes
Seeing the cycles around us will take some practice. The following exercises may help you recognize different cycles, and better anticipate what may be coming.
- Historical Cycles: Think of annual cycles in retail and food service. How many can you think of within this recurring period where you can predict what types of food or products will be available? Or if you want to invest more time, pick a time, place, or event in history, and look for hints of cycles or trends as you read about it that you see happening today.
- Nostalgia Cycles: What cultural elements repeatedly resurface, whether in fashion, music, or the arts? Are there common themes? Can you think of a product that is exploring nostalgia now? Where do you think nostalgia might reappear next?
- Course Correction: What elements of culture do you think are losing core elements that could lead to a course correction in the future? What past ideas and technologies are likely to come back to fill in the gap?
It is easy to put an architecture firm in a box (you draw buildings), but part of the work we do at Little is reading, exploring, and gathering insights into what has been in the past, how things are now, and what the future may hold. This is especially true when we conduct Visioning sessions and develop strategies with our clients. Looking for recurring cycles is a helpful tool we use to envision the future and make the best decisions. It goes beyond what is relevant now and helps us to predict the future by looking into the past.