Art & Design


The Future Laboratory

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Since 2001, London-based enterprise The Future Laboratory has earned a reputation as world leaders in the mysterious art of trend forecasting. Trusted by global giants like Sony, ABSOLUT, and HSBC, co-founders Chris Sanderson and Martin Raymond are in town this week to deliver their annual Trend Briefing seminar—one of the hottest dates on the calendar for Australia’s marketing world. We pinned Chris down for a quick Q&A about predicting the future and how he responds to people who think it’s all a big wank.

When you’re at the pub—or wherever trend forecasting gurus go after work (I’m imagining some shimmering orb in the sky that serves inhalable, evaporated Camus Cuvée)—what do you say when some asks you what you do for a living?

Seeing as The Future Laboratory is based in London’s east end, it is most definitely a boozer for a drink after work; my chosen haunt is the saloon bar at the Golden Heart on Commercial Street. If I get talking to someone there, which would happen most times as it’s a pretty friendly place, how I describe my profession depends – really, really depends on who I’m talking to (and how much we’ve both had to drink).

Sometimes I say I’m a futurologist (nothing like an ology to get a conversation going); sometimes I say I work in futures – this is good if you really don’t want to talk about work as most people think you’re in the finance sector, which means either that your work is boring or that you’re a total wanker.

Trend forecasting is itself a pretty hot trend these days. Why do you think trend forecasting is so en vogue? Do you think its popularity will prove lasting?

Trend forecasting has most definitely become a trend in its own right and guess what – we predicted that. In an uncertain world, nothing’s hotter than being able to predict the future. That’s not about to go out of fashion for quite a few years.

What would you say to those that might argue that trend forecasting is a self-fulfilling prophecy? Aren’t you in the odd position of having the ears of major world-wide brands whom are themselves enormously influential to trends—in effect your predictions come about because you say they should? Or does this grossly overstate the impact of what you do (or just get it wrong altogether)?

Of course trend forecasting can be a self-fulfilling prophecy, and we are very aware of the delicate balance between what we report in as objective a manner as possible and what we advise our clients to do. That’s why as a business we’re not about telling brands that beige is the new black (again) but instead tend to focus on larger, macro issues that are being discussed by a wide group of experts and industry insiders.

Your briefings this year are set to explore what you’re calling the ‘Co-Commerce Revolution’. What is the Co-Commerce Revolution and what does it tell us about where we’re at as a consuming society?

Co-Commerce evaluates the growing shift towards actively engaging and doing rather than opting for passive consumption. It highlights how a growing, mainly younger demographic, brought up on a digital diet of uploading rather than downloading, see a relationship with brands as one based on personality, collaboration and sharing perspectives rather than simply purchasing a material product.

A designer friend of mine wanted know what you think about designers becoming intrinsically linked to brands, to the point that the designer is the brand. He cited start-ups and the way designers are often a crucial component of the core team in the beginning – although they’re often ditched once everything is up and running (allowing brands to lose their way later on).  Any thoughts?

The future is all about design – we don’t need just scientists, engineers and technologists, we need people with the creative ability to design our way out of the situations we find ourselves in. All successful product is designed.

A year ago I had the pleasure of interviewing advertising legend George Lois. He’s not a very big fan (putting it rather mildly) of the whole market research, stats, data-gathering approach. To him, the big, winning ideas are flashes of inspiration and creative insight and all the research in the world will never tell you anything about what’s going to work in the future. It’s all a big wank, was his basic position. How do you respond to that?

Hmm. I’d put it this way. Successful product is created in one of two ways. Either by someone with a creative vision, whose standpoint is ‘I will build this, then let my people come’ – in other words fuck you I’m gonna do it my way and I believe people will like what I create. The other way is to ask the question, ‘what do people want (even if they don’t know it yet)?’ and build a product that meets and exceeds that requirement. Both ways are right. But they don’t mix very well.

What happens when you tell a major brand something you know they’re not going to want to hear? Any experiences that stick out as particularly memorable?

We fire clients who don’t get what we deliver. We worked with an American soft drinks company trying to appeal to an ‘urban demographic’ with a new variant, which they thought they had successfully identified. When they saw our global research identifying what these kids really looked liked and how they behaved in 15 different global cities, they realised how way off the mark they were and made the decision to ditch a US$15m ad and marketing campaign as a result. The brand was fairly sanguine about the whole thing – we never worked for the ad company again however.

Finally, do you believe there’s socio-cultural value to your work beyond helping brands make money?

Without a doubt there is a socio-cultural value to what we do. We’re not about hem lengths or sneaker silhouettes. We help organisations to understand what being sustainable means in the 21st Century. We talk to our clients about what it means to operate in this new female dominated century (trust me, it will be), and help the brands we work with to appreciate new consumer imperatives; all of which means better brands, smarter product, more engagement and less waste. We think that’s a pretty important role in the process of consumption.

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