In July I visited South Africa for a trend tour along the four campus locations of a branding & design academy called Vega School. I sipped on red cappucinos, let my yellow mellow and (almost) got used to saying 'howzit?' all the time. Next to that, I encountered some interesting challenges in doing trend spotting. Want to know more how conducting trend research plays out in this country? Read on!
As I teach part-time at Fontys Academy for Creative Industries, I had the wonderful opportunity to visit a partner university. And this was no ordinary visit, it actually meant going on a full-fledged 2 week trend tour visiting all four locations of Vega School in Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban and Pretoria. Wow!
I didn't take the time to properly prepare for this trip at all. In the weeks leading up to this tour I had been all around conducting trend bootcamps and finishing off the academic season. I thought I could just rely on my regular way of trend spotting and conducting my trend workshops. Oh boy, was I in for a surprise and experienced the complete opposite!
I'll explain below what I feel are the 3 key factors why trend spotting in South Africa has to be prepared and executed a bit differently than in the Netherlands (or Europe).
#1 History is a mystery
The Republic of South Africa (RSA) has only existed since 1994. It is in that sense a very young democracy, a nation in its adolecensce. Or maybe it is more of a patchwork of tribes and communities knit together. Did you know they have 11 official languages! This means that you can not always communicate with your neighbour living down the street. One of the official languages is isiXhosa, which 'clicks' I was blown away by. Here you can watch a sample. (Fun fact: it is also spoken in the movie Black Panther.)
Also, the South African history is very complex and rich. I visited the Apartheid Museum and ended up stumbling out in need of an infographic or some sort of overview, because it was dizzyfying (and terrifying) what had happened over just a couple of decades. This made it all quite hard to understand their history and make sense of what is happening in the present and why. Which is ofcourse the whole point of trend research.
#2 Serendipity dip
This picture above is not so much about me but about showing the vastness of all cities in South Africa. This is just a tiny little nook in Cape Town, in the Netherlands it would have been a city in itself already. ;) There is a lot of space in South Africa so cities have developed in a very spread out way, like in the USA. It also means it takes a lot of time to go from one place to another.
It doesn't help that public transport is not really structured and walking or biking around is not so safe. For someone like me, being used to walk off with no specific goal in mind, this meant I had to plan ahead wherever I wanted to go. No serendipity playing out over here as far as trend spotting goes.
Luckily, Uber was widely available and affordable for my budget. So I Ubered my ass off around every South African city. But it made me feel quite passive and inactive, seeing the city pass by from a car's window is so different from walking in a city and smelling, hearing and touching it.
I took the opportunity to make the best of it and interrogate Uber drivers, to get some sense of what's going on. ;) Once I heard some cool music playing in the Uber, it turned out to be from a South African DJ/producer called Black Coffee. Listen to his work via Spotify, me likey!
#3 Better safe than sorry
If there was ever a survey where they would ask 'how often do you use the saying "better safe than sorry" in daily conversations?' South Africa would probably score the highest. Crime rate is high and it is not just petty theft but can be quite violent. Driving through the more affluent neighbourhoods, it seemed to me like everyone was living in a prison with barb wired garden fences or CCTV installed everywhere.
Often people warned me not to walk outside with my laptop on my own. Better safe than sorry! They shared stories with me how they or their friends and family got assaulted. They even have variations on the word hijacking, like bikejacking or remotejacking. 😱
This also meant that my regular field research exercise of 'going outside for an hour and hit the streets for trend spotting' had to be cancelled for these students or were confined to just a block around or in the school.
When field research is harder to execute and desk research becomes your main source out of necessity, it really narrows down your research scope and thus the insights you capture from it. It made me realise and re-appreciate the freedom and safety of mobility I have in The Netherlands and how this affects the way that you can conduct trend research.
Limits were made to be broken
These 3 aspects might make it more difficult to conduct, especially the field research part of, trend research and to make sense of it all within a historical and cultural context.
On the other hand, it also stimulates you to get creative on where to find your scraps of trend info. At least, the Vega School students' presentations showed me that within just half a day (!) they could find all kinds of interesting information, even in the field.
They contacted people via social media or WhatsApp to get primary research information. They harassed their teachers for information. Checked out conversations and fora online to get some sense of where the conversation was going related to specific innovators. And some even went so far to go out there and visit specific locations to interview creative and innovative people. Chapeau! ✨👏🏻
Q: Do you live in a city, region or country where you also encounter barriers in conducting the full trend research cycle? I'm curious to hear more about those barriers and how you try to overcome them. Please share them in the comments or any other way you fancy.