Trends 2021: Predicting the Future by Design

Design Mind frogcast: Patrick Kalaher

Patrick Kalaher, VP of Sales, Marketing and Strategy at frog, knows that the future is being written everyday. For the Design Mind frogcast, Patrick explains why designers are so invested in predicting the future and what it tells us about the present. Plus, he talks frog’s annual Trends report.

On this episode of the Design Mind frogcast, we speak with Patrick Kalaher, VP of Sales, Marketing and Strategy at frog. As a frequent contributor to frog’s annual Trends report, Patrick shares his views on why designers are in a constant state of world-building, not unlike your favorite pieces of fiction. 

Listen to the episode, plus see a complete list of submissions below that Patrick has shared over the last decade of frog Trends reports.

Patrick’s Past Submissions to frog’s annual Trends report:

Virtual Manufacturing Starts Small (2013)
While 3D modeling and 3D printing have been with us for a while now, this year we’ll see the rise of virtual manufacturing. Think of this analogous to the hosting of virtual servers in a distributed data center, except in this case, the virtual servers are CNC (Computer Numberically Controlled) manufacturing equipment and the distributed data centers are virtual factories, spread around the world. Amateur and professional designers will be able to print objects to specification any time without having to buy printers and factory space.

Data, Rich and Full of Value (2014)
The technology we use creates an abundance of data. That “digital exhaust” can take myriad forms, from descriptive data to data about product use and compatibility. In 2014, the quality and richness of this data will be the most refined and top-notch it has ever been. See the full list at Fast Company.

Sensors Start to Combine and Disappear (2016)
As sensing technology continues to shrink, the notion of the single purpose, visible, discrete, battery or mains-powered sensor will be rare. This revolution is being led by companies like Well Being Digital—producers of tiny biosensors that fit on and around the human body, and Clime—producers of environmental sensors that combine a tiny form factor with the ability to fuse together basic measurements such as temperature, humidity, light and movement to drive subtle applications. See the 2016 frog Trends report.

Scalable Automatic Data Processing Is The New Last Mile (2017)
The art and science of Scalable Automatic Data Processing is nearing prime time, and monitoring weather, predicting traffic patterns, counting fish in the ocean, or listening to forests to determine their health will be used by organizations of all kinds, not just large tech firms like Google and Microsoft. See the 2017 frog Trends report.

Farming The Sea Is The Ultimate “Blue Ocean” Strategy (2017)
As the world’s population continues to grow, humans need to cultivate more from already depleted land and fresh water sources. In the ocean, however, we may have a sustainable solution. Farming of kelp and bivalves, and open water cultivation of fish will enable us to generate vast amounts of food without using arable land, water, or pesticides. Because farming in the sea isn’t constrained to the surface, it can extend down to the bottom of the ocean, effectively being three-dimensional. On the production side, new tools and techniques for growing and harvesting are being brought online; on the demand side, new value chains and supply chains are evolving, bringing this kind of seafood to more and more tables as the taste for them is developed over time. See the 2017 frog Trends report.

Everyday Objects as Empathetic Devices (2019)
In 2019, everyday objects, from our smartphones to our refrigerators and even to our garments, will be endowed with emotional intelligence—and react accordingly. They will be able to understand emotions not just from our language, but from our physical expressions thanks to a new generation of inexpensive sensors and sensor arrays. These will enable a deeper understanding of our emotional and physical context by measuring our tone of voice and movement, and our physical biometrics like blood pressure, heartbeat, body temperature and skin hydration. An increased miniaturization of such sensors will let them find spaces in products previously too small to house them like smartwatches and headphones. All these data points will make it possible for our physical and digital experiences to become hyper-personalized, not based on traditional inputs like clicks, taps, voice commands and browsing history, but informed by how we feel in that specific moment. See the 2019 report.

Episode Transcript:

Design Mind frogcast
Trends 2021: Predicting the Future by Design
Episode 4


There’s a high-minded thing that people call the technological singularity, which is this idea that there are moments in time where humanity passes some threshold where the people from the past would find it impossible to comprehend the people of the future—or vice versa, that people of the future would find it hard to relate to or comprehend the people in the past. And I used to be a pretty hard skeptic on the singularity. And now I actually think that singularities are happening all the time.


People my age and older, tell young people about what was like when you had to dial your own phone, we’re bringing up these really quotidian examples. But really what we’re talking about is a feeling that we had, like the feeling when the phone would ring and you didn’t know who was on the other end, or the feeling when, you know, a TV show would come on and it was the one time that it came on. I mean, I saw Star Wars in 1977. I saw it six times. And then I didn’t see Star Wars again for 10 years. There was no VHS, and there was no way to see it.


Someone defined technology as things that didn’t exist when you were a kid. For kids today, things that exist don’t feel like technology anymore. They just feel like part of the furniture. And I think it is important to step back once in a while to imagine what the world would be like without something. What’s it like without the internet as a dial tone? What’s it like to not have instant access to music? What’s it like not to be able to connect with people? We can all imagine pretty acutely what it’s like not to be able to have contact with people we love in 2020, because of the fact that we can’t physically go see them most of the time. Imagine if we also couldn’t, you know, see their faces or talk to them on a regular basis, or if it was prohibitively expensive? And I think those are good experiments to run, to think about some of these things that we take for granted. Some of these things don’t even feel like technology to us anymore.

Predicting the Future through Fiction


I think we can learn about ourselves and about the world by projecting utopia and dystopia. You know, it’s really interesting, if you read the book Brave New World, I read that when I was young, and I talked about it with a number of friends and acquaintances, and many of them who have read it recently said, ‘Doesn’t seem so bad.’ That’s really interesting. You know, if you think about the shifting baseline of our experience, reading about a drug that makes you feel happy, and people have jobs that they really like, even if it’s a terrible, unjust caste system, but everyone’s happy? It seems different now in 2020, than it did when it was written in the early part of the 20th century.


What’s a utopia? What’s a dystopia? The definition of those things changes over time, based on the society you’re coming from. I don’t think technology predicts our future. I think the application of technology predicts our misunderstanding of the future. So I actually think what we learn when we imagine rocket, you know, jetpacks or we imagine robot butlers’s, or we imagine hotels on the moon, like the way we did in the 19th and 20th century, tells us a lot about society that we think we live in and what we want. The reality about technology, as William Gibson said, it’s the street that finds the use for these things. And that’s our actual future.


Patrick took an unlikely path toward a career in design and technology was informed by his passion for astronomy, and several formative childhood experiences staring at the stars.


Some of the better software developers I’ve worked with in my life and better programmers are people who are students of history. They think about the art and the science of what they’re doing in the context of a larger timeline. I studied physics in college, I wanted to be an astronomer, I did a lot of programming for my professors as a way to get to know the professor’s and, you know, potentially earn some extra credit. I found that I was relatively talented at that.


My love of astronomy started when I was a kid, because going to Northern Ontario, where there’s not a lot of light pollution, the sky is its own special effects. You know, I’m not saying it’s supersedes other experiences, but it’s a unique thing in the human experience to see the Northern Lights. And it’s just there, like, you just have to go look for it.


I was born in 1969. And I remember the last couple times that people landed on the moon. And so that always felt like that was going to be part of our life and our future. And so I feel like that had me looking out towards the sky. Anyways, the thing that really cinched it for me was I went to Mexico with my parents on vacation, and we went to Chichén Itzá, which is in Yucatán, and there’s an observatory there that the Mayans used to coordinate the calendar. And I think after 2012, everybody talked about the Mayan calendar until we’re blue in the face, but at the time, that was something that I had never heard of. And I recognized the power of what they were doing. And the fact that for those people, astronomy was in a continuum with mathematics, and agriculture and culture and their whole worldview. And so to me, that just felt pretty incredible.

World-Building in Design


I think we try to predict the future, to reassure ourselves that we understand the present, and that we’re in a recognizable narrative. And I think, to some extent, we are in a recognizable narrative. I can’t speak for everybody, but I think for a lot of frogs, what they’re doing is they’re sketching out what they imagine could happen. And so it is a form of world-building, right? I mean, we’re always doing that when we’re prototyping things, we’re always doing that when we are imagining a better experience for somebody. I think the idea of trends is when we push some of those dials up to 11 and say, ‘What happens if, if this suddenly exists?’ Or, ‘What happens if something is 10 times as big as it used to be?’ Or whatever those things are? Right? And, and, you know, but they’re, by definition, not going to be perfect, because, you know, just like your favorite piece of fiction, the world-building is not three-dimensional. It’s not every single thing. But it’s enough verisimilitude to really let you feel like you’re a part of it lets you feel like it could exist.


What is the first prediction about the future that I ever made? The first one was when I started playing role playing games, like Dungeons and Dragons. You know, these things were open-ended, they were imaginative, they are interactive. You could do whatever you want it. You could set your own goals. And the collective narrative emerged out of what you did, and how much effort you put into it. And I remember thinking, ‘Wow, you know, how can I go play Parcheesi or Scrabble or something like this, after doing this? Like, this is really next-level stuff.’ I remember thinking, you know, this is obviously going to be impactful on the way that people create and think. And you know, and I see it in Hollywood screenplays, and I see it in novels. And I see it in the way that video games are designed, right? Just the fact that that existed, and that it wasn’t something that your parents taught you how to do, you know, the rules were a starting point, they weren’t just the thing you had to adhere to. Right. I felt like that was a big cultural shift. And that was that was obviously going to change the way that we thought about things.


The other one was the first time I went to a rap concert. You know, I had, I had listened to hip hop music. It was pretty primitive at the time. And I thought it was okay. But even in Toronto, we had concerts or we had, you know, there’d be street parties, and you’d go, you’d go and there’d be a DJ. And they broke every rule. They played jazz. They play James Brown. They played Sesame Street records. I remember thinking, this is not a fad. This is obviously something. This is people taking household objects, like turntables and their parents record collections, and making a new kind of music out of it. And the technology has changed over the years, but the idiom has been absorbed into everything we do. We don’t even think about it anymore, right? The fact that we mash things up, and we and we live in a world that’s full of cultural samples, people dress all kinds of different ways. You know, this is a direct from from my perspective is a direct descendant of what was happening with hip hop in the late 70s and early 80s. And all up to the present. It is mashup culture and the idea that you can essentially cut and paste from it. I just knew the world was never gonna be the same again.

frog’s Annual Trends Report


I mean, obviously, it’s a way to showcase our thinking and provoke our clients and people in the design world, right? We’re having a conversation with the design world and design clients. It’s also a snapshot of our hopes and dreams. It’s often what we wish would happen, even if we know it may not. So tools we’d like to see used, problem solved, frontiers pushed back. It’s things we’d love to see happen. But I also think it’s often a reflection of our unconscious worries and concerns.


In the early teens, when we started talking about personal data or autonomous cars, we’re trying to imagine benign futures for them. Because we can always see the malign ones. We can always see the the uses that are less than good. And what we’re trying to do is imagine ways forward that are advancing the human condition.


When I first started submitting Trends, I kept thinking, What’s my angle on this? Like, what can I say? And how should I approach this? And so for me, everything I’ve submitted has been about imagining what something that already exists can do once it’s out of the lab. You know, what happens when things are out in the wild? What happens when they start interfering with people’s regular lives? So, you know, for example, in 2016, I wrote a trend about cheap sensors and sensor fusion. I could see that that was going to be a big deal, so I wrote a trend about that called ’Sensors Start to Combine and Disappear’. Now, you know, in 2020, if you look at most advanced electronics these days, that’s exactly what’s there. You know, Apple’s new headphones that they announced recently have 15 to 20 tiny little sensors that are combined just to help you listen to music better, right. And you only know about them because of what they do. not because what the sensors are called or how they work. They’re just there to serve at the pleasure of the user. And that’s really interesting to me.

Predicting the Future as Problem-Solving


For me, our role as designers in shaping the future is similar to our role in design in general, which is always about framing and reframing problems in order to solve them. I mean, I think things like automation, and future of work, questions about privacy, you know, these keep emerging because there is old as work and business and society itself. They’ve been with us forever. All machines are some form of automation. And every time there’s a new machine, it makes us ask questions about what it means about the work that we do. And what is a human being’s role in that work? Will automation destroy work or create new kinds of work? I mean, the answer is always yes to both of those things. Every kind of automation that we’ve created has always put somebody out of work and created different jobs for other people. You know, that’s the nature of the progress there. And I think, you know, that’s just one example. And I think we keep poking around some of the same questions that we keep trying to answer.


What’s a trend from the past that’s come to fruition. I think, for me, the elephant in the room is the ‘Rise of the Chinese Internet Giants’. So Steve Boswell, who was running our Shanghai studio in 2014 wrote about that. I thought that’s a weird thing for someone who was raised outside of China, who’s living in Shanghai to write about this. It’s not really a ‘tech’ trend, like, it feels like a business trend. But you know, six years later, it now seems pretty obvious, right? And the most tangible manifestation is the way that TikTok has completely taken over so many people’s lives. In the first six to 10 months of it being in the UK, for example, it has half the marketshare of Facebook, right? And in many places, it’s the dominant thing that kids are doing.


And that’s just one, right? There’s Alibaba, there’s Baidu, not to mention all the industrial companies that have there. And so, to me, that’s the trend that just isn’t the biggest economic factor of our life and probably going to be the biggest cultural factor of our lives. And the difference between the Chinese internet companies and other companies that burst onto the scene is most of these companies have already worked at billion-scale. Right? TikTok has already assimilated hundreds of billions of hours of people’s consumption habits. And those things, scaling to the other 7 billion people in the world is pretty straightforward, right? And you know that just feels like a really big moment for us. You know, if I can predict this, I think we’re gonna see that fact play out in a lot of different ways. This is not the last piece of consumer entertainment or technology or trend that’s gonna that’s going to hit us. This is just one of many to come.

The Evolving frog Trends Report


Looking back over the last 10 years or so, I think it’s evolved along with the types of client challenges and problems that we’ve been trying to solve. You can see a move away from individual products or use cases and technologies towards system-level things, cultural, social impacts. We’re 10 years further into the digitization of the built world around us. And so what we’ve forecast often reflects that. Almost everything nowadays is part of a larger continuum and so are the tech trends. Recently, we’ve been talking about things like healthcare, trust, truth and empathy. And they seem natural to us now. But they would have seemed a little bit out of place 10 or 15 years ago.


A lot of organizations seem to follow what Professor Clay Shirky says about how institutions try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution. I think we’re all we’re all stuck in that right? We’re all in that frame of reference and it’s tough for us to think outside of that. But conversations that we have about the Trends with our with our clients and with our colleagues often reflect that.


Do frogs tend to look at the future through rose-colored glasses? You know, we’re builders and dreamers. So we like to think about things in a positive way. That doesn’t mean that we’re naive. Many of our Trends are manifestations of our unconscious worries or concerns. But we’d rather think about how cryptocurrency or digital reputations could be used to advance the human experience, not crush it, to use two examples. We made a number of predictions about Uber-like services, the shared economy, etc. And I’d argue that we weren’t trying to think about all the social repercussions. And that’s understandable, because many of them aren’t apparent until you actually see these things realized. We were thinking about what what the art of the possible was in direct use. What were some of the ways this would impact us directly? And I think it’s it’s often difficult to see what what’s there until these things are at scale.

The Relationship Between Design and Technology


What’s the relationship between design and technology? I mean, I think 2020 is a great example. Because we have been forced to use technology, whether it’s Miro, whether it’s whether it’s Zoom and Teams, and pick their favorite video conferencing tool, Figma, etc, we’ve been forced to use digital technology. And that’s changed the way we work. And I think, for me, the reason why we would focus on ‘tech’ Trends was largely because technology is the dominant, that was one of the dominant forces affecting the way we do design.


You know, I think if we lived in a different era, like if it was, you know, if the steam engine had just been created, we might belike, I’m making a joke here. But you know, it’d be like. ‘Steam trends! Like, what are people using steam for now? Like, right, but Information Technology, biotechnology, you know, the internet, right? These are the dominant facts in our lives, whether we like it or not, so I don’t think you could, I don’t think you can take that away.


I think designers are striving for the future. I think we often have an idea. And we have initial hypotheses about where we would like to go. It’s part of our process to challenge and question those things through user inquiry, through the design research that we do, through iterative processes. And so I think we know that the first thing we propose is always going to be somewhat incorrect. It may be directionally correct. It may be directionally incorrect. You know, the process we follow in design helps us accommodate that. It helps us correct for that. And so, I think we all have a certain healthy respect for the fact that we may be wrong and we probably will be wrong, but we’ll end up in a better place.

We want to sincerely thank Patrick Kalaher for sharing his time and insights. Subscribe to the Design Mind frogcast wherever you listen to podcasts, including Apple Podcasts and Spotify. And if you have any thoughts about the show, we’d love to hear from you. Reach out at frog.co/contact.

Elizabeth Wood
Host, Design Mind frogcast & Editorial Director, frog Global Marketing
Elizabeth Wood
Elizabeth Wood
Host, Design Mind frogcast & Editorial Director, frog Global Marketing

Elizabeth tells design stories for frog. She first joined the New York studio in 2011, working on multidisciplinary teams to design award-winning products and services. Today, Elizabeth works out of the London studio on the global frog marketing team, leading editorial content.

She has written and edited hundreds of articles about design and technology, and has given talks on the role of content in a weird, digital world. Her work has been published in The Content Strategist, UNDO-Ordinary magazine and the book Alone Together: Tales of Sisterhood and Solitude in Latin America (Bogotá International Press).

Previously, Elizabeth was Communications Manager for UN OCHA’s Centre for Humanitarian Data in The Hague. She is a graduate of the Master’s Programme for Creative Writing at Birkbeck College, University of London.

Audio Production by Richard Canham
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