Finding the Edge
One of the things I get asked at conferences, after "What do you do?" is "Where are you based?" This in itself is an improvement on the assumption that where you live is where you work, but my answer, which is typically something along the lines of "These days, I'm based in North Carolina, but my colleagues, partners and I travel quite a bit," sometimes leads to a second follow-up question, such as "Why aren't you based in New York or LA?" Those who ask this type of question assume (I believe) that to be in the insights business you have to sit geographically at the "leading edge," culturally, socially, economically, technologically. While there, you are supposed to observe a parade of new products, fashion trends, designs, etc. either in person or in the pages of trendsetting magazines.
I'll let other people hash out what trendsetting is or isn't, but contrary to conventional wisdom the pipeline does not always start in New York, London, Paris, Tokyo or in whatever superurban post code advertisers, product developers, etc. believe the cutting edge gets its mail. Nor has it just moved on to New Delhi, Shanghai, or Sao Paolo for a few seasons or even decades. Truth be told, influence is a densely meshed network with bits of culture, aesthetics, needs, ideas, innovations, with constantly changes sources, reflectors, signal boosters, black boxes, caches and so on spinning things around. Reading that sentence, it sounds a bit like the Internet, and maybe that's one simple revelation--alongside the rise of this now commonplace utility, the idea of a "leading edge" seems quaint. A network has no "true" edge. There may still be a bit of a pipeline, but it has a lot of holes where things enter and escape.
But there is some benefit to being away from some of big network hubs and routers, where the noise of the traffic being generated and recirculated from these points of power drowns out what is happening elsewhere, in places where the traffic flows can seem a little light. Importantly, the rest of the world is out here. Companies that produce our favorite goods and services spend a lot of money to hire others to listen out on these elusive edges. This is perhaps why commercial ethnography has become so popular lately. Like the military, companies have decided to hire local guides to help them read the cultural signs in the field. The benefit of being "embedded" out here in the field is that we can see, through the miracle of media, what signals are flashed from the big hubs and, using our own powers of observation, what happens when they make it here, or, more often, don't. Some new products shine so brightly and become such instant icons that they stay fairly intact in their potency and form when they get "here". Some leave the warehouse of origin and are never seen again. Some, like the Coke bottle in The God's Must Be Crazy, get reinterpreted and used differently. That's called bottom-up innovation now.
So, while it can be important and useful to tour a new museum exhibit, visit an experience store, or get a hot product when it is released in a metropolitan retailer, it's also important to spend some balance of time slowly walking the aisles of a Target or the big, regional grocery chain, poke around the sporting goods store or watch people checking out at a discount superclub, just as it is to walk through a market in a third-tier Malaysian town or take an extra moment to observe what's going on in a train station in Spain.
Insights can come from anywhere, and often take many shapes. More often than not, they don't perch in the pages of a glossy industry magazine, waiting to jump in your lap. I find more things of importance in the third paragraph of a news story, or in the background of an image more often than in someone else's blog or under the heading "Trends to Watch." Honestly, it probably takes a bit of all approaches, but not an overdose of one at the expense of others.
So, it's important to have a flexible, broad approach to looking for insights to help drive forecasts (not just to support ones you like after the fact). But most of all, make sure you watch both ends of the pipe--tracing the world map of the average person as well as the grand plans of the hot designer or so-called tastemaker. What goes in the pipe at one end may not be what comes out the other.