How thinking outside the box can solve the world’s problems – trend expert Bronwyn Williams

Profmed, South Africa’s largest restricted medical aid scheme for professionals, is producing an eight-episode vodcast series that explores how we can take care of today, while simultaneously building a positive vision of the future. The fifth episode features Bronwyn Williams, a Futurist, Economist, and Business Trends Analyst at Flux Trends, who explains how creativity can help us to solve the world’s problems. She gives examples of several businesses that used innovative thinking to stay relevant after the Covid pandemic hit the globe. – Claire Badenhorst

Bronwyn Williams on how boundaries can contribute to creativity:

So when it comes to working in times when we constrain – either we constrain because our finances aren’t going quite as far as they did previously or because we are physically constrained due to physical distancing over what happened with Covid – it does give us an opportunity to be creative within those constraints. And as many of us will know, it’s harder to sit there with a blank page and start with absolutely nothing than it is when you’ve got a few boundaries or a bit of a brief or a bit of a guideline to work with. That’s often a catalyst for creativity. That’s kind of counter-intuitive because we feel like when we constrain, when there’s sort of rules and restrictions around us, that we aren’t able to do things. But actually, that’s where ideas really come from.

When you look at a problem, any problem is just a business opportunity waiting to happen. I mean, that’s what all businesses do. They solve a particular problem. So as soon as you can sort of shift that focus and your thinking from focusing on what’s wrong to how to fix it, then things become a lot more exciting again. You’re able to see how much you can do, even if you feel like you have been constricted.

On how creativity helps with problem-solving:

This is just an example of what happened last year when pretty much everyone in the whole world had to reevaluate the value that we were giving to society and how to deliver that value, given very, very constrained creative briefs. And I think it’s quite great that both priests and porn stars all had to pivot to adapt to the new post-normal, as we’re calling it now. So you can see over there there’s a Catholic priest who’s doing a drive-by sort of confessional, which is quite interesting. But it shows that if you just think a bit creatively, you can get the job done. And conversely, it was quite interesting to see what happened with the world’s oldest industry – that is the people that work in the, perhaps, not quite so essential services and how that industry also adapted, because clearly if you’re working in the sex business, you have to get quite up close and personal with your customers which doesn’t exactly correlate all too well with social distancing, but it was amazing the creativity that came out of that industry. The sex industry has been a sort of leading trend indicator throughout humanity’s history. It is, as I said, the world’s oldest profession.

Examples of businesses that used creativity to make the best of Covid:

It was also quite interesting to see what PornHub did. So when the Covid pandemic first hit in Italy, which is one of the first countries that was really badly affected by what was going on, how quick they were off the mark with their marketing when they started offering for lockdown customers a free couple of months’ trial subscription. So for a literally captive audience, that was a very, very clever thing to do.

People that were quick off the mark obviously reaped huge rewards just by thinking creatively again within the new environment, because a lot of businesses thought differently, you know, they thought this was a problem and they should all just sort of send everyone home, literally, and close doors. But that’s not the way to think about it, and I think it’s quite encouraging to also note from a South African perspective how good we are at making a plan. Any one of our official languages has some sort of saying about how we just get on and make a plan.

So when we were sent into lockdown, when we had our sort of mini prohibition that took place last year, it was great to pick up this case study from one of the local supermarkets where they started placing pineapples, yeast, and sugar all together, sort of in a very suggestive display, just sort of connecting those dots and fulfilling that need. You can make your own conclusions as to what was going on there, but it’s interesting to see that South Africans are always willing to make a plan.

But this has both positives and negatives to it in that because we are so good at adapting to and reacting to challenges and problems and things like corruption and crime and poverty and all those things, it means that we are able to deal with crises a lot better from a mental resilience point of view than perhaps other people, but there’s also a risk that we can kind of become complacent when it comes to chaos, that we almost give up on being able to rage against those problems and to actually step up.

On how Flux Trends gathers information: 

Well, we use all of those tools so it depends on whatever it is that we’re looking at. So if we’re looking at very, very macrotrends – that would tend to be more sort of contextual research. If we’re looking at very microtrends, as to say what’s one of the trends in the funeral industry, which is one of the research reports that we did, that would require some really bespoke quantitative and qualitative surveying that we do. But the value that we really add is connecting all those dots. So we [are] typically pulling from many, many different sources from many, many different people who are compiling primary research, and we try to make sense out of that to connect those dots, give you a big picture as to the big opportunities and the big threats that you have to react to to kind of buy you a little bit of time because time is everything. So in a major crisis, if you’re just even five minutes ahead of your next competitor, that could be the difference between survival and your business not making it through that period of change.

On how South African professionals adapted to changes during Covid:

Well, this would not be an easy yes or no answer. So what we’ve definitely seen is that some of your bigger businesses, the ones that have boards and shareholders, tend to be quite conservative – cut back on spending, cut back on hiring, and gone almost into hibernation and perhaps waited a bit too long to start making the next plan, to understand that there is no future normal. This is the post-normal world that we live in right now, and you’re going to have to react to it.

So that’s been probably an underreaction from a lot of the bigger companies that we’ve seen and worked with. But at the same time, it’s hugely encouraging to see how many new businesses were started last year. If you actually go through the new business registration figures, you’ll see that last year was a bumper year for entrepreneurship as South Africans are, once again, making a plan. Understanding there was no job to go back to, we can sit down and cry or we can do something about it. And it’s been fantastic to see all those businesses starting, from very, very micro ones all the way up to really big ones.

You can choose to be a sort of victim of the future or of change and chaos, or you can decide to actually master that and to see it as an opportunity. It all just comes back to that perspective again. What are you looking at? Are you looking at what’s negative or are you looking at what’s positive and what can be done?

On two companies that made a plan during Covid: 

I really love this company – they’re called Air Co and what they do is they literally make food and beverages out of clean air, out of fresh air. So what they do is they suck the carbon out of the atmosphere. So they’re sort of solving a sustainability problem, once again, and they turn that into very, very pure alcohol, which they initially were selling as a vodka product but last year, they once again reacted very, very quickly, being a very innovative, solution-focused company, and started making all sorts of sanitizer products on quite a big scale, solving not just health problems, but also sustainability and environmental problems.

There’s a whole new industry emerging in what I’m terming the ‘Air Economy’. So literally pulling fresh air and turning it into food products – you can actually turn that carbon into proteins, using it in things like protein bars and protein powders, fantastic ideas – or into alcoholic beverages. Very interesting.

I thought this was also a great one in terms of just making a plan, doing what you can with what you have, where you are. This is a little farm, a petting zoo in the United States and obviously, during physical distancing times, petting zoos might have had a little bit of a revenue problem going on. What they did is they connected their own problem with the problem that a lot of us were feeling of all that Zoom fatigue, because how many of those web calls do you actually want to sit on? It gets harder and harder to concentrate on your boss and your colleagues’ faces, especially after the sort of third or fourth month that you’ve been logging into these calls. They started pimping out their small, cute animals to come and join your call as a sort of surprise guest, kind of liven up the corporate meetings, which I think is just great. Thinking just a little bit more laterally. Connect those dots, do what you can with what you have.

On why trends are more than just fads:

Well, to sort of paraphrase Voltaire, you know, history doesn’t repeat itself and man usually does. Some things sort of stay the same. We’re still driven by our basic biological needs for love, for nourishment, for sex. These things that drive us don’t change, the way we fulfill those social needs and our physical needs might change, but if you focus on that core need, that core problem that needs to be solved, you can see that a lot of trends aren’t quite so much of a fad.

So when you sort of strip back the sort of flash and the ‘spinovation’ from real innovation going on underneath, you’re able to quite quickly see what’s a fad and what’s a real change and shift. And yes, sometimes technology does drive really deep shifts, but a lot of the time it’s just doing old things in new, slightly more efficient, slightly faster, slightly more cost-effective ways.

On other trends that she’s excited about:

Well, I think the big thing that we’ve got to look at, that big shift, not the sort of small, flashy trends that might be more exciting to talk about, is that we are going to see a pullback from this very virtualised economy to the physical, real world once again. As I said, those physical, real social, warm-blooded mammal, human needs are not going anywhere, and I think our virtual economies are probably decoupled too much from our physical environments so there is going to be a pullback. We’re already starting to see this in what’s happening with the increasing prices of real solid commodities across stock markets and exchanges across the world and that’s quite a big indication.

The next big sets of opportunities are going to come to solve real problems. As South Africans, we know all about those real problems – electricity, security, water security, physical security. These things have to get fixed if we do want to come out of this period of chaos a whole lot stronger. So there’s loads of opportunities in the real space to solve real problems for real people and not a lot of people are looking at it because everyone’s distracted by the NFTs. Real human connections really are irreplaceable and that’s where real value comes from. Whatever business that you’re in.

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