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Andrew Zolli was formerly a vice president at Siegelgale, a
top-tier brand consulting firm. His background is in cognitive
science, philosophy and computer science. He is currently working
on two books, TechTV's The Catalog of Tomorrow and In
Good Company, as well as pursuing an advanced degree at the
Institute for Futures Research.
What is In Good Company about, and why are you writing
It's a book about companies and their relationship to culture. In
the last year, I've had a chance to interview dozens of
communications professionals, senior business leaders, social
scientists, anthropologists, cultural critics, artists, and the
consensus opinion is that something very deep has changed, and it's
not just about the Internet. People's relationships to brands are
The 'promise driven' world that was unlocked at the beginning of
the century has caught up with companies that made those promises
at the tail end of the 20th century. We're in a world now where
companies are increasingly in the business of making culture as
well as products. Where people use brands to construct their
personal and social identities. Where the meaning of brands is
appropriated and regurgitated, redistributed reconstituted,
reconstructed, represented in a kind of semiotic back and forth
that is so complicated that we need new sciences like complexity
science and semiotics to make sense of what's actually going
With the ascendancy of the market as the central institution of
people's lives, companies have become cultural engines more than
ever before. But they are not structured, measured, or rewarded by
how well they shepherd new meaning.
What have you learned from your primary research for In Good
One of the first things I did when I started researching this book
was that I interviewed 400 people about their attitudes towards
brands. I did 20 people in each borough of New York; we're talking
about person on the street kind of interviews. There are some
fascinating trends, which emerged out of this conversation, which
is not statistically accurate, but interesting nonetheless.
For example, in urban environments were there is great plentitude
of choice, you get very interesting perspective on brands. Ask 100
people in Park Slope, Brooklyn or SoHo or South of Market in San
Francisco to talk to you about their attitudes towards McDonalds,
Starbucks, Wal-Mart, the Gap—these paragon brands in American
culture, the ones that are held up as being truly the companies to
emulate. You'll find people saying, "I don't like Nike's labor
practices; they use sweatshops", or "I don't like the way The Gap
homogenizes culture and makes everybody look the same", or "I don't
like the way McDonalds is the only choice on Rt.95, so when I drive
from here to Boston I can only get a Big Mac." These companies have
been so successful that they've narrowed the choices available in
the markets where they compete, and in the process they've reduced
the cherished distinctiveness of neighborhoods and regions.
But these kind of responses are paradoxical. First of all, the
folks complaining are the ones that have the greatest access to
alternatives. They're the 'consumers' who are most likely to
register the perceived threat of the advent of Starbucks in their
neighborhood to knock out two or three independent coffee houses,
which assumes that they have two or three coffee houses to put out
of business. The other thing that is paradoxical about this is that
people will rant about certain brands, even as they are patronizing
them. I have had people tell me that they hate McDonalds while
they're eating a Big Mac–there is a real disconnect between
attitudes and behavior. People say, "I hate the McDonaldization of
the world. But I like the fries."
On the other hand, in many of the places where you would expect
there to be far reduced choice, like in rural regions, the advent
of these mass market brands is seen as a great social good. Even in
towns where Wal-Mart is putting local retailers out of business,
people are thankful for Wal-Mart or Target. They're thankful for a
breadth of goods, quality of goods, consistency of goods, and
prices.What is futures research and how does it relate to the
As it sounds, futures studies is the principled study of the
possible, probable, and preferable future of institutions and
societies, and the steps required to bring about those futures.
Futures work isn't primarily about specific, short-term
"predictions", such as "in 2 years consumers will like X", or "in 3
years the market will do Y". Rather, futurists tend to look at
futures that are 10 or more years away, examined through the lenses
of demographics, technology, the social sciences, aesthetics,
industry, geopolitics and ecology. You'll notice I said "futures"
and not "the future"; the reason is that choice and human agency
play a big role in shaping the many futures we face. What this work
starts with is the very premise that the future is indeed
"influencable" and we need to broadly engage our imaginations and
think in a whole-brained way and systematically about
I've always felt was the futures studies could be powerfully
leveraged to help transform design practice, methods and the
discipline's sense of its own purpose in the new millennium. Both
futurists and designers shape the future at different time scales,
and I've discovered is that there is a really deep interest in both
communities in the other.
The futures community is incredibly interested in designing images
of the future; one of the central lessons of futures research is
that you become what you focus on, and the social value of images
of the future is extraordinary—they compel us in some directions
and prevent us from going in others. Who better to design these
images of the future than designers?
Also, designers and futurists already share some common elements in
their distinctive cultures: they both require individual
practitioners to suspend disbelief at a certain level or to engage
the realm of the possible, in ways that regular folks often don't.
The innovation in design happens when people are allowed to think
incredibly broadly. Futures work can inform design in a powerful
way by giving designers a playground, a set of methods, provocation
and permission to think as broadly as possible.How can design integrate with futures
You can divide futurist work into two spheres—activities related to
"describing" possible, probable, and preferable futures, and
activities related to helping organizations actually realize a
particular future. The first sphere provides ways of thinking about
what might be ahead of you, what you might want to aim toward and
what you might want to stay away from. This fits easily with both
strategic planning and design research. And its at this point that
I think design can play a much bigger role that it does today;
helping to visualize and explore these futures. A picture is worth
a thousand words, but today, most futurists use words, rather than
pictures, to describe their ideas.
After you've identified and articulated a vision for a future that
you'd like to live in, then you are left with the complicated goal
of realizing that vision. And that's where design has always played
the greatest role.
When futures work and design share is that they can provoke clients
of every stripe —private, governmental, non-profits—to open their
eyes to a wider array of future possibilities, or more subtle and
complex and compelling set of futures, than they might have first
started with. The underlying message here is that the future is
"influencable" and it's not something that just happens absent
human decisions. Even when they're influenced by actions, events
and decisions that occurred in the past, at no time does the future
become completely beyond our control.
When is TechTV's Catalog of Tomorrow coming out and what
topics does it cover?
The Catalog is coming out in October 2002 and looks at a
hundred different trends and technologies and explores how they
will impact our lives, our society, and our planet in the next 20
years. In addition to these topics, we assembled a collection of
thinkers who represent a variety of cutting edge, futures-oriented
work, like futurist Paul Saffo, nanotechnologist Christine Pearson,
Craig Venter, who decoded the human genome; Maurice Strong, senior
advisor to Kofi Annan and who started the 1992 Rio Earth Summit and
2002 Johannesburg Summit; Douglas Rushkoff, writer and thinker
about peoples, places and societies and their relationship to
consumer culture; as well Frank Drake, astrophysicist and chairman
of the SETI Institute, and asked them for their visions of the
It's going to be an extraordinary project, and will allow people to
"peek around the corner". It's nice to talk to people who are
thinking about and living in realities whose ideas are not widely
distributed yet, but will become aspects of our future. It has been
an amazing experience for me to work on it.
...First published in Gain 2.0:
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