The 21st century will be different than the 20th century, just like the 20th century was different from the 19th century and in turn, the 19th century was different from the 18th. So what can we expect?
Hmmm … to see this, let’s consider where we have come from. Ever since the enlightenment back in the 18th century, western man has been somewhat obsessed with individual freedom. First it was the freedom to use reason against established power of religion embodied in superstition. This sounds quaint to us, but it was radical back then. Fighting for the individual was the life work of folks like Voltaire, who felt that the Church and state institutions claiming power from God stifled individuals. This unleashed a new idea – that using reason, mankind can control the rate of his own progress.You guessed it, the industrial revolution and consumer society that followed are indeed logical extensions of this initial rebellion.
There is one more thread from the past worth examining. In the early 19th century, we saw another rebellion – this one against societal norms and reason itself. We call this romanticism. The romantics felt that reason was not enough. Life had to have an “authentic” emotional quality. You might think of Lord Byron walking his pet lobster as an example of a weird triumph of the individual choosing not to use reason. This rebellion is not over. We have inherited its passionate obsession with the creativity of the artist and sensationalism in general. As Sir Kenneth Clark pointed out, it is what makes “materialism” “heroic”. So more recently, one had to pay more for jeans that had pre-made holes in them.
The enlightenment and romanticism share an obsession with the individual over institutions. Put another way, institutions must serve the individual. The other way around — that individuals live to serve institutions — is out of date.
With this sort of pedigree, one would expect that the 21st century will see a continuation and indeed a further extension of individualism. What will that look like?
One trend is already underway. We know already that buying choices are not strictly rational. For example, why do people refuse to pay more for some things that are of obvious higher quality (like better car tires), and yet pay more for other things that are demonstrably lower quality (like jeans with holes in them)? HBR poonders this today.
But we are just beginning to think that they pace of product design change is something that people — as opposed to firms — can influence. As it gets cheaper and easier for buyers to exert this influence, I think they will not hesitate. The old fashioned complaint department will become an essential part of the design studio.