Trends and futures are related, of course, but they are used in different ways. Trends-watchers tend to be looking for short-run innovation opportunities in products and services. Futures is longer-term, or ought to be, and more about structural shifts, and should be more connected with strategy. The same underlying drivers of change can lead to different trends. All of which was brought to mind by a frothy seasonal trends-watching piece in The Guardian.

James Harkin did a quick spin of the trends watchers and identified ten trends for 2008. Slightly closer inspection suggested that most of them were manifestations of three drivers.

“Reverse knowledge migration” (people moving from richer coountries to work in emerging nations) is already happening, and is linked to the ‘N11’ trend – from Goldman Sachs – of the ‘next 11’ emerging nations behind China and India, both about shifting global economic power.

A second group is about shifting distribution patterns caused by digital networks: from peer-to-peer lending networks, to the maturing (read: ageing) of social networks; ‘handmade on the net’ – linking craft production to bigger markets; DIY education; and maybe a flimsy trend about digital ‘vicarious consumption’ of reviews of expensive luxury items one can’t afford.

A third group is, effectively, about digital identity: digital housecleaning, in which people find ways to lose embarrassing online histories (“Facebook suicides”); and virtual identity managers, who ‘improve’ one’s online performance and profile.

The last trend is potentially the most interesting, and may also represent a long term economic or social shift. This is about “fractional ownership” or “reframing products as services”, and was identified by Jeremy Rifkin in a book, The Age of Access, in 2001 (article by Rifkin here). Richard Normann described the same thing in different terms in Reframing Business in the same year. This year in the UK we’ve seen a big step towards this, with the launch of ‘pay as you go’ car services such as Zipcar and Streetcar in London. (I blogged about this in July).

Now, James Harkin is a good trends analyst, but the Guardian’s G2 section isn’t the place for reflection if a wisecrack will do instead: “If at first his or her predictions don’t come to pass, the seasoned futurologist can simply hunker down and wait.” Even now, the business case for “fractional ownership” is a challenge, although one which is made more manageable through digital and mobile identification and money. From workshops which I’ve done recently managers are staring to see it become a significant business issue over the next five to eight years.

Emerging issues, according to Paul Saffo, tend to take around 20 years to move to the edge of the mainstream. From a futures’ point of view, the appearance of the same idea in different forms from two respected authorities in the same year was a sign of an emerging issue just starting to creep out of its chrysalis, and needed to be tracked. But that’s not much help if you’re being paid to be smart about tweaking your offer for 2008.