OPINION13 June 2018

Come in 2518, this is 2018 calling

Healthcare Innovations Media Opinion Technology Trends UK

Kicking off focus groups with a question about the future can give researchers powerful insights on what parts of the zeitgeist hold true resonance, says Michael Brown.

Time capsule key 2018 future_crop

I have always been fanatical about stationery, and one of the greatest jewels in my collection as a kid was a 30-centimetre wooden ruler on which was etched a timeline of the key phases of civilisation. As a 10-year-old, I’d gaze at this masterpiece, often during lessons, at the different eras’ evocative names: Stone Age, Bronze Age and so on.

In moments of distraction, I’d ask myself, and still occasionally do, what the time we’re living in today will one day be marked up as on the historical ruler of the future.

How nice, but what has this to do with market research and insight, you ask?

More than you might think, to be honest. At UM, we’ve built a new question into the initial icebreaking section of most of the focus groups we run. As well as providing a fun first glimpse at our participants’ motivations, aspirations and worries, quickly setting respondents at ease, it also gives us a better understanding of the generational spirit of our times.

It is: “Imagine we were building a time capsule for people in 500 years to understand the cultural moment we’re living in today. What would you include?”

The answers inspired by this task have tended to vary considerably by age. But interestingly, however, barely at all by gender, education level, location or affluence. In fact, we’ve identified a great deal of convergence and commonality in the answers we’ve heard.

In fact, to date we’ve identified three headline themes that most people pick out when asked the question:


People have become more selective in what they eat and how they treat themselves. High-profile nutritional campaigns, such as Jamie Oliver’s crusade against sugar, may finally be landing education messages around careful eating. Even among respondents with limited financial means, we’ve heard that they prioritise organic and healthy eating.

We also heard of general growing engagement with mental health care and mindfulness. This was largely credited to the Royal Princes’ ‘Heads Together’ campaign, which has instigated a watershed attitudinal shift towards widespread acceptance of talking about vulnerabilities and emotions and taking active steps towards caring for one’s mental health. Self-destructive indulgences, like binge drinking and smoking, seem in decline.


Across all ages, smartphones were considered to be the definitive symbol of the times we live in. Above all it’s for what they enable – convenience – whether in communicating with friends, shopping, or generally in consuming content. 

However, smartphones were not without their tensions, and almost all respondents said that apps like Instagram and compulsive social media use are worsening people’s engagement with the world around them – and indeed with themselves (we heard of several young people being made to feel ashamed or excluded by seeing ‘perfect’ images on social media).

The prevalence of choice – facilitated by Amazon Prime – was also mentioned to be causing people to take many daily items for granted.


People think a tipping point in social attitudes is underway, leading us to a new society where women are free to pursue multiple ambitions in life and the idea of the ‘housewife’ feels increasingly dated. Meanwhile, the Weinstein scandal appears to have normalised the calling-out of sexually aggressive behaviour by exploitative men.

We also heard of less stigma around previously delicate matters such as sexuality and race. Once-taboo topics are free to be spoken of more openly. Transgender identity, for example, is far more familiar to all through continuous exposure in the news media and popular culture.

Based on these revealing insights, we’d recommend this question to all qualitative researchers as we’ve found it a powerful tool in revealing which societal developments hold true resonance. In a society where causes such as veganism and tolerance can be fundamental strands of self-identity, asking people to characterise the world around them is a powerful projective technique that throws a rich spotlight onto respondents’ minds.

Michael Brown is head of insight at media agency UM