Community Indicators for Your Community

Real, lasting community change is built around knowing where you are, where you want to be, and whether your efforts are making a difference. Indicators are a necessary ingredient for sustainable change. And the process of selecting community indicators -- who chooses, how they choose, what they choose -- is as important as the data you select.

This is an archive of thoughts I had about indicators and the community indicators movement. Some of the thinking is outdated, and many of the links may have broken over time.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Microtrends: The Small Forces Behind Tomorrow's Big Changes

This is less a book review of Microtrends: The Small Forces Behind Tomorrow's Big Changes than it is a review of reviews of the book (you do that, don't you -- read a bunch of different reviewers opine all around a book before reading it?)

In this case, the book seems too interesting to ignore. It is, essentially, a trend analysis of 70+ indicators. If this begins a trend in itself, indicators practitioners could dominate the bestseller lists. How cool would that be?

Information Week is excited about the book's authors, Mark Penn and E. Kinney Zalesne, seem to validate the nerd -- IT folks are the new cool, and those who are reluctant to adopt technology are the new introverted social misfits.

Reuters wants to make sure we notice the similarities between this book and Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference -- both books say little things can have big impacts.

The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal have perhaps the most interesting, and adversarial, reviews. (Why adversarial? Mark Penn is Senator Hillary Clinton's campaign advisor, a point both reviewers seem to get stuck on. More about that later.)

The Times (Hary Hurt III reviewing) explains why indicator folks should care about the book:

The thesis of Mr. Penn’s book is that “you can’t understand the world anymore only in terms of ‘megatrends,’ or universal experience. In today’s splintered society, if you want to operate successfully, you have to understand the intense identity groups that are growing and moving, fast and furious, in crisscrossing directions.” In the United States, he notes, these society-changing “microtrends” can involve as few as three million people, about 1 percent of the population.

So how does Mr. Penn identify the 75 most important microtrends of the current age? By numbers, largely those obtained through polls and surveys.

“Americans claim to be a ‘gut’ nation — which is kind of a bodily term for what we roughly term our ‘values,’ ” he declares. But according to Mr. Penn, the advice we get from our guts is “lousy” most of the time because it is inexact and often contrary to statistically determined facts. Numbers, he believes, do not lie. ‘‘Numbers will almost always take you where you want to go if you know how to read them,” he maintains.

So far, so good, right? But wait, says the Journal (Sam Schulman on the Opinion page.) It's not that figures lie, but liars figure. From the article:

In his quest to find microtrends, Mr. Penn also seems to miss the forest for the trees. He marvels at a society that is fundamentally older, yet working more. But the increasing age of our society is driven by improvements in health. Besides having access to better medicine, many have also given up tobacco, and we have the blessing of technology that has made much work not a physical activity that wears us out but a mental activity that can be performed much later in life, extending our usefulness and earning power.

The falling birth rate is also in part a function of our burgeoning information economy. If we don't physically wear ourselves down, we don't need to people our family with slightly younger versions of ourselves who can take care of us when our backs give out in our 30s. Childbearing becomes a matter of taste rather than necessity, and we are healthy enough to have children at much older ages, leisured enough to observe them at play (at sports where all can participate, not just an elite nine or 11 team members) or have pets instead--all "microtrends" Mr. Penn marvels at.

Why such different views? For the Times, it's a chance to make the point that the Republican Party is doomed; for the Journal, a chance to argue in favor of free markets and an opportunity to sneak in an attack on Senator Clinton. Despite the petty partisan bickering, the reviewers encourage me to read the book, with these thoughts in mind:

  • Small-scale indicators can have large impacts, so we ought to pay attention to a number of trends.
  • Small-scale indicators are in themselves influenced by larger trends, so we ought to pay attention to those as well.
  • Indicator analysis could be the new Harry Potter. (OK, maybe not. But a guy can dream ...)

P.S. The Wall Street Journal opinion piece is also worth reading for its history of the word "trend". Kind of fun trivia to toss out at parties when it looks like people are having too much fun.


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