How to spot and tap emerging trends

Get ahead of the pack by proactively feeding your brain and passively recognizing emerging trends.

By Amy Smith, PhD, Consultants for Education, Manitou Springs, Colo. December 15, 2015

Spotting and tapping trends is vital to shaping your engineering career and to remaining relevant. Trends range from new technologies that can be applied to engineering projects to the economic and demographic drivers behind business development.

Trends are sometimes captured in language as buzz—headlines or priority topics in news and engineering articles. Trends are also captured in data, such as the number of construction permits pulled for a particular type of building or HVAC system, or how many times an air conditioner cycled on/off in the course of a day. While the latter is certainly relevant, look at the former—training your brain to passively spot emerging trends in the industry and current events that are shaping it.

Trends should influence your new hires, what types of technologies to consider for a new project, and future training and outsourcing plans. If you see a trend developing for emerging HVAC or electrical systems, you could seek out the few people who are experts in them and hire them as staff or as trainers. If your customers are complaining about a similar problem, you could begin to offer services that address it. If your team is exhibiting patterns of dysfunction in process or behavior, you could bring in an expert to resolve them.

This type of trending requires two phases of training:

  1. Feeding your brain and its background cognitive processes
  2. Realizing you’ve spotted a trend and taking action on it.

When feeding your brain, aim for a well-rounded diet of content that includes highly relevant sources to those that are farther afield-kind of like concentric circles.

  • The innermost circle has content sources from the industry, such Consulting-Specifying Engineer, IEEE Spectrum, and technical associations.
  • The next ring contains content from supplemental sources that are still tied to the buildings industry, such as newsletters from manufacturing associations (such as NEMA and SFPE) and nongovernmental organizations (such as American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy). These sources tend to follow codes, standards, and regulations closely, as well as technology trends.
  • Farther afield, read science digests such as New Scientist, technology publications such as Wired, and business/career publications such as Fast Company.

And, even farther afield, look at a variety of newspapers and websites. From landmark publications like the Wall Street Journal and the LA Times to aggregators such as the Drudge Report and, etc. And look outside the U.S. for sources—read sources from around the world. Although they have a low signal-to-noise ratio, they can sometimes contain a story that crystalizes a trend you hadn’t noticed before.

When consuming content, allow yourself to be drawn from one story into the next without worrying about why or where you are going. Click widely and scan headlines and leads of other stories. This is subjective thinking at work. Let fleeting interests guide your browsing. Keep your critical thinking active: Is the information credible? What are the sources? Is the math correct?

This leads to the second step: Realizing you’ve spotted a trend and taking action on it. A realization feels like an aha! moment that locks in physically and mentally. Harvesting a trend means doing something about it early enough that you gain strategic advantage. This means positioning your self, team, or company to have traction on something early—before your competitors. You’ll need to tune your trend-spotting to forecast the timing and power of the trend, which means answering a lot of questions:

  • How relevant is this? How obvious?
  • What opportunities can this bring me, my firm, our industry? When?
  • What are the risks and advantages of exploiting it? 

What trends to draw on and how are subjects for future columns—but suffice it to say that spotting and tapping trends can give you a strategic edge for your career and for business development.

Amy Smith is president of Consultants for Education. She has more than 20 yr of experience in organizational leadership, adult teaching and training, and cognitive research. Her consulting focuses on the development of corporate training and mentoring programs.