keynotes, workshops, strategy: human-centric digital transformation | future of human experience
Author: Kate O'Neill
Kate O'Neill, founder and CEO of KO Insights, is a researcher, consultant, advisor, speaker, and writer, primarily focused on how data and technology can empower meaningful human experiences. She founded [meta]marketer, a digital strategy and analytics firm, and previously held strategic and leadership roles at Netflix, Magazines.com, HCA, and a number of other digital startups. She is the author of a forthcoming book on meaningfulness in data, marketing, business, and life.
Asking good questions is an important part of the KO insights process. Naturally, we want to define what makes a question good. There is no definitive answer to this question, but there are a few things that all good questions have in common.
First, good questions are specific. They don’t try to ask too much all at once, but instead focus on a specific issue or problem. This allows us to explore the problem in depth and find a more targeted solution.
Second, good questions are clear. They are free of ambiguity and confusion so that we can understand them fully and know exactly what we need to do to answer them.
Third, good questions are open-ended. They invite exploration and creativity rather than demanding a single, correct answer. This allows us to think more deeply about the problem and come up with a more original solution.
Finally, good questions are relevant. They address a real need or problem that we are facing so that we can find a useful and actionable solution.
Asking good questions is an essential part of the process of looking for insights. By focusing our questions and keeping them relevant, clear, and open-ended, we can explore problems more deeply and find more original solutions.
The headlines these days have been even more challenging than usual.*
Or perhaps — hear me out — you could make that statement at almost moment ever, and people would agree: the headlines right now are more challenging than usual.
Humans have a very complicated relationship with change, and that’s partly because we have a very complicated relationship with time. We also tend to think of moments other than now as exceptional: that there was something extra-special about historical events that nothing happening now could possibly compare to. We miss the significance of what happens sometimes when we don’t see it through the lens of history. Yet on the other hand, we overlook the extraordinary ordinariness of this moment: this moment right here could be the one when we decide to commit to fully-engaged climate action that won’t settle for less than true resilience for the planet and all its people. Or it could just as easily have been a moment 10 or 20 or 40 years ago. All we need is to make the moment happen.
Transformation, digital and otherwise
I’m saying all of this partly because if your organization is anything like most of those I’ve spoken and consulted with, you’re still trying to figure out exactly what digital transformation is supposed to mean for you and your customers. (It’s ok: I’m not naming names. Your secret is safe with me.)
So it’s totally fair if you’re wondering just how transformative this whole process is actually supposed to be. “How deeply should we be thinking about transformation beyond digital? I mean, transformation means change, and that might mean all kinds of change, and we’re already up to our ears in change. Just how much change are we talking about, Kate, and how deep can we expect it to go?”
Those questions are good. After all, questions lead to insights, and insights steer you to the answers and solutions that serve the moment and the context.
So yes, I hear you. Let’s unpack.
Transformation of business models, value chains, and the whole ecosystem
The questions we’re asking may be prompting some deeper insights — and they might get uncomfortable. The questions about just how far transformational strategy is supposed to go reach deep into our relationship with change and time, and the insights that emerge might sound a bit like ‘everything is connected.’ And the more we consider that, the more it paints a picture of a need for holistic change.
You may be asking different questions and coming up with different answers. That’s perfectly understandable. After all, digital transformation is bound to look different in different industries, in different organizations, given different externalities (like, say, oh I don’t know, how a global pandemic affected your region and your business). And depending on your role, the way you experience the questions and insights about transformational strategy might even be slightly different than other types of employees in your organization.
The digital transformation of experiences… and not
But our questions began with digital transformation, so let’s go ahead and give the topic its due. By the time we arrive at this part of our journey, after considering the broader context of transformation, we can see that the digitalization of experiences has the potential to transform not only the way we do business but also the way we live.
For inspiration on how data-supported and connected innovations are reshaping industries, look no further than the banking sector: As we’ve seen over the past few years, digital innovation is disrupting traditional models, redefining our understanding of value and asset classes, and pushing established brands to rethink how they engage with their customers.
This disruption is by no means limited to financial services. We can see it in other sectors such as hotels, airlines, and hospitality businesses. And yet, for all that disruption, the experience architecture of interacting with a hotel or airline has not fundamentally changed. You still check in and check out, for example — but now, rather than a human at a desk or counter, it’s more common to do these activities through an app. (Or in some settings, perhaps with a robot stationed behind the counter.)
When I describe what I do, I sometimes say I offer “insights for transformational strategy.” (I might sometimes add “that leads to better business and better human experiences,” but it depends how concise I’m trying to be.) Transformational strategy is needed anytime we’re facing outside pressures, changing market demands, evolving technological landscape, or, y’know, random externalities that alter the entire landscape (ahem, covid).
The rapid responses to COVID-19 in healthcare, education, retail, and food service have given us a glimpse at an accelerated world of digital-ready experiences. Through the power of connected video calls and a little imagination, you can visit a dentist virtually, attend a wedding on the other side of the world, conduct a socially-distanced photo shoot, and, as we all learned ad nauseum during the lockdown days, so very much more.
Questions to get you started
You need good questions to get those insights going, right? Here are some starters to get you talking with your team:
No matter what transformation you are considering, what is the purpose you are trying to achieve at scale?
What is an emotional state that people are often in when they find your brand, and how can you, with respect and empathy, plan your digital systems to meet that state of mind?
How can you emphasize alignment?
If covid or the climate crisis meant a complete end to all in-person interactions that happen for your brand, how would you make sure to add human touches and a sense of human connection to the digital versions?
What is significant about the passage of time in the experience people have with your brand or product?
These questions might not (and shouldn’t) have easy answers, but they should begin the process of searching for insights. Once you have an a-ha moment, your next steps should be clearer.
And Finally: How to Offer Meaningful, Transformational Help
* This post begins with an oblique reference to the war in Ukraine, and we can’t leave without suggesting some ways to offer meaningful help.
As a business leader, you’ve probably been eyeing the headlines about the metaverse and pondering your organization’s future there. Maybe you already have a metaverse strategy — in which case, congratulations on your virtual fashions, virtual makeup, virtual bank lobby, or whatever other virtual product you’ve already launched. Or perhaps you’re watching the news of the metaverse a bit like a drunk patron at an all-night diner watching a rat in the corner to make sure it doesn’t get any closer as you hurry to eat your grilled cheese.
Speaking as someone who founded a business called [meta]marketer in the late 2000s, the observation of the “meta” nature of much of the digital space is not new. But given Facebook’s brand pivot to Meta, this seems like the moment to delve into this topic more fully here.
But Facebook has also garnered headlines (and, pardon my skepticism, effectively diverted some of the public sentiment from outrage to curiosity) for the announcement of their new corporate structure, with Meta as the name of the new overarching company above Facebook, Instagram, Whatsapp, Oculus, and everything else.
As someone who has been widely quoted (and somewhat misquoted) for my criticism of Facebook in the media, allow me to go on record in saying this:
The metaverse isn’t Facebook, and that’s good news.
But why not adopt Facebook’s platform for your metaverse strategy? Why look beyond Facebook?
I’m not here to crucify or praise Facebook, nor am I trying to rule out their role in future metaverse efforts. I’m certain their contributions will be substantial. But at best, those efforts are likely to be proprietary and built around these same questionable ethical practices that keep bringing them back into the headlines.
Their objectives will naturally be to increase the time users spend in their apps, increase their advertising revenue, and increase user growth. These goals are a pretty standard part of an overall company strategy that aims to build value for the shareholders of that company. So Facebook isn’t evil because they want these things — in this respect, they’re simply acting as a business. The sticking point is the means by which they achieve them, what they’re willing to sacrifice in the meantime, and the lengths to which they’re willing to go.
If we think about virtual worlds as the earliest adopter of the metaverse label, it makes sense that Facebook would want to harness them for their potential. It’s already been happening with “social VR” experiences like AltspaceVR and vTime. We’re seeing more indications of this trend with relationship statuses between Oculus Rift and Spaces. We see it in the News Feed’s support of 360 degree video. As tech companies become more enamored with the potential of virtual reality, they’ll try to take control where it matters most: social media. The advertising implications are significant, as is the opportunity for them to tie your identity to one identity across all these devices/implementations/experiences.
But this is precisely why I’m wary of Facebook’s enterprise in the metaverse. Even if their contributions are intended to be open source, they’ll be tied up with legal agreements that could potentially give them an upper hand in how these technologies develop. The implications for user privacy and security are tremendous when it comes to transitioning between virtual worlds. We just don’t have time for them to play catch-up on cleaning up their ethical practices while they simultaneously try to figure out how best to lock down and monetize the virtual land-grab.
In any case, the metaverse isn’t Facebook, and Facebook’s vision of the metaverse isn’t the be-all end-all. There are entire worlds of creative vision left to dream up and implement. Which is why you need a good metaverse strategy to build from: one that puts human experience at the center, and pulls your brand forward.
What should your metaverse strategy actually look like, then?
Well, this part is fun. This is part of what I address in my keynote and consulting around Third Places and Third Spaces. If you are beginning a brainstorming process with your team, here are some thought-starters you can use to provoke discussion and ideas.
Think about interoperability. What is the value of being radically extensible?
Think about expansiveness. What is the meaning of extending beyond perceived limitations, while simultaneously offering a sense of place?
Think about the value of your brand to people who enjoy it. What does that suggest about the economy of the experience your brand can create?
Think about persistence, synchronicity, and on-demand experiences. Think also about the value of special experiences that might happen at one time. What does that temporal value mean to the people who enjoy your brand?
These are questions and provocations that aren’t intended to have simple, easy answers. They’re meant to get your brain gears turning and new ideas churning.
The best answers here are those that pull you forward into new insights about your brand and how to enrich your offering with relevance.
I look forward to seeing what strategic visions you bring to the metaverse. The opportunity is so much bigger than any one company. And it’s big enough to bring your brand — and the people who interact with it — into a brighter future.
One of the perks of being a lifelong sociolinguistics nerd (full disclosure: there aren’t that many) is when I can take notice of the range of terminology people use to describe my own work. It turns out people have a wide variety of ways to think about and describe the relationship between technology and humanity. Most recently I’ve been hearing the term “humanization of technology” pop up a lot from companies looking to bring me in for speaking or advising services. I find it such a fascinating term for a few reasons.
What’s wrong with “humanizing technology”?
It’s not that the term is wrong, per se. And after all, it’s very similar to my own language around Tech Humanism, and all of the similar terms I use. It’s just that the nuance I infer from it — which is, to be clear, not necessarily what those prospective clients may have been implying — is that it suggests adding a human face to tech. It even feels almost manipulative.
If you think about it, most of the time we don’t actually use the term “humanizing” in everyday language — although we do often talk about “dehumanizing.” That suggests that when we talk about things that are dehumanizing, we’re starting from a default perspective that our humanity is intact. So forces that would dehumanize us threaten the fullness of our humanity.
The assumption with “humanizing,” on the other hand, is that we’re talking about a context where our humanity is not intact, and that there is something that must happen to ensure that we are granted our full humanity.
The idea that this is how people are approaching the discussion of technology is illuminating.
But I mean, I see their point, of course. Technology — especially as it’s used within bureaucratic business processes — can certainly be used in ways that disenfranchise and disempower our humanity.
What’s the alternative? Not humanizing?
Rather than “humanizing technology,” philosophically, I prefer to orient from where we already are fully human, and employ our human sensibilities to create the kinds of experiences that would most amplify our human wellness and fullness. That’s why my work centers on meaning, which I consider to be core to human traits and central to the human condition.
Achieve “humanization” by aligning business objectives with human outcomes
But again, I know where people are coming from with this framing and terminology. In fact, I’ve been asked in an interview before, by Douglas Magazine: “So in other words, humanizing tech is good for both business and the consumer?”
And my answer at that time speaks directly to the business imperative underlying the terminology:
“If a business entity can create an experience for the human being that is more seamless and more frictionless and more delightful and aligned with what they’re trying to accomplish, then, yes, it stands to be a more efficient experience on the business’s side too. It improves both sides of the experience. There’s this natural harmony that can happen there. “Business is responsible for creating most of the technology that’s out there. That technology is responsible for creating more and more human experiences. And so it feels like finding that right symmetry of the relationship between human technology and business, and really bringing that into harmony is the only way that we’re going to have a future that builds meaning and an awareness of human joy, and context and meaning.”
So what are some “humanizing”-by-default approaches we can bring to our work to operate from a place of full humanity?
The best ways to bring a fullness of humanity into the work you’re doing is to adopt approaches that are humanizing by default, like:
Encourage “humanizing” language: instead of always saying “users” or “customers,” (or “students” or “patients” or what-have-you), say “people” when you mean “people.” This can help bring a humanizing perspective to the sales experience, the marketing language, the operations, and whatever technology you’re deploying throughout the organization.
Recognize that most of the data that passes through business is human data, and make an effort to think in humanizing terms when you interact with that data in the business model. This is part of what allows business to align its objectives with human outcomes.
Get clear on what human problems you’re trying to solve at scale, and encourage teams to translate their own work into how it helps the company solve those problems.
Why focus on words like “humanization” or “humanizing” — why do the words matter?
Language matters, and the words we choose to describe our work matters. In fact, how we describe the world is in no small part how we experience the world. Even the way we experience words and ideas changes us:
The upshot is that the current state of people’s bodies affected the words they used. This is again compatible with the idea that the meanings of relatively abstract words are based in embodied simulations of the more concrete things they’re described in terms of.
— Louder Than Words, Benjamin K. Bergen
And if we can agree that that is so, then how much more important is it that the actual embodied experiences we build around us — meaning, the ones we design into the built environment, into technology, into amplified, accelerated, algorithmically optimized experiences — represent the best and most enlightened ideals we have?
Meaning matters. Metaphor matters. Let’s be intentional with our words so that we can be even more intentional with the experiences we create for ourselves, our future selves, and future generations.
Somewhere on my computer, I keep a collection of images of humans showing up in non-human contexts. These are contexts that are supposed to be sterile and devoid of humanity. If you’ve just wandered into my site on a search, that may sound like a rather odd hobby; if you’ve been here a while you’ve known for a long time that this is par for the course.
But every now and then, when you’re not expecting to, you’ll see a human sneak into the photo. Just an arm, or a torso. It’s vaguely disconcerting but also kind of warm and humbling, a peek behind the curtain and a reminder that there are people behind so many processes we take for granted. (Note that the topic of “ghost workers” has come uprepeatedly on The Tech Humanist Show.)
It’s also an example of what I like to call Digital Weirdness. And this one below strikes me as extra-weird in that they actually included it in their Instagram ad carousel.
In honor of the, uh, holiday(?), I wanted to address a point of confusion that has surfaced in a few of my media interviews since launching A Future So Bright. People latch on to the word “bright” in the title as well as “optimism” in the book’s subtitle (“How Strategic Optimism and Meaningful Innovation Can Restore Our Humanity and Save the World”) and they tend to overlook the all-important word “strategic” — not to mention the “meaningful innovation” bit, which is a necessary piece of the solution.
In other words, there seems to be a temptation to reduce the entire discussion to something like “looking on the bright side of life.” And hey, I can certainly own that a good deal of the fault here lies with me for titling the book that way. But there’s so much more to this book than the reductive idea of “looking on the bright side.” Rather than gloss over the darkness and the problems in the world, the ideas in the book are intended to help us face those challenges and still create the brighter future we’d like to see. So here on National Optimists Day, I’d very much like to clear up this misunderstanding.
Because so many discussions about what it means to be optimistic veer into the realm of what is often referred to as “toxic positivity.” And when it comes to technology, optimistic views too often lead to a mindless kind of techno-optimism, or techno-utopianism. None of this is actually helpful.
What IS helpful is to blend an optimistic view of what’s possible with a strategy for how to get there. Strategic Optimism, as I call it. That way we see the best of what we can achieve, and we get to work, with a plan, to make it happen. It’s an active process. All the while, we acknowledge what can go wrong and work to prevent the risks and harms from happening. But our focus — and our effort — stays oriented toward the best outcomes.
So think of this as a gift in celebration of National Optimists Day, if you like: I’ve decided to share below a good chunk of what I wrote about optimism — and specifically about my model of Strategic Optimism — in A Future So Bright, free for you to read right here. (And of course, after that you are welcome to go buy the book.) I’ve even added boldface emphasis in a few places to help you skim if you just want to get the broad strokes.
Let’s have a look:
Optimism gets a bad rap. […] So for reasons I’ll lay out here, the position I’m taking is clear-eyed, determined optimism with a commitment to follow-through, and it’s the stance I hope you’ll take alongside me before you’re finished reading this book.
The problem with optimism has been that instead of wielding it as a powerful tool for envisioning and working toward the best outcomes, people roundly mock it as a folly of the naïve. Historically, optimism in literature and philosophy has been dismissed as unthinking, unserious, unintellectual. And when they aren’t being ridiculed, optimists are scorned for willfully ignoring real harms.
But what about the advantages of looking at the bright side? A savvy approach to optimism can help us avoid the kind of failure that comes from not thinking about what might happen if things go better than we planned. And when it’s used properly and paired with the right tools, as I’ll explain in this book, optimism can actually help us acknowledge the whole truth of our circumstances, direct our focus, and align our efforts toward the best way forward.
Optimism doesn’t have to be simple-minded, shortsighted, or unaccompanied by rationalism. So yes indeed, there is a way to harness the power of optimism so that it is as clear-eyed as possible, as strategic as possible, as inclusive as possible, as aligned with success as possible, as actionable as possible, and as achievable as possible. That is the only optimism worth having, and it is the approach this book lays out.
The best way—perhaps the only way—to build a bright future is to challenge ourselves to envision the best future possible for the most people while at the same time acknowledging the ways the future could go dark and working to prevent that from happening.
Looking at what can go right as well as what can go wrong is a key part of what I call the Strategic Optimism Model. […] What this approach asks of us, in short, is to look at the whole picture, acknowledge the risks and the potential harms, and then actively work to mitigate them as we steer toward the most helpful, most meaningful outcomes.
The biggest obstacle in front of us? We’ve been taught to think about and talk about the future in too limited a way. Dystopia versus utopia? That’s more than useless; it’s dangerous. The falseness of that dichotomy (which we’ll explore in Beyond “Dystopia versus Utopia“), the dismissal of utopia as impossible, and the resulting despair of being left to accept an ever-encroaching dystopia keeps us from focusing on and addressing what we can actively do every day to ensure tomorrow is better than today, and next year is better than this year. It’s time to disrupt dystopia and give ourselves the freedom to imagine the bright future we really want to create.
— O’Neill, Kate. A Future So Bright: How Strategic Optimism and Meaningful Innovation Can Restore Our Humanity and Save the World. KO Insights.
Got that? Good. Feeling fired up? Even better. Here’s some more:
Let’s start with what Strategic Optimism is not:
Strategic Optimism is not “the power of positive thinking.”
Positive thinking is appealing for many and arguably important as guidance for aligning resources and focusing efforts. But I find its most devout adherents often take its application too far and apply it too literally.
It can quickly turn into an ugly case of victim blaming—as in, if you don’t have everything, you must not be thinking positively enough. For example: Got cancer? Why don’t you just think your way out of it?
That’s not at all the mindset we’re looking for here. Where the positivity principles do make sense is in aligning with our experience. The key is that framing our goals in terms of positive outcomes as opposed to negative ones—e.g., “I want to be wealthy” instead of “I don’t want to be broke”—generally lends itself to a stronger overall ability to focus and rally resources. It makes a very simple kind of sense: There is momentum in the positive, whereas the negative is all about stopping, and there’s no forward motion in that. Life is all about forward motion, so it’s practical to use a mental model that aligns with our experience and feels like it accompanies us as we move through time and space.
It’s not a matter of “law of attraction” or “power of positive thinking,” but rather of accepting that perceived limitations change our actions. If we let our beliefs limit us, we are guaranteed not to try.
Strategic Optimism is not about ignoring the limitations, risks, or harms that do exist; in fact, it’s about acknowledging the full reality of the current situation and the full range of possible outcomes, mitigating the worst outcomes, and working diligently toward achieving the best.
So what is Strategic Optimism, then?
The best results come about when we not only visualize the best possible future but also make a plan to commit ourselves to achieving it. This by necessity entails some variation of making goals, creating timelines, and sticking to them. In other words, developing some kind of strategy to achieve what you are hoping for.
Laying out a plan also means acknowledging the risks and harms that could occur and developing more plans to mitigate those, but also spending time on the ways the plan could go right and investing effort in ensuring those positive results come to fruition.
When we lay out our plans for the future, we know that we need to acknowledge the risks, but we often forget to spend as much time thinking about the opportunities. This can actually cost us: We might underestimate how successful a new product could be, for instance, and fail to have a way to meet demand; we might negotiate well below the value of our contributions in a job or a project; we might be so preoccupied with worst-case scenarios that when our moment to shine takes us by surprise, we’re fully unprepared for it.
— O’Neill, Kate. A Future So Bright: How Strategic Optimism and Meaningful Innovation Can Restore Our Humanity and Save the World. KO Insights.
It’s hard to overstate how helpful optimism with a strategy can be — while at the same time it’s hard to overstate how harmful it is to allow the above to be oversimplified and made into positivity without a plan.
Throughout my research, I kept encountering quotes about optimism. Some of them resonated, some very much did not. This discussion brings me back to one of the two quotes that I chose to the open the book, which spoke to me the most:
Nothing changes faster than the trends you haven’t been paying attention to. But in the past few years there’s been SO MUCH OTHER STUFF to pay attention to that you’d be forgiven for taking your eye off of the zeitgeist.
That’s fundamentally why I began sharing these trends. Over the years, our savviest clients have asked for insights presentations, wanting to know the patterns I was seeing emerge from my vantage point of working across a broad range of industries for a wide variety of clients.
They’re not just any trends, though. Since I founded KO Insights, our work has been committed to improving human experiences at scale, so we’re always keeping an eye on the horizon for emerging trends that relate to that mission.
Through the topics that have bubbled up repeatedly in direct conversations with business leaders, civic leaders, and industry thought leaders
Through noticing emergent patterns in news and industry chatter
Through direct research into peer-reviewed studies
Through observations and insights of my own. Which is, after all, what the name of the company promises. It’s what’s on the label.
What all of the resulting topics have in common is that they’re poised to impact human experience in the next few years, and offer considerations leaders should be weighing now. They also reflect the macro themes, such as the ways the current global climate crisis is reverberating through industries and across communities everywhere.
This week we’ll offer a brief look at each of the trends included in the map. In weeks to come we’ll unpack them further, but be sure to let us know if you’re particularly interested in one or the other; we’ll be happy to prioritize the order somewhat based on your feedback.
The pandemic has thrust many of us deeper into the virtual versions of the activities that occupy our days, whether that’s work, school, socializing, gaming, or the miscellany of errands and tasks we fulfill online, like shopping, banking, and even medical care. Owing to on-demand content and services, distributed user bases, and algorithmic and machine-generated experiences, these spaces have become “always-on” economies, and they are becoming more and more the norm.
This trend introduces several unique experience considerations. For example, as we live more and more in virtual worlds, our “real life” physical environments must function as shared spaces as well — shared with those with whom we live or work or play, either virtually or physically. Another side effect of such immersive technology is that it will create a growing need to protect our personal information, and how we trade it for services and products.
Virtual Third Spaces & Emerging Subcultures
The first spaces people spent time in online were virtual chat rooms & services like AOL’s local chat rooms, which often served subcultures that had very little interest in ever meeting face-to-face. Imagine those spaces, but on a much larger scale, and integrated with our day-to-day lives and functions.
How do you represent yourself to others? What are the rules & expectations that surround this? These are some of the experience considerations we’ll be weighing as we examine this trend. We already see many people making their avatars look like them or someone they admire, and at times dressing them in ways that are out of the ordinary, daring, or simply unattainable in the physical world.
Machine learning into human emotional expression, nuance, abstraction
Researchers are trying to detect human sentiment with machine learning, and piece together nuance and abstraction in a variety of interesting ways. These include chatbots, but also machines that play games and learn to beat human players (and do so again and again).
The capacity to do tremendous good with this kind of technology is enormous. Therapy bots are a current example that can help people who need mental health support and feel less awkward — at least initially — chatting with a bot than seeking out a human therapist. But of course the potential is there as well for these to be deployed in ways that are creepy, invasive, authoritarian, and just otherwise harmful.
The experience considerations here are vast, and will play into everything from personal privacy to public policy. Among the concerns are the fear that machines will eliminate or threaten highly-skilled human jobs; another concern is whether machines can be truly impartial when making decisions on our behalf. We’ll be looking at all of it.
Augmented Everyday Experiences
AR brings integrative entertainment, just-in-time context
I’m on recordall overthe place saying that augmented reality is the emerging tech I’m most excited about due to its potential to offer just-in-time contextual relevance — which is a form of meaning. Any technology that can be used to offer more meaningful human experiences is one worth exploring.
Of course, to think about the experience design and strategy considerations of augmenting everyday experiences is a bit meta, but we thrive in the land of meta. So we’ll continue to explore the implications of this trend on both a societal and personal level. This technology has the capacity to enhance or amplify experiences without replacing them fully with virtualized equivalents. So the experience design considerations will focus on how to integrate technology in ways that support our lives, not compete with them or require their wholesale reinvention.
Facial recognition & other biometric tech meets deployment & caution
This is an area I’ve been quoted on extensively in the past few years. There’ve been some developments in the past year, and we’ve written about some of them here at the site. But there are many still-to-come instances of this technology being rolled out in new ways, so we’ll continue to investigate what it means for personal privacy and other implications.
A sub-trend here is how facial recognition will be used in real-time by police & government authorities during protests to catalog & identify people who take part. This is already happening in some places, but it’s very likely only the beginning of what’s to come.
The Integrative Trends
Making Tech Safe for Humans
Emerging tech meets ethics, human protections, etc
In the age of algorithmic decision-making, these are the questions that will arise more and more frequently: How do we know if a machine or artificially intelligent algorithm is making decisions for human beings that are fair, just, accurate, unbiased?
What is bias in data inputs used to train machines, etc. — and how can it vary by race, gender, political affiliation, geography?
Who’s accountable for errors made by machines?
There are many related questions, of course. But the point is that ethics and human protections must be integral features of emerging technologies. If not, humanity could pay an incredibly steep price for new technology before we over-correct to “fix” what we’ve allowed to scale.
DeFi, NFTs, Bitcoin, mobile payments, cryptocurrency, blockchain
There are big social issues around the speed at which these technologies and platforms are developing. Will they be used for crime and corruption and just plain greed? Sure, but then so will other technologies that don’t rely on decentralization or blockchain’s distributed nature.
We’ve written a bit about this here, but the theme is: money is getting weirder. We’ll continue to explore the innovations and risks, and follow the policy experts on what sorts of regulations might need to be implemented to protect people and use technology in positive, productive ways.
The larger question I’m interested in looking at, though, is in the relationship between disruption — or creative destruction — and meaningful human value. And what new ways might emerge to move from disruption to value-driven innovation. Because the most important part of designing new technologies is ensuring that they can make life better for humans. That means that at some level they must benefit society and the planet at large, not simply advance for technology’s sake. If they don’t, they are not helping us solve the many problems of the present to get to the future we need.
Combating losses of covid & insecurity with innovations, planet-centric diets
What does the future of our food look like?
Agricultural innovation will be focused on protecting crops to better feed more people. We know that climate change is impacting crop yields, and we urgently need approaches to overcome it. Will lab-grown meat solve our issues around waste production & energy usage? Seems like the questions are more complex than the answers so far.
But as someone who’s been vegetarian for 27 years and vegan for 24, I’m delighted to see an enormous push to make plant-based proteins seem more consumer friendly. I’m especially happy to see the trend toward lab-grown meat that doesn’t require the energy and environmental impact of cattle production. But overall the emphasis is less about plant-based and more about planet-based eating. It just so happens that for now, those two ideas are rather aligned. We’ll be watching this space with interest.
Place-by-place experiments in resilience
The Adaptive City is the global trend of cities undertaking initiatives to better prepare themselves for uncertain futures, whether due to climate change or political volatility. This is as much about major cities developing climate resilience and mitigation strategies as it is about smaller-scale community planning, with a focus on flexibility and affordability in addition to resilience.
Among the tasks cities are taking up are improving infrastructure (laying additional infrastructure underground to make up for above-ground changes) and ensuring the availability of available housing. This is a big trend for the decade to come, and given our work with cities, we will be following it closely.
Great Resignation, hybrid workplaces, evolving ideas of workplace, work, team
In the pre-2019 days, there was already considerable interest in what the future of work would look like. But in light of the pandemic’s impacts, in light of the shift to remote work and hybrid workplaces, in light of the Great Resignation, in light of the ongoing clamor to wrap our minds around the future of work — we’re still in the early days of this evolution.
Truth & Trust in Doubt
Geopolitical upheaval, misinfo/disinfo, etc
The past few years have seen a deluge of issues in the crisis around trust and truth: “fake news,” suspicions of media bias, the future of democracy in the age of algorithmically-boosted misinformation and propaganda.
We’ve written about this here and we’ll continue to examine these issues.
Personally, the more I think about it, the more I see that we’ll have to work toward truth and trust from the ground up — through education and changing our perspective on what it means to be well-informed. We need tech solutions to untangle tech problems like the amplification of misinformation, but we also need media literacy, citizen literacy, and engaging one another in civil discourse.
The Innovative Trends
The KO Insights working definition of innovative is “aligned with what is going to matter.”
The future of learning and education is evolving in a time when we’re grappling with ways to help people cope with change and remain flexible, so they can participate amid public health emergencies, so they can learn at their own pace, so they can compete. It’s easy to imagine a future of learning and education that is “just in time,” ad hoc, and scalable — so people can learn on their own timeline within the constraints of our lives. But these conditions aren’t available to everyone equally, and so the future of education must also grapple with inequity and access.
Covid-to-Climate Momentum Transfer
Hopeful strategic innovation
Of course we’re paying attention to climate momentum anyway, but the rapid technological advancements and digital transformation that have accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic offers incredible opportunity to harness that momentum towards climate mitigation. Observers across industries have noted the opportunity; now it’s just a matter of leaders making the decisions that will most effectively deliver on that promise.
Overcoming Supply Chain Chaos with Sustainability
Investing in greener fleets & fuel
Corporate social responsibility, supply chain management, ESG, ethical procurement — there is growing awareness of these topics as they relate to greener fleets, supply chain chaos, and how these will be addressed in the future.
This also relates to transportation innovation as a whole. Future transport is one of the largest sectors in our series. We’re watching the evolution of electric vehicles including trucks, transportation systems for coastal communities, and more. We’re even keeping our eyes on private spaceflight, although that’s not likely to be a trend we report on here very soon.
Navigating the Just Transition
The challenging move away from fossil fuels
As we undertake the process of moving away from fossil fuels, issues come up around fairness and justice for communities affected by changing policies and initiatives, like native people and people living in low-income neighborhoods in cities, which are often subject to the greatest climate impacts.
The future of work also ties into this topic––green jobs are growing, which is great, because we need solutions for job transitions. And while gender equity isn’t tied to climate per se, studies show the impact of climate change hitting women in developing countries hardest.
This also includes issues related to mobility justice — making sure communities have access to greener infrastructure.
But the scope of this trend actually goes farther and includes sub-topics like: collaborative movements, social impact startups, feminist economics, inclusive policy-making, radical social justice, upending power dynamics, systemic change, universal basic income, collaboration-driven initiatives, building from the ground up, and so on.
And that’s just barely scratching the surface on all of these trends. We plan to dive deeper into each of these topics in the weeks to come, but in the meantime I hope these summaries have given you food for thought in terms of how you might be thinking about your future strategy.
I’ll leave you with just one last thought. Although it’s impossible to actually predict the future, one thing is easy to anticipate: the world will continue to need your bold and savvy leadership in the future. More than ever.
I’m not an economist by education—as I’ve previously mentioned, I was a linguist—so it has taken me a few years and a lot of reading to arrive at what seems like an obvious statement in retrospect:
The economy is people.
This fuzzy concept we call “the economy” is about a system of tools that enable people to provide for themselves, that measure how well people are able to shelter and feed themselves, and how much people are able to invest back into their own well-being.
You could say that this statement is the “everything is connected” of economic ideas. It sounds simple and self-evident, but it’s the layers of its truth that give it revelatory impact.
The COVID-19 crisis has robbed the world of so much, but I do have to thank the crisis for teaching me so clearly that the economy is people—both in terms of our well-being and our productive output. Also planet, as in the state of nature and natural resources. I hate that I spent so much of my life thinking of the “economy” as merely a monetary abstraction.
Measuring a human health crisis in terms of dollars makes no sense. We should be measuring it in terms of human lives impacted, in terms of human potential cut short, in terms of human experiences thwarted. But those are more nebulous figures, and somehow less motivating in a boardroom.
If we are to be proponents of capitalism, as I’d venture many of my readers are, then capitalism must be about solving people’s problems in alignment with a focused business objective.
The economy, then, should really be a measure of how efficiently people’s problems are solved. And we can apply this to discussions of the various subeconomies: the sharing economy, the gig economy, the knowledge economy. At the end of the day, what we’re talking about in every case is people: The economy is built on people.
When I launched this company in 2014, I chose the word “insights” with intention. I thought of it as my duty to my clients to be a keen observer of the world and to distill what I gleaned about what mattered — in other words, what is meaningful. As time has gone on and our work has developed, I have also found that paying attention to what matters also leads you to understand what is likely going to matter. For our clients, this means offering not just insight, but also strategic foresight.
That has meant honing the skill of following the trajectory of trends and casting them forward into the future to see what the likely significance is for clients.
So every new year since 2015 I have created a map, of sorts, plotting the trends I’m tracking related to the intersection of technology and humanity that seem most likely to shape the year or so ahead. In past years, I’ve only shared it with clients during consultations and keynotes. This year, in keeping with the expansive spirit of the trends themselves, I’m sharing it widely.
What are the overarching themes of 2022?
Throughout our work, there’s been a macro trend of expansion and connectedness. Those themes certainly surface in the global trends, too. And these actually complement one another, because as everything connects to everything else, everything also gets bigger and harder to make sense of. That trend helps explain the rise of certain populist themes in politics and media, as well: In times of complexity, simplicity feels like a luxury.
Overall, the recurring themes in the 2022 trends were:
an emphasis on human experience at scale
emphasis on experience innovation rather than digital transformation
questions of social justice and equity throughout
Why do I call it a trend map?
It’s not describing a place, so why do I call this a “map”? Well, maps are a metaphor for guidance, for wayfinding in the world. One bit of wisdom about maps is that “the map is not the territory.” In other words, there is the whole of reality, and there is what you choose to represent. It’s a cousin of the idea Magritte was alluding to with his famous painting of a pipe and the words “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (“This is not a pipe”). The map is not the territory, the painting is not the pipe, and trends are not the whole of reality. But this map is meant to be a starting reference and a useful provocation, and an essential way to view the territory that is the year — and years — ahead.
While you’re here, download a copy of the 2022 Trend Map
To help you plan your year with Strategic Optimism toward a brighter future, we’d love to offer you the KO Insights 2022 Technology & Cultural Trend Map as a letter-size PDF you can print out and pin up near your desk. Note that while we’ll ask for your email address, you can sign up for our mailing list during the process but you don’t have to if you don’t want to
We’ll be unpacking these trends one-by-one in blog posts and reports, and looking at the implications they have on future strategy in the weeks and months to come, in alignment with scheduled keynotes, upcoming episodes of The Tech Humanist Show, and programs we’re launching throughout the year. But if this raises questions right now in your leadership meetings, consider reaching out to schedule a strategy session.
In any case, I hope that even at a high level this map will help you consider what will need to happen to make your strategy more meaningful, more aligned, and more impactful in the year and years to come.
Plenty has already been written and said about the Great Resignation, and much has been said (and plenty by me) about the future of work, about automation and robots and how they will impact human jobs, and countless other related topics. But not enough is being made of what this might mean about the future of human meaning.
We’ve also done a lot of talking (and yes, me again) about digital transformation, and how much that has to do with data models and emerging technology.
But we haven’t talked enough about work as a form of human fulfillment, and we haven’t talked enough about the kind of transformation that happens at the human scale. What if we’re missing the big insights about the future of work and technology by not connecting all these dots?
What really matters about the human future of work and beyond
Most of the media coverage focuses on wages and benefits, and while those are undeniably important factors to understand, it strikes me as very plausible that much of what this trend is about deals with things most media coverage isn’t hitting: Gender inequality in home duties. Burnout. A re-prioritized sense of dignity. And for heavens sake, grief — or rather, the shifted perspective that comes from grief over lost loved ones.
For years when I have written and spoken about the future of work, I have said that the most important thing is for humans to have a sense of meaning. “What matters in all of this is that humans have the opportunity for meaningful experiences in the future, whether they derive from work or not.”
But even after separating those concepts, we’re still left with big questions about what a humanity-centered understanding of work looks like: what it means to accomplish, contribute, and achieve apart from income and sustenance.
And we’re still not sure what it means to address the overlapping trends of the Great Resignation (or Great Reset), and the waves of innovation around the “creator economy” particularly as it relates to Web3, the Metaverse, and emerging ideas and models of value. (I’m part of a group of future-forward experts that is forming around these topics right now. I’ll be sure to share more about that as I am able.)
One of the most frequently-recurring themes in my work is meaning, and I have very often said that I see no reason why humans shouldn’t have meaning in all sorts of different ways, work being just one.
I have also said (and been repeating a lot lately) that the economy is people. And in economic conditions where people are not cared for, they may be forced to ruthlessly prioritize themselves.
If all of this is true then the Great Resignation could be a sign that not enough people are finding enough of a sense of meaning in work. At least not sufficient to overcome the lack of meaning they are feeling in other areas of their lives, which makes sense given how much the pandemic has cut most of us off from our social circles, from our extended families, from leisure travel — heck, even from serendipitous encounters at coffee shops.
It also means these workers might become a bigger market than ever for employers who want to persuade them that they can find meaning at their place of work.
Still, if those 4.5 million, and those coming behind them, can’t find meaning in their workplaces now, why would they stay with the same employers — especially as they see machines taking over many of the functions in the jobs they face today?
Are we ready yet for a meaningful version of the future of work?
The main focus in the Great Resignation shouldn’t be employee dissatisfaction or talent acquisition cost or about technology taking over human employment opportunities. It’s good to create space for that discourse and to learn from it, but the underlying issue is far more fundamental: as much as we need to commit to making the workplace physically safe for humans, we need to commit to making it fulfilling, too. And that means honoring and respecting the humanness of human employees.
When it comes to digital transformation, the biggest lesson I share with leaders is often: it doesn’t start with tech. Surprise! Just as leaders too often want to begin digital transformation with technology instead of from human-centric values and experiences, too many leaders approach their talent strategy as if it can be driven by cost or satisfaction scores, rather than about infusing a sense of purpose and meaning into the organization at every level.
Figuring out how to build a purposeful organization and a culture of meaning, how to amplify relevance and intentionality in the digital experiences you bring to scale — all of this is part of the human-centric digital transformation effort I have been advocating, talking about, advising executive teams on, and leading workshops in for years. It was always important, but now, between the accelerating pace of digitization and the rising stakes in attracting and retaining talent, it’s more crucial than ever.
Even as intelligent machines, automation, and completely digitized experiences become increasingly pervasive, they won’t replace the nuanced value humans add in creative teams, in design of all kinds, in strategic thinking, and in the simple joy of a serendipitous human-to-human interaction, even if it’s only in a coffee shop.