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.
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.
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.
So it’s been a lucky break for me that in the past few months I’ve had the opportunity to deliver keynotes for conferences with audiences of credit union leaders, financial regulators, asset managers, and a variety of other financial and banking professionals.
This serendipitous convergence has been an interesting opportunity to re-examine my research and writing on the future of value and money from A Future So Bright, as well as the research and writing on the future of trust and truth.
So what does this weirdness mean for you?
Well, you’re going to have to accept it because money isn’t just weird now, it will continue to get weirder. Cryptocurrencies and non-fungible tokens (NFTs) are two developments you should look at to understand this “weirding.”
Together these technologies will change not only how people view assets, but how they manage those assets and their resulting wealth. What’s important about crypto and NFTs isn’t that they’re part of the future, but the effect they have on shaping that future.
People will have to understand the importance of decentralization, as well as just what a blockchain is. They’ll need to be tech savvy enough to invest in the future without getting scammed out of what they’re worth now.
In short, people are going to have to deal with a lot of weird stuff — which is why it’s so important for business leaders to look at the emerging trends now, for people to familiarize ourselves with the shifting landscape, and for social justice issues to be factored into that future.
In case you haven’t been tracking closely enough, here are a few key trends that may be showing up on your radar screen:
meme stocks – these are digital assets issued for companies that are based on memes and viral content.
cryptocurrencies and blockchain protocols – while some people view cryptos as the key to decentralization, others see them more like a payment method or commodity. Cryptocurrencies are likely to continue to play a key role in how people do digital transactions, but they won’t be the end-all, be-all for money or assets.
People also need to understand what a blockchain protocol is if they want to invest in the future of money and value. Blockchains are the decentralized ledgers that record transactions and timestamps on a network, and they were first introduced as part of Bitcoin (BTC). Those protocols will increasingly impact other industries outside of finance, but there’s work to do first in terms of educating people about their potential impact. (And that includes their ecological impact, as I wrote about in A Future So Bright.)
NFTs – these are the digital tokens that have created a new kind of asset class. They represent ownership, whether it’s decentralized or centrally managed, and they can be fungible (like cryptos) or non-fungible (unique like art).
Enthusiasts see NFTs as the key to decentralization, because they take people out of the center where their worth is defined by institutions.
digital scarcity – We tend to think of tangible goods as scarce and digital assets as freely reproducible, but NFTs limit the supply of a digital asset and create inherent value without institutions or centralization.
If none of that helped clear anything up, just understand this: every day, the future of money is getting weirder than ever before, but with that weirdness comes opportunity. If you’re not thinking about what that means for your business and industry today, you may be missing out on the chance to create new value and experiences. And you may be surprised when someone comes out with, say, a blockchain protocol that makes your business obsolete. You need to understand how this “weirding” will impact your space.
Remember: The Economy is People
I’ve madethis pointrepeatedly, but it’s more important than ever to remember that the economy isn’t just an abstract concept of money and digital assets — it’s people. It’s about people and their well-being, how well they can provide for themselves, and what they want for themselves and their families. It’s also about who will be dis-empowered if we don’t work now to secure our digital rights.
The importance of financing climate resilience
We’re already seeing the impacts of climate change; it’s going to be a key factor in our ongoing future. Left unresolved, the effects of climate change will have devastating impacts on human populations around the world. Because of its severity, we need to address this global crisis now, and there’s an opportunity here: finance innovation can help us better prepare for the worst of possible futures.
It’s about making sure that communities can survive when things get worse. It’s about allocating capital to projects that will help them thrive in the face of climate change. And it’s about investing in new technologies that will help people adapt to a changing world.
The future will always bring surprises, so we’d better prepare for those as well. It’s about laying plans for the best possible outcomes, while also being prepared to adapt to the worst, or just anything that comes next.
The future may be weird, but it can also be bright if we make empowered decisions today to invest in a better tomorrow.
A note from KO Insights CEO Kate O’Neill: As many of you know, I was an early employee of Netflix, and I have proudly shared stories witnessed firsthand from my time there as examples of strong leadership. But with greater scale comes greater influence, and the discourse of the past few weeks demonstrates how important it is to get that influence right when leading.
A recurring theme in my work is the importance of building inclusive experiences, and creating the best futures for the most people. I’ve also talked about how important it is, during times when a population is harmed by leadership decisions, to listen to people who are directly affected. Moreover, as a bi woman whose own activism has long been intertwined with the trans community, it’s important to me to center the voices of trans people when issues arise that relate to harm.
So with the heat of the immediate news coverage a bit cooled, to help us navigate this discussion with insight and respect, I sought the help of our new team member, Experience Manager Jupiter F. Stone (look for their introduction coming soon!) who brought in today’s guest writer: Chloe Jade Skye. Chloe is a trans woman who follows stand-up comedy pretty closely (having done some herself) — in fact, she had already written an article about this on her blog a few weeks ago. I’m grateful that she shared with us her view on this topic in a way that ties into the KO Insights approach to humanity in tech and business.
What the Netflix/Chappelle Scandal Can Teach Us About Humanity in Tech and Business
by Chloe Jade Skye
There’s been a lot of media coverage recently about the Netflix employee walkout over CEO Ted Sarandos’s handling of the latest Dave Chappelle special, ‘The Closer’. Unless you’ve avoided the Internet or been living under a rock, you probably saw the words, “I screwed up” quoted somewhere, in a headline or tweet, attributed to Sarandos. But that part of the quote, to me, isn’t as interesting as what followed, a.k.a. the reason he screwed up.
“I should have led with more humanity…I had a group of employees who were definitely feeling pain and hurt from a decision we made…[and] I didn’t do that.” The humanity lacking in those internal emails, according to Sarandos, was his statement that on-screen content does not equate to real-world harm. He walked this back in a later interview with Variety, acknowledging that creating real-world change is the reason Netflix exists, and the reason creators and storytellers do what they do.
My question is this: If humanity was missing in internal memos distributed within the company before the launch of a new product, is it not also possible that humanity was missing in the decision-making that went into creating the content in the first place? I find it hard to believe that humanity just happened to slip the minds of the chief decision makers in the final stage of content distribution.
I’ve watched the special, so I can say with certainty that humanity was at the very least not Dave Chappelle’s chief concern. I strongly disagree with Sarandos, and apparently the rest of the Netflix executives, that ‘The Closer’ does not incite hate or violence. I’m speaking as a trans person when I say that even just in the room with Dave during the special, I saw the exact type of hatred that I encounter in my day-to-day life receive standing ovations.
At one point, Chappelle jokes about beating up a woman (because he thought she was a man), and the line “I smacked the toxic masculinity out of that b*tch” receives uproarious applause. He also echoes some of the most harmful rhetoric of the anti-trans movements, going so far as to proclaim himself “team TERF” (TERF stands for Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist, a term created by the trans community to refer to the cis women fighting to take away rights from trans children). This line also received a plethora of clap-ter.
But I’m not here to debate whether or not the special does harm. That has been been written about at length by far better-known writers than me. Besides, even if I managed to convince you, it wouldn’t change a single thing about the inner workings at Netflix. So, what am I here to do?
I want to talk about solutions. I want to talk about how major companies like Netflix can put their money where their mouth is, and lean into humanity in a big, bold way. For what it’s worth, Sarandos has already stated that he is “committed to continuing to increase representation on screen and behind the camera,” and has explained that Netflix has a fund set aside for “specifically trans and non-binary content” (this Creative Equity Fund does invest in generating trans content, but that is currently a small slice of the fund overall).
“I want to talk about solutions. I want to talk about how major companies like Netflix can put their money where their mouth is, and lean into humanity in a big, bold way.”
Committing to more diversity and inclusivity on screen is laudable, but doesn’t do anything to prevent further mishaps regarding content that trans and non-binary creators aren’t directly involved with. If a platform invests money into a show celebrating trans people, and simultaneously invests money into a show denigrating those same people, I don’t believe that constitutes “leaning into humanity.” I’d call that “playing both sides,” and what the LGBTQ+ community actually needs is for the company to understand that just because something doesn’t explicitly call for harm doesn’t mean it isn’t causing any.
Someone who is not a member of a marginalized group has no right to make decisions about what does or does not constitute hate-speech against that group. Sarandos, a White, Cis-gender, heterosexual male, does not get to decide whether or not Chappelle’s words cause harm to the LGBTQ+ community at large. Now, I know the decision that ‘The Closer’ is not harmful was not his alone. I don’t have access to a list of all the Netflix executives involved in that decision, but I’m willing to bet there weren’t a lot of members of the queer community seated at the table.
So how do we fix this? How can a giant corporation like Netflix actually emphasize humanity in their decisions and content generation? Rather than come up with my own list, I’m going to use the one put forth by a think tank of trans employees at the company, publicized as a “list of demands,” but that I think is better described as an instruction manual for inclusivity.
Adopt measures to avoid future platforming of transphobia and hate speech. Create a new fund specifically for trans and non-binary talent, both above and below the line. Revise internal processes on commissioning and releasing potentially harmful content, including parties who are part of the subject community. Hire trans content executives, especially BIPOC. Recruit trans people for leadership roles in the company. Allow employees to remove themselves from promotional content. Eliminate posters and murals of transphobic content within the workplace. Add a disclaimer before titles that flag transphobic language, misogyny, homophobia, etc. Boost promotion for trans affirming titles already on the platform. Suggest trans affirming content alongside content flagged as anti-trans.
That isn’t everything, but I paraphrased the key points. Although some of the suggestions apply specifically to Netflix, there’s something on the list that could benefit a CEO at any corporation. Diversity and inclusion does not just mean featuring POC or members of the LGBTQ community in advertisements or content—it means bringing them to the table in positions of power so that we can help ensure, from the top down, that your company’s actions align with your stated values.
Thank you, Netflix, for making ‘humanity’ a buzzworthy word these past few weeks. We have a long way to go before we achieve it, but it is certainly something worth striving for. I, and many others, will be watching.
All around us we seem to be surrounded by bad news and hard choices. And yet you, as a leader, still have to make choices. You still have to manage teams of people who are looking to you for direction. You still have to decide what risks to take, what tradeoffs to make, — and it feels like I should add a third thing that ends in -ake but that’s probably just the former songwriter in me. I will resist.
Anyway, given all this, how can we put forward a positive outlook for our teams and our companies? How can we convince ourselves that there’s a brighter future to lead toward?
And how do we do all this with an awareness of the very real challenges in the world? And while acknowledging the very real harms that people are facing, and the negative potential outcomes of our actions — and our inactions?
The pessimists will say that we’re doomed, and nothing can be done to change it. The optimists will say that if we focus on the positive, nothing can go wrong. Neither of those views are true. Not on their own.
Today’s Approach to Leading for Tomorrow
The best way — indeed perhaps the only way — to confront the challenges we face and build a bright future is to allow ourselves to see the brightest future possible while at the same time acknowledging the ways the future could go dark and working to prevent that from happening. That’s Strategic Optimism.
Technology is developing rapidly and it has changed and will change society significantly. One consequence is that it stands to widen gaps in income and wealth. As a result, the top 1% of the population will own most of the world’s wealth, while some 80% of people may only have access to basic needs — if that. That’s due to the capacity and scale of using technology to power economic solutions. When it’s applied only to scaling corporate revenues, it benefits only the top corporate leaders. The untapped opportunity, though, is to harness the capacity and scale of technology to solve human problems at scale. But to do that requires a combination of thinking strategically and optimistically — both/and — about the decisions we make today for the future we want to create.
Making the Future a Little Bit Brighter
That’s what I explore in my new book A Future So Bright. My aim is to help you develop the habit of seeing both the good and the bad outcomes for any possible future situation, not just the rosy ones. That gives you the opportunity to prevent or mitigate the worst outcomes, while you lean with all your might into the best possible outcomes.
With Strategic Optimism, you can lead from a place of integrity, acknowledging the pain and anxiety people are feeling, but also the hope they very much want to feel. And you get to lead in a way that aligns with the best futures for the most people.
I happened to run across an old copy of the values for my old company, [meta]marketer. (Well, I have them in my Evernote. I have everything in my Evernote. I’m bound to run across something random every day. Which is fun.)
Anyway, I read them over again because I was curious what kind of perspective on them hindsight might give me.
And it turns out, I think we were really onto the right stuff, and that I still try to follow these guidelines in my work today. Perhaps they may be useful as thought-starters for you. See for yourself.
Make everything easier, better, or faster each time you do it. Every time you perform a task, you have the opportunity to observe the task from multiple levels of abstraction: the doing of the task, and the overview of how the task is being done. In other words, if you can tell that there is a way to improve the way a task is being done, by all means make it better.
Relevance is a form of respect. Champion meaningful experiences. In marketing, it’s easy to get caught up in pushing the message that the company wants to push. But the way to treat customers with respect — and usually, the way to make more money — is to present potential customers with relevant opportunities in language that speaks to their needs. It’s often our job to remind our clients that their best chance at long-term success lies in creating lasting relationships with their customers. We believe, and have seen it play out in results again and again, that an emphasis on customer experience leads to profitability.
Relationships matter. Cultivate happiness. We think work can be a place where you’re happy and having fun, all while thinking hard and solving interesting problems. We want our team members to be happy, our clients to be happy, and our clients’ customers to be happy as well. These relationships–between team members, the local community, our clients–all matter.
Have an attitude of willingness and get the job done. We’re big on having fun, but don’t that doesn’t mean we’re not a productive team. Every team member must pull his or her weight, and that means sometimes doing tedious and unglamorous work. If it has to get done, do it.
Empathy leads to understanding, understanding leads to insight. Looking at a problem from a different angle–for example, the customers angle–sometimes leads to groundbreaking insights. It’s important to consider issues from many sides to gain clarity.
Learning is more important than success; learning leads to success. Come to work with the desire to learn something new every day. You never know what that’s going to be.
Speak truth to power, but confront with compassion. People sometimes don’t want to hear what they could be doing better, even if it means that they could be making more money. When you have data on your side, it’s important to allow that data to be known and understood. Sometimes people, out of fear, laziness, or disbelief, won’t want to make changes that correspond with the data, but it’s our job to make sure that the decision-maker has the data to make a good decision, even if it seems like bad news, before making his or her decision.
Know the big words, use the small ones. We spend so much of our day thinking about things in the abstract; when we meet with clients, it’s important that we try to translate that abstraction into concrete language they’ll understand, and to try to avoid industry jargon and buzzwords if we can make our point in plain language.
One of the themes shaping my work this year is “the future of trust and truth.” In an era characterized by disagreement over basic facts, where algorithmically-optimized social media platforms show us the truths we most want to see, the roles of truth and trust in ethics, in systems design, and in human experience strategy are crucial for us to understand. I’m examining questions such as: What does truth mean to us as humans; how does truth relate to belief, to science, to law; how does truth relate to trust; and so on.
And of course: How do divisive politics figure into our trust in institutions, and how does our sense of truth suffer from exposure to misinformation and disinformation?
And then, the big question as it relates to my work and the work of many of my clients: What does it mean to bring machines into this dynamic? To cross-pollinate these very human concerns with data, with algorithms, with machine learning? For algorithms optimized for platform-specific engagement and retention to shape our exposure to news and opinions?
On that last point, the twin topics of misinformation and disinformation have been a big focus this past year because of the pandemic, the U.S. presidential election, and the widespread racial justice protests as well as the backlash against them. On seemingly every high-level topic, people had opposing views and cited opposing sources to back them up. And this went beyond the U.S.: I had a conversation a few months ago with a journalist from the leading business magazine in Brazil, for example, about misinformation and trust, and what regulations may be needed to address them. Our concerns about Trump’s outsized influence in shaping social media discourse mirror theirs about Bolsonaro. These challenges are simultaneously local and global.
I’m not the first to think about trust, of course. Edelman has been producing their excellent Trust Barometer every year for 21 years. The work I’m doing is by no means meant to be a replacement of their important research, but rather incorporates their findings as part of a view on how trust and truth are fundamental to humanity, how they are important to understanding of technologies that we rely on.
I’ll be sharing ongoing insights in this blog and other outlets as I develop these ideas through my research and work them into my speaking and my forthcoming book, but for now I’ll toss another coin to Edelman, since their 2021 Trust Barometer just came out this week. One of the findings was that, of all the categories of institutions, business has the most public trust right now. Not government, not NGOs, not media, but business. That’s a tremendous responsibility and opportunity for business. It’s a call to purpose and action, a call for transparency, for principled leadership.
And for those businesses we define as “tech businesses” especially, not only is the public watching, but so are the eyes of history. As a crisis of democracy unfolds in the U.S. alongside a deadly pandemic, we come face to face with issues of misinformation and disinformation, of content moderation and platform access, and the consequences of the algorithmic blinders we all wear as we consume social media and our preferred news outlets. Each of these issues comes tangled in its own technical details around trust and truth, but in every case, there is one central truth: the need to frame these debates and their outcomes not around those individuals with the largest reach but around the rights and the future of humanity at large couldn’t be more urgent.
But while 2020 may have a lot to answer for, and while 2021 has many of us feeling cautiously hopeful, life doesn’t happen because of the calendar year. Life just happens. And we have to do the hard work ourselves of dealing with it, and doing what we can to make the future better.
Why should anyone be optimistic about the future?
Between the covid pandemic, the climate emergency, chaotic political upheaval, and accelerating technology changes, it would certainly seem that optimism is a weird viewpoint to bring to the future.
But personally, I think optimism gets a bad rap.
Instead of being wielded as a tool for envisioning the best outcomes, it is roundly mocked as a folly of the naïve. Or it is scorned for willfully ignoring real harms.
The truth is that optimism can actually help us acknowledge the whole truth of our circumstances and direct our focus to the best way forward.
A few years ago when a team at Google first hired me to deliver a keynote at a team offsite, I asked the team leader on our prep call why she had chosen me, and she said she liked that I was ”optimistic about the role of tech in the future yet with a firm grasp on reality.” I was charmed by that description, especially because I believe that’s what the next phase of our collective tech future for humanity needs to be: optimistic but also cautionary, but with a heavy dose of realism and clarity.
I don’t really traffic in predictions, as I suppose most futurists do, but because I talk about the future, I’ve sometimes been called a futurist. In fact, I think it was a podcast interviewer who first described me as an “optimistic futurist” and now that is a title I have come to embrace for myself. I see optimism is an important part of future-ready strategy in the sense that without it, leaders can too easily adopt the status quo mentality and not visualize the better outcomes they could work toward.
I don’t see optimism as blind hope. On the contrary, I see cynicism as a cop-out.
An optimistic view of the future can allow us to envision bold new ways forward.
An optimistic view of the future implies that we have a responsibility to work toward better outcomes.
Really and truly, my underlying focus is on how to rally our considerable resources as humans to create the best futures for the most people. I centered that theme in Tech Humanist, and that emphasis continues in my research, my writing, my speaking, and throughout my strategic advisory and consulting practice.
Perhaps predictably, over the past year, throughout the pandemic and the big pivot to virtual events, this theme of Strategic Optimism gained resonance with people and teams who wanted to be offered hope — not as platitudes or mere reassurance, but in a useful framework that applied to their strategic direction. In one of the most serendipitous* examples, the Google Geo team (which includes their Maps, Earth, and Street View products as well as AR and other emerging products related to geographic information) brought me on to engage with them about a combination of Tech Humanism, Pixels and Place, andStrategic Optimism, all around the theme of ‘navigating ambiguity.’ A great pun and an inspiring topic. Win-win.
(* À propos of nothing, “serendipity” is my favorite word. I mean, seriously, what a great word. Don’t get me started on how much I love geeking out about words and language.)
The Work to Be Done
So in 2021, KO Insights remains committed to improving human experiences at scale, and within my work I’ll be continuing to dig deeper into how technology can benefit humanity, both by creating more meaningful experiences and by solving human problems at scale. That will offer further opportunities to examine the potential in technologies like augmented reality, artificial intelligence, and others, for their impact on human experiences, and to explore what can go right and what can go wrong along the way.
Looking at what can go right as well as what can go wrong is a key part of my Strategic Optimism model. We have 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.
Oh, and my forthcoming book will explore these topics. I very much look forward to sharing it with you.
Here’s to a great 2021 for all of us, and here’s to the work we must all commit to doing to ensure that the future is the best it can be for the most people.
You probably know, as most people do, that Netflix was all about renting unlimited DVDs before pivoting into streaming, but what you may not know is that before launching that DVD subscription program, they started out as a service to rent DVDs a la carte, just like Blockbuster, except online and through the mail. When they hit upon the idea of a DVD subscription model, they discovered that they had been working with a rapidly-aging notion of how customers wanted to interact with the physical world, and their new model simplified it. Of course their even newer model, of streaming video, simplified it even more. What are the wide-open opportunities to rethink the interactions with your customers and in your market?
The key thing to remember is that the convergence of physical and digital happens around the human experience. It’s not a new phenomenon, but the opportunities to adapt and offer more contextually relevant experiences are evolving all the time.
There’s a whole lot more about this in my new book Pixels and Place, coming out September 1st, 2016. You can pre-order the Kindle version here. Check back over the next few weeks, too; I’ll be posting more excerpts and giving away copies.