COP26 and why it matters to you

Have you been hearing references to #COP26 but not sure what it is or why it matters to you or anyone else?

When I was asked to come to Madrid in December 2019 to lead a panel discussion at COP25 with bright thinkers from around the world on how we can use emerging technology to fight climate change? Well, it was genuinely one of the highlights of my life.

Why did it matter so much to me? And why does the COP26 climate change conference happening in Glasgow this year matter to you? Here’s a brief guide.

Leading a panel at COP25 was a highlight of my life

What is it?

First of all, let’s define our terms: COP stands for Conference of the Parties. That doesn’t help much, does it? OK, I’ll do better. It’s a summit of leaders from around the world focused on climate change. The first COP took place in Berlin in 1995 and this year Glasgow will be hosting the 26th COP.

When is it?

From the 31st of October to the 12th of November. Some of that time is programming that’s just for top officials and delegates; some of the days feature broader programming. (Like that panel I led. If you’ve ever been to a really large expo with overwhelming exhibitor floor space, this is not unlike that. Only the exhibitors are countries, and the events taking place in the auditoriums and meeting spaces are filled with people shaping relevant discussions and decisions for governments, big organizations, big companies, and so on.)

This was India’s booth at COP25 in the “Country Hall” which was basically an exhibitor floor filled with governments from nations around the world

Why does it matter?

The primary objective of the COP is to reach agreements between countries about commitments to reducing carbon emissions and other climate-related factors. There’s a big, big difference between what happens to life on this planet if average temperatures increase by 1.5° C or, say, 3°, 4°, or even more. Small though those increases sound, they mean considerable more devastation through extreme weather events, more loss of life, and more forced migration from areas that will no longer be able to support human — or much other — life.

As a result of the need for decisions around these issues, there will almost certainly be pushes for new legislation in many countries, so no matter where you are on the planet, you’ll be affected. If you’re concerned, as I am, that most countries aren’t doing enough to contend with this massive climate emergency, then you’ll want to see aggressive and urgent action by participating countries.

What can we do to make a difference?

While we may feel like the events happening in Glasgow have no bearing on our lives in the immediate sense, the circumstances of the climate emergency are growing so urgent that we should challenge ourselves to follow along as best we can. The brighter future requires us to commit our attention and energy to understanding the challenge, making personal changes where possible, and applying pressure on companies and governments to make broader, more impactful changes in policy and practice. Perhaps you can use COP26 as a reminder to send emails or make calls to elected officials, company leaders, and other influential people who can affect wide-reaching change for the better.

As I wrote in A Future So Bright, “It won’t be sufficient to put all our energy into eliminating or cutting emissions based on what we’ve normalized today; we need true progress, and that’s going to take our best, most innovative, most forward-looking efforts.”

(You can read more, by the way, about what’s needed in A Future So Bright.)

Where can I read more about COP26?

Here are some additional overviews and guides to understanding COP26 and climate change overall:

https://news.un.org/en/story/2021/10/1104142

https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-56901261

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/oct/11/what-is-cop26-and-why-does-it-matter-the-complete-guide

https://racetozero.unfccc.int/heres-why-cop26-concerns-all-of-us/

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/oct/28/cop26-what-at-stake-climate-summit

Thinking today for tomorrow

Reading today both that Sumatran rhinos are extinct in Malaysia (only 80 of the species are left in Indonesia now) largely due to poaching for their horns, and that koalas are in ever-greater danger (even if they may not be “functionally extinct” as a few now-viral articles have claimed) due to habitat loss from the bushfires which are worsening likely due to human effects on climate. There are untold consequences of human effects for humans everywhere too, of course, but the suffering of animals tugs especially at my heart.

Today seems like a good day to do some deep thinking about both the big, bold actions and incremental choices we need to make to leave the world better off from here, not exponentially worse off.

Is there a small step you can make? Is there a big action you can take, and/or that we can take together? I invite you to join me in considering these questions today.

2018: Transformations All Over the Place

It’s a good thing the work I do is in insights and transformations, because probably little else would have prepared me for 2018.

On a global scale, this year seemed to be about 1) getting a grip on the scale and immediacy of climate change, 2) raising questions of policy and human decency toward migrants and refugees, 3) comprehending the magnitude of emerging data privacy issues and the impact of technology on our behavior and our lives, and 4) dealing with a recidivistic slide in countries around the world into populist nationalism and fascism. So. Y’know. Just little stuff.

Transformation and Systems

Since my own work is at the intersection of technology and humanity, I was particularly interested in the stories that pertained to that third topic: data privacy and the impact of technology on human behavior, experience, and life in general. But I also know that none of these topics happened in a vacuum. Our willingness to confront climate change—or not—will parallel and perhaps have rippling consequences in how we handle the emergence of artificial intelligence. Acknowledging and dealing with underlying issues will be key in both scenarios. And the discourse around those topics will shape the global political theater, and vice versa. It’s all connected. 

So it’s timely that this is the year my book Tech Humanist was published; it delves into the idea that how we articulate purpose and values inside business will have effects at scale on the human experience. The reviews and testimonials on behalf of the book have been incredible and humbling. Here was one:

“For the past two decades, the Computer History Museum has chronicled the amazing rise of the technology which just in our lifetime has become the most powerful agent of change the world has ever known. While the stories of creativity, invention, innovation and impact are fascinating, what all this means for the future and humanity is what we are poised to take on now as an institution. Nowhere has this become more clear to me and my colleagues here at the museum than in reading Kate O’Neill’s blog about a year ago entitled “The Tech Humanist Manifesto.” The idea that we need to develop and imbed in all future technologies the very best of ourselves and our ethics and ultimately have the goal of those emerging technologies to make us better humans has resonated deeply into our own plans of what we will present, discuss, and debate going forward.
After reading the manifesto, my initial thoughts were ‘Kate should write a book on this.’ Which I am very happy that she has done, and now her humor, excellent insights and heartfelt philosophy can reach the leaders and influencers throughout the world. And the rest of us too.”
— Gary Matsushita, Vice President, Computer History Museum

As the book launched in September, I embarked on a nearly-four-week long speaking and book tour, finishing the trip by being recorded for the “Talks at Google” lecture series, which they describe as bringing “the world’s most influential thinkers, creators, makers, and doers all to one place” — and that place is the Googleplex in Mountain View, California. With that description, I can’t tell you how honored I was to be asked.

If you don’t have time to watch, I’ll give you the premise: the technology-driven future can be filled with human meaning. I genuinely believe that. It’s the undercurrent of my work, and my personal and professional purpose. With automation and artificial intelligence amplifying and accelerating the goals of business, it’s an important message for business leaders and experience designers to hear. 

Human-Centric Digital Transformation in Business

It encourages me that so many companies have signed on to this “Tech Humanist” message of human-centric digital transformation by hiring me to keynote their corporate events (and it was lovely that so many this year were in wonderful locations, such as Palm Beach in April for a Kelly Services event, and Barcelona in May for a Cisco event). 

Delivering the keynote at a Kelly Services event in early 2018

In October, I was delighted to partner with Cognizant and their Center for the Future of Work for a webinar on automation and the future of human jobs and work. We talked about how and when human jobs will be augmented, displaced, and replaced by automation, but also how new jobs will be created, and what those jobs are likely to be. (I am already booked to do a good deal more writing and speaking on that subject in 2019, as well; sign up for the KO Insights email list if you’d like to be notified when new insights are available.) 

In December, analyst firm HfS Research, which specializes in automation and artificial intelligence for enterprise, invited me back to keynote their FORA (Future of Operations in the Robotic Age) event on the hyperconnected economy. Again, they did this specifically to emphasize the human angle in this otherwise technology-heavy discussion of enterprise operations. I find that incredibly encouraging, and I’d love to suggest that you should, too.

The Tech Humanist Movement Grows

My “tech humanist” message and movement is spreading in ways I could never have predicted, too: some of this year’s highlights for me were seeing my work finding its way into university curricula, such as having The Tech Humanist Manifesto licensed for inclusion in a textbook, and seeing my work spread internationally, such as signing the paperwork to have my previous book, Pixels and Place, translated into Korean.

Transformation in Cities

In fact, speaking of the international scale of the message: in early December I was honored to be asked to keynote the Amsterdam Economic Board’s annual meeting, as part of an initiative preparing the city of Amsterdam to be future-ready for its 750th (!!!) birthday in 2025. It was the perfect synthesis of Pixels and Place and Tech Humanist: I shared my thinking about how cities of the future can be fully human-centric while embracing data and emerging technology to empower its citizens, its visitors, and all the humans who live, work, and play in the city. 

Transformation Happens on a Personal Level, Too

The theme of transformations with systemic consequences carried over on a personal level, too: I celebrated 20 years since quitting smoking and 20 years since going vegan. Apparently 1998 was also a pretty darned transformational year for me.

Oh, and another transformation: suddenly this year I became allergic to mango! I love love love mango, so that was disappointing. Now I have to carry an Epi-Pen with me everywhere; that’s a weird change that could have systemic effects. After all, who knows if someday I may need to offer my Epi-Pen to someone else who’s having an allergic reaction? (It’s a good idea for more of us to carry Epi-Pens.) 

On a heavier note, this was also a tough year for transformative losses: most notably my dear friend Jen lost her husband in late summer, and for me and many of her friends, the following weeks and months were devoted to seeing her through her grief and adjustment to being a widow, something I am unfortunately qualified to help with.

Speaking of which, another systemic effect: with Kate Spade’s and Anthony Bourdain’s deaths by suicide happening just days before the 6th anniversary of my late husband’s death to suicide, I felt their deaths acutely as triggers. Triggers are, at the moment, talked about through a sneer in contemporary culture, but they’re real and they’re hard; I wrote about them in this essay called “Suicide vs. Love” back in 2014 when Robin Williams died.

It All Connects Together

And the reason why all these deeply personal matters are relevant here, in this year’s business summary along the theme of interrelating systems, of how one planet’s shadow causes change on another planet’s surface, is that this is how we must begin to think about humanity. We do not live in isolation; we do not live in tidy boxes that separate one effect from another. Our lives and our deaths affect one another. Our decisions—professional and personal—shape and change each other’s lives.

The world around us is transforming in big, fast, sometimes frightening ways, and it will continue to transform, radically and quickly. We must adapt with it, and we must take responsibility for our role in making the best of those changes. That means thinking about the connectedness of systems, and about the connectedness of us all.

Happy New Year, and may 2019 bring about happy and meaningful changes for you, for me, and for everyone. 


If this theme resonates with the conversations your company, organization, or city has been having and you’d like to hire me as a keynote speaker at an event in 2019, please do reach out. Here’s to a meaningful year for us all.