A Closer Look at KO Insights 2022 Technology & Cultural Trends

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.

In case you’re wondering about our methodology, I’ll sum it up. Our 2022 Technology and Cultural Trend Map — which we published last week, so if you missed that, you might want to go back and download a printable copy you can keep handy as a reference — is shaped in four ways:

  1. Through the topics that have bubbled up repeatedly in direct conversations with business leaders, civic leaders, and industry thought leaders
  2. Through noticing emergent patterns in news and industry chatter
  3. Through direct research into peer-reviewed studies
  4. 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.

2022 KO Insights Cultural & Technology Trend Map (small format)

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 2022 trends are:

  • The Immersive Trends
    • Always-On Economies
    • Virtual Third Spaces & Emerging Subcultures
    • Intuitive Intelligence
    • Augmented Everyday Experiences
    • Biometric Face-Off
  • The Integrative Trends
    • Making Tech Safe for Humans
    • Value Disruption
    • Food Innovation
    • Adaptive Cities
    • The Economy is People
    • Work Rework
    • Truth & Trust in Doubt
  • The Innovative Trends
    • Education Everywhere
    • Covid-to-Climate Momentum Transfer
    • Overcoming Supply Chain Chaos with Sustainability
    • Navigating the Just Transition

You can read a little more about each one below.

The Immersive Trends

Always-On Economies

Virtual work, virtual learning, virtual retail, etc

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

Metaverse, Web3

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.

A sub-trend here is the need for a personal avatar in the virtual third spaces to represent you. I’ve written for years about our digital selves and how to think about what they represent, but the subject keeps getting more nuanced and interesting all the time.

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.

Intuitive Intelligence

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 record all over the 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.

Biometric Face-Off

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.

Value Disruption

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.

Food Innovation

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.

Adaptive Cities

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.

The Economy is People

Local, community, collectives, mutual aid

The idea that “the economy is people” was a theme in A Future So Bright, has been the subject of quite a few of my Twitter rants, and has shown up repeatedly in research-guided work around everything from the future of work to the future of energy:

Work Rework

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.”

Education Everywhere

Zoom classrooms, just-in-time learning, resolving inequity

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.

Please don’t hesitate to get in touch if I can answer any questions about how you might use these insights, or if you’d like to discuss booking a session to review them with your team.

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.

KO Insights 2022 Technology & Cultural Trend Map

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
small image of the 2022 trend map
thumbnail image of the KO Insights 2022 Technology & Cultural Trend Map

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.

Here’s wishing you clarity and success.

Kate O signature

The Great Resignation and the human future of work

blog header great resignation - background image shows woman holding her head while looking at a laptop in her home

Much of the speculation about the so-called “Great Resignation” began after the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that a record 4 million Americans had left their jobs in April 2021. Well, that was the record then. In August the number was 4.3 million. Another record. 4.4 million workers in September. And then yesterday we learned that 4.5 million US workers quit their jobs in November. How long will the trend continue, and what does it mean?

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.

The KO Insights Brighter Future Series: The Brighter Future of Education

header - brighter future education

In A Future So Bright, I wrote about the opportunity for a brighter future for education. It’s critical to ensuring we meet United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4, which aims to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.”

These insights arise from my work with a wide variety of stakeholders in education at all levels, since I’ve been working with and speaking for clients like UPCEA (University Professional and Continuing Education Association), IECA (Independent Educational Consultants Association), and a whole host of other educational organizations and associations this past year, and have several more educational entities slated for next year. Amidst the backdrop of the pandemic — what it introduced in terms of disruption to education in particular and the learning loss it brought on — it seems more important than ever to dig into this as a part of our commitment at KO Insights to improving human experience at scale.

But we also cannot talk about the future of education without talking about the future of work, because intelligent automation and other market forces will continue to increase demand for reskilling and upskilling of people in many job roles, including professionals like law researchers, journalists, and more. Even exploring this topic against the backdrop of the Great Resignation, we must keep a long-range view on the trends shaping jobs and work. And we cannot talk about the future of work without talking about the future of money, because we need to understand what the future of value might look like, and the opportunities for unlinking survival from jobs, and decentralizing value.

In addition, the key points when it comes to education overall are:

  1. Invest in educating girls worldwide
  2. Actively work to remove racism from education
  3. Re-imagine the delivery methods to redress education loss from COVID-19
  4. Keep trying to improve the learning opportunity with technology
  5. Develop more adaptive curricula
  6. Teach critical media literacy and digital literacy
  7. Teach young people the human skills they need for the future workplace

In short:
We must create a technology policy of education for all.

Even though we may not be able to see the fullness of the emerging frontier for learning and teaching opportunities, it is vital that we dream and think big of what might be possible in the future when access to information is so readily available. It’s important for us to continue our commitment to building knowledge economies by supporting policies of education for all, research and development of tools to improve learning, continuing to curate our data infrastructure, and taking action against the climate crisis.

We need to continue our work in designing and using technology learning tools that incorporate the latest research about how learners learn best, and be committed to helping our next generations fully realize their potential.

Preparing Young People for a Shifting Landscape

As we look at the future of education itself, it is also important that educators continue their commitment to nudging young people’s mindsets towards an adaptable, entrepreneurial, evolving mindset.

We must reclaim education as an opportunity for empowerment, rather than rote learning of information disconnected from its application, and systems of testing that disproportionately disadvantage students with atypical learning needs.

We must be committed to exploring new methods for learning that incorporate principles from other disciplines such as improvisation, empathy, and connection-building to provide foundational skills that will continue to serve us well in the future.

We need to not only teach students how to code, but also about computational thinking and systems design, because the future will likely revolve around technology, and we need everyone to be able to contribute to it.

We must champion teaching young people to be critical thinkers by helping them to digest information from multiple angles. This includes both media literacy and digital literacy.

We need to create opportunities right now for students to learn these skills by having access to mentors in their local community who can help guide them through projects that will teach them problem-solving, creative thinking or how to work together in teams.

We need to start teaching young people the human skills they need for future workplaces now by encouraging them to develop principles of active listening and empathy.

Commitment to Lifelong Learning

All this demands a commitment to lifelong learning for teachers, administrators, librarians, and innovative thinkers in education. We must continue to build on the work being done so that all students have access to technology tools that will enhance their learning (including universal broadband), whether it’s through helping schools train teachers or providing opportunities for continuing education for today’s educators.

The skillsets our students develop through learning today will become the foundation of their lives in adulthood.

Maintaining Adult Adaptability

And speaking of learning into adulthood, we must start thinking now about ways we can maintain multiple career paths and the flexibility to adapt to new roles as an increasing number of job functions become automated.

Finally, we must not forget that the most powerful tool we have to prevent learning loss is an equitable education for all.

We must continue our commitment to building knowledge economies by supporting policies of education for all, research and development of tools to improve learning, continuing to curate our data infrastructure, and taking action against climate change.

As we do all this work, let’s not forget that education is a way to create opportunity and unlock potential for human beings to create a better world.

The weirding of the future of money

everyone’s favorite ‘stonks’ meme

You know things are weird in the financial world when there’s a stock for Pepe, when a joke Internet meme becomes a massive investment opportunity, and when billionaires use Twitter polls to determine if they’re going to sell millions of shares of stock in their companies (ok, only one billionaire is doing that so far). Oh, and of course, when teenagers are getting rich selling NFTs of pixel art for millions of dollars. As in, like, real money. Between NFTs, meme stocks, market chaos, and all sorts of other weird trends, this has been an odd and, depending on your view, either exciting or uneasy time in the world of finance.

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.

older white man seated in front of a laptop with a bunch of paper currency
This guy probably just sold a bunch of NFTs

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 made this point repeatedly, 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.

Strategy Requires Choices

Try to read this passage in a detached, objective way, divorced from the politicizing of the pandemic and instead think only as a strategist must:

So if not cases, then what? “We need to come to some sort of agreement as to what it is we’re trying to prevent,” says Céline Gounder, an infectious-disease expert at New York University. “Are we trying to prevent hospitalization? Are we trying to prevent death? Are we trying to prevent transmission?” Different goals would require prioritizing different strategies. The booster-shot rollout has been roiled with confusion for this precise reason: The goal kept shifting. First, the Biden administration floated boosters for everyone to combat breakthroughs, then a CDC advisory panel restricted them to the elderly and immunocompromised most at risk for hospitalizations, then the CDC director overruled the panel to include people with jobs that put them at risk of infection.

On the ground, the U.S. is now running an uncontrolled experiment with every strategy all at once. COVID-19 policies differ wildly by state, county, university, workplace, and school district. And because of polarization, they have also settled into the most illogical pattern possible: The least vaccinated communities have some of the laxest restrictions, while highly vaccinated communities—which is to say those most protected from COVID-19—tend to have some of the most aggressive measures aimed at driving down cases. “We’re sleepwalking into policy because we’re not setting goals,” says Joseph Allen, a Harvard professor of public health. We will never get the risk of COVID-19 down to absolute zero, and we need to define a level of risk we can live with.

https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2021/11/what-americas-covid-goal-now/620572/

If you didn’t catch the salient bits, let me show it to you again as a screen shot with the key text highlighted:

“Every strategy all at once.” Does that sound familiar in your environment? Many of us run the businesses and operations in our lives, whether they’re a matter of public health or not, without clear direction and strategy, and end up in these kinds of confused scenarios, too.

That last quote is also a gem: “sleepwalking into policy because we’re not setting goals.”

What are you sleepwalking into?

When I wrote about Strategic Optimism in A Future So Bright, it wasn’t just about feel-good reinforcement of positive thinking — it’s about tough decisions. If we want the best futures, we have to be willing to make bold choices.

What choices are you making, and what choices are you not making?

Introducing “Strategic Optimism”

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

book cover image of A Future So Bright by Kate O'Neill
cover image from A Future So Bright: How Strategic Optimism Can Restore Our Humanity and Save the World, by Kate O’Neill

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.


Helpful Links:

Book announcement earlier on this blog: “The New Book Unveiled: A Future So Bright

Book listing at Amazon: A Future So Bright: How Strategic Optimism Can Restore Our Humanity and Save the World (Kindle edition available for pre-order now; coming September 7th to print, Kindle, and audiobook formats)

The Future of Trust and Truth

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.

translated excerpt from Brazilian Portuguese interview in Exame magazine

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.

Approaching 2021 with Strategic Optimism

2020 was the year we all loved to hate. How much did we hate it? Well, thanks to the brilliant data visualization team at The Economist, we can just about quantify that:

From The Economist: https://www.economist.com/graphic-detail/2020/12/31/twitter-users-have-had-their-most-miserable-year-yet

Answer: we hated it a lot.

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, and Strategic 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.

Kate O signature

New post at Medium: The Future of Work vs. the Future of Jobs

A recurring theme throughout my research, writing, and speaking has been the “future of work.” Er, or maybe the “future of jobs.” One reason they’re so hard to talk about is they’re not the same thing.

The future of work has to do with the way companies will achieve productivity in an increasingly automated ecosystem. The future of jobs, meanwhile, has to do with the way human beings will make their living, or in a theoretical system where resources are provided, how human beings will carve out their identity, which they have traditionally done at least in part through their chosen occupations.

Read the rest of my latest piece at Medium:

https://medium.com/@kateo/the-future-of-work-vs-the-future-of-jobs-88d75698b2a4