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

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 Groundhog Day Review

Well, the groundhog has spoken. Six more weeks of winter, in this economy?

And look, whether or not groundhogs seeing their shadows has any bearing on the weather, we who have already been through a heck of a year have work to do and goals to reach. We don’t need some rodent dictating our schedule to us.

Think of it as Groundhog Goals Day

On the other hand, maybe this is your chance to review the goals you set a month or several months ago for 2021 and see if they still make sense by the light of early February.

If you need a little longer — say, six weeks? — to make something work before you launch it, and no one is counting on it today, why not take that time? Whether in six weeks or six months, the world as we’ve reluctactly gotten used to it is going to start changing again, and the liminal sense of time many of us have experienced will also shift.

It hits a little different this year anyway

Back in November, the Wall Street Journal ran a piece about how people were starting to abandon their yoga pants and sweats in favor of dressy clothes. But that wasn’t the vibe I was getting on Twitter. Instead, while few people could say they have really enjoyed our collective quarantine/lockdown time, some of us appreciated the few perks it offered, like day-to-night-to-day-again loungewear.

The pandemic has been devastating, no question — tragedy upon tragedy unfolding daily. But even while that’s true, for many of us, the extra time at home has meant that life is a little quieter, and despite our complaints about that, there’s a tiny part of it that we’re going to miss when it’s over. Did we do organize every corner of our homes, alphabetize our soup cans, and fold all our socks, while writing a novel and learning to play harmonica? Perhaps not. But we don’t need to finish every project we had the audacity to start in order to feel like we made good use of this time. We just need to emerge in one piece, alive and intact, and be ready to adapt yet again to whatever the world throws us next.

So maybe these “six more weeks of winter” can offer us the chance to review what we want to finish, and what we want to start in the next chapter.

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

Solving Upwards: Revisiting My Speaker Strategy Clarity Model During Social Distancing

At the beginning of March, I published a post here sharing my Speaker Strategy Clarity Model. But in the weeks since then (which have felt more like years), conferences and events large and small have been canceled or rescheduled, our everyday vocabulary now includes phrases like “social distancing” and “flatten the curve,” and — hopefully — everyone who can isolate at home is doing so. In addition, much of the global economy is on pause, and the financial markets are thrashing around like a live electrical wire. All the while, every speaker and would-be speaker on Planet Earth is firing up Zoom and other virtual platforms to try to reach the audiences they miss seeing from the stage. And in the midst of all this chaos, I hear from even longtime professional speaker friends that now they really don’t know what to speak about.

So with not only the meetings and events industry upturned but the whole world seemingly in chaos, where can this possibly leave you as a speaker? When your work has been about helping others by sharing insights from a stage, what can and should that work look like when the audiences all stay home? More to the point: when they’re all coping with the stress of a global pandemic and worried about their health and finances?

Solving Human-Level vs. Humanity-Level Problems

I think the original Speaker Strategy Clarity Model still applies broadly, but an addendum that may help us in this moment is to think about the problems we solve and how to uplift them.

We must stop and recognize a new truth: when there is a humanity-level crisis, it’s natural to feel human-level panic. One of the ways panic manifests is that we feel the inner call of our survival instincts, and we may hurry to put out a promotional message, trying quickly to make money to save ourselves and our families from the financial ruin we fear is coming. That’s an understandable response, but it’s one we have to try to quell within ourselves.

Our best impulses at this moment will require us to respond to humanity-level crisis by empathizing our way down to human-scale problem-solving, and in doing so, trying to lift our work up to humanity-level problem-solving. If you are in a position to solve problems directly at the scale of humanity, with actions such as manufacturing personal protective equipment for healthcare workers, then by all means, please do so, and I wish you all the very best and will support you however I can. But most of us are going to be better positioned for work at the human scale, which means empathy is our strongest asset right now.

An opportunity to solve problems “upward” from the human level to the humanity level

(Of course, empathy was always our strongest asset, but in ordinary circumstances it may feel like a luxury that requires patience to deploy. In times of crisis, it’s absolutely vital.)

What about B2B?

Even if your work is directed at business leaders, the best and highest work you can do right now is to help leaders lead with our best and highest human attributes, especially empathy. I listened in to a brilliant webinar my friend David C. Baker, who is a keynote speaker and author of The Business of Expertise: How Entrepreneurial Experts Convert Insight to Impact + Wealth, gave for his clients and followers about how their businesses would likely have to adjust during this period, and while it was all very sensible and pragmatic, it was also clearly heartfelt and human, even while talking through the unfortunate realities of staff reductions. Our audiences look to us for perspective and insight; let’s not let now be the moment when we fail to connect back to the human impact of every decision we and they make.

Perhaps you can think of that model sort of like this:

Even within B2B, you’re still solving problems for humans and humanity

Marketing? In This Economy?

The urge to market and promote is going to be strong, and it is an understandable impulse to want to stand out above the crowd of other voices asking for attention right now. But as I watch emails from brands come in, a few of them stand out as being well done, and they illustrate the best approach that we who are speakers and thought leaders can borrow as we plan to promote our work:

  1. acknowledge the reality we’re in, preferably in a way that shows you’re doing something useful about it
  2. offer ideas with some kind of value that creates relevance between your core brand and the recipient’s reality, and then
  3. get out.

Here’s a promotional email from Crate and Barrel that I thought walked that fine line well: it stayed on brand, the offer was relevant, and the promotion wasn’t so heavy-handed as to be in poor taste.

Perhaps you disagree with this example or with any of these guidelines. That’s OK — do it the way that feels right to you.

Just don’t oversell, and likewise don’t turn the communication into pageantry or melodrama. For once in our lives, everyone around the world is experiencing a version of something that has everyone’s attention at once — there’s no need to dwell too long on what we all already know.

Twist, Don’t Pivot

We also all need to be especially sure we are offering value right now that’s as close to our expertise as possible while relevant to the moment. Not all of us are experts in virtual presenting, so it doesn’t make sense for everyone to try to sell that offering in webinars and online courses.

If you do have expertise relevant to that topic, for example, be sure to add your own twist to it. A kajillion videos went up in the past few weeks on how to be effective when presenting on video, but my friend Mark Bowden, who is a top body language expert and the author of Truth and Lies: What People Are Really Thinking as well as being a sought-after keynote speaker, is uniquely suited to be able to offer guidance on how to come across in the limited medium of video and virtual presentations with trust, credibility, and empathy. (Do be sure to watch that video. It’s a great resource for us all right now.)

What’s especially elegant about what ends up happening when you do that is that you can take a human-level problem — the need to come across well on video while everyone is working and presenting from home — and solve it upwards towards a humanity level, because if more people learn how to communicate well on video, it seems possible to imagine that human communication could improve at scale.

You’re uniquely suited to something, too. What human-level problem can you solve upwards towards humanity?

Be safe, be well, be sensible, and, of course, be as helpful as you can.

Here’s to getting through this by solving upward to our highest and best work,

Kate O signature

What Should You Speak About? Sharing My Speaker Strategy Clarity Model

I am a professional speaker, and while I don’t speak about speaking, I do often get asked for input on how people can get into speaking, become better speakers, grow their speaking business, and so on. And I like to be able to be helpful when I can.

So at one of the recent opportunities to speak to a group of speakers, I was asked to talk about speaking strategy and how to really hone in on your topic.

By way of an answer, I put together the following model, and I’m sharing it with you. Maybe you’re working in a field where you occasionally get invited to give presentations at conferences. Maybe you are already a speaker but you want more clarity about what your topic area should be. Even seasoned speakers will benefit from this exercise every so often — perhaps make it part of your annual review, and it will keep you directed toward your own true north star.

How to Draw the Model

Start by taking a full-sized sheet of paper and drawing three circles that overlap a bit, like so:

Three overlapping circles

Next label those circles as follows: “What is your unique experience, your credibility?” “What do people pay to learn?” “What are you endlessly curious and passionate about?”

The three circles with their captions

Pause here and take some time to fill in a few answers to the three questions.

“What is your unique experience, your credibility?”

For this, think about what gives you authority in your subject. Do you have a unique accomplishment? Were you Team Captain of the first American Women’s Everest Expedition like my friend Alison Levine? Were you the first female F-14 Tomcat pilot in the U.S. Navy like my friend Carey Lohrenz?

Or is your story more personal? Are you a cancer survivor with a unique observation about your journey? An early childhood educator with a unique perspective?

Dig deep and capture some of those characteristics here.

“What do people pay to learn?”

Now think about what you can speak about that people will shell out money — their own or their employer’s money — to learn. Companies will always pay good money to teach their employees better sales and leadership skills, and many invest heavily in other professional and personal development topics. Every business discipline has industry events full of paid conferences. Individuals are often drawn to skills that can increase their marketability and value as employees, or skills that help them become more independently successful.

Of course people often pay to hear about and learn about squishier topics too that they hope will make their lives better, like improving their interpersonal communication, strengthening their relationships, finding their purpose, and so on.

Think about the topic areas adjacent to your expertise where you know people are willing to pay to learn, and list a few of those.

“What are you endlessly curious and passionate about?”

To me, this one is the kicker. If you only thought about what you’ve already done and what you already know, you’d have nothing pulling you forward and keeping you current. But think about the subjects that fascinate you, that you maybe collect articles about, that you always stay up to speed on, that you could talk for hours about at a cocktail party if you found someone equally as interested in the subject.

Ask yourself what you wish you knew more about than anyone else in the world.

Go ahead and write one or a few things in that circle.

Your X Factor

Now that you have your three circles and you’ve labeled them and filled in some answers for each one, take a look at the section where all the three circles overlap: this is your X factor. Think about what gives you credibility AND what people pay to learn AND what you are passionate about knowing.

Try to articulate this X Factor in a few words or a short phrase. If you can capture it just right, your X Factor should reveal something about your unique selling point in the marketplace. Not bad for a few circles, huh?

The X Factor

Bonus: The Overlaps

What I find so interesting about this exercise is that you also get meaningful insights from the overlapping areas.

The overlap areas

Your Unique Experience and Credibility + What People Pay to Learn = Event Themes

When you think about the overlap of your credibility and what people pay to learn, that should lead you to some ideas about the themes of events you may want to search for to find speaking opportunities.

What People Pay to Learn + What You’re Curious and Passionate About = Media Hooks

When you look at what people are willing to pay to learn and what you’re passionate about, you have a great formula for satisfying media outlets with up-to-the-minute hot takes that people care about.

Your Unique Experience and Credibility + What You’re Curious and Passionate About = Content Ideas

And when you look at the overlap of what you have credibility in and what you’re curious about, you should have a rich source of ideas for content that you can create as a thought leader.

The Grand Slam: Add Your Purpose Statement

Of course in all areas of my work and my life, my mindset is that purpose plays a big role in strategy. So I added the question: “What is your driving purpose for what you do?” Theoretically you should begin with this question, but I think it can be as clarifying after you’ve taken inventory of your experience and credibility and all the rest of it, too. It can help you go back through your answers and refine them, bringing them all into alignment.

The full model with purpose question

So that’s the model. When I presented it to the last group of up-and-coming speakers at a weekend-long speaking bootcamp, one woman came up to me the following morning and said with a smirk, “It’s all your fault I had to throw away everything I had and start all over again.” But I heard her talk the day before the exercise and the day after, and the clarity she had after working through the exercise was inspiring. When you want to communicate powerful ideas, clarity is a gift.

Speaking of Gifts: Have a Free Download of the Full Model

To make this as easy as possible for you and save you some drawing and labeling, I’ve put together a worksheet you can simply download and get going on. There’s no email signup, no obligation to buy anything from me, no program I want to upsell you into. If you find value in it, please share it with other speakers. The best way to thank me for sharing it is to use it to make a great speech that helps make the world a better place.

Download “Speaker Strategy Clarity Worksheet” speaker-strategy-handout-by-Kate-ONeill.pdf – Downloaded 409 times – 45 KB

Here’s to the clarity of your X Factor,

Kate O signature

Goodbye to 2019, hello to our uncertain future

Our emerging tech panel at UN COP25 in Madrid

This time of year is my absolute favorite because for me it’s so much about relaxed reflection and setting intentions for the year — or even the decade! — ahead. And this year, with Christmas and New Years Day falling mid-week, all normal work schedules seem disrupted, creating extra space throughout these final weeks and over the weekend between them to reflect and plan.

It’s also a good time to think about the future in general.

One of the characteristics about the way we tend to think about the future now, though, is with more uncertainty than ever.

Yet as I wrote in Tech Humanist:

Here’s what I want to offer you: To me, the idea that the future is never fixed or certain is actually encouraging. Truly, it fills me with hope. I think of the future largely as something we continuously alter, shape, or at least influence with what we do today.

That thought also fills me with a sense of duty because it means there are always many possible futures that depend on me and you and everyone else doing our parts in the whole. It means our everyday actions have more power to shape outcomes than we are often comfortable admitting.

from Tech Humanist: How You Can Make Technology Better for Business and Better for Humans

Planning your own future

My friend and one of the organizers of House of Beautiful Business, Tim Leberecht, has written a lovely guide to help us all do just that. His process will help you have a productive and insightful “time between the years,” as Tim calls it, and a brilliantly successful 2020:

>> How to Make the Most of the Time Between the Years
(written by Tim Leberecht for Psychology Today)

Some of the questions I like to ask myself and encourage my clients and audiences to ask are:

  • What kind of future do you personally want to have?
  • What kind of future do you want for everyone on the planet?
  • What are you working on building?
  • What are you trying to achieve at scale?

By the way, all of this reflection and planning pairs well with another piece about getting better at training your brain what to retain and what to let go of. Hint: it comes down to the discipline of spending time thinking about what you most want to be thinking about.

>> Your Brain Has A “Delete” Button–Here’s How To Use It
(by Judah Pollack and Olivia Fox Cabane for Fast Company)

What are some other questions that help you clarify your purpose? What are some other exercises you engage in to help you reflect and plan?

Goodbye to my wild 2019

For me, 2019 was a whirlwind of unprecedented life opportunities, but also a time for increasing clarity and commitment to what I see as my mission.

To recap: In January, just a few months after my book Tech Humanist came out, it was featured on the CES stage. The following week, I had a tweet go viral and a follow-up in WIRED that also went viral, and I appeared on just about every major news outlet from BBC to NPR to Marketplace to talk about facial recognition (and to pivot the conversation to the larger issue of how technology is changing our human experiences). The next week, I spoke at the United Nations about innovation and humanity.

Then in June, a few days after delivering a keynote on Tech Humanism at a conference in Mumbai, India, I guest lectured at the University of Cambridge. Yes, the same one Charles Darwin, Sir Isaac Newton, and Stephen Hawking are all associated with. That University of Cambridge. I know, I couldn’t believe it either.

In the second half of the year I keynoted Etsy‘s Engineering Day in Brooklyn, a Google team offsite in Lake Tahoe, the P2P Transformation Summit in London, DevLearn in Las Vegas, UX Australia in Sydney, the Boston CIO Summit, and presented versions of my Tech Humanist talk at INBOUND, Content Marketing World, the Inc. CEO Summit, Mind the Product in London, House of Beautiful Business in Lisbon, and more.

Our emerging tech panel at UN COP25 in Madrid
Our emerging tech panel at UN COP25 in Madrid

Finally in December, after speaking once again at the United Nations headquarters, this time on AI and youth skills, I closed out my work year at the UN COP25 climate change conference in Madrid where I led a panel on the final day about the challenges and opportunities of leveraging emerging technologies to fight climate change.

Oh, and over the course of the year I added representation from Washington Speakers Bureau and Leading Authorities speakers bureau. That’s exciting personally and professionally but in addition it should help make bookings easier for many large company clients, which means there may be even more of those audiences in 2020 and beyond.

I’m telling you this to say: I think all of this activity proves there’s hope. I think my year has been wild because a lot of people see the potential for technology to diminish the humanity in the world, and a lot of people want to see to it that that doesn’t happen. If my experience this year indicates anything, I think it’s that people are determined to make the best of our tech-driven future

So what’s in store for all of us for 2020?

You’ll see many articles with predictions for 2020, and some will be more outlandish than others. I’m including just a few here that will likely affect you and your business more than others:

Expect to see more facial recognition in use everywhere and to hear more debate about it. Governments, law enforcement agencies, and high-traffic facilities like airports see tremendous opportunities and conveniences in deploying this technology, while civil liberties advocates see many privacy risks and challenges. Personally, I’m on Team Ban Facial Recognition Until We Have Better Protections In Place, but I’ll continue to follow all the developments and report on them (as I did in WIRED earlier this year).

Expect to have to grapple with privacy debates inside and outside your organization. The major push for companies to meet GDPR compliance in time for the May 2018 enforcement deadline is only the beginning of such regulatory efforts; the CCPA is due to be fully enforced as of January 1, 2020, and you can bet more regulations will be coming as time goes on. Your best bet to dealing with these is to get ahead of them: enact human-friendly data collection and usage practices such as not collecting more data than you need or than is relevant to the context of the interaction. (I spoke about this topic extensively at House of Beautiful Business in Lisbon, as well as at many other events throughout the year.)

The push for digital transformation isn’t over yet (no matter how tired of hearing about it you may be). Most companies, organizations, and cities are very much just catching up, still sorting out how, for example, the data from their front-end services can inform back-end operations and vice versa. Meanwhile, upstart data-rich apps and services are still disrupting industry after industry, so we’ll still be talking about that for a while. (This was the focus of many of my keynotes to executive audiences, such as the Boston CIO Summit, and more.)

You may also be tired of hearing about AI, but we’ve only scratched the surface of that conversation. While some folks debate the semantics of whether simple machine learning processes really constitute “artificial intelligence,” the advancements within that space progress daily, with both challenges and opportunities aplenty. (Part of my focus throughout 2019 and into 2020 has been on how machine learning and automated intelligence can help with addressing climate change. Stay tuned for more on that.)

Speaking of which, perhaps the biggest and most urgent trend of all will be facing the scale and scope of climate change, and using whatever technologies and tools we can to remediate against its effects.

Looking into the future for me and for us all

Above all, what is ahead in our future is increasing interconnectedness of our experiences. It’s the perfect time to adopt the mindset that in many respects what I do does affect you just as what you do affects me, and that we’re in this together. We need to accept our futures as wholly connected: connected through data, connected to each other, connected to the planet, connected to our collective destinies.

That connectedness shows in the work I’m lined up to do. To prepare for the bookings I have for 2020 so far, for example, I will be examining more deeply the future of jobs and work, the future of privacy, the future of trust, the future of the climate, and more. All of these topics have a through-line: the future of human experiences will depend heavily on our wise use of technology, collectively and individually.

Speaking of my bookings in 2020, I have talks booked throughout the U.S. — and in Budapest for the first time! If you happen to be able to attend any of these events, be sure to come up and say hi — I’d love to see you. And of course you can always book me to speak at your company or event.

And! I’ve begun to work on my next book. More on that to come, but you can be sure it will follow along these themes.

But for now the big question is:

What will you do with the future for you and for us all?

Here’s hoping you find the quiet reflection you need in these last days of 2019 to set the kinds of intentions that will guide you to achieve what you most want to achieve, for your own good and for the good of humanity.


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 2020, please do reach out. Here’s to a meaningful year for us all. 

Beyond Customer Experience

Businesses are finally starting to catch on that a disciplined approach to improving the customer experience leads to profit. That’s the starting point, and it’s fantastic.

But what’s the next step? What’s beyond improving the customer experience?

Well, we can think about the customer not merely as a customer, but as a well-rounded human being, who takes on many roles throughout the course of a day: patient, student, user, guest, citizen, not to mention friend, employee, parent, and so on. We can improve the human experience.

How can we improve human experience? How can we think about those many roles we all have in a business context, and why should we?

Those additional roles become dimensions of the person you’re trying to do business with. The more dimensional that person is to you, the more likely you’ll be able to offer them value. When you offer them value, you establish the basis of a meaningful relationship.

We always have to look for the human nuances if we want to build meaning.