What is a good question?

Asking good questions is an important part of the KO insights process. Naturally, we want to define what makes a question good. There is no definitive answer to this question, but there are a few things that all good questions have in common.

First, good questions are specific. They don’t try to ask too much all at once, but instead focus on a specific issue or problem. This allows us to explore the problem in depth and find a more targeted solution.

Second, good questions are clear. They are free of ambiguity and confusion so that we can understand them fully and know exactly what we need to do to answer them.

Third, good questions are open-ended. They invite exploration and creativity rather than demanding a single, correct answer. This allows us to think more deeply about the problem and come up with a more original solution.

Finally, good questions are relevant. They address a real need or problem that we are facing so that we can find a useful and actionable solution.

Asking good questions is an essential part of the process of looking for insights. By focusing our questions and keeping them relevant, clear, and open-ended, we can explore problems more deeply and find more original solutions.

How transformative is digital transformation supposed to be?

how transformative is human centric digital transformation supposed to be

The headlines these days have been even more challenging than usual.*

Or perhaps — hear me out — you could make that statement at almost moment ever, and people would agree: the headlines right now are more challenging than usual.

Humans have a very complicated relationship with change, and that’s partly because we have a very complicated relationship with time. We also tend to think of moments other than now as exceptional: that there was something extra-special about historical events that nothing happening now could possibly compare to. We miss the significance of what happens sometimes when we don’t see it through the lens of history. Yet on the other hand, we overlook the extraordinary ordinariness of this moment: this moment right here could be the one when we decide to commit to fully-engaged climate action that won’t settle for less than true resilience for the planet and all its people. Or it could just as easily have been a moment 10 or 20 or 40 years ago. All we need is to make the moment happen.

Transformation, digital and otherwise

I’m saying all of this partly because if your organization is anything like most of those I’ve spoken and consulted with, you’re still trying to figure out exactly what digital transformation is supposed to mean for you and your customers. (It’s ok: I’m not naming names. Your secret is safe with me.)

So it’s totally fair if you’re wondering just how transformative this whole process is actually supposed to be. “How deeply should we be thinking about transformation beyond digital? I mean, transformation means change, and that might mean all kinds of change, and we’re already up to our ears in change. Just how much change are we talking about, Kate, and how deep can we expect it to go?”

Those questions are good. After all, questions lead to insights, and insights steer you to the answers and solutions that serve the moment and the context.

So yes, I hear you. Let’s unpack.

Transformation of business models, value chains, and the whole ecosystem

The questions we’re asking may be prompting some deeper insights — and they might get uncomfortable. The questions about just how far transformational strategy is supposed to go reach deep into our relationship with change and time, and the insights that emerge might sound a bit like ‘everything is connected.’ And the more we consider that, the more it paints a picture of a need for holistic change.

We can’t solve for the future of work without considering what work means to us. We can’t make sense of the weird future of money and solve for the future of the economy without understanding what the economy is, fundamentally.

We can’t solve the climate with technology, but once we have deeply considered what we’re trying to solve for, we can absolutely harness the power and capacity of technology to solve human problems at scale.

You may be asking different questions and coming up with different answers. That’s perfectly understandable. After all, digital transformation is bound to look different in different industries, in different organizations, given different externalities (like, say, oh I don’t know, how a global pandemic affected your region and your business). And depending on your role, the way you experience the questions and insights about transformational strategy might even be slightly different than other types of employees in your organization.

The digital transformation of experiences… and not

But our questions began with digital transformation, so let’s go ahead and give the topic its due. By the time we arrive at this part of our journey, after considering the broader context of transformation, we can see that the digitalization of experiences has the potential to transform not only the way we do business but also the way we live.

For inspiration on how data-supported and connected innovations are reshaping industries, look no further than the banking sector: As we’ve seen over the past few years, digital innovation is disrupting traditional models, redefining our understanding of value and asset classes, and pushing established brands to rethink how they engage with their customers.

This disruption is by no means limited to financial services. We can see it in other sectors such as hotels, airlines, and hospitality businesses. And yet, for all that disruption, the experience architecture of interacting with a hotel or airline has not fundamentally changed. You still check in and check out, for example — but now, rather than a human at a desk or counter, it’s more common to do these activities through an app. (Or in some settings, perhaps with a robot stationed behind the counter.)

It means personal transformation too

The Great Resignation, if you look at it with enough empathy, has been about personal transformation. Between the covid pandemic and the accelerating climate crisis, plenty of people are feeling like the core of their humanity and their employment is out of sync. We need a new approach to work that allows us to feel in touch with our humanity.

Transformational strategy needs insights

When I describe what I do, I sometimes say I offer “insights for transformational strategy.” (I might sometimes add “that leads to better business and better human experiences,” but it depends how concise I’m trying to be.) Transformational strategy is needed anytime we’re facing outside pressures, changing market demands, evolving technological landscape, or, y’know, random externalities that alter the entire landscape (ahem, covid).

The rapid responses to COVID-19 in healthcare, education, retail, and food service have given us a glimpse at an accelerated world of digital-ready experiences. Through the power of connected video calls and a little imagination, you can visit a dentist virtually, attend a wedding on the other side of the world, conduct a socially-distanced photo shoot, and, as we all learned ad nauseum during the lockdown days, so very much more.

Questions to get you started

You need good questions to get those insights going, right? Here are some starters to get you talking with your team:

  • No matter what transformation you are considering, what is the purpose you are trying to achieve at scale?
  • What is an emotional state that people are often in when they find your brand, and how can you, with respect and empathy, plan your digital systems to meet that state of mind?
  • How can you emphasize alignment?
  • If covid or the climate crisis meant a complete end to all in-person interactions that happen for your brand, how would you make sure to add human touches and a sense of human connection to the digital versions?
  • What is significant about the passage of time in the experience people have with your brand or product?

These questions might not (and shouldn’t) have easy answers, but they should begin the process of searching for insights. Once you have an a-ha moment, your next steps should be clearer.

And Finally: How to Offer Meaningful, Transformational Help

* This post begins with an oblique reference to the war in Ukraine, and we can’t leave without suggesting some ways to offer meaningful help.

Global Citizen has a robust list of resources for anyone looking to offer help in Ukraine or stay informed about the situation.

The International Rescue Committee (IRC) is raising emergency funds to help displaced families.

CNN has partnered with Public Good to raise funds to be distributed among 15 organizations, or if you see a particular organization doing work that means something special to you, you can also donate directly at the same link.

Your metaverse strategy needs to go beyond Facebook

As a business leader, you’ve probably been eyeing the headlines about the metaverse and pondering your organization’s future there. Maybe you already have a metaverse strategy — in which case, congratulations on your virtual fashions, virtual makeup, virtual bank lobby, or whatever other virtual product you’ve already launched. Or perhaps you’re watching the news of the metaverse a bit like a drunk patron at an all-night diner watching a rat in the corner to make sure it doesn’t get any closer as you hurry to eat your grilled cheese.

Speaking as someone who founded a business called [meta]marketer in the late 2000s, the observation of the “meta” nature of much of the digital space is not new. But given Facebook’s brand pivot to Meta, this seems like the moment to delve into this topic more fully here.

Sorry, I had to do it.

What does all this have to do with Facebook?

If you’ve been living under a rock (or in quarantine) for the past few months: there’s been a bit of discussion about Facebook lately. This includes not just the outcry surrounding their unethical ad practices, but also the implications of their algorithmic manipulation of content in users’ feeds. A lot of this discussion has been brought to high alert by whistleblowers like Frances Haugen.

But Facebook has also garnered headlines (and, pardon my skepticism, effectively diverted some of the public sentiment from outrage to curiosity) for the announcement of their new corporate structure, with Meta as the name of the new overarching company above Facebook, Instagram, Whatsapp, Oculus, and everything else.

As someone who has been widely quoted (and somewhat misquoted) for my criticism of Facebook in the media, allow me to go on record in saying this:

The metaverse isn’t Facebook, and that’s good news.

But why not adopt Facebook’s platform for your metaverse strategy? Why look beyond Facebook?

I’m not here to crucify or praise Facebook, nor am I trying to rule out their role in future metaverse efforts. I’m certain their contributions will be substantial. But at best, those efforts are likely to be proprietary and built around these same questionable ethical practices that keep bringing them back into the headlines.

Their objectives will naturally be to increase the time users spend in their apps, increase their advertising revenue, and increase user growth. These goals are a pretty standard part of an overall company strategy that aims to build value for the shareholders of that company. So Facebook isn’t evil because they want these things — in this respect, they’re simply acting as a business. The sticking point is the means by which they achieve them, what they’re willing to sacrifice in the meantime, and the lengths to which they’re willing to go.

Just one more, sorry.

The larger potential of virtual worlds

I’ve said for years that our digital selves are our aspirational selves, and that was before we had the latest bloom of deeply immersive virtual playgrounds to spin our avatar around in.

If we think about virtual worlds as the earliest adopter of the metaverse label, it makes sense that Facebook would want to harness them for their potential. It’s already been happening with “social VR” experiences like AltspaceVR and vTime. We’re seeing more indications of this trend with relationship statuses between Oculus Rift and Spaces. We see it in the News Feed’s support of 360 degree video. As tech companies become more enamored with the potential of virtual reality, they’ll try to take control where it matters most: social media. The advertising implications are significant, as is the opportunity for them to tie your identity to one identity across all these devices/implementations/experiences.

But this is precisely why I’m wary of Facebook’s enterprise in the metaverse. Even if their contributions are intended to be open source, they’ll be tied up with legal agreements that could potentially give them an upper hand in how these technologies develop. The implications for user privacy and security are tremendous when it comes to transitioning between virtual worlds. We just don’t have time for them to play catch-up on cleaning up their ethical practices while they simultaneously try to figure out how best to lock down and monetize the virtual land-grab.

In any case, the metaverse isn’t Facebook, and Facebook’s vision of the metaverse isn’t the be-all end-all. There are entire worlds of creative vision left to dream up and implement. Which is why you need a good metaverse strategy to build from: one that puts human experience at the center, and pulls your brand forward.

What should your metaverse strategy actually look like, then?

Well, this part is fun. This is part of what I address in my keynote and consulting around Third Places and Third Spaces. If you are beginning a brainstorming process with your team, here are some thought-starters you can use to provoke discussion and ideas.

  • Think about interoperability. What is the value of being radically extensible?
  • Think about expansiveness. What is the meaning of extending beyond perceived limitations, while simultaneously offering a sense of place?
  • Think about the value of your brand to people who enjoy it. What does that suggest about the economy of the experience your brand can create?
  • Think about persistence, synchronicity, and on-demand experiences. Think also about the value of special experiences that might happen at one time. What does that temporal value mean to the people who enjoy your brand?

These are questions and provocations that aren’t intended to have simple, easy answers. They’re meant to get your brain gears turning and new ideas churning.

The best answers here are those that pull you forward into new insights about your brand and how to enrich your offering with relevance.

As always, if we can be of help, please reach out.

I look forward to seeing what strategic visions you bring to the metaverse. The opportunity is so much bigger than any one company. And it’s big enough to bring your brand — and the people who interact with it — into a brighter future.

Why Strategic Optimism is not toxic positivity

Today is National Optimists Day, apparently. (I mean, there’s a day for everything.)

In honor of the, uh, holiday(?), I wanted to address a point of confusion that has surfaced in a few of my media interviews since launching A Future So Bright. People latch on to the word “bright” in the title as well as “optimism” in the book’s subtitle (“How Strategic Optimism and Meaningful Innovation Can Restore Our Humanity and Save the World”) and they tend to overlook the all-important word “strategic” — not to mention the “meaningful innovation” bit, which is a necessary piece of the solution.

In other words, there seems to be a temptation to reduce the entire discussion to something like “looking on the bright side of life.” And hey, I can certainly own that a good deal of the fault here lies with me for titling the book that way. But there’s so much more to this book than the reductive idea of “looking on the bright side.” Rather than gloss over the darkness and the problems in the world, the ideas in the book are intended to help us face those challenges and still create the brighter future we’d like to see. So here on National Optimists Day, I’d very much like to clear up this misunderstanding.

Because so many discussions about what it means to be optimistic veer into the realm of what is often referred to as “toxic positivity.” And when it comes to technology, optimistic views too often lead to a mindless kind of techno-optimism, or techno-utopianism. None of this is actually helpful.

What IS helpful is to blend an optimistic view of what’s possible with a strategy for how to get there. Strategic Optimism, as I call it. That way we see the best of what we can achieve, and we get to work, with a plan, to make it happen. It’s an active process. All the while, we acknowledge what can go wrong and work to prevent the risks and harms from happening. But our focus — and our effort — stays oriented toward the best outcomes.

So think of this as a gift in celebration of National Optimists Day, if you like: I’ve decided to share below a good chunk of what I wrote about optimism — and specifically about my model of Strategic Optimism — in A Future So Bright, free for you to read right here. (And of course, after that you are welcome to go buy the book.) I’ve even added boldface emphasis in a few places to help you skim if you just want to get the broad strokes.

Let’s have a look:

Optimism gets a bad rap. […] So for reasons I’ll lay out here, the position I’m taking is clear-eyed, determined optimism with a commitment to follow-through, and it’s the stance I hope you’ll take alongside me before you’re finished reading this book.

The problem with optimism has been that instead of wielding it as a powerful tool for envisioning and working toward the best outcomes, people roundly mock it as a folly of the naïve. Historically, optimism in literature and philosophy has been dismissed as unthinking, unserious, unintellectual. And when they aren’t being ridiculed, optimists are scorned for willfully ignoring real harms.

But what about the advantages of looking at the bright side? A savvy approach to optimism can help us avoid the kind of failure that comes from not thinking about what might happen if things go better than we planned. And when it’s used properly and paired with the right tools, as I’ll explain in this book, optimism can actually help us acknowledge the whole truth of our circumstances, direct our focus, and align our efforts toward the best way forward.

Optimism doesn’t have to be simple-minded, shortsighted, or unaccompanied by rationalism. So yes indeed, there is a way to harness the power of optimism so that it is as clear-eyed as possible, as strategic as possible, as inclusive as possible, as aligned with success as possible, as actionable as possible, and as achievable as possible. That is the only optimism worth having, and it is the approach this book lays out.

[…]

The best way—perhaps the only way—to build a bright future is to challenge ourselves to envision the best future possible for the most people while at the same time acknowledging the ways the future could go dark and working to prevent that from happening.

Looking at what can go right as well as what can go wrong is a key part of what I call the Strategic Optimism Model. […] What this approach asks of us, in short, is to look at the whole picture, acknowledge the risks and the potential harms, and then actively work to mitigate them as we steer toward the most helpful, most meaningful outcomes.

The biggest obstacle in front of us? We’ve been taught to think about and talk about the future in too limited a way. Dystopia versus utopia? That’s more than useless; it’s dangerous. The falseness of that dichotomy (which we’ll explore in Beyond “Dystopia versus Utopia“), the dismissal of utopia as impossible, and the resulting despair of being left to accept an ever-encroaching dystopia keeps us from focusing on and addressing what we can actively do every day to ensure tomorrow is better than today, and next year is better than this year. It’s time to disrupt dystopia and give ourselves the freedom to imagine the bright future we really want to create.

— O’Neill, Kate. A Future So Bright: How Strategic Optimism and Meaningful Innovation Can Restore Our Humanity and Save the World. KO Insights.

Got that? Good. Feeling fired up? Even better. Here’s some more:

Let’s start with what Strategic Optimism is not:

Strategic Optimism is not “the power of positive thinking.”

Positive thinking is appealing for many and arguably important as guidance for aligning resources and focusing efforts. But I find its most devout adherents often take its application too far and apply it too literally.

It can quickly turn into an ugly case of victim blaming—as in, if you don’t have everything, you must not be thinking positively enough. For example: Got cancer? Why don’t you just think your way out of it?

That’s not at all the mindset we’re looking for here. Where the positivity principles do make sense is in aligning with our experience. The key is that framing our goals in terms of positive outcomes as opposed to negative ones—e.g., “I want to be wealthy” instead of “I don’t want to be broke”—generally lends itself to a stronger overall ability to focus and rally resources. It makes a very simple kind of sense: There is momentum in the positive, whereas the negative is all about stopping, and there’s no forward motion in that. Life is all about forward motion, so it’s practical to use a mental model that aligns with our experience and feels like it accompanies us as we move through time and space.

It’s not a matter of “law of attraction” or “power of positive thinking,” but rather of accepting that perceived limitations change our actions. If we let our beliefs limit us, we are guaranteed not to try.

Strategic Optimism is not about ignoring the limitations, risks, or harms that do exist; in fact, it’s about acknowledging the full reality of the current situation and the full range of possible outcomes, mitigating the worst outcomes, and working diligently toward achieving the best.

So what is Strategic Optimism, then?

The best results come about when we not only visualize the best possible future but also make a plan to commit ourselves to achieving it. This by necessity entails some variation of making goals, creating timelines, and sticking to them. In other words, developing some kind of strategy to achieve what you are hoping for.

Laying out a plan also means acknowledging the risks and harms that could occur and developing more plans to mitigate those, but also spending time on the ways the plan could go right and investing effort in ensuring those positive results come to fruition.

When we lay out our plans for the future, we know that we need to acknowledge the risks, but we often forget to spend as much time thinking about the opportunities. This can actually cost us: We might underestimate how successful a new product could be, for instance, and fail to have a way to meet demand; we might negotiate well below the value of our contributions in a job or a project; we might be so preoccupied with worst-case scenarios that when our moment to shine takes us by surprise, we’re fully unprepared for it.

— O’Neill, Kate. A Future So Bright: How Strategic Optimism and Meaningful Innovation Can Restore Our Humanity and Save the World. KO Insights.

It’s hard to overstate how helpful optimism with a strategy can be — while at the same time it’s hard to overstate how harmful it is to allow the above to be oversimplified and made into positivity without a plan.

Throughout my research, I kept encountering quotes about optimism. Some of them resonated, some very much did not. This discussion brings me back to one of the two quotes that I chose to the open the book, which spoke to me the most:

“My optimism wears heavy boots and is loud.”

— Henry Rollins

My optimism brings a strategy. How about yours?

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