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.

The uncanniness of seeing human beings where human beings are not supposed to be

Somewhere on my computer, I keep a collection of images of humans showing up in non-human contexts. These are contexts that are supposed to be sterile and devoid of humanity. If you’ve just wandered into my site on a search, that may sound like a rather odd hobby; if you’ve been here a while you’ve known for a long time that this is par for the course.

Anyway, it goes like this: I’m a lifelong devotee of secondhand shopping. Naturally, I’m a huge fan of the website thredUP. (Disclosure: that link is a referral link that’s worth $10 to us both if you’re a new customer). It’s a fantastic site for buying used women’s (and children’s) clothes, with lots of great features like saved searches and such. They’ve even featured me as one of the most fashionable women in the US, if you can believe that. They’re a fast-growing, tech-enabled company that went public earlier this year (more disclosure: I definitely bought some of those shares). And their efficient process for photographing the roughly 100K items that get merchandised to their storefront every day generally results in very high-quality photos of their items. In fact, they have a patent on that photography process.

But every now and then, when you’re not expecting to, you’ll see a human sneak into the photo. Just an arm, or a torso. It’s vaguely disconcerting but also kind of warm and humbling, a peek behind the curtain and a reminder that there are people behind so many processes we take for granted. (Note that the topic of “ghost workers” has come up repeatedly on The Tech Humanist Show.)

human torso with clothes on thredup
Hello, human!

Digital Weirdness

It’s also an example of what I like to call Digital Weirdness. And this one below strikes me as extra-weird in that they actually included it in their Instagram ad carousel.

human arm with blazer on thredup
Advertising the weirdness

I am, of course, not alone in having this hobby: Andrew Norman Wilson has a 2019 piece at WIRED about his collection of human hands showing up in Google Books scanned images. Enjoy.

A Closer Look at KO Insights 2022 Technology & Cultural Trends

Nothing changes faster than the trends you haven’t been paying attention to. But in the past few years there’s been SO MUCH OTHER STUFF to pay attention to that you’d be forgiven for taking your eye off of the zeitgeist.

That’s fundamentally why I began sharing these trends. Over the years, our savviest clients have asked for insights presentations, wanting to know the patterns I was seeing emerge from my vantage point of working across a broad range of industries for a wide variety of clients.

They’re not just any trends, though. Since I founded KO Insights, our work has been committed to improving human experiences at scale, so we’re always keeping an eye on the horizon for emerging trends that relate to that mission.

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

  1. Through the topics that have bubbled up repeatedly in direct conversations with business leaders, civic leaders, and industry thought leaders
  2. Through noticing emergent patterns in news and industry chatter
  3. Through direct research into peer-reviewed studies
  4. Through observations and insights of my own. Which is, after all, what the name of the company promises. It’s what’s on the label.

What all of the resulting topics have in common is that they’re poised to impact human experience in the next few years, and offer considerations leaders should be weighing now. They also reflect the macro themes, such as the ways the current global climate crisis is reverberating through industries and across communities everywhere.

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

This week we’ll offer a brief look at each of the trends included in the map. In weeks to come we’ll unpack them further, but be sure to let us know if you’re particularly interested in one or the other; we’ll be happy to prioritize the order somewhat based on your feedback.

The 2022 trends are:

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

You can read a little more about each one below.

The Immersive Trends

Always-On Economies

Virtual work, virtual learning, virtual retail, etc

The pandemic has thrust many of us deeper into the virtual versions of the activities that occupy our days, whether that’s work, school, socializing, gaming, or the miscellany of errands and tasks we fulfill online, like shopping, banking, and even medical care. Owing to on-demand content and services, distributed user bases, and algorithmic and machine-generated experiences, these spaces have become “always-on” economies, and they are becoming more and more the norm.

This trend introduces several unique experience considerations. For example, as we live more and more in virtual worlds, our “real life” physical environments must function as shared spaces as well — shared with those with whom we live or work or play, either virtually or physically. Another side effect of such immersive technology is that it will create a growing need to protect our personal information, and how we trade it for services and products.

Virtual Third Spaces & Emerging Subcultures

Metaverse, Web3

The first spaces people spent time in online were virtual chat rooms & services like AOL’s local chat rooms, which often served subcultures that had very little interest in ever meeting face-to-face. Imagine those spaces, but on a much larger scale, and integrated with our day-to-day lives and functions.

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

How do you represent yourself to others? What are the rules & expectations that surround this? These are some of the experience considerations we’ll be weighing as we examine this trend. We already see many people making their avatars look like them or someone they admire, and at times dressing them in ways that are out of the ordinary, daring, or simply unattainable in the physical world.

Intuitive Intelligence

Machine learning into human emotional expression, nuance, abstraction

Researchers are trying to detect human sentiment with machine learning, and piece together nuance and abstraction in a variety of interesting ways. These include chatbots, but also machines that play games and learn to beat human players (and do so again and again).

The capacity to do tremendous good with this kind of technology is enormous. Therapy bots are a current example that can help people who need mental health support and feel less awkward — at least initially — chatting with a bot than seeking out a human therapist. But of course the potential is there as well for these to be deployed in ways that are creepy, invasive, authoritarian, and just otherwise harmful.

The experience considerations here are vast, and will play into everything from personal privacy to public policy. Among the concerns are the fear that machines will eliminate or threaten highly-skilled human jobs; another concern is whether machines can be truly impartial when making decisions on our behalf. We’ll be looking at all of it.

Augmented Everyday Experiences

AR brings integrative entertainment, just-in-time context

I’m on record all over the place saying that augmented reality is the emerging tech I’m most excited about due to its potential to offer just-in-time contextual relevance — which is a form of meaning. Any technology that can be used to offer more meaningful human experiences is one worth exploring.

Of course, to think about the experience design and strategy considerations of augmenting everyday experiences is a bit meta, but we thrive in the land of meta. So we’ll continue to explore the implications of this trend on both a societal and personal level. This technology has the capacity to enhance or amplify experiences without replacing them fully with virtualized equivalents. So the experience design considerations will focus on how to integrate technology in ways that support our lives, not compete with them or require their wholesale reinvention.

Biometric Face-Off

Facial recognition & other biometric tech meets deployment & caution

This is an area I’ve been quoted on extensively in the past few years. There’ve been some developments in the past year, and we’ve written about some of them here at the site. But there are many still-to-come instances of this technology being rolled out in new ways, so we’ll continue to investigate what it means for personal privacy and other implications.

A sub-trend here is how facial recognition will be used in real-time by police & government authorities during protests to catalog & identify people who take part. This is already happening in some places, but it’s very likely only the beginning of what’s to come.


The Integrative Trends

Making Tech Safe for Humans

Emerging tech meets ethics, human protections, etc

In the age of algorithmic decision-making, these are the questions that will arise more and more frequently: How do we know if a machine or artificially intelligent algorithm is making decisions for human beings that are fair, just, accurate, unbiased?

What is bias in data inputs used to train machines, etc. — and how can it vary by race, gender, political affiliation, geography?

Who’s accountable for errors made by machines?

There are many related questions, of course. But the point is that ethics and human protections must be integral features of emerging technologies. If not, humanity could pay an incredibly steep price for new technology before we over-correct to “fix” what we’ve allowed to scale.

Value Disruption

DeFi, NFTs, Bitcoin, mobile payments, cryptocurrency, blockchain

There are big social issues around the speed at which these technologies and platforms are developing. Will they be used for crime and corruption and just plain greed? Sure, but then so will other technologies that don’t rely on decentralization or blockchain’s distributed nature.

We’ve written a bit about this here, but the theme is: money is getting weirder. We’ll continue to explore the innovations and risks, and follow the policy experts on what sorts of regulations might need to be implemented to protect people and use technology in positive, productive ways.

The larger question I’m interested in looking at, though, is in the relationship between disruption — or creative destruction — and meaningful human value. And what new ways might emerge to move from disruption to value-driven innovation. Because the most important part of designing new technologies is ensuring that they can make life better for humans. That means that at some level they must benefit society and the planet at large, not simply advance for technology’s sake. If they don’t, they are not helping us solve the many problems of the present to get to the future we need.

Food Innovation

Combating losses of covid & insecurity with innovations, planet-centric diets

What does the future of our food look like?

Agricultural innovation will be focused on protecting crops to better feed more people. We know that climate change is impacting crop yields, and we urgently need approaches to overcome it. Will lab-grown meat solve our issues around waste production & energy usage? Seems like the questions are more complex than the answers so far.

But as someone who’s been vegetarian for 27 years and vegan for 24, I’m delighted to see an enormous push to make plant-based proteins seem more consumer friendly. I’m especially happy to see the trend toward lab-grown meat that doesn’t require the energy and environmental impact of cattle production. But overall the emphasis is less about plant-based and more about planet-based eating. It just so happens that for now, those two ideas are rather aligned. We’ll be watching this space with interest.

Adaptive Cities

Place-by-place experiments in resilience

The Adaptive City is the global trend of cities undertaking initiatives to better prepare themselves for uncertain futures, whether due to climate change or political volatility. This is as much about major cities developing climate resilience and mitigation strategies as it is about smaller-scale community planning, with a focus on flexibility and affordability in addition to resilience.

Among the tasks cities are taking up are improving infrastructure (laying additional infrastructure underground to make up for above-ground changes) and ensuring the availability of available housing. This is a big trend for the decade to come, and given our work with cities, we will be following it closely.

The Economy is People

Local, community, collectives, mutual aid

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

Work Rework

Great Resignation, hybrid workplaces, evolving ideas of workplace, work, team

In the pre-2019 days, there was already considerable interest in what the future of work would look like. But in light of the pandemic’s impacts, in light of the shift to remote work and hybrid workplaces, in light of the Great Resignation, in light of the ongoing clamor to wrap our minds around the future of work — we’re still in the early days of this evolution.

Truth & Trust in Doubt

Geopolitical upheaval, misinfo/disinfo, etc

The past few years have seen a deluge of issues in the crisis around trust and truth: “fake news,” suspicions of media bias, the future of democracy in the age of algorithmically-boosted misinformation and propaganda.

We’ve written about this here and we’ll continue to examine these issues.

Personally, the more I think about it, the more I see that we’ll have to work toward truth and trust from the ground up — through education and changing our perspective on what it means to be well-informed. We need tech solutions to untangle tech problems like the amplification of misinformation, but we also need media literacy, citizen literacy, and engaging one another in civil discourse.


The Innovative Trends

The KO Insights working definition of innovative is “aligned with what is going to matter.”

Education Everywhere

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

The future of learning and education is evolving in a time when we’re grappling with ways to help people cope with change and remain flexible, so they can participate amid public health emergencies, so they can learn at their own pace, so they can compete. It’s easy to imagine a future of learning and education that is “just in time,” ad hoc, and scalable — so people can learn on their own timeline within the constraints of our lives. But these conditions aren’t available to everyone equally, and so the future of education must also grapple with inequity and access.

Covid-to-Climate Momentum Transfer

Hopeful strategic innovation

Of course we’re paying attention to climate momentum anyway, but the rapid technological advancements and digital transformation that have accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic offers incredible opportunity to harness that momentum towards climate mitigation. Observers across industries have noted the opportunity; now it’s just a matter of leaders making the decisions that will most effectively deliver on that promise.

Overcoming Supply Chain Chaos with Sustainability

Investing in greener fleets & fuel

Corporate social responsibility, supply chain management, ESG, ethical procurement — there is growing awareness of these topics as they relate to greener fleets, supply chain chaos, and how these will be addressed in the future.

This also relates to transportation innovation as a whole. Future transport is one of the largest sectors in our series. We’re watching the evolution of electric vehicles including trucks, transportation systems for coastal communities, and more. We’re even keeping our eyes on private spaceflight, although that’s not likely to be a trend we report on here very soon.

Navigating the Just Transition

The challenging move away from fossil fuels

As we undertake the process of moving away from fossil fuels, issues come up around fairness and justice for communities affected by changing policies and initiatives, like native people and people living in low-income neighborhoods in cities, which are often subject to the greatest climate impacts.

The future of work also ties into this topic––green jobs are growing, which is great, because we need solutions for job transitions. And while gender equity isn’t tied to climate per se, studies show the impact of climate change hitting women in developing countries hardest.

This also includes issues related to mobility justice — making sure communities have access to greener infrastructure.

But the scope of this trend actually goes farther and includes sub-topics like: collaborative movements, social impact startups, feminist economics, inclusive policy-making, radical social justice, upending power dynamics, systemic change, universal basic income, collaboration-driven initiatives, building from the ground up, and so on.


And that’s just barely scratching the surface on all of these trends. We plan to dive deeper into each of these topics in the weeks to come, but in the meantime I hope these summaries have given you food for thought in terms of how you might be thinking about your future strategy.

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

I’ll leave you with just one last thought. Although it’s impossible to actually predict the future, one thing is easy to anticipate: the world will continue to need your bold and savvy leadership in the future. More than ever.

KO Insights 2022 Technology & Cultural Trend Map

When I launched this company in 2014, I chose the word “insights” with intention. I thought of it as my duty to my clients to be a keen observer of the world and to distill what I gleaned about what mattered — in other words, what is meaningful. As time has gone on and our work has developed, I have also found that paying attention to what matters also leads you to understand what is likely going to matter. For our clients, this means offering not just insight, but also strategic foresight.

That has meant honing the skill of following the trajectory of trends and casting them forward into the future to see what the likely significance is for clients.

So every new year since 2015 I have created a map, of sorts, plotting the trends I’m tracking related to the intersection of technology and humanity that seem most likely to shape the year or so ahead. In past years, I’ve only shared it with clients during consultations and keynotes. This year, in keeping with the expansive spirit of the trends themselves, I’m sharing it widely.

What are the overarching themes of 2022?

Throughout our work, there’s been a macro trend of expansion and connectedness. Those themes certainly surface in the global trends, too. And these actually complement one another, because as everything connects to everything else, everything also gets bigger and harder to make sense of. That trend helps explain the rise of certain populist themes in politics and media, as well: In times of complexity, simplicity feels like a luxury.

Overall, the recurring themes in the 2022 trends were:

  • an emphasis on human experience at scale
  • emphasis on experience innovation rather than digital transformation
  • questions of social justice and equity throughout
small image of the 2022 trend map
thumbnail image of the KO Insights 2022 Technology & Cultural Trend Map

Why do I call it a trend map?

It’s not describing a place, so why do I call this a “map”? Well, maps are a metaphor for guidance, for wayfinding in the world. One bit of wisdom about maps is that “the map is not the territory.” In other words, there is the whole of reality, and there is what you choose to represent. It’s a cousin of the idea Magritte was alluding to with his famous painting of a pipe and the words “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (“This is not a pipe”). The map is not the territory, the painting is not the pipe, and trends are not the whole of reality. But this map is meant to be a starting reference and a useful provocation, and an essential way to view the territory that is the year — and years — ahead.

While you’re here, download a copy of the 2022 Trend Map

To help you plan your year with Strategic Optimism toward a brighter future, we’d love to offer you the KO Insights 2022 Technology & Cultural Trend Map as a letter-size PDF you can print out and pin up near your desk. Note that while we’ll ask for your email address, you can sign up for our mailing list during the process but you don’t have to if you don’t want to

We’ll be unpacking these trends one-by-one in blog posts and reports, and looking at the implications they have on future strategy in the weeks and months to come, in alignment with scheduled keynotes, upcoming episodes of The Tech Humanist Show, and programs we’re launching throughout the year. But if this raises questions right now in your leadership meetings, consider reaching out to schedule a strategy session.

In any case, I hope that even at a high level this map will help you consider what will need to happen to make your strategy more meaningful, more aligned, and more impactful in the year and years to come.

Here’s wishing you clarity and success.

Kate O signature

The weirding of the future of money

everyone’s favorite ‘stonks’ meme

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

So it’s been a lucky break for me that in the past few months I’ve had the opportunity to deliver keynotes for conferences with audiences of credit union leaders, financial regulators, asset managers, and a variety of other financial and banking professionals.

This serendipitous convergence has been an interesting opportunity to re-examine my research and writing on the future of value and money from A Future So Bright, as well as the research and writing on the future of trust and truth.

So what does this weirdness mean for you?

Well, you’re going to have to accept it because money isn’t just weird now, it will continue to get weirder. Cryptocurrencies and non-fungible tokens (NFTs) are two developments you should look at to understand this “weirding.”

Together these technologies will change not only how people view assets, but how they manage those assets and their resulting wealth. What’s important about crypto and NFTs isn’t that they’re part of the future, but the effect they have on shaping that future.

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

People will have to understand the importance of decentralization, as well as just what a blockchain is. They’ll need to be tech savvy enough to invest in the future without getting scammed out of what they’re worth now.

In short, people are going to have to deal with a lot of weird stuff — which is why it’s so important for business leaders to look at the emerging trends now, for people to familiarize ourselves with the shifting landscape, and for social justice issues to be factored into that future.

In case you haven’t been tracking closely enough, here are a few key trends that may be showing up on your radar screen:

meme stocks – these are digital assets issued for companies that are based on memes and viral content.

cryptocurrencies and blockchain protocols – while some people view cryptos as the key to decentralization, others see them more like a payment method or commodity. Cryptocurrencies are likely to continue to play a key role in how people do digital transactions, but they won’t be the end-all, be-all for money or assets.

People also need to understand what a blockchain protocol is if they want to invest in the future of money and value. Blockchains are the decentralized ledgers that record transactions and timestamps on a network, and they were first introduced as part of Bitcoin (BTC). Those protocols will increasingly impact other industries outside of finance, but there’s work to do first in terms of educating people about their potential impact. (And that includes their ecological impact, as I wrote about in A Future So Bright.)

NFTs – these are the digital tokens that have created a new kind of asset class. They represent ownership, whether it’s decentralized or centrally managed, and they can be fungible (like cryptos) or non-fungible (unique like art).

Enthusiasts see NFTs as the key to decentralization, because they take people out of the center where their worth is defined by institutions.

digital scarcity – We tend to think of tangible goods as scarce and digital assets as freely reproducible, but NFTs limit the supply of a digital asset and create inherent value without institutions or centralization.

If none of that helped clear anything up, just understand this: every day, the future of money is getting weirder than ever before, but with that weirdness comes opportunity. If you’re not thinking about what that means for your business and industry today, you may be missing out on the chance to create new value and experiences. And you may be surprised when someone comes out with, say, a blockchain protocol that makes your business obsolete. You need to understand how this “weirding” will impact your space.

Remember: The Economy is People

I’ve made this point repeatedly, but it’s more important than ever to remember that the economy isn’t just an abstract concept of money and digital assets — it’s people. It’s about people and their well-being, how well they can provide for themselves, and what they want for themselves and their families. It’s also about who will be dis-empowered if we don’t work now to secure our digital rights.

The importance of financing climate resilience

We’re already seeing the impacts of climate change; it’s going to be a key factor in our ongoing future. Left unresolved, the effects of climate change will have devastating impacts on human populations around the world. Because of its severity, we need to address this global crisis now, and there’s an opportunity here: finance innovation can help us better prepare for the worst of possible futures.

It’s about making sure that communities can survive when things get worse. It’s about allocating capital to projects that will help them thrive in the face of climate change. And it’s about investing in new technologies that will help people adapt to a changing world.

The future will always bring surprises, so we’d better prepare for those as well. It’s about laying plans for the best possible outcomes, while also being prepared to adapt to the worst, or just anything that comes next.

The future may be weird, but it can also be bright if we make empowered decisions today to invest in a better tomorrow.

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)

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. 

Augmenting Human Experiences for More Meaning: Lessons from the Arizona Canyons

I’m reminded by my memories on Facebook (yes, I still have Facebook for a variety of reasons — that’s a separate post) that it was two years ago that Robbie and I took a side trip to the Grand Canyon and Antelope Canyon after I delivered a keynote for the Arizona CIO/CTO Forum.

I’m so glad we took some extra time to make that road trip and explore the area. Because one thing it demonstrated is that for all of the hand-wringing out there about how people take photos instead of experiencing things, what Antelope Canyon especially demonstrates, if you let it, is that the process of framing a photo shows you something — a shape, a color pattern, a play of the light — that you might have missed otherwise.

That was also the trip where I discovered this low-tech form of “augmented reality” at the Yavapai Observation Station: a viewing tube with notches for points of interest and captions for each of the notched views.

There are all sorts of ways to augment human experience for more meaning, and technology has tremendous capacity to do so at scale — if we leverage it well and with intention.

What examples have you seen where human experiences were augmented and resulted in more meaning?

The Future May Be Bright Because the Kids Are Alright

It was an honor and a joy to guest lecture at my undergrad alma mater University of Illinois at Chicago last week. The campus was totally the same and completely different, and it was fun to revisit the places that were so meaningful to me 25 years ago.

Oh, and the students were almost without exception delightfully engaged, they participated, they asked great follow-up questions, and they came up to meet me afterward and expressed what had made them think, wonder, and hope.

And then! To top it all off, I got this lovely email:


So good news, everyone:
The kids are alright. ❤️

Make Your Own Calling (Transcript of Talk to NSA NYC)

On Thursday, August 22nd, I gave a talk to the National Speakers Association New York City chapter at their annual Summer Social event, to which they invite a lot of prospective members, mainly people who may want to make speaking their business but who aren’t yet there. The theme of the evening was to make it clear that we all have a process by which we get there, and I shared mine. The following is a transcript of that talk.

Photo credit: TE McLaughlin

All my life I’ve envied those people who say in interviews that they always had a singular vision of what they wanted to do with their lives.
I’ve never been one of those people.

I always wanted a calling. I would read interviews with famous people and so many of them said they knew that they had to write or they had to act or they had to play baseball.

I mean, did I have to become a professional keynote speaker, talking to corporate leaders about emerging technologies and digital transformation?
Uh, no. I did not have to.

In fact, throughout my life and especially throughout my career I’ve struggled with pinpointing and defining what I do and what I’m about. Maybe you have, too.

So whether you’re here tonight because you’re building a career as a professional speaker, or you think maybe you’d like to, or whether you just want to be able to do it well enough as a secondary part of your occupation to generate leads for your primary business —
whatever the case, I think now and then it’s helpful to go back and look for clues throughout our lives about what has led us to where we are, and how we can take it further.

Me? I grew up interested in lots of things. Reading was one of my favorite hobbies, as well as writing and making up stories, poems, songs, and plays, and performing them for my family and our friends. And charging maybe a quarter for admission. (Because I was also a budding entrepreneur.)
Also learning to program — which in the ’70s and ’80s meant typing up pages of code I’d torn out of printed magazines.

So somehow I was equal parts book worm, aspiring writer, stage ham, and computer geek. I was very adaptable, multi-skilled, as it turned out. But I would’ve traded it all in to have had a singular calling.

I wanted my calling to be music — I loved music — I sang at my church, played clarinet first chair in my high school band, and taught myself literally a dozen other instruments. My dream career was to be not just a singer or rock star, but specifically to be a singer-songwriter.

I have this one memory of being very young — maybe 6? — and using the family typewriter to type out lyrics so that I could study them as inspiration for learning to write great songs. You know the earliest one I can remember studying? Bob Seger’s “Against the Wind.”
Yeah, that’s right: a song about an aging man reflecting on the hard decisions in his life.
I was precocious, yes, but I think it also showed that I was also already fascinated with people and their stories, and the human condition.

Anyway, I really wanted music to be my calling, but I loved too many other things. I was too adaptable.

In first grade, I even won first place in two different statewide competitions:
one for a statewide young author’s contest
for a book called Herman the Horse Gets Lost,
and one for a statewide computer programming contest
with a game I’d written/coded called Doggie.
My love of animals was clearly strong even then (and I’ve now been a vegan for 21 years).

And then there were languages. When my grade school class hosted some foreign exchange students from France and we got handouts with French phrases to learn (“bonjour! je m’appelle Kate”), I discovered that I was good at learning them. (It turned out it ran in the family — my dad had been a linguist in the military, and was fluent in Arabic. Side note: he had also been a singer. Also multi-skilled.) I loved language. I taught myself basic Spanish during family trips to the public library. My older sister studied German in high school, and I helped her with her flash cards — and along the way, I picked up the vocabulary and an affection for the language. I’m not kidding, I loved languages.

So while there was no single calling, there were all these recurring themes: writing, performing, computers, music, fascination with people, and language.

That’s not exactly a college major.

So when it came time for college, I couldn’t decide if I was going to major in music, theater, or language. Ultimately I decided that what I wanted to do in music and theater I could do without a degree in those fields, but what I wanted to do with languages
— which was, get this, to become an interpreter at the United Nations
(remember that, because it comes back up later)
— I could only do with a specialized degree.
So I majored in German, minored in Russian and linguistics, and had a concentration in international studies. I went all in on languages.

And then I built my career in technology. But that actually makes a certain kind of sense.

I’ll explain.

I think the thing I always loved about language is that things could mean different things. That a book is also a Buch and a livre and a libro and a книга(kniga)… that you could have different names for the same thing. Which meant, I realized, that a thing exists separately from whatever you call it. Which meant that meaning itself was adaptable.

It turns out that that idea — that meaning isn’t fixed, that we learn and curate our own sense of meaning, that we can create meaningful connections with each other based on what we have in common — that idea became the undercurrent of the work I’ve done throughout my life.

Part of what drives my work in technology is a curiosity about what makes humans human. My contention after some 25 years of working in this field and researching this topic is that the most notable attribute about humanity — and the one most pertinent to a discussion of technology — is that humans crave meaning.

Meaning, after all, takes many forms in our lives: the considerations of relevance, significance, purpose, even our own existence in the cosmos. Meaning is about what matters.

And one of the ways I describe my work is that I am helping humanity prepare for an increasingly tech-driven future, and what’s so fascinating to me about the idea that meaning is what matters is that you can also say that innovation is about what is going to matter.

And all of this is true on both an organizational level and an individual level.
So conveniently, the same tools that I now talk to corporate leaders about in preparing them for digital transformation are tools we need as speakers:
Purpose, relevance, alignment.

We need to define what is most meaningful to us and to our audience to find the alignment between them. We have to be able to tell our own most meaningful stories and talk about our own experiences in a way that people can see how those insights are relevant to them.

And we have to dig deep for our clarity of purpose and know why we’re doing what we’re doing, and as I tell business leaders, we have to know what we are trying to achieve at scale. In other words, what does this look like when it’s very successful? For us that means, not just how much money do you hope to make as a speaker, but what changes do you want to be part of making in people’s lives and in the world?

For me that can be summarized in the phrase Tech Humanist, which is both the term people sometimes call me and the title of my most recent book.
The idea of the book — the idea of my work — is that technology is changing everything, most notably (and what I care the most about) human experience, and business is most responsible for those changes. So there has to be a way to marry the interests of business and humanity through tech, and my work is dedicated to doing just that.

So in practice, what I speak about is digital transformation. But every speaker’s subtext is transformation, of some kind: we’re all trying to help people see their way from one state of mind or being to another state.
In my audience’s case it’s from a state of fear about the future and technology to a state of preparedness for the future and curiosity about how technology can help amplify their company’s purpose.

And in the biggest picture sense, as I mentioned before, I like to say I am helping humanity prepare for an increasingly tech-driven future.
That idea is endlessly inspiring to me, and in my experience, to make a career out of this, you have to draw from what you’re naturally curious and inspired about.

There also has to be alignment with what the market wants. Sometimes that’s not entirely what you want. My moments of strongest market validation this year followed a sarcastic conspiracy tweet about facial recognition, so now I get tagged on a lot of posts people make about technology conspiracy theories and invasive use of facial recognition. Some of that is relevant and interesting to me, but I can’t imagine reshaping my career to become the Tech Conspiracist.

In any case, this is what it all boils down to, all the advice about finding your niche, your positioning, your value proposition… it’s about whatever consumes you in the middle of the night anyway, and what you’ll wake up with fresh ideas about. For me, that is somewhere at the intersection of meaning, technology, and the human condition.

Because eventually I realized that if you aren’t born with a singular calling, you get to spend the rest of your life knitting the threads of your passions together to form one. You get to make your own calling.

In many ways what I do now is the perfect combination of what I dreamed of doing as a kid.

No, I’m not a singer-songwriter, but I do write and I do perform.
I certainly use my skill with language both in a broader sense of understanding the meaning of things
and in a literal sense: I get to try out my foreign languages when I travel internationally.
And these days it takes a pretty good deal of tech savvy to do some of this work, in terms of the digital marketing it takes to build a business. So I’m grateful to have that in my background, too.
So although it sort of bothered me as a kid, I now consider my versatility to be my strongest asset as a writer and speaker:
so many things interest me that I can draw parallels between unexpected ideas for new insights.

Speaking has become my main source of income, and it’s an amazing career because once you decide what your message is,
you can get the message out to people who can take it to heart and make decisions with it
And I’ve been honored to be asked to speak for big companies with huge impact like Google,
forward-thinking cities like Amsterdam,
and even this year, thanks to my friend Jennifer’s invitation, at the United Nations.
Remember I mentioned that?
When I saw the interpreter booths at the back of the room I got chills.

Getting to speak for cool clients is definitely a perk of this business, and there are plenty of other upsides to this job: travel can be fun, the money can be good, and you can feel like you’re making a difference.
The downsides? The road warrior life can also be exhausting, the time away from friends and loved ones is tough, and most people have no idea what it is you actually do.

As a speaker, you have this weird job no one quite understands
— a lot of people think it’s more glamorous or more sleazy than it really is — 
so it’s nice when you can be around people who understand
that what you’re doing is mining the depths of your experience,
sharing truths about yourself and your observations about the world
so you can help your audience understand how to make a difference, how to transform.

The barrier to entry in this field isn’t very high: you can start speaking anywhere and anytime.
There is no one right way.
You can absolutely use your unique combination of skills and life experiences to carve out a path that suits you so perfectly you might swear it’s your calling.

But the barrier to greatness is a lot higher
and you need great people around you to support you,
to challenge you,
and to encourage you to do better and bigger work.

That’s what’s so great about building our network here and in other communities of speakers, amongst all these other adaptable, versatile, multi-skilled people like you with varied and colorful life experiences who are just as much on a quest to make your life into your calling, get your unique message out, and transform the world.