5 minutes with... in association withAdobe Firefly
5 Minutes with… Mark Curtis
San Jose, United States
Accenture Interactive’s head of innovation and thought leadership talks to LBB’s Adam Bennett about the age of distraction, how brands can save the world, and why the Metaverse still has a long way to go to fulfill its promise

Adobe XD is a proud supporter of LBB. Over the upcoming months, as part of the sponsorship of the ‘5 Minutes with…’ channel, we will be spending time with some of the most innovative and creative minds in the industry.

One of our industry's most respected voices, Mark Curtis is Accenture Interactive’s head of innovation and thought leadership. He’s also the co-founder of Fjord, one of the largest design agencies in the world. Fjord produces a yearly trends report, in which the fabric of our industry is unpicked to identify the forces which will be driving our world forward over the upcoming twelve months. 

Here, Mark reflects on a few of those trends, as well as our digital ‘era of distraction’, the opportunity for brands in light of the COP26 climate summit, and so much more besides… 

LBB> In 2005, you authored a book with a remarkably prescient title: ‘Distraction: Being human in the digital age’. One of the points you made within it was that ‘a new sense of discipline is required to prevent us drowning in distraction’. More than one and a half decades later, do you think we’ve achieved that level of discipline?

Mark> No. It was apparent to me then that we had invented distractive new technologies, but I don’t think I had anywhere near the sense of quite how distractive they would be. This tech has opened the door to a world of potentiality - by which I mean there is always something potentially happening somewhere all the time. And the key to the success of this technology is that whatever it is that’s potentially happening is more interesting than what’s before your eyes at that moment, be it the dinner you’re eating or to the person with whom you’re talking. It’s the potential of the infinite, juxtaposed with the reality of the finite, which is sitting in front of you. 

That trend had played out on a far bigger scale than I expected when I wrote that book. In one sense, it's one of the challenges of our time, certainly something with which we find ourselves negotiating daily. There was a stage at which people began to realise that putting your phone on a table and leaving it face-up so you could scan things that were happening on it was probably not a great dating manoeuvre. In many family households, dinner time is a constant conflict zone over the proximity between phone and table. And it’s not just teenagers - it’s everybody. 

LBB> So we are still in a period of trial and error with regards to how much distraction is too much, then. But for generations growing up now who don’t know of a world before the infinite smartphone scroll, should they really be expected to put their devices down at dinnertime? All of the relevance, for them, will be on their device. 

Mark> I think that’s right. Look, it took us about 80 years from the moment the second person went through a car windscreen to the moment seat belts became mandatory. That’s despite how obvious it must have been that some restraining mechanism would have been a good idea. And when seat belts did become mandatory, there was a great deal of resistance from libertarians who said it was an unfair restraint on freedom. Now, however, that issue is settled. 

So we probably need the social equivalent of that restraint - but it does need to be negotiated socially. There are very influential parts of the world where we see government mandates about screen time, but I don’t think we could ever realistically see that happening in the UK or the US. 

I don’t mean to come across as overly conservative on this. With any new technology, you take one step forward and one step back. That’s what we need to negotiate. 

LBB> At COP26, you noted the importance of ‘identity’ as a driver of human behaviour, and the link between our identity and the brands we buy from. But is it ethically right that leadership should fall to brands to save the planet by driving sustainable behaviour change in consumers? Should this not be the responsibility of the state, or at least more accountable actors than private businesses?

Mark> It’s a lot more nuanced than that. If I came across as saying that brands alone should be doing this, that wasn’t my intention. There’s a combination of different actors who need to be engaged in creating this change, but the ones from whom we can expect the least - at least initially - are consumers. The trap that we’re in is that brands currently have a ‘get out of jail card’ insofar as they can say, “well, hang on a minute, why should I make sacrifices by committing to green policies when my customers aren’t asking for it?”. 

The problem with that is there are so many other forces that will, eventually, force brands to act. One of those forces is legal. Another is indeed governmental. Finally, there’s also the children of CEOs. We shouldn’t underestimate this - I’ve heard anecdotally repeatedly from C-suite people that their children are asking them what they’re doing about the climate. So there are all of these forces that, essentially, are leaving brands with no choice but to run ahead of consumers on this issue. 

Paradoxically, this then creates a challenge whereby it is a business imperative for brands to take consumers along with them. That’s where my points about identity and persuasion come into play. Because, if you really get into the weeds of something like circularity and the fashion industry, you discover that these are some seriously big changes to our expectations which won’t simply pop out of thin air. Brands will simply have to help consumers arrive at that point. 

Above: Mark’s speech at 2021’s COP26 event in Glasgow. 

LBB> Let’s talk about some of this year’s Fjord Trends. ‘Come As You Are’ observes the changing dynamics of the world of work. Amidst a challenging jobs market and ‘the great resignation’, do you detect a shift in the balance of power away from the employer and towards employees?

Mark> Yes, I do. I think that what’s unclear is, given that these things are always cyclical, how long this will last. It feels unlikely that this is a permanent shift from which we will never go back, particularly if AI does deliver the long-promised productivity boom. But, right now, it is a very significant shift. 

What we’re seeing is that people are questioning what’s important to them, and they’re bringing that to work. In many cases, that mindset is causing them to decide, ‘I’m not going to continue doing what I have been doing’. They might then put pressure on their organisation to put them in a better position, or they might simply go up sticks and leave. And make no mistake, this is a widespread trend. I barely know of any organisation right now that isn’t desperate to hire.

Covid is both what caused this trend and is making it more challenging. When the current wave of lockdowns does lift, there will be an increased demand for all sorts of experiences but fewer experienced staff with which to provide them. That’s a challenge for all sorts of businesses. 

LBB> In ‘This Much Is True’, our desire for instant answers to questions is presented to brands as - at least in part - an opportunity for a trust-building exercise. One of the solutions offered is AI, but do you think we’re currently at a place as a species where we are prepared to put genuine trust in artificial intelligence?

Mark> Well, we are already putting our trust in AI. I think the vaccine rollout is a good example here, given that it’s no secret how artificial intelligence hastened the creation of the vaccine. However, that was invisible to most people. In that instance, the only thing which really mattered was that these vaccines existed, were available, and were effective. 

I think the same thing will play out regarding information at the point of sale. The point we make in the report is that the number of questions we have to ask brands is multiplying as we get increasingly interested in different aspects of the world, particularly around sustainability. Therefore, I don’t think we will truly care if accurate and relevant information is given to us by AI or a human brain. 

Ultimately, this is a design challenge for brands about answering questions at the point of sale. If I want to know about the carbon impact of a big 4K television I’m about to buy, I am really not going to care if that information is given to me by artificial intelligence or not. I just want the answer. 

LBB> ‘The Next Frontier’ puts the spotlight on the Metaverse. I recently watched an interview with Meta VP Nick Clegg, which took place entirely within the Metaverse by utilising VR. Watching that interview, I couldn’t help but ask myself ‘is that it?’. As someone who pioneered with Virtual Reality back in 1993, is this always the direction you saw that technology heading in? 

Mark> No, I don’t think I can claim to have seen the technology panning out this way in 93. At that point, I was only very dimly aware of the internet, and VR was simply an interesting tech tool. 

To answer the first part of your question, I think the current design standards within the Metaverse leave a lot to be desired. To be frank, I think they will come to be seen as woeful in the long-term. There is a great deal of travel to be done to take us to a place where it’s compelling. Pixelated bodies, sometimes without legs, don’t look enormously like a fulfillment of the promise of what we think the Metaverse can provide. 

Whenever there’s a big shift in technology, we always frame it in terms of something we’ve seen before. I do think that what we’re seeing around Web 3.0 and the Metaverse, when taken together, point to a potent cultural shift that we can’t yet totally wrap our heads around. If I cast my mind back to the early days of the internet as we know it today, brands all had their websites that were monumentally self-referential. It was only later that people realised you could do really useful stuff with the internet and suddenly there was a lot more value to it. I think we’re at the start of the very same process with the Metaverse today. 

To answer the second part of that question, I don’t think this is all about VR. I’m more excited about the potential of NFTs in conjunction with all of the Metaverse enablers than I am with VR just on its own as a thing. At the moment, things are quite limited with the Metaverse, but there is the potential for a whole new creative culture. I hope that we can engage with the technology to establish that culture before it simply becomes a marketing and commerce space. 

LBB> On a final note, so much of this year's report seems to tug at the fabric of life as we currently understand it. Whether it be our sense of physical place or our attitude towards our careers, previous indicators of our identity are being redefined or simply eroding. So, Mark Curtis - how would you define a life well-lived in 2022? 

Mark> Well, I don’t think it’s for me to tell people how they should live their lives. But having said that, I think at the moment a life well-lived is one in which you grow. 

I think searching out personal growth, particularly right now, is terribly important as is asking questions and challenging assumptions which you see around you. Let’s challenge how we’re obsessed with our phones, for example. Or challenge the issue of sustainability in everything we design and build. Of course, there’s no recipe for a ‘life well-lived’, and there never has been. But I think if you can do those sorts of things, you’re spending your time wisely. 

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