Fjord’s Mark Curtis tells LBB’s Laura Swinton how politics, blockchain and our need to find a way to live with AI mean that ‘tension’ is the watchword for the coming year
Every year, design and innovation company Fjord, part of Accenture Interactive, gathers its Fjordians together to figure out the likely trends for the following year. This time, however, they also found that every trend that emerged also fed into a not-so-relaxing meta trend. Tension. So if you were hoping that 2018 would allow us to shed some of the stresses of 2017, we’ve got news for you. From the polarisation of politics to our conflicted relationship with technology, this year’s trends are underpinned by the idea of tension. But while that may sound uncomfortable, it also promises to be a year packed with the sort of opportunities and progress that only discomfort and friction can provide.
The trends in this year’s report
are: Physical Fights Back; Computers Have Eyes; Slaves to the Algorithm; A Machine’s Search for Meaning; In Transparency We Trust; The Ethics Economy; Design Outside the Lines.
These aren’t just tech trends – many of those listed ultimately concern power and politics. Indeed while some of the terms discussed – ethics and transparency in particular – are ideas that we’ve seen brands and consultancies ponderously stroke their metaphorical beards over across the last decade, the current political and technological context has made them unavoidably urgent and real.
“Almost none of the trends are brand new – it’s about tipping points. With the Ethics Economy we’re on a tipping point. With trust [which falls under the headline of ‘In Transparency we Trust’, we’ve talked about it a lot and we’ve come close to writing a trust trend for the past few years but we’ve never got to the point of ‘what is it’?” says Fjord co-founder Mark Curtis.
While he identifies three overall factors that have led to this tipping point, he reckons that the catalytic moment came when CEOs of major businesses quit US government advisory councils over President Donald Trump’s response to Charlottesville.
“En masse the leaders of some of America’s biggest corporations took a stand on a political issue which didn’t actually directly influence their businesses’ commercial success. I think that trend was set in motion at that moment and since then we’ve seen a number of things, what Tesla’s doing, Ikea, John Lewis in the UK not having gender identification on children’s clothing. I think there is a particular moment that led to that,” says Mark.
Another factor for this tipping point on ethics and transparency is around the growing noise and discomfort around the sheer amount of information and power that is in the hands of tech giants. That’s come from the public in terms of Big Tech’s ability to circumvent paying the full whack of tax and also from legislative bodies. One only needs to look at London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s desire to regulate the likes of Uber more rigorously.
But it’s not all informed by worry – Mark identifies the growing prominence of blockchain as a potential solution to disquiet around trust and transparency. And if the concept of blockchain is still a headscratcher, the Fjord report advises that now is the time to ‘take understanding blockchain off the “too hard to do” list’.
“When I got, it we realised something very important – the whole trend of digital over the past 30 years has been to make everything easy to copy and also because it’s easy to copy – and free – it eliminates any sense of authenticity, of the provenance of something. Was it original? And who wrote the original? Blockchain, in theory, puts a stop to that in one go, if that’s where it is applied. It shows you provenance and it shows you changes all the way down the chain. I think that’s very important because it enables us to invest a lot more trust into the digital system,” says Mark.
Given that ‘fake news’ is Collins Dictionary’s word of 2017, the idea of provenance and trust in the digital world is more important than ever.
But Fjord’s trends are informed as much by our relationship with rapidly accelerating technological change as it is by the social and political context. Our love-hate relationship with technology and the ‘tension’ between the potential challenges and opportunities it throws up is also central to many of the trends listed.
When it comes to artificial intelligence, for example, the report opts for neither a pessimistic robo-apocalypse nor a naïve, laissez-faire approach. Instead, the trend ‘A Machine’s Search for Meaning’, examines the potential consequences that inevitable development will bring and advises businesses to consider what this AI-human collaboration will look like and to get practical. One such instance is where AI may soak up ‘junior’ jobs in a sector or business – how then will businesses train up the next generation of talent?
“It would be the easiest thing in the world to write a highly negative trend around what do machine learning and artificial intelligence mean,” says Mark. He points out that with the advancements in self-driving cars and lorries it is extremely likely that jobs like taxi drivers, lorry drivers, logistics personnel may go – but also that there’s no agreement over the question of whether AI will result in fewer jobs or more. Moreover, passively and pessimistically lying back and just ‘letting’ change happen without actively engaging and steering change is the worst course of action to take.
“I think the trouble is that doesn’t stop it happening. The economic structures we have mean that unless somebody is bold enough to say we’re not going to do that because it’s not going to help society – and that’s certainly not happening in the West and it’s not happening in China – if that’s the case it behoves us to get practical quite quickly. What are the opportunities that will arise and how will we work with this?” says Mark.
“It’s going to change the world of work, I think we can say that, but I don’t think we can say with any certainty whether it’s going to long term increase jobs or decrease jobs. At least that’s my view on it, so if you look at the medium term you’ve got to snap to ‘well how do you design the world of work around these things because they are going to happen’.
If they arrive undesigned or we don’t think through the implications, that’s going to be a lot scarier.”
Another trend that sees this tension emerge – though perhaps in more of a playfully paradoxical sense – is ‘Physical Fights Back’. The emergence of voice technology – most prominently Amazon’s Alexa – and the ability for us to more seamlessly integrate technology in the physical environment means that the division between the concepts of ‘digital’ and ‘everything else’ becomes increasingly redundant.
“It’s a massive structural change. At Fjord we’re part of Accenture, a part of Accenture called Accenture Interactive, which is part of Accenture Digital. And if you look at the logic of what we’re saying, eventually Accenture Digital will go away, it won’t exist. If we’re successful in what we’re setting out to do, it has to destroy itself. That’s the logic of it,” says Mark. “We almost called this trend ‘Digital is Dead’ because we had huge arguments and there was a body of opinion that said people might misinterpret that and that it was over-claim. And probably that’s right, it probably is over-claim, digital is not dead and we will continue to see people distinguish themselves as digital for some time to come.”
The tension or paradox of this trend is that while digital technology will surround us in our environment and will be leaned upon to help us achieve our goals, we will be able to detach our attention from it and the amount of active investment of time attention in our tech will decrease.
“Part of this is actually driven by the frustration people have, the love-hate relationship we have with our devices,” explains Mark. “We spend a lot of time poking them and prodding them and yet we kind of hate ourselves for doing so because we know that there are other things going on that are richer or more interesting. Yet we’re beguiled by the promise of the access to the infinity that the mobile seems to represent . I think that love-hate relationship has been well documented and talked about but I think what’s happening with this regurgitation of different components of what have been smartphones in the environment around us – cameras microphones and speakers – is that it’s about us having to pay less attention to them in order to achieve goals and objectives.”
What makes the Fjord trends a particularly interesting read – and do go and check out the full breakdown here
– is that they are informed by the company’s service design mindset.
“A colleague of mine put it like this the other day: ‘we’re able to think about both the micro and the macro at the same time’ and that’s how, when we think about the trends, we’re able to imagine quite easily ‘well if that happens what does it mean in practical terms across a range of places?’ What does it mean for employees? What does it mean for the CEO of an organisation?” says Mark.
And that micro-macro thinking is more relevant now than ever, at a time where huge socio-political occurrences and technological tipping points are set to impact every aspect of our lives.