My 2nd SXSW experience has been nothing short of a heady, brain-burning inspiration-fest. This year had a difference for me — it was wrapped in a new, particular kind of urgency: We need to decide what kind of world we want to live in before it’s too late, and the government certainly isn’t getting us there on its own. The private sector must drive how we design the future of humanity, and to do so, companies will need to be shaped pretty differently from today.
We need businesses that are built around solving societal problems, that understand how to harness today’s technology to benefit people and planet. As Aza Raskin, co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology, put it neatly during a panel on the impact of tech on Gen Z and the skyrocketing mental health cost (quoting E.O. Wilson):
“‘The real problem of humanity is the following: we have paleolithic emotions; medieval institutions; and god-like technology’… Can we figure out how to apply technology to fit our paleolithic emotions, uplift our medieval institutions, and give us the wisdom to use our god-like powers?”
Tuesday morning kicked off listening to Malcolm Gladwell talk about how the success of autonomous cars depends on the industry being structured to solve traffic and congestion. If successful, we will see automotive companies focused on developing ride-hailing services, but if autonomous cars are simply driving around looking for parking or doing errands while their owners sit in meetings, traffic will actually get worse. No good outcomes. This has big implications — we’d need businesses to effectively teach people to give up the concept of individual car ownership, at a time when American car sales are rising. This would be a dramatic shift in thinking.
Here is what occurred to me by the end of Day 3: Not only will the companies built to design the future have to look, think and feel very different from many companies today, so will their management.
I found myself wondering who would be needed at the helm of companies with the responsibility for not just shareholder returns, but responsibility for the betterment of the world? The C-Suite will look pretty different, and we’re likely to see an interesting cast of characters in house.
Here’s my two cents on what this might look like:
1. The Chief Policy Officer: Ten years ago, brands existed to return value to shareholders. They didn’t go anywhere near politics. But today, a brand that is still thinking about whether or not to wade in and take a stand on issues is far, far behind. I was lucky to catch an excellent panel with Joy Howard, CMO of Lyft, Nancy King from Airbnb and Corley Kenna from Patagonia (three incredible women at the helm of three amazing companies!) on navigating the new political reality. The theme was this: No more #nocomment. I couldn’t agree more. I’ve written extensively about how taking a stance is critical and done research to prove that pissing a few people off is actually much safer than playing it safe. But where is the mandate to act coming from?
“What has changed is that politics and politicians now use the tools of brand building to get their message across. Things that used to be squarely in OUR sandbox. They talk about things like values, identity… for example — Let’s build a wall. That’s emotive. Not, what are your feeling on immigration? Brands need to respond in that environment.” — Corley Kenna, Gobal Communications Director, Patagonia
Being a successful brand today means taking action when one of your values is compromised. If you don’t, you lose credibility among your community. For Airbnb, the work they do is around making their stakeholders (travelers, home owners) successful, which makes it unavoidable to have an opinion on something like Trump’s travel ban. The Lyft mission is to improve people’s lives with the world’s best transportation, so the challenge becomes solving transportation in a way that ensure the future of the planet. That requires solving sustainability, future of work, transportation issues, etc. by definition.
It’s going to be imperative that the CMOs of the future have political experience. As Kenna said, “You can’t do anything significant on your own. You need coalitions on the hill.” The work of brands will be policy work as much as it is marketing, and they will have the know-how to build coalitions to get things done.
2. The Chief Cultural Officer or Cultural Sensitivity Consultant. Ahead-of-the-curve brands already have this. Why? Judging whether something is a harmless trope or harmful stereotype, ensuring you aren’t falling into traps of tokenism and preventing things that are offensive to entire cultures from slipping out the door is a bigger job than ever right now.
Second, organisations need more than just the standard gut check in the room when it comes to navigating the cultural appropriation issue. The risk of “Columbus-ing”is often high — from “inspired by” knock-offs at best to wholesale intellectual property theft at worst- especially in creative industries where borrowing from other cultures is often part of the creative process. Nobody seems to be immune: From Whole Foods getting caught up in the storm around the Chopped Cheese Sandwich to the now infamous Pepsi super bowl ad that belittled the black lives matter movement.
This role will ensure diversity is at the table because, invariably, perspective is both the best way to spot opportunities and the best prevention for averting the mistakes above.
As Tanya Tarr, founder of Cultivated Insight, said on a panel on Cultural Appreciation vs. Appropriation: “It can be [things] as simple as pronoun reference ... but you leave trillions of dollars on the table if you don’t make choices to help people feel comfortable”.
This type of role will be responsible for putting mechanisms in place to draw insights and perspectives from staff that filter through other departments. They will ensure that brands are understanding their communities, creating two-way conversations, and ensuring they don’t miss out on entire audiences due to cultural insensitivity.
3. Head of Community. If you want to shape culture (and what brand or organisation doesn’t) — communities are powerful. We’re likely to see the prominence and importance of Community Management roles elevated within organisations, and this function will be responsible for ensuring there are mechanisms for listening to their communities.
“If we weren’t grounded in our cities, we wouldn’t know how important it is to do things like address grocery deserts in DC or support Chicago’s public school system.” -Joy Howard, CMO, Lyft
On the Bears Ears national monument suit, Patagonia’s stance was that “this isn’t about politics, this is about what our community is asking for.” Getting involved in policy may not necessarily mean suing the President — but getting involved in policy will be good for business. They have focused on delivering against their commitment to protect public lands over the last ten years, doubling-down the last four, and that has led to a four-fold increase in profits and revenue over the past ten years.
The importance of community will also start to more heavily influence product design and how we think about the customer experience. We experience a more heightened emotional response when we experience something with others, thus experiences should be designed to enable and facilitate collective experience if we want to optimize.
“We have neural coherence with the people we’re with. [When we experience something with others] You are physically having a shared experience that’s richer. It gets at the core of how we interact as humans.”-Poppy Crum, Chief Scientist at Dolby Laboratories
Does this imply a new meaning for CX? From Customer Experience, to Collective/Community Experience? Perhaps.
4. Head of Leadership, Creativity & Ideation Training. This will be the new HR function. From numerous sessions on asking better questions, to a great session led by in-house CIA analyst trainers on thinking under pressure, there were countless tools on how to hack your brain for enhanced creativity. Full time staff that specialise in teaching people how to think differently will add real value, as previous tasks of HR managers will be outsourced to AI. This isn’t new, but right now few companies invest in this as a full time capacity outside of the likes of Google, which has an incredible internal program that trains employees in leadership and design thinking among other things.
Training staff in disciplines like design thinking and behavioural psychology will enhance creativity in ideation.
Understanding Framing Effect and how to get out of the box: Our brains automatically search for Waldo, so we have probably all missed the bizarre stuff like people chained together and topless sunbathers… !
5a and 5b. Lastly, I believe we’ll start to see businesses with Head of Digital Ethics as well as hackers on staff.
The questions being kicked around in sessions like Ethics and Responsibility in the age of AI covered everything from whether Google and Facebook should be broken apart per Elizabeth Warren’s latest proposal, to machine consciousness and whether AI have rights as sentient beings.
The way we think about and design products today is generally not in the best interest of humans, and this needs to change. According to Aza Raskin, we need to realize that “we’re sprinkling behavioural cocaine on all of these interfaces” and ignoring the possibility that we are doing more than just programming apps, we’re programming people. We need regulation and standards at the government level first of all, but we will also need people ensuring organisations are steered in the right direction.
Some sessions discussed how you ensure technology is applied responsibly, such as, should we require policy makers to have an AI version of themselves, so that they really understand what its like to keep a digital person safe and protected?
“Should AI have rights? Yes, absolutely. They need the right to evolve.” -Amanda Solosky, Founder of Rival Theory, during a panel on Ethics & AI
For some, that is a terrifying prospect that, if real, would mean humans might be wiped out. For others, what is the point of having this technology if we don’t allow it to improve itself? That’s what AI is excellent at. Either way, these are complex questions with massive implications, and companies using technology like this will need expertise to help guide its application.
Hackers. This one is pretty straightforward. After watching a terrifying live demonstration on how easy it is to get into a smart home, figure out the owners’ names, get their physical coordinates, credit card numbers, names, etc — all using a smart fridge, smart lightbulbs, a SONOS, an Amazon Alexa and a wireless security camera called Sophie on the front door…it stands to reason that we might want some of these guys on our side to figure out and patch our vulnerability, both individually and as corporations.
This is part of the beauty of SXSW. By giving you a glimpse of the possibilities out there, it makes you think what kind of future you want — and how you might start to change your business or your ambitions to get there.
For companies to pioneer us in a new direction, which I believe they can and should, the organisation at the helm will look different. I’m fascinated to see how it turns out.