Trend-Spotting: A Futurist's Perspective

Trend Spotting

Erica Orange is Executive Vice President & Chief Operating Officer at The Future Hunters, one of the world’s leading futurist consulting firms. Orange spoke with AESC about current trends and how they are shaping our future.

“It is our job to hunt the future, capture the future, and ultimately answer the question, 'so what?'” - Erica Orange.

What’s Happening?

No trend can be adequately explained without putting it in the context of the pace of change: what The Future Hunters call ‘templosion.’

Orange says, “It’s a huge question, ‘what’s happening,’ because everything is happening so quickly.” Templosion is a term coined by The Future Hunters to describe “the implosion of everything, including the biggest of events, into smaller and smaller amounts of time.”

Orange describes “all of the big, familiar cycles: an economic cycle, a corporate lifespan cycle, generational cycles, communication cycles; they used to take much longer to come to fruition. Now, it’s as if we’re experiencing everything, the world around us, how we work, how we live, how we communicate, in such a truncated and accelerated way, it’s as if we’re experiencing these cycles on steroids.”

Consider the way we define generations. “The fact that market researchers and demographers will still define a generation in ten to 12 year age cohorts makes absolutely no sense, given the pace of technological change. So I tend to think of generations being in buckets of two to three years.”

For example, Orange, who was born in 1981, is technically a Millennial. She says, “As someone who is part of that generation, from a values and attitudes perspective there is very little that I have in common with someone who was born even just a handful of years after me, just because our frame of reference is completely different.” For example, she says, “I had no social media in college, I had no cell phone in college. I graduated in 2003 and someone just two years younger who graduated in 2005 has completely different ways of speaking to their peers, many of them had either Friendster, Myspace or early Facebook profiles which really informed their entire experience, even the way in which they searched for jobs.”

Gen-Z, the next generation coming up behind the Millennials, are vastly different. “We call them ‘cybrids,’ or ‘cyber-hybrids,’” Orange says, “and I’m fairly bullish about that generation, in part because they learned the economic lessons of their predecessors: they’re more financially prudent, and more entrepreneurial in the way in which they approach work, work-life balance, the jobs that they want to have and the jobs that they want to create for themselves.”

The experiences of digital natives are changing even the ways in which we communicate. Orange explains, “When we think about the future of communication under this templosion lens, consider the fact that we’re now communicating not just through words but increasingly through semiotics—emojis and colors and symbols. Even the social media platforms are more ephemeral and temporal in nature, whether it’s Snapchat or Instagram and Instagram stories, it’s kind of the old adage ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ and that’s never been truer. Because it seems so cumbersome for us today to really communicate through traditional written or even spoken language, when we’re really looking for shortcuts in every possible way.”

“It’s like we want to hack everything.”

Economic templosion

The drive to have immediate, seamless experiences is reshaping business, and putting business cycles on fast-forward. If you’re not thinking of the ‘next next’ then you’re already left behind. When it comes to strategic planning or financial planning or even a corporate lifespan, we have to be thinking years ahead because again, the rapid acceleration of change—particularly technological change—will always threaten to outpace our current understanding of it.

Consider the rapid expansion in the digital payments universe. According to Deloitte’s 2019 Banking and Capital Markets Outlook report, “PayPal, for instance, crossed 250 million active users worldwide. Apple Pay and Amazon Go are bringing in new users rapidly. Similarly, in China, Tencent and Alipay are setting new records for digital payment transactions. In fact, contactless in-store payments are expected to total $2 trillion globally by 2020.”

Will digital currency further disrupt banking? Orange says, “A question I’m frequently asked is if Bitcoin represents the future of cryptocurrency. Bitcoin is the beta test. It itself will likely not be the future, but what it portends and represents will be. It will undoubtedly spawn—and is already spawning—future iterations.”

And the underpinning of digital currencies and so much more is algorithms.

“It is hard to imagine the effect algorithms are going to have geopolitically, economically, and from a business perspective,” Orange says. “Look at what’s happening in China with the rise of automated bank tellers and AI news anchors—all these jobs that are going onto software, they are built on algorithms. Much of the gig economy wouldn’t exist without algorithms.”

Orange addresses “the rise of ‘algorithmic feudalism’ and the fact that algorithms are everywhere.” She says, “These omni-algorithms are manipulating our behavior, controlling our behavior, tracking our behavior.”

“The collaborative economy is based on algorithmic bosses,” she says. For example, “Uber and Lyft drivers are beholden to algorithms. They don’t have a human boss, they are directed and paid by these omni-algorithms. Which is why that term Algorithmic Feudalism is in circulation. The whole notion of ‘digital serfdom’ posits that increasing aspects of human behavior is being controlled essentially by code,” she says.

The masses of serfs in the feudal period in Europe provided the labor, and the owners of property reaped the profits. Today, the labor is largely data, and the properties are digital.

- Hassan Khan, The Next Web

What it all means for Workplaces

“Obviously, templosion has tremendous implications for HR, for managers and leadership,” Orange says.

The demographics of the workplace could become much more complicated, as some people are working so much later into their lives, and subsequent generations of employees are so significantly different. Orange says, “I don’t think any company, whether it be a 200 year-old company or a unicorn startup, really understands what a workforce made up of not just four generations but even ten of these little micro-generations is going to look like. Every group is going to be so much more nuanced that it’s going to be harder to bucket people into traditional definitions.”

Working among such a broad range of people brings a range of challenges. For example, Orange says, “for many hiring managers, a growing complaint with both tail-end Millennials and increasingly the cybrids is the fact that many fail to fully understand non-verbal body cues.” She explains, “If your whole world is intermediated by clicks and likes through all these devices then you’re not picking up on those subtleties and nuances of communicating face to face, all of these things that are so inherent to human-to-human communication. It’s one of the reasons in-person interviews do not go as well for this generation.”

In addition, the younger generations’ desire and need for immediate and constant feedback can test the review systems in traditional organizations. Orange reminds us “especially for the cybrids, they’ve been acculturated in a world of sharing and likes and thumbs up, so that anything they do receives almost near-instant feedback.”

Orange suggests “gamification as a way to give them that feedback, because management can’t actually sit someone down on a daily basis and tell them what they’re doing right or wrong; accomplishing this through gaming mechanics is one way to get there.”

Gamification is leveraging gaming mechanics in a nongame setting. “It’s the idea of using points, rewards, and leveling up,” Orange explains. “Gamification uses more extrinsic than intrinsic motivation to really get people to perform better. Going back to a simple kid analogy, it’s like the star chart that you put on the refrigerator to reward them for good behavior. Especially with younger generations these things really resonate. These are the things that will keep them at an organization for longer; if they feel like there is some sense of play and fun and whimsy that’s woven into the work experience, those are things that a lot of people are really craving.”

Recruiting, retaining and managing the cybrid generation takes new thinking, as well. “We call them cyber-hybrids because they have such a symbiotic relationship with technology. If they’re going into an organization they want certain tools, and they also value a culture and an environment that appreciates and fosters the combination of virtual and flexible work.” She adds, “Organizations also have to think about maximizing output rather than input. That whole clock in, clock out, go in at 9, leave at 5, that’s not really going to be effective with this generation.”

“Going back to templosion, time for them isn’t really linear, so the metrics that resonate with them will be more based on output,” Orange says. “It’s how did they get their work done, what they are actually creating, versus the time it takes to get that work done. Let’s say they get their best work done from 10pm to 2am, why do they have to sit in a physical office to do it? That's going to be how they think.”

New tools are also reshaping the workplace.

“Virtual reality is moving outside of traditional gaming and being used to bridge the gap between distant locales,” Orange says. “I define virtual reality as tricking the brain into believing it’s somewhere else, doing something else in real time.”

Imagine a co-working space that happens in virtual reality, or an employment interview that’s happening in a VR environment. Orange says, “We’ll start seeing much more of that, though the technology in VR is not quite there yet.”

Augmented reality offers completely different implications for the workplace. “Think about assembly line workers becoming better at their jobs because they can have an augmented overlay of let’s say a blueprint or machine schematics. So the mix of VR and AR, called mixed reality, is definitely going to change workplaces,” she says.

“I don’t think any company, whether it be a 200 year-old company or a unicorn startup, really understands what a workforce made up of not just four generations but even ten of these little micro-generations is going to look like.”

- Erica Orange

Leadership vs Templosion

What are the essential leadership skills for this new era? In an age when our attention spans are shorter, our communication skills are weaker, how does a person develop the thinking skills and the breadth of knowledge necessary for leadership?

“That’s what a lot of early educators, are grappling with,” Orange says. “Also, when it comes to the skills of people they want to bring into the organization, managers are thinking about how prospective employees think. And there is no clear-cut or well-defined answer to this right now.”

Orange proposes a solution to developing thinking skills that starts in schools. “We need to start training people for intelligence, not just smarts. A lot of our schools are still training based on rote memorization, very linear thinking: if A then B, then B then C. The fact is that that’s being put into software. That’s why we see a lot of not just manual labor jobs but many of the cognitive-based jobs going onto software. The good news is that it’s freeing people up to do the higher-order level thinking. It’s creating new business efficiencies, but a lot of the softer skills that they weren’t traditionally teaching in business schools, a lot of people are now paying attention to those, whether it’s trying to foster an environment of creativity, or even teaching something like empathy, or understanding the culture of an organization.”

“Now there’s new urgency because we have to redefine the role of the human worker,” she says.

Orange is often asked ‘what’s the role of the human here?’

“When we think about new skills and competencies, critical thinking is such an integral part of this: understanding nuance, cultural context, finding linkages between things that aren’t there in plain sight, making inferences, and thinking in a much more complex and critical way about the world around us. These are skills that can’t be put on to software or smart systems. That’s going to be one of the things that makes humans truly competitive in the future,” she says.

“It’s not just about humans competing with other humans; it’s about humans competing against a lot of algorithms, bots, or any of these intelligence systems.”

We read a lot about the need for leaders to be “agile;” to Orange, that need extends to cognitive flexibility.

“Sometimes I’ll tell people we have to get just as comfortable forgetting knowledge as we are acquiring new knowledge, because we pride ourselves on what it is that we know, but if the future isn’t based on that, then we have to get comfortable with abandoning that knowledge that no longer suits us.” She says cognitive flexibility, being comfortable challenging your world-view, challenging what it is that you think you know, is critical. Orange describes “the flexibility to think ‘what if the world was the opposite’ or ‘what if I did my job in a different way,’ and knowing that there are many paths to one outcome instead of just following a very linear trajectory, which is comfortable, but doesn’t suit us for the future.”


Reality and Fantasy

The future already looks much we like imagined. Orange reflects on the American science fiction television series of the 1960s, "Star Trek." “So many things from 'Star Trek' that were fantasy, now exist.” For example, she says “the ‘communicator’ inspired the flip phone, the ‘tricorder’ imagined the portable diagnostic tool powered by AI, the ‘replicator’ was the precursor to the 3D printer, and the ‘holodeck’ is what Microsoft is doing with their hololens technology and blended reality.”

How bright is the line between real and imagined worlds? “Reality and fantasy are colliding every day,” Orange says.

As an example of this collision is the blurring between our real and online selves.

Orange points to the massively popular, multiplayer online video game Fortnite that grew to 125 million players in its first year. “It is wildly popular with teenage boys to the point that boys who do not perform well in this game are getting bullied in school, and parents are hiring tutors so their children will perform better in the game,” she says. “It’s become an entirely new subculture.”

“So many young people are spending so much time and energy living in this, to them it’s not just a game but an alternative universe.”

For Orange, it’s less about the games themselves and more about the implications for the culture. “There are always going to be new games and experiences. What is concerning is the fact that people are so drawn in,” she says.

Orange explains, “Gaming companies understand the neural pathways of addiction, and are building and marketing these games to have the same effect as an addictive drug. We now know so much about the brain and what can get people hooked very quickly; we understand how people can get addicted to games. What’s new in all this is that the gaming designers know this, and they are doing this with purpose.”

She adds, “There is tremendous money being made here.”

From a futurist perspective, Orange says, “One of the trends we see bubbling up is the rise of the solo economy. Many new products and services are directed to an audience of one. And what we are seeing in the gaming community is these very deep, rich experiences that are meant for solo engagement; even if you are talking to other people through the game, it is still a very solitary act. This is defining a new generation and the socio-cultural implications are tremendous. Even adults are playing these games, and it’s affecting marriages. There is something very real happening there.”

Pace of the Pendulum?

Orange observes that for every trend, there is a counter-trend. “Technological ambiguity resides in many of us. That’s one reason why trying to pigeonhole an individual consumer into one definition is increasingly difficult. We see a subset of people, for instance, who are the first in line for a new iPhone but still covet LPs and typewriters. It’s about being both hyperconnected and off-the-grid at the same time. We want what’s old but we also want what’s new.”

In another example, she says, “One house, for instance, might be drawn to Alexa, which we know is collecting all of our personal data, and at the same time we see this huge burgeoning movement for the doomsday preppers and the off-the-gridders, people looking to not have any data collected on them, and we see both coexisting side by side. We always see the opposites occur and rise up alongside wherever a trend is going.”

Is opting out even an option? Orange says, “You have people who try to surround themselves in a protective bubble so they aren’t tracked, but the pendulum has swung too far at this point, even to the fact that a lot of major urban areas are controlled by these omni-algorithms through biometrics and facial recognition technology. It’s now to the point where everything is so inter-connected opting out is going to be a near-impossibility.”

A Vision of the Future

Is it the end of the world? “It’s kind of the dystopian versus utopian view,” Orange says. “On one hand there are the sci-fi dystopian visions of the world, the narrative of doom and gloom where a lot of people are fearful of losing their jobs or being rendered obsolete by advanced technology.”

“On the other hand, the optimistic view is that people will still be employed—it’s just that the jobs they will occupy will be ones we can only begin to imagine today. Work will look completely different, and how we earn our incomes will change. But technology has the ability—if appropriately leveraged—to free up our time. This might mean being able to spend more time with family, or the ability to travel more,” Orange says. “We could actually do things that give us a deeper sense of purpose and meaning, and pride would come from relationships rather than from careers."

Is there a way to separate the economic trend from the cultural trend and the technology trend? Not anymore. Orange explains, “It can’t be decoupled anymore, and those who are trying to put the trends into silos are missing what the future is going to be about. Critical thinking will mean looking at the intersection of all of these disparate things and looking at them not as a snapshot but really as a motion picture.”

These changes will advance relentlessly, and will require “a heightened demand for transparency and authenticity,” Orange says. “Trust is going to become the new luxury because it is going to be harder to determine who it is you trust. And while we are looking at how to protect consumers from data breaches, all of this is going to become so much more nebulous. Companies still need automated data systems, they still need technologies that drive greater efficiency. But at the same time we have to ask who, ultimately, is in control?”

“And that’s going to become a much harder question to answer.”

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