It’s my third time at NEXT, the global innovation conference in Hamburg that fosters conversation about the digital revolution with global thought leaders. This year it was hosted by Accenture Interactive, and ran in partnership with the Reeperbahn Music Festival – a heady combination of mind-blowing talks during the day and gigs all over the city of Hamburg at night.
The theme was Parallel Worlds – the myriad of worlds (real, digital, overlapping and colliding) that we now have to live in. And speakers from all over the world (from the US to China by way of Switzerland’s Hadron Collider) came together to share their thoughts.
NEXT is about innovation that shapes ‘everyday lives’. It’s not a snapshot about what’s coming in 2020 but a long-term vision, with focus on what’s going to affect humans and technology over the next five to 10 years.
Dr James Beacham took us on a whirlwind tour of the universe. We watched atoms colliding and learnt that there are two types of possible – regular impossible and just impossible – as we explored what the past, present and future might look like in a parallel universe. Are we all drinking pink cappuccinos in the boardroom of our already successful venture? The following are my key takeaways.
Are we investing in the right place?
Brian Whipple, CEO of Accenture Interactive, talked about how purposeful innovation is good for business, especially when you consider the next generation and their preference for businesses that do good.
We’ve got to rethink how we do business— and the journey begins at the intersection of purpose and innovation. It’s not that we lack the technology, but that we’re not applying the technology in the right way to the right challenges (eg eight sorts of tech at CES for cat litter, but yet in the wake of natural disasters we still don’t have the logistics set up to help people). We have the technology and the capital, but we don’t apply it with purpose to where it’s really needed to help the world – Whipple challenged all of us to do more to find that purpose and make people’s lives better.
1.1 billion people in the world don’t have a digital identity. This is a challenge in emerging markets’ healthcare industries, but as shown in the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian, which made 70,000 people homeless overnight, it can be absolutely devastating.
Reality is synthetic
Andy Polaine, designer-writer and group director of Fjord client evolution, spoke about AI-generated and mixed realities.
How they’re blurring the boundaries of truth and challenging how we value it. Synthetic realities (for instance, synthetic newsreaders on TV in China) are becoming normalised. Our perception of what is normal constantly changes.
He took us on a journey of synthetic imagery, from turning a horse into a zebra, to misleading readers on the cover of a 1982 issue of National Geographic, to deepfake being used in realtime to hide emotions of everyday video calls.
AI-assisted design was also said to be akin to Photoshop 1.0, on the cusp of disrupting the creative industry. From creating digital fashion at scale to turning a designer into an AI creator, we were shown examples where text could be synthesised into images as you typed.
All this brings ethical challenges. Can we really trust that the content we see is real? Who owns the IP of your AI personal assistant when you move on from your current job?
People don’t listen to brands, they listen to their friends
Social commerce in China is just mind-blowing. From KFC’s Pocket Franchise (2.5m online stores set up in four months) to Luckin Coffee (90m cups sold in its first 12 months entirely through mobile) – everything is within WeChat combining social media and e-commerce, all integrated, so no wonder social commerce is so huge. Founder of WE Marketing Group, Viveca Chan, said this in her keynote about digital marketing in China: “We don’t talk about online to offline anymore, we’re already living online to online.”
Technology is changing the way we live together
Author of the acclaimed Future Politics, Jamie Susskind, said that software engineers are really social engineers today, because they write the rules that the rest of us end up having to live with. He talked about chaos, democracy and freedom (memo to buy his book, but he also reminded us that at the advent of the internet we were told that the truth would always prevail, because the internet would allow us to fact-check everything!).
A photo of a loo roll was his favourite slide of the day. Why? A public toilet in China is using facial recognition tracking to monitor individuals using too much loo roll. Where do I buy this technology from?!
TrendWatching’s head of trends, David Mattin, took us through a vision of a very different future and reminded us that we currently live in a very complex interconnected world. With fractured narratives and politics being disrupted, are we living in an authoritarian world (aka George Orwell’s 1984) or living the vision that was first described in A Brave New World?
Always ask the big questions
We can all learn from experimental particle physicist Dr James Beacham who said: “Always allow yourself the bravery of stepping into the unknown.” What a legend! He makes me feel like I actually understood complex quantum physics – for about five minutes, before I came back from multiple universes (which probably exist by the way) to the ground.
NEXT, with lots of hope and optimism, was very inspiring. Some scary, mad stuff. But perhaps our perception of what scary is changes all the time. I definitely came away thinking that we need to do more to bring the wonders of this new digital era to bear on some of the real-world problems we are facing.