The year ahead for tech: change how you think and act

If there’s one group of companies that had a “good” pandemic in terms of raw business numbers, it’s the US tech giants, with stock valuations that rallied to record highs after a spring slump as ecommerce and online entertainment soared this year. But as privacy, brand safety and competition remain high on the agenda, the tech platforms will have many challenges to navigate in 2021.

The year ahead for tech: change how you think and act

'We need to change how we think and how we act'

By Sol Ghafoor, director of strategic services, AnalogFolk

This year has been a year of change like no other. If the universal provocation from 2020 is “how can we be better?”, those of us in the field are also questioning the role technology has played and continues to play in equality and representation. But technology itself

is neither good nor bad, it plays the role we give it. That’s why our answer is that we need more change. And what needs to change most of all is us. 

These problems don’t exist in a microcosm, they’re systemic and far-reaching. After all, technology is built on blind spots and biases that have so far remained hidden. Facial recognition technology still doesn’t recognise people of darker skin. Credit scoring has been known to give them unfair financial outcomes. At airports, they might be unfairly searched because scanners can’t detect their skin or hair. In all of these cases, people of colour are the victims of unfair outcomes and categorisations. 

So it’s not enough just to create solutions and put them out into the world. We need to teach and continuously de-bias our solutions. While we increasingly rely on AI, for example, it’s still not sophisticated enough to remove stereotypes and prejudices. The systems we build need bias-free human input to keep removing these errors. 

And it’s not just about the tools. We also need to shift how we identify and segment our consumers. Shifting from demographic and people-based segmentation to behavioural segmentation can help us focus not on who we’re targeting, but their behaviours instead. If designed in the right way, and backed up by sufficient quantitative volumes, the approach will drive us from designing products for outdated personas to a more equitable system. 

The data we base these behaviours on must also be representative, so it’s critical we assess our sources from that perspective. Working closely with our data partners, we need to interrogate where the data is coming from, whose information it collects and whether it is a fair representation of the people we want to reach with our products. 

If we’re going to make better solutions, they genuinely need to start with people. And not just “people like me”. We need to change how we think and how we act, building technologies that meet and reflect everyone’s needs, this year and beyond.

'Much of what was normal won’t return'

By Nigel Vaz, chief executive, Publicis Sapient; president, IPA

The great reset is a term on many people’s lips, and for good reason. It captures the idea of hope, for a better future, after a year in which Covid-19 and its repercussions unceremoniously pulled the rug from under our collective feet. In truth, the four forces of connected change – customer behaviours, technological change, business models and societal impact – had been propelling us for some years, before the pandemic landed as an unwelcome accelerant to the disruption of the commercial context in which we all operate. 

So when we think of the year ahead for technology, it must be with an appreciation that technology is woven into the fabric of our business, as it is for all business. The ease with which any lingering doubts about how we work were swept aside has been something to behold. Remote and flexible working as part of agencies’ culture? Check. Client meetings all online? Check. Virtual pitches? If we must. We have crossed the Rubicon. Much of what was normal won’t return – the efficiencies for our clients and ourselves are too great.

On a more fundamental level, the behavioural implications from coronavirus threw into stark relief the differences between digitally enabled brands and laggards. If we accept – and we should – that our role is to be our clients’ partners for growth, then we must seize the opportunity that technology provides to help our clients identify and realise value for their customers and business. 

In 2021, there are numerous ways agency partners will interpret this role and how they best use technology to help build a client’s “digital moat” – the sum of the capabilities that create value and keep them competitive in a digital world.

Agencies, regardless of discipline, are extraordinarily well placed to help evolve clients’ digital products, brand promises, and experiences that continually align with changing customer behaviours and technology. The best agency partners will continue to add expertise in data and analytics, content and distribution, cross-channel campaign optimisation, digital experience and a host of other digital enhancements to their creative cores. If you don’t have these, acquire them.

As consumers shift their media habits, look to brands for relevance, reassurance and support, and expect messaging in tune with the cultural conversation rather than deaf to it, agencies approach the great reset no less disrupted but with renewed potential to help clients navigate the change with creativity and agility.

'Technology doesn’t solve problems by itself'

By Fura Johannesdottir, chief design officer, Huge

This year saw a drastic shift in everyone’s behaviour. Our world was turned upside down by the pandemic and we were forced to adapt quickly to an entirely new landscape. 

With so much at stake – from political turmoil; the need to focus on systemic racism via the Black Lives Matter movement; and protests around women’s rights in Poland, for instance – individual lives became greater than themselves. The backdrop to all this being, of course, the urgent need to face the future of our planet. In these cases, and more, I am hopeful that technology can help. 

Purpose ­– a key word for brands throughout 2019 – was pulled into sharper focus in 2020 and we will see the results of this through the coming year. Walking in step with the need to face our ethical issues has been the advance of, and the increased use of, technologies such as artificial intelligence and automation, alongside smarter use of data. 

For brands to exist in the year ahead, they will need to match the use of technologies with their ethical standing. How can they use computer vision to answer human questions like trust? Can AI help brands and consumers make better decisions? And is the data both clean and being used ethically? Indeed, ethical frameworks need to be baked in to brand work that uses new technology so that customers feel empowered, rather than challenged, in terms of privacy or bias. 

Like it or not, it took a brand like Tesla to force the issue and make electric vehicles more desirable to the masses. We should use this momentum in other areas of sustainability – force fashion to change its polluting ways and maybe move the more damaging aspects of our lives to the virtual world. What would happen if clothing were digital rather than physical? The brands that can explore this could change our worlds. 

Robotics and automation are on the rise, but we need to think carefully about who that benefits. In a similar vein, cloud computing has enabled us to connect and collaborate in new ways, and 5G will help us do this faster. But how can this help people in low and middle-income countries that are not connected and struggle economically? These are powerful technologies but they must be used to equalise and not divide. And while that data centre can power millions of human connections for a social network, the electricity supply that it runs on also needs to be sustainable, lest we lose the people who would connect via these platforms. 

2020 was disrupted. We lost too many people; we faced ravaging bushfires and political turmoil; and we need to work hard to make a future for the next generations to grow into and exist comfortably within. Technology doesn’t solve problems by itself. That responsibility is ours. 

This may sound depressing but, again, I am hopeful. Brands, businesses and individuals are more aware than ever that we need to change and they now have extraordinary technologies to enable them to head in the right direction. 

We managed to change so quickly as Covid-19 crashed into our lives. We have seen that we can adapt faster than we thought. The purpose we had in 2019 may have been interrupted but the way we can address significant problems has accelerated. I think we see more clearly now what we can do, what we can change to create a healthy planet and what we mean by purpose when we adopt
new technologies to support the coming generations for many years to come.

Illustration: Ben Jennings