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Lessons in Innovation from Tech’s Cultural Frontier

By Lisa Moretti20 February 20206 min read

If we are to play a transformative role in changing the world for the better, we need to acknowledge trends in human behaviour and culture, and how these impact the innovation cycle

“Digital transformation isn’t really about technology.”

2015 report authored by MIT, Strategy, not technology drives digital transformation

Writing a ‘future casting’ piece in month two of the new year is a little bit of a cheat but the flurry of technology prediction articles has left me wanting. While some left me flummoxed (apparently, this is yet again, “the year of mobile”) and rolling my eyes (a prediction saying that “AI will start to explain itself this year”, comes to mind), my general critique is that these predictions fail to acknowledge trends in human behaviour and culture, and how this impacts the innovation cycle. This report aims to fill that gap.

Values and beliefs largely determine how we behave. Technology helps to shape behaviour by how it can and cannot be used as well as how it is and isn’t used. When looked at in this way, an essential step in predicting trends is to look at what people believe, what they value and how they behave. As such, these are the top five shifts in beliefs, values and behaviour that I believe will shape the future of tech innovation across industries and sectors.

1. Meaningful data

It is undeniable. The fight for the health of the planet and its people is changing hearts and minds. We can see this happening in a number of ways. Firstly, through language. There is a desire to not only measure ‘objectives’ but also ‘outcomes’. We’re hearing the word ‘impact’ more often and witnessing in seismic proportions what that looks like on both sides of the spectrum; those who are promising to do a lot, and those you have made no promises to date. We see this in Microsoft’s ambitious plan to become carbon negative in 2030. Conversely, we can see what happens when a company doesn’t rise to the expectation of change. In the case of Amazon, hundreds of employees put their jobs at risk last month (January 2020) in an open and coordinated effort whereby they criticised the company’s practices.

In order to make evidence-based, impactful decisions, 2020 looks set to be the year that organisations desire to get more out of their data. Tools that enable organisations to make sense of data so that they can better understand their impact on people, planet and profits will be key. This includes making definitions clear, surfacing meta data and visualising data in ways that are understandable and accessible despite technical ability.

2. The rise of the digital humanities

Technologists are realising that the road to holistic, positive impact cannot be journeyed alone. Tothis end, we’re seeing the rise of the digital humanities. These individuals work at the intersection of technology, social life and their domain expertise. They’re crucial to efforts working on the successful democratisation, socialisation and operationalisation of technology and data. It’s precisely because their approach to innovation starts in their domain rather than with the technology that they are such an asset to technology teams. Without these individuals, foreseeing unintended consequences goes from being a difficult and challenging task to an overwhelming and crippling one that usually leads to one of two directions: inertia or reckless, ethical negligence.

Dr. Charlotte Webb has founded the Feminist Internet, the Leading Edge Forum and Girl Effect both have Digital Anthropologists on their team. GovLab have coined the term Data Steward and created an entire network around this role, and Google made a splash in Wired last October announcing they’ve hired a Chief Decision Scientist. Data Storytellers, those with good verbal and visual communication skills, who are able to help find the signal amongst the noise will likely find themselves in strong demand.

3. Soft skills will be the heart of tech enablement

A key finding from LinkedIn’s Emerging Jobs 2020 report shows that as automation becomes more widespread, the demand for soft skills looks likely to increase. They call out communication, creativity and collaboration. This is corroborated in NESTA’s Future of Skills report which outlined a similar set. While there was a particularly strong emphasis on interpersonal skills including teaching, social perceptiveness and coordination, they also called out judgement and decision-making. Freeformers, in partnership with University College London, identify 12 attributes that are similar to the above including imagination, integrity and empathy.

To understand the importance of soft skills within an organisation, one has to know about VUCA; volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. This catch-all acronym describes the unprecedented scale and scope of change we’re living through. Building a workforce that is open to change and experimentation is essential. This is not to say that experts and specialists are not important. They are important and must be nurtured. But it is to say that any organisational digital literacy training or career development should extend beyond technical skills to include training in essential soft skills.

Soft skills take time and attention to successfully develop. This trend will influence how we come to define “digital literacy” and “digital leadership” as well as how we educate and professionally develop the next generation to be digital-literate, risk-tolerant and thrive under VUCA-like conditions.

4. Ethics moves from theory to practice-ish

Last year it felt like we had a series of small wins starting with the creation of senior tech ethics roles and the formation of dedicated teams. Now, titles like Chief Ethical Officer, Data Ethics Officer or Technical Ethics Advisor are starting to become more prevalent. Data Scientists and Engineers are having to fill out ethics canvases before starting projects (in many ways inspired by the Business Canvas) and internal ethics committees are being formalised. There also seems to be widespread agreement that data and engineering teams require a set of multidisciplinary brains, and innovative new processes and methods that support systems thinking and sociotechnical design are gaining traction.
A lot more still needs to happen though. A willing and able community of individuals have been hired and given the remit and resources to ‘do ethics’. The next few years will determine if the powers that be will let them.

5. A New Spirit of Action

 “The status quo is a catastrophic risk to all of humanity. What we can’t afford to do is ignore alternatives.”

5 Myths about Global Poverty, Current Affairs Magazine

Humankind has proved time and again that it is capable of taking, and landing, some giant leaps. The kind that allowed us to land on the moon, discover antibiotics and connect the world using global communication tools.

We have to capitalise on the urgency we find ourselves in and unearth the political will we need to propel us forward. COP26 in Glasgow will be a good indicator of just how brave governments are feeling. Reducing financial and gender inequalities, re-engineering global food markets, quitting our oil addiction and reforming tax systems, may be some of the most wicked problems we’ve ever been tasked with solving. These challenges will compel us to re-evaluate our relationship with creativity and its association with uncertainty, and ultimately risk. They will require us to better understand, and quickly, why so many interventions that work well in experimental or research settings often fail to scale up. Lastly, this will also mean a redesign and rethink of engagement strategies that activate widespread public participation, collaboration and education around fast-changing and difficult-to-understand topics.

Technology has given birth to new business models, influenced political systems and proven it has the ability to restructure social relations. And it will do this again. Only this time we won’t be so quick to look to these innovators, think they’re brilliant and put them in charge. As we enter an age of reformations and redefinitions, reshaping and remixing, there is a deafening call for leadership. It’s likely that the next digital mavens won’t come from the technology industry but rather from the spaces that intersect with it.

Given the current social, political and economic backdrop, pointing an organisation down the road toward innovation that ends in technology feels like anaemic advice. Regardless of your definition of digital transformation, it is less something that happens and more something that emerges at the intersection of technology, creative endeavour and human action. May 2020 give you the gift of kaleidoscopic vision.

This is an excerpt taken from ‘Lessons in Innovation from Tech’s Cultural Frontier. Tech trends paint a picture of innovation being all about technology. it’s not.’

Lisa will be at the Public Sector Innovation Conference on February 25th 2020 where she will exploring this subject further.