Q&A: Futurist Amy Webb highlights tech trends relevant to communications professionals

By Edward Pimenta

Editora Globo

São Paulo, Brazil


Every year, one of the most popular lectures at the South by Southwest (SXSW) festival is by American futurist Amy Webb. People line up to hear her predictions and learn about the trends published in the Tech Trends Report, an annual study by the Future Today Institute, an entity she founded and directs that focuses on researching emerging technologies and their potential uses.

Webb is an omnivorous scholar and likes to say that the global challenges facing business and society are intertwined across many disciplines. Her academic background includes the fields of game theory, economics, statistics, political science, computer science, sociology, music, and journalism. She is an advisor to companies and governments around the world, lived for years in Asia, and speaks Japanese.

Futurist Amy Webb suggests communications professionals cannot only be reactive. They, too, must be futurists.
Futurist Amy Webb suggests communications professionals cannot only be reactive. They, too, must be futurists.

In her book The Big Nine, Webb states that Artificial Intelligence (AI) is in the control of nine major corporations in the United States and China. The American part of the big nine — Amazon, Google, Apple, IBM, Microsoft, and Facebook — has big ideas about how to solve some of humanity’s biggest challenges, but they are submitted to the whims of Wall Street and maintain a merely transactional relationship with Washington.

Meanwhile, the part in China — Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent — is linked to Beijing and the Chinese Communist Party. In the midst of all of this are consumers and their data, systematically mined and refined to build the future of AI.

At the SXSW presentation last year, Webb showed highlights from the 14th edition of the Tech Trends Report. The report noted approximately 500 trends — 22% more than previous editions. It is not surprising that the pandemic has motivated so many changes. “If we’ve learned anything from the past year, it’s that we have to be flexible. But we can do this better by modeling possible scenarios,” she said.

In this interview, Webb analyses the impact of technological development in the business world and the main challenges facing corporate communication professionals.

Q: Fifteen years ago, you were focussed on the big shift of print media in the digital era. Back then, the question was if we would survive without physical newspapers and magazines. Since then, we have seen a brutal transformation in the communication environment, not only among publishers, but clearly among companies from different sectors. In your opinion, what are the biggest communication challenges faced by companies today?

Webb: I wasn’t only focussed on the shift of print to digital; I was just talking a lot about it at that point. Underlying that was a significant amount of research I was doing in AI, distribution, and automation.

When it comes to communications, there are obvious challenges, like the generation, spread, containment, and aftermath of misinformation. Algorithms on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and TikTok determine which pieces of content are most likely to grab attention, and it’s been proven time and time again that they reward incendiary, salacious content — even when it is false.

News organisations are not in total control of the communications ecosystem. They talk about platforms as though they are partners, but they really aren’t; there’s asymmetry in that relationship. This impacts companies from other sectors, too. Consumers are leaning into distrust, rather than into uncertainty, with an open mind.

But the bigger challenge is in how companies think about the future. I’m not seeing a systematic, data-driven approach to developing strategy for the future. My observation is that companies get several aspects wrong in their approach to foresight.

To start, few organisations have adopted a formal strategic foresight method with a shared lexicon, and fewer still have invested in the institutional capacity to support ongoing foresight work. Signals and trends tend to be outsourced to firms that deliver narrow research, and scenario modeling happens only during annual planning sessions. This is a mistake. This approach fails to acknowledge the influencing factors adjacent to or outside an industry and the next-order impacts they might have.

I’d also add that one CEO’s risk perception can become everyone else’s problem. Likewise, one CEO’s tolerance for new opportunity risk can also become everyone else’s problem.

Q: All industries were, without distinction, impacted by the disruption brought by digital. In your opinion, what are the sectors that have been more disrupted in recent years? Could you give examples of how all this transformation has changed the way companies communicate and interact with their audiences and stakeholders?

Webb: Every industry has been impacted. I come back to trust, because without it there is no audience.

One really interesting new development combines finance and communication. Merchandising has been a major source of revenue for sports clubs. Look at soccer: Lionel Messi’s transfer from Barcelona spotlighted an emerging revenue source that accelerated during the pandemic while stadiums sat empty: fan tokens.

Messi’s multimillion dollar deal with PSG was hyped as a world first with its inclusion of $PSG Fan Tokens. PSG partnered with fintech provider Chiliz and its platform Socios.com in January 2020 to launch the PSG fan token. Fan tokens are digital assets or “utility tokens” designed to increase fan engagement by offering access to exclusive experiences and polls to influence minor club decisions (like music selection and locker room mural design).

You only need one token to gain access — like a membership card — but Chiliz encourages ownership of multiple tokens. The more you own, the more votes you can cast in polls, which is one of many activities that earn points on the platform.

Fans purchase tokens through the platform’s app (e.g., Socios) using the platform’s cryptocurrency — in this case $CHZ. The $CHZ cryptocurrency can be purchased directly through the Socios app or third-party crypto exchanges. Socios reports that tokens have generated nearly US$200 million in the first half of 2021.

What’s interesting isn’t just the use of fan tokens. This is about audience interactions rather than transactions. The audience is invested literally and figuratively in the team.

Q: What emerging technologies should be on the radars of corporate communication teams? What digital trends and/or innovations do you see impacting their work?

Webb: Well, I’d love to see people stop using AR and VR together, as though they are the same technologies. Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality are totally different. They use different types of computing interfaces and have wildly different use cases.

I’m interested, however, in Assistive Reality and Diminished Reality as smart glasses enter the market. The way we communicate, which today is anchored in our mobile devices, is about to change. We’ll soon use a constellation of devices rather than just one mobile phone.

Q: Cybersecurity has become a priority issue in recent years and, after countless ransomware attacks on companies last year, this topic has become even more urgent. In your view, what is the role of corporate communication both in transforming the internal culture and preventing attacks, and in managing an eventual crisis?

Webb: Corporate communications specialists should also be futurists. This does not mean predicting future catastrophes, but it does mean developing various scenarios to imagine alternative futures, rehearsing those futures, and being ready to react and respond.

When I talk to communications professionals, they always tell me their job is to react. That’s nonsense. They should be actively tracking forces, signals, and trends; rehearsing scenarios; and acting as strategic advisors to executive teams.

My colleagues at the Future Today Institute have been working very hard to democratise the field of foresight and to make our tools and frameworks easy to use by everyone. We open sourced our research, frameworks, and tools several years ago and make them freely available on our company Web site.

More than process and methodology, it’s a mindset. If you believe you have agency in shaping the future, you’ll be motivated to track signals, think about outcomes, and position yourselves and your organisations for preferred futures. The future is always coming. It is simultaneously five seconds, five minutes, five years, five decades away. The best way to shape the future is to develop the habit of always listening for signals. If you don’t want to experience future shock, then you have to get good at mapping next-order implications. It’s important to remember that, while we’re all dealing with great disruption, there is also opportunity.

Q: How do you think the workplace of the future will be different from that of today?

Webb: There’s a tremendous amount of speculation right now about the future of work in a post-coronavirus world. Given what we know to be true today — that humans are social creatures, that we thrive in collaboration, that most need direction — it’s unlikely that we will choose to telework in the future.

That being said, there are a lot of organisations that resisted remote work options before that are struggling right now. The Obama administration had championed technology innovation to support remote work. The Trump Administration then spent three years actively rolling all of those provisions and processes back, which is why the federal government is really struggling right now.

The future should be about flexibility and adaptability. The present should be about flexibility and adaptability, too.

About Edward Pimenta

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