As our bodies are becoming network nodes and our lives are being increasingly augmented by technology, virtual economies are going to change the way we shop, pay, work, and play. And brands need to be ready to play in this space.
This was the challenge that I was raising to a room full of creative agencies and clients during acreative talk (note: for Contagious magazine) in London, a year ago (November 2019).
Little did I know that only a couple of months later, accelerated by a global pandemic, virtual realities were going to leap from the fringes of eSports and gaming to become a real-life and business reality.
Powered by immersive technologies, life was starting to look a lot like the Sci-fi scenario that I had been preaching: from avatar-first business meetings in VR, holiday dreams of travel to Lapland for a special meeting with Santa, plans for vanity shopping online accessories for my avatar, and even investments plans in virtual art.
On cognitive biases and self-fulfilling prophecies. There is something contagious about virtual worlds. Undercovered by infinite identities one can wondrously lose one’s self in their endless promise of recognition, belonging, and continuousself re-creation. Same as the linear digital platforms before them (think Facebook, Instagram, etc.) virtual worlds will become a place of self-actualisation, so brands should be prepared to embrace them sooner, than later. This is what I was inviting the audience to reflect upon, in 2019.
But was I ready for the very future that I was preaching?
May 2020. Two months into the lockdown and Iwas starting to actually experiment Ray Kurzweil’sLaw of Accelerating Returns myself. Time was feeling as if accelerating and compressing at warp speed: we were living in 2020, but according to some scientists we were 7 years’ worth of technological progress ahead into the future. Lifewas beginning to feel a lot like the Sci-fi books thatwe used to get our juices high on, as kids. Or, as the friends from Super7 put it: “we grew up with giant monsters, (…) science fiction, skateboarding, robots & rebellion. No one made what we wanted.So we made it ourselves.” Only that … this time it was real.
Arts, culture, and experiential inspiration
My family and I had chosen to live in one of the artsy areas of the city with our street as a home to some of the most magical art galleries. Yet, the only things I would mostly see from our window during lockdown were the blinders marking them as closed.
Online cultural experiences were slowly taking over the physical vibe: from the mind-blowing visit to the esoteric island of Pāpiliōnem during the Tomorrowland Fesival, to online Airbnbteambuildings, virtual museum tours in corners of the world I hadn’t even reached before, piano and jazz online concerts, and all the way to live IGs listening to the inspiring Steven McRae (instead of simply going to watch him dance at the Royal Opera House like back in the days). An explosively rich new cultural world was overwhelmingly opening up, fighting for my very little “free” time.
Travel fatigue. Like many of you “frequent flyers” and also as a Mom, there was an initial euphoria around allowing a long-overdue travel recovery to my body. As well as around spending more time with the loved ones. However, by the end of the year, even the thought of putting up with travel hassles would seem unthinkably ineffective. Driving all the way to Germany for the opening of a friend’s gallery when I can just watch it live from my armchair? How bizarre, did we really use to do that? Taking the risk to squeeze a catch-up lunch between lockdowns in the midst of it all? Was I getting used to the “comfort” of virtual interactions?
The uncomfortable of a comfortable numbness
While there was quite some research showing how beneficial the quieter months and homeworking were in many ways for introverts who were able to better self care, self-protect and, eventually becomemore productive. And while I had indeed felt an improvement in my availability for deep workmyself, the lack of #IRL human interaction, with is myriads of subconscious, subtle metalanguages ofenergy exchange well beyond a handshake or a curious gaze that used to keep me sharp and alert before, was starting to drain my energy and vibrancy. My whole self was missing the challenge of feeling, being, and looking at my best every day. There was a fine line between taking more time to unwind versus allowing the mind and body to numbly slip into the comfortable lethargy of home-wear. I had always admired those designers and work-from-home creative minds for which part of an inspired and productive morning routine was dressing up as their best selves. And, as one of those humans guilty of thinking better in high heels, I couldn’t help wonder if there was truly a relationship between deep work and the way we show up to it. Each of us our unique way, of course.
There was a seducing excitement about the comfortof having these whole new virtual worlds at the touch of my fingertip and I could see how easily one could let one’s self lured by their siren song into spending more time in the holospace rather than being present to the real world with the risk ofslowly disconnecting from the physical reality. Yet, same as other comfortably technological benefits before, there was no user manual, nor did they come with any warning.
Was technology for the first time in human history ahead of psychology, sociology, and even economics? A question that I used to ask in my2012 TEDxBrussels review would to recurrently come back to me during the slowdown period. Where were the psycho, socio, anthropological studies about how each of these virtual interactionsis reflecting on our wellbeing and humanity? Where were the ethics experts? Where were the designers, philosophers, poets, dreamers, anthropologists, psychologists, sociologists, and axiologists when the futures of humanity wereslowly being envisioned and decided for?
On Futures Literacy and Positive Futures
The year 2020 accelerated a lot of questions aboutpossible futures for humanity. Which ones are we getting ready to step into? Who is going to lead the way? As designers are the story shapers of the culture, developing narratives towards one future or the other, they also have the responsibility of guiding the innovative vision of organisations, communities, and decision-makers towards a positive future. Even beyond environmental sustainability only, and all the way through financial and societal sustainability at large.
As the capacity to intentionally imagine futures scenarios and purposefully act on a selected vision, research shows that futures thinking can help us with: taking better decisions, achieving our goals, improving psychological wellbeing, and last but not least acting more kind and generous.
As a strategic designer and futures storyteller, did I have the mission and the unpractical endeavour to facilitate and inspire clients, partners, friends, and the community at large towards responsibly anticipating futures scenarios?
Andreea is Head of Strategy for the strategic design consultancy ALCHEMISER, guiding clients through impactful decision-making that reaches commercial commitments. As an IFTF certified foresight practitioner, playing one’s part towards a sustainable future is what keeps her up at night.
Disclaimer: This it the author version of the original manuscript submitted for review to Design Management Institute and Willey.