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Top 3 sociotechnical trends of 2020

Insights on current events & sociotechnical dynamics. Thought provoking take on a path forward.


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Nick Straughn

3 years ago | 13 min read

Well… Here we are. Just a few years after Bill Gates started warning us about the impending crises facing the human race, and the globe is walloped by the Coronavirus.

Thankfully, Bill doesn’t seem like the “I told you so” type and I’m sure he’d be happy to know that we’re about to engage in civil discourse about the issues. To that end, I’m interested in exploring the role that technology has played in the unfolding events of 2020.

Specifically, a global pandemic accompanied by misinformation and fear; a revived civil rights movement that is long overdue; and a wave of technology propelled by cloud computing, big data, and the democratization of user experience.

Furthermore, I pose a human-centered design approach to address these opportunities because it is true that conflict breeds creativity, but it is clear that our entrenched ways of problem solving will not let that creativity flourish.

Let’s be honest, the national response to coronavirus and general social unrest has been mixed at best and sickening at worst – I know, bad pun. Now, more than ever, it is important for us to reflect on the current state of the world and ask ourselves a question.

Are we going to continue with the ways of the past, or are we going to lean into the future? Because I’ve got news for you… This is only the beginning.

I’ll discuss three emerging trends of 2020 and the foreseeable future:

1. The migration of in-person activities to remote engagement

2. The push to accelerate the adoption of emerging technologies

And most importantly…

3. The widening inequality gap driven by flawed systems design

Remote Engagement

COVID-19 is a virus unlike anything that the 21st century has ever seen. It forced the evacuation of offices and schools and thrusted us into remote work and distance learning. It’s somewhat similar to the impact that ecommerce had on shopping malls and department stores as technology disrupted the traditional shopping experience.

The major difference is that this time, the driving force is a global pandemic, not the Internet Boom. Retailers needed to reimagine the role that in-person shopping played in the lives of their customers. Now, due to the coronavirus, companies will need to rethink the role that their offices play in their business operations.

Similarly, educational institutions will need to take a long hard look at the service they provide, the manner in which they do so, and the price that they charge as student & parent sentiment toward education continues to drift away from conventional methods.

I suspect that in both cases – commercial real estate & education institutions – we will see an increase in hybrid business operations models and creative collaboration technology.

We know that remote work has its own spectrum of efficiency, as some professions are more conducive to it than others. A study conducted by researchers at the University of California-Irvine found that workers in the field of product design and user experience fall into four mutually exclusive clusters in terms of their response to remote work.

The majority fall into two clusters that are defined as resilient and empathetic. They’ve quickly adapted to the new normal, are comfortable with remote work, and feel worse for their colleagues than themselves. The bottom two clusters identify as being unfulfilled by remote work and have taken a severe morale hit following the shift.

There are significant differences between workers in the same field, now imagine the differences in experiences across the multitude of industries impacted. Hybrid operations could be structured to address the pain-points and accentuate the benefits that each cluster has with remote work. For instance,

· Rotational assignment: all functions have remote days and on-site days, but they rotate to limit unnecessary physical contact

· Role-specific assignment: certain functions designated to work on-site or remotely based on role-criticality

Those are two quick ideas that could be fleshed out. Ideally, there’d be an element of randomization involved so that people can extend their networks to other areas of the company and build the weak ties on which creative organizations thrive.

“weak ties are the bridges which allow us to disseminate and get access to information that we might not otherwise have access to.” — Mark Granovetter, sociologist
“weak ties are the bridges which allow us to disseminate and get access to information that we might not otherwise have access to.” — Mark Granovetter, sociologist

We also know that distance learning is not a complete substitute for in-person learning, especially for young students with shorter attention spans. Aside from the technological issues in getting kids set up with their devices, there is the issue of engagement. Class sizes on average are large enough as is.

Now remove the one thing that teachers had going for them – a single classroom to manage. Not only have they been tasked with creating stimulating curriculum, they now need to manage between 25-35 individual bedrooms and living rooms at a time.

In short, teachers and parents need more support from schools and technology providers to create more stimulating educational environments for their children. Two big benefits of in-person learning are social skill development and the organic discussion between teachers and pupils.

Video calls will suffice for the latter, but I believe tech providers should explore more immersive methods than the standard video call to accomplish the former. Video conferencing does not provide sufficient visual cues or environmental stimuli to prime students to engage with long-form content.

It also does not facilitate natural social interaction and can leave quieter people feeling unheard due to the one-voice-at-a-time constraint. These are significant user experience opportunities that are ripe for innovation.

I’ll pose this progressive distance learning technology platform:

· Mornings: VR-powered lecture series. Transports the traditional classroom experience wherever you are. Students can consume long-form content in an interactive and immersive way.

· Mid-day: Video chat enabled office hours. Personalized feedback and mentorship sessions that capitalizes on the advantages of video tools while minimizing the negatives.

· Afternoon: RPG-style study hours. Provides a stimulating online arena for organized gathering to collaborate on projects and assignments.

Most will say that this sort of system is unnecessary because things will go back to normal at some point and it is cost-prohibitive. I hope that the first point is true. To the second point, I’d argue that businesses should view it as an opportunity to invest in our future and policymakers need to incentivize that line of thought.

Technology Adoption

NBA fans in attend games virtually in partnership with Michelob Ultra (official beer sponsor) powered by Microsoft Teams
NBA fans in attend games virtually in partnership with Michelob Ultra (official beer sponsor) powered by Microsoft Teams

2020 has also accelerated the adoption of some existing technologies more than others. We’ve seen professional sports leagues and political conventions lean into livestreaming as they’re unable to host fans and supporters safely. We’ve seen real estate brokers and car dealers promoting virtual walkthroughs to avoid physical customer contact.

We’ve observed retailers adopting augmented reality solutions to turn shoppers’ living rooms into showrooms. And we’ve seen fitness and mental health apps flood the market as wellness-on-demand gains popularity, and frankly necessity. What do all of these tech offerings have in common?

Yes, they offer social utility in the form of entertainment, commerce, and health services. But they also offer clear paths to monetization and shareholder value.

Speaking of shareholder value, large enterprises have had to adjust their policies and implement new technologies and procedures to maintain productivity and profitability.

Software asset management tools are gaining popularity to help companies optimize their operational expenses by showing who is using certain software and who isn’t. It is a means to increase efficiency by making sure that the right people have the tools they need to do their jobs.

However, some firms, like Barclays, are already seeing backlash from their employees who feel that their privacy has been breached from their employee tracking policies. At best, these systems enable companies to achieve their key business outcomes more efficiently, thus increasing their ROI on their software licenses.

At worst, they enable a dystopian Big Brother reality where employees do not feel safe to get up from their desks for fear of disciplinary action. Businesses will need to address these privacy concerns head-on by leaning into the principles of user choice and transparency. Otherwise, they run the risk of driving their workforces into the arms of other, more ethical employers.

Software Asset Managers give some employees the perception that they are being watched
Software Asset Managers give some employees the perception that they are being watched

Now let’s turn our attention to a technology that should be gaining widespread popularity in these trying times but hasn’t been able to do so. Yes, I’m looking at you, contact tracing apps.

By contrast with the aforementioned technologies gaining traction in the market, contact tracing apps offer significant societal value but lack a clear path to revenue. That is a tough business case for even the most altruistic executive to want to invest in.

To make matters harder, contact tracing apps require network effects to provide any meaningful value to users. Some estimate that for them to stop a contagion, adoption would need to be at least 60%. There are two major hurdles to clear before that could happen: consumer privacy concerns and go-to-market strategy.

Developers have the difficult task of balancing user privacy protection and tool effectiveness. While marketers need to focus their launches on small target audiences, capture broad adoption within these groups, drive engagement and usage, build a critical mass, and then scale outward.

This is a much more hands-on approach than a mass market release or a nationwide mandate, both of which are like casting a very wide net that is full of holes. The best way to ensure that your platform ends up delivering the value you envisioned is to add value on day one and nurture relationships for the long-term.

Existing technologies had a head start on contact tracing apps, but it is not too late for them to adjust strategy and right the ship.

At least 60% of the population would need to adopt contact tracing technology for it to be effective
At least 60% of the population would need to adopt contact tracing technology for it to be effective

Inequality by Design

Some media pundits refer to inequality as “Class Warfare”. Some think it’s just plain made up. Some have even stated that they’d like to see more of it because they believe it is the driving force of an economy. Well they’d be wrong, very wrong. In actuality, it is the middle class that drives the spending that fuels our economy.

Disagree? Consumer spending makes up as much of 70% of the US economy and there are way more 99%ers than 1%ers, so you do the math. Don’t worry, you don’t have to, because the point is clear that the middle class is the heart of this spending.

But this isn’t necessarily about what is happening in terms of the distribution of income and wealth – there is plenty of literature and research around that, and frankly I don’t have enough time to unpack that subject. The truth is that some inequality is inevitable based on how incentive structures are designed and how capitalism works.

The question is really, how much can we tolerate as a society?

In 1978, the typical male worker earned $48,000 while the 1% was making $390,000. As of 2010, the typical male worker made $15,000 less than they did before, while the 1% increased their take-home to $1,100,000. Today, the richest 400 Americans have more wealth than the bottom 150 million Americans combined.

Let that sink in while we ponder what this means in 2020 and “the new normal”. People with office jobs, who can do their jobs remotely, will likely continue to work from home for the foreseeable future. Those who cannot work remotely have either lost their job or will return to a drastically slimmed-down operation.

Self-starters have realized that they need to upskill in order to make themselves more employable. That takes discretionary income, which we already know has been evaporating from the middle class for the past several decades. Additionally, some underprivileged and rural communities still lack broadband connectivity.

So, even if they had the funds to upskill, they’d still lack the requisite technologies to work remotely. We have to collectively understand the rules of the game that we’ve inherited so that we can change it! A rising tide will lift all boats. It doesn’t matter if you’re in a yacht or a lifeboat, we’ll all be better off.

What does this mean from a technological standpoint?

The truth is that technology is a key driver of economic growth due to the massive gains in productivity that it enables.

At the same time, it is a driver of income inequality because of the skills-bias it fosters – meaning that skilled labor is disproportionately better off than unskilled labor because their tools have improved to enhance their productivity, rather than replace their entire employment. Ultimately, technology does not cause income disparity, but it certainly exacerbates the gap.

Think about it, for the most part, we live in a globalized capitalist economy. Which means that those with capital invest their money where they expect to see the highest returns. Unfortunately, that rarely ever means investing into local communities that need economic stimulation.

To top it off, what do you need in order to partake in a global economy? Connectivity to information, markets, credit, etc. Without which it is impossible to partake in any form of upward mobility.

People from lower socioeconomic groups would benefit from more support to help them learn [technology] effectively and partake in the digital age
People from lower socioeconomic groups would benefit from more support to help them learn [technology] effectively and partake in the digital age

So, in my humble opinion, we cannot blame folks who have prospered under these rules. They’ve simply been playing the game as it has been written. Where I take issue, is the lack of empathy, self-awareness, and general wokeness to the fact that social and economic wellbeing are not a zero-sum game.

We need to realize that systemic injustice isn’t just about police brutality against black people. It is an entire structure that was designed to keep the “haves” at the top and push the “have nots” even further to the bottom. The transformation that I’m calling for will require a human-centered design approach to solving these man-made problems of inequity. I pose the following methodology for grassroots activists:

I. Frame the opportunity appropriately. This is a massive problem space, so it is of the utmost importance that the area you’re addressing is well-scoped. Just like in golf, most research mistakes are made before you’ve even swung the club or asked your first question.

II. Research the problem space strategically. This is traditionally one of the hardest parts of design. There are so many tools in the toolbox, but which one should I use?

The best way to decide is to back-solve into it. Imagine, at a high-level, what is it that you want to learn about this subject. Once you’ve gotten that lay of the land, layer on some contingencies to make the subject more dynamic. Oftentimes I find my contingencies serve as guideposts so that I do not stray too far from the central point of the research.

III. Synthesize your research analytically. The data you collect is tied to the type of research you conduct. In my years of experience, if the study was calibrated properly, there is almost always a framework that can be applied to make sense of seemingly disparate data.

To quickly summarize, qualitative data must be cleaned (data hygiene), coded (data attribution), and clustered (data affinity). Whereas quantitative data must be cleaned (more hygiene), segmented (cut by demographic/psychographic parameters), and correlated (assess variable impacts).

IV. Ideate concepts to effectively address pain-points you’ve uncovered. This can either be the most enjoyable or the most frustrating part of the HCD process, and I’ve found that it relates to the people you collaborate with and the platform you use. At this point, it can be helpful to return to your initial framing to reground yourself in the opportunity.

V. Build a prototypical concept to the minimum level of fidelity necessary to evaluate its efficacy. At this stage, it can be very tempting to invest a lot of time and energy in building something beautiful to get people excited about the idea.

In some cases, like working for a large company where executive attention is sparse and development resources potentially even sparser, this may be necessary. But for your purposes, this prototype will likely be more of an algorithmic set of rules and incentives, than a clickable set of screens or physical artifact.

VI. Pilot the prototype objectively. To me, this is both the most exciting and frightening part of the process. It is where rubber meets road, and you begin to get real, unfiltered feedback on the concept. It is essentially the evolution of your research phase, so much so that some folks refer to it as concept validation.

Think of the pilot phase as a barometer for how much work is left to be done. You may end up with stellar results that indicate you should move forward with development. Or, you could end up with abysmal results that indicates you should revisit your research analysis or perhaps reframe your project scope altogether.

If you’ve followed this process to the best of your abilities, the most likely case is that you’ll land somewhere in the middle. Meaning that you’re on the right track but still have some kinks to iron out. That is a great place to be, because it provides proof of concept and highlights where there is opportunity to enhance the experience down the line.

I believe this up-and-coming generation of disruptive thinkers possess the courage to eschew the status quo and attack these problems with the gusto they need to be solved. I’ve posed one design thinking methodology for objectively addressing modern challenges.

There are several others that may fit your needs or style better. The point is that I’ve taken it as my job, as a practitioner of economic theory and human-centered design, to identify inefficiency and rout it out with good design and technology.

I call upon you, as an intellectual individual to ask hard questions and be a force for positive change, in whatever way makes sense for you.

We have gone through a one-way door in our experience dealing with the Coronavirus and systemic inequality. Life as we know it has been disrupted to the point where it doesn’t make sense to look backwards.

We must seize this moment in time to ensure that it is a positive inflection point for society. I’ll leave you with a few parting thoughts based on the picture I’ve painted…

1. Organizations must continue to evaluate the role that their physical locations play in their operational model, e.g. offices, retail stores, and schools.

2. Tech providers must strive to find the optimal balance between user privacy and data analytics to protect personal security and improve user experiences.

3. Policymakers must recognize that redesigning the system does not erode history but rather sews the seeds for future growth.

We must take it upon ourselves to the be the catalysts for innovation!

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