Bright Simons is the President of mPedigree, a multinational social tech company working in supply chain, health and food security. An experienced board-level adviser, his current and past affiliations include Microsoft, the WEF's Africa Strategy Group, RED Media, Care International & the APHRC. In 2016, he was named among Fortune's World 50 Greatest Leaders.
What kinds of companies will be the most important?
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There is now no doubt that the next big enterprise opportunities are in public-private meta-platforms (PPMPs) that blur the boundary between public goods, law & order, and consumer preferences.
By balancing private sector capacity with public authority and legitimacy they drive innovation suited for a highly interconnected and interdependent world, automate whole institutions through complex, built-in charters validated by mass testing. Think: what would "Libra" look like if it was built by Amnesty International for OECD refugee finance?
We are in the Wild West of poorly-governed tech platforms today. After all, the idea of “governance” itself has come under scrutiny. Many people now see that governments are rarely neutral arbiters. In matters of the macroeconomy, eminent domain, electoral dispute adjudication etc., the government itself—all branches of it— is frequently a counterparty, potential loser, or self-interested promoter, and ought to be treated as such. Likewise, as we've seen in financial markets, private sector efficiency cannot be taken for granted without trust-based norms.
PPMPs are the only way to address many of these complex issues. To build them though, an organization needs DNA that combines comfort with entrepreneurial risk-taking and experimentation with the temperament to navigate complex, multi-stakeholder politics and protocol development. Rich companies simply buy government relations and lobbying appendages. Those are not enough. Only companies with the actual DNA of operating seamlessly across high technology and public bureaucracy will thrive when the trillion-dollar PPMP opportunities come into their own.
What will cause the biggest conflicts?
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We are heading for a “standards cataclysm." Increasingly, technology systems run all aspects of our complex world. But we are at a point where those systems need explicit programming of social and political standards to function. China’s “social credit system” is one of the clearest indications yet of this convergence. In a world of deepening ideological cleavages, it becomes hard to see how the current laissez faire model of technical globalization can continue.
Today, global powers like the US, China, Russia, and Europe are able to assert their dominance (or push back on others’) through their knowledge of complex, obscure financial protocols and systems. Smaller powers are getting better at understanding how this techno-globalization superstructure works. As their capacity to affect it grows, they shall become more confident about carving sovereign “comfort zones” without dangerously isolating their economies.
A lot of people talk about coming conflicts around water, climate displacements, rare metals, and the like. By doing so, they show that they don’t understand how access to all those resources has been so increasingly “protocolized” that it makes little sense to fight directly over those resources. Rather than physical fights over water, expect more conflict over water rights. Rather than American special forces swooping down to break into Chinese vaults of rare Earth metals in Congo, expect more squabbling over the designation of “conflict minerals.” Even where the fight is over direct access, the aim shall be focused on the global protocols that govern access and control.
How will people earn a living?
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The entrepreneurial bug is boring into every heart. In the recent past, it was only in the developing world that having multiple side gigs even when one is full-time employed was considered acceptable. But increasingly, more companies in the so-called advanced world are beginning to find ways to accommodate their employees’ roving interests.
I see more companies becoming “internal marketplaces” where they work harder to optimize the advantages of having smart people engage intensely together, increasingly the only advantage companies have over loose communes of collaborators. This intensity factor is a bit harder to achieve in loose communes, and companies shall ride it as long as they can whilst minimizing the apathy and boredom that comes from being removed from the end results of one’s efforts. To do this, companies will strengthen their capability to incubate and trade the ideas and efforts of their brightest talents in a more empowering way.
When done badly, you get the Google self-driving car debacle. However, big consulting and advertising agencies have long understood and acclimatized to this reality. And seeing as they operate at the vanguard of the knowledge economy, we can only assume that they are the canaries in the mines of tomorrow.
How will we communicate with each other?
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We are still very bad at communicating ideas. Information flow does not equate to ideas flow.
Maintaining emotional connection when exploring complex ideas within large groups is extremely tough. The funny thing is that, contrary to what most people believe, emotions are more primitive routines and thus far susceptible to programming shortcuts than the more abstract parts of our vast cognitive spectrum. Some AI systems today can read facial cues better than trained psychologists but none can adapt math instruction to the pace of a struggling pupil.
So, how easy is it really to incorporate emotional cues into ideas transfer? One quick win is to use voice modulation in conferencing packages to manipulate moods.
Computers that can smell fear, disgust, dislike and similar cues would naturally be countermanded by those that can generate fake feeling cues. Will the bad outweigh the good?
As already indicated, the more technically exciting challenge is how to visualize and symbolize complex ideas and to rapidly sync mindsets around the meeting table whilst doing so. But we are very far from a computer that can generate the best visual for each participant’s spoken words in real time, thereby making presentation software a communications enabler rather than a distraction. Augmented-reality-aided communications that personalize information display based on the absorber’s learning style, personality type, mood, and attention span require sophisticated data through human cognitive transparency. But we really don’t want to be transparent, do we? Not even to our romantic interests.
How will we entertain one another?
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As a species, we shall always like set pieces. The “shared spectacle” is a need wound tightly around our physio-consciousness. We want to experience great feats of the imagination together and revel in the knowledge of the unspoken but deeply shared subjective waves they trigger.
Whilst we enjoy the “personal moments” of relaxation with good music and film and magazines and whatnot, they belong to a different level of recreation. Real entertainment for our species has always been about the transfer of adrenaline, laughing together, discussing afterwards etc. Good spectacles, however, don’t come cheap. In Rome, the city had to divert resources from important social projects to free circuses for this very reason. It is also the reason why amusement park visits have held roughly constant despite the barrage of “personal entertainment” options.
The truth though is that in recent times, the costs of developing large spectacles in sports, cinema, concerts and the like have been inflated by the bargaining power of professionals. More digital tools might bring more amateurs into the mix and reduce the influence of the big studios, promoters and impresarios. Digital technologies that can bring down the cost of spectacle entertainment are still relatively underdeveloped because the focus has been on animation more than animatronics, and mechanisms to optimize the real estate of enchantment. But spectacle is first and foremost about physical ambience.
What will we eat?
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When it comes to our ability to control what diets do to our bodies, we are much more advanced than our Iron-Age ancestors. Over the years, the fads have come and gone, but one desire has been fairly constant: foods that actively condition the body chemistry.
In that regard, two main areas of exploration have been most intense: mood enhancement (foods that make us feel good about ourselves) and metabolism regulation (foods that leave little trace on our physical form). Despite the underlying chemical requirements of our desires, we seek also to eat “naturally." These two broad objectives are in conflict, reflected in the equal passion with which new age evangelists proselytize laboratory-synthesized burger patties as well as organic carrots.
A minority will still embrace a wholesale reversion to organically grown fruits and vegetables, but I expect more people to embrace “functional” foods synthesized in labs and targeted at various chemical pathways that nevertheless are still heavily marketed as “natural.”
Many more such highly processed victuals will be dreamt up for synthesis from obscure raw materials, such as seaborne microflora and pond-farmed slugs, elaborate growths of algae and once poisonous fungi. The esoteric and obscure sources of the ingredients serve to mask their artificiality. On the other hand, attempts to more closely couple this trend with do-it-yourself diagnostics—apps that measure the effect of these foods on blood chemistry—shall, however, struggle to gain mass acceptance because they don’t intersect well enough with the convenience and “feel-good” dimensions of these trends.
What will we wear?
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Two trends will heavily impact the design and manufacture of fabrics that make our clothing: our improved understanding and capacity to manipulate nanomaterials with specific effects on the microorganic environment, and the steady improvements in our ability to program probiotic mechanisms. Clothing will be designed to serve as barriers against some diseases, to provide early warning diagnostics and as much as possible to align with dermal microflora in order to improve both comfort and wellness. Clothing will be designed for 24-hr/360-degree personal health monitoring. There is already underwear on the market that addresses some of our growing needs for contingent microhealth support.
How will we find love?
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The psycho-biological dimension of love has long intertwined with the socio-legal, and now the politico-economic, demands of the modern relationship format: marriage/civil unions, joint custody and upbringing of children, marital assets management, compatibility counselling, even couple genomics. Many people are growing wary of the “whole package” philosophy. They want an unbundling. And as we get comfortable using social network technologies to support more and more of our most intimate decision-making, more of us shall turn to new technologies to enable us manage our “love life” in a far more “disaggregated” manner than is currently the case. Rather than stop at sexting, hookups, and fetishes, app-system providers will enable more complicated patterns of “love life formatting,” including some pretty complicated living arrangements around child rearing, joint finances, and the like. Because the decision-making would require more data than is currently available, UI and UX maestros shall have the time of their lives trying to make all that seamless. Expect to see more “location synching” services that beep and flash and signal when a “true match” is nearby, whether you are at a supermarket or in the queue at the state vehicle licensing waiting hall.
What kinds of stories will we tell?
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What the social media boom has shown us is how much we humans love to dramatize the mundane. People want to turn their humdrum lives into their own signature movies (well, some people do). But we also want fantasy and rule-warping freedom to escape the boring and the repetitive. Hence, the growing fascination and faux outrage over “deep fakes.” Second Life failed because it got the balance wrong: We want neither absolute freedom of narrative nor absolute fidelity to genre. We want some social conventions to remain to make our status anxiety worthwhile.
In a few years, the tools for crowd-narrated stories will be much better. Rather than fans of Game of Thrones giving secondary meaning to Dan Weiss and David Benioff [the showrunners] and George R.R. Martin’s [the author of the series] fantasies on ridiculously long reddit subthreads, they will spend their time co-creating spin-offs that speak more closely to contemporary cultural anxieties. Our most engaged discussions about our cultural lives seem to have diverged from the social and political matters that animate us the most. New technologies will enable us to wield our angst into crowd-spun tales of suburban woes and the perfidies of the political class. Expect a Kickstarter-type co-creation medium for tubecasting that tilts heavily towards hyperlocal stories of resistance and redemption, told with snazzy effects and with patronage in the millions.
How will we get information?
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The internet isn’t going anywhere. What the big apps have shown, though, is that they can heavily contain our experience of it. They can manipulate the edges of our consciousness and force us to limit our exploration to the lens they provide. Still, two visions contend: the Googleplex dominion of highly-curated, de-personalized, ranked truths and the Facebookdom of hearsay and sentiment sensing. What kinds of information are we going to want the most? As more of the important day-to-day services in our lives move to hyper-connected platforms capable of pulling in data from all manner of sources in anticipation of our needs, we are less consciously searching for information independent of the flow of our actions. Unless an individual is in a line of work that requires seriously original thinking, curiosity is increasingly more oriented toward understanding the viewpoints of others and the nuances of social belief than it is toward dry facts and curated opinion. Structural recall may already be on the downslide. It seems to me that in the near future, systems that enable more unstructured peer learning and immersion, like the next generation of WhatsApp groups, shall acquire higher stakes in our contested attention span than the systematic search engines in vogue today.
What forms of transportation will we use?
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Most autonomous-mobility companies are completely deluded. Look, if self-navigating platforms are going to become a thing, it will only happen as part of a reimagined, coordinated mass transit system. That is to say, it is not Ford’s datacenters that will have the responsibility for tele-guiding a chute-pod down the Grand Concourse in the Bronx—it will be the borough government’s nav system. Most investments today are toward individual autonomous vehicles, but the real challenge is how to manage a swarm of independent self-driving cars. For cities to allow large numbers of self-driving cars, they would need to deploy some of the most complex swarm management systems the world has ever seen. Due to heavy underinvestment in this critical layer, I am completely certain that our modes of transportation won’t change much for the next two decades at least.
But, of course, people may finally begin to see the folly of past focuses and build the municipal transit systems needed to enable coordinated, swarm-based navigational platforms. Once that happens, expect that cars will look very different as they are redesigned to fit within the "transit tapestry.” There will be dense sensor networks for vehicle-to-vehicle communications, and a redundancy-led safety approach. Cybersecurity is going to be the dominant constraint, so expect all the lessons we have learned from the disastrous way TCP/IP [the protocol that runs most of the internet] was designed to come in handy as mass transit designers rig the system with rampant failsafes.
What will cities be like?
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Once we have succeeded in building high-coordination transit systems, the move toward more pedestrian-friendly spaces shall begin in earnest. The need to encourage more social bonding by encouraging serendipitous encounters will become the all-consuming passion of municipal designers. Cities heavily underinvest in social bonding right now. Authorities are so busy handling sewage and gas grid leaks that they simply have no bandwidth to look at the stresses tearing social life apart: commuter blight, planning zone mess that has made decent housing for new entrants into the workforce a mere fantasy, disintegrating family relationships, and the dramatic persistence of inner-city homelessness and pollution.
As utilities become more regional, however, it seems to me that cities will discover that their “primary bound of responsibility” is more anchored to fostering human-to-human community and less to the exigencies of infrastructure maintenance. Even educational and health infrastructure may become more hyper-connected due to growing digitalization and the harmonization of job market structures. City management may, thus, find that its only real avenue to impact quality of life is to curate endless experiences for connecting the atomized dwellers inhabiting their territories into a more productive whole.