A guidebook to the next 20 years: what we learned from NEXT21

We were back in the theatre for NEXT21, but the changes brought by the pandemic were very much in evidence. Our speakers explored where we go from here…

The world has changed, and so has NEXT. And our return to live events after an enforced two years off made that very clear. And, through the insights of our speakers, helped us chart a course into the next 20 years of change.

While it was fantastic to have NEXT back in Schmidts Tivoli, it was odd seeing it so sparsely occupied. And, for me, it was odd not to be in that room at all, but watching from 600 miles (ca. 966 km) away, doing my coverage remotely, to free up space for attendees. It was a reminder that the pandemic is still with us, and its impact will be felt for years.

It’s ironic that the lost edition of NEXT, NEXT20, was going to be themed “Halt, and Catch Fire”. Ironic because that’s precisely what happened: the world halted, as the pandemic took hold.

And then it caught fire. The flames were both literal (in Australia’s and the west coast of the US) and metaphorical. Enforced digital transformation ripped through our economies. The visual changes in the theatre were a constant reminder of the profound changes outside it. 

Navigating the next 20 years

And so, inevitably, many of the talks explored what the pandemic-shaped new normal will look like in the months and years to come. It seems unlikely we’ll “snap back” to our pre-pandemic lives. There are plenty of forces pushing us to explore different ways of living, including the ones we’ve been forced into over the past 18 months. 

But, as always with NEXT, we’re as interested in the next 20 years as we are the next two. And there are significant changes on that timescale that we need to be acting on now. The talk that concluded the main stage sessions was the one that made that clearest: Parag Khanna clearly outlined the major changes that are coming our way in the medium term. The demographic and climate shifts that are already underway will, inevitably, reshape our world. The winners, at a corporate and a country level, will be those who acknowledge this reality as quickly as they can — and adapt to it. The war for talent is real, and is global.

And countries which embrace sensible, meaningful migration are likely to be the winners. 

But that’s not to say that the war isn’t coming for our businesses now. For those watching the livestream, Dr Eliza Filby brought home the way the pandemic has shifted the relationship between work, home, and the family. Her talk wasn’t a theoretical delineation of the generations, but a practical guide to that allows smart managers to become the sort of leaders we need now. The kind of leaders that can manage the shift to hybrid working, bridge the generations and win the new war for talent. 

Reclaiming our humanity from the digital

Indeed, that underlying message that we need to remember the human in a holistic sense was also present in Timandra Harkness’s talk, as she reminded us to put the person back into personalisation. Algorithmic personalisation only takes us so far because it’s about sorting people for products. The next step is, surely, to make the products for people. And we have the data and the technology to do that. It is the defining paradigm of the 21st Century, in the way mass manufacturing defined the last one. 

And that idea lurked in Benedict Evans’ talk, too. While he talked about the great unbundling, he also showed us where the seeds of rebundling were growing, too. His comparison of Shopify with Amazon was illuminating. One centralises retail through a gatekeeper, one enables small retailers to access digital markets. And, as people seek to escape the grip of the massive tech companies, and spend more to support the local retailers that supported them during lockdown, the future might look more like Shopify than Amazon. Commerce is becoming digital, and that impacts the physical in a profound way. 

Shopify and Amazon are both US companies, of course. And Francesa Bria was adamant that Europe needs to take control of its own digital destiny, rather than being squeezed between the state surveillance of China and the corporate surveillance of the US. It was a stark reminder — if such were needed after our online pandemic lives — that wresting control of our digital egos from others will be critical over the next decade.

Metaverses, beyond the game

Among all these discussions of cultural shifts and global re-alignments, at first, the talks by David Mattin and Nils Wollny seemed out of place. Discussing a buzzword like “Metaverse” was like a throwback to an early era, where the discussion was about the latest gadget, platform, or app.

The Metaverse, at first glance, looks like another “next big thing” we’ve been bombarded with over the past 15 years of tech conferences. But one only has to pause, and step back and think to see the acute relevance. Many of us have lived and worked online since we last gathered in a theatre on the Reeperbahn. The persistent role of video conferencing in our lives, be it Teams, Zoom or even FaceTime, has pushed us all into a digital existence.

But not immersive ones.

Those people who used Animal Crossing or Fortnite to escape, though, were leading a way that businesses might end up following. Persistent virtual offices in a Metaverse are clearly on the agenda for Facebook — and are likely to be a vital part of a less travel-oriented business world in the decades to come. 

And indeed, as the collision of the climate crisis and the pandemic-driven lockdowns has made clear, sometimes it’s better not to travel at all. Every journey saved is a few fewer tonnes of carbon in our air. 

A climate of change

But let’s spare a thought for our first speaker, Mark Curtis, who chose to really commit to sustainability by travelling from London to Hamburg by train: a 12-hour proposition. It also helped frame his talk perfectly: we need to make sustainable options easier. We need to provide more information. And we need to concentrate on the experience.

If we are going to be taking slower forms of transport that are more climate-friendly, perhaps the market for Holoride-like technology might be larger than the team are considering…

When Mark spoke, he was blissfully unaware that as he headed back, he’d be arriving in a UK plunging into a petrol crisis. Fragile, just-in-time, supply chains are collapsing globally. The after-shocks from the pandemic — and the early impacts of the climate crisis — prove that they lack the resilience for the next decade. 

There’s work to be done — by all of us. But we can only shape the future of the office, of the family, of transport, if we have our eyes firmly fixed on both the coming crises, and the opening opportunities. 

Let’s fix the next 20 years

NEXT might be back as a physical event, but the core message was that it will never be back to business as usual. It will always be a hybrid event now. Our companies will be hybrid companies. And even our countries will have to rethink how they function in an age defined by digital transformation, climate disruptions and a new understanding of global health. The next 20 years will be harder than the last 20. But our speakers helped us chart a course into that uncertain future.

Based on the talks at NEXT21, I can’t wait to see what NEXT22 brings us, as we set out on that journey of exploration into our post-pandemic terra incognita.

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