The next phase of the digital revolution

With massive shifts in power and control, the digital revolution is entering a new phase. The Accenture Life Trends 2023 report sums it up.

Revolutions usually happen in different phases. That’s proved true for the digital revolution, if we want to call what’s happened that. Revolutions are about shifts in power and control and the digital revolution is no different. From its humble beginnings, it shifted power and control to users, consumers, and individual human beings. Web 2.0, the starting point of both NEXT and this blog, was an iconic phase of the digital revolution.

It was also the starting point of a counter-revolution, with the Big Tech oligopoly wringing power and control out of the hands of consumers again. Consequently, Web3 is going to be the next phase of the digital revolution. Or, to put it the other way around: the next phase is going to be a new shift of power and control. That’s how Accenture Life Trends 2023 (published by our mothership Accenture and formerly known as Fjord Trends) sums it up:

When circumstances are literally beyond people’s control, it prompts multiple responses designed to stabilize and regain control—often expressed in micro-moments and small opportunities that make people feel like they’ve got a handle on things. We see technology providing a channel for people to take control.

Let’s look at the key trends, one by one, starting with I will survive:

I will survive

The struggle for control finds perhaps its strongest expression in the first of five trends, which is about the current permacrisis and human adaptability. Whenever there is a crisis, or multiple crises, the argument goes, human beings will eventually adapt. This adaption won’t solve everything, nor will it restore the status quo ante. People are struggling to make ends meet.

As growing numbers of people internalize instability as a norm, the way they adapt will affect what they buy, and how they view brands and their employers—so companies need to be ready.

This trend has multiple facets, like “algorithmic angst”, defined as “the constant paranoia of whether people’s decisions are truly theirs or a result of manipulation”. It’s a direct consequence of the Big Tech power grab, combined with the perils of big data and machine learning.

Looking at people’s responses to the permacrisis, the Life Trends‘ authors make two creative additions to the ancient “fight or flight” scheme: focus (on what people can control) and freeze (switch off entirely). There is, however, also a ray of light in the darkness:

The energy is running low, but music, art and culture always bring vitality into society. They bring a fresh mood that rejects and replaces that which has grown stale—out with the old and in with the new. Think about the wider circumstances around the emergence of rock ’n’ roll, punk or rap, for example. As this permacrisis rumbles on, we see the right conditions brewing for something new, culturally, that changes people’s outlook and brings them hope.

I’m a believer

Here, it is about the potential of Web3 technologies to help build new (kinds of) communities. The social platforms of the Web 2.0 era, which have designed their social roots out of their algorithmic equations, leave a gap. People want, find, and build new places to hang out online. These are often “token-gated”, meaning that “people buy participation or access rights to content or community, or to join an event”.

Combine this with virtual goods like NFTs and other digital collectibles, and we arrive at compelling experiences for consumers and attractive business models for brands. In our recent book, Next Level CMO, we dedicated a whole chapter to Ana Andjelic who spells out what this shift means for marketing and brands. It is the reintroduction of scarcity in a digital world that until now was marked by abundance.

Is that a good thing?

During the first phases of the digital revolution, technology commodified a lot of business models that were based on scarcity. Digitisation turned scarcity into abundance. This resulted in massive shifts of power and control. Without a doubt, it has unlocked large amounts of new value and created innovative business models. It also destroyed business models based on access and exclusivity.

With Web3, these business models become possible again. If you will, it’s another part of our collective life that’s digitised. Now, what does this mean for brands?

Ultimately, the opportunity here lies in exploring new places to foster a deeper connection with people, as their passions, hobbies, and interests tip beyond loyalty into active participation in communities.

Brand loyalty has always been a big thing in marketing, but participation opens up a new level. Here, too, the participatory approach that has characterised the internet and the web from the beginning comes into play. In this iteration, it is transforming intellectual property in new, hitherto unknown ways.

We expect to see more brands creating products specifically because of online communities populated by people who articulate or perhaps unwittingly surface an unmet need.

Again, there is a question of control. How much control are brands willing to give up to fans to give them a sense of belonging?

As it was

The third trend is dealing with the dreaded return to the office. Covid let the remote working genie out of the bottle, changing the office forever. After three years of the pandemic, we still don’t know what the office of the future, or even the present, will look like. In this respect, 2022 was a year lost.

It comes down to the hard-to-measure, intangible benefits of office life that have gone missing—and this is intimately tied to the post-pandemic evolution of cities and their entire value proposition. Many continue to resist a return to pre-Covid work rituals, while others crave the rewards of being together. It’s time leaders went back to the drawing board to make a logical, mutually beneficial plan.

We can’t think of offices without thinking of the cities that house them. One of their dirty secrets is the mismatch between the number of jobs a city has to offer and the housing available for the workforce. This leads to longer and longer commutes.

Exactly what cities offer (and how they offer it) was part of the work package for many if not most office workers, and it creates a triangle of places from which people derive invisible benefits: city, workplace, home. Shops, a variety of lunch places, even the scenes people walk past to get to work can all create a vibe that make it worth commuting in. In London, Thursday night is the new Friday—a selfreinforcing trend that allocated Friday as a stay-at-home day, so social engagements moved earlier in the week.

The Life Trends take a closer look and come to the conclusion that redesigning the office experience isn’t enough – we need to remap work itself. “Instead of continuing to optimize what exists, companies should completely reimagine work, addressing with intention both tangibles and intangibles.”

OK, Creativity

In 2022, artificial intelligence had a breakthrough in creativity. Tools like Midjourney, Dall-E2, or (to a lesser extent) ChatGPT enable the average user to complete creative tasks with a few keystrokes. Almost inevitably, this will lead to another content explosion. Early signs are already visible. The Life Trends report itself took its illustrations from AI-generated art.

The automation of creativity is another blow to the narcissism of the creative class. Companies are already automating tasks like the mass production of hyper-personalised assets in the digital environment or the optimisation of e-commerce texts. Tools for translation work really well. Now, we have new tools for the creative process itself.

Creativity evolves culture—influenced by environmental and social norms, and the motivations that push people to follow, reject, or change those norms. Technology is now acting as a co-pilot that sits alongside anyone who’s interested in harnessing their innate creativity.

In a way, it’s just a new wave of creative technology. Photography didn’t make older technologies like painting obsolete, it just added new forms of art. Likewise, the new tools – which the report dubs “AI”, with quotation marks – will expand the space of possibilities and spur new waves of innovation.

AI is shifting from enterprise and service enablement (which is often invisible) to something that is highly visible and applicable in all parts of people’s lives—not unlike the shift in computing from mainframe to PC.

The digital revolution: next phase.

It will of course come with its own set of dystopias. For example, we’re already seeing new closed loops emerging, where AI-generated content is used as input for more of the same.

Signed, sealed, delivered

The fifth and final trend starts with a bold observation: “A digital identity crisis is going on and brands should take note.” Here, the report paints a scenario for the new world of marketing and consumer data, where people decide how much data they share.

Today, the whole privacy experience is utterly broken, with cookies, user data, passwords and all that jazz. Again, the blockchain comes to the rescue. Tokenization will shift power to the consumer again, while satisfying the needs of marketeers and companies.

The promise of Web3 (and what wallets enable) is the ability for people to take their data with them and share it with—or even sell it to—brands and companies they trust.

People will store their data, assets, or tokens in digital wallets as they venture around.

We expect to see a universal digital wallet system that enables people to carry their tokenized identity (via governments), money (via banks), possessions, and loyalty (via brands) around wherever they go online. This is the next version of the wallets in use today in Web3.

It’s key that people can revoke access to their data anytime. However, the report makes it clear that it’s still early days. And the design challenge is huge. At some point, the technology needs to fade into the background, leaving the user with an excellent experience.

This will, again, be a massive shift in power and control – the next phase of the digital revolution.