Wanted: New Energy for everything

The productivity crisis. The climate crisis. The permacrisis. We face many challenges as a society — and we badly need to find new energy to find solutions.

So far, the 20s have failed to roar. As the worst of the pandemic ended a few years ago, there was a hope, an expectation even, that we’d see a new roaring 20s, a century on from the first one. Just as people, liberated from the fear of war, made the very most of life in the 1920s, our generation would celebrate our release from home captivity by partying for the rest of the decade. A burst of new energy built up during our years of lockdown.

It hasn’t happened. Or, at least, it hasn’t happened yet.

With a burst of new energy, it might just do that.

And let’s face it, it’s not just our social lives that need an influx of energy. We’re badly in need of new, sustainable energy sources to counter the climate crisis. And we’re understanding ever more deeply how the food we use to fuel our bodies impacts our health — and the planet.

And even some of the most dynamic fields of the past 20 years seem a little, well, listless compared to the way they have been. We require new energy everywhere.

New technology energy

Many markets have been languishing. Our focus at NEXT has always been on the digital, but there we’ve just been through a seemingly endless cycle of false dawns. What would reinvigorate the tech industry in the way the web did in the 2000s and the mobile phone app in the 2010s?

  • Was it voice-based social? No.
  • Was it blockchain, crypto and NFTs? No.
  • Was it the metaverse? No.

But there are the first signs of new energy circulating the industry again, and it’s all down to generative AI. What marks this out as different from its predecessors is that people, ordinary people, can grasp the use case.

In some ways, we’re very much still in the command-line era of tech when it comes to AI. Just as you needed to know the right incantations to type to make a computer work in the pre-GUI era, today prompt crafting for AIs is a distinct skill you have to cultivate. That won’t last: as the models develop, so too will the interfaces. Adobe’s Firefly already has a visual UI for many of its features. It won’t be the last system to adopt that.

And what will people create once these tools get easier?

We’re in the “overestimate the short-term impact” phase of technology impact, the peak of inflated expectations, as the Gartner Hype Cycle describes it. Indeed, the AI backlash is beginning to gather some pace. But that will, almost inevitably, be followed by the “underestimate the long-term impact” phase of tech adoption. We’ll be having very different conversations about AI by the end of the decade.

New creative energy

The fact that generative AI is a form of creativity has the potential to inject new energy into the creative industries, too, once we move beyond merely seeing it as a threat. Yes, GenAi is competition. It will steal work from creatives — and, indeed, it already is. But competition tends to breed innovation. We’re likely to see this new energy in two forms:

  • In assistance, as creative AIs do some of the dull, repetitive work, allowing creatives to find more time to innovate on top of that.
  • In opposition, as creatives find ways to produce art in ways that AIs simply can’t. Generative AI images already tend towards a particular set of looks and styles. Artists and creatives who want to stand out will have to push themselves to create something different, an anti-AI style, if you like. Last year, we had an example on stage of an artist using AI in exactly this way — to drive his creativity forward.

Indeed, we’re embarking on a decade-long (at a minimum) journey to understand what’s special about human creativity. And, just as importantly, we need to understand what environments best promote it. And that’s deeply related to another conversation we’re having right now: How should humans work? AI automating some tasks that were previously performed by humans is part of that conversation. But it’s far from all of it.

New energy for work

Our workplaces are trapped in transition. Are we working from home? Or are we in the office? What does “hybrid working” actually mean? What sort of balance of working styles do we want — and do we need? What does the office look like if it’s not a home for the entire team, the entire time? What does home look like, if we’re spending longer there — and working more within it?

The gravitation pull of the past will be difficult to ignore, as some companies stay to edge back towards the pre-pandemic status quo. But others will explore new ways of working in the form of truly hybrid models, joyfully embracing our new freedom to work out what sorts of working patterns suit particular types of work. And that includes creative work.

A century’s worth of habit will not be easily overcome. However, the pandemic opened the door to a new wave of experimentation. And the timing could not be better. We’re already having to reassess what human work looks like when AI is part of the equation. Let’s look at how we can rethink the whole enterprise in a way that magnifies the unique strengths human beings bring to the work process.

Celebrating human energy in a technological workplace

One could argue that the industrial revolution was a vast experiment in making human beings work like machines. The latter half of the 20th Century pushed that into more fields, from those time and motion studies in the 1940s and 50s onwards.

The 21st Century needs to be a process of discovering the unique abilities of the human being, in an increasingly technological workplace. And while that is good for the life satisfaction and energy levels of humans, it’s also necessary for businesses.

We have a global productivity crisis. The promise of technology to provide a more efficient working life has not been delivered so far. At least some of that has been because of a lack of investment — and particularly, investment in skills. We’ve spent a lot of time concentrating on what goes on behind the keyboard and screen. We really need to reengage with the person sitting in front of them.

New Energy for the 2020s

This century is nearly a quarter done. The wave of positive energy and creative disruption the internet brought has receded. We’re ready for a new wave of energy, to reshape our working and personal lives in the face of multiple crises. But if we get that equation in balance, if we locate new sources of physical and conceptual energy, we can do it with hope and positivity, rather than negativity and fear.

Join us on the hunt for New Energy in September, in Hamburg.

Picture by Tyler Lastovich / Unsplash.