Three Hopes for Tech in 2021
It is vital that we remain focused and ambitious in our long-term goal setting even in the face of a pandemic. I have listed three hopes for how we keep our eyes on the prize in tech in 2021.
The beginning of a new year is a time for resolutions and aspirations. A time for thinking giving the status quo a thorough scan and ask questions about how it could be better and what we should start doing to get there.
This year is different: The pandemic maintains an iron grip on the world, inequality is soaring in its wake and democracies are under a continued barrage of challenges (I am writing this the day after the siege of the US Congress). But, it is increasingly important that we do not lose sight of the long-term goals and struggles amidst these seemingly more urgent issues. What I am saying is: When it comes to hopeful, ambitious resolutions and long-term goal-setting and aspirations, we should not treat it any differently, because we need to stay focused on the long term to anticipate and mitigate the problems of tomorrow.
So, with that said, I have three small hopes for 2021. I have picked these in particular because they are areas close to my heart: diversity in tech, privacy in design and tech’s role in ending the state of climate emergency that we are in. I also believe they are areas that we need to start seriously addressing now (ideally we should have been further with them by now) to nullify the consequences they will inevitably produce in the medium- to long-term.
More Diversity in Leadership Positions in Tech
In 2021, technology has become omnipresent. That much we know by now. Because it is so, it is a problem when the people who govern and lead the companies designing, developing and distributing the technology that we are all reliant on do not represent the many.
According to FastCompany, only 12% of executive positions in public tech companies are held by women. Less than 0.5% of Fortune 500 CEOs identify as LGBT per Todd Sears of Out Leadership. Now, all Fortune 500 companies are not tech companies, but my guess is that it a good indicator. Lastly, Information is Beautiful visualises the misrepresentation of ethnic minorities in big technology companies compared to the overall population (and this is not even in leadership roles, which I assume is worse).
The point is: Even though we write 2021 in our diaries, there’s plenty of room to improve. And unlike in economics, this is an area where the trickle-down effect is very real: the upside to a diverse team is well documented. And diversity in leadership causes a positive feedback loop of diverse hirings.
So if you are senior in a tech company, a person in a position to hire or promote, make it a resolution to strive for increased representation. It will not only lead to better products but better business as well.
“Privacy by Design” to Gain Traction
This is probably not the first nor the last time I will talk about the responsibility that product design has in protecting people’s privacy and ultimately the health of democracies. But because tech is inescapable and hyper-scalable, so much power resides in those mundane decisions that designers make almost automatically when building features for a digital product. The patterns that a designer defaults to will have an impact on society. It is as simple as that.
So as designers, we should become painfully aware of how our default thinking is either protecting or compromising people’s privacy. Often, it is the smallest changes that make the biggest difference. Take these two variants for a cookie banner design for instance:
At display is the power of defaults: The first design makes it easy for us to accept a deal we might not want. The second makes it obvious that we should make a conscious decision about what cookies we consent to. And with a minuscule change like this, people might open their eyes to the amount of surveillance they unknowingly consent to and start to opt-out of the attention economy repeatedly.
Now, I know a change like this is not only a design decision. In fact, it is mostly a business decision. I don’t know many designers that find cookie banners to improve the overall user experience. But as a designer, you can use thinking or design like this to spark conversations and ask the important questions:
- Do we need to store this user information for our product to work well?
- How might we improve the experience in ways that do not involve customisation and leverage personally identifiable information?
- How could we make an ad-free experience financially viable?
Only by forcing a “privacy by design” mindset on ourselves and our colleagues will we start to change the industry towards it.
Creative Applications of Tech That Enable People to Contribute to ending the Climate Emergency
Finally, I am hoping for an explosion in creative applications of technology that enable people to contribute to ending the ongoing climate emergency that the world is in.
Digital technology is a large global consumer of energy and raw materials and thus contributing to the deterioration of the environment and climate significantly. It is not necessarily a pure negative. We leverage it to optimise solar energy production by angling solar panels based on the position of the Sun, to calculate areas with untapped potential for increased foliage cover and gather in global online communities with aligned goals for making an impact. What I am saying is: we’re already using tech in pragmatic ways as a means to fight the climate crisis.
Now let us unleash the creativity that digital allows for to enable people to contribute, not in a pragmatic way; but in a way that makes us more empathetic to the cause; by creating collective experiences that engage citizens playfully and inclusively. I need that crazy VR experience that puts you in the roots of a tree for the many, not just the privileged ones that got to go to art fairs and film festivals.
We need immersive, affective experiences with the climate crisis made available for everyone. And made in a way that empowers people to transfer that affection that emerged during the experience into action.
That is my hope for 2021.