How will brands manage the paradoxes of progress?

I recently went to a Comms Council’s Account Planning Group (APG) event sharing key outtakes from SXSW followed by an open discussion about what some of these transformations may mean for planners and brands in the not so distant future.

One of the interesting sentiments that came out was that this year’s interactive festival had a resoundingly positive ‘technology will save the day’ vibe to it. There’s no doubt that this is one of the narratives you could walk away from a festival like SXSW with, yet I think the times would indicate that the voyage ahead will be far from smooth, and that as marketers, there will be many challenges around how to drive innovation looking forward.

Looking at a handful of news headlines from the first half of 2016 goes some way in revealing just a few areas in which numerous challenges may arise as we continue to innovate. One of these is how our data and privacy rights are managed going forward. Very early on in the year, Martin Schultz – the President of the European Parliament – spoke about the unhealthy amount of power and control companies like Amazon, Facebook and Google are gaining from harvesting our personal data.

Using the metaphor of how we all stand to become ‘remote control data cows’, Schultz is wary of how much we stand to gain with these companies barreling ahead at their current rate. On a simple level, we can ask how much we truly stand to gain if a few big companies continue to shape the way we experience the world through their deep understanding of us. The convenience that tailored content based on our past behaviors can provide surely sits in tension with the control these companies will exert over how we see the world and consequentially, how we behave.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Other clippings that have fueled equal parts curiosity and terror include Google’s Deepmind Artificial Intelligence defeating multiple champions of ‘Go’ – an ancient Chinese board game -– with nobody being able to explain Deepmind’s moves without suggesting it has intuition and the tensions between corporate and governmental rights has also been simmering– something that flared up most poignantly when Apple refused to build a backdoor for the FBI to access the iPhone belonging to one of the San Bernadino shooters which momentarily landed in U.S courts.

With all this in mind, what do brands and marketers need to be thinking about in this brave new world?

For some time now, the need to inject ethics into discussions around innovation has been on the rise. The need to consider the way in which we innovate has become much more pressing in recent times. It’s probably a sign of the times that Cambridge University has set up the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk and Oxford has setup the Future of Humanity Institute – both interdisciplinary centers where everybody from computer scientists through to philosophers are coming together to explore what the implications of our unbridled creative minds may be if we continue to innovate in multiple spheres.

Examples of brands putting ethics discussions into action include BMW and Google’s Deepmind – in fact, prior to selling the AI company to Google, the owners of Deepmind apparently made one of their conditions of sale that Google setup an ethics board to inform the future of the company. But it seems like some of these initiatives are less about angling innovation towards a greater good, and more about minimizing legal liability … Something which can of course impact the bottom line. But even if there are ethics boards in place, what’s to ensure they will be able to make the kind of idealistic, ethical decisions to ensure the brand is contributing to making a better world?

We need to come to grips with the fact that our existing systems and operating structures mean that to use the appropriate metaphor, you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs.

Imagine for a second, you are in charge of a tech company that works around artificial intelligence and automation. Now you’re probably a good-hearted person who wouldn’t want to see a wave of social instability and disruption emerge from your technology. Now suppose you have the capability to pull the trigger and be first to market with a self-driving automobile solution. Whilst self-driving cars may have the potential to reduce road fatalities and there are several pro-social benefits, their introduction will also destabilize plenty of lives through decimating a large number of jobs. For instance, in the US alone, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics as of 2015 there’s approximately 1.7 million truck drivers, who earn a mean income of $43,000.

With the waning power of governments to provide welfare to the kinds of low skill people who will be displaced, if a rapid transition to self driving was to happen, it’s going to push a lot of people into vulnerable circumstances. The kind of circumstances that impact all of us in terms of correlated increases in crime rates, mental health issues etc.

So what do you do? Consult with local government(s) about a sustainable implementation plan and try to mitigate the damage that could be inflicted upon those directly in the firing line?

The honest answer: fuck no. The capitalist modus operandi quite simply doesn’t allow for this kind of approach. If you don’t take a first mover advantage or you leave a window open to your competitors to copy your solution and scale quicker than you, it doesn’t just leave you open to losing in that specific vertical, but given the type of money that is at stake here, if a competitor wins, they will also be able to scale up in other facets of their business and take you on. The truth is you have little choice in the matter if you want to ensure the existence of your competitive enterprise.

So then what does a brand to preserve equity across other facets of business having caused so much disruption and displacement?

The answer is simple – brands in this position must reinvest some of the billions of dollars they stand to make to support and assist those whom they have made obsolete. As terrifying as it is, it’s brands that cause these massive kinds of disruptions and make shed loads of money in doing so, that most of us mere mortals will be relying on to keep the world harmonious through re-investing the cash they make.

It’s interesting and worthwhile to note that apparently some of the firmest supporters of socialist, left leaning presidential candidate Bernie Sanders in the US are tech workers in California. Why we ask? Many of these would be earning good money and is potentially against their self-interest to vote for Bernie… or is it?

There are a variety of reasons that are worth considering, but one hypothesis could be that they – along with many other educated people – are realising the pace of innovation and amount of flux that is being caused as a result is destabilizing the world around us. And that tomorrow’s leadership needs to have more care and support with the average man in the future that’s coming our way.

Perhaps we’ll soon enter a new age of brand philanthropy, where for brands to become genuinely valued, they’ll need to find new and unique ways to engage society through Public-Private Partnerships. Either that, or we’ll probably see the rise of more gated cities and a bigger divide between the haves and have-nots in the not-so-distant future. Regardless, it’ll be fascinating to watch how this plays out.


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