NOTE: The views expressed in this article are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of any entities with which I am affiliated.
The WHY of Identity
Everywhere I look, data suggests that we are in a mega-identity crisis. From our government to higher education, from corporations to urban/rural communities, the past few years have shaped an ambiguity-fueled narrative causing almost all of us to look for something that can help us feel more certain about our place in the world. This search for identity will shape our behaviors for the next several years to come. America is intentionally constructed as a “melting pot” story. In many ways, we have always been a society grappling with the evolution of its multi-dimensional, radically diverse identities. Ours is a messy story that will always be unfolding, imperfect, and, I believe, ultimately worth the effort.
Thinking about the many parts of my own identity, I know that I am not just one note. Like all humans, my identity is an entire symphony composed of many notes and rhythms simultaneously that are unique in their combination to me — blind in one eye, neurodiverse, queer, curious, creative, GenX, Appalachian, etc. Sometimes, the parts of me are even at odds with each other. Over the years, developing the ability to hold a paradox mindset has proven particularly useful in sorting things during these conflicted stages of life.
Since early days, my journey has been in search of a community where I feel like I belong. At 52, my biggest insight is that I’m no longer searching for a single place. Perhaps different to how some may feel, my experience also tells me that belonging is not found in “being” one specific thing. An artist. A professor. A researcher. An entrepreneur.
Rather, the sense of belonging I seek — feeling safe, feeling connected to others, and sharing a collective notion of future(s) together — is most profound in those moments when there is an internal/external synchronization of my experience in the world. I call this experience, Instyncs™.
Research indicates this synchronized alignment of our internal and external motivators is powerful. It influences how much of ourselves we are willing to give toward a group effort. Instyncs do this by shaping our perception of autonomy and agency over our lives. Autonomy and agency massively impact our wellbeing. All are antecedent conditions for the kind of innovation that may well determine the future of American institutions.
In my professional life as a Culture Futurist™ — equal parts researcher, strategist, data scientist, and storyteller — I’m particularly attuned to finding and stacking layers of different “kinds” of data together. Then, just like an old sweater, I have a knack for finding the one thread that, if pulled, begins to unravel the whole garment. Importantly though, I’m also a weaver by nature. Unraveling things alone is not the end goal. Unraveling things so that people can find new ways of working together in constructing something even more meaningful is.
I see three “thread trends” that may well reshape how American institutions think about development and growth over the next five years (followed by three predictions).
(1) THREAD: #workculture
Corporate and governmental reliance on the imprecise term “happiness” (as an indicator of wellbeing and engagement) has resulted in a growing, diverse chorus of people across the political spectrum calling out and turning away from #toxicpositivity. In the process, a more nuanced approach to meaningful work is beginning to emerge. In the next five years, liberty/personal freedom (not happiness) will be the focus of the American Promise that frames all things work. This shift will drive big changes in how economic development and growth get done by companies and governments alike.
(2) THREAD: #businessmodels
The ubiquity of technology and Covid’s acceleration of tech sophistication in the general public will combine with Americans’ growing trust deficit in each other. This will deliver a massive business driver causality: Consumer Rating Systems. We will see rapidly declining consumer reliance on unknown/ anonymous user rating systems of products or services. Revenue models dependent on these systems — ranging from five-star rating systems (like Amazon) to pay-to-play lists (like US News & World Report), to search algorithms (like Google) — will be deeply impacted and forced to think and act differently. This trend will also upend the marketing and advertising industry as we know it.
(3) THREAD: #investing
Here’s one I rarely hear discussed. The transfer of generational leadership held within extreme high net worth/wealth family offices is firmly underway. Leadership is moving to a nationally-networked group of younger Millennials and older GENZ. This is not just a shift in leadership. It is a shift in values and norms that will increasingly cause disruption to venture capital and philanthropy models alike. Why? Human nature more than anything. Here is what I mean. This younger group of leaders is often generationally distant from the original wealth creation so they are less influenced by family origin stories. They may be from different states, but they have been socializing for a long time. From a young age, many have gone to “summer camps” together where in between horseback riding and swimming, they were schooled in how to deploy capital and growth their family wealth. Now at an age where they are assuming leadership, the same human Instyncs discussed above are still at play. However, with this group, billions of dollars are also at play. Understanding where the human experience intersects with shifts in generational values is a key to understanding emerging markets.
This part is always a weird area for futurists. What is included below is not really “predicting” the future. Rather, based on the 3 trends above, these are three “shifts” that seem to have a cultural “wind at their back” and make them believable, defensible horizon scenarios to which we may navigate :
POLITICAL: In either the 2024 or 2028 presidential election both the Democratic and Republican nominees will come from the Intermountain West and both will have innovation experience at the intersection of business/technology. A mix of professional experiences in media, healthcare, cybersecurity, and cognitive human development will characterize their running mates.
Three things driving this that make the region stand out from any other parts of the US: (1) the Intermountain West has differently balanced the notions of liberty with economic growth; (2) population demographic projections reflect long-term political opportunities and dangers for both parties; (3) Covid has significantly accelerated the regional development timeline by at least five years — a naturally occurring experiment forcing wildly fluid boundaries on innovation initiatives and necessitating non-traditional collaborators. All this makes the region a bellwether change lab where significant breakthroughs can happen more easily, and be scaled more quickly, than in other parts of the US encumbered by old hierarchies. This type of executive experience will give political contenders a distinct advantage in the future of national politics. I’ll break all this down in later articles.
BUSINESS: A fairly large percentage of the tech companies (around 1/3) will partner with humanities and social sciences to become lifestyle companies.
These unique thought mergers will be fueled by a new generation of investors who place bets based on the perceived alignment of a “purpose as product” business model in the company’s core offerings. Important here to note that I don’t mean the virtue signaling of purpose-driven marketing. This prediction is quite literally “purpose” as a measurable, revenue-producing product. This market transition may also have a deeply negative impact on large parts of the nonprofit sector’s ability to remain viable.
EDUCATION: A significant percentage of higher-ed institutions, not bolstered by mega-endowments, will move toward a new combination of enlightenment-oriented models mixed with multi-culturalism. They will create programs that deeply integrate many “ways of knowing” and authentically bridge collaboration between arts/humanities and science.
Further, this shift will cause business schools to increasingly organize around serving as incubators/accelerators which can transform the creativity arising from these integrated models into public-private partnership revenue production. More than ever, the “town-gown” distinction will rapidly decline in many places and give way to a more integrative model. The cultural identities of the place where a higher-ed institution is located will influence which new hybrid industries emerge as clustered verticals. Leadership success will likely be framed by paradox mindset adeptness in nurturing an evergreen state of becoming. Success will be predicated on innovation initiatives that simultaneously expand freedom, deepen collaboration, and sharpen the cognitive flexibility skills unique to the cultural identity of a university’s people and place. Those institutions mustering an authentic mix of radical focus, courage, and imagination, will produce some of the most impactful innovations of the next decade. It is likely that the majority of these breakthrough institutions will come from unexpected institutions with the freedom to operate differently. Those less tethered to the traditional siloed hierarchies that characterize the industrial-era education model of the last century.
Importantly here, tech-based virtual/hybrid learning will continue to see exponential growth. Easy access to technology combined with the ubiquity (and necessity) of this model will continue to drive the cost of production downward. Everyone will be ramping up these offerings. For those universities that can’t count on sterling brand recognition (like the Harvards of the world), consumer choice will be differentiated by a combination of just 3 things: (1) perceived alignment between the consumer’s identity and the motivations of the institution; (2) the “personality” of the place in which the university is located; and, (3) the novelty and flexibility in product/service offerings enabling consumers to personalize skill acquisition with their diverse interests and needs across the talent arc development of their life.
FUTURE OF EVERYTHING
After a presentation this week where I outlined all of the pain points our society and economy are experiencing as evidenced across a wide array of data, a corporate executive said something to me along the lines of, “It surprises me that you are still so optimistic given the challenges at hand.”
Throughout the day, I kept thinking about this comment. I think they were only partly right. I’m not necessarily optimistic, but I am hopeful. This hope comes from entering a stage of life where accepting a single story about who I am — or, even worse, acting out a story of what others want me to be because it’s convenient for them — is just not something I am willing to do any longer. #Freedom
Time is finite. It is the one thing we can’t manufacture, engineer, code, or create more of. For me, this makes time too valuable to use trying to prove my worth as a human by “being” just one thing because there was a label for it: researcher, entrepreneur, professor, or artist.
My work as a Culture Futurist is about “becoming.” (for a great book on “being vs becoming” check out Finn Janning’s The Happiness of Burnout). The artist part of me is one of the things I will always be becoming. This is also why I’m hopeful about the future. James Baldwin put it best when he wrote:
The precise role of the artist, then, is to illuminate that darkness, blaze roads through that vast forest, so that we will not, in all our doing, lose sight of its purpose, which is, after all, to make the world a more human dwelling place.
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