Five Themes to Watch in 2017
While I don’t plan to get into the business of predictions, I thought it would be a good exercise to put down on a paper a couple major themes I’ll be watching for in 2017. These range from the political climate in the US to technological trends. I’ll try to revisit these themes at the end of the year to see how how they played out. In the meantime, here’s my best stab at some of the important issues we’ll face in 2017.
1. The Middle-America Backlash to Trump
In case it wasn’t clear from my earlier post, Where We Go From Here, I’m very much against Trump and what he will do as President. He has demonstrated that he only cares about enriching himself and getting revenge against people who have hurt him. It is absolutely insane to think that we have allowed this man, who has been aided by the Russian government, to lead our country.
But it’s not about what I think or what my network of friends and acquaintances think. Because we are the “coastal elite” and we already have progressive candidates representing us in the Senate and the House of Representatives. Instead, this theme is about what happens when the rest of the country catches up to our concern. And they will.
The blog Trumpgrets collects some of the more egregious examples of Trump supporters starting to realize just how big of a mistake they’ve made. In the recent Town Hall with Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, a small business owner and Regan campaign worker asked a pointed question about the Republican effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act (i.e. Obamacare) without an actual solution. The man almost died of cancer, but was covered by ACA despite having a pre-existing condition. These kinds of stories and realizations are going to grow, especially among the 20 million Americans now insured under Obamacare.
So in 2017, I believe we are going to see the tide turn even among conservative voters as they slowly realize just how awful our situation now is.
2. Civic Engagement from the Tech and Design Community
The second theme relates to the first in that I believe the tech and design communities are starting to recognize that they need to play a role in resisting Trump. Over the last 4 years, there’s been increasing overlap between the tech and government, due in large part to former US CTO and healthcare entrepreneur Todd Park. Park helped create the Presidential Innovation Fellowship, which later lead to 18F and USDS, which have recruited hundreds of designers, developers, and product managers into government.
When you work in technology or design, you are thinking about improving and advancing things. You have a tendency towards progressive values. But Trump threatens those values and I have already started to see things like Call Your Rep and Call to Action, both nicely designed sites that make it easier to contact your Congressional representatives (so you can make sure they know how concerned you are with the administration). I know that AIGA New York, a huge presence in the NYC design world, is interested in running a series of workshops to engage designers more with civic life, and I look forward to these early signs continuing to build in 2017.
3. Voice Activated Interfaces
To talk about something more directly tech oriented, I’ll be watching the voice-activated interfaces carefully this year. While I had not really considered buying an Amazon Echo, I was given one over the holidays and it’s been fascinating to use. I mostly ask her to play music, tell me the weather, or act as a bluetooth speaker. I’ve purchased exactly one thing via Echo.
But I know that it, and Google Home are the beginning of the next step in home automation. Every home will eventually have something like it, just like almost everyone has a smart phone today. Voice recognition will only get better and the these devices will only be able to do more things. Ultimately, you always want to be the closest and most accessible thing to the customer. Desktop computers and the web are closer than the library / store. Your mobile phone is closer than your computer. And an internet-enabled AI that is activated by voice is even faster than your phone.
It’s crazy to think that Siri was released over 5 years ago and yet Amazon and Google are eating Apple’s lunch. I hope for their sake that they’ve got something to respond with, but the bottom line is, 2017 is going to be a fascinating year for this space.
4. Understanding the Impact of Automation and AI
One of the things Trump campaigned on is the idea of bringing America back to some mythical earlier era where middle-class families had decent earning jobs—presumably in manufacturing or other fields of work that do not require a college or graduate degree.
We can argue about just how many people manufacturing jobs employed even in their heyday, but more importantly, there is no real way to bring that world back. Robotics have taken over many aspects of menial labor. Amazon employs tens of thousands of people to work in their massive warehouses, but it also bought a robotics company in 2012 called Kiva for three-quarters of a million dollars in 2012, and now has 30,000 robots in about 13 warehouses around the world. Scaling that up to the 100+ distribution centers is projected to save Amazon $2.5 billion annually.
There are two sides to the “AI is taking over the world” argument. One, championed by venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, is that robots will make everything super cheap and plentiful and people will find new jobs and new ways to creatively generate wealth. On the other side is Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, who said in 2014:
“Technology over time will reduce demand for jobs, particularly at the lower end of skill set. … 20 years from now, labor demand for lots of skill sets will be substantially lower. I don’t think people have that in their mental model.”
I think in the long run, we might reach some kind of Singularity-like utopia that Andreessen seems to envision, but that we will first need to grapple with a difficult period where people with “low skill” jobs will find themselves without the ability, training, or opportunity to find new work due to automation and AI. And that is going to start becoming more and more clear in 2017.
5. Diversity and Hiring
Finally, I’ll talk about a topic that’s near and dear to my heart, and that’s hiring and getting hired. Technology tends to see itself as a meritocracy but the truth is, there are still major gaps where women and people of color are not represented. Women tend to drop out of tech faster than in other fields, and both women and POC’s have to deal with proven unconscious bias from hiring managers.
Efforts like GetLedBetter, a gender parity index, interviewing.io, which allows engineers to conduct anonymous interviews, Equity Impact Group, a consulting firm that coaches leaders on diversity and inclusion, and Perspective.cards, a series of suggestions to help teams recruit mindfully, can help address some of these issues. I know more companies, projects, and initiatives like these are coming down the pipe in 2017. It’s not going to be easy, in no small part because research shows that even though diverse teams perform better, the experience often feels worse. But in a competitive environment, organizations that do a better job of recruiting and retaining highly capable people (not just capable white men) will get ahead.