How will work and life change in a material way over the next ~5 years? This is the question I challenge myself to think about every year as I synthesize the trends I’m observing in technology and culture. I‘m sharing them as a way to connect more dots, meet more founders, and solicit input that will further develop these ideas. No surprise, some of the example companies I mention within these themes are in my own portfolio or part of my work building products for the creative world. But I have challenged myself to share ideas still-on-the-cusp of breakout rather than the obvious trends and winners.
The top ten that made the cut:
- Recommendations kills Favorites: AI-driven recommendations transcend our historical go-to’s.
- The next generation of top talent will have “Polygamous Careers,” transforming the corporate world as we know it.
- The rise of immersive experiences will mainstream 3D creation.
- “The Stakeholder Economy” will reinvigorate emerging brands and local businesses and be the most disruptive force against internet behemoths and global marketplaces.
- We will all start to OPT-IN for ads [read: personalized experiences].
- “F’ The Man, Power To The People” As A Service
- Every function of the enterprise will become a multi-player and fully immersive experience.
- The next generation will have a nomadic decade of life and work, and will love it.
- The reverse franchise model and “eduployment” will fuel growth and resilience of small businesses.
- The Era Of Multiple Identities: We Discover, Embrace, & Express Our Multiple Selves
Let the fun begin…
Recommendations kills Favorites: AI-driven recommendations transcend our historical go-to’s.
Illustration by The Project Twins for 99U
We’ve all heard the rampant concerns about artificial intelligence replacing jobs etc, but the first major wholesale replacement I see coming in our everyday life is for “favorites.” I think we’ll look back and realize that compiling and repeatedly leveraging a list of “favorites” was complacency — a lazy way to coast on circumstantial discoveries we liked rather than take a risk in expanding our taste.
I recently reached a personal form of this singularity in my own life: Rather than compulsively saving playlists that i discover and love on Spotify, I’ve surrendered myself to the algorithms. It was really the radio feature plus the new “enhance” feature that did it. I now trust that any song I like leads to a playlist I will like, and any playlist I have will always dynamically get better. In my world of music, recommendations have started to take the place of favorites. Where else will this happen in our daily lives? Will your favorite travel experiences suggest recommendations that transcend a Google search or a travel agent? Will the past fonts you’ve used as a designer, coupled with whatever is on your canvas, suggest the font you should use for a particular project (yes, working on this)?
Everything you’ve ever loved in life has, to some degree, constrained you. Whether it’s a favorite song, a favorite restaurant, or a favorite hotel…these circumstantial discoveries became go-to favorites and consume our attention at the expense of new and (by the law of probability) even better experiences that we just don’t know about. Life is short, and the more we limit ourselves to “favorites,” the less likely we are to discover better experiences. AI does this.
The next generation of top talent will have “Polygamous Careers,” transforming the corporate world as we know it.
How many hats will you wear? Illustration from 99U
Our brains, interests, and potential have never been single-threaded nor confined to a singular interest or skill. And yet, the traditional labor market since the industrial revolution has placed us in one job at a time — for years at a time. The entire system, from college recruiting and healthcare to LinkedIn profiles and annual tax forms, is geared for monogamous careers. The system is not optimized for a generation of humans raised with constant bings and buzzes and a constant spectrum of digital and social engagements (jumping from being a real-estate titan in Roblox to chatting live with friends in other places of the world to an online math tutor to live broadcasting your drawing and painting on your iPad…all within the same hour). Do that for a couple decades and then try a 9–5 job doing one thing! I have come to believe two things, after a circuitous career as a founder, author, traditional VC, active angel, and product leader at a large company: (1) I am most happy when my many interests and skills feel fully utilized — both professionally and personally, and (2) in the modern hyper-networked world that gives us all broad exposure to fuel our many interests, fewer of us can be singularly defined. I firmly believe that professional fulfillment will increasingly be the result of feeling fully utilized.
Polywork: Taking a new approach to the more multi-mission career.
The next generation of talent entering the workforce will overwhelmingly opt for what I’ve come to call “polygamous careers.” The desire to generate income and feel fulfilled from multiple projects will increase retention (you don’t leave a job if your “other interests” are being fulfilled elsewhere), increase workplace productivity (no more face time…people will be busier and more efficient), and help many projects and companies engage top talent that would otherwise be out of reach. One’s profession will be a portfolio of projects, whether you’re a designer, engineer, sales person, or investor. The idea of “exclusivity” in an offer letter will be laughable faster than we think.
But such a world leaves us with many questions. What tools will help us set and measure objective key results and performance in such a distributed world? What forms of confidentiality and network security will foster such a dynamic workforce? A few transformative products and technologies will support the rise of polygamous careers. Polywork is a modern take on LinkedIn that builds out your profile at the more granular project and achievement level as opposed to the job level. So, “Pushed Code,” “Updated an iOS app,” or “Spoke at a conference” is the new “Got a new Job.” In a polygamous career, these milestones matter more. Another company I am excited about is Braintrust, a decentralized “talent owned” network where any company can engage a group of freelancers and directly work with a coordinated group of talent without any middleman or take rate. My hope for the future is that more people will enjoy the benefits of “Tune-In Jobs” (where you are deeply engaged with the work you do) vs. “Tune-Out Jobs” (where we’re more focused on the clock). The world is moved forward by those who tune in.
The rise of immersive experiences will mainstream 3D creation.
Substance3D at work, from Adobe
I promised myself I wouldn’t say it…but “Metaverse.” Ultimately, what this actually means is that we will increasingly play games, connect with friends, and work with colleagues in a fully immersive space that we co-habitate in real-time. Such spaces will have the largest movie screens you’ve ever seen, they will defy the laws of physics, and they will literally enable you to explore your dreams. The jury is still out on which devices will mainstream such experiences at school, work, and home, but they are coming and we will all jump in just as we did with mobile phones. HOWEVER, I know one thing for sure: Such experiences will be boring and fall completely flat unless they are filled with rich, engaging, three-dimensional, interactive, and personalized content. Engaging content is what unlocks the potential of new mediums, and immersive will be no different. The only problem is that 3D content is notoriously hard to make. Historically, to build a 3D object — yet alone an experience — you needed sophisticated modeling programs with a lot of math, and then a whole suite of other products to illustrate and render.
At Adobe, we’ve learned that most designers want to start with a stock 3D object as opposed to built one from scratch, and that stock 3D objects can be parametric (easily manipulated) as an unlock for creativity without complexity. We’ve built out an entire suite of products called Substance 3D that includes a product that lets you sculpt a 3D object (much like clay) wearing a virtual reality headset, and then refine it further in desktop products to make it look real. With our efforts and numerous startups tackling this opportunity, coupled with the capacity of our mobile phone cameras to scan objects into 3D assets, we will all be creating in 3D as soon as immersive experiences go mainstream. Remember, Facebook didn’t even start supporting photos in the feed until social networks became mainstream and people began to express the desire and need. The same thing will happen with 3D creation. Over the next five years we’ll all become 3D artists just as we all became photographers.
“The Stakeholder Economy” will reinvigorate emerging brands and local businesses and be the most disruptive force against internet behemoths and global marketplaces.
Brands have become decentralized and are increasingly defined by the memes, content, and daily conversations of the masses. The next generation of community-oriented projects and businesses are also on a path to becoming decentralized — where new blockchain-driven organizational constructs turn owners and customers into a community of stakeholders. I’ve been thinking (and writing) about how this confluence of decentralization may advantage emerging brands and local businesses, and could prove to be the most disruptive force against the internet behemoths and global marketplaces that rule the world.
Brands are now collectively determined by the content generation of the masses as opposed to a creative agency and a nationwide ad buy. Today, for all but the most iconic brands in the world, a brand is only as good and fresh as the latest content and conversations taking place. What your friends say — or even a stranger authentically expressing satisfaction or disappointment — seems to have more sway than Superbowl commercials. Why? Because we still crave the ancestral “small town” of reputation and brands built on trust. The consensus in real-time from individuals on social media is powerful.
The second disruptive force at play is the construct of decentralized organizations turning customers (and employees) of businesses into owners. What many folks term “web 3” is really just a blockchain-driven model to administer, govern, earn, and trade ownership stakes of the next generation of platforms and businesses. I can’t help but imagine the same technology being applied to the long tail of smaller businesses both on and offline that are truly community-driven and dependent. Imagine if your favorite online publications, e-commerce brands, and small businesses in your town — from restaurants and laundromats to ice cream shops and barbers — were able to frictionlessly (read: without a prohibitively expensive “IPO” or massive infrastructure to manage) distribute ownership to every stakeholder. Might the benefits of collective ownership of small companies be the biggest threat to big companies? If every stakeholder of these businesses was deeply incentivized to help build, improve, market, and patronize the brands, would that become a competitive advantage against the big guys? Would a “many-to-many” business out-market a “one-to-many” businesses in a material way?
What might this look like in the future? Perhaps we will all own a piece of the many online businesses and marketplaces we frequent, as well as our favorite local restaurant, ice cream shop, and coffee house. Imagine every subscriber to your newsletter becoming a stakeholder as well as a reader, and what that would do to viral marketing? When you like a brand or service, you can buy tokens or earn them by contributing labor in the form of clearly defined and measurable tasks. Perhaps you’ll be able to buy your ice cream with (tokens in the) ice cream (shop)?
We will all start to opt-in for ads [read: personalized experiences]
Illustration by Andrea Manzati, 99U
My growing contrarian view about the trend of privacy and opting out of ads (especially for the next generation, who tend to prefer transparency over privacy) is that artificial intelligence will make personalization so damn incredible that opting out will be the equivalent of using an old flip phone or going to a restaurant and getting served a random dish. We all want to be known, but the benefits must exceed costs. Getting served disturbing teeth whitening or weight-loss ads would make anyone opt out. And frankly, “ads” conjures up the era of annoying banner ads and pop-ups. But “personalized experiences” are the new advertising, and most of us would prefer it whether we admit it or not.
If you subscribe to my view that technology at its best takes us back to the way things once were — but with less friction and at a far greater scale, then perhaps you’re agree: We want local restaurants to know our names and preferences. We want experiences catered to our tastes. We want online food markets to hide the food we’re allergic to. We want shoe stores to remember our size. We’ll want ai-driven immersive experiences to know us well, but not at the expense of our security and comfort. As always (at least in my mind), design is the solution. How do we build customer relationships through UX and policies and practices that let us hyper-personalize future experiences at scale without compromising trust? What new consumer-facing companies may emerge in a world where we WANT certain info about us to be known by everyone or a subset of people in this new world? (if you’re an aspiring-founder out there with similar interests, contact me — i have ideas to share)
“F’ The Man, Power To The People” As A Service
Illustration by The Project Twins for 99U
I am fascinated by the rise of consumer products and networks that aim to remove purposefully imposed friction and conflict-of-interest business models, and I think we will see a lot more of this. The stock trading app Public emerged as a serious Robinhood competitor with their stance against “Payment For Order Flow” (a business model that can work against the interest of the consumer). The app DoNotPay has grown a sizable subscription business helping consumers fight bureaucracy and hack their way through government processes to resolve their grievances. Mos has transformed the education financing space by helping students quickly navigate and efficiently apply for grants and get scholarships with fewer hurdles. A little further afield but not much is HighArc, a company that aims to empower people to design their own home rather than hand the reigns over to an architect and surrender all creative control. All of these services aim to empower people that were otherwise a passive participant in a system beyond their control. Such products not only help people but also hold governments and massive companies accountable.
Every function of the enterprise will become a multi-player and fully immersive experience.
Illustration by Giacomo Bagnara for 99U
I am particularly excited by companies that are reimagining every function of a company — from product and HR to financial planning and procurement — with collaboration, transparency, and more accessible interfaces at the core. The days of siloed departments and the bulky interlock processes required to work across departments are numbered. In recent months, i’ve seen a Dev Ops environment that resembles a game, a virtual water-coolers that drive “spontaneity as a service,” and a financial planning tool that essentially replaces that function with a tool that any departmental manager can use. Each of these tools allows anyone in the company to jump in, participate at varying levels of permission, and become a stakeholder in something they would otherwise never fully understand.
Less discussed are the costs and trade-offs of multi-player systems — whether it is an app that becomes less performant as it becomes more collaborative, or a consensus-driven protocol on the blockchain that becomes less performant as it becomes more consensus driven (just another form of collaboration). There is a generational shift in values and trade-offs: people would rather work together with greater latency than work faster alone.
The first stage of these products will be multi-player two-dimensional experiences. But I think we’ll quickly see them take on a third dimension. Imagine “walking through” your P&L and balance sheets, seeing the growth rate visualized, being able to “jump into” any particular customer or expense and feeling the runnings of your business in a fully immersive way. Imagine being able to walk over to a neutral zone in your immersive financial experience where you see professionals from other companies and can ask questions and share comparisons. These experiences will help more people understand these functions much like skeuomorphic design helped early users of the iPhone grasp the functionalities. The next generation of enterprise technology will be design-driven and will aim to “teach everyone how to fish” rather than divide the enterprise into interdependent silos.
The next generation will have a nomadic decade of life and work, and will love it.
Illustration by Michal Bednarski for 99U
When I graduated college, my first task was finding an apartment with a somewhat arbitrary set of roommates. There was no popular notion nor tolerance for remote work, Airbnb didn’t exist, and every apartment lease was at least a year long but only affordable with a longer commitment. Fast forward, the vast majority of start-ups — and even many big companies — are remote friendly or remote only. There are also all types of apartment-swapping networks and all price ranges of Airbnb’s that enable us to choose locations a few weeks at a time. So, my prediction is that young adults in their twenties increasingly choose to spend a decade of their lives living between a set of rented or swapped spaces around the world, working remotely, and immersing themselves in communities and cultures. Such an experience would truly change their lives and foster the type of creativity, openness to diversity, and self-exploration that enriches personal and professional outcomes. What kinds of products and networks can make this more accessible and affordable to all? Whatever products and employers lean in this direction will prosper.
Of course, this opens up the pandoras box of remote work. New companies can be built for this era, but can old companies be retrofitted with a culture and set of practices that work for this new way of life? Or is there a growing chasm between companies that are and aren’t willing to accommodate? Ultimately, we all either follow the trail of great talent or fall behind.
The reverse franchise model and “eduployment” will fuel growth and resilience of small businesses.
Illustration by Corwin Crownover for 99U
Those of you who read last year’s predictions know that I have been long fascinated with the model of individuals and small businesses getting access to the advantages of big businesses. Doing so is the only way to level the playing field and, perhaps, provide consumers with the advantages of both small businesses (relationships, service, local patronage) and big businesses (better user experience, scaled pricing, modern technology and interfaces, etc). Mexico-based Kolors approaches local family-owned buses in all the rural and urban areas of Mexico and brings them only the Kolors booking system alongside a fresh coat of paint and some branded materials to boot. This is what I call the “reverse franchise” model, where existing small businesses join together to reap the benefits of a conglomerate while preserving some degree of autonomy.
And then there is the concept of “eduployment,” which I believe will be a major unlock for millions of careers in the coming years. Eduployment is the vertical integration of identifying a trade, getting an education, and getting a job or starting a company. My favorite examples continue to be Nana, a company that trains you in appliance repair (think unique brands of dishwashers, etc), and helps you get leads for service repair from the manufacturers of these appliances. And Hoist, who trains you as a painter among other trades, outfits you with everything you need, and sets you up to be a successful business out of the gate within 30 days — essentially turning you into a franchise. I hope to see this whole concept grow in the years ahead.
The Era Of Multiple Identities: We Discover, Embrace, & Express Our Multiple Selves
Illustration via 99U
The last era of social networks tolerated and (at best) accommodated pseudonyms, but the next era of social networks will be optimized for the fact that every participant will have multiple identities. Yes, it turns out that we humans were never meant to be so limited and siloed in a singular identity that was determined by others around us. While we’ve always had the imagination and desire to be who we want to be in different settings as opposed to what people tell us we are, but the friction was too great. Geographic and circumstantial constraints (where you happen to be born, what you happen to look like, who you happen to meet) were too deterministic. It just took too much courage, tenacity, and defiance to break through.
Through a confluence of factors including modern social network constructs and norms, decentralized art projects and networks, and a vector of internet culture that is remarkably accepting, multiple identities are becoming less and less fringe. My friend Sriram Krishnan recently shared a story of meeting the person behind a pseudonym he’d known for a long time and had really come to respect, and being struck by the fact that this person was totally off the radar and nothing like he imagined. It made me realize, perhaps true meritocracy of ideas is only possible without the historical anchors and biases of a singular identity? From networks like Discord, where users are represented by whatever name and avatar they choose, and ItsMe, where people connect in real-time using a creative avatar of their choosing, we’re seeing huge growth in willingness to engage, transact with, and befriend pseudonymous people. I think it will only make the world more fun, interesting, and surprisingly authentic.
Scott Belsky is an entrepreneur (Behance, 99U), executive (Adobe), author (The Messy Middle, Making Ideas Happen), and early-stage investor in 80+ startups (including several mentioned in this article) and is an all-around product obsessive. Continue the conversation and find Scott on Twitter, check out other recent posts like “What is Seeing The Matrix for Product Leaders?” “8 Themes for the Future of Tech,” get his latest book — The Messy Middle, or sign up for an infrequent newsletter of insights.