Automation vs Humanization: The 21st-Century’s Two Most Powerful Trends.


Two vastly powerful trends are reshaping the world around us. Now, every business must ask itself: Which side of the line do we fall on?

I work in central London and live in the southeast of the city. Almost every night on my way home from work, I stop at the London Bridge outpost of M&S Simply Food (yes, my life is that glamorous). The place is always packed, but the queue moves quickly because there are 12 staffed checkout tills. Or, they were staffed. Last month the 12 conventional tills were replaced by 12 self-checkout touchscreens and two roaming staff members. Overnight, pretty much all the familiar faces were gone.

The unspoken statement could not have been more clear: the future is coming. Technology is eating jobs. No wonder so many books are being dedicated to the question: Are we heading towards a workless future? And what does that mean?

But to believe in a workless future, I’m coming to think, is to see only half of the picture. To see the whole we need to take a step back and understand that this phenomenon — technology eating jobs — is only one side of a two-sided story.

Two trends are sweeping through consumerism and business right now. Perhaps the two most powerful trends of the 21st-century. They are automation and humanization. And they are really two sides of a single coin. What’s more, they should cause any business leader, CEO, startup founder or marketer to ask two fundamental questions.

Two Sides

On the one hand there is rising expectation that ever-more aspects of life be fast, easy and frictionless. The automation of everyday services delivers just that, by cutting out the often slow, inefficient human component of the service.

On the other hand, in a world of material abundance and increasing automation, we place ever more value on rare, surprising and enriching experiences. Just check your Instagram feed. It’s a #plethora of people eager to let you know that they’re having amazing experiences, right?

And here’s the thing: given humans are social animals, the involvement of other people is typically fundamental the experiences we value most.

That’s the two sides of the coin. Much of daily life is becoming faster, more frictionless and more automated. And for a whole range of tasks and interactions we’re embracing that. But the more automated and faceless the world around us becomes, the more we value — and the more time we have for — the bespoke, intimate and human.

Two of the 21st-century’s most iconic business sum up this dichotomy: Uber and Airbnb. Uber is all about making A to B travel in your city as frictionless as possible — and they hope that eventually driverless cars will mean that you the customer are the only human involved in the entire process.

Meanwhile, the appeal of Airbnb has always been about a holiday that is more authentic and human. And what is Airbnb’s strategy for the next 10 years? It goes way beyond being simply a platform to let you book accommodation. Airbnb want to become the global platform that connects travelers to knowledgeable and passionate locals at their destination. The global platform for human travel. That’s what the Experience Host program is all about. Let me cook you our local delicacy! How about a tour of our vineyards! Have you heard about the artist collective downtown?

We’ll Always Have Each Other

See these two powerful, related trends as a whole and it becomes clear that the workless future is far from certain.

Yes, automation will kill a ton of jobs in the coming years. But in an automated world there will also be ever-greater demand for the truly human, and new ways for individuals to profit from their unique knowledge, passion and personality.

In other words, in a world where the functional and transactional is automated, what we’ll have left is each other. New jobs, and a new kind of economy, will be built on new ways to entertain, inspire, inform and simply be with your fellow humans.

This shift is already throwing up some modes of work and some business models that look pretty weird from a conventional standpoint. Think about Instagram influencers and YouTube stars. Think about the Pearl Bro from China, who is making millions by livestreaming himself opening mussels and allowing viewers to gamble on the outcome: will this one contain a pearl or not?

Take the world that has already turned Pearl Bro into a sensation and extend it outwards. That’s where we’re heading.

Two Questions for Business

As these two hugely powerful trends reshape the world around us, any business leader or startup founder must ask two questions.

First, which side of the automation/humanization coin do we fall on?

We recently saw what can happen if startup founders don’t think this question through. When the founders of the Bodega vending machine used the word Bodega, they explicitly took aim at a consumer experience that most people see through the lens of the humanization trend: the mom-and-pop store. And they took a ton of heat as a result. How different might the reception have been if they’d simply positioned their service on the automation side of the divide, as a smartphone-fueled, cashless reimagining of the traditional vending machine?

Of course, a single business might fall on different sides of the divide at different points in the customer journey. The key thing is to think all this through. Otherwise, you’re flying blind when it comes to automation vs humanization.

The second question: I’ve argued in this piece that new forms of work will be created as the trend for automation fuels the related trend for humanization. All very well. But the hard truth is that this won’t help many millions of those who will lose their jobs as a result of this emerging shift. It most likely won’t help the checkout staff at my local store, who had to go when the touch screens arrived. As with previous periods of intense technological change, many lives are set to be upended by automation. It’s going to be painful.

So the other pressing set of questions for any business to ask itself is: what responsibility do we have to help those adversely affected by these changes?

It goes beyond simply doing the best you can for the people you let go. In the 21st-century, business needs to come together with government — with all of us — to reimagine a society and a mode of capitalism that can prioritize human dignity. That, above all else, is the vast challenge posed by these two trends.

David Mattin is Global Head of Trends & Insights at TrendWatching.

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