Looking ahead into the 2020s

When I think of the biggest problems we face as humans, I break the population into two groups.

The first group focuses most of its energy on finding ways to provide for the basic necessities. Nearly 5 Billion people out of the 7.95 Billion people on this planet fall into this bucket. They live on less than ten dollars per day. Of this group, around billion started this decade living on less than two dollars per day and are classified as people living in “extreme poverty.”

It is important to start with a broad strokes understanding of the realities that the global population faces. Most people on the planet (~60%-70%) live in poverty. And, yet, it is likely very few, if any, of the people you are related to are likely to fall in this bucket. So, underestimating the grip of poverty on the global population is completely understandable. We just aren’t exposed to it often enough to comprehend it.

The second group is the group we – and most folks we call relatives or friends – fall into. We, as a group, are blessed with the privilege that accompanies either being born in a wealthy (by global standards) zip code or to parents with healthy genes. In most cases, our privilege is likely a combination of both.

As a result, we have the luxury to spend our time worrying about problems that don’t involve finding ways to provide shelter or food for those we love.

Again, it matters that we internalize the impact of this privilege simply because we spend very little time talking or reading about it. To a girl born in the slums of Mumbai, the odds of having the kind of life you or I have are near zero. No amount of mental fortitude or ingenuity will compensate for the lack of privilege.

Of course, I exaggerate when I say “no amount.” But, not by much. The odds of making it out of poverty (never mind “extreme poverty”) are near zero.

By the end of 2030, current estimates are that we’ll end up with around 500 million people in “extreme poverty.” While significantly lower than three decades prior, we’ll still be ways off eradicating extreme poverty. While I’d love for us as a race to be focused on eradicating extreme poverty, I think the odds of that happening are, again, near zero.

That’s because the second group is going to be drawn into the many problems created by two realities.

The first is that the climate – different from the weather – on planet Earth is moving toward a state of emergency. In the next decade, we’re going to see this discussion continue to pick up momentum. Along the way, we’re going to hear inaccurate facts, conspiracies, and resistance. It won’t matter if we’re on the right, left, center or whichever other political leaning I haven’t captured. As long as we’re affected by the earth’s gravitational field, we’ll be impacted by the consequences.

Today, even though 97% of scientists working on the climate agree on the problem, we’re not close to mainstream adoption. But, it will follow. It took between twenty and thirty years for scientific consensus around nicotine to become common knowledge. But, that was before the internet. Even accounting for the easy spread of falsehood, I expect consensus on the climate emergency to take shape toward the end of the next decade.

The next fight we’ll be wrestling with will be the complicated relationship between us, our work, and money. The industrial economy was built on drawing a clear connection between labor and money. That happy relationship led to a growing middle class and prosperous times for large portions of the developed world.

However, that relationship has broken. As we saw over and over again in the past decade, a few lines of code can generate more economic value than millions of hours of labor. And, as machine learning became mainstream, we learnt that these lines of code can help reduce the amount of human labor required to produce everything we need for our consumption.

As this relationship between us, our labor, and the money we earn has broken, we’ve seen unhappiness and dissatisfaction soar in the richest places on the planet. When human beings are unhappy, we behave in predictable ways. We turn on people who are different from us, resist change, and elect people who promise to deal with the “others” and promise to make things like they were in the good old days.

But, there’s no reversing the tide.

Add an inevitable economic downturn into the mix and we’re heading into a fascinating decade.

What does this mean for us?

As is the case with humanity, there are reasons to be both optimistic and pessimistic. I choose the former as optimism is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In the face of all this, my recommended approach tends to be rooted in simplicity and focused on change from the inside out. That means being the change we wish to see. That starts with committing to thinking better, working hard on meaningful problems with optimists who’re focused on learning and challenging our assumptions.

That also means living as sustainably as possible, voting when we can, and not falling into the trap of thinking the problems we see around us are a result of “them.”

In the end, all we have and will have is each other.

Bad design makes you look stupid

Flush toilets are not designed for men. I take particular issue with American flush toilets as they have an absurd amount of static water once you flush. As you can imagine, the combination of a high level of static water and water dropping from a height means the resulting physics isn’t pretty. I’ve joked about this issue for many a time now and, from the reaction I get from other males, I realize I’m not alone in this view.

Why, then, are flush toilets designed so bad? Well, I don’t know yet but I intend to find out. I guess my second question is – why don’t we just have urinals at home? I’m guessing men all over will appreciate that.

The deeper point here is that bad design makes users look stupid. So, if the users of your product/service are exhibiting stupid behavior, it is not their fault, it is yours. User error is regularly just a manifestation of poor design. A small tweak in design can fix the most absurd problems. For example, making sure the ATM card pops out before the cash comes out ensures users don’t walk away with the ATM card in the machine.

The flip side of this is – as a user, if you are unable to figure out what to do on an app or a website, it probably isn’t your fault. That hotel shower handle that gives no indication about which direction you need to turn to get the right water temperature? Definitely not your fault. Sadly, many designers’ biggest takeaway from Apple’s success in the past decades has been to make things pretty. The iPhone didn’t become the phenomenon it is because it is pretty (it definitely is pretty), it became the phenomenon it is because it is simple to use.

At the end of the day, great design is all about making things easier for the user. And, as we’re all designers – of experiences, events, and lives – and primary users of our products and services, it is important that we design processes and environments that, first and foremost, just work.