Four For Friday — 2016 in predictions

Welcome to 2016!

The curated links today are all about predictions for design, luxury, jewellery, and fashion tech in 2016.

“Simplicity will win.. but don’t oversimplify and sacrifice thrill of discovery” is my favourite from these 10 predictions for design in 2016.

Thanks to the digitization of everything, we now have the most hyperreactive markets in history. However, innovation at this speed comes with an unintended consequence—a never-ending glut of options. From more than a million apps in the Apple Store to your grocery’s milk aisle, every aspect of our lives now requires making a choice. It is becoming increasingly difficult for consumers to make sense of all the noise. In 2016, brands will help people take things off the “thinking list.”

Companies have already enjoyed some success doing so. Aldi built a successful and disruptive business model while offering significantly fewer choices than traditional supermarkets. When Proctor & Gamble cut its Head & Shoulders line from 26 products to 15, the organization saw a 10% increase in sales.

Services that are able to automate low-maintenance decisions will be an especially important step. We’re already starting to see this with Google Now, while Australian startup Pocketbook prompts users of their upcoming payments and bills to avoid missed payments.

“Conscious consumption” and “owning over becoming” are two that caught my eye in luxury and design.

On conscious consumption:

Perhaps all of the above trends could at some level be attributed to the fact that manufacturing has now become so easy, cheap and ubiquitous. There is so much stuff, there’s room now for the weird, the wonderful and the fun. On the other hand, however, there is so much stuff there’s also an urgent need to zoom out and see the bigger picture. Disillusioned with focusing our lifestyles on the attainment of more material goods, more of us are seeking to achieve balance and enhance life with a greater sense of wholeness: making conscious choices, taking greater responsibility for ourselves, our communities and the wider planet. What does that mean for design? Activist brands, more conscious and considered design methodologies, anti-obsolescence and slow design.

On owning over becoming:

The direct result of brands needing to extend their role and remit as entertainers, educators and also enablers. This will take the form of new collectives, still deeper examples of hybridisation and also concepts attuned to borrowing… The premise is ‘owning over becoming’ which the luxury sector will embrace by connecting their audience with increasingly rarefied experiences and access of a highly topical, often intellectual nature.

The predictions for jewellery however seem to be focused on one key theme — personalisation.

Emin, a woman who, like few others, has captured the essence of our age and the idea of expressing your personal history, has put her finger on it. The biggest trend in jewellery today is in fact all about making it your own, be it how you wear it, or indeed sporting a tattoo.

Joanne Ooi, co-founder and creative director of Plukka – the new online fine jewellery e-tailer – came back to me with her predictions for 2016. “Delicate jewellery that is like a second skin and as easy to wear as a tattoo appears to be here to stay, as women, especially younger ones, eschew the look of large cocktail rings and reject the aesthetic of jewellery as an object.”

Fashion tech is an active area of investment, innovation and possibilities. WT Vox predicts many things about fashion tech but this would be an interesting one to watch.

In Q1 of 2016 we will see Jimmy Choo and Moncler investing in tech startups. More important, just like Amazon that is working hard to launch their digital health online store, we will see the appearance of dedicated online stores/sections for fashion technology.

Keep an eye on Asos, and Net-a-Porter. Not a real surprise as both companies are fashion technology ventures at their nuclei.

I enjoy, sometimes, reading predictions for the arbitrary one-year period that starts on January the 1st. I regret though that ex post assessments of such predictions a year down the line are few and far in between. JP Rangaswamy articulates some of my other ishoos with the predictions gig.

Everything is connected. That phenomenon is accelerating. And everything is affected. The effects are far-reaching and themselves seem to be accelerating in speed and intensity.

What should I do about all this? That’s my predicament.

My instinct is to believe that in that connectedness lies the solution. That we’ve spent far too long steeped in the cult of the individual. That we need to understand more about what it means to be connected rather than to try and reverse the process of connection.

The Janusian nature of the predictions linked above contain the essence of creativity — namely, how to balance the connected and tracked nature of our emergent world with our innate need to stand out, be seen, be counted, be individual? This tension is where all that matters and will matter will emerge. That is what I intend to watch over this year.

John Williams Waterhouse (1902) – The Crystal Ball (Image from Wikimedia)

My 2015 in books

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Walt Whitman had my reading interests down pat. This year was bountiful, so much so I have backlog which I carry into 2016. This was also the year I returned — partly — to print books, mainly in order to read more, read faster and retain more. The glare of the screen on the iPad is not conducive to hours of reading, although it is fun to carry several dozen books at once in one’s bag! So some of these books were read on dead tree, others electronically.

Here are the ones that stood out.

The most affecting book I read was Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps The Score: Brain, Mind, And Body In The Healing Of Trauma. Along with his team of researchers, van der Kolk has spent years understanding the nature of trauma and the mark it leaves on people and then how to palliate or reverse the damage. Embedded in the book is also the story of how they made the case, in vain, to have developmental trauma disorder included in the DSM, and how child abuse may be the biggest public health challenge of our times. It is not an easy read but an affecting one.

The most viscerally moving poetry I read came from Warsan Shire in Teaching My Mother How To Give Birth. As a diasporic Indian in England, I find her writing has always struck a chord with me but this year, the year of so many refugees having to leave home forcibly only to arrive at the doors of those erecting walls to keep them out, her writing resonated deeply.

I know a few things to be true. I do not know where I am going, where I come from is disappearing. I am unwelcome and my beauty is not beauty here.

Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric was another book of poetry that touched me deeply in a year of unprecedented racial violence and police brutality against black Americans in the USA.

The most recommended and frequently gifted book by me this year was Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir’s Scarcity: The True Cost Of Not Having Enough. Whatever your lens – society, policy, economics – this book will challenge your perspective and do so with empathy and evidence.

The most perspective-giving books I read were Elmira Bayrasli’s From The Other Side Of The World: Extraordinary Entrepreneurs, Unlikely Places, and Jonathan Gil Harris’s The First Firangis: Remarkable Stories of Heroes, Healers, Charlatans, Courtesans & Other Foreigners Who Became Indian. At first glance, they look not like each other at all. But they are. At their foundation they both are books about unusual things human beings are doing and have always done, and in doing so how they traverse the question of identity. Bayrasli is Turkish-American from Brooklyn, Gil Harris a Newzealander fluent in Hindi, teaching Shakespeare in India, via the UK and the USA. They tackle innovation and identity respectively but they aren’t as disparate themes as may appear to be the case.

The most droll book I read was undoubtedly Bream Gives Me Hiccups: And Other Stories by Jesse Eisenberg. Eisenberg is known to most as the actor who played a socially challenged young Mark Zuckerberg in the film Social Network. His collection of fictional short stories, are in the voice of a 9 year old boy, whose parents are divorced and who lives with his mother, reminded me of both David Sedaris (as many others note too) and Noah Baumbach.

The best social and cultural commentaries were found in two quite dissimilar books, namely Hadley Freeman’s Life Moves Pretty Fast: The lessons we learned from eighties movies (and why we don’t learn them from movies any more), and Sherry Turkle’s Reclaiming Conversation. Freeman has written a fast-paced analysis of how the 1980s Hollywood tackled tough themes such as abortion rights and class issues, while resolutely writing strong female characters, all of which seems to be on the decline since the 1980s ended.

Related read: Francine Stock in the FT in Why Abortion Is No Longer Out of The Picture traces the history of abortion in cinema, through Alfie, Dirty Dancing, Knocked Up, Cider House Rules and Juno, while nodding to the films Grandma and Obvious Child, released this year:

Lily Tomlin, the 76-year-old lead of the new film Grandma, is attracting seasonal awards-talk like static. It’s a fine performance, drawing on her back catalogue of sharp-tongued, volatile misanthropes, the natural melancholy of her features suddenly illuminated by that huge smile. It also plays on her being a gay woman.

But the film’s real political significance lies not in age or sexuality but reproduction. The engine of Grandma’s plot is the search for funds to terminate her teenage granddaughter’s unplanned pregnancy.

Abortion is still a tricky subject onscreen. Most intimate activity is out there — birth, circumcision, puberty, nudity, masturbation, simulated (and real) sex, young sex, old sex, animal sex, 3D sex, death. Yet the medical or surgical resolution of an unwanted pregnancy (over a million a year in the US, nearly 200,000 a year in England, Wales and Scotland) rarely occurs in films, or at least not to characters close to the central storyline.

Turkle is a long-standing observer of the co-evolution of society and technology, and in this book deals with how we are losing empathy and the art of conversation — eye contact, listening, engaging, responding — with our devices being the centre of our lives.

The most fascinating anthropological commentary I read this year was on clothes and women. Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits and Leanne Sharpton’s Women In Clothes: Why We Wear What We Wear upset many a book critic. It is a series of narratives by women and conversations between women, all talking about clothes, the memories built in them, the symbolism, the shared and sometimes not-shared fears and quirks. It is a good thing reliable book critics are so few and far in between that the vast majority can be dismissed in the pursuit of interesting materials that get published.

I encountered an unusual, innovative format in The Good Story: Exchanges on Truth, Fiction and Psychotherapy, by JM Coetzee and Arabella Kurtz, him an author of fiction and her a psychotherapist. In conversations over email, they explore the nature of truth, fiction, constructed truths, objectivity, the ideal self and many related themes in identity. I read the book through in a flight from London to San Francisco earlier in the year.

The book I re-read this year was Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning. Frankl’s experience of surviving concentration camps in the Holocaust makes for sobering reading, as much as his advice on getting perspective in tough times rings true.

The most relatable book, this year when my siblings and I dealt with a medical emergency with one of our parents, was Roz Chast’s Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? As the only child of parents, who are holocaust survivors, Chast documents in this alternately funny and poignant book what it is like to watch the slow physical and mental decline of one’s aging parents, to witness our heroes become unreasonable and unpredictable, to accept that our soft-lens dreams of generations living under one roof are just dreams, and to let go before they go.

Finally in my research and professional interest area of decision-making, I read Gerd Gigerenzer’s Risk Savvy and Richard Thaler’s Misbehaving. Gigerenzer’s work in heuristics was popularised by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Blink, and in this book, Gigerenzer discusses how we assess risks. It is less dry than I just made it sound! Thaler’s book is quite – perhaps by design – droll and explores the myth of human rationality in decision-making. It is a great read, and at the risk of annoying many fans, much more engaging a read than Daniel Kahneman’s tome last year.

My 2015 backlog — or books-in-process as I call them — being carried over to 2016 includes Niall Fergusin’s Kissinger, Gillian Tett’s The Silo Effect, Anne Marie Slaughter’s Unfinished Business. I am also half-way through re-reading The Balfour Declaration which will no doubt carry into 2016.

Happy Reading in 2016!

Some of the books 2015

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As the year draws to a close, reviews of the year appear as do predictions for the future. The latter are inevitably rooted in the former. Without the past and the present, there is no future. This week’s varied links are all about history.

As the year that made Bitcoin mainstream and saw the launch of ApplePay draws to a close, some are predicting the end of cash, never mind that 2 billion people in this world remain without access to banking and other more sophisticated financial services. This fascinating history of money, from shells and coins to apps and Bitcoin, explores the evolutionary aspect of money and the divergent narratives of what money signifies, and makes the case for how it is all about human relationships.

Money is a special good, however. It can’t work without the technological and regulatory infrastructures enabling it. The evolutionary story leaves out the regulatory and consumer protection architectures that are necessary to make any new money and payment systems function. The state will enforce the payment of a debt in its money – but you are largely on your own if you want help enforcing a debt in your own private token or, at least, having it treated as a real debt. The state will also usually accept only its own money for the payment of public debts: taxes, fees, tolls and fines. Here we see clearly money in its means-of-payment aspect, indicating the state’s power to create money, trumping its means-of-exchange aspect, and the market’s power to set prices.

The evolutionary story also leaves out the fact that people do all sorts of things with money besides earn it, pay with it and save it, let alone that people are already doing all sorts of things with the ‘latest’ stage in the evolution of money – the mobile phone. Money – and mobiles – are very special items in that they both express relationships and, in a very real way, are relationships. This is what we miss in the evolutionary story, and this is where the action really is in innovations for how we pay. Imagining new moneys, and new payments, is thus simultaneously a reimagination of our relationships with each other. So: how would we like to pay?

Money is of course most valued for its fungibility. Which brings us to things money can buy.

Fashion, for instance. This week I came across a photo essay documenting Chinese women’s fashion over a century. Fashion’s deep links with culture and politics of a time are in evidence.

As the years went by Western influences gradually became more prevalent in Chinese society. Take note of how the short collar has become more prominent, how the clothes hug the body more closely than before. The first women to bring back this new style were individuals who had the opportunity to study abroad. It was readily adopted both by the wealthy and by prostitutes of the era.

Image copyright NPR interview with author Aja Raden is worth listening to.  Her book Stoned takes a walk through world history using jewellery as the lens.

Aja Raden’s new book, Stoned, is about jewelry, but on the first page she lays out a bold statement: “The history of the world is the history of desire.”

“There’s no more powerful statement than ‘I want,’ ” Raden tells NPR’s Audie Cornish. ” ‘I want that. I wantthem.’ … Even if it’s an issue of survival, you still are driven by what you want and what you are compelled to take or have or maintain.”

As Raden tells it, jewelry is the quintessential object of desire — and it’s the perfect lens through which to view human history. She makes her case through the stories of eight noteworthy jewels, starting with the glass beads a Dutchman used to buy Manhattan from the Lenape Indians in 1626.

The recent weeks have seen one of the GOP Presidential hopefuls sound more and more fundamentalist, some say “unAmerican”, in his speeches that are drawing large crowds in the world’s oldest democracy. This long essay wonders about the history of the religious fundamentalism he is citing and the role of the west in shaping it.

The force at stake here does not stem, in what constitutes it essentially, from the resources of what is called “fundamentalism” or “fanaticism”. Certainly, active, vindictive and aggressive fundamentalism — be it Islamic (Sunni or Shiite), Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Jewish, Hindu (even exceptionally Buddhist) — characterizes for a significant part the last 25 years. But how can one ignore the fact that this fundamentalism is a response to what can be called the economical fundamentalism inaugurated at the end of the bipolar separation and the extension of a “globalization” that had already been identified and named almost two generations ago (McLuhan’s “global village” dates back to 1967)? How not to notice also the haste in which the experience of totalitarianisms was erased? As if representative democracy, along with technical and social progress, could adequately respond to the concerns raised a long time ago by modern nihilism, as well as by the civilizational “discontent” mentioned by Freud in 1930?

It would be remiss to not remind ourselves of George Santayana, as we stand at the brink of many political and social changes: “Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it.”

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The luxury sector is negotiating the tight rope between its traditional exclusivity and the open-all-hours, democratising nature of the web. It is a fascinating space to watch as new ways of enticing and engaging with the customer emerge.

This long Luxury Society piece explores the emerging influencers and how brands are finding their feet in this new dance. The most telling line in the piece:

“The internet is a chance for luxury, because in order to maintain the dream value of the brand, you have to permanently refuel that dream…”

Refuelling dreams repeatedly is easier when the shop front is really open-all-hours as the web makes possible.

Relevance. As thing go digital at a rapid pace, relevance is the holy grail for luxury brands too, as Rebecca Robins writes.

An even more fascinating movement among the legacy brands is the movement across brands – the “brand tangos” that boost their reputation through collaboration. Think the Apple Watch Hermès cross-over. Legacy brands are tapping into tech brands to increase awareness and connect with consumers. Tech brands are tapping into legacy brands for their heritage and exclusivity.

The resulting blurring of boundaries increasingly calls into question whether we will even be defining brands by sector in years to come.

Talent is central to this ongoing quest for relevance. Lately luxury brands have been poaching talent from among mass market brand leaders. The skills at a premium? Time to market and omni-channel reach.

“Traditionally reliant on in-store experiences, the luxury end of the market is slowly realising that online retail is a crucial factor in future growth. .. Luxury brands are looking for broader retail skills to match today’s omnichannel retail world, Twyford said.”

“Twyford explained that luxury brands pale in comparison to the likes of Uniqlo, H&M and Zara when it comes to their speed to market. As mass-market brands soar in their ability to maintain low-costs while still appealing to millennials, logo-reliant brands like Ralph Lauren feel static,..”

And finally, a luxury good we all desire more of — silence. The essay discusses advances in airlines and automotives, to create silence which may be physically nauseating — our vestibular system draws upon noise to give us a sense of balance and spatial orientation —  and ends on a note which summarises why silence is truly a luxury good.

The hushed halls of affluence buffer the rich from the hubbub of poverty, but for the poor, the clatter of modern life—like other forms of pollution—is inescapable. And as noise continues its inexorable advance into the quietest eddies of wilderness, even the rich may find a silent retreat impossible to locate.

Bonus link: An impossible to locate silent retreat is what Rachel Nuwer found when she set out to locate the last place on earth without human noise. Two fascinating nuggets stand out:

Hempton and Krause hope that nations will adopt a quiet area program akin to dark sky programs. They are pushing for the US National Park Service to adopt such regulations in 2016, in time for the agency’s centennial. “I absolutely believe we will have our quiet places,” Hempton says. “Just like we went through with water quality, things have to get really bad before we recognise them as a basic value and clean them up.”

Where others tend to become uncomfortable in the disconcerting silence, Foy relished the chance to be completely cut off. But minutes into his stay in the chamber, he noticed that the silence was in fact broken. His own body, it turned out – his breathing, his heartbeat, even the scratchy sound his scalp made rubbing against his skull when he frowned – was betraying his quest for auditory nothingness. “The only time you’ll hear absolute silence is when you’re in no position to hear it, because you’re dead,” he realized.

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This week, we have interesting ones on leadership even though much more is written about business leadership than political leadership or personal leadership.

In the wake of the Volkswagen scandal, many questions about leadership, complicity and honesty are being asked. Research conducted over two years by a leadership consultancy finds a link between virtuosity and business success.

To determine how to rate character, Fred Kiel, KRW’s founder, and his team of researchers combed through a list of 500 behaviors and traits from a classic study of anthropology to boil it down to four universal principles:

  • Integrity
  • Responsibility
  • Forgiveness
  • Compassion

Says Kiel, “Someone with high integrity but low responsibility, forgiveness, and compassion scores would probably spend all their time micromanaging and would fail to engage the workforce. Integrity isn’t enough, and neither are any of the other three traits on their own. You need all four to achieve virtuosity.”

The timeliness of the publication of these results aside, it is hard to not think of business leaders, who have been wildly successful and who definitely didn’t meet all these criteria for virtuosity. The explanation for that lies perhaps in that we do not stop to ask these questions when things are going well, with businesses returning huge gains to shareholders – individual and institutional alike, gaining market share, producing category busting innovation. Steve Jobs? Or Fred Goodwin till his fall came? The converse is also true. The moment we sense all these qualities in someone we start to look for chinks in the person’s armour as if inherent goodness is somehow hiding something. Leadership exists on a broader societal context. I hope to find more readings that take that into account.

Recent academic research finds that CEOs with female children run more socially responsible firms. Of the two lead researchers, one has no children and the other has a son.

Controlling for other factors, companies run by executives with female children rated higher on the measures of diversity, employee relations, and environmental stewardship tracked by the CSR research and analytics group KLD from 1992 to 2012. We also saw a smaller but still meaningful link with the provision of products and services that are more socially responsible. And having daughters coincided with spending significantly more net income on CSR than the median. That female influence does appear to affect the decisions these executives make, which translates into shifted priorities for their organizations.

Just having the treatment (a daughter) mattered much more than the dosage (the number of daughters).

Unfortunately, our sample of female CEOs—14 out of the 379 executives for which we could collect data—was too small to draw any firm conclusions. But the companies they led did have much stronger CSR ratings in every KLD-tracked category—not only diversity, employee relations, environment, and product, but also human rights and community. We suspect that a CEO’s own gender matters even more than the gender of his or her children.

This is fascinating on many counts. Not least because “female influence” on decision-making of and by male and female leaders.The influence of sisters was not studied while the influence of female spouses may not be significant, per the researchers.

Finding out whether they had a sister or not might have been impossible, though it would be interesting to test that one out. As for spouses, we didn’t look at that factor specifically, but given that most of the male CEOs with sons had wives and that sons had no effect on CSR ratings, we would guess that wives don’t matter as much for this issue.

Dealing with uncertainty is part of every leader’s job description and here are some tips — eleven actually — on how to deal with it. Read the whole thing because I have excerpted a small portion.

They embrace that which they can’t control

We all like to be in control. After all, people who feel like they’re at the mercy of their surroundings never get anywhere in life. But this desire for control can backfire when you see everything that you can’t control or don’t know as a personal failure. People who excel at managing uncertainty aren’t afraid to acknowledge what’s causing it.

Finally some wisdom from the wonderful researcher Herminia Ibarra, on how to act like a leader. Some excerpts below but read the whole thing. And the book.

“That when you are faced with a new role that’s very different from anything you have done before, you can’t think your way into it. You have to experiment and act your way into it.”

“I call it the difference between the ‘insight’ and ‘outsight’ approach,” she says. “Outsight is about the external perspective. It’s about seeing things differently because you have expanded the activities you are involved in and the people you interact with. It gives you fresh stuff, instead of rehashing the old.”

“Being a bridge means you are a boundary spanner as opposed to staying in your silo,” explains Ibarra.

“Moving towards a more skilled version of yourself as a leader feels fake at first as you try to be more people orientated, or more emphatic or to listen more… It might not be who you are, but it’s the only way you are going to learn.”