Our digital lives, a pollution nightmare

The internet casts a spell upon us with its immateriality. We transfer files, upload photos to social networks, and stream movies and songs without seeing with our own eyes what happens to that series of bits and bytes. All of this data travels through submarine cables which connect the various servers scattered around the world hidden from our sight—commonly known as the Cloud—and, yet, they are a click away and they reappear on screen whenever we want. We may think that they do not take up space and consume energy. Or at least not on our computers. The Cloud is something that we worship but it is potentially full of acid rain and could hurt our environment.

Much of this digital data could be considered similar to real waste, useless products that end up saved and stored somewhere but which we either plain forget about or no longer need. And in some cases, the same applies to our tweets or photos posted online: on the one hand, social networks allow us to be in charge of our own narrative, on the other, they are making us produce what we might consider digital pollution.

With the rise of industrialization we began to experience the effects of waste products from production processes and the pollution caused by them. In the digital sphere, these waste products were not poured directly into the environment around us but ended up collected and stored in these giant server towns run by a few large companies.

Given the never-ending expansion of these data centers required to store the petabytes of data that we produce daily, it makes sense to start wondering whether the energy impact that digital pollution has on the environment should be taken into account and whether it is already having a direct effect on our lives. And this can lead to very concrete actions: should I stop posting Instagram stories and tirelessly scrolling my Twitter feed?

According to some estimates, more than 347 billion emails per day are expected to be sent in 2022. At the same time, Whatsapp reached 2 billion users at the beginning of 2020, and Facebook recorded over 2.7 billion active users per month as of the second quarter of 2020. In 2019, Netflix reported that on average its members watch 2 hours of video per day. When it comes to photos and videos, 95 million posts are shared each day on Instagram.

In some cases, the data we produce is actually treated like garbage: think for example of what happened with Geocities, a free service founded in 1994 that allowed anyone to create their own page on the World Wide Web in exchange for selling advertising on its users pages. Yahoo! decided to close GeoCities and delete its 38 million user-generated pages. In other cases, instead, we tried to move in the opposite direction: saving most of what we produced online, as the Internet Archive is doing with its Wayback Machine.

An article from Nature noted that in 2018 data centers used an “estimated 200 terawatt hours (TWh) each year—roughly half of the electricity used for transport worldwide, and just 1% of global electricity demand—and they contributed around 0.3% to overall carbon emissions, whereas the information and communications technology (ICT) ecosystem accounts for more than 2% of global emissions.”

Power consumption has only increased during the Covid-19 pandemic: when most of the activities and jobs moved online and people were forced to stay at home, immersed in binge-watching TV series or caught in the abyss of doomscrolling, “Global internet traffic surged by almost 40% between February and mid-April 2020, driven by growth in video streaming, video conferencing, online gaming, and social networking,” read a recent report by the International Energy Agency.

According to the report, since 2010, the number of internet users worldwide doubled while global internet traffic grew 12-fold, or at around 30% per year. Global internet traffic is now expected to double by 2022 to 4.2 zettabytes per year.

One of the problems in dealing with the weight of digital pollution also lies in calculating the energy consumed: a study published by The Shift Project on the energy consumption of streaming video on Netflix has received harsh criticism that forced the authors to review their figures. Initially the report indicated that watching a movie for 30 minutes on Netflix generates emissions equivalent to driving about 6 km in a car —with the revised data the emissions dropped to the equivalent of driving 200 meters.

The initial calculation took into account consumption around 370 terawatt hours (TWh) per year, more than the annual electricity demand of the UK. The real impact of these figures, however, also depends on the type of energy used: whether it comes from renewable energy or fossil fuels can have a major impact.

Clearly, even if they had to correct their figures downwards it doesn’t mean that there isn’t a problem, especially looking into the future where we are already seeing online gaming platforms expanding, technologies like artificial intelligence—which needs millions of data and a lot of computing power to be trained and developed—and the advent of 5G network technology which promises to bring every device online. For example, a research paper from a team at the University of Massachusetts Amherst found that training a single large Natural Language Processing model—a type of AI algorithm used to understand language—may consume as much energy as a car over its entire lifetime—including the energy needed to build it.

However, several researchers point out that in recent years, in the face of increased demand for both servers and internet traffic, data-center electricity demand has not risen over the past half-decade. One of the reasons: the hyperscale shift.

Companies like Amazon, Google and Facebook have created super-efficient server factories which take advantage of uniform computing architecture, and can easily scale up to hundreds of thousands of servers. At the same time, these companies are exploring innovative cooling solutions and trying to harness green renewable energy.

According to The Guardian, Facebook has announced a further goal for itself, committing to net-zero emissions for its entire “value chain” by 2030, including its suppliers and users. And Google has committed to being powered exclusively by renewable energy by 2030.

The centralization of data centers in the hands of a few large companies favors the reduction of energy consumption but also cements the position of these companies by increasing their power: it will be difficult to break away from these economies of scale that allow you to rent space on servers at low cost.

At the same time, relying solely on technological advancement may turn out to be a risky gamble, and we should probably start to reassess our use of digital platforms as well. For this reason, there are already some extensions that try to offer to the users a glimpse into the energy consumption related to their digital activity, such as Carbonalyser which allows people to visualize the electricity consumption and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that internet browsing leads to.

Other approaches instead try to rethink the UX of social media, such as the research project Post Abundance by Tom Jarrett at the U.K. design studio Normally. The idea is to present images on Instagram as a gray box in which an image recognition algorithm would describe what you would be looking at. Instagram would become full of words instead of images. At that point, if you want to see the image just click on it.

What is certain is that the ease with which we can produce digital content today and benefit from streaming services should prompt us to reflect critically on the digital age we are living in and— as is already the case in other important sectors that fuel the climate crisis—we must remember that focusing on individual solutions risks becoming a futile exercise. What we must demand are clear and effective regulations by governments that push companies to reduce emissions, call for transparency on the energetic impact of their data centers, and direct investment in renewable energy systems.

Pandemic prism

It’s just a matter of to be, or not to be. Or rather, it is a matter of knowing that you can be by choice and knowing that you cannot be because there is no choice. And the difference is all here, and it is not a tiny one. The Covid-19 pandemic has already changed our lives in this gigantic margin between wanting with power, versus wanting and having no power and has done it so well that even for the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, a lover of intellectual confinement and a warrior of solitude and ideas, staying at home and writing has never been so difficult. The volume will be called “Pandemic! How Covid-19 Shook the World” and Žižek already knows that writing it won’t be a piece of cake.

A philosophical issue

Žižek says: “Let me begin with a personal confession: I like the idea of being confined to one’s apartment, with all the time needed to read and work. Even when I travel, I prefer to stay in a nice hotel room and ignore all the attractions of the place I’m visiting. A good essay on a famous painting means much more to me than seeing this painting in a crowded museum. But I’ve noticed this attitude makes being obliged to confine myself, because of the pandemic, more difficult. To help explain this let me recount, not for the first time, a joke from Ernst Lubitsch’s film, Ninotchka: “‘Waiter! A cup of coffee without cream, please!’ ‘I’m sorry, sir, we have no cream, only milk. So can it be a coffee without milk?’” At the factual level, the coffee remains the same, what changes is making the coffee without cream into coffee without milk—or, more simply even, adding the implied negation and making a straightforward coffee into a coffee without milk. The same thing has happened to my isolation: Prior to the crisis, it was an isolation “without milk” – I could have gone out, I just chose not to. Now it’s just the plain coffee of isolation with no possible negation implied.”

In fact, having verified this new ontological condition, for the philosopher, is to understand whether the ultimate goal of the question is a behavior that projects the individual to the eschatological dimension—continue to do what was done before, it doesn’t matter if you die of Covid-19, or if you become an unconscious greaser, so the end of life will put in place the secrets of the afterlife—or are crushed by a present of strict obligations and deprivations, first of all the one that opposes isolation from sociality. But in both cases, the cause of and solutions for the pandemic must be tackled with logic and not by activating a system of corporate removal that generates panic, accusations, racism, and conspiracy. And if the world’s population easily gives in to these chimeras, Žižek notes that the pandemic has shown how unable even political elites are to see the forest for the trees. For the Slovenian philosopher “both alt-right and fake-left refuse to accept the full reality of the epidemic, each watering it down in an exercise of social-constructivist reduction, i.e., denouncing it on behalf of its social meaning. Trump and his partisans repeatedly insist that the epidemic is a plot by democrats and China to make him lose the upcoming elections, while some on the left denounce the measures proposed by the state and health apparatuses as tainted by xenophobia and, therefore, insist on shaking hands, etc.”

Between the two positions — stresses Žižek — the paradox has not yet come: Not shaking hands and going into isolation when necessary is today the highest form of solidarity. Arriving at this personal and collective resolution takes a good dose of logic and a high sense of community. It takes the ability to go beyond the absurd, to recognize that many government-applied draconian measures are already insufficient and, as Masha Gessen reasoned in The New Yorker, we find ourselves in the absurd situation of allowing governments to limit our freedoms and accepting the risk of a transition to authoritarianism, instead of maintaining our social fabric. Panicking is useless as Žižek explains:

“Panic is not a proper way to confront a real threat. When we react in a panic, we do not take the threat too seriously; we, on the contrary, trivialize it. Just think of how ridiculous the excessive buying of toilet paper rolls is: As if having enough toilet paper would matter in the midst of a deadly epidemic … So, what would be an appropriate reaction to the coronavirus epidemic? What should we learn and what should we do to confront it seriously?”

A new perspective and many questions beyond

Many have tried to answer Zizek’s question in these months in which Covid-19 spread itself from the East to the West of the globe, jumping from one human body to another. And the proposals are different, some even well-argued: Believe in science, study it, finance it, because only a vaccine will save us; study history because if today the virus from the SARS family brings us to our knees, in the past the plague did the same; develop a psychological form of individual resilience, enhancing the present time, not projecting into the imponderable future; or not, to project into the future and design a different, more supportive, less industrialized, less global, capitalist, liberal world; finally take seriously the claim of nature towards the indiscriminate exploitation of man and devote ourselves to fighting climate change; learn the lesson that the pandemic imposes on us, reducing consumption and going to live in the countryside; take advantage of it to take to the streets and protest against governments and that inequality of social systems; or not, take advantage of the pandemic to change your business system, riding the tiger of biomedicine, ad hoc industrial production, the market of masks, and hand cleaners and make more money than before; better monitor citizens to preserve national health systems; in this way we will feel safer; do not let us be monitored because they steal our data and make us more attentive to the erosion of individual freedoms; cook bread at home; do not cook it and be satisfied with crackers; continue to take public transportation or not; take the subway less and re-evaluate using a car, so, paradoxically, we pollute the same but without physical contact with strangers. More of everything. For sure, as Yuval Noah Harari writes in The Financial Times, “when choosing between alternatives, we should ask ourselves not only how to overcome the immediate threat, but also, what kind of world will we inhabit once the storm passes. Yes, the storm will pass, humanity will survive, most of us will still be alive, but we will live in a different world.” Once again, the question will not be the match between man’s survival on the planet and nature’s reactions to his presence and his work, but man’s survival to himself and to the challenges of history. Simply because, in times of crisis, in emergencies, historical processes advance rapidly and decisions that in normal times could require years of deliberation are made in a matter of hours. It’s time for large-scale social experiments. Harari wonders: “What happens when everyone works from home and only communicates remotely? What happens when entire schools and universities go online? In normal times, governments, businesses, and school boards would never agree to conduct such experiments. But these are not normal times.” In these by no means normal times, there are those who remember that looking back could be instructive in solving present problems and understanding future games and risks.

History teaches us to move forward

Ibrahim al-Marashi, associate professor at the California State University San Marcos History Department, is a Middle East scholar. He has studied the Black Death and Spanish flu epidemics. He sees the scientific reading of our current pandemic in history: “The recent coronavirus pandemic is another example of the long history of zoonoses — diseases that pass from animals to humans. The domestication of horses led to the spread of the virus responsible for the common cold in humans, while the domestication of chickens caused chickenpox, shingles, and various avian flu strains for humans. Pigs were the source of the flu and measles, smallpox, and tuberculosis emerged from cattle. When a virus successfully jumps from one animal to a human being (the “zero patient”) and from here manages to make the leap to a second human being, those two people become the first two human vectors of virus transmission. Three quarters of infectious diseases are the result of zoonotic spillovers and coronavirus is no exception.” From a scientific point of view, there would be no room for racist-based conspiracies, but racism is an inevitable manifestation of collective repression, which the philosopher Žižek already realized. Because, explains al-Marashi, “it is easier to accuse another man than an animal. It is easier for people who see the world as problematic due to the presence of another race or ethnic group to find the scapegoat in that ethnic group. It is easier to accuse a human being than science or nature. How do you deal with this abstract phenomenon which is nature without personalizing it, touching it, imagining it physically at work?.” Perhaps, to deal with it, it would be necessary to get to know it better, to study it. And therefore, al-Marashi warns against some inadequate ways of reading history and some parallels without scientific basis: “The Covid-19 epidemic has aroused renewed interest in the Black Death, the plague of the seventeenth century. But comparing coronavirus to the Black Death is dangerous, because this parallelism perpetuates a false narrative of the epidemic that describes disease outbreaks as if they were following the same trajectory with the same level of severity. Indeed, the comparison between Covid-19 and the Black Death only aggravates public fears, even if today’s pathogen is by no means fatal in the manner of that medieval pandemic. Fear serves to increase the processes of collective removal but it is also an excellent tool to make room for conspiracy theories,” because says al-Marashi “if you accuse a country of creating a bacteriological weapon, it is easier to impact global political dynamics than to encourage and finance the study of the consequences of human action on nature.” Lessons on the present also come from the mistakenly defined Spanish flu of the early-twentieth century. “These are key lessons about the need for transparency of governments and on the effectiveness of quarantines,” says al-Marashi. The Spanish flu pandemic, which was probably of avian origin, infected a fifth of the world population and killed 50 million people, much more than the First World War that preceded it, and which was its real vector of spread. “On the subject of transparency, the history of the name of the disease is revealing. It was called “Spanish” flu, not because it originated in Spain, but because Spain was the first country to widely publicize the epidemic. Given that Spain was not belligerent in the First World War, it did not activate any wartime censorship, while other nations censored the news of the pandemic. Because of the headlines and the coverage of the Spanish press, many people simply assumed that the epidemic had started there, when the Spanish presumed that it came from France, calling it “French” flu. ” Thus, looking at the current outbreak of Covid-19, “it is also the result of a lack of transparency on the part of Wuhan officials who ignored and censored the initial warnings. This resulted in the timely dissemination of little critical information, depriving Beijing’s national leaders of the ability to implement informed decisions.” If the history of the “Spanish” flu encouraged transparency as the solution to face an epidemic, in the twenty-first century we have not been able to take advantage of this experience: “Transparency is essential for developing the public trust needed to control the epidemic. And trust determines the ability of the public to listen and follow the advice of the authorities on how to avoid the infection,” says al-Marashi. “History teaches policy makers that they must always be prepared for such things, therefore also for a pandemic. Because history has a value, but obviously it depends on what value it is given and how it is used. In this case, it was used very badly.”

Milan, Italy.2020.
Street view during covid-19 emergency.
Photo Giorgio Orazio Salimeni / Cesura

Social distancing is not the solution without trust

Without trust, making informed choices is difficult. Slavoj Žižek suggests a comparison to his own story. “The situation reminds me of my youth in a communist country: When government officials assured the public that there was no reason to panic, we all took these assurances as clear signs that they were themselves panicking. So today, we ordinary people who should live with viruses, are bombarded by the endlessly repeated formula —Don’t panic! — and then, we get conflicting, vague, or amplified data from governments and the media, which can only trigger panic. In the meantime, the ultra-wealthy of the financial elite are already flocking to private planes for small exclusive islands in the Caribbean and there they will retire and have fun, telling stories in the Decameron style.” They are the privileged ones who will continue to shake hands and embrace each other and who will not be touched by the so-called “social distancing,” that is a series of behavioral measures, which are difficult to define even for researchers who are studying them and which consist of reducing up to 75% contact away from home, at school, or at work, to halt the pandemic. This social model that awaits us around the corner from draconian measures, well described by Gideon Lichfeld in the MIT Technology review, is apparently the only one possible in the near future, considering that researchers have discovered that without social distancing the whole population, even the best mitigation strategy—which means isolation or quarantine of the sick, the elderly, and those who have been exposed, in addition to the closure of schools—would still lead to a wave of seriously ill people eight times larger than the US or British system alone can cope with.

But what does “social distancing” mean in concrete terms? According to Lichfeld, waiting for a vaccine will mean an inevitable discrimination of citizens by age groups, between healthy and sick people, between people living in areas of the world with the best possible health systems and others who live in countries where there is only one unit of intensive care throughout the territory, among those who will be rich enough to access private health care by paying millions in insurance and those who will die in a public hospital, among those who can afford working at home and gig workers who will pedal for kilometers in the hope of an extra delivery tip. It will mean discovering the already inflamed nerve of social inequalities and paying the price for intrusive surveillance. Yuval Noah Harari repeated this in no uncertain terms: We are facing the choice between totalitarian surveillance and the empowerment of citizens, at a time when we are moving without a blow from “over the skin” surveillance to “under the skin” surveillance. Harari writes in the Financial Times:

“Hitherto, when your finger touched the screen of your smartphone and clicked on a link, the government wanted to know what exactly your finger was clicking on. But with coronavirus, the focus of interest shifts. Now the government wants to know the temperature of your finger and the blood-pressure under its skin.”

This applies to China, which has already activated a citizen tracking system through an app that can monitor health status, body temperature, movement of individuals, and presence in certain areas of positive and therefore infected patients. But also the countries defined as democratic,. like Israel and the European Union, have studied a similar measure: In Italy, an SMS has already been delivered to all citizens with the invitation to download the Immuni app which has the same functions as the Chinese version, without knowing where the data will be stored. We also begin to discuss how to sanction citizens who will not download it in public debates where those who raise concerns are considered uncooperative with institutions and in regards to the health of others in this exceptional situation. If this method allowed the pandemic to be eradicated in a couple of months, perhaps we would be willing to accept it. But here is the weakest link in the chain: According to Harari, the downside of this hypothesis is that accepting it would legitimize a terrifying new surveillance system:

“If you know, for example, that I clicked on a Fox News link rather than a CNN link, that can teach you something about my political views and perhaps even my personality. But if you can monitor what happens to my body temperature, blood pressure, and heart-rate as I watch the video clip, you can learn what makes me laugh, what makes me cry, and what makes me really, really angry.”

Palermo, Sicily, Italy March 2020. A doctor is watching one of PM Conte’s evening press conferences after a day of work to stem the Covid-19 pandemic.
Photo Francesco Bellina/Cesura

“We are living in Covid-1984”

“Data is too sensitive to be in the hands of anyone,” Jeremy Scahill, American investigative journalist, director of independent magazine The Intercept, and former George Polk Award winner for his investigation into the private military company Academi, warns against this possibility and this choice. “We are already beyond the reality painted by Orwell in 1984, indeed we can say that we are at the center of a plot that could be re-titled Covid 1984. Both authoritarian regimes like China and great-power democracies like the United States are exploiting the crisis, removing civil rights, or rejecting the freedoms of movement and expression. They are offering tracking services in the name of fighting the virus. But when the pandemic ends, what will governments do with this data? They can use it for population control and mass surveillance.” For Scahill, the antidote is: “We must remain fully vigilant and understand in the history of pandemics how governments have usually used crises, and how it is possible for us to avoid exploiting them, so as to avoid applying increasingly authoritarian agendas. In the United States, this scenario has already been seen after Hurricane Katrina and 9/11. Why should it not happen again, even more so today?” Paradoxically, a worry for Scahill should not be already authoritarian regimes, but the drift of democracies: “Iran, despite being the axis of evil for the United States, has released more than one hundred thousand prisoners as part of the pandemic response. Covid-19 in the United States is spreading with great speed, especially in New York, not only among Hispanic and African-American communities in the most crowded neighborhoods, but also in prisons. Yet, here, the government is very slow to release prisoners for necessary hospital care. So, let’s ask ourselves: What are the priorities of our modern and democratic Western societies? Are we really so much better than the authoritarian regimes we say we want to oppose?” Of course, some pressing questions to these same authoritarian governments, and the slow and non-transparent answers addressing the pandemic, have to be asked: “China,” continues Scahill, “must explain what really happened in Wuhan, because whoever had launched the alarm was first silenced, how many people actually contracted the virus, if and how it put pressure on the World Health Organization, how it is using mass tracking technology systems, how it is treating political dissidents and minorities in prisons and re-education camps. These questions are necessary and legitimate, even to the extent that China’s geopolitical strategy gives it a global advantage. The help China provides to other countries affected by the virus, such as Italy, proves it. The United States, however, brought aid ships destined for Caribbean countries back to their ports. So the United States is putting the gendarmes in the backyard but China has already taken off to the rest of the world with a merchant ship.” Here, then, the opportunities that a pandemic creates for policy makers becomes central because there are two paths and choices ahead, according to Yuval Noah Harari: “Nationalist isolation, or global solidarity. The worst thing is the disunity that we see in the world, the lack of cooperation and coordination between different countries. And the lack of trust, both between states and between peoples and governments. This is basically the flip side of what we have seen happening in recent years: The epidemic of fake news and the deterioration of international relations.”

A new era is coming

The diplomatic relationship between the United States and China and the way in which the two countries have reacted to the pandemic is the perfect demonstration of this, and from this point of view, historically, is the result of a new era. For Ibrahim al-Marashi this pandemic is no different from the previous ones, even though it developed in a global and capitalist world, because the two states—China and the US—which are the embodiment of this model, in the two authoritarian and democratic versions, are two parallel sides of the same coin: “In order to not weaken production and not lose confidence and consensus in the classes of workers and future voters, one favored the explosion of the pandemic and the other one made it worse.”

The existence of conspiracy theories that involve both of them as responsible for the spread of the virus and a possible bacteriological war, are forms of mass distraction that are useful for providing comfort and are perfect for diverting the attention of global citizenship from problems that impose conscious activism. While we get lost in discussions about when and how to end the quarantine, few have the courage to ask the institutions, even in democratic countries, sticky questions about culpable delays, indecisions, and questionable choices. Few take the initiative to continue asking for transparency. “Still in the United States,” Jeremy Scahill reveals, “most of the national decisions on the management of the next social distancing take place behind closed doors. Companies such as Palantir Technologies and Clearview AI, whose monitoring of personal data has already alarmed us about the danger it poses to the restriction of personal freedoms, have discussed the use of their tools to track down the pandemic with US federal and state agencies. We are appealing to the Freedom of Information Act but we face many difficulties. And to monitor the work of institutions and the great interests that revolve around corporations, which, as the collapse of our health system shows, affect both the American left and right, we run into a climate of hostility meticulously constructed by years of campaigns by President Donald Trump against fake news.” Campaigns that today make it possible, for example, for Trump’s followers, to reduce to fake news every type of information distributed through institutions and the press, also helped by the dehumanization that years of xenophobic propaganda have brought with them. And this is where the danger of an authoritarian conversion of many state realities creeps in. Scahill writes: “I am very reluctant to make comparisons between America today and Europe of the 1920s, but we must not forget that Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini succeeded in their project because they were able to convince their fellow citizens that around them lived worms, disguised as humans and that to continue living with full rights one had to annihilate them.”

Pandemics are perfect storms to achieve these authoritarian goals, using fear as an emotional lever. Michel Foucault himself noted that the rise of police surveillance in the modern era was directly related to the span of pandemic diseases because in these situations the state and society began to watch and control city dwellers. And even a historian like Ibrahim al-Marashi, recalling the effects of Spanish flu on the Middle East, recalls how “that pandemic accelerated the vulnerability of those countries in the early twentieth century, both towards Russia and with respect to anyone interested in having access to oil, creating the so-called “Arab chaos” and, if not chaos, dictatorships. Today, this region is even more vulnerable, due to climate change. There are three already systematic problems and, if the current epidemic is added to them, everything still becomes exponentially explosive and does not bode well for local and global security.” So if there are those who, like Harvard professor Stephen Walt, believe that “the pandemic will strengthen the state and nationalism, pushing governments of all kinds to adopt emergency measures to manage the crisis, measures that are unlikely to abandon concluded,” there are those who do not want to believe that Covid-19 will create a less open, less prosperous, and less free world.

Both Jeremy Scahill and Ibrahim al-Marashi cannot give up on the fact that “the combination of a deadly virus, inadequate planning, and incompetent leadership are putting humanity on a new and worrying path,” as Walt argues. Rather, this story is worth a shock, an awareness for civil society, starting from what nature wants to tell us with this pandemic, which brings the issue of climate change back to the center of the global debate. Al-Marashi does not believe that governments alone will make a turn on this because, “unless they will not have strong opposition, they will continue in the same way. Politics loves to preserve itself when it comes to power.” Therefore, the only option that remains is to rely on a renewed civil society, which knows how to intercept some clear signs of the need to build a different world, but not necessarily one that is less open and less free. Jeremy Scahill sees these signs in the dolphins that swim undisturbed in the New York waterfront, and in every sign of nature that has regained its space: “The earth is breathing again and it is telling us: If you don’t stop consumption, pollution, and war, this planet will die. But it is not too late: If you know how to use this moment to understand that we can change for the better, the planet will be saved. We are at a point of no return, politically and humanly: We must come out of all this renewed and dedicate ourselves to change for a better world, otherwise we will come out defeated, sick, and allowing authoritarian governments to determine our future. History is written by those who win the war, and we have the opportunity to write our history now, preventing the prophets of doom from having the upper hand. But we have to fight and it will be a great battle.”

A brief history of utopia

Equality, peace, and universal access to food, education, healthcare, and employment: No matter which ideals they’re inspired by, utopias are characterized by these crucial elements. Utopias are far from reality, so much so that the term itself means “nowhere,” as Sir Thomas More wrote in 1516 when he combined the ancient Greek words “ou” (no) and “topos” (place) for his novel’s title, Utopia. In Amaurot, More’s capital of the island-state of Utopia, all streets are identical, all buildings are the same three stories high. All houses are public because no house is private, and there are no locks. For Utopians, this architectural uniformity is bliss, as every decade they move and by doing so, don’t have to adjust to their new places. So it’s clear that the Utopian society is founded on reason and organized rationall—and its ultimate benefit is good and proper pleasure.

Even before More, a plethora of writers, philosophers, architects, and intellectuals toyed with the idea of imaginary worlds where society is driven by harmonious living. In Plato’s Republic—a Socratic dialogue written around 375 BC—the Greek philosopher discusses justice, order and the character of the just-city-state, and just-man. In 421 CE, Chinese poet Tao Yuanming drifted away from the political instability and national disunity that characterized his time by depicting an ethereal utopia in his fable The Peach Blossom Spring. After haphazardly sailing up a river in a forest of blossoming peach trees, a fisherman reached the river’s source through a narrow passage in a grotto, then a village where people had led an ideal existence in harmony with nature, unaware of the outside world for centuries.

One of the most commonly-known concepts of a utopian place is the Judeo-Christian Garden of Eden. There, Eve and Adam lived free from hunger, worries and clothes. Similarly, Islamic texts describe life for the immortal inhabitants of the Jannah as happy and without hurt, sorrow, fear or shame. They are young, in their early 30s, living a life of bliss that includes wearing sumptuous robes, bracelets and perfumes.

Utopias are appealing because they give people an opportunity to withdraw from their problems, and enter a world of bliss. As Marius de Geus wrote in Ecological Utopias, “it is extremely attractive to dream of an ideal world free of social injustice, hunger, poverty, criminality, pressure, violence, and pollution.” Utopians examine the roots of these problems and attempt to expose the ingrained structural mistakes of society, and on the clean canvases that they create, they paint a place that consistently breaks from the past by holding up a mirror to their contemporaries. The result is a happy world in the imagined past or the distant future. Or, sometimes, it’s just off the beaten path, like in the project Jungle 2 Jungle. Started in 2014, and still in the concept phase, Jungle 2 Jungle’s intentional community is inspired by feminist writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s novel Herland. While Herland’s society was composed entirely of women who reproduce via parthenogenesis and live free of war, conflict, and domination, Jungle 2 Jungle’s organizers acknowledge that there would be several differences from this century-old novel—including accepting trans people and the Internet, and of course not embracing parthenogenetic reproduction elements. What makes this ecovillage utopian for the general public? It would be cashless, with no rent, fees, or money charged to its inhabitants; all food needs would be met through permaculture, and of course, members would do as much as they could to be sustainable in providing for their needs in the long term and protecting the environment.

This is one of the most recent women-only land co-ops of its kind, while others, like the Sugarloaf Women’s Village in the Florida Keys, aim to combine the concept of non-violence with feminist practice, and the Susan B. Anthony Women’s Land Trust, a women-centered intentional living and educational community in rural Ohio.

Since Herland, feminist utopian literature has flourished. Take Wonder Woman, for example: created by psychologist and self-help writer William Marston in the 1940s, with a main character based on the unconventional, liberated, and powerful modern women of his day. In a 1943 issue of The American Scholar, Marston wrote: “Not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength and power. Not wanting to be girls, they don’t want to be tender, submissive, peace-loving as good women are. Women’s strong qualities have become despised because of their weakness. The obvious remedy is to create a feminine character with the strength of Superman plus the allure of a good and beautiful woman.” So guess what? Marston’s Wonder Woman comics feature Paradise Island, a matriarchal all-female community of peace, loving submission and bondage.

Fast forward 30 years, when radical feminist Shulamith Firestone wrote the classic The Dialectic of Sex, which positions her as an isolated visionary, as writer Noah Berlatsky pointed out in an article published by The Atlantic in 2012, shortly after her death. In her work, Firestone argues that gender difference (or “sex class”) is rooted in biology. It is, furthermore, the basis of all inequity. Without the tyranny of biological reproduction, monogamy and even the incest taboo would be unnecessary. Eroticism, intimacy, and joy could then be liberated from the realm of romantic love and permeate our culture. If in Firestone’s words “pregnancy is barbaric” as it’s a “temporary deformation of the body of the individual for the sake of the species,” then advances in science might change material conditions enough to finally make equity possible. New reproductive technologies will eliminate the need for giving birth, and cybernetics will eliminate the need for work. And once manual and female labor is eliminated, society can be reformed—so rather than nuclear units, people can live in larger households where childcare can be shared among everyone.

We could consider the 1970s the decade of ecological utopias. One of the most influential is the society described in Ernest Callenbach’s book Ecotopia, published in 1975. The story is set in 1999 and consists of the reports and diary of reporter William Weston, the first person to enter the new nation of Ecotopia, comprised of Northern California, Oregon, and Washington after they secede from the United States. This effort sounds close to the movement for Cascadia, which would stretch from Canada’s British Columbia down to Oregon, and is fostered by a sense of connection based on environmentalism, bioregionalism, privacy, civil liberties, and freedom. Ecotopian citizens are described as creative, free-thinking, liberal, and energetic people, who place value on team configurations and social responsibility.

Like other utopians, Callenbach provides the reader with detailed information about Ecotopia’s lifestyle, politics, sexual freedom, education, and gender relations, but his main focus is on the community’s ecological aspects: virtuous waste cycle, ecological food production, car-free living, and producing energy from sun and sea. What makes Callenbach’s novel seminal is the fact that it collected an alternative vision of interconnections among humans and nature supported by many authors in the 1970s. Ecotopia contains the same ecological critique of Marge Pierce’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976), and Sally Miller Gearhart’s The Wanderground (1979), both of which are concerned with the corporate and technological exploitation of nature and environmental degradation.

What makes utopias so fascinating and impossible to reach is the same element that, pushed to the limits, would create dystopias. All of these ideal worlds are based on the sometimes blind, and certainly willful acceptance of social norms that can’t make everyone happy. Think of The Wizard of Oz, written in 1900. We should abandon utopias to embrace protopias, and leave behind the quest for perfection in favor of incremental improvement. We could follow the lead of the mantra, “Be the best version of yourself,” as futurist Kevin Kelly said: “Protopia is a state that is better today than yesterday, although it might be only a little better.” This makes protopia much harder to visualize—not like entertaining utopian novels. And just because a protopia contains as many new problems as new benefits, this complex interaction of working and being broken is hard to predict—but also more realistic. To quote Michael Shermer, author of Heavens on Earth: The Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality, and Utopia, “A protopian future is not only practical, it is realizable.”

Breaking the glass ceiling

Amel Saidane is a Tunisian entrepreneur, an ecosystem builder, a digital transformation expert and an innovation activist. She is President of Tunisian Startups and co-founder of BetaCube, a venture builder in Fintech, Board member for the Digital Center of Excellence of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa and Tunisia steering committee member for Digital Arabia Network, a member of the BMW Responsible Leaders Network, and a fellow of the BMW Ready-Go program.

In July 2020, Saidane took part in the conference Women in Industry and Innovation, organized by UNIDO, in cooperation with the Italian Government, UN Women and FAO.

One of your core values is encouraging girls and women to pursue tech careers. What is your story in the field?

I studied electrotechnical engineering in Hannover, Germany.

There were only three women in my studying year. I’ve seen that some countries in Europe, and maybe Europe in general, face a big challenge in terms of creating a pipeline for women in technology and this is wrong because it’s very important to have a women’s perspective in the digitalization that is shaping everything that we do today.

Can you give us an example?

If you look at the typical profile of a developer you’ll understand why Siri is designed the way it is. There is a study that was evaluating the responses of Siri and Alexa and how all the robots react to conversations and you can tell that they are actually designed by a male brain without a woman’s perspective. We need this diversity. 

How would you define this diversity, when it comes to female entrepreneurs?

We are very good at multitasking. We tend to be judged by our male partners and counterparts, who usually think that we are fragmenting our energy or that maybe we should focus on one thing at a time. Everyone sees the world from their own perspective, maybe our male partners see it as a sequential set of tasks and this is the way they perform best. But there are other approaches.

Do you think that men and women tend to have different management styles? 

I think that women tend to have the profile for a digital leader.

When we’re talking about digital transformation we’re talking about organizations that tend to be flatter, divided in smaller subgroups and working groups based on projects, so you might have a role in project A and a role in project B and rotate.

This will require a more flexible and less assertive type of communication.

And this is something that women leaders do intuitively.

And what factors explain the fact that women are still underrepresented in leading positions and top jobs?

This happens because women are still under-represented in policy-making. Currently, you can see many countries in Africa and New Zealand that are imposing a quota of 50% of female deputies in Parliament. This is actually essential to design policies for countries and make them more inclusive. At the same time, women are not equally represented in funding and investing. More than 95% of capital investment in the world is invested by men, in men.

And what about the Middle East and North Africa region, where you come from?

Comparing MENA countries to Europe, you will see that the problem is different. The pipeline is very interesting, you’ll find that more than 50% of university graduates in STEM fields and engineering are women and they are outperforming men in university studies. Unfortunately, we end up disappearing, because less than 5% of C level executives at tech companies are women.

The glass ceiling is very low, and, again, this is wrong, because having women in decision-making positions in entrepreneurship is a very positive business case. It’s not only about the beauty of having diversity or achieving a socially important goal. It’s not just a side factor.

What is your recommendation for female entrepreneurs who aspire to stand out in STEM fields?

My advice is: connect, connect with like-minded people, build your safe space and network, identify top women who can mentor and support you. Don’t stay alone, find peers.

You strongly believe that Middle Eastern and North African countries should think of digitalization as an opportunity to unite. Why?

If you look at the shift of powers in the world, you can realize that the countries with the largest platforms are able to control everything.

Just look at Google in Africa, with 1 billion users, or at Ali Baba aiming for its second billion users in the world very soon, and the Chinese credit scoring system.

The problem is, that as an Arab region we’re fragmented because of political issues, and also because we are challenged by weak economies, but there could still be potential for a purely digital collaboration.

If we unite efforts we could hold enough data to gain leverage on the capability to compete. Because right now we are not able to.

How are you promoting this idea?

I’m a board member of Digital Arabian Network, cofounded in Berlin by Bassant Helmi and Professor Ayad Al-Ani. We are trying to grow the network and map digital players in every country of the Middle East and North Africa region, so that we can have people coming on board and contributing to our initiative.

Which are the main difficulties in implementing such a project?

The first difficulty is that usually these platforms are started in the private sector. If we look for some examples we can consider the case of, in the United Arab Emirates.

Souq is an e-commerce platform and one of the very rare “unicorns” in the region. It was big enough, theoretically, to have a lot of data on it, but then it was acquired by Amazon and swallowed. So all the data circulating on is now property of Amazon and Amazon knows how Arab countries buy and behave and what they prefer online.

And what could possibly avoid that?

My answer is: how about we have our states build these types of platforms? Our states have enough power on their people, it’s not like in the US, where the government would hold back. Our states could build such platforms, while respecting data privacy rules, and make sure to allow many players of the private sector to operate them, and this would connect several countries in the region. I think this is the road that we should be experimenting on, otherwise we’ll just stay mere consumers of any technology that is produced in other countries.

You attended the UNIDO conference “Women in Industry and Innovation,” in July 2020. Its tagline is “We Mean It,” and you supported the concept. Would you like to send a message to all the people who will be reading this interview?

Mean it, mean it every day! It’s not only for the sake of yourselves, it’s also for the safety of your countries, of your networks, of your peers. Having women on board and participating in the economy is a key for the wellbeing of everyone. If you want to be part of a project that’s bigger than yourself … mean it!

Paolo Cirio

Paolo Cirio is an artist who works among the legal, economic, and cultural systems of our information society. He shows his research and intervention-based works through artifacts, photos, installations, videos, and public art. He has exhibited in museums globally and has won prestigious art awards. His artworks have been covered by hundreds of media outlets worldwide and he regularly gives public lectures and workshops at leading universities.

Your work deals with pivotal issues such as appropriation, control, image rights, and information theory. How did it all begin?

I was interested in media studies and the power of media. As an Italian of my generation, I was influenced by Italian philosophers, like Umberto Eco, and studies in semiotics, media language, and communication. Moreover, in the mid-’90s, during Silvio Berlusconi’s rise to power, the Italian media and political landscape started to become extremely fascinating. This also corresponded to a time when the Internet publicly came along — as a small and new thing — yet no one was using it or was even able to access it. Somehow, I started to be interested in that, with the feeling that this could soon become the new medium that was going to replace everything before it.

Eventually, the Internet became more and more crucial in everyday life and, since my work is dealing with the philosophical and social implications of the medium, I began to tackle new and different issues such as finance, advertising, and social media.

Now, I feel the Internet has changed society to the point of having become its true core, and to some extent it has become society itself. For this reason, I argue that I am not working with the Internet, but rather with society.

How does your work intersect with society?

In working with the Internet, I work directly with the one thing that affects society the most, and with what society looks at: For example, political elections, economy, perception of reality, our culture and communication are all strongly informed by the Internet. In this sense, my work is also about dilemmas and conflicts that society has to face because of the Internet. Look at what’s happening now with the U.S. presidential impeachment, or the slightly different take on social control in India, or China.

The 1970 milestone exhibition Information at MOMA comes to mind. Are there any parallels between now and then, culturally and socially speaking?

This sounds like a big jump because people tend to think about the future instead of the past. However, looking closely, you realize that the interesting moment we are living in already happened, in a different form, 50 years ago. When the two shows Information and Software were presented in New York, people talked about the same issues: how information technology was affecting society. It was the first time information technology, and especially computers and networks, were starting to impact the economy, politics, and social life. Artists started to look at all of this, generating a wave of conceptual art, system art, and a perspective that was looking at I.T. as a political tool ready to be transformed into an aesthetic object. So there are some parallels, and although with time technology has changed everything, and then has kind of lived a life of its own for a while, we are now in a moment when technology is heavily politicizing and affecting society again.

The curator of the Information exhibition argued that at the time the project “was essential for an art institution dealing with artists who broaden artistic definitions and challenge our perceptions.” You, 50 years later, address art history as a system with your exhibit System of Systems in Turin. Do you feel like you’re stretching boundaries?

Many of my projects tackle contemporary matters and, in a way, have a pop dimension, but at the same time, I am always trying to contextualize these works within an aesthetic and philosophical landscape. I spent a long time researching, writing, and reading philosophy and art history to articulate the issues I really want to discuss. My recent exhibition at the Giorgio Persano Galleria in Turin — the first gallery presenting Conceptual Art and Arte Povera in the ‘60s and ‘70s worldwide — is continuing such a trajectory, but with today’s materials and systems that are more powerful and broader than in the past, as they impact our society on a global scale.

It is interesting to look at how the history of the medium (the network and computation itself), did not start with the Internet, but rather it ran through phases to get there. After all, the Internet has a 20-year history and is constantly evolving.

To what extent is data real and how is this data shaped and seen?

There is a kind of mutual relation between the medium and society. Data has immense power, but that power becomes real and material only when people use it and make that same data seen and shaped in different forms. Society decides how to use that data, whether to manipulate it, change it, misread it, or use it in the worst or best way possible.

What is your approach to data? And what’s the role of social manipulation in your practice?

In a way, data is matter: it takes different forms; these forms offer different interpretations depending on the audience, as with any other piece of art. However, data, and the Internet, are a unique kind of matter, as it affects millions of people, governments, economy, society, and social fields directly. In my work, I take data, re-shape it, and present it as a new sculpture that eventually has an impact on all those social enterprises that are doing business with that data. At the moment of publicly presenting such new forms, I usually receive reactions from big companies, from thousands of people or from the media, creating ripple effects. Sometimes — especially when my artwork becomes viral and global — people’s interactions with it produces even more artistic outcomes, as a performance. This happened, for instance, with a few projects, particularly those dealing with big data, like Face to Facebook and Obscurity and Loophole for All. People started to see things differently: that’s the role of art, after all.

Face to Facebook appropriated one million Facebook profiles and posted 250,00 of them on a custom-made dating website with profiles sorted by social temperament. Image courtesy of Paolo Cirio.

We might think that the more data we have, the easier it is to find our path to truth. But we discovered it’s actually the opposite: Data seems to be moving us away from the truth. Is post-truth a dystopia? Can the same data/technology get us back on track?

In my work, I generally look at utopian and dystopian realities of the Internet and thus at the contradictions and limits of ethics. However, at the same time, to me, they are not narrations or slogans: I do really want to break those down. My goal is to crack the complexity and the general understanding of things by offering more insights into complex issues, such as post-truth. By doing that, I sometimes identify solutions that may fix the problems that I encounter. This is the hacker attitude that breaks very complex systems/networks, finds the problem and the bug, exploits it, creates chaos, and eventually offers a way through. But it’s beyond the technological apparatus, the paywall or the firewall:, it concerns a society that deeply reflects technology. In some of my projects, like Global Direct, this utopian approach is evident, as it shows the unused potential of the Internet; in Sociality, both utopian and dystopian issues are addressed. In Loophole For All I even discuss how offshore finance could be fixed.

Would you say that you are trying to expand common awareness of the issues related to data and the Internet?

Yes, and some of my projects have become activist campaigns. With Obscurity, for example, for three years I have worked to create a privacy policy in the United States for the “right to be forgotten,” with the help of lawyers and legislators to promote it. With a similar approach, with Sociality, I am working on the idea that some technology should be legislated, or banned completely. However, these are not easy issues to solve as long as corporations, governments, politicians, and users try to control them.

The Internet is becoming a place of conflict because of the power of the tool — and everyone wants to control it. An issue such as post-truth could ideally be resolved in many ways, but it just won’t be. There is no will to solve it. This is for me the real utopia: it’s not about having global peace, it’s about solving simple problems. Nevertheless, the idea of utopia is constantly changing: error after error, we are trying to fix our mistakes. And for me, it is all good, because we are finally facing our problems. Take the matter of privacy: I’ve been working and researching privacy surveillance since the ‘90s, and back then, no one cared about it, until we discovered we were all mass surveilled. After that, new tools were introduced to prevent it. It’s still not perfect, but it’s getting better.

In such a context, what is the artist’s role in society? Do you see your work as having an impact on people’s awareness of the world that they live in?

Absolutely. The artist’s work is probably more symbolic now, than ever, and because of that, it inspires and shows people something that they couldn’t see before, like societal contradictions or the way things are re-shaped. Indeed, I believe the artist can change society, not like a politician would, but rather at a cultural level, and that eventually has a ripple effect on other fields. I have been producing a few projects that have been influential, for instance, Loophole For All was done before The Panama Papers and other financial leaks, and the data that the work revealed was used by several journalists for further investigations. And when I presented Face to Facebook (2011), Facebook was not perceived as it is today: People were excited about it and now, after all the recent scandals, most people are leaving Facebook. Then, with Obscurity, I was one of the first to talk about the “right to be forgotten” in the United States. People didn’t even know of such a concept at the time, but the project slowly started to reshape public conversation. So, there is a degree of impact, which may just assume the form of inspiring or changing perspective or focus.

In many of your works, you question and cross the thin line of privacy. What does this mean as an artist, thief, or visionary?

Since data is the material I use in my artistic practice, a substantial part of my art is about appropriation. There’s a fine line between appropriation and embezzlement. This is almost a Readymade, an object assembled with data that people can see on their screen, now in a whole other context with another meaning, or presented in a different configuration. But still, differently from appropriation, in Readymade, the process of transformation (of data) is much more sophisticated, as there are millions of records about people or companies that I have to remodulate in other forms. Most of the data that I show is often public and already compromised, but because I do discuss the politics of data, I am also careful with the ethics of representing it. I try to question myself, too, to be aware of the sensitivity of the material that I show, which sometimes presents difficult ethical decisions that I have to make. In some cases, I deliberately decide to blur the data or not expose it at all: for instance, I do not show clear names next to a picture and I do not index data on Google. I carefully choose how to show the information that I’m taking, to achieve specific goals, whether they are political, aesthetic, or performative.

Face to Facebook, image courtesy of Paolo Cirio

How have you addressed the ethics of the information that you collect?

I have extensively been addressing the issue of ethics in my work, as it has become a contingent issue of the Internet in recent years. Somehow, it concerns the essence of the medium itself, and I find it very interesting for two reasons: First, the “aesthetics of the ethics,” in other words, how ethics can produce aesthetic meaning. The second reason concerns the philosophical and political side of ethics, and how the Internet is becoming an almost philosophical dilemma. When we discuss ethics, there are difficult questions that need to be addressed and many compromises that need to be made to answer those questions. With information technology, we constantly face the dilemma of whether to expose or not expose information, thus compromising the potential of that particular, powerful information. And this is not going to be resolved anytime soon. Still, it’s interesting that we are facing it, because the Internet emerges not only as a technological fun space where we share everything, but as a place where we have to tackle human dilemmas.

In 1985, director Michelangelo Antonioni argued that matter would become an impalpable idea. Is the media leading us in that direction?

There are material effects and outcomes, literally physical things, that are affected by virtual space; I don’t think there is one place that’s completely virtual, or a place that is completely physical. Rather, I think there is a hybrid environment that is constantly changing, interdependent from the two places. For instance, Street Ghosts, shows how we navigate among an urban space and what we see on screen while we use maps: in particular, here, it becomes clear to what extent a virtual map might change and have an impact on urban space. Take the Airbnb website, and how the places, the offerings, and the listings within a neighborhood, will eventually transform the neighborhood. This applies to other situations, like how Amazon is changing the manufacturing and distribution process, how transportation systems and infrastructure are changing according to the Internet, and vice versa. We are learning that humanity cannot be reduced to technology, and technology cannot replace some complex human processes, because we are still led by intricate philosophical questions. The same goes for physical reality: it can not disappear, at least not for a long time.

What are, in your opinion, the crucial utopias that we should aim for as a society?

It is hard to talk about the future these days, but I can say what the crucial utopias will probably be. Perhaps a democratic form of government, and the agency to face and solve global issues that are not yet tackled in the right way. This would be a sort of UN, but one that is more democratic and with more enforcing power to address those issues, one that is opposing the contemporary powerful actors who are reshaping the global political scene and forms of communication. Although some issues, like climate change, are tackled in some countries, it isn’t enough. Moreover, we would need a better privacy policy within the Internet; better economic agreements. Those are all the same problem and everyone is affected.

(Human) trends

Designing, building, and launching successful experiences, products, or services is ultimately about answering one simple question: What are your users going to want next?

Whether you’re an entrepreneur, a business leader, a marketer, or a designer makes no difference: in our constantly evolving digital era, the deep purpose of your work is somehow connected to this question every day. The problem? The established way to answer it relies on creating something relevant for the present, a temporal space that has, however, become mutable, fluid, transformative.

Let’s try to explore some established approaches to get closer to the user and understand their desires, needs, and points of view. One usual approach to collect information focuses on getting ever closer to users (or potential ones): spending time with them, creating super detailed personas, drilling down into their unique socio-cultural context, creating a deep observation process that reveals what they want. It’s undeniable that this kind of ethnographic fieldwork can generate deep insights. But obtaining these insights is arduous, not to mention the fact that they are time-consuming and expensive.

An alternative approach is to simply ask people what they’d like — which is what we can refer to as traditional market research. But it is quite well known that there is often a huge gap between what people say and how they behave and imagine. Furthermore, open questioning often strives to capture newly emerging expectations and points of tension which people might not even recognize. And the search for these implicit and not yet rationalized tensions are the ones that ignite creative thinking and experimentation.

This kind of thinking was at the basis of the process of creation for Steve Jobs:

“Our job is to figure out what they’re going to want before they do … People don’t know what they want until you show it to them. That’s why I never rely on market research. Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page.”

An approach that some time ago could have been undertaken to excel as a business, today, is a strategic trajectory for more or less technological or innovation-oriented companies. To put it bluntly, imagining what the future of mobility will look like has become a common activity for both Tesla and BMW.

There’s another approach connected to our tech-driven era which has gained great success: that is, analyzing what people actually do. The last decade has seen vast amounts of attention and investment flows to quantitative data-driven solutions. The aim is clear: collecting bigger/better/faster data allows businesses to uncover previously invisible or inaccessible insights about customers’ behaviors.

Let’s be clear. Data is indeed incredibly valuable and it would be absurd to suggest otherwise. But often data-driven innovation (or more practically, solutions) is incremental in nature. Data is phenomenal at validation and optimization, but less strong at generating those radical and unconventional intuitions that characterize many truly novel and disruptive experiences, products, or services.

How is it possible to detect what our users are going to want next?  

The recipe to answer this question is to combine the methods we have described above by adding another ingredient to the mix, a process finalized to make sense of the existing context and to capture those weak and implicit signals of change that are forging new scenarios of opportunities. In other words, we are about to talk about trends!

Speaking about ‘trends’ often confuses people — are we talking about fashion? New technologies? what’s #trending?. The word trend is also often used in the same way as descriptions of fads and hype, but there is a difference. A HUGE one. A fad or a craze is created by advertisers or media to promote a specific idea and consists of a form of collective behavior, which develops within a social group and is followed enthusiastically for a limited period. On the other side, the aim of trend research is based around a counterintuitive concept: in a business arena characterized by relentless change and hyper-competition, in order to anticipate what people will want next, the key is to stop asking what people want and start observing and analyzing signs of transformation in a broader context.

Specifically look at the brands, startups, or innovations that are setting people’s expectations around what is possible, desirable, or simply ‘normal’ and use these — and the signs of transformation you can draw from them — to anticipate what your users will want next.

This innovation-led approach generates compelling new answers to the ultimate business question by tapping into a new perspective to start a design process equipped to generate future-proof solutions.

At this point, you may ask what is the connection between trends related to people’s needs and expectations and the evolution of design. The connection lies in the fact that design disciplines have crossed their paths with the vast horizon of new business practices oriented to redefine industries in our constantly evolving digital era. Design means often not only to create products, services, or experiences but to draw new organizational structures, methods of work, strategies, and business models.

Areas where people as “users” are at the center of the design, which becomes a process not focused on pure innovation but human-centricity.

In the same way we can look at inside phenomena research — in the past the focus was to identify innovations and trends, while now it is about converting those trends into practical, relevant, and human-centric solutions. All this requires better and more efficient approaches to interrogating data, identifying opportunities, harnessing influence, and boot-camping innovation in short and easy-to-activate stages.

As designers of human-centric innovations, we have developed a set of tools, formats, and strategies that help companies confront changes and define a new project approach to tackle strategic challenges. A process that starts for us in making sense of the present and leveraging heterogeneous capabilities to seize observation, intuition, and hard and soft data in future planning and strategy.

The experimentation of this design perspective has led us after several experiments to create a real tool dedicated to continuous exploration: maize.INSIGHTS is our think tank and its aim is to deliver organizations with relevant analysis to bolster the development of both strategic and actionable thoughts, leveraging on a unique perspective that it is built upon: privileged access to innovation topics, an ongoing dialogue with organizations from different industries, the agility of a startup within a complex reality.

All this allows us to know, quickly and nimbly, how other players in the market are innovatively addressing humans’ deepest expectations and needs with new technologies and solutions. We are therefore committed to looking for customer-facing innovations that are (re)defining what people will want and even start to expect.

Our entire society is based on people, therefore when it comes to analyzing the present to imagine the future, we always start from human understanding. Our think tank identifies and decodes humans’ patterns, inside four big lenses: technological, economic, social, and behavioral.

The landscape analysis

The first step to begin our journey is to orient ourselves, to understand the context in which we are immersing ourselves. The landscape analysis is a photograph of the current context, fundamental to create an analytical basis to understand the actual scenario, the offer, the organizational structure, and contextualize the space of action in which the spectrum of analysis moves.

This activity is focused on different areas, such as business and technological solutions and involves:

mapping of the most interesting players active in the reference industry

– gathering of best practices

-collecting and reinterpreting the market and consumer data and facts

The key rule in this phase is to be curious and be open-minded. You have to ask yourself ‘why’ whenever you notice something new, instead of immediately looking for shortcomings. Also, realize that you are not necessarily your user: your professional interests should be broader than your personal interests. You may not be excited by something new, but others are. Ask yourself why they are excited, take notes, and create a picture of the developing context.

The Why: drivers of change

To build scenarios and spots for innovation, reading what’s contemporary is not enough: it is necessary to build a point of view and an analysis of the impact of phenomena and trajectories of change that are already in action in the market or within organizations.

What we are looking for are phenomena that are already popular, present in the language, codified, that we analyze and explain to find those weaker signs of change that suggest future evolutions. It is only by studying the weak that we understand how strong a change may become.

By ‘weak,’ we mean faint voices or shifts in the culture that suggest a new movement is on the rise. A weak signal can be a peer-to-peer platform that creates direct retail models between consumers, a non-alcoholic beverage company that reinvents happy hour, or supply chain solutions that offer new ways to save on materials when shipping packaged goods.

The case research

Let’s clarify another concept: innovations are not trends. But without actual examples of how players are applying new solutions to tackle human needs, behaviors, and expectations, a trend can’t be said to exist fully yet. Because of that, our research projects always include the spotting of case studies, which should support a vision, new business concepts, products, services or experiences, show marketing, and communication activities.

The scouting activity may include different objects that are interesting for a specific brief that includes a request that concerns a fairly defined area (e.g. what are other companies doing with VR? How are retail brands reacting to the surge of e-commerce?).

Human trends and how to build them

Trends are observable and evolving collective phenomena, which have a socio-economic, cultural, technological, and organizational impact and emerge from changes in people’s needs, expectations, and imaginations. To build a trend, it is necessary to interpret signals coming from different sources, sectors, and markets, which are not always already consolidated; trends are analyses that are the result of original and always human-centric thinking. They can describe both contemporaneity and more distant scenarios.

Are trends the secret weapon for designing a product with a certain success factor?

If that was the case, we would not necessarily need trend-researchers. A trend outcome could be contemporary and growing, but the most interesting trends are about undiscovered opportunities.Some trends are developing photographs of future developments, but for this very reason, they are the most interesting for their ability to focus on still blurred opportunities. Showing us which direction people’s expectations and imaginations are headed to.

Trends are not an intellectual exercise. They are a lens to discover what the future may hold and the engine to accelerate change and imagination. We use trends to understand and intercept people’s needs/expectations and outline strategies based on human centricity; to rethink intervention actions on one’s organizational structure, way of working, culture from an employee-centric perspective; to build human-centric products and services, finally long-lasting, valuable and relevant for people.

A road to paradise

Werner Herzog

Conquest of the Useless. Reflections from the Making of Fitzcarraldo

In the summer of 1979, German director Werner Herzog was busy making his craziest and most ambitious film, Fitzcarraldo, the story of an undertaker-adventurer (Klaus Kinski) who at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries dreams of building a great opera house in the Amazon. Having bought the land, the man has to haul the building materials through the jungle, going up the Amazon River at any cost, under the intrigued and frightened eyes of the Indians of the forest. Life and cinema have always overlapped for Herzog, who in this film, forces actors and film crews to face harsh conditions for months. The scene in which Firzcarraldo’s gigantic steamboat is (really) hoisted up the slope of a hill by human power and then put back into the water on the other side of the hill is legendary. Conquest of the Useless is the working diary of an epic film, but also an inner journey born out of the delirium of the jungle and above all, a book about the power of dreams.

Valerio Borgonuovo, Silvia Franceschini

Global Tools 1973-1975: When Education Coincides With Life

Is it possible to have a multidisciplinary school without students or teachers? On January 12, 1973, in Florence, Italy, the utopian enthusiasm of a group of artists and designers from the Italian radical Arte Povera and Conceptual art scenes developed one of the most inspiring and fascinating cultural experiences of the second half of the twentieth century in Europe — a set of workshops for “the propagation of the use of natural materials and techniques and related behaviors.” They included Archizoom, Remo Buti, Andrea Branzi, Ugo La Pietra, Casabella, Riccardo Dalisi, 9999, Gaetano Pesce, Gianni Pettena, Rassegna, Ettore Sottsass, Superstudio, Ufo, and Zziggurat. Global Tools was structured as an avant-garde cooperative, a “counter-school” of architecture and design that aimed to stimulate the free development of individual creativity. During a four-day seminar in Sambuca Val di Pesa, the members of the group met to discuss how to create the Global Tools system focused on four areas: construction, body, communication, theory, and survival. Everything was aimed at subverting and eliminating “institutional teaching, which was considered historically incapable of finding new criteria that were valid for the future.” A school about living instead of learning.

Jacques Carelman

Catalog of Fantastic Things

Born in Marseille in 1929, Jacques Carelman moved to Paris in 1956, where he began working as a dentist, and set and costume designer for the stage. In 1966, he illustrated Raymond Queneau’s Zazie dans le métro. His is a famous poster from May 1968, which depicts a policeman with a nightstick raised and has become an icon of the French student movement. A member of the Collège de Pataphysique, Carelman developed a compulsive passion for collecting unusual objects, which he then brought together in his most famous work, the Catalogue of Unfindable Objects. Conceived as a parody of a late nineteenth-century mail order catalog, the collection presents, with surreal and Dadaist style, objects such as a coffeepot for masochists with the spout turned towards the user’s hand, a machine to “put dots on “i”s, a kangaroo rifle, a typewriter with Egyptian hieroglyphics, and a puzzle composed of two pieces.

Saint Cilauro, Tom Gleisner, Rob Sitch

Molvania. A Land Untouched by Modern Dentistry

What would utopia look like on earth if it were a city or a state? Certainly not like Molvania, a “cradle of polka and whooping cough,” one of the most neglected tourist destinations in Eastern Europe. Once known only to Soviet military historians and drug smugglers, this small (imaginary) landlocked republic became known to the world in 2004 when its authors — the Australian satirical group Working Dog — recounted its questionable beauty and traditions in a “Lonely Planet-like” guide. Molvanian tourism was expanding, even though the hotels were tiny, filthy and dilapidated, the ethnic cuisine disgusting, and the tourist attractions boring and expensive, while the Molvanian people were described as generally rude, dirty, and sometimes slightly psychotic. It was worth a visit.

Henry David Thoreau

Life in the Woods

Can mother nature be our ideal world? In 1845, the then 20-year-old American writer Henry David Thoreau, intrigued by the question, built a small hut in a quiet and idyllic location among pine trees on the banks of Walden Pond in Massachusetts. He wanted to see what it would be like to live away from other people, surrounded by nature, without the aid of machines and advances of modern civilization. Thoreau’s words expressed the concerns of many of his contemporaries as industrialization and war disrupted the world around them. After living in the woods for two years and two months, Thoreau summarized his experiences in a book, Walden: Life in the Woods (1854), which is still stimulating writing for anyone who wants to imagine a less cumbersome and more natural way of life.

Philip Petit

To Reach the Clouds: My High Wire Walk Between the Twin Towers

In August 1974, Philippe Petit performed one of the craziest feats man has ever been capable of: a one-hour walk balanced on a tightrope between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, which were then under construction in New York. The walk had been planned over the previous years together with a group of friends, with meticulous preparations worthy of a bank robbery. Petit’s accomplices crept into the towers disguised as architects, or delivery men, to carry out what they call the “coup d’état,” which consisted of reaching the roof and sneaking a heavy cable between the two buildings. The rest is history: who hasn’t seen the photos of Petit’s walk? And although the Twin Towers no longer exist, James Marsh’s documentary Man on Wire — which won an Oscar in 2008 — reminds us that the world belongs to the crazy and daring.

Lou Reed

Metal Music Machine

In 1975, Lou Reed had already lived more lives than a cat: he buried the Velvet Underground and relaunched his solo career, collaborating with Bowie and writing Berlin — a concept album dedicated to two junkies who were in love with the German city. After he locked himself up in a studio for weeks with an arsenal of distortion pedals, amplifiers, filters, tremolo effects, and modulators, he surprisingly released the double album Metal Machine Music — an hour of modulated feedback and guitar effects. It was an electro-noise nightmare that Rolling Stone described as the “tubular groaning of a galactic refrigerator.” Reed generated abstract cacophonies that had no logical unfolding. It was the perfect soundtrack for a utopia.

John Coltrane

A Love Supreme

Recorded in December 1964, ALove Supreme is not only considered to be one of the greatest albums of all time, but the extreme attempt to expand music beyond human boundaries, leaving to improvisation and technical virtuosity the possibility to explore inaccessible and unknown territories. A Love Supreme is a suite in four parts. Coltrane plays tenor sax on all parts: AcknowledgementResolutionPursuance, and Psalm. The album has reached cult status and inspired a church in San Francisco,