Last month, our business development & marketing team had the chance to virtually attend Collision 2021, one of the largest technology conferences in the world!

Collision, run by Web Summit, brought together 38,000+ attendees from 141 countries to take part in a discussion about where technology is headed, and how we can use it for good. With over 600 speakers across 1500 sessions, we got to learn from some of the world’s most successful entrepreneurs, founders, executives, athletes, actors, and political leaders. Amongst those were famous tech leaders like Amazon Prime Video CMO Ukonwa Ojo, Google VP Javier Soltero, Twitter co-founder Biz Stone, celebrity stars David Beckham, Ryan Reynolds, and our personal favourite, Liam Payne (previous member of One Direction)! 

Besides the impressive conversations and networking opportunities, we admired the strong female presence (44% attendees) and diversity amongst attendees and speakers. It allowed for thorough discussions about important topics with the right people.
Inevitably, each conversation revolved around the pandemic and its effect on the tech industry as a whole. What was unique about this event was how authentic and insightful these conversations were from a human perspective. While we learned a lot about up-and-coming start-ups, the newest technologies, and the great shift in trends as a result of the pandemic, we also saw a large focus on community. Some of the most commonly used words & themes throughout the 3-day event were: purpose, accessibility, inclusivity, vulnerability, diversity, community, justice, and empathy.

Leading With Empathy

If there’s one thing the past year taught us, it was to lead with empathy. Several tech leaders throughout Collision expressed that empathy was an important skill they needed to use and develop during the ongoing pandemic.

There was a lot of uncertainty for many businesses and employees turned to their leadership for answers. Dharmesh Shah, CTO at Hubspot, said that leaders made the mistake of trying to convey clarity and certainty when they should have focused on being empathetic to their people and clients. Leading with honesty and empathy builds trust with employees. Plank’s own leadership focused on being transparent with the team by holding remote check-ins 3 times a week, an open-door policy (open Slack DM rather), and channels to talk about mental health. The result was a closer team that could offer support to one another and have open conversations about their struggles.

RELATED: Leadership in Challenging Times

Empathy in leadership will extend further than the pandemic. Throughout the past year, individuals had the opportunity to reevaluate their priorities and think more about systemic racism, climate change, and mental health. The resounding message at Collision was that technology plays an important role in shaping the world. Leaders in tech need to continue leaning into their empathy and let it guide them when making business decisions. 

At Plank, one of our leading values is empathy. We put partners, clients, users, and our team members at the centre of what we do. It’s just who we are.

6 Tech Trends Uplifting Communities

Empathy, transparency and sincerity were striking at Collision this year. Every conversation felt very human and honest. It was incredible to see so many professionals from different backgrounds, industries, and lifestyles come together to talk about the future of tech with community and purpose at the forefront.
We put together a few key takeaways from the event that highlight some of the tech industry’s most asked questions – but, with a twist. This isn’t your typical “top 10 technologies to look out for in 2021” type of post. With Plank’s core values so relevant to some of these discussions, we wanted to talk about the future of the industry in regards to the role technology plays in supporting genuine human connection and embrace some of the lessons we’ve learned through challenging times.

Remote and Hybrid Work

One of the most common discussions in any business right now is what the future of work is going to look like in the “new normal.” The forced transition to remote work at the beginning of the pandemic proved that, with solid leadership and creative collaboration, the tech industry is one of the most flexible to adapt to change. As Jennifer Tejada, CEO of PagerDuty says “We intend to embrace a lot of what we’ve learned over the past year in working remotely, leverage the benefits of it moving forward and adapt office spaces for collaboration, team building, and relationship building.” We know remote is going well, but with this new hybrid model, there is going to be a complexity to it that we still don’t know. 

We intend to embrace a lot of what we’ve learned over the past year in working remotely, leverage the benefits of it moving forward and adapt office spaces for collaboration, team building, and relationship building.

Jennifer Tejada, CEO of PagerDuty

Many companies saw an increase in productivity from their teams, which is not what was anticipated back in March 2020. In an interesting discussion between Etsy CEO Josh Silverman and Google VP Javier Soltero, they brought up a great point in that being entirely remote has levelled the playing field within a company, as everyone is a little face on a screen, no longer divided by cubicles and fancy office spaces. Meetings are now more productive and intentional, which they recognized was not the case before. Moving forward, when we are together in person, it will be with the intention of collaboration and innovation as a team.

On the other hand, we lack a sense of human connection when working remotely. With feelings of isolation and disconnection, we need to figure out what Josh refers to as “serendipity” – ex. bumping into someone at the water station and sharing a friendly conversation. In-office, it’s easy to underestimate how important and serendipitous those connections are. While Zoom, Slack, and Trello have become staples for collaboration and communication, it can also be quite tiring. Between distractions at home, Zoom fatigue, overworking, and the unfortunate “your internet connection is unstable” pop-up, there is still a lot we need to figure out to make this remote/hybrid model work effectively. The better we are at managing these things and setting boundaries, the better we are moving forward. 

“Google and Etsy’s vision for the future of work” via Collision

While we may not know exactly what this new normal will look like, we do know that the way we viewed “work” a year ago is going to change indefinitely. Companies may be at a disadvantage for growth and attracting talent if they don’t adapt their work model to offer remote or hybrid work possibilities. Although #WFH can be freeing and lead to increased productivity, we need to figure out how to replicate those serendipitous moments online and reimagine the physical office spaces to encourage collaboration, all while keeping a level playing field in a more complex hybrid work environment.

Live Hybrid Events

It’s undeniable that the way we connect virtually has forever changed the game for organizations on how they host events and captivate their audience. Between newer technologies, a society that craves deeper connections, and more room for creativity, we can expect to see events virtually and in-person in a way that increases ROI, efficiencies, and exposure to new audiences. This is where the exponential growth of hybrid events comes into play – a new generation of events with the support of digital to enhance in-person and virtual experiences more intelligently.

Events have definitely shifted from the traditional sense; consuming content, networking, and lengthy presentations. We are now seeing more meaningful connections online catered to specific niche audiences and huge behavioral changes in the way we consume these events. Chris Jaffe, VP Product at Youtube mentioned that they saw a 45% increase in live streams, with more than 500,000 new streamers in the first half of 2020, mainly in the music and entertainment sectors. We all remember early quarantine, watching Andrea Bocelli live streams on Youtube, right? Julia Hartz, CEO of Eventbrite mentioned that they saw a huge explosion of online events, with almost 1.5 million on the platform and the evolution of really big global communities coming together in ways no one thought possible. On a large scale, major conferences like Collision saw a 25% increase in attendees in their shift from in-person to virtual. Art galleries and museums have also invested in digital technologies to create virtual exhibitions to deepen connections with new audiences beyond their physical walls. 

What we learned from all of these efforts is that there is so much opportunity to deepen connections with audiences that may have never been considered, both on- and offline. While it may seem counterproductive to cater to people who may never set foot in your event space, your digital presence is most often an attendee’s first impression. Accessibility and inclusivity are also big factors to consider in a hybrid environment – while some may want to attend an event in person, they may not be able to. While corporate events like trade shows will most likely look similar, we will see event organizations continue to shift their strategies to support this hybrid model, with more thought provoking ways in which they engage their audience.

This is an interesting topic for us to dive into, as we have such a large Arts & Cultural client base at Plank. We’ve had the privilege of creating innovative websites over the past year for traditional theatres, event promoters, museums, and cultural organizations. We noticed first-hand this change in mindset from our clients, who have invested more in their digital presence than ever before. The industry leaders in the world of arts & entertainment will undoubtedly look to hybrid models.

AI for Next Generations

There’s no denying that younger generations are some of the most tech-savvy members of society. After all, they’ve grown up with innovative technologies like artificial intelligence at their fingertips. When we think of AI, we might think of self-driving cars and robots, but it’s actually become a driving force in the small actions we make day-to-day; Face ID on our phones, Google searches, scrolling through Netflix recommendations and personalized social media. There is so much potential to use AI for good, and we must rely on younger generations to innovate. With that being said, older generations must also invest time into learning and sharing their knowledge about these technologies in schools – how it works, what it does, the risks, benefits, and everything in between, in order to shape AI for the future. 

five individuals presenting at Collision 2021
“Gen Z’s View of AI” via Collision

One of the most inspiring talks was “Gen Z’s view of AI,” led by Simon Segars, CEO of Arm Holdings, and 4 teenage ambassadors from GenArm2Z, who have been hard at work defining tomorrow’s technology for social purpose. Not only were they impressively well-spoken, they were living proof that the next generation of change-makers is truly upon us. They shared some eye-opening realizations about Gen Z’s role in tech and the challenges they foresee without substantial change. Avye Couloute, 12-year-old ambassador at GenArm2Z, discussed how important it is for people from a young age to learn about Al, given that every job they’ll grow up to do will involve AI to some extent. Josh Lowe, 17-year-old tech innovator/ambassador, talked about how AI is becoming much more accessible, and not just in big tech. There are a lot of different things we need to watch out for and learn about in terms of the risks, challenges, and long-term effects.

While AI may only be impacting our lives in small ways now, think about the future. It is our responsibility to invest more time and resources into teaching children earlier on in school, in more fun, accessible ways. After all, technology can be a driver for inclusivity and has the potential to contribute powerful solutions to the millions of challenges around the world.

Authentic Video Creation

It’s no secret that videos are effective in growing businesses and building connections with consumers. For the past couple of years, we have seen videos become a key part of digital strategies across industries, especially on social media. Social media has served as a space for businesses, influencers, and consumers to capture in-person experiences and share them with their community. When everything shifted online, businesses needed to get creative and create new experiences, digitally. While most leaders were already moving towards digital transformation, the pandemic sped up the process by a global average of six years. This digital transformation has led to a rise in authentic video creation as businesses scrambled to produce content, relying mostly on creators. Everything from TikTok to livestream selling has shown how authentic video creation is the new normal. And it’s a natural evolution to what’s already being done with video which is storytelling and engaging with consumers.

Remi Bader wearing a pink dress on Tik Tok for a realistic Free People haul
Remi Bader via Tik Tok

The businesses that manage to have real customer conversations and create authentic content will keep seeing success on digital platforms. Remi Bader, a curve model with 1.3M TikTok followers, started doing realistic clothing hauls. She showed the reality of shopping online as a midsize woman and she caught the attention of major clothing brands like Free People. Apps like WhatNot are also seeing major growth through their livestream selling model where they are building communities around the auction of Pokemon cards and Funko Pop figurines.

Needless to say, video creation will continue to see growth in 2021, even as events start up again. To keep up, businesses need to keep showing their human side and focus on genuine conversations with their audience.

Powerful Online Communities

The rise of authentic storytelling stems from the growth of online communities. During turbulent times, communities flocked to social media and other online platforms to find comfort in their shared experiences. Whether it was sharing their deepest afflictions or capturing lighthearted moments everyone felt a sense of belonging.

Online communities have evolved so much in the past year and they’re becoming pretty powerful. We already knew that digital platforms brought people together, but they are also influencing fads and driving culture faster than we’ve ever seen before. Like when a TikTok user’s feta pasta went viral causing feta to sell out across grocery stores. VP Product at YouTube, Chris Jaffe, also saw big behavioural changes on the platform that were tied to people wanting more information and more entertainment during difficult times. These online communities are also serving as a space for serious conversations about the pandemic and navigating unemployment according to Jen Wong, COO at Reddit.

Whatnot app user livestreaming a Kawaii show
Whatnot app via Business Insider

Businesses have a great opportunity to find the communities that fit their niche and start meaningful conversations. According to David Schneider, co-founder and executive creative director at That Lot, “sometimes a conversation starter that resonates with your community can be more effective than video”. He encourages brands to focus on community management where they can create dialogue loops. It’s no longer about selling and broadcasting, but rather about connecting and playing. Good listening can lead to social success, which is what brands should be striving for.

Inclusive Tech Solutions

Although technology has seen tremendous growth in the past three decades, there are some aspects of the industry that are leaving marginalized communities behind. Mayor of Toronto, John Tory, discussed the challenge of reaching marginalized communities throughout the pandemic. The city needed to rely on community ambassadors and mass texting to make sure individuals had access to crucial vaccine information. As Francis Suarez, mayor of Miami, powerfully stated, “think of it as an x-ray. It’s no secret that this pandemic has hit minority communities, it’s exposed the broken bones in our community”. With all the advancements and funding in technology, there seems to be a huge lack of inclusive and accessible tech to benefit those who need it most.

James Delorme, an Indigenous digital specialist, spoke about how Indigenous communities need more access to tech education. Jobs in coding, graphic design, and other tech positions are great opportunities for economic freedom. Especially since a formal education degree isn’t necessary to find a well-paying position. The problem is that these communities don’t have immediate access to laptops and other equipment, a barrier that must be overcome.

“Innovation and inclusion in Canada: A First Nations perspective” via Collision

With so much work to be done in the industry, it’s up to digital companies to participate in positive change. At Plank we started Plank Gives Back, an initiative to help non-profits with a pro bono digital project. But we aren’t stopping there. We are on a mission to provide more accessible and sustainable web design. We also want to be more selective in the projects we choose and be mindful of how they impact communities. Meaningful change can only happen when we put people first and inclusive technology is part of the solution.

Final Thoughts

Although we love attending events in person to experience the presence of the speakers and meet like-minded attendees, there was something special about Collision 2021. While Zoom has become part of our daily routine from our very own home, it feels refreshing to watch some of the world’s top tech leaders do the exact same thing. “Levelling the playing field” may not be an upcoming tech trend – but rather – a meaningful change in lifestyle.

All that being said, there is still a lot of work to be done. If there’s one thing to take away from the pandemic, it is that we need to make better use of technology to reach marginalized communities and address the disproportionate impact within them. We all see what’s going on, so now we have the duty to change the course. As Deborah Archer, President at ACLU said “Businesses have incredible access, they have capital, expertise, and power, technology to create amazing products. Imagine what could happen if they use those resources to confront systemic racism and fundamentally change the world.” As tech companies, we have the power, and responsibility, to use technology to solve real-world issues. 

As a true message of hope, “let’s start building ships, ally-ships, partnerships, sponsorships. Let’s start investing in ourselves in a human capacity, let’s enhance the capacity together.” – Sheila North, Former MKO Grand Chief at Bunibonibee Cree Nation.

All in all, this event was a huge success and we are really looking forward to Collision 2022! Will it be in Toronto? Virtually? Hybrid? Only time will tell!

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