As our world accelerates its love affair with technology, we’re always in danger of losing what it was initially built to do: serve humans. Kate O’Neill has stepped into the space between purpose and service, helping industry and business put people first and technology second in a way that helps drive engagement and revenue.
O’Neill is one of the keynote speakers at Vancouver Island Economic Alliance’s upcoming Economic Summit, presented virtually October 27 – 29.
She describes herself as a strategist and futurist who helps business and humanity prepare for change at exponential scale, such as with emerging tech, big data, climate change. She specializes in guiding business and civic leaders to be both successful and respectful with human-centric data and technology, and by helping people better understand the human impact of emerging technologies.
She has over two decades of experience and entrepreneurship leading innovations across technology, marketing, and operations in category-defining companies. Her impressive resume includes working for Netflix in its early iteration, founding [meta]marketer, a first-of-its-kind analytics and digital strategy agency, developing Toshiba America‘s first intranet, and leading cutting-edge experience optimization work at Magazines.com.
O’Neill is now the founder and CEO of KO Insights, a strategic advisory and consultancy firm and has traveled the world speaking, writing, advising, and advocating for the future of humanity in an increasingly tech-driven world.
She is the author of four books, including her latest, Tech Humanist, and she was recently named to the 2020 Thinkers50 Radar, a global ranking of management thinkers, among other accolades.
Douglas spoke to O’Neill about her work and what she’ll discuss in her keynote speech at the VIEA Economic Summit.
It’s pretty cool that you got to be among the first 100 people employed by Netflix. Tell us about that.
I was already living and working in Silicon Valley in the 90s. And I had just bought a DVD player and they were placing their marketing promotional insert in DVD player boxes. And it seemed like a really smart program, but of course this was early enough that it was when they were still renting DVDs, a la carte. I thought it was brilliant, having an unlimited inventory of movies to watch.
I had become an early customer and they sent me an email asking if I wanted to be part of a beta test of a subscription program. And I thought ‘they’re brilliant. They’re onto something so smart.’ And so I agreed to be part of the program, but I also sent them my resume. I was like, ‘you are clearly onto something and you’re clearly visionary and I’d love to just do anything that you need.’
So they created this content manager role and I came on, managing a team of six content producers and worked in an editorial function, but also tying that in with the database function and thinking about dynamic site personalization and targeting content to people. And it was such an innovative, exciting time. I was only there for about a year, but I learned so much being in an environment like that. And I have so much respect for Reed Hastings and the rest of the team. While I was there, Reed started putting money into the research and development toward what we were then calling set-top boxes, which was the predecessor to streaming as we know it.
That was in the year 2000 and Roku and the players didn’t come out until 2006. Netflix didn’t have a dedicated streaming plan until 2007. We’re talking the better part of a decade ahead. He was already investing into research and development knowing full well he was still in an all-out battle with Blockbuster and they were the behemoth. There was absolutely no certainty that Netflix would emerge as the Victor. It was really an inspiring experience to be part of.
What is it about data and being a data nerd that gets you excited?
I am first and foremost interested in people and in the human experience, the human condition. I’ve always been interested in art and literature and theatre and music and everything that humans do to express ourselves. And then I’ve been interested in technology, but I didn’t always know why. That became clearer to me throughout my career. Technology began to feel like yet another way that humans connect and that we express ourselves and create new conditions and experiences around.
At a certain point I realized that my role was to bring that constant human focus into the work that happens within technology. I use the phrase ‘analytics are people’ all the time. So even thinking of that data, even being a data nerd, as you say, I’m still constantly thinking ‘what does this data represent when we think about humans? What is it telling us about human desires and human needs and what the people who came to this website, for example, needed or intended or were trying to achieve, and how could we improve the experience that they have?’ And if they achieve their ideal outcome, that benefits the business – and that’s what creating the digital experience is all about.
So in other words, humanizing tech is good for both business and the consumer?
If a business entity can create an experience for the human being that is more seamless and more frictionless and more delightful and aligned with what they’re trying to accomplish, then, yes, it stands to be a more efficient experience on the business’s side too. It improves both sides of the experience. There’s this natural harmony that can happen there.
Business is responsible for creating most of the technology that’s out there. That technology is responsible for creating more and more human experiences. And so it feels like finding that right symmetry of the relationship between human technology and business, and really bringing that into harmony is the only way that we’re going to have a future that builds meaning and an awareness of human joy, and context and meaning.
On your website you list quite a few case studies of your work. Is there any transformation that you helped create that you are really proud of?
Great question and I should have an immediate answer, but I love them all. One that seems relevant to the Vancouver Island Economic Summit and is dear to my heart is when I worked with the Amsterdam Economic Board. I was really touched by their thoughtfulness about their future. The city is going to be 750 years old in 2025. First of all, that’s a mind-boggling fact. But then, they said, just like any milestone birthday, they wanted to hit that date feeling good and looking good.
And so they started asking how they could improve the city and how it interacts with its citizens. They came up with a seven point plan and a lot of the things that they had on that list had to do with the work that I do, improving their interactive technologies and making sure that they were very human-centric, plus creating a tech talent pool and an ecosystem that was going to position them to be well ahead of other European and world cities.
I got to go in and work with them on that and position them as a metropolis of the future using a model that centered the human experience within the city, to surface meaningful things like train times or traffic information and utilities and services. I loved that by creating more ease of interaction with these technologies, they were purposefully facilitating a higher quality of life.
The fact that they had the foresight to say, ‘let’s bring in somebody who thinks about this from a deeply human perspective’ was really touching and meaningful to me. I’m honored to be part of it. And I’m really excited to continue to watch them progress toward that.
From Amsterdam to Vancouver Island. What can we expect from your talk at the virtual Economic Summit?
I have a sort of general set of topics that I almost always touch on, which includes talking about how emerging technologies shape our human experiences and bring with them so much capacity and scale that we really need to have a discipline around what human experience looks like with them.
But what I most want to bring to that discussion also is a sensitivity to the meaning of place, the idea that a place means something to people. And you should really approach the development of any kind of strategy or roadmap, or future thinking about a place, within the context and the nuance of what that place means to its inhabitants, to the people who live, work and play there.
I want to make sure that we’re really dwelling in that richness for the Vancouver Island attendees. I think it’s important that this not be a cookie cutter kind of a project or program for them; that it’s very rich with what Vancouver Island means to the people who live in and shape that environment.
Of course, it isn’t a complete discussion without talking about COVID-19 and its impact. I feel there’s a sensory deprivation that happens when we can’t share space and be physically present together. It’s important for us to acknowledge that. There’s a lot to play with there and a lot to discuss, but I think it’s going to be exciting to bring that in as part of a cohesive narrative about how data and technology can be part of a human centric view for Vancouver Island’s future.
Keeping the pandemic in mind, what are you seeing for the future? Do you think things are going to become much more intensely personalized? AI is moving towards being hyper-personalized. Is there a place for the collective experience too?
We’ve seen the benefit and the penalty for having such a personalized experience. I host a weekly live talk and one of my guests recently said it was inevitable that politics would become so divisive with a world in which we’re all used to seeing our own individual preferences fulfilled in our digital experiences. And that’s an interesting conclusion to draw. I’m not sure I arrive at the exact same place for the exact same reasons, but I think it’s a good provocation.
There’s a lot to explore about the good, the bad and the ugly of what digital personalization has afforded us. But meanwhile there’s a lot to be said for shrinking the distance between what people need and the complexity of getting it to them – for example the digital transformation of government services that put them more equitably in the hands of everyone.
I tend to frame that technology and AI as an opportunity to create the best futures for the most people. And, and it’s not just about making the most money, right? There’s a lot of opportunity to innovate and create new, rich experiences. It can be done in alignment with providing for the best futures for the most people. And I’m excited to see that. I’m excited to see a more equitable and just world come about which is possible if that’s an agreement that we make as a social contract.
Let’s talk about your book, Tech Humanist. How would entrepreneurs and professionals benefit from reading it?
In the book I explore the relationship between technology and humanity through the lens of business. I’m proposing an approach for business to use technology in a way that helps business succeed while also solving human problems at scale, or at least making human experiences more meaningful.
We need to acknowledge that emerging technology has unprecedented scale and capacity, and that we can use that capacity to solve human problems and still do that within a profit framework and use that scale to amplify what is meaningful so that absurdity and meaninglessness are not what we inadvertently bring to scale.
We assume your book has some practical applications to help businesses figure that out?
I looked across a lot of different existing technologies and emerging technologies and talked about how human considerations apply to each. Asking how technology – virtual, augmented reality, AI – how does this play out for cities? How does it play out for museums? Or healthcare? I’ve worked with the UN, I’ve worked with a lot of other NGOs and it’s just as important for those organizations to have this kind of holistic strategic mindset about the deployment of new technologies and what kinds of digital transformations they’re going to take onboard while keeping the human in focus.
So it’s a pretty wide ranging survey of the opportunities that exist and that are going to exist and how and why those need to be put in place in a more human-centric fashion. And there’s a whole chapter on ethics, which is getting finally getting some airtime in the larger discourse around technology. But for the longest time, it felt like that discussion was a little bit of a sideline.
All of this is meant to speak to business leaders in ways that I hope are implementable and practical and that still keep humanity front and center in the discussion.
Register HERE for the Vancouver Island Economic Summit if you’d like to be in the virtual audience for Kate O’Neill’s keynote speech, The Human Impact of a Tech-Driven Future.