- Scott Belsky is the founder of Behance and the chief product officer at Adobe.
- As 2021 comes to a close, he predicts five major trends to emerge in the tech industry next year.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
Every year I challenge myself to synthesize the themes in technology and culture for which I have most conviction, and attempt to project where they will take us next. I am sharing them as a way to connect more dots, meet more founders, and solicit input that will further develop these ideas. No surprise, some of the companies I mention within these trends as examples are in my own portfolio or part of my work building creative products. But I have challenged myself to share ideas still-on-the-cusp of breakout rather than the obvious trends and winners:
1. The next generation of top talent will have “Polygamous Careers,” transforming the corporate world as we know it
Our brains, interests, and potential have never been single-threaded nor confined to a singular interest or skill. And yet, the traditional labor market since the industrial revolution has placed us in one job at a time — for years at a time. The entire system, from college recruiting and healthcare to LinkedIn profiles and annual tax forms, is geared for monogamous careers. I have come to believe two things, after a circuitous career as a founder, author, traditional VC, active angel, and product leader at a large company: I am most happy when my many interests and skills feel fully utilized — both professionally and personally, and in the modern hyper-networked world that gives us all broad exposure to fuel our many interests, fewer of us can be singularly defined. I firmly believe that professional fulfillment will increasingly be the result of feeling fully utilized.
The next generation of talent entering the workforce will overwhelmingly opt for what I’ve come to call “polygamous careers.”
The desire to generate income and feel fulfilled from multiple projects will increase retention (you don’t leave a job if your “other interests” are being fulfilled elsewhere), increase workplace productivity (no more face time…people will be busier and more efficient), and help many projects and companies engage top talent that would otherwise be out of reach. One’s profession will be a portfolio of projects, whether you’re a designer, engineer, salesperson, or investor. The idea of “exclusivity” in an offer letter will be laughable faster than we think.
A few transformative products and technologies will support the rise of polygamous careers. Polywork is a modern take on LinkedIn that builds out your profile at the more granular project and achievement level as opposed to the job level. So, “Pushed Code,” “Updated an iOS app,” or “Spoke at a conference” is the new “Got a new Job.” In a polygamous career, these milestones matter more. Another company I am excited about is Braintrust, a decentralized “talent owned” network where any company can engage a group of freelancers and directly work with a coordinated group of talent without any middleman or take rate.
My hope for the future is that more people will enjoy the benefits of “Tune-In Jobs” (where you are deeply engaged with the work you do) vs. “Tune-Out Jobs” (where we’re more focused on the clock). The world is moved forward by those who tune in.
2. The rise of immersive experiences will mainstream 3D creation
I promised myself I wouldn’t say it…but “Metaverse.” Ultimately, what this means is that we will increasingly play games, connect with friends, and work with colleagues in a fully immersive virtual reality. Such spaces will have the largest movie screens you’ve ever seen, they will defy the laws of physics, and they will literally enable you to explore your dreams. The jury is still out on which devices will mainstream such experiences at school, work, and home, but they are coming and we will all jump in just as we did with mobile phones. However, such experiences will be boring and fall completely flat unless they are filled with rich, engaging, three-dimensional, interactive, and personalized content. Engaging content is what unlocks the potential of new mediums, and immersive will be no different.
The only problem is that 3D content is notoriously hard to make. Historically, to build a 3D object you needed sophisticated modeling programs with a lot of math, and then a whole suite of other products to illustrate and render. Imagine doing this for an entire virtual reality experience.
At Adobe, we’ve learned that most designers want to start with a stock 3D object as opposed to building one from scratch. We’ve built out an entire suite of products called Substance 3D that includes a product that lets you sculpt a 3D object (much like clay) wearing a virtual reality headset, and then refine it further in desktop products to make it look real. With our efforts and numerous startups tackling this opportunity, coupled with the capacity of our mobile phone cameras to scan objects into 3D assets, we will all be creating in virtual reality as immersive experiences go mainstream.
3. “The Stakeholder Economy” will turn customers (and employees) of businesses into owners
I can’t help but imagine the same technology being applied to the long tail of smaller businesses both on and offline. Imagine if your favorite online publications, e-commerce brands, and small businesses in your town were able to frictionlessly distribute ownership to every stakeholder without the need for expensive IPOs are major structural changes. Perhaps we will all own a piece of the many online businesses and marketplaces we frequent, as well as our favorite local restaurant, ice cream shop, and coffee house. Imagine every subscriber to your newsletter becoming a stakeholder as well as a reader, and what that would do to viral marketing? When you like a brand or service, you can buy tokens or earn them by contributing labor in the form of clearly defined and measurable tasks.
Our tokens would entitle us to vote on certain decisions (flavors of the month?), serve as an engagement vehicle, turn us into passionate unpaid marketers, and would carry (perhaps even grow) a residual value that can be sold on an open 24/7 market to new residents and customers (or speculators seeking exposure to mom and pop shops in stable communities) — or perhaps these tokens can even be redeemed for merchandise? Perhaps you’d be able to buy your ice cream with (tokens in the) ice cream (shop).
Might the benefits of collective ownership of small companies be the biggest threat to big companies? If every stakeholder of these businesses was deeply incentivized to help build, improve, market, and patronize the brands, perhaps that would become a competitive advantage against the big guys.
4. Artificial Intelligence will make personalization too good to opt-out
My growing contrarian view about the trend of privacy and opting out of ads is that artificial intelligence will make personalization so damn incredible that opting out will be the equivalent of using an old flip phone or going to a restaurant and getting served a random dish. This is especially true for the next generation that prefers transparency over privacy. , “Ads” conjures up the era of annoying banner ads and pop-ups. But “personalized experiences” are the new advertising, and most of us would prefer it whether we admit it or not.
We already want personalized experiences: We want local restaurants to know our names and preferences. We want shoe stores to remember our size. We want online food markets to hide the food we’re allergic to.
If you subscribe to my view that technology, it takes us back to the way things once were — but with less friction and at a far greater scale. We’ll want AI-driven immersive experiences to know us well, but not at the expense of our security and comfort.
As always (at least in my mind), design is the solution. UX design, policies, and practices will be at the forefront of building customer relationships that let us hyper-personalize future experiences at scale without compromising trust.
5. The next generation will have a nomadic decade of life and work, and will love it
When I graduated college, my first task was finding an apartment with a somewhat arbitrary set of roommates. There was no popular notion nor tolerance for remote work, Airbnb didn’t exist, and every apartment lease was at least a year long but only affordable with a longer commitment. Fast forward, the vast majority of start-ups — and even many big companies — are remote friendly or remote only. There are also all types of apartment-swapping networks and all price ranges of Airbnb’s that enable us to choose locations a few weeks at a time. So, my prediction is that young adults in their twenties increasingly choose to spend a decade of their lives living between a set of rented or swapped spaces around the world, working remotely, and immersing themselves in communities and cultures. Such an experience would truly change their lives and foster the type of creativity, openness to diversity, and self-exploration that enriches personal and professional outcomes. What kinds of products and networks can make this more accessible and affordable to all? Whatever products and employers lean in this direction will prosper.
Of course, this opens up the Pandora’s box of remote work. New companies can be built for this era, but can old companies be retrofitted with a culture and set of practices that work for this new way of life? Or is there a growing chasm between companies that are and aren’t willing to accommodate? Ultimately, we all either follow the trail of great talent or fall behind.
Scott Belsky is an entrepreneur (Behance, 99U), and chief product officer of Adobe. author (The Messy Middle, Making Ideas Happen), and early-stage investor in 80+ startups (including several mentioned in this article) and is an all-around product obsessive.