City Limits has landed. This time we're looking to cities less as places to live, but as places to visit. With international travel now back on the agenda for many, destination cities, both big and small, are waking up...
We’re careful right now not to label everything as post-pandemic. After all, for many the hardship goes on. But, in a way barely entertained for the last two years, actually travelling to another city is back in consideration. Meaning this felt the right time to turn the attention of City Limits – our ongoing exploration of the ever-changing urban experience – less to the places we live in and more to those we visit.
And so the Crowd DNA team have been busy making sense of the new-found appreciation of tourists that some cities are cultivating (distance makes the heart grow fonder). The refreshingly different types of relationship now forming between visitor and destination, often with sustainability as the guiding principle. Elsewhere, we follow the digital nomads to Dali, and pause to consider what Instagram and TikTok are doing to the way we explore. The home share trend gets a look over as well, as do some of the lamest places in Texas. And we send you postcards loaded with stories of traffic, pizza, cannabis, risking it all in 4x4s, and miscellaneous chocolate spreads.
While we start planning for volume nine of City Limits, we hope you enjoy everything we’ve packed into this one. And if you’d like to hear more about our own work in areas such as tourism, travel, hospitality and placemaking, we’d love to hear from you.
Crowd Labs, Crowd DNA’s training programme, has evolved over the years, supporting our team to hone their craft at delivering culturally charged commercial advantage for our amazing clients. Laura Warby explains…
One of the things we’re proud of at Crowd is our learning culture, where we celebrate curiosity, nurture open-mindedness and critical thinking. We’re lucky to have an ambitious team that embodies this mind-set, a team that takes personal and professional growth as seriously as we do. So it’s only fitting that we have a training programme – Crowd Labs – to match.
The format of our training is varied, encompassing more formal sessions, as well as learning-on-the-job. A large proportion of it is delivered by in-house experts. Within our team there exists hundreds of years of experience across a dizzying array of skill-sets. From researchers to strategists, PhD doctors to journalists, creative storytellers to project managers and everything in between.
There’s no-one better equipped than our team to deliver our core capabilities training – they know their trade, they know Crowd, and they know our people. We don’t stop there, though. Where we think we can add an extra sprinkle of inspiration, we’ll invite external speakers to mix it up.
As we get stuck in to 2022, we’ve already had some brilliant sessions:
Group managing director, Matilda, kicked the year off with her Nailing Client Management training – an interactive session where she shared some words of wisdom about how to build trusted partnerships with our clients, leveraging her 10 years of experience client-side before she moved into the agency world.
MD of our APAC offices, Elyse, talked us through Getting Analysis Right – addressing tensions like ‘analysis paralysis’ when faced with huge quantities of unstructured data, and offering solutions for a more methodical, unbiased approach to making sense of it all and arriving at focused and critical strategic thinking.
Our head of people, Alex, recently delivered a session on The Art of Giving & Receiving Feedback – an incredibly important skill-set but also one that’s difficult to get right. Too soft – you might not recognise it’s being given. Too direct – you run the risk of causing defensiveness, ultimately losing impact. Alex helped us with some practical formulas and tips and tricks to ensure it lands in the right way – be it day-to-day or via annual reviews.
Finally, our first guest speaker of the year was author, distinguished toastmaster, communication coach and founder of Now You’re Talking, Lyn Roseaman, who ran a series of masterclasses & workshops around Presentation Skills. Having previously worked in the insight world for over 30 years, Lyn was able to tailor sessions perfectly to fit our teams’ levels and needs, giving us expert guidance and practical techniques for landing our work with greater confidence and impact.
With a pipeline of other exciting training sessions already in the diary, we’re looking forward to continuing our strong start to Crowd Labs 2022. Our sights are set on building a best-in-class training programme that helps our team attain a unique and competitive skill-set, one that nurtures both professional and personal growth.
Beyond the metaverse hyperbole, Crowd DNA’s Freddie Mason explores how a truly accessible and inclusive digital universe could transform the lives of the differently abled…
Conversations about the metaverse are as abundant as they are confused. Increasingly grand predictions are being made about the future of (intangible) digital real estate. Soon-to-be immersive experiences will, it’s claimed, let our imaginations run wild – exploding the horizons of possibility for countless sectors.
You’d be forgiven for finding the general futuristic vagueness of it all a little exasperating. In the metaverse’s promise of a totally disembodied life, it sometimes feels that it’s suffering from the perils of overreach. But parking the skepticism for a second, there are some very practical applications of metaverse technology that could transform the lives of the differently abled.
It’s arguable that people living with disabilities could benefit the most from the metaverse. Amazingly, however, there’s relatively little thought being given to how this new frontier might be designed with the differently abled in mind. And there are some 1.85 billion people in the world living with disabilities, which is more than the population of China.
What might the metaverse mean for people living with partial or complete blindness? Will this new AR reality help those with paraplegia to walk again? And do people trust the priorities of Meta and other tech giants with such sensitive issues? We need to talk about meta-accessibility…
A Matter Of Tweaks
Sometimes, the steps needed to make VR and AR more accessible are smaller than we might think. Eye-tracking technology is commonplace in VR headsets, for instance. But pretty much all of them use this feature to analyse the user’s eye movements. As Jeremy Bailenson, the founding director of Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, has pointed out, very few have eye-tracking as aninput, or a means of control. To make eye tracking an input would mean paraplegic people could navigate virtual worlds with ease.
One small tweak, with huge implications. Not only would this mean those living with full paralysis could explore environments in ways that are simply not possible otherwise, it would also help them plan their routes IRL. Fully enabled virtual navigation for paraplegic people would mean they could familiarise themselves with a journey – its accessibility and potential hazards – before they undertake it in real life. The world would become a more manageable place.
This fact reminds us that the obstacles standing in the way of meta-accessibility aren’t necessarily technological, but ones of imagination and cultural understanding. Asking the right questions, conducting research and cultural strategy are, in this respect, essential. They help us to consider why and for whom do we innovate.
Learning To Walk In The metaverse
A more speculative, but no doubt game-changing, application of VR would be in physical rehabilitation. The imaginative effort of controlling an (able-bodied) avatar stimulates neurological activity that can be used to help stroke victims regain the use of their bodies. The Walk Again Project at Duke University is using VR avatars and immersive environments, combined with complex neuroprosthetics, to do just this.
The most famous innovation in this field, however, is Elon Musk’s Neuralink – a ‘brain chip startup’ that will allow paralysed people ‘to control a phone with their minds faster than someone with thumbs’, according to Musk himself. Founded in 2016, Neuralink announced in January 2022 that it was ready to start clinical trials on humans, following the successful insertion of an artificial intelligence microchip into the brain of a monkey named Pager and a pig named Gertrude. Neuralink is currently looking to hire a clinical trials director to lead this transition to the human brain, to develop technology that will, Musk claims, help quadriplegics and other people with severe spinal injuries to walk again.
Importantly, though, this technology is evolving as a competitor to the metaverse, a platform Musk has tended to dismiss as all hype and no substance. “I don’t know if I necessarily buy into this metaverse stuff,” he remarked in an interview in December last year. Musk claims it is Neuralink, not the metaverse, that will launch the human race into a new world. This has contributed to doubt in the minds of some about the motivations behind all of this technological innovation. Are these meaningful attempts to create a truly inclusive digital future, or is this simply ‘tech-bro’ one-upmanship?
One of the doubters is Dr Karola Kreitmair, an assistant professor of medical history and bioethics at the University Of Wisconsin. Despite ostensibly being for the benefit of the disabled, Dr Kreitmar worries about a for-profit company meddling with the complexity of the human brain. Neurolink is “unchartered territory,” she warns. Do we really want to entrust it to a company – and man – whose primary goal is commercial gain?
This is the ethical dilemma that sits at the heart of so much debate surrounding an accessible metaverse. How close should capitalism be allowed to come to the internal workings of the mind, our fundamental sense of where we are? The answer lies not in the tech itself, but in the culture that surrounds it. It is in culture that we can find purpose, direction and meaning in what we’re able to invent.
Blindness And VR
We live in an intensely visual world, from which the blind are largely excluded. Every time a button disappears on our iPhone, in favour of a seamless, watertight, touchscreen feel, the powers of digital interconnectivity slip further away from the blind. Only a fraction of Netflix’s programming is set up with audio accompaniments for the visually impaired. While the metaverse, and VR more generally, promises to be multisensory, it is primarily geared up for 360 visual immersion. As it stands, blind people are to be almost entirely locked out of the metaverse revolution, should it arrive.
There are some things that could be done to avoid this eventuality. 3D audio echolocation technology is a hugely underfunded and underdeveloped immersive sensory feature, which could fully emplace blind people in new VR worlds. Haptic and touch technology is in its infancy, but would improve the experience of both the visually impaired and those with full sight.
And what about smell? 2021 saw the launch of Hypnos Virtual, a metaverse startup that has developed Scentscape, a ‘neuroscience-based data stream of Bio-media’. Essentially, Scentscape is a library of millions of different carefully engineered scents that will be released from a ‘small fridge-sized object, to enhance any VR experience you might be having. If it sounds to you like a glorified air freshener, you’re not alone. Suffice to say – there’s still work to be done.
If we’re to believe the hype, the metaverse might be the biggest revolution in digital technology since the internet, and we’re still very much at the start of the journey. In fact, we’re at precisely the moment when decisions are being made that might determine the future of digital experience for generations. Now is the moment to ensure that the differently abled are included in what tech has in store for us. The tech giants – from Meta to Musk – must involve people living with disabilities in their innovations from the very start. Their contribution will not only help build a more inclusive digital future, but improve the experience for the able bodied as well.
The limits to an inclusive metaverse are not technological. It is the culture we build around the innovations of the metaverse that will determine its future, and whose interests it serves.
We're excited to start working with our new DEI learning hub...
We’re proud and excited to have launched the Lila learning hub at Crowd DNA. It’s a really nice internal education platform and resource that will help us embrace the need for greater diversity within our team, while forging an inclusive and equitable working environment.
Over the last week, we got started on the first modules, working through the content, watching the vids and discussing our thoughts in safe and open-minded sessions.
We think that cultural insight, and the empathy it builds, can play an important role in improving society. This is something we very much want to be part of, both in terms of our internal structures and in the work we undertake with clients. But all of that said, we acknowledge that the insight and strategy fields have a seriously long way to go to be as representative as they need to be. There is much to do.
Thanks to Luzie Richt in Crowd DNA’s Amsterdam office for working so hard to get us all onboarded. Let’s do this, Lila.
We love the work we do and we're pretty lucky to get to do it. If cultural insights and strategy interests you too, applying for an internship at Crowd DNA New York is a great way to get started.
Crowd DNA’s Culture Club is a carefully designed internship program that brings rigor and quality to those seeking experience in insight and strategy.
You can get to work with our New York team across a variety of projects and learn about our four main specialisms: strategic insights (qualitative research), Crowd Signs (trends, semiotics, unstructured data), Crowd Numbers (quantitative research), Socialise (creative and editorial).
Shaped from observations, conversations and an ambition to truly meet with contemporary needs, Culture Club comes in four stages:
Culture Relevance: immersion in Crowd DNA’s training modules on what we mean by culture, how it manifests and why it matters to brands
How We Work With Culture: exploring the methods and frameworks that we use at Crowd DNA to get close to culture and then to derive strategic meaning from it
Practical Application: theory’s all good, but you learn so much from getting involved; at Culture Club you’ll get to work (in a meaningful fashion) on a number of projects, and at various point along the timeline
Culture Wrap: we don’t just wave you away with a thank you card. Concluding the program, there’s a coaching session with a senior member of the Crowd DNA team, including recommendations on next steps, what to learn more about etc. We want you to leave us primed and excited for what’s next.
In fact, we don’t necessarily want you to leave us. We offer permanent roles to circa 25% of those who come on board for an internship at Crowd DNA. And even when we’re not able to offer this, the vast majority of those who spend time with us end up someplace very exciting, in fields such as insight, advertising, media and beyond.
No intern is left just making coffee at Crowd DNA. We encourage cultural curiosity and the opportunity to experience myriad aspects of our work. Importantly, we also hope to imprint on those who join us, the importance of adaptability (one of our values is Everything Is Changing, after all) in the future workplace.
Our internships are paid $25/hour, 30 hours per week and we’re committed to offering an inclusive and exciting place to work.
How To Apply…
We’re not asking for resumes and we absolutely do not require you to come to Culture Club armed with a college degree (though they’re of course good, too!), nor to be the loudest person in the room. But we do expect to see evidence that, in your own way, you have an active interest in culture and brands, and where they intersect (we can teach you the insight and strategy bits).
If interested, please submit an application via this form and we’ll pick up on the conversation from there.
Here’s some feedback from some of our former Culture Club recruits
“On my first day of Culture Club, I was out on the streets interviewing young athletes. It’s a real crash course in the world of insight and strategy, and Crowd is the sort of place where you can put your hand up for anything and get involved. As someone who had a real interest in culture, but no idea of what sort of career that could give me, Culture Club was a great launchpad – and I’m still here 14 months later!”
“I discovered Crowd when I was studying for my masters. I wanted a career change after working in education management and I thought that insight would be ideal for me. I like meeting new people, exploring ideas and being creative. But to get into a new industry, I knew I would need experience (both for my CV and for myself), so I thought an internship was a good way to go. On my first day at the Hoxton Square office, everyone was friendly, open and super smart. I got stuck in and started working with some huge brands from the get-go. In my first month, I worked on an online community, conducted interviews and even went on fieldwork. I was completely trusted, and that’s what I liked about the internship: I wasn’t treated like an intern at all. I was part of the team. Now that I’m a consultant, I take a lead role on projects for major clients, receive regular training and feel supported in all areas of my progression. Interning at Crowd was a great choice for me at a crucial turning point in my career.”
“I wasn’t made to feel like an intern at all during my internship at Crowd, I felt a lot of trust from the other team members and got stuck into lots of different tasks from day one. Everyone is really nice and supportive and there’s a great team spirit.”
“Interning at Crowd was a really fun and rewarding experience. Over the course of the internship, I was able to try out loads of different skills, from vox pops to qualitative and quantitative analysis. I gained hands-on experience of the different research methods and how they inform cultural strategy. After my internship, I moved into the Crowd Numbers team as an executive.”
Last Sunday’s halftime celebration of all things West Coast rap depicted a nation searching for shared meaning in its 1990s past, writes Crowd DNA’s Peter Lane and Julia Smaldone…
Every year, the Super Bowl attracts northward of 100 million viewers (this year: 112 million), suckering them in from across the generations. If it’s not for the football, then it’s for the ads, or all of the other bits around it. Certainly, it’s fascinating analysing the manoeuvres of some of the world’s biggest brands.
Then there’s the halftime show, featuring artists that threaten to eclipse the worth of any S&P 500 company, with the carefully orchestrated performances a snapshot of the dominant trends in America. The spectacle needs to appeal to a broad swathe of society. Therefore resonating with the current state of the nation is essential.
As such, the Super Bowl is a barometer of US culture. Last year, this was a deliberately constrained performance from The Weeknd; who, in keeping with 2021’s unsettling vibe, restricted himself to the stands, and swapped out dancers for robots.
This year, the show dripped with nostalgia – the current and pervasive US mood. Headlined by Dr Dre and Snoop Dog (showing only a few signs of wear), the West Coast originators guided the stadium through a tour de force of 90s and early 2000s hip hop classics. With guest performances from 50 Cent, Mary J Blige and Eminem, the show harked back to a golden era of hip hop. It was down to Kendrick Lamar alone to represent the present day.
Given it’s designed to appeal to a broad audience, it’s probably no coincidence the halftime show felt so nostalgic. The US, concerned about the future, is going through a deep swoon of retrospection at the moment; glorifying an apparently sunnier past that is remembered fondly by some and imagined (perhaps even more fondly) by others.
Beyond nostalgic appeal, this year’s halftime show represented the steps being made to repair the relationship between the NFL and the Black community after the mistreatment of Colin Kaepernick in 2019. That same year, Atlanta played host to the Super Bowl and halftime headliner Maroon 5. It was a completely missed opportunity to represent the city of Atlanta and its rich history of rap.
Since then, the NFL has partnered with Jay Z’s Roc Nation to bridge the gap and curate halftime shows that are more representative of American culture. Hip hop isn’t just nostalgically appealing and representative of a moment in time. It has been, and continues to be, a dominantly popular genre of American music, and representative of American culture. In featuring artists like Snoop and Eminem, this year’s halftime show brought that celebration to the forefront – using nostalgia as a means to drive mass appeal and celebrate a genre and its legends.
The Super Bowl has been a means of emboldening social movements before. In 2013, amid a call for female empowerment – recognised as fourth-wave feminism – Beyonce headlined. The first women to do so, her confident gaze, uncompromising demeanour, and characteristic strut became a blueprint of female assuredness, recognised by all genders. The show reflected an again triumphant America, finally moving on after years marred by the 2008 financial crisis.
Though nostalgia is often framed in a negative light – navel gazing and unoriginal – the Super Bowl halftime show this year was searching for unity through a vision of the 1990s. Some watching had lived it. Others just wished they had lived it. But either way, it made America feel better about itself.
At Crowd DNA we’re feeling cautiously optimistic about the coming months. You don’t have to be an epidemiologist to sense that, yes, the pandemic may be over. But if these past two years have taught us anything it’s that the power of wishful thinking is immense. We’re not saying optimism is delusional, but what we’ll take from this time is the knowledge that everything can just, all of a sudden, change. This is Whiplash Living.
So what is it?
When planning for the future, hope will be mixed with an understanding that we must also prepare for the worst. Carefree living will never be the same. We’re now used to our lives careering between extremes: intense isolation to explosive celebration; saving for the apocalypse to spending like there’s no tomorrow. This has changed how we relate to freedom, and feel about the future. Freedom is now something we must engineer, the future something we must protect.
Whiplash Living is the cultural force of no-one knowing what’s coming next. What we can say for sure is planning with resilience in mind will get more common. As such, we will get better at preparing ourselves for sudden change. When it’s simply impossible to effectively plan or reassure each other, people will seize the day, for who knows when the next whiplash might come…
We have no shortage of exciting plans for Crowd DNA in 2022. Here’s a big one: opening in Los Angeles...
This will be our second home in the US. We’ve been operating successfully in New York City since 2016 and we’re full steam ahead with growing that office, too. But it’s long been our ambition to set up on the west coast, so here we go…
What will be the focus? Crowd DNA Los Angeles will work to the same ambition of providing the world’s greatest brands with culturally charged commercial advantage as all of our offices do. But we’re going to double down on the future of entertainment – a fascinating and fast-evolving sphere that’s intersecting with our clients in multiple categories. Media and tech, of course, but also the broader spectrum of progressive brands who recognise the value of engaging with audiences through new forms of entertainment/experience.
We have strong credentials in this sphere already, and we now wish to amplify them in Los Angeles – through the craft in our work and the strength of our thought leadership.
We’ll be seeking hires across our four specialisms:
Strategic Insights: using qualitative methods to build empathy with people, tell authentic stories and understand the nuance of lived experiences
Crowd Signs: leveraging trends, semiotics, Culture At Scale (social and unstructured data) and KIN (global network of experts, connectors and creators) to forecast future scenarios and identify opportunities
Crowd Numbers: our quantitative team, using advanced analytics and and culturally attuned survey design for segmentation work and tracking trends
Socialise: our creative specialism,editorialising research and creating planning tool, through film, copy, design and more besides
And we’ll be seeking someone to bring this all together, to take the lead on our Los Angeles office – building the team and client relationships, designing and implementing exciting solutions to meet equally exciting client challenges; making the most of our powerful positioning and reputation; and championing our belief that brands achieve better things through a greater awareness of their context in culture.
We will have more info on Crowd DNA in Los Angeles shortly. But if you’d like to find out more right now, including about the roles we’re recruiting for, do get in touch with Andy Crysell, and we’d be happy to have a first chat.