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.
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.
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.
Our latest Crowd Signs trends film takes in some radical rest...
Our Crowd Signs videos give us an opportunity to share concise takes on cultural change. In the latest, Radical Rest, we’ve noticed that whereas rest was once thought to be downtime, a chance to recharge between periods of work, work, work, recently the right to rest has become something that individuals are fighting for. A part of our lives we individually protect and actively nurture.
Rest has become something to militantly carve out, rather than squeeze in to a busy schedule.
Why is this?
More than anything, people are increasingly wary of the ‘always on’ lifestyles, where productivity is the only measure of a person’s worth. These are lifestyles where burnout and exhaustion are badges of being busy, and privilege. As a result, people are looking for actively unproductive ways to unwind, rising above the grind.
In short – rest has become radical
So What’s Next?
We predict that our definitions of rest will become increasingly active, not passive. As individuals indulge in a more radicalised version of downtime, the highest quality rest will be seen as a right, rather than a luxury. Its practice is considered a key ingredient to a fulfilling life.
Crowd Tracks is our social data series, where we use our Culture At Scale method to highlight and analyse trends at the intersection of brands and culture. At what feels like a watershed moment for supporters of all types of sport, we’re bringing you the latest in fan experience, values and culture.
In this edition we uncover how fan protests have mobilised on social platforms across the world, analyse Instagram data to track emergent fandom, and explore the rise of new, immersive experiences for fans, featuring 5G stadiums and VR.
So what’s happening in sports fandom around the world?
Sports experience is diversifying globally and fan culture is becoming more complex and inclusive. In the UK we saw a diverse team GB bring home a historic win of golds, silvers and bronzes, providing a balm for a divided nation; while in India eSports has boomed, with fantasy cricket leagues becoming nice little earners for some. Japan’s Naomi Osaka became a style icon on the cover of Vogue after pulling out of the French Open due to mental health concerns. And in rugby: global following of the sport continues to rise, with World Rugby publishing a report stating plans to attract 10% more followers by 2025.
But that’s not to say things can’t get tense out there…
2020-21 saw sport become increasingly embedded within the thorny issues of global politics. Racism and ongoing BLM protests have seen conversation spikes in the US, Europe and around the world. America has been divided by opinions on NFL players taking the knee, as has the UK where racist abuse of black players during the Euros saw widespread condemnation.
Mental health concerns have been firmly thrust into the foreground in most recent sporting events, with athletes such as Simone Biles speaking out. Indian cricket became highly politicised, getting entwined with farmers’ protests.
The ethics of sports partnerships have also come under the spotlight, with many calling for a boycott of the T-20 league after what were seen as unethical sponsorships from the Chinese company Vivo.
What trends are on the rise?
People want more muscles.While gym culture is a mainstay of IG culture, images of muscular bodies have increased by 45% in the last nine months. Wrestling is up by 70% and Boxing has seen a 55% rise. TikTok has caused dance to quite simply soar. Dancing has risen by a whopping 215% and cheerleading too is up by a similarly impressive 163%. And more young women are skating, the sport’s searches rising by 98%.
Which brand really pushed the boat out?
The last year saw the NBA get seriously phygital. They tapped into the emergent interest in NFTs (Non-Fungible Tokens) with Top Shot, a platform that allows fans to buy special, unique digital souvenirs. But it doesn’t just stay in the ether. The NBA are looking at ways of making this physical as well, bringing the digital collectables into the IRL sport experiences.
What’s the future of fan experience?
In short – Technology. Technology is set to offer new revenue streams for clubs and preserve the stadium experience for decades to come. 69% of fans report the use of emerging technologies has enhanced their viewing experience both inside and outside the stadium. Sports brands need to act fast on this or risk losing out to the ever-dominant tech industry.
And finally: how have fan values changed?
Fan communities used to be defined by one thing: their shared support. Now, sports fandom – and fandom in general – is built around cultural values beyond the sport itself. Whether it’s a desire for accountability, transparency, or greater representation, fans are now banding together around shared causes, calling on clubs and athletes to use their power for good.
Thanks to social media, fans can share information and mobilise, take issues into their own hands and vocalise what matters. Sporting institutions need to prioritise the voice of the fans, and make smart appointments – such as heads of diversity or culture – to ensure their businesses are run fairly and in line with their fans’ values.
You can download the full Crowd Tracks: Sports Fandom report here
Culture At Scale is a powerful new addition to how Crowd DNA pinpoints and tracks trends. Supported by the advanced NLP, AI and machine learning capabilities of strat7.ai, we tap into the sheer size and incredible pace of the online conversation, presenting future scenarios and defining credible opportunities.
It’s easy to forget the importance of empathy in the face of new technology but, as Crowd DNA director Paul White explains, for cultural insights, it will always be the star of the show...
In the world of research and insight, it’s easy to be tempted by new methods, new delivery systems and new technologies. And while staying current is really important, delivering great results always comes back to the core skill of qualitative work: empathy.
Nursing scholar, Theresa Wiseman, breaks empathy down into four key attributes:
1. Seeing the world the way others see it
2. Beginning from a non-judgemental space
3. Understanding another person’s feelings
4. Communicating your understanding of that person’s feelings back to them.
A perfect place to start, but we like to think there’s a fifth step to this process in cultural insight work, and that is: Communicating people’s feelings honestly and objectively to the client that commissioned the research.
So, if empathy is the cornerstone of our industry, why is it so easy to forget? Short answer: we unknowingly participate in systems that push it out of the conversation. Consider the chat you might have with a food stall trader compared to a targeted ad telling you the latest lunch deals. Both are marketing the same thing, but feel very different. We can’t change the current model of communication, but it has pushed us further away from IRL interaction. Short-termism then compounds this with quarterly targets and the need to make quick wins. So we all stay on the treadmill, often unable to take a long enough view to address larger human needs and do something truly empathetic.
This perspective is intensified by a tendency to focus on the newest, slickest methods – because, honestly, suggesting we’ll talk to some people and build recommendations on what they said (yet again) doesn’t sound as exciting as whatever the latest method might be. In our opinion, as long as your methodology is answering the problem you’re trying to solve, you’re on the right track. No need to get starstruck by the latest eye-tracking, VR gadgets or neuroimaging if it takes you away from the initial problem – a problem which is almost always a human one anyway.
Next, if we know empathy is in short supply, how do we build it in? It starts by remembering our own humanity. At Crowd, we treat our colleagues and clients like humans and create space for people to bring themselves into their work and interactions with participants. By being present and using active listening, we are able to develop deeper connections and quickly bypass the researcher/respondent relationship. There is always insight to be found by truly listening, seeking to understand and not being scared to ask why.
Don’t be afraid to advocate for human beings. All of us (even global heads of marketing and CEOs) happen to be people – and looking for commonalities between yourself and your customers is key. When we make business decisions in boardrooms (or Zoom calls) with little view of the outside world, the people at the end of the process can be easily forgotten. Instead, bring real people into the room in any way possible. This could be audience immersion work, insightful videos to build empathy or literally inviting your living, breathing customers into your process.
We must stop reducing people to their ability to consume products. It’s a false shortcut that does no one any good. People are consumers some of the time – but they’re people all of the time. They have lives, worries, families, goals and dreams. It’s only by being more empathetic as professionals and companies that we are able to realise this, and harness the power of cultural insight to add true value to people’s lives.
Crowd DNA New York’s Simi Olagundoye explores how reality dating shows misrepresent those of marginalized identities and what they should consider instead…
Dating shows have long been criticized for their lack of representation and regard for contestants from marginalized backgrounds. With race and sexual misrepresentation rife, viewers are ready for a reckoning. But this must be responded to in an educated and intentional manner. Firstly producers need to eliminate racist, homophobic, and sexist tropes from their narratives to positively affect and inform viewers of all backgrounds. They then need to provide ongoing training and therapy for casts and crews to ensure that physical and emotional safety for marginalized identities is achieved.
Since its start, dating show The Bachelor has been in hot water for racial insensitivity. And recently, conversations reached boiling point. The season involving Matt James, the first Black Bachelor, was revealed to have a history trodden with racism.
Following an outcry for the franchise to examine its racial insensitivity, longtime host Chris Harrison was removed. Rachel Lindsay, the first Black Bachelorette, denounced the show. This spawned important conversations around how to create a safe environment for people of color (POC) on reality dating shows.
‘Can a show that’s built on stereotypes handle race well?’ – Rachel Lindsay, Bachelorette
Many shows employ colorblind casting, insisting that they ‘don’t see race’. POC, especially Black people, are expected to exist in a raceless space. But we cannot pretend that dating shows are devoid of racism or racial stereotypes. And while colorblind casting means representation might increase, race is rarely being discussed. An exception to this is Netflix’s Love Is Blind. Couples engage in discussions around race in a manner that is both impactful and entertaining.
These conversations about race are key in creating a safe environment for POC. When broadcasters omit them, they revert to aged racist tropes, feeding into biases. These tropes have the power to influence viewers’ perception of the world. They signal to marginalized communities that they don’t belong. To the non-marginalized, these tropes are a dangerous guide to how others should be treated.
‘I get why they are hesitant to do it, but I don’t think it’s working when they chuck in one bisexual person.’– Megan Barton-Hanson, Love Island
Built in a heteronormative vacuum, dating shows often get it wrong when it comes to representing sexualities across the spectrum. Love Island executives have expressed challenges placing queer contestants into heterosexual-aligned spaces. But instead of trying to squeeze queer people into straight spaces, networks should place queer communities at the centre.
In 2007, A Shot At Love With Tila Tequila challenged existing dating show formats by being the first to feature a bisexual lead. However, the show is infamous for a homophobic plot twist, pitting queer women and straight men against each other. This perpetuates the false stigma that bisexuals have to ‘pick’ a gender.
Season eight of MTV’s Are You The One? exclusively cast sexually fluid contestants and was highly lauded as groundbreaking reality TV. Unfortunately, fans were disappointed that there wasn’t a reunion episode, unlike every other season, reinforcing feelings of exclusion for the queer community. Give queer-focused shows, and queer cast members, the same exposure that their straight counterparts receive. Viewers are acutely aware of tokenism and want to see real action being taken, so they enjoy their guilty pleasures, guilt free.
Attitudes to the representation of marginalized identities is changing. Viewers expect openness, diversity and a sense of commitment to progressive programming. First comes the conversations, then decisive action. This action must reconfigure broadcasting around the struggles of previously marginalized voices, while providing real and sustained support for any harm caused.
With subscription online streaming now the norm, audiences are increasingly discerning and selective when it comes to the content they watch. People are less passive. They’re done with the couch potato identity. This means that meaningful engagement with the issue of representation will pay off, for TV and across the board.
Every Wednesday morning we turn off our emails, set an out of office message and create three to four hours where we can focus on deep work. Here’s why...
If you’ve landed on this, the chances are you’ve received one of our out of office messages that let you know we dedicate every Wednesday morning to what we call Deep Work Wednesday. Not the most original name, but it does the job. So, in the spirit of deep work, we thought it best to quickly explain our thinking, so that you can get back to some deep work of your own.
Why deep work?
It was hard enough to maintain focus prior to Covid-19 upending the way we live and work. Now, video calls get booked up against each other with barely a bathroom break in between. Our calendars fill up before we know it. We’re sure you can relate to the feeling of coming to the end of a working day and wondering what you truly achieved. Our hope is that, by carving out these hours once a week, it will allow us the time to switch off, think and really sink our teeth into the complex problems that our clients come to us to help solve.
Where can I learn more about deep work?
We love this TED Talk by MihályCsíkszentmihályi called Flow, The Secret To Happiness.Cal Newport’s book, Deep Work, is a great resource too. If you’d like to learn more about Zoom fatigue, we suggest this article summarising a piece of research by the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab highlighting why it can be so tiring to be in video calls all day.
When will you get back to me?
We come back online at 1pm every Wednesday and we’ll get back to you as soon as we can. Promise!