Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

My Digital Hero: Dave Coplin

Dave Coplin is a legend in the digital industry. Currently founder of The Envisioners, he has spent the last 25 years helping businesses navigate the impact of technology. The author of Business Reimagined  and The Rise of the Humans, he was until 2017 Chief Envisioning Officer at Microsoft.

His My Digital Hero is a call to arms for more digital superheroes to use the power of digital technologies for the good of society and humankind.

Who is your digital hero?

Aha, a trick question!  Or at least I’m going to treat it as one.

You may not realise it, but walking amongst us are a group of superhumans, digital superheroes imbued with a single magical quality that makes them stand out from everyone else in our industry. 

Unlike other normal people, they don’t think of the future as a straight line extrapolated from our past, they don’t think about digital or technology as a means to an end but instead think only of the outcome it may make possible and most importantly, they strive to create utopia rather than to give in to dystopian rhetoric. (Or as one such passionate digital superhero once put it to me — “our job is to make the world a little less shit” — not a bad ambition for us all to share I think).

Many of these superheroes are already on your list (and I’m lucky enough to have worked with a few of them — I’m looking at you Jimmy, Diane, Wayne, Tiffany, Jeremy and Nadya!) but whether on your list yet or not, I guarantee you that once you know what to look for, you’ll find them all around you. 

Although they may look and talk just like us, digital superheroes are often easy to spot because these people are the dreamers, they are the freaks (and I mean that with nothing but love) who see the world differently and don’t always fit in any of the boxes you may have available.  They ask difficult and sometimes stupid questions but never once lose sight of the prime directive which is to add value to people’s lives by helping them see the potential of a new ways of doing old things (or sometimes not doing them at all).

What have they done to win hero status in your eyes?

Digital superheroes focus on the other end of the telescope, they look from the outside in to figure out, not how can digital help with our existing processes, but instead start with “what is the outcome we’re actually trying to create?”.  Once the potential outcome is clear, they work backwards to figure out the optimum way of creating such an experience.

By their nature they are optimistic, but you would be foolish to think them naive.  They see the risks, challenges, the potential for misuse (either intentional or accidental) and they seek to create a pragmatic solution that maximises the potential for good while minimising the risk of the bad.

These are the people who see that “digital” transcends industries. They can learn as much about the potential for digital in their current industry simply by studying what is going on elsewhere in others.

They realise that the human at the centre of all of this is increasingly one who’s expectations of every subsequent experience (digital or other) is shaped and stretched by the experience they’ve just had.  The coffee they just bought, the music they just streamed, the photo they just shared is relevant to every single interaction they will have going forward.  Once you realise that, you can start to become a digital superhero too.

How has their heroism helped drive digital?

Digital superheroes expand other people’s understanding of what might be possible when humans and machines work together in a way that complements each other’s unique attributes.  They realise that by breaking free of the tyranny of “efficiency” they can instead focus primarily on driving “effectiveness”.  After all, what good is an efficient product or service that nobody loves?

It’s their optimism and energy however, that provide the biggest impact.  Thanks to the media and our pop culture, the world already has enough understanding of the potential challenges and dangers of a digital world and this biased, unrealistic rhetoric unfortunately has a lasting, damaging effect on how normal people see the potential for digital to drive positive outcomes across all aspects of our lives. 

Digital superheroes know this and work tirelessly (and patiently) to continue to chip away at a society that has been made more fearful than hopeful about the value that digital can bring all our experiences, engaging with individuals and organisations to help them understand what could be achieved with today’s technology if only we could get the humans in the right place.

What the biggest challenges in media we need another hero to solve?

After thirty years of working at the bleeding edge, I know that the only really important thing about all of our futures, is not digital itself nor how it will develop but is instead simply about how we as humans can evolve and adapt to make the most of the incredible potential it offers us every single day.  Helping the humans make this leap is where we need our digital superheroes to help most.

Instead of pandering to the fears of misuse, we need people who can become the evangelists for helping others see the potential of a world that isn’t just a little less shit, but is instead a world where digital becomes almost invisible, and the transformational experiences that are created are genuinely loved and valued by the humans that use them.

But if we are to make this happen, we’re going to have to think very differently about the potential of digital in our lives and the relationship we currently share with it. 

Digital superheroes will need to help us establish a relationship with technology that is likely very different to the one we presently have.  Digital superheroes will need to help us not just learn to survive in the 21st century but instead they will have to help us learn how to thrive. 

What is your most heroic personal achievement so far in digital?

Increasingly I find myself in the middle of a seemingly unresolvable paradox.  By day, I am responsible for curating a vision of the future of work, working with governments, organisations and individuals to map out a future where humans work in harmony with the machines, unleashing the potential of game changing technologies like artificial intelligence, machine learning and robotics to extend our reach and help us achieve more than ever we humans could alone. 

But by night, I am “merely” a parent, watching with silent, growing terror, the stark reality of the irrelevance of many the skills that my son is being given through his own education as he and his peers continue to be prepared for a Victorian production line that has long since ceased to exist.

Last year I decided to do something about it, so I took my day job (standing on stage talking bollocks about the future as my wife so delicately puts it) and transformed it into a “stage show” (think Panto meets TED…), aimed squarely at inspiring not just kids, but their parents and teachers about the kind of world that our kids and subsequent generations could create if only we could help them acquire the kinds of skills that would make such an achievement possible.

A year ago, almost to this day, armed with only a robot, an algorithm and a ukulele (obviously) I found myself in a Northern industrial town, standing on the wooden stage of an old Victorian ballroom in front of over a thousand kids, their parents and their teachers and took my first steps to start an uprising, a revolution of sorts where we seek to help our kids (and ourselves) develop the kinds of skills that are going to be fit for purpose for the future that they will ultimately inherit.

It was without doubt the most terrifying and the most rewarding events I have ever presented and the reaction of the kids and the adults confirmed that I was speaking to the aspirations and ambitions of younger generations who want to do amazing things and in many ways, rebuild and repair some of the damage previous generations have left them to deal with.

Since then, I’ve taken my story to thousands more kids, parents and teachers and it slowly feels like we’re starting to get somewhere.  I’m telling you this because these are the people we need to get ready for as we think about and create the next generation of digital experiences. 

Their eyes and minds are wide open and I think they’re no longer afraid of technology, instead they are hungry to inspire and be inspired by the very best that digital can bring to their lives.  We owe it to them to be the best digital superheroes we can and to help create a world where digital lifts and enhances human experiences beyond our wildest imagination.

I call it the rise of the humans and it starts with you, and it starts right now…