Let’s move beyond 2020 and start thinking about the 2020s

Seasonality is critical for the media. End-of-year wrap-ups, best books for the summer, things to do this weekend — they’re all methods to note not only the passage of time, but also to begin to set the tone for what is about to come.

Everyone covered the end of the 2010s with aplomb, a decade that, at least in tech, was filled with huge milestones, including some of the largest startup IPOs of all time and also some of the worst lows we’ve ever seen — frauds and product snafus that were larger and grander than ever before.

Those retrospectives though were supposed to be complemented with the prospectives — what’s about to happen in the 2020s? What’s next? Where is progress and innovation going to come from this decade? We barely got this decade going of course before the pandemic hit, the U.S. elections got into full swing, and it has been non-stop debates about school openings, stump speeches, and whether a vaccine will arrive soon, shortly, distantly, or I guess never at all.

Our collective long-term vision has been terrorized by the short-term news that constantly rolls through our feeds. It’s time to change that.

Regardless of the outcome next week (or maybe next month?) in the U.S. or the final vaccine timeline for COVID-19, we still need to define what this next decade is about, particularly in technology, where the list of issues is widening and the number of sectors that have the potential for innovation expands. We need to think beyond the mundane daily operational challenges of startups and fundraises and consider the values we want to empower and inform in the years ahead.

Many of these questions go beyond mere “apps” to encompass areas of law, culture, societies, and ultimately, what we want to leave for the next generations coming behind all of us.

Over on EC, I’ve written a deep dive into five broad “clusters” of change that have the potential to transform our world in the 2020s, in areas like “wellness,” “climate,” “data society,” “creativity,” and “fundamentals” that each hold so many startups ideas that I truly am excited about what’s about to be unleashed this decade.

Yet, whether you like my amorphous groupings or not, I encourage everyone in the startup ecosystem to begin thinking about how to connect the dots between different startups, different sectors, and how our society is organized. The next generation of startup ideas are not going to come from the proverbial whiteboard and some Swift engineering in Xcode. They’re going to come from much more methodical and deeper introspection about what our society and all of us need going forward.

The 2010s were all about executing on the dreams of mobile, cloud, and basic data. Those ideas had historical antecedents going back in some cases decades or more (Vannevar Bush’s description of the internet dates to the 1940s, for instance). But for the first time, we had the infrastructure and the users to actually build these products and make them useful. It was quite possibly the most extensive greenfield opportunity in the history of technology.

Yet, that greenfield is increasingly fallow. Business has cycles and seasonality as much as media reporting does. The easy stuff has been done. Building an app to text people has been done by dozens before. There are a multitude of analytics packages, and payroll providers, and credit card issuers, and more. What’s required this decade is to start to encroach on the harder questions, topics like how we build a better society, make people more empowered to do deep and creative work, and how we can build a more resilient and sustainable planet for all.

None of these topics have pure point solutions — but that is what is going to make this coming decade so damn interesting. It’s going to take intense collaboration, multiple inventions and products, as well as legal and cultural changes, to realize these next improvements. If you have grown sick (as I have) of the latest apps and SaaS products du jour, this decade is going to be an amazing one to experience and build.

It’s a new season to lift our heads up a little and look around. The world, yes, is filled with problems — terrible, horrible, and stultifying problems that can at times feel all but insurmountable. But human ingenuity has always found a way, and we have never had such an extensive toolbox to confront all of them simultaneously. If the 2010s were all about humans learning technology, the 2020s is all about technology learning about humans.

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