The New Cultural Operating System

Four tenets for imagining a better world

It feels tiresome to say that everything is so much all the time, that times are unprecedented, that things are changing. That’s all true – but it’s been said, and said extensively.

In this piece, I want to help uncover the cultural shifts defining the context we’ve operated in: so we can begin to untangle what the future looks like, and how brands can operate within the context of this new future.

To look forward, we need to first begin by looking back – we must carefully evaluate the current cultural context and climate. This is not about people wanting sustainable, purposeful brands: it’s about recognizing that the future is an entity, a medium that we actively shape, manifest, and create.

Everything needs to fall apart before it can come together again, or a theory for your consideration

At the risk of sounding like an accelerationist, the past two decades – and in particular 2020 marked an era of complete meltdown. Our media environment, our systems of governance, and our climate are (and were) at a point of what felt like no return.

Operating within this set of unique circumstances elegantly is crucial: after all, 74% of consumers state that a brand’s impact on society is a reason that brand trust has become more important. (Edelman)

Across our three key systems, we saw the following:

  1. Media Environment: A study of 30 media outlets by Pew showed that none of the 30 sources is trusted by 50% of American adults. The survey generally found that Republicans have a smaller media universe, whereas liberal, Democrat, or generally left-leaning people perhaps engage with whatever news comes down their timeline first.

    “One factor that may be at play here is that Republicans have a more compact media ecosystem. They rely to a large degree on a small number of outlets and view many established brands as not trustworthy. Democrats, on the other hand, rely on a wider number of outlets.” (Pew) (N.B., I covered trust and truthfulness here.)

  2. Systems: Only 17% of Americans today say they can trust the government in Washington to do what is right “just about always” (3%) or “most of the time” (14%).

    For context, when the National Election Study began asking about trust in government in 1958, about three-quarters of Americans trusted the federal government to do the right thing almost always or most of the time.

    There has been a constant ebb and flow in how much Americans trust their government.

    Trust in government began eroding during the 1960s, amid the escalation of the Vietnam War, and the decline continued in the 1970s with the Watergate scandal and worsening economic struggles. Confidence in government recovered in the mid-1980s before falling again in the mid-1990s.

    But as the economy grew in the late 1990s so too did confidence in government. Public trust reached a three-decade high shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but declined quickly thereafter. Since 2007, the share saying they can trust the government always or most of the time has not surpassed 30%. (Pew)

    What we consider to be true can fall among party lines, too – we are one nation divided by different information diets, fashioning different realities.

  1. Climate: Simply put, we’re at a major tipping point. 2020 was Earth’s second hottest year - following only 2016. The first twenty years of this century have seen a staggering rise in climate disasters – there were 7,348 recorded climate disasters worldwide, during the last two decades.

    Approximately 1.23 million people have died as the result of a climate disaster, with more than four billion affected in total; many more than once with poorer nations experiencing deaths rates more than four times higher than richer nations. (UN)

    “We’ve run out of time to build new things in old ways,” Rob Jackson, Global Carbon Project.

So where does all of this leave us? It dares us to envision a new world – with new ways of working, being, and existing. It pushes us to make decisions for a more equitable future, a time for possibility – and a way to level the playing field. The problems standing between us and a better future can be solved with design, innovation, and drive.

Yes: we are on course for disaster. But we can also dare to shift the environments we create for the better, enabling change, access, expansive visions, inclusivity, and equity. When almost every system we depend on is falling apart – we can create something better.

At BLANK, we refer to this realm of possibilities as the Era of Imagination.

What is the Era of Imagination?

The Era of Imagination is the advent of people-powered brand and global ecosystems. No longer at the behest of big business, workers, and individuals rise to fashion a new tomorrow that isn’t reliant on mass inequity to be sustainable.

The Era of Imagination is a fluid state where those that engage communally survive - who move past individual good and profit and think of the future of the collective. The Era of Imagination is collaborative and constructive, not instructive.

It’s not marked by hollow representation: it’s developed through creative collective action and through embracing the values of the Era of Imagination thoroughly. What if we all came together in the service of care, of mutual aid, of a better future for one another and the planet instead of building the American Dream? What might that look like?

It’s not enough to simply recognize that there are problems: it’s time to collaborate on solutions, pushing the Overton window of possibility towards systemic, radical change. Imperfect solutions are preferable to the status quo.

These values form the New Cultural Operating System.

The New Cultural Operating System

There are four key tenets that drive the future of culture, that come to form the New Cultural Operating System. Brands that embrace one or all of these values succeed in shaping culture and building cultural currency.

They are as follows:

  1. Purpose, transparency, and circularity: These values go beyond putting a brand purpose on a page or developing a CSR program. It means embracing your values inside and out - doing for your team what you do for celebrity partners.

    It isn’t about retrofitting a sense of purpose into your brand – it’s about creating a purpose and a sense of intentionality that feels genuine, and translating it across your ecosystem. Be transparent where you fall short, for it is better to have tried than not done anything at all. And, if you sell a physical product, see how you can give it a longer life.

  2. Open-source knowledge and co-creation: The new brand is fashioned in collaboration with the consumer. To what extent can you bring your community into the brand (Glossier being the most obvious example), and how can you provide them value either by putting them in the driver’s seat, or educating them?

    To what extent can you create and share a body of knowledge for the benefit of all? Can your community help you build in the direction of a better tomorrow?

  3. Empathy and inclusivity: Moving beyond empty representational politics – to what extent are you actually meeting people where they are in their lives or day? Do you inspire them? Do you make their lives easier? Does your brand amplify voices that need to be heard, or does it speak over them? And more importantly, do you enable a system of caring inwardly and outwardly?

  4. Fluidity and ephemerality: The speed at which the internet moves seems to go faster day by day – are you agile and forward-thinking enough to embrace this, daring to push brand expressions into new forms, meaningfully? If 2020 taught us anything, it’s that the best-laid plans and campaigns can be undone in moments: how will you adapt?

These values, when embraced individually create a better life and more mindful people. But when applied broadly and embraced thoroughly, they create possibilities for all.

Until next time.

This piece was adapted from a lecture I gave at the New Inc incubator in January 2021. If you were inspired by this, or want more cultural insights, get in touch.