The 1980s have gone down in history as the decade of excess (as if the gas-guzzling V8 cars of the 1970s or the rise of fast fashion in the 1990s never happened). But the 2010s have put it all to shame.

This was the decade where convenience crushed everything else. Prime two-day shipping became not a luxury, but a way of life—that would give way to one-day shipping, then same-day shipping. Grubhub, Doordash, and Uber Eats became the ubiquitous, on-demand service to have any delicacy delivered. We had the explosion of smartphones, built from rare, mined materials. These were the supercomputers in our pockets, but due to planned obsolescence, fundamental fragility, or just the promise of “thinner, faster, better,” they still mandated upgrades every 12 to 24 months (no matter the consequence). Over the past decade, so many of the consequences of consumption became invisible: We forget that every search we make or song we stream has a cost: The cloud is really a server farm that needs impossible amounts of energy—though that did nothing to quell the cryptocurrency boom.

None of this hit home until the last days of 2019, when I reached out to experts—who specialize in everything from packaged food to airline travel to architecture—asking them to share their predictions for their industries in 2030. And while I said nothing about the environment, it was top of mind for almost everyone.

[Source Photo: design56/iStock]

How we’ll eat in 2030

“The products we choose to consume are more important than the clothes we wear or the cars we drive. People don’t post pictures of their cars, but they post pictures of their food regularly. They want their friends to know two things: 1) what new thing they have discovered, and 2) what the decision to consume it says about them. This spirit of sharing and discovery has made people more adventurous, but where it was once about a specific in-restaurant dining experience, it now extends to everyday consumption of snacks and beverages.

“Thankfully, advancements in e-commerce infrastructure have allowed our industry to make more product varieties available to consumers.

“The tension we will face going forward is balancing consumer demand for endless options with the inconvenience of having to actually make choices. Choices can sometimes create friction in the purchasing process. We will have to design and deliver indispensable offerings and provide consumers with the knowledge and guidance to select products that best meet their needs.

“Related: How will consumers balance the struggles of prioritizing sustainability with the need for convenience? Our consumers’ need for convenience is real, and it’s not going away—that’s why delivery is on the rise. However, convenience creates waste: bags, boxes, plasticware. When my team is innovating at PepsiCo, sustainability is one of the top considerations. In the future, packaging must be more responsible while still being portable.” Dena vonWerssowetz, senior marketing director for global beverages, PepsiCo

[Source Photo: scyther5/iStock]

How we’ll travel in 2030

“With absolute certainty, climate change will be the defining force in the next decade for all of us. There will be a growing earnestness to rethink how we live, work, and move around in response to conspicuous signals that we’re in trouble, from everyday tidal flooding to increasingly bizarre weather. Despite these alarm bells, the challenge ahead for designers will be to reconcile these necessary changes with our penchant for greed and laziness as consumers. This can be done, though, and here are two opportunities that fit this bill.

“First, not moving around as we much as we do now will become a focus, especially for private and public employers compelled to curb business travel in the interest of reducing their carbon footprints. The design opportunity here is to create all-new ways of replicating in-person collaborations. Forget videoconferencing, which is a cave person version of what’s ahead. Instead, there will be breakthroughs in extended reality, robotics, and smart surfaces that let us transcend geography.

“Second, we’ll have to be a lot more efficient when we are moving around. All transportation will become intermodal (meaning it orchestrates handshakes with other modalities) and multifunctional (meaning it does more than just one thing). Jammed city infrastructures will not tolerate one-dimensional vehicles that just deliver people or just deliver freight. This will require new vehicle form factors that are born of co-designing. Earlier in the decade, vehicles that are actually designed for both ride-sharing and delivering food and parcels will emerge. Later on, we’ll see wilder mashups between cars and non-automotive brands that offer entirely new mobility experiences.” —Devin Liddell, principal futurist, Teague

[Source Photo: ExFlow/iStock]

How we’ll value companies in 2030

“Whether it’s CEOs declaring the need to redefine capitalism or the climate movement sparked by Greta Thunberg, there is a reexamination of fundamentals afoot: of the place and purpose of governments, businesses, and individuals in society. As we look at what’s ahead, we’re seeing a groundswell of people—­­­enabled by digital—exerting pressure on organizations to redefine their success in ways other than financial growth alone. People want their purchases to reflect the social, environmental, and political causes they care about. After a long streak of pure profit-chasing, this is an epoch-defining opportunity for companies to reimagine their business models, services, and products around new definitions of value—to switch from digital transformation to purpose-led transformation.

“We’ll see more leaders espouse purpose—and then get caught up because it’s not aligned with some element of their operation. This reality is going to be really hard to resolve because as we transition, everyone is open to critique about something. Social media may not make plastic or dig up minerals that cannot be renewed, but it is open to criticism that it is causing social and political distress. Retailers may shift to ethically sourced products, but ship from halfway across the planet. The important thing is to start—and that means with metrics. French corporate services giant Sodexo, with a number-driven emphasis on cutting food waste, is a great example. Could they reinvent everything they do? Probably. Should they start somewhere (and they have)? Yes. Ethical paralysis is not an option and will be called out. We believe it is better to be on the journey and admit you have a distance to go than burying your head. There’s a cynical game being played of looking at percentages as they are applied to contributors to global warming. There is always a sector more responsible than yours for CO2 emissions for example. But if we all take that approach, then nothing changes.

“Over the next few years the idea of ‘consumer’ will come to feel really backward as a label—like the idea of ‘servant’ is pretty awkward in the 21st century. As causes grow as a motivation for purchase, we will see companies try to grow a direct link between the purpose of their employees and that of their customers, and to grow that as a direct connection. If you look at Bo, a new U.K. bank from RBS—they are explicitly trying to help their customers develop better money habits—as they say ‘you do a little, we do a little.’ It’s not hard to imagine a next step that connects their employees directly to customer outcomes.

“As people begin to shift from a ‘me’ to ‘we’ mindset, tomorrow’s success stories will belong to organizations that design with all life in mind. As designers, we must begin to address people as part of a greater ecosystem, embracing a broader, more holistic systems mindset that starts to make the traditional user-centered design approach sound way too self-centered.” —Mark Curtis, cofounder and chief client officer, Fjord

[Source Photo: iStock]

How we’ll build in 2030

“In the next decade I believe experiential design will play a greater role and impact lives as people interact with the built environment. With the launch of 5G technology, the ability to create and transmit massive amounts of new content while we’re in constant motion and engaging—in real time—with the built environment will be a major disrupter in communities. Experiential design’s elevation to customizable and personal experiences that are built around individual behaviors and preferences will impact daily actions from a healthcare doctor visit, to educational experiences at two- and four-year institutions, to even vacations.

“Imagine if you’re a history buff, standing at the base of the Statue of Liberty. You’re presented—based on your profile and interests—information as to how Lady Liberty was created and built. Then you’re connected to details about Ellis Island regarding immigrant passengers, maybe even about your ancestors and the ships they arrived on. Instead of going back and researching, the information is curated and accessible in real time. Our engagement impact within the built world will be defined not only by what we see and feel, but with tailored experiences and information.

“I believe the next decade will couple and improve these individual experiences with a greater focus on personalized health. With companies designing more high-tech wearables that gauge and record data, knowledge focused on healthy lifestyle and well-being choices will shape physical spaces, from college recreation spaces to athletic performance and research facilities, where the built and virtual environments become more integrated and seamless.” —Bradley Lukanic, CEO, CannonDesign

[Source Photo: NordWood Themes/Unsplash]

How nothing might change by 2030

“While ‘tech’ boosters, hypemongers, and Davos dwellers continue to proclaim that we are living in a moment of technological ‘revolution,’ economists, historians, and other observers have been telling a different story over the last decade: that we have been experiencing an extended period of slow economic and productivity growth since the 1970s. One possibility is that this period of slow growth will keep on going for many years, a potential some economists are, in fact, predicting. Overhyped and buzzword-laden technologies—like today’s ubiquitous ‘AI’—will continue to underperform on expectations and incremental change will remain the norm.

“Part of what makes meaningful growth so hard is that we underestimate the amount of significant change that has taken place over the last 150 years. Uber and Lyft provide some improvement over taxis, but that advance is not as great as the ones humans experienced earlier through the invention of automobiles, concrete and asphalt roads, and, well, taxi companies themselves. The difficulty in creating deep change is reflected in companies failing to produce profits. Lyft and, especially, Uber have struggled to be profitable, but so have WeWork, Tesla, Twitter, Peloton, and several other hyped firms. Moreover, research productivity in general has decreased over the last 50 years—that is, it takes more human effort and money to produce new research—perhaps in part, because, as some argue, all of the ‘low-hanging fruit’ of technological and scientific change has been plucked. While boosters will always argue that some revolutionary technology, be it nanotechnology or true AI, is just over the horizon, there’s really no reason to go along with such predictions or assume that our extended period of slow growth will end soon.

“In this possible low growth future, our infrastructure will continue to degrade, and we will persist in our mastery of not acting to stop global climate change. Designers might capitalize on this moment by creating cheap solutions for consumers to adapt to their ever-warming world. But designers might also find their work increasingly casualized and precarious, as employers turn to temp labor and Uber-like apps that define designers as ‘partners,’ not employees. Jobs will come and go, but wages will remain stagnant. This isn’t your grandparents’ dystopia, a Blade Runner-esque hellscape of skyscrapers, androids, and flying cars, but rather something not much different than what we live in now, just continuing to molder.” —Lee Vinsel, assistant professor of science, technology, and society at Virginia Tech


As we cross the threshold from one decade to another, it’s natural to look back at the previous 10 years and try to make sense of events.

Putting narrative order on the past decade, a 10-year-period that has somehow remained stubbornly nameless, is quite the challenge, but it’s impossible to make sense of the 2010s without understanding the role of software.

It was in August 2011 that Marc Andreessen coined the famous phrase “Software is eating the world” in a Wall Street Journal op-ed. He suggested that “we are in the middle of a dramatic and broad technological and economic shift in which software companies are poised to take over large swathes of the economy.”

“In many ways, our growth has reflected the trajectory of the decade in technology”

Just a few days after Andreessen published his piece, Eoghan McCabe, Des Traynor, Ciaran Lee and David Barrett founded Intercom – and in many ways, our growth has reflected the trajectory of the decade in technology, fulfilling Andreessen’s prediction that small startups can reach previously unimaginable scale faster than ever by leveraging the increasingly affordable power of mobile and cloud computing.

Here, we trace some of the biggest trends and stories in technology over the past decade, and try to find a narrative to make sense of it all.

Big tech takes over

The tech equivalent of the “great man theory” of history is the “big tech company” theory of technological progress.

Viewed this way, it might seem like the 2010s were less eventful than the 2000s – after all, the tech giants of today are largely the same as a decade ago. Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, and, to a degree, Twitter, are all pretty much as prominent today as they were a decade ago. If anything, this was the decade they collectively became leaders not just of the technology industry, but of industry itself – Apple overtook ExxonMobil as the world’s most valuable company by market cap in August 2011 (that month again), and then became the first trillion-dollar company by market cap in 2018. As the decade wore on, the title of most valuable company has basically rotated between Cupertino, Mountain View, Redmond, and Seattle ever since.

“Microsoft pivoted from chasing after Apple’s success in the consumer space under Steve Ballmer (don’t mention Nokia) to successfully focusing on the cloud under Satya Nadella (please do mention Azure)”

But each of these giants evolved in different directions over the past 10 years, many under new leadership, while facing up to the unfolding responsibilities of this new era of tech dominance.

Apple survived the death of Steve Jobs in October 2011 under the thoughtful stewardship of Tim Cook, and continued to essentially be the iPhone company, while branching into wearables and services. The ultimate failure of Siri to dominate the AI personal assistant game might come to be seen as its biggest miss of the decade.

Google, too, saw a smooth transfer of power from its founders to a new CEO, Sundar Pichai, while also strengthening its core business of search advertising and reorganizing under Alphabet.

The most triumphant transfer of control from an original generation leader to a new CEO was surely that of Microsoft, which pivoted from chasing after Apple’s success in the consumer space under Steve Ballmer (don’t mention Nokia) to successfully focusing on the cloud under Satya Nadella (please do mention Azure).

Facebook and Twitter, meanwhile, struggled under the unavoidable pressure of hosting half a globe’s worth of daily online communication. It is impossible to police such a digital realm to everyone’s satisfaction, of course, but Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey frequently seemed fazed by the very responsibility. Facebook was peerless, however, in being able to harness and monetize all that attention, even if that success brought uncomfortable scrutiny.

And finally Amazon, which continued its relentless march on all facets of modern industry by dominating online retail, winning the AI personal assistant war with Alexa, while providing the backbone to the modern internet with Amazon Web Services. It is very possible that no other company has done as much to shape our decade as Jeff Bezos’s behemoth.

Rise of mobile

Inspired by Andreessen’s maxim, in 2014 Benedict Evans coined the phrase “Mobile is eating the world,” which in retrospect feels like it downplayed just how much our daily lives have become consumed by our smartphones.

The scale is extraordinary. There are about 3.2 billion smartphone users worldwide according to recent estimates, which is about 42% of the global population. To give some perspective, there were about 300 million smartphones sold in 2010.

“Alibaba’s Alipay and Tencent’s WeChat Pay demonstrate how apps are revolutionizing our economies – they have swiftly become the default payment mechanism across China”

More important than the sheer number of devices out there, however, is the degree to which they have become extensions of ourselves – we are always online now, to the extent that any distinction between online and real-world life is being blurred to the point of invisibility.

When Apple started using the catchphrase “There’s an app for that” in 2009 to convey the breadth and variety of apps available in its App Store, we could barely begin to picture just how true that would become – well over half the time spent online in the US is spent on smartphone apps. In Asia, the likes of Alibaba’s Alipay and Tencent’s WeChat Pay demonstrate how apps are revolutionizing our economies – they have swiftly become the default payment mechanism across China.

These apps provide effectively infinite distractions, with the result that boredom has for all intents and purposes become a thing of the past. The state of having nothing to occupy your mind but the thoughts in your mind is increasingly alien to us, more of a memory from childhood than a facet of our daily existence.

And it’s not just boredom that is receding into history. In the era of Google Maps, Uber, and Lyft, being lost increasingly feels like an ailment from a different era, like smallpox or bubonic plague.

Instagram and Snapchat have changed photography into a medium of personal expression, birthing a new industry – influencers – and even changing our notions of beauty (with some disturbing results.)

“If there was a time when people felt talking on the telephone was impersonal compared to talking in person, and a time when sending messages felt impersonal compared to talking on the phone, those figures alone suggest those reservations have well and truly been left behind”

The likes of Tinder, Grindr, and Bumble have remade the dating scene entirely – love, relationships, and the laws of attraction are suddenly operating in an environment of maximum convenience and the illusion of infinite choice.

And then there’s messaging. Consider WhatsApp, founded in 2009 and now hosting more than 65 billion messages every day. In China, WeChat, which launched in 2011, sends about 45 billion messages every day. If there was a time when people felt talking on the telephone was impersonal compared to talking in person, and a time when sending messages felt impersonal compared to talking on the phone, those figures alone suggest those reservations have well and truly been left behind. The era of the smartphone can also be seen as the era of personal messaging.

The impact of social media

It’s hard to recall now, but there was a time, particularly around the Arab Spring of 2011, when it seemed that Facebook and Twitter would usher in a new era of enlightenment across the world, shifting power to the people by freeing our social and political discourse from traditional gatekeepers.

Not everyone bought it at the time (Evgeny Morozov was the most vocal skeptic of the theory), but it was hard not to be swept up in the promise we saw on the streets of Tunis, Cairo, and Tripoli.

“All technology is amoral, after all, and social networks are as amenable to carrying threats and disinformation as they are to carrying jokes and memes and our common dreams”

Subsequent years, however, have shown how naive those hopes were – all technology is amoral, after all, and social networks are as amenable to carrying threats and disinformation as they are to carrying jokes and memes and our common dreams. The Cambridge Analytica scandal showed just how vulnerable these platforms are to being misused by bad actors.

It will take some time to discern just how fundamentally our political and social discourse will be changed by the likes of Facebook and Twitter, but just as with every revolution, it will lead to both positive and negative outcomes, to both delight and disillusionment. There is a great responsibility to ensure it trends towards the former, not the latter.

Rise of the cloud and SaaS businesses

If the smartphone is foundational to the social changes we’ve seen in the past decade, then the cloud is foundational to how business has changed.

Cloud computing spent a long, long time as a nebulous buzzword, until one day everyone realized it wasn’t a buzzword at all, just a way of describing the infrastructure underpinning the decade’s technological progress.

“At a time when SaaS companies represent the vanguard of disruptive innovation, it’s not surprising that an armada of non-software companies are following suit”

Thanks primarily to Amazon Web Service and Microsoft Azure, startups were able to reach global scale at hitherto unimaginable speed – companies as diverse as Netflix, Figma, and, well, Intercom could simply “run less software” and focus on building their own differentiated technology, leaving all the undifferentiated heavy lifting to someone else.

The wave of SaaS companies that built themselves on the likes of AWS and Azure have reinforced the pre-eminence of cloud computing. What was perhaps less predictable was the ensuing prevalence of the subscription-based business model.

At a time when SaaS companies represent the vanguard of disruptive innovation, it’s not surprising that an armada of non-software companies are following suit by attempting to replicate the business model in a bid to attract investment. And so we end up with juice companies, meal-kit companies, underwear companies, to select just three, seeking to mimic the “as a service” aspect of SaaS.

As Des has often pointed out in his talk “Customer retention is the new conversion”: “This is what we’ve ended up in: a world of subscription everything…If there is a thing that you buy regularly, you can have it show up on your doorstep every month for $9 or equivalent. And that changes a lot: how we think about marketing, how we think about what our product is and how we think about what customer success actually is…This shift moves us from brand promiscuity to brand loyalty.”

And it’s not just the startups playing this game – Steve Jobs was proudly averse to the notion of subscriptions, and now Apple spends most of its earning calls boasting about the performance of its services division.

Streaming disrupts the culture

Perhaps nowhere is the impact of the subscription model quite as dramatic as in popular culture. From movies and TV to music, we now live in a cloud-enabled, subscription-based streaming wonderland.

Steve Jobs’s claim that “People want to own their music” rather than rent it might have been right when he said it around the time of the iPhone launch in 2007, but the very fabric of our culture has shifted entirely since then.

“In the space of a decade, then, DVDs, CDs, MP3 downloads, and even TV listings have gone from a staple part of our lives to downright archaic relics of the past”

Founded a year after Jobs uttered those words, Spotify now has 248 millions monthly users, and utterly changed expectations around how we pay for music – it is no longer about the act of collection, but instead a constant act of musical discovery. Apple finally relented and joined the streaming game in 2015.

Television has similarly been consumed by the streaming revolution. Netflix had 12 million subscribers for its DVD delivery service in 2010, when it decided to make video streaming its primary focus (dear reader, feel free to insert Qwikster joke here). Today, it has 158 million subscribers, and its stock was the best performing of the decade, up 4,181% over the period.

In the space of a decade, then, DVDs, CDs, MP3 downloads, and even TV listings have gone from a staple part of our lives to downright archaic relics of the past.

Maybe the rise of streaming spells the end of the mainstream – while we were once part of a collective audience of a common popular culture, but the profusion of choice has increasingly atomized our entertainment.

Perhaps Game of Thrones will be remembered less for its shock twists or disappointing finale than for being the last show of its kind, the final exercise in collective televisual entertainment. The Iron Throne, it turns out, was our shared attention, and that too is melting away under the fierce heat of our distracted world.

The decade ahead

It has been an eventful, often fraught decade in tech, then, and that’s not even to mention artificial intelligence or machine learning, Alexa or Siri, Bitcoin or WeWork, Edward Snowden or GDPR.

Bill Gates once made an astute observation about our poor grasp of how technology makes an impact over time: “People often overestimate what will happen in the next two years and underestimate what will happen in 10.”

“From romance to culture, the bonds that connected us as people have been reshaped with incredible speed”

That feels particularly apposite when looking at the decade just gone. Ultimately, all these threads have contributed to two very fundamental shifts. One transformation is in how we interact – with the world and with one another. The other transformation is in how businesses are increasingly reliant on long-term, subscription-based relationships with their customers.

As 2009 turned in to 2010, most of us would have known that the rise of the smartphone, apps and cloud computing would lead to significant change, opportunity, and upheaval across the planet, but few of us would have been able to predict the shape or direction of those changes.

They’re disrupting and disintermediating our traditional personal connections – from romance to culture, the bonds that connected us as people have been reshaped with incredible speed.

It is in this fast-changing landscape that Intercom has thrived – our mission is to make internet business personal, and we think deeply about how a sense of personal connection can be fostered and maintained in a dramatically changing digital landscape.

Whatever unfolds over the next 10 years, or even the next two, enabling businesses to make meaningful connections with their customers is going to feel more vital than ever.

Intercom on Marketing – Desktop Article – horizontal 2019