Among our anticipated assembly of keynotes this year is David Mitten, Founder of New World Same Humans, a newsletter on trends, technology and society with 22,000 weekly subscribers. David is an experienced broadcaster and speaker, writing and presenting documentaries for BBC Radio 4, as well as a distinguished journalist featured in The Times, The Guardian, and more.
At OEB this year, David will be speaking at the opening plenary on Thursday November 24, discussing with fellow keynotes what we can do with the technologically-upgraded flexibility we have discovered following the pandemic. We had a chance to catch up with David prior to the OEB Conference, where we asked him some questions about his life, his work, and his connection to OEB. The following interview was held virtually via Microsoft Teams at 15:00 CET on November 3rd, 2022.
Good afternoon, David, it’s nice to meet you. Thank you for meeting with me today. Firstly, can you tell us a bit about yourself and your career?
My domain really is trends, consumer trends. Really my obsession is with the trends reshaping the mindsets, behaviours and expectations of people out there. And I’m obsessed with this collision between a changing world, often that means new technologies and human nature. So, that collision between technologies that emerge, and between fundamental human needs and values. Where those two things meet, that’s where you get trends that reshape human behaviours, human mindsets, human expectations.
I was head of the research and analysis side of the business at a big well-known trends agency, that how I got started in this kind of world really. Now, I’m completely independent, and I write a newsletter about trends and technologies that’s called ‘New World Same Humans’, and I consult for brands and organisations about trends and foresighting the future and I speak a lot.
My deeper background even before this, really in a different lifetime now, is journalism. I started as a journalist at The Times newspaper back in the early 2000s, and I found I was writing more and more about technology, and then the iPhone happened, and it was obvious that the technology revolution was the big story of our lifetime. I was writing more and more about that, and that’s how I ended up going into the trends agency and shifting into the world I inhabit now.
I had a look at some of your recent newsletter editions ‘Same World New Humans’, which looks like a great resource and of course you have a lot of keen subscribers. Do you want to just talk us through where the idea came from for this?
‘New World Same Humans’ was born in the pandemic. When I was at the agency that I was at, my entire life was watching technologies, watching trends, thinking about emerging technologies and their implications on life and their implications on organisations. I just wanted an outlet to articulate these amazing changes that I was seeing. ‘New World Same Humans’ was born out of that. It started as a weekly note to the audience that we had around this company I was working at, but then I left the company and started to grow it as an independent thing.
One of the really important things about ‘New World Same Humans’ is the title of it encapsulates the principal, the thought that underpins everything I do. This collision between a changing world that often means new technologies and human nature. When those two things collide, that’s when powerful new trends emerge, and I just wanted a title that captures that perfectly, and I hope ‘New World Same Humans’ does.
And it’s grown, I mean it’s just an incredible feeling to have an audience and be able to share your thoughts with them every week and hear what they think. It’s not just a newsletter, it’s a community, there’s a Slack community around where hundreds and hundreds of people in there are designers, technologists, policy people, academics – all sharing their ideas and their interesting spottings. It was an incredible feeling to be building that during the pandemic, when we were all at home isolated in our houses, in our bubbles. It’s just grown and grown from there, and I love really at heart; I’m a writer more than anything, that’s why I became a journalist, I love doing it.
I think the title works perfectly! It’s hard when you’ve got so much on one platform, you think ‘how can sum it up’?
The thing with titles is I’ve learned through life, they don’t really matter. Some of my favourite things have terrible titles. If you have a bad title, it doesn’t really matter. Like even The Beatles is a terrible name for a band when you think about it, it’s a terrible pun, but you just forget that.
You’re right – the main thing is, they love it; they remember it even without the title memorised. Of course, OEB is a conference all about learning. So, I was wondering what, or who, would you say has been your best teacher?
Part of why I’m so excited to speak at OEB is because my mum was a primary school teacher, and so I grew up around teachers. All her friends were teachers, and she even taught at the primary school I was at for a while, and after school, I would hang out with her before we went home. All the other children would be gone, and I would still be there hanging out with all the different teachers and I felt that was completely normal. It’s only now I have primary school-aged children of my own, I realise how much that taught me about teachers and what they’re really like, and what they’re really doing.
I’m passionate about education and I understand what’s happening in schools, and I’ve always been passionate about education and learning, so I’d say my mum was my most formative teacher and the teacher in my life that was the most influential. My sister’s a teacher now at university, so we’re a teaching and education family. I went into journalism, so I went in a slightly different direction, but that’s part of why this is such a fun subject to speak about for me, because it brings together two things I love: which is new technologies and the changing worlds, and education.
That’s a lovely background to your career! So, in terms of tech trends, digital learning, all these things you’re clearly passionate and knowledgable about. What have you seen in the industry recently that points to a brighter future?
Yes, that’s an interesting one. One of the things that the online space does is allow for the possibility of far more personalised learning. You can see that emergence in platforms now, that will offer a learning experience to a child, and based on their responses and based on what they put back into the platform, their answers essentially will be able to personalise in quite intricate and subtle ways, the learning experience as it evolves. And that’s one version of a broader trend that I’ve been tracking for ages, around data-fuelled personalisation and services, online services that evolve with the needs of the user. There are really powerful versions of that for education, and as more education moves online, the things we’ll be able to do – really personalise the content, style and speed of the learning experience for the particular user.
One of the other things that’s clearly exciting, and there’s been huge amounts of hype around it recently and we need to sort of cut through the hype but is still clearly exciting, is the Metaverse. If you start to think way beyond the classroom, when you start to think about occupational learning and education. The opportunities to deliver incredible learning experiences to meet career professionals or early career professionals, using Virtual Reality (VR) and immersive worlds, is huge. Especially when the learning experiences require manipulation of 3D models, a real sense of physical presence. I’m thinking about architects, surgeons, where you need to manipulate and rotate objects and really see what you’re talking about. Those kinds of opportunities are huge. It’s not particularly powerful to put 30 children in VR headsets and have a blackboard at the front and teach them long division – you don’t need the Metaverse for that! But the Metaverse can become really powerful with those types of learning experiences.
Those are two emerging trends and technologies that I will be talking about on stage at OEB for sure. I’ll be keen to say that, as you’d expect given my overarching interest in the collision between technologies and human nature, we need to technologies intelligently. They will never replace the incredible magic that can happen when a great teacher is there in the room with pupils, students or adults. That connection and human experience of one-to-one, one to few, or one to a classroom, is irreplaceable. The Metaverse, learning platforms can never replace that, we should aim for them to replace it. But they can augment in powerful and interesting ways. If we’re really wise about it, we’ll see them as tools that enhance our creativity and our power as teachers, but not as replacements for teachers.
I really like the way you worded ‘cut through the hype’ of the Metaverse, I think that’s really important as it’s everywhere at the moment.
Yes, and that’s another thing I’ll say on stage; yes there’s a lot of hype and a critical eye is warranted, but don’t let that fool you into thinking that it’s all just hype and you should just ignore it. There is something powerful there and there are powerful use cases for Virtual Reality (VR) and virtual worlds and eventually, we’re going to find them, and I think some are going to lay in education and learning.
Definitely – there’s hard work going into it and we should not ignore it, but also not hype it up too much. Thank you David, so I’m going to ask you a couple of questions about the upcoming OEB Conference this month. I was curious, what was your first thought on our main theme ‘Re-imagining our Vision for Learning’?
‘Re-imagining’ a vision for learning is an extremely timely theme in the light of these technologies we are talking about now, which offer really powerful opportunities to do just that: re-imagine what learning can be. In my view, the best re-imagining will be to explore these tools, to allow them to offer new types of education to many more people. But always with a foundation of respect for the incredible things that teachers and educators do, and with respect for the human knowledge, they have which you can’t get from just reading a textbook. The knowledge they have standing in front of the people and teaching them. Teachers should play a key role in helping us enact this re-imagining and how we’re using these technologies.
What do you hope people will get out of OEB this year?
I hope from my session, they take away a sense of empowerment that these incredible technologies are emerging and they can use them. They can innovate around them, or they can use what innovators create to amplify what they do as educators. That these technologies present incredible opportunities to the education space, and also to teachers and educators, the people on the frontline doing this work. So, empowerment and inspiration is what I hope they take away from my session.
And from the event overall, I hope they take away a powerful sense of the celebration of education and learning. It’s so important, it’s all so often undervalued and the work of teachers is so often undervalued. I hope people walk away rightly feeling they do amazing, important, and life-changing work and that there could be no better thing to do with their lives other than that. Whether they’re in the education industry, or on the frontline doing it. Any chance to celebrate teachers and the ecosystem around them is an amazing thing.
That’s a wonderful way to put it, thank you. And so, what do you hope to get out of OEB this year?
I want to get out of it a sense that I’ve served those people we’ve just talked about. I want the feeling that I’ve done a good job of serving those people, that I’ve given them something useful – that’s what I want to get out of it.
David, thank you so much for your time today. Finally, do you have a final message for the OEB community?
Just that I’m looking forward to seeing them in Berlin! I’m really looking forward to seeing everyone, my talk’s in the morning, and they will be plenty of time for coffee and talk afterwards.
This interview was conducted for OEB Global 2022 by Chloë Sibley.
David will be speaking at the Opening Plenary on Thursday, November 24