Young people are banking on the power of techno-optimism to counter an overwhelmingly pessimistic outlook of the future and Virtue’s Zoe Chen examines how brands can explore new possibilities in technology to create a more sustainable future. Inside Culture by Virtue is a mini-series that puts a spotlight on the emerging forces that are disrupting today and shaping tomorrow, championing a diverse range of case studies and opinions across Asia – the rising epicentre of global culture.

Sustainability is indisputably one of the world’s biggest concerns today. Most efforts are focused on environmental issues but sustainability should also be considered from the angle of humanity: how can we create a future that is more inherently human and optimistic? A radical embrace of technology and its possibilities could pave the way forward for a more sustainable future.

From AI potentially eliminating millions of jobs to Meta burning billions on its metaverse project, the current sentiment around technology is dystopian, pessimistic or, at best, delusional. But techno-optimism and hope punk movements are championing a different perspective on technology. They believe technology is our ally, helping us to live our best lives, enhancing humanity and feeling more alive in the world, ultimately creating a sustainable and fulfilling way of living.

This defiantly optimistic view can help us reimagine our world in new and eye-opening ways, reconnect with humanity in an increasingly polarised and isolated world or even maximise the human experience, unlocking a plethora of possibilities for brands to participate credibly and meaningfully in the sustainability conversation.

Technology is leapfrogging reality to imagine better worlds

Anushka Naiknaware, 13, an inventor and scientist and the youngest winner of the Google Science Fair Award, said, “The wealth of tools at our disposal is testament to the exponential intellectual growth that we have collectively experienced in recent years. This is incredibly exciting because it took eons to get to the wheel and the fire… I’m excited to see how fast we can go. I would say that my generation has the belief that you can innovate yourself out of any problem.”

This innate belief in one’s ability to create change enabled by technology is breaking down physical boundaries and supercharging our collective imagination for alternative worlds and sustainable futures. Sky Farm Island is the world’s first Roblox game that educates players on sustainability. It is based in land-scarce Singapore where children are more accustomed to seeing packaged produce in supermarkets than plants thriving in nature. Via a virtual world, Sky Farm Island is enabling a generation of city-dwelling kids to build and manage a vertical farm, accelerating their appreciation for nature and knowledge of sustainability.

Sky Farm Island on Roblox

The latest Coca-Cola Creations Y3000 was inspired by the hope punk movement’s optimistic vision of the future powered by technology and humanity. Co-created with human and artificial intelligence, Y3000 teleported people into the Year 3000 with a personalised Y3000 AI Cam that reimagined their current reality for the future.

Coca-Cola Y3000 and user-generated images from Y3000 AI Cam

Technology is rehumanising a disconnected and isolated world

Everyday technology has the ability to dehumanise and pull us apart. When our options are pre-filtered by algorithms and reacting to a text message is as easy as double-tapping to add a heart, human interactions today can feel pre-determined, detached and vacant.

To fight against what seems like an eventual demise of real human connections, techno-optimists are weaponising technology to rehumanise the world. The pandemic was a great accelerator of this, from neighbourhood WeChat groups to extend daily care and support during lockdowns in China, to digital workspaces, like Gather, created to make virtual interactions more spontaneous and serendipitous after months of distant and awkward Zoom calls.

In areas where isolation has severe health implications, technology is being used to replicate and scale humanity. Paro the Seal is a therapeutic robot designed as a seal to help individuals in Japan with dementia, emotional and behavioural distress, and cognitive disorders by offering care and companionship.

Paro the Seal in action at a nursing home

By elevating technology that enhances, not diminishes, the best parts of humanity, brands can explore how technology can facilitate greater empathy amongst human beings and help us connect or even love better.

Indian condom brand KamaSutra launched Kamaverse, a virtual world that offers a level of openness and positivity around sex that young Indians don’t have in real life. By using virtual avatars to answer questions without judgement and virtual rooms to allow product discovery in a safe and private environment, KamaSutra is leveraging technology to help young Indians be more open-minded and communicative partners, and possibly, even better lovers.

KamaSutra’s Kamaverse

Technology is creating the Humans 3.0 experience

Neil Harbisson, the first person in the world officially recognised as a cyborg with an antenna implanted in his skull, said, “We are exploring how we can consciously expand the definition of what it means to be human, exploring technology that redesigns our senses to take in more of the world, to perceive the world in different ways, to feel more and fully alive.”

From the synesthesia phenomenon on TikTok that has over 289 million views and countless requests for synesthetes to taste names or describe the colour of songs, to the mainstreaming of cyberpunk anime like “Ghost In The Shell”, “Chainsaw Man” and “Cyberpunk 2077”, techno-optimists are exploring and pushing the limits of human physicality to connect, feel and experience the world around them in richer and more immersive ways than ever before.

老八捌’s cyborg-and-heritage-inspired looks

SynesthesiaTok; Chainsaw Man; TikTok’s Planet Filter

Technology is challenging the limits of human evolution to maximise the human experience. Brands and even entire malls are looking at how they can enable people to feel and experience in richer and more immersive ways than ever before.

In China, SKP Mall collaborated with Gentle Monster to design an otherworldly mall to “break consumers’ expectations and constantly surprise them with new ones”. Each floor in SKP-S comprises a carefully chosen palette of scents, materials, lighting, robotics and art installations, bringing in themes of synesthesia and heightened sensory input to create the Humans 3.0 experience.

A floor on SKP-S where visitors feel like they’re living on Mars; an installation of two robots engaging in a conversation about the present and future; tenant brands are encouraged to experiment and explore future versions of themselves – Designboom, Jing Daily

Stanley Chan Quifan, author of “AI 2041” and one of China’s pioneer sci-fi writers, said, “Technology needs humanity and people from different cultures, including minorities and indigenous communities, to reshape a more inclusive approach to technology to ultimately create a more inclusive world.”

In a world where the outlook is bleak and overall sentiment is pessimistic, a radical embrace of techno-optimism could enhance and elevate humanity in pursuit of a sustainable future where humans exist in symbiosis with our environment.