In her talk The Other AI: Artificial Intimacy at SXSW 2023, Belgian-American psychotherapist Esther Perel discussed how technology is affecting our approach to intimacy, relationships and real-life human connections. “What concerns me is how digitally facilitated connections are now lowering our expectations of intimacy between humans,” she said early in the talk, before adding: “The relentless focus on optimization has actually optimized away our ability to be present, to be surprised, to be available to each other.”

Data from Wunderman Thompson Intelligence’s "The age of re-enchantment" report supports this assertion that we’ve lost crucial human connections, and that people are yearning for new ways to build community and emotional wellbeing. 85% of those surveyed said they believe that “people seem to have less time for each other these days,” while 56% agree that “there’s no sense of community anymore.”

Peoplehood, the latest venture from the founders of group exercise phenomenon SoulCycle, is one of a growing number of companies responding to this need by facilitating meetings with strangers. “In a world that is more digitally connected than ever, there’s a human connection crisis,” says Peoplehood co-founder Elizabeth Cutler. Thus, they have created a communal space where the lost daily ritual of meaningful conversation can be revived. During 60-minute guided sessions called Gathers, lonely, disconnected, or overwhelmed participants meet to “unload, share, listen, and connect.” 

A white smart phone screen in front of a white background. The screen reads: Would you like to have breakfast?
The Breakfast

Portuguese app The Breakfast also aims to help people seamlessly integrate nourishing and social conversations with strangers into their everyday lives. Offering a similar user experience to dating apps, it connects users with new and interesting people to meet for breakfast. Co-founder Eteri Saneblidze tells Wunderman Thompson Intelligence: “Human interactions are crucial for us and our wellbeing. They bring joy, emotions, a sense of belonging, and opportunities. There is also a lot of self-discovery in one-to-one interactions, you get to know yourself better while talking to other people."

“Breakfast is a virtually universal ritual across cultures and generations. This is something everyone does every day, and it's easy to make it a fun and healthy practice.” The app is now available in New York, Lisbon, Berlin, Kyiv, and London and, interestingly, allows people to choose whether they’d like to meet someone who is similar or different to them.

Around the world brands, retailers and charities are stepping in to help others looking for this sense of reconnection. In the north of England the Chatty Bus, run by the Age UK charity and local internet provider KCOM, moves around the streets of Hull, Brough, Beverley, and Cottingham offering conversation and free advice on how people can stay connected with their communities. Conversation-focused supermarket checkouts are also becoming commonplace in many markets. Last year French supermarket giant Carrefour released plans to have at least one of what it calls “Blablabla” checkouts in every store, while Dutch supermarket Jumbo now has ‘slow checkouts’ in 125 of its locations in Belgium and The Netherlands. Sobeys in North America and Morrisons in the UK have also expanded similar schemes that prioritize human connection over speed and convenience.

While optimization-focused technology can be blamed for diluting human connections, Colombian art director Daniel Shambo believes tech can also help create new and rewarding communal experiences and places.

“What I think people want to feel is this sense of connection that's bigger than you. It surpasses you. It's not you and your friends, it's a collective thing. We don't have many spaces to feel that in our current society.”

The silhouettes of two children running in front of a screen with pink and purple flowers.
Image by Timbo Estudio, courtesy of Jardin.

Last year he worked with producer Santiago Caicedo and sound designer Adriana García Galán to create an interactive and immersive digital garden called Jardin. Premiering at the Colombia 4.0 IT and digital content event, artworks on big screens responded to the movement of people and groups as they moved throughout the space. “With all these interactive installations,” he added, “what happens is that you don't know lots of people that are there. They're strangers to you. When was the last time you had the chance to play with a stranger? I think that's very powerful.”

To find out more about people’s yearning for Radical Reconnection and the role that brands can play, see Wunderman Thompson Intelligence’s new report, "The age of re-enchantment."

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