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Have you heard of transactional memory? It’s the outsourcing of memory to other people around us. You don’t remember your nephew’s birthday because you know your other half will. You don’t need to remember to get the car MOT’d because you know your other half will. By outsourcing this way we can store much more than we can fit in our own heads.
Human beings have always been looking for ways to be more than our own biology allows. We’re a race of toolmakers, determined to turn every material we can find to our advantage. Whether it’s a stone axe or a smartphone, we’re keen to augment ourselves to be more than we could otherwise be. Do more than we could otherwise do.
This deep and ingrained comfort with transactional memory, and our own desire to augment ourselves, is why I think we will so happily accept AI extensions of our own selves. A transactional relationship with software agents that extend our memories, our processing power, and give us the ability to do what every busy person has always wanted: to be in two places at once.
Hold that thought.
For the time being, the biggest battleground in digital marketing is still search. What this means is people spending billions of pounds and using all sorts of sneaky means to ensure that when you type the relevant words into Google or Bing, theirs is the first brand that you see.
You may not think it, but Google and Bing are your friends here. Every day its engineers go to bat to make sure that what you see when you search is not what someone else wants you to see, but objectively the most relevant answer to your question.
On the other side though, every day, every brand’s agency is working to do the opposite. To ensure that whether you’re searching for car insurance or cat food, it’s their clients who appear right at the top of those search results.
Two sides locked in a constant battle.
Hold that thought.
Tell me: do you enjoy buying toilet paper? Really? Or tinned tomatoes? Or washing powder? All those things that make up a good chunk of your weekly shop. Things you really need, but honestly, do you really want? Do you lust after them? Are you fulfilled by finding that perfect pack of triple-ply?
What if you could have a transactional relationship with an artificial intelligence who ordered those things for you. Ensured that you never had to think about them again. They would always just be there. You would never run out of washing up liquid, or dog food, or nappies again. It has access to your credit card and an online store, and limited scope for discretionary spending against a list of key items.
Outsourcing plus tools.
Now imagine the battle that is going on behind the scenes. Today that battle is between marketing agencies and search engines. But what happens when you stop searching? When you allow an AI to do the searching for you? Imagine how much effort will go into influencing your AI to buy a particular brand. This is the next big battleground and there won’t be a single human on the front lines.
Personalised marketing engines will suck in huge amounts of data about you and your peers and serve endless offers at your AI, only for it to bat them back. 99% of them will be rejected. But every now and again, based on appealing to the criteria that your AI has been given, or learned, it will change your brand of toilet paper, cat food, shower gel, or, yes, cereal.
What might that data be? Let me give you some ideas.
For a start, we will all be wearing cameras on our heads, all the time. Your AI won’t just know what brands you buy, how much you use, and when you need more, it will know what your friends and family buy and use. People like you bought things like this? Imagine Amazon’s recommendation engine turned on its head and brought into the physical world.
Your smart glasses won’t just know what you ate elsewhere, they will know how much you enjoyed it. Heart rate monitors, breathing, galvanic skin response, even an EEG reading brain activity. All this is today’s technology the output of which can already be used to reliably interpret emotion by an AI. Sampled a different cereal elsewhere and liked it? You may find a box in your next order.
But only if it’s good for you. Your personal AI will know a lot about your health. We already pump data into systems like MyFitnessPal, recording our diets and streaming data from our Fitbits and connected scales. A few years ago I made a programme called ‘In the future, toilets will be our doctors’. I wasn’t kidding. You can learn a lot about what’s going on inside you by looking at what is coming out of you.
We are already on this journey. We have outsourced our memories to digital calendars. Our sense of direction to GPS.
We are increasingly comfortable with subscription-based shopping models for everything from films to food, razors to pants.
The future of retail — at least large chunks of FMCG — is automated. Decades of marketing to humans will increasingly be turned on the AIs that assist us, trying to game them into switching our brands. This is the new brand battleground.
Mum hasn’t gone to Iceland. Nor has dad. And they haven’t sent the kids. The AI has done the shopping and it has bought you exactly what you need.
Speaking at the massive RESI conference, I highlighted for an audience of housing experts ten critical trends that will disrupt the futureRead More
Your house is leaky. It’s not an issue about what comes in, but about what goes out.
When it comes to privacy, I’m something of an optimist. I am entirely aware of the trade-offs that I make to access the variety of social and cloud-based services that I use. For the most part, I accept that they will use my data and sell it to advertisers and those interested in my habits. In return, the service doesn’t cost me any cash — at least not directly.
For personal services like Facebook and Twitter, it’s fine for us each to make this judgement call for ourselves. But when it comes to home automation and security services, we need to be a little more considered. Because most of us share our homes. Not everyone in them will share our relaxed attitude to trading our personal data. Some of them may not be old enough to make an informed decision.
I’ve become more and more aware of this as I have progressed through the latest iteration of my long-running home automation project.
A few years ago I got fed up with products from different manufacturers not talking to each other and started to build my own system. It worked, in a limited fashion, giving me data on energy consumption, turning a few lights on and off automatically, and monitoring just how absurdly damp parts of my house were.
But in truth, it was a kludge. My coding skills weren’t up to building a really solid core platform. And it was reliant on some hacked-together integrations with commercial products: HomeEasy sockets and switches, AlertMe energy monitoring. After a while, some of the commercial products I was getting sent to test started to creep in and replace my home brew kit. Fibaro’s excellent HomeCenter 2 became the heart of my system with a variety of Z-wave connected components around and about, plus a few odd extras bolted on such as bulbs from Belkin’s WeMo range, Somfy’s security system, and my Nest thermostat.
Then at the start of this year, I started getting sent lots of connected cameras. Netgear’s Arlo, the Blink range, and Panasonic’s Home Control system. In my excitement, I started thinking about where I’d mount them before I thought about whether I wanted cameras around the house.
Then it occurred to me: I’m very conscious of how much information I share about my children. Do I really want to risk storing endless hours of video of them in the cloud?
The answer, of course, was no. The cameras are back in their box. But I didn’t stop there. I started thinking: what’s happening to my energy consumption data? What’s happening to my heating data — and presence data that the thermostat also collects? What about the lights?
Individually, each one of these things may tell the world little about me and my family. But there might be 20 different cloud-connected devices in my house — maybe more. I’ve not even mentioned Alexa or the streaming media devices yet. Combined, how much of a picture can they build up of me? And more importantly, what do they already know about my family.
The result is that I have returned to the DIY route with renewed zeal, installing the excellent Home Assistant at the heart of my system and building my own switches and sensors using the incredible NodeMCU.
I realise this is the sort of geeky speak that will switch off the strategists reading this. But this stuff is important.
I met with some of the chaps from global social media superstars Social Chain last week. They showed in a presentation a storyboard of personal information being collected from a private WhatsApp chat and being used to drive targeted advertising on Facebook. At every opportunity our personal information is being captured, and it is being analysed and processed with increasing efficiency and accuracy. Data like your home temperature or energy consumption may not feel like it has a huge value to third parties. But for somebody, somewhere, it is gold.
I have no problem sharing this data for an appropriate return. But I realise now, when it comes to data about my home, this isn’t just my decision to make.
In a time of high frequency change, we are all guinea pigs. All working tirelessly to interpret, codify and normalise new ideas, objects, media and behaviours. To lay down a shared set of rules for how these things should be discussed, applied, accepted or rejected.
It can be exhausting, even for those who relish the challenge.
Not everyone embraces change. There is even an argument for some conservatism in this period, a braking force to prevent us rushing headlong into an uncertain tomorrow. But this conservatism has to come from the right place. Objective caution is one thing. Forceful rejection of the loss of relative privilege is quite another.
Old vs young is an old story, most recently retold in the mauling of millennials over the past five years. This cohort born from 1980 onward has been accused of being workshy, over-sensitive and laden with excessive expectations. There’s little evidence that any of it is true — or at least more true than it was for previous cohorts. Certainly millennials don’t job hop any more than previous generations.
Millennials have come of age in a time where they are expected to pay their way up from a young age. Where a large proportion will enter the workforce already in debt. And where the work that they find is increasingly insecure. Facing all this perhaps they are entitled to ask for more than their predecessors?
But millennials have an advantage as guinea pigs that galls their seniors. They have had young minds, biologically more capable of adaptation, throughout the most recent periods of accelerated change. They have adapted their behaviours and working styles while others feel left behind.
Perhaps this drives some of the mauling they have received.
Another group that has been vilified over the past five years is scientists, and technologists. Yes, we celebrate the superstars of Silicon Valley (though they too receive their share of brickbats). But the scale and volume of the movements that reject science, in many forms, has been growing.
For a start, there’s the conspiracy theorists. The flat earthers, the climate change deniers, the anti-vaccination lobby. Those who prefer, for whatever reason, truthiness to truth.
There’s the alternative health lobby, determined to undermine empiricism to promote their beliefs or their products, whether it’s ‘superfoods’, supplements, or pointless — sometimes even dangerous — treatments.
Fear drives a lot of these groups. Fear of things they don’t understand. Fear of losing parts of their lives they value — even their livelihoods. There’s nothing wrong with fear — it’s entirely natural. But the right response to fearing things you don’t understand is to examine them. Accept your knowledge deficit and ask questions. Don’t hide from the facts, however uncomfortable they may be.
I caught up with Lorna Fitzsimmons of The Pipeline yesterday. Inevitably, we talked about gender in the workplace, and how we are still so far from addressing the equality of women.
52% of the (potential) workforce are still significantly disadvantaged, underpaid and under-represented. Yet we know — hard fact — that changing this has a range of benefits with which few can argue. Benefits to productivity, growth, profitability. Benefits to society.
Despite this, many men — and even women — are unaware of the situation or unwilling to act to change it. Some even aggressively resist it, knowing that though it may be in the company’s interest, it may not be in their own.
That self-preservation instinct is understandable. But ultimately, it’s unsustainable.
In a time of accelerated change, it’s OK to be scared — we naturally fear what we don’t understand. But it’s not OK to be wilfully ignorant. In the long term, it won’t serve you well.
This period of high frequency change is not a blip. It’s probably the new norm, at least for some time to come. No political battle is going to disconnect us from increasingly shared ideas, media, brands and channels of communication.
Unless you want to spend the next few years afraid and struggling against the tide, it’s probably time to embrace change. Or reject it, by all means. But if you do so, do it from an informed standpoint. Otherwise the tide is likely to wash right over you.
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Why there is more food, more noise, and more competition, and what to do about it
(Based on a talk I gave at the Independent Food and Drink Academy, Leeds, September 2017. I’ve also published this as a Medium Series designed to be read on a phone — if you’re a Medium user, I’d love your feedback: The Plenty Problem (Series))
The biggest driver of change right now is technology. It may not always feel like it, with Trump and Brexit, the economy and the climate.
But while all these things are changing the world at a linear rate, some of them in ways that can be reversed, technology continues to drive change at an exponential rate.
And you can’t un-invent technology (though if Lil’ Kim gets his way, we may be fighting the next World War with sticks and stones).
Technology drives change through one mechanism. It lowers friction.
Technology might just as well be called ‘tools’. What tools do is allow us to achieve a given end with less effort. It doesn’t matter whether that end is predicting the weather, putting a satellite in space, or portioning a chicken. The right tool makes this easier.
Of course once one person has the tools to do things quicker, faster, cheaper or better, everyone else needs them in order to keep up.
It is this competitive imperative that maintains the accelerating effect of technology, whether it’s an arms race between governments or a profit race between corporations.
Or, just us at home keeping up with the Joneses.
Where technology intersects with the other challenges that we all face, at home and at work, it has five distinct effects. I’m not going to talk through all of these today, but I want to pick out two with particular relevance to your businesses.
Diversity, and Performance.
Technology has lowered the friction involved in starting and running a business, to the point where we’ve had record numbers of start-ups in recent years. This might also be driven by the poor state of the employment market but technology is a very large factor.
I do a demonstration in some of my workshops where I get teams around a table to touch all the key sources they need to start a business. In the space of twenty minutes a small team can do almost everything they need to get a business going. Source supply, set up a website, register with companies house, create a marketing campaign.
What’s the one thing they can’t do in that time? Open a bank account. But finally that seems to be changing.
Opportunities and threats
The result of this growing diversity is both opportunity and threat.
Technology means you have access to more suppliers than ever before. There just are more, and they are more connected.
Global suppliers connected by high speed communications networks, shared payment systems, well-worn paths for goods, and common languages. And local suppliers, who previously may only have been found by word of mouth but who now tweet out their wares.
Technology means you have more competition. There’s more information about how to start. More sharing of a culture of food. More access to the information about skills, requirements, and where and how to sell. More competition for premises.
Technology means there’s more channels of communication between you and your customers. But also more noise on those channels.
And this brings me to the second change effect of technology. Information flow.
We all deal with a higher rate of inbound information now than at any point in the past. We are bombarded with multimedia messages across a huge range of channels from the billboard across the street to the little battery powered magic box in our pockets.
You might not be surprised to learn the results of some research I did with Salesforce on the future of retail.
We surveyed seven thousand millennials around the world, and far and away the greatest influence on them is not television or celebrities, but their peers.
This is what creates the environment for recommendations being so powerful but it also inserts a huge amount of distractions into your communications with a potential customer.
Attraction and retention
In short, there’s always somewhere else to eat and always a friend trying to drag them there.
So what do you do about this?
One approach is to keep attracting. Pulling a constant stream of new visitors to your pop-up, stall, restaurant or bar. But increasingly large brands are directing their attention to retention. I recently spent some time with the heads of direct marketing agencies and they were all conscious of their clients investing in the tools of retention: customer experience and customer communication.
Is this a better approach for food start-ups?
The problem with building relationships is that it is expensive. It takes time to build engagement, and at small scale there’s limited opportunity for, or value from, automation. If you’re going to build a relationship, there have to be better returns from it for you than the occasional dinner.
One option is to sell more than food. The early days of any start-up — not least a food or drink start-up — is about building a brand. If your brand appeals there may be all sorts of opportunity to sell beyond your experience. Just look what you can sell by sticking the Frozen sisters on a product.
Perhaps you can become a retailer for your suppliers? Perhaps your brand is strong enough to support your own merchandise?
Circle of influence
The other option is to turn those customers you invest in, into your marketing force. This is something I see a lot as a judge of the UK Social Media Communications awards. The conscious creation of a circle of influence to amplify your message, achieving both attraction and retention.
(Something I don’t see many food start-ups doing is maximising the value of the content they already produce to feed this hungry group of influencers. Not actual food but information and media around it. The kitchen is a rich source of content. Share it.)
When doing this though, you have to be aware of the changing context of the world that your customers live in. And here the news is perhaps more positive.
Macbook. Fixie. Beard.
I’m fond of joking that there is a generation of young men in cities across the UK who own nothing but a Macbook, a fixie, and a beard. You could probably generalise by dropping the beard.
The point is that much of the media clutter of past eras has been eliminated by digital platforms, at the same time as a clear cultural shift from acquisition to experience — as shown in recent ONS stats.
Demand for third space
In parallel with this demand for more experiences, we are seeing people face declining space in their homes. More people are sharing homes, later and later in life. That might be single people or couples sharing houses for longer because of the cost of getting on the property ladder. Or it might be four generations sharing the same home.
I recently contributed to a project on the 4G (four generation) kitchen being run by the National Innovation Centre for Ageing at Newcastle University. There were considerations of safety and accessibility but also design: how do you make a shared space desirable to everyone? Perhaps you can’t.
Of course, we used to have a shared space we could all go to, to get out of the home. It was called the pub. But over time the meaning of the pub has shifted, its role in community declined, and ultimately many of the older pubs that fulfilled this role have closed.
Maybe it’s time for a renaissance?
Desire for the physical
The third contextual trend to consider, is the growing valuation of physical experiences in an increasingly digital world.
There’s no doubting the convenience of digital — it’s very low friction. And hence it consumes the bulk of the market. But the resurgence in vinyl that we have seen, as well as the sustained viability of print books, suggests we still value a tactile experience. In fact, we value it all the more.
And, bar one, there is no more tactile experience than eating.
The best of times, the worst of times
In summary then, you are starting up at perhaps the best moment for a food business. A growing share of household spend goes on eating out. There is a clear focus on experience in popular culture. And a rising appreciation of physical experiences in contrast to the increasingly digital nature of the everyday.
But you also face some of the greatest challenges. More competition. And more noise for you to cut through to reach potential customers. You have access to ‘weapons grade’ marketing tools unavailable to any previous generation. But so does everyone else.
How do you deal with the volley of high speed information facing you today? Can you raise your game and accelerate your response?Read More
I’ve just been through the arduous process of remortgaging. For various reasons, my remortgage was more complicated than most, which meant more interactions with the lender’s solicitors than might otherwise be required.
It was painful.
Just writing about this now I can feel my tension-levels rising. By the end of the process I started to get irritated as soon as a new form dropped through the door or another piece of correspondence pinged into my inbox.
I hate form-filling at the best of times. Were I wealthy, my biggest luxury would be to never touch another piece of administration. But I can just about cope if the forms, and the rules behind them, are well designed.
These were not.
Every instruction and interaction was confusing, non-specific and poorly designed. It was clear that the rules that they were trying to satisfy through this appalling bureaucracy were also somewhat archaic and arcane.
There was just no need.
Even accounting for the ageing laws behind the process, good design could have contracted the process by three quarters and cut the number of interactions by about 90% (in my very rough estimation).
But what would this do?
This would cut down the amount of work involved for the firm of solicitors conducting the process. As I mentioned in a previous piece, some organisations like friction. It’s where they make their money. Law firms are one of them. Friction equals time, and time is what they bill for.
Ultimately though, this sort of white-collar busywork is unsustainable. Friction starts fires — in other words, friction is always an opening for disruption. Eventually someone of sufficient scale will do this so much better that everyone else will have to follow.
I don’t intend to be remortgaging again any time soon. But for the next person, I really hope that day comes soon.