Silvanto spent the past decade working at Apple’s famed Industrial Design team, reporting to Jony Ive. At Apple, Silvanto oversaw the development of several consumer products that are now integral parts of our everyday lives. He also worked at AirBnB where he built and led an industrial and interaction design team for the Samara initiative.
Championing a systemic approach to innovation
Silvanto firmly believes that the world needs a new approach to innovation. “Most of our crises are systemic and the new solutions can’t be built on top of broken models.” Corporations now need to think and build systemically as well: they need to understand the systems that shape contemporary life and design solutions with those systems in mind.
“Leaders in business or politics simply can’t ignore their responsibility to lead more systemic change and measure value more broadly and fairly.” A truly systemic approach to innovation means thinking and designing more inclusively. It means investigating different perspectives. “Gemic is unique in their ability to understand both the individual human and collective, systemic change from so many perspectives. We can build bold new models together without losing sight of the innate wisdom in humanity.”
Silvanto will champion this approach even further at Gemic. “I believe the best design navigates and leads societal and technological shifts and, at all times, stands for the human, including future generations of humans. Great design inspires care. It enables all stakeholders to do the right thing. This is what I wish to accomplish at Gemic.”
Honing how companies build on their cultural strengths
From his years at Apple, Silvanto learned the ways in which iconic companies build iconic cultures. At Gemic, he hopes to help companies turn their values into strengths.
Iconic companies have clear and honest stories about what matters to them. Companies thrive when they understand what they stand for, what makes them unique, and what their vision is for a better world.
One way that Apple tapped into their cultural strengths was by creating environments that enabled people to learn and do their best work. “So much of what I can see and do in the world comes from learning from other human beings. In Jony (Ive), I had the leader and ‘bigger brother’ that I had been looking for who had the confidence to put my growth and my ability to contribute in the center of our relationship to the benefit of a shared goal. He gave me clear feedback on my strengths and weaknesses. And provided a model for leadership that I put to use in my projects.”
Encouraging companies to prioritize “serious curiosity”
Silvanto is an advocate of what he calls “serious curiosity,” which is at odds with many of the innovation labs being built today. “Innovation without a continuous effort to maintain and refine what has already been invented doesn’t create sustained results. Greatness takes so much discipline, so much ownership and bravery, and then invention requires letting go of what worked before.”
Serious curiosity is a commitment to continuous improvement. “Central to my worldview is this idea that every model we have created is wrong, but some are very useful. That everything is in flux and can be improved or changed. That between our values and our actions the limitations are often illusions. That we have the power and responsibility to build a better way and ultimately that observation creates reality.”
I’m one of the co-founders of Gemic, which we started about 12 years ago. The reasons behind founding a company like Gemic are manifold, but first and foremost I wanted to combine my interests in people, society and social science with my interest in business. This is becoming more common now, but at that time, you often had to sacrifice one for the other. I always thought that was strange because they share so many common interests, especially when you think about how societies create value. So we decided to build that bridge ourselves.
Using your Gemic lens, what are some of the key transformations you see taking place as a result of COVID-19?
Well, one of the big things we’re monitoring is the tension between local and global economies, and the disparities between who can really benefit from global economic structures. In reality, only a handful of major metropolises can benefit from the capital flows of the global economy. That disparity, especially as it impacts smaller metro, suburban and rural areas, has been thrown into stark contrast by the virus.
At the same time, we’re seeing large global platforms take on characteristics that would normally be ascribed to regional or national infrastructure, as well as more nationalistic and political significance. So much so, that patronizing these platforms is starting to take on a weighted meaning.
What are some real world examples of this transformation and of the tensions you’re describing?
We’re seeing a huge migration of life onto large e-commerce platforms like Amazon or Alibaba’s various properties, and for obvious reasons: we are staying home more, we have more time, and we value speed and ease now more than ever.
These companies have also sharpened their digital offerings and their logistics to a fine point, and the type of convenience they offer has become really important during times of crisis. It turns out, we actually do prefer automation over human interactions sometimes.
In many places, they’ve also come to replace or fix broken public infrastructures, from roads and bridges to the postal service… It’s no wonder that the US is such a hub for this type of development because much of our public infrastructure is broken. If nothing else, COVID19 has proved that to us.
So then the question arises of who do we become and what do we support when we patronize them?
When we use global e-commerce platforms, we don’t see the clear and immediate impact of that cash flow on our local economy, at least not in the same way we might with other smaller businesses.
So, it almost becomes a question of your allegiances. Do you see yourself somehow rooted in a nation state? Or do you see yourself as part of a neighborhood that you need to support and should therefore patronize its businesses?
Or, are you this global person, who’s a free individual without any commitment, who’s able to reap the benefits of global capital flows, the global job market, etc. I think a lot of political struggles we have in our society are about this type of tension. So we will eventually feel this global-local debate on every possible level.
But what do we mean when we say local really?
Ha! That’s a question for another time…
So what do you think will happen to these large platforms?
It’s hard to say anything for sure right now, but we may start to see global corporations invest in re-making themselves into systems that provide care for people more intentionally at a local level – both because it benefits them and because people will demand it.
Right now, we are seeing cracks in our old systems become more obvious, and people have more time and space to really question whether things should be the way they are. One of those things is whether or not global corporations are really benefiting us at a direct level in the ways they should.
As our lives shift onto these platforms – we will expect them to care. This is going to put tremendous pressure on these platforms, but as we hand over more and more power to them, we will expect more than just a service in exchange. We will expect them to be a reliable backbone to our society because – and this may be specific to the US – we can’t necessarily trust the government to provide that backbone anymore.
That is really interesting – but what would it look like in practice?
Well, I think we’ve seen something like this in the way American corporations stepped up to the plate during WWII, and obviously, there are comparisons to be made to certain companies increasing production of PPE during COVID-19. But, I think the answer goes beyond owning a “moment” of patriotic national pride in production. Winning companies will make longer term change and tangible change that people can feel at a localized level.
For example, when Finland began to urbanize and industrialize at the turn of the 20th century – quite late in comparison to other nations in the region — a large number of farm workers and agricultural laborers flooded into the cities. They were largely disadvantaged, without access to capital and fair prices for many basic necessities. Almost immediately you saw the rise of these worker’s co-ops — cohorts of people who were invested in an ecosystem of retailers, banks, and farms.
These large groups of previously disadvantaged people suddenly had access to a social safety net, resources and capital through cooperatives that would eventually become some of the largest companies in the Nordics. A lot of the Northern European co ops are still massive companies to this day. They’ve kind of lost that characteristic but they were born in a time when there were dramatic social, political, and economic inequalities in society, as there are now because of the virus.
So, there are examples of how a corporation can provide real benefits for local people at scale. I think it is likely that we will see people begin to look for this kind of tangible, local change from global corporations. The question for corporations then, is how can they build a reliable system that provides people with some sort of care? There are some really interesting parallels and lessons to be learned.
So it’s all about building mutual benefit?
Yes, it’s about how large global e-commerce platforms, and corporations more broadly, build offerings where there’s some kind of mutually beneficial system. Not just asking how they can serve people, but how they can make change that is visible at a local, personal level.
The interesting question now for people who participate in the platform economy is, ‘How does this platform guarantee fairness for all parties?’ How do we make you feel like you have a stake in it? That you’re not just a consumer? That there’s come real mutual benefit beyond pure convenience? I think these questions are going to be immensely important.
This sounds like a colossal amount of change in a short period of time – do you think it will really happen?
Well, I think we may start to see an amplification of something that was already there. These questions surrounding what value global platforms provide to people in their day to day lives existed well before the virus began. We’re just seeing them come to light because we’re spending more time on them and they’re performing increasingly important functions in our lives.
We see some cracks in our current system widening, and things will start to change little by little. Not everything is going to change overnight, but the seeds are there.
So it’s in the best interest of these companies to reconsider how they can best provide people some kind of benefit that creates a sustained, mutual, beneficial relationship between themselves and consumers. I think any platform that could do this would be massively successful.
Johannes is the Founder and Chairman of Gemic. Based in New York, he advises executives across CPG, fashion, mobility and tech on how to respond to cultural, structural and behavioral change. To do this, he believes in starting with the right questions: What business are industries really in? Where is the value in being an “iconic” brand? In guiding executives toward the right questions, Johannes has helped top-tier companies redefine their markets and create meaningful value for shareholders. Contact him at email@example.com
In the coming weeks and months, Gemic will be delving into the experiences of everyday people, taking a glimpse into how “normal” life is being transformed by C-19.
This week, Gemic goes inside grocery shopping with Jared — a 30-year-old Digital Marketing manager from Brooklyn. An avid and early adopter of online services like Instacart and Amazon Fresh, Jared has recently found himself switching back to brick and mortar. In this photojournal, he gives us a glimpse into “the why” behind this switch and a window into what grocery shopping means going forward.
So, you went grocery shopping again this week?
Ha ha, yes, I did, once again! It used to be that I only went grocery shopping when my fridge was empty and I had to fill an immediate need. Now, I find myself going when my fridge is still about a quarter full. At that point, I know I probably have enough food to last for a week, but I also have no idea what’s going to happen in a week, so there’s more anticipation and more planning these days.
I recall that you were an early adopter of services like Amazon Fresh, but now it sounds like you’re going to the store more often than not
Yeah, I live walking distance from two major grocery stores, but I had been using Prime and Instacart for convenience. But now, I’m finding that they don’t have any time slots for delivery or that I’m literally gambling with the possibility of items disappearing from my cart in the time it takes to set up the delivery. It’s been a pretty frustrating experience and I’ve found myself just wanting a more hands-on experience.
Also, I think I’ve decided that for me – a relatively young and healthy person with no pre-existing conditions – it just makes more sense to go to the grocery store. It’s weird because it feels like I’ve had to become some kind of a hunter-gatherer, whereas before I would’ve just waited for things to show up. But now, I prefer going into the store and getting that immediate confirmation of seeing items that I know can work.
Plus, a lot of stuff in my nearby store is local, so I feel like it’s merchandised for me and my neighborhood, not for just anyone and everyone on the internet. It’s the difference between ‘eggs for you!’ and ‘internet eggs.’
So what does your actual shopping routine look like now?
Well, I obviously spend more time getting ready, but I’m trying not to go overboard. I’m wearing my mask and my regular clothes. I’m not wearing gloves because I prefer to just touch the things I need to touch and wash my hands afterward, rather than have a false sense of security from the gloves.
I’ve also started making grocery lists. When this all started, I was literally going to the store and buying everything I could carry, but nowI feel like there’s been more consistency and leveling off. It’s almost a sense of normalcy if that makes sense? I don’t expect things to get any worse, so I’m just buying what I need to get by. Part of that is going in with a better understanding of what’s essential – what’s a ‘must-have’ or ‘a need’ vs. just ‘a want’ or a panic purchase. The list helps with that, and I feel more confident that the store will have something of value.
And where are you doing most of your grocery shopping now?
I go to Amazon 360, or rather, Whole Foods 360! Whole Foods is basically the Amazon grocery store in my mind. I figure that because it’s Amazon, they’ll have more options and better variety. That said, I’ve found myself buying a lot more of the Amazon or Whole Foods brand stuff because it’s cheaper and better stocked than other brands.
Can I just say though, that this experience has really made me miss Target, of all places! My Target was always overcrowded and I was always complaining about the people in there, but I didn’t realize how much it meant to me before now. The idea of a one-stop-shop where you could literally buy a latte, a lamp, and frozen pizza – imagine! I really look forward to the day when I can take walks through Target again.
On that note, how has the in-store experience changed for you?
I definitely have a greater sense of ‘am I going to catch something in this place’ since the risk of catching something is still very real. At the same time, I can’t live in that kind of fear, so I just choose to proceed with caution and pay very close attention to hygiene. It helps that everyone is wearing masks and there’s more regulation over how many people can shop at once. Also, it’s Whole Foods, so people are relatively polite about keeping a safe distance.
That said, you can’t help but notice the slightest bit of competition with other shoppers. It’s those moments when you lock eyes with someone who is also walking toward the last loaf of bread. I’m not necessarily worried about the stores running out of food, but it’s jarring to see empty shelves or shelves with just a single item. I’m seeing that a lot with things like pasta sauce, jelly, frozen foods, deli meats…gone! What are people doing with all the pasta sauce?
That may be why I’m starting to notice brands that I never noticed before. For example, there’s this healthy food brand called Evol – apparently, they’ve been around for a while, but I never noticed them until now, as the shelves are so bare.
Who or what’s behind all those empty shelves?
I think it’s a combination of panic buying and issues with the supply chain, especially when it comes to labor. It’s crazy to think people might be getting sick to keep me fed.
I suppose that’s another reason why I’ve been doing more grocery shopping in-store than online – because when I push that delivery button, I know that someone is going to have to go collect those 30 things, put them in several different packages and send them to me. Before, it was a question of people in factories and warehouses in suspect working conditions, but now it’s a question of someone putting themselves and their loved ones at risk to make my packages get delivered, which is unreal. How do you negotiate that as a society, much less a consumer? I don’t know, but I think it’ll be the next frontier for workers’ rights.
In the meantime, I find myself asking whether I can just find the item I’m looking for on my own, or if I can get it through some other means beyond delivery – at least when it comes to food and drinks.
How else do you think this experience might change the way you approach grocery shopping?
That’s a good question and to be honest, it will probably depend on how this plays out. Here’s what I can say for sure: I have a much deeper appreciation for what it takes to get food on the shelf and for the workers who make that happen.
I think we’ve all been spoiled by a culture of on-demand and this moment feels like a good reset on that. Reckoning with the fact that I’m not always going to be able to get exactly what I want to get exactly when I want it, is actually helping me reassess what’s essential. I wouldn’t be surprised if I stopped buying certain things altogether, because I’m realizing they’re not very useful or they don’t add some other value to my life.
Lastly, I don’t think I’ll ever take Target for granted again.
We are starting to realize all the ways in which everything is connected.
Quarantine in Mumbai is disrupting the global distribution of labor, since many people working in the city’s claim processing centers don’t own laptops and can’t work from home.
Limited access to clean water in places like Flint, Detroit and Newark is interfering with personal hygiene, expanding the spread of the virus and the scope of the public health emergency.
Slow-downs in the construction and service industries are preventing many migrant workers from sending remittances, transmitting the economic crisis in richer countries to poorer countries throughout South America, Asia, Africa and Europe.
And so it has been – through a systemic contagion across people, communities, supply chains and beyond – that C19 has found the perfect conditions for crippling markets and economies.
This kind of “systems thinking” draws material connections between the supply, the demand and the structural conditions across employment, education, health, mobility, information and technology within a given market. It reimagines a market as a market ecology, rather than a matrix of segments and competitors. Most importantly, it draws correlations between the health and resilience of that market ecology with the health and resilience of the business sector – acknowledging that when a key structure within the system is compromised, the whole system is at risk.
Approaching growth through this kind of systemic framework will certainly challenge the orthodoxies within many corporations, upending pre-COVID notions around who businesses really serve and how businesses really generate value. For example, what would it mean for a grocery chain to focus on community access to nutrition, rather than just selling food and bev? What would it mean for a social media company to help build ecosystems – of restaurants, schools, grocers, banks, other households – in addition to building networks? There is nothing like a crisis and the threat of market collapse to raise these kinds of questions and put established value propositions into perspective.
Inevitably, many companies will steer backward, seeking to regain some sense of pre-COVID “normalcy.” But the allure of that familiar status quo comes with the risk of another contagion in the relative short term – and so far, there is no evidence to prove that markets would fare any better in the second round. Therefore, the question that businesses must now ask themselves is not just whether they can go back to business as usual, but whether they should.
Within Gemic, we see an opportunity for businesses to shift toward a more systemic logic that connects business growth and sustainability to the health and investment in the broader social systems within which they operate.
Practically and symbolically, we find a useful starting point for this shift in the strategy of Care, which has been in shockingly short supply over the past few weeks.
Beyond health-care, the discourse, practice and principle of Care has been infiltrating every domain: world leaders are adopting lofty rhetoric of Care to placate the citizenry while performing Care through expansive economic stimuli; meanwhile, the balance of world powers is shifting, as geopolitical influence begins to reflect how effectively countries can Care for their citizens, communities and infrastructures; on social media, acts of Care have become a form of currency; whereas on the ground, people are sacrificing personal freedoms to show Care for the collective; and to ensure their survival, more businesses are trading in new promises of made / served / packed “with care.”
In a world where systemic Care is proving to be the best defense against systemic contagion, how can companies employ Care to help rebuild and reinforce their key markets?
We see several essential starting points:
Beyond defining a company purpose, define a POV on Corporate Citizenship
Beyond achieving scale and efficiency, strive for durability across human labor, supply chain, distribution and demand
Beyondaffordable offerings, provide accessible experiences of Care in uncertain times
Beyond developing the best experiences for users, develop enduring relationships with people and communities
Beyond practicing hygiene standards, develop an ethics of hygiene that helps people to rebuild healthy relationships to themselves, others and the environment
Beyond supporting economic recovery, collaborate to ensure support for capitalism, as continued crises threaten to divide societies into winners and losers
While each company will need to approach these starting points in ways that make sense for their unique business, every company will need to move forward with care-based strategies that strengthen the systems in which they operate and safeguard their business in times of crisis.
Women living in the US today are incessantly told through advertisements, magazine covers, and social media to “embrace their imperfections,” “be themselves,” or “just do you.” At the same time, they are subjected to the perfectly curated Instagram lives of peers and influencers who plug products that promise to erase imperfections, achieve the perfect beach wave, make your nose look smaller, or your lips appear bigger. The cognitive dissonance women must shoulder and carry on a daily basis is nothing short of maddening.
This contradiction is the result of a confluence of various socio-cultural drivers: the self-acceptance paradigm has been born out of fourth-wave feminism (and its focus on bodily autonomy) in addition to a more general cultural shift towards celebrating radical authenticity. The conflicting demand for aesthetic perfection, on the other hand, is a reflection of a performance- and self-promotion-driven society, which has yet to fully drop its “traditional” views of what a woman is supposed to look like in order to get ahead.
Over the last few years, brands specifically targeting young women have extensively tapped into the language of self-acceptance. Within fashion and beauty, in particular, advertisements championing authenticity and body positivity are the new norm. Marketing campaigns from Billie, Thirdlove and countless other female-focused beauty brands assert that being yourself means not altering the way you look in any way. The campaigns dovetail with social media trends such as #nomakeupselfie or #freethepimple, which ostensibly advocate for radical authenticity.
Concurrently, new beauty benchmarks for young women have arrived in the form of perfectly curated, deceptively effortless looking Instagram feeds of celebrities and influencers. Saturated with tutorials, tips, tricks, and prescribed habits, women can feel like they only have themselves to blame when they inevitably fall short of perfection.
In practice, this means that while well-intentioned, “self-acceptance” messages tend to simply add to a long list of expectations that women are confronted with on a daily basis – rather than freeing them from those expectations. Women now feel that they need to prove that they fully accept themselves and their bodies, by looking as natural and effortless as possible. But since they also seek to keep up, they often navigate this conflict by opting for products and procedures that perfect their appearance while hiding their traces; explaining, for example, the fact that Botox injections among women below 30 are on the rise.
Moving beyond male-defined paradigms
This is a world in which women can’t win. Nor can brands that target women. The reason for this is that both “self-acceptance” and “self-perfection” live within the same male-defined and outdated system of beauty – although they respond to it differently.
The basic assumptions of this system are: 1) The aim of female beauty is to satisfy the male gaze and 2) That feminine beauty is exclusive to cis women.
Within this system, perfecting your body or putting on eyeliner and red lipstick is a pragmatic choice for women. Some could say it is empowering; not necessarily in a feminist sense as it doesn’t address the underlying social issues but in a more basic, literal sense, because playing along with the rules of the “beauty system” provides more immediate rewards than not doing so.
It also makes sense that within this system, wearing makeup as a man is risky business – because in a world that devalues feminine culture and identity, opting for overtly feminine modes of expression threatens the patriarchal belief in male superiority.
Self-acceptance, on the other hand, is a direct rejection of this system, without transcending it. The problem is that this strategy in its most dominant form, which is based on a “0-transformation-policy,” offers no valid alternative. It doesn’t have a point of view on aesthetics, self-improvement, or social change. It tells women to give up some of their power without offering clear opportunities to regain it. It promises empowerment but doesn’t deliver.
Moreover, the word “empowering” itself is unhelpful when talking about subverting traditional beauty because it implies that women don’t have power to start with – that it needs to be given to them. It reflects and reinforces the reality of a male-centric system.
Reframing feminine beauty
To resolve women’s self-expression dilemma, beauty needs to do more than empower them: it needs to express their inherent power. This development feels inevitable as female power is undeniably on the rise.
The growing population of voting age women and women engaged in the political process is having a critical impact on the political landscape; while at the same time the growing population of college-educated women and women working outside of the home has contributed to a surge in purchasing power, with women now controlling 51% of the wealth in the US.
Meanwhile, archetypal and stereotypically feminine traits such as emotional intelligence, collaboration, intuition, and nurturing have and continue to become more valuable in a complex, knowledge-based economy and a world in crisis. Emerging female (as well as male) leaders are using them to their advantage, instead of defaulting to traditional, male-defined visions of power.
And finally, the idea that feminine or masculine traits are necessarily tied to physical gender is being increasingly challenged – by younger generations in particular. In a world heading towards a future in which femininity and masculinity supersede biological sex and femininity is as “valuable” as masculinity, feminine modes of expression can and should be positively reframed.
There is a clear opportunity for brands to help shape a new paradigm of feminine beauty by moving away from an empowerment conversation that provides women with competing and conflicting strategies of persevering within a male-defined world and towards celebrating behaviors, aesthetics and traits that are traditionally understood to be female, while acknowledging that femininity, in essence, is a state of being, unbound from the body and physical sex.
The iPhone. Seamless, reflective, cool to the touch and enigmatic in its lack of expression. In its otherworldly appeal and promise of infinite possibilities, Apple’s design aesthetic captured the impossible: the digital made physical. This aesthetic of sci-fi minimalism and futuristic elegance – the digital code – has for decades been the visionary fantasy of human progress.
Today, that fantasy is reality.
The digital code does not promise a better future anymore. In fact, it represents a dystopia where we don’t control our devices, but they control us. When our devices are designed as black boxes, it does nothing to alleviate our lack of understanding of the technology we are intimately relying on.
With the current big-tech backlash around privacy issues and the urge to “disconnect” for fear of what technology is doing to us, we are in need of a new visual and material language that would help us feel at home with our devices. Our technologies and tools shape us like we shape them, and thus there can be great power in design actions. In his book Make it New: A History of Silicon Valley Design (2015) Barry M. Katz posits that it is design that has always “provided the bridge between research and development, art and engineering, technical performance and human behaviour”.
We believe that the winners of the future are those who through design language and form re-forge a meaningful, positive relationship between humans and technology. For in the everyday, it is the physical manifestations of digital ideas that shape our relationship to technology – and ultimately, to our future.
The digital code: how a design aesthetic became dominant
For a design aesthetic to reach the cultural zeitgeist, it needs to have a deeply founded philosophy of design that responds to a cultural need. In his book Image, Music, Text (1977) Roland Barthes, the French cultural philosopher, likens design to myth – for both are media for storytelling that represent and shape cultural truths and their human meaning. In order for design to shape cultural meaning, its philosophy needs to hit the nerve in given social, economic and cultural structures.
When the iPhone was released in 2007, its symbolic and aesthetic qualities reflected perfectly the cognitive and social context of the Western world, and thus captured the hearts and minds of a generation. For a world aspiring for increased mobility and networked connections, the iPhone was the answer.
The messianic speech given by Steve Jobs at the iPhone launch acknowledges this. Those who were present at the launch (as well as the millions who have viewed it online) can recall how Jobs came on stage and declared that “Today, we are going to reinvent the phone!” as a sublime light shined behind the company’s logo. However, even long before the iPhone, Apple had been known for its technological prowess. The apple in Apple, with its chunk missing, cheekily calls back to humans’ perilous desire for knowledge and progress in a reference to the mother and father of rebellious emancipation, Adam and Eve.
For the past centuries, the dream of the Western world has been to transcend our bodies and reach a blissful state of knowledge and purpose. Humanity has worked towards those better futures through technological development. For in developing new technologies, we improve our own capacity to do more, to learn more, to better ourselves.
The iPhone offers high levels of functionality, ease and simplicity, with no time wasted on romantic appeal or tactile qualities. At the time of its release, the fluidity and otherworldliness of the perfected glass and chrome rectangles promised a better world in the digital future. The internet had already opened the door for a possibility to rethink who we are by transcending location, ability, race, gender. The iPhone put that in our pockets, promising that digitalisation would transcend humanity from their material condition, abstract them from time and place, for good.
The digital code does not promise a better future anymore.
In his online essay Digital Dualism versus Augmented Reality (2011) the sociologist and social media theorist Nathan Jurgenson introduces the concept of “digital dualism”: the belief that the digital world is “virtual” and the physical world “real”. This concept is central to the ontology behind Apple’s design philosophy. The magical iPhone allows us “real” beings to blend into the “virtual”, allowing us to truly master our universe.
The iPhone became the icon of the digital code, and its design aesthetics were replicated across major consumer electronics brands and spread from cosmetics to food packaging and jewellery. Still today, the iPhone sets the design direction of consumer electronics for the year coming in their annual Autumn launches.
Building a design aesthetic that lasts
For a design aesthetic to stick rather than be a fleeting trend, it needs to be situated on the continuum of aesthetics past, present and future. A resonating aesthetic is hardly spontaneously occurring, but a product of previous art and design. Indeed, the iPhone’s success does not stem from miraculous “out-of-the-box” thinking, but a deep understanding of design. Design that builds on the social and cultural aesthetic – whether it rejects, updates or evolves – is intuitive and purposeful, and is easily adapted as part of everyday rituals.
The roots of iPhone’s design aesthetic can be traced back to the beginning of the 20th Century, particularly to the movements of Futurism and Modernism.
Futurism’s influence on the digital code is undeniable. In the beginning of the 20th Century, with the rise of industrialization, the belief in technological progress’ ability to emancipate the human race had unprecedented proof. Human capacities rapidly expanded beyond imagination, leading to technological utopianism – the belief that technology can solve any problem humanity faces.
Technological utopianism found an aesthetic in Futurism, introducing the fetishization of technology and progress to art and literature. Traditional art forms like painting and sculpture drove the change towards the “Machine age” that would renew consciousness through the aesthetics of speed, progress and industrial development. The newly popularised mediums of photography and cinema brought to the mainstream fever dreams where machines, steel and fire speeded humans to the future. The birth of popularised science fiction can be traced back to 1927 when Metropolis, the first ever feature length sci-fi film premiered. Today the film is an icon, but when it originally came out, the eroticised Maschinenmensch was greeted with suspicion.
Nevertheless, from there on the aesthetics of the future have been defined by the materials linked to industrial progress – chrome, shiny glass, stainless steel, electronic bright colours – and a hard-boiled belief in the perpetual future. Apple lives by this cultural myth with their constant updates both in hardware and software that force renewal – think of the removal of the headphone jack in recent models that pushed people to wireless listening, or the software updates that eventually clog up the memory, pushing people to larger capacities. The iPhone aesthetic religiously replicates these dreams with its materials; glossy glass backs, metallic hues, inorganic colours and a growing lack of tactility, reminiscent of the un-embodied nature of virtual space.
Industrialisation also gave birth to the second key influencer of the digital code – the Modernist movement in design. What separated Modernism from previous arts and crafts movements was how it prioritised functional requirements instead of traditional aesthetics. As a result, Modernist design was simple and clean, based on rationality and functionality, always aiming for a seamless and purposeful experience.
In Modernism, everything that is not necessary, stands in the way of progress. In his 1908 essay Ornament and Crime, the influential architect and designer Adolf Loos states that “ornamentation represents wasted labour and ruined material”. Loos’ radical aesthetic purism attributes cultural evolution to purity of form, seeing ornamentation as childlike and primitive, a “phenomenon either of backwardness or degeneration”. Purity of form represents the essential, superior in its freedom from distraction.
Modernist ideals carried on through the century: in architecture, most notably in the Bauhaus movement, and in industrial design, in Functionalism. The simplicity and seamless purity of the iPhone is a direct descendant of Modernism. Dieter Rams, a famous Functionalist designer, laid down ten principles of good design still widely recognised today. He determined that the measure of good design is how effective and simple it is: good design should be unobtrusive, always neutral and restrained. Think of the iPhone X as the zenith of the digital code, bezel-less as if nearly blending in to virtual space, becoming so simple and essential that it’s close to disappearing altogether.
The simplicity of the hardware is replicated in the software. The iPhone uses Flat Design Language for its user interface, a design interface language that is a direct descendant of the Bauhaus movement. First adapted by Microsoft in the early 2000’s, flat design uses minimal 3D elements, such as shadows or textures. Later, both Apple’s and Google’s operating systems adopted the same design language, dropping skeuomorphism – a design language that retains ornamental design cues.
Today, all major consumer electronics use Flat Design UI. The popularity of flat lay pictures is a testament to how, when a design aesthetic is intuitive and purposeful, it evokes meaning and is adopted and appropriated by people. This, in turn, guarantees its longevity.
What then? The oversaturation of an aesthetic
There comes a time when an aesthetic becomes so widely adapted that it starts to lose aspirational meaning.
The iPhone X is the logical conclusion of the Western obsession with formal purism – an item so simple and perfect, it seems otherworldly, god-like. The boundless design reflects its miraculous technological qualities – it is the rightful tool for homo universalis, the renaissance man whose knowledge knows no boundaries.
Today, the dream of the digital has been realised, the aesthetic seeping everywhere. The digital code does not signal a future anymore, it has become the status quo. It reflects the desires and needs of a bygone era, where digitisation was only a fantastical dream – not a mundane reality.
Today, we can connect across the globe, experience places and things away from our physical reality, appear as whatever we wish in online communities. Yet we humans, even now that we live in a digital world, cannot escape our analogue selves. The way we interact with the digital, what shapes our relationship to it, will always be somehow embedded in the material world. And that material world together with our embodied selves is a large part of how we create, learn, communicate, and feel.
What lies behind the sleek, glassy surfaces of the iPhone is a whole philosophy about technology – an ontology of what technology means to humans now shared and disseminated globally through consumer electronics and beyond. But that philosophy, the philosophy behind the digital code, does not respond to our cultural needs anymore.
We face altogether different issues today that the digital code is unable to respond to. With growing computation speed and ever improving nanotechnology, we are questioning the reason for our existence. We struggle simultaneously with boredom and meaninglessness as well as information and stimulus overload.
The digital code does quite the opposite of helping. Consumer electronics are fetishized, adorned, treated as sacred objects. We protect them with casing, we wipe their screens so that our greasy fingerprints that reveal our embodied self, won’t show. We hold them at the end of our fingertips, delicately, always taking care that they do not fall.
Our devices have become the object of attention. Ever multiplying and largening screens demand our time with push notifications and pulls-to-refresh. The use-object has been transformed into a kind of phantasm whose existence is a psychological projection of our quest for meaning, estranged from its social and embodied reality. As a consequence, devices start feeling inhuman, cold and scary rather than sublime and otherworldly.
In order to not feel subservient to our technology, we need to find a different aesthetic of our future. The response outside tech has been the return to the “real”. A testament to this is the emergence of DIY-culture in fixing your own bike, scrapbooking, making craft beer and pickling, being an explorative cook and a forager.
However, “authenticity” as a trend is not a long-term strategy for technology. Nostalgia for better times is not progressive like technology inherently needs to be. In the long run, we do not want to just reference the design character of historical non-commodity modes of production (“craft”) and paint them on modern ones (a wooden cover on an iPhone).
Instead of falling to technophobia or neo-Luddism and shunning the technological in pursuit of the mythical “real”, we should keep looking forward. We should break out of the ontology of digital dualism and stop seeing the “virtual” and the “real” as separates.
Spotting signs for a new design philosophy
Rather than valorising the “virtual” over the “real” or vice versa, future aesthetics need to balance and play with different aesthetic cues and find a way to co-exist.
There are some signs of a paradigm shift already in technological innovation. The newer MacBooks take a step into the analogue world. Instead of their trademark keyboard that glorifies the seamless, effortless typing, the latest in the series are characterized by their clunking sound. This evokes the analogue world of a typewriter, asserting the creativity and productivity of the individual.
The fluidity and seamlessness of the digital code is also being challenged in the way technology is operated. Sound and touch are challenging the supremacy of vision as the primary sense of being-in-the-world. All big tech companies are innovating around voice controls, rather than screens and buttons, recognizing the naturalness of speech for humans as well as its inherently social role in comparison to the individualism of screens. Touch, too, is becoming more recognised when innovating with materials and more sensitive haptic cues.
Turning signs into typologies and guidelines
To evolve our relationship to technology, it is crucial we address the paradigm shift on the level of design aesthetics and language. The task is still to make the abstract understandable and relatable, in other words, to make the invisible visible.
Armed with a different philosophy of time, space, and cognition, we can design a different future. In the end, it is designers who give shape to our technological dreams, who shape into being the immaterial by creating physical manifestations of it.
The winners of the future are those who through design aesthetics and language re-forge a meaningful, positive relationship between the “real” and the “virtual”. As Dieter Rams observed in his essay Omit the Unimportant (1989): “Our culture is our home. It would be a great help if we could feel more at home in this everyday culture, if alienation, confusion and sensory overload would lessen”.
By identifying design typologies from the world of technology and design today, we can begin to decode the intuitive form of an aesthetic, and generate guidelines to purposefully build towards an inspiring and future-proofed aesthetic. Here, we have identified and described three typologies with some key examples.
1. Organic tactility
Organic tactility downplays the other-ness of technology, instead valorising the organic. It uses natural shapes, textures and colours that are responsive to the touch, comforting in their familiarity from the natural world. The designs are not highly finished and polished, but an aesthetic designed to engage the senses beyond the visual. Hand-touched signifiers evoke safety, security and humanity.
Google Home emulates a stone in its form and uses a textural finish to soften the look and help it blend into surroundings
Muji x Ladies and Gentlemen studio installation at New York Design Week 2018 explores the design ethos of minimalist Muji, focusing in on its honest materials.
Native Union uses raw materials like marble finishes and textured layering on devices and appliances to bring a grounded aesthetic and feel to technology.
2. Empathetic functionalism
Empathetic functionalism over-emphasizes technology in an irreverent and playful way. The retro-analogue code emphasizes human agency and creativity. The primary-colour and overtly simple, matte aesthetic reflects the curiosity and empathy of the designs, rather than positing them as tools for superiority or conquest. The bold and cute signifiers cue innocence, optimism and cosiness.
Fujifilm Instax presents an analogue alternative to Instagram. It re-asserts the joy and expressiveness of the photographic moment by departing from a generic high-tech aesthetic of precision and technical finesse.
Nokia’s re-introduction of the 3310 has a rounded, empathetic design and bright, optimistic colours.
The lofree keyboard design recognizes the importance of tactile response to actions, and its matte colour palette brings a cosy, soft feel.
3. Bionic beauty
Bionic beauty emphasizes the likeness of the natural and the scientific, going back to roots of renaissance where art and science were not seen as separate. It replicates ecosystems and models of the natural world in biomimicry. The signifiers mixing the real and the synthetic evoke curiosity, progress, and sustainability.
The conceptual designer Lola Gielen’s Neo is a tactile musical instrument. “Music is a sensory experience, while playing a traditional instrument sound is directly influenced by touch. This is often lost in digital instruments. Even though Neo is a digital instrument, your touch will still influence the sound”.
Adidas Futurecraft 4D + Studio Hagel sneakers use a 3D-printed midsole. The cutting edge technology replicates natural processes in mass manufacturing by moulding liquid with light and oxygen. This gives designers unprecedented opportunities in terms of material design, celebrated in the collaboration with Studio Hagel’s re-imagination of the shoe.
Patch, by designer François Chambard / UM project, is a project featuring interconnected furniture that makes electricity visible and part of natural design, offering an alternative to the current smart home designs.
Transforming the Brooklyn Navy Yard into a sensuous, sweaty tropical garden of Eden, the set, music and choreography of the show transported attendees into a gyno-cratic wonderland. Above and beyond what any brand in the industry has done with a show, including Victoria Secret with its annual extravaganza, Rihanna clearly presented more than just lingerie designs. She unveiled something very new to the lingerie business – a manifesto, a POV, an epistemology, a way of seeing and being in the world, a challenge.
It happened first through the models. Ostensibly led on the runway by Slick Woods, who later revealed she was in labor during the show, and Jazzelle Zanaughtti a.k.a. ‘uglyworldwide’ what the Irish Examiner called Rihanna’s “masterclass in diversity” was hailed for the inclusion of plus size as well as pregnant models. The show’s overall effect was clear: Savage x Fenty is the new major player in lingerie and Rihanna’s spin on femininity, power, sexuality and contemporary culture is so much more relevant to today’s young female consumer that every brand from Victoria’s Secret to Agent Provocateur and La Perla is officially on watch.
Old school brands will be slow to respond because, for all its supposed sexiness, lingerie is in fact a very conservative industry. Like other goods that index privacy or intimacy like feminine hygiene products, it has, at best, been slow on innovation and resistant to change. At worst, it has acted as one of many flagbearers for prescriptive, patriarchal female roles.
Young women today are aware of those roles and how they have so deeply insinuated themselves into mainstream, patriarchal culture. They are also familiar with how its themes have played into the satiny smoothness of the leading lingerie brands. And the overwhelming consensus is that most young women are unwilling to play along with those roles and themes – let alone pay the prices. This is a challenge. In an age where femininity itself is being weaponized, whereby even being in possession of a female or female-identifying body is to exist under threat, young women look at a product category such as lingerie and ask themselves, “How does this speak to me” and “How does this reflect my values?”.
Ultimately, brands need to respond to today’s young female consumer (and by ‘young’ we should really look to the parental Gen Xers as the seed of many of these shifts) with a fruitful, safe and connected space that can engage directly and intelligently with her and her needs. This is a challenge for virtually all lingerie brands, as many of them still spend most of their marketing and communication efforts attempting to titillate consumers with historic, male-facing fantasies of the virgin and the whore. And so we enter the key moment, that time when “old-world-sexy” (think Fredericks of Hollywood, ‘American Pie’, Sports Illustrated) has already been dismantled and is gradually being replaced by the values and desires of a new generation: women learning to become their own icons and idols. To help lingerie brands understand this, we have identified three key shifts in cultural values that brands should be responding to:
1/ The evolution of bodily perspectives
Intersectionality explores the complexity of how multiple identities exist simultaneously. It refuses to privilege a single, dominant narrative; one that is white, hetero, able-bodied, slim. It is founded instead upon an inclusive and interwoven femininity. It refutes competition for the male gaze. It seeks to explore, rather than siphon off, the complexity of female identities.
It is not limited to representation. Some brands and campaigns – like Victoria Secret’s Perfect Body – fulfil surface-level engagements with contemporary femininity but fail to integrate intersectionality. Others, like Aerie, boast major credentials by being the first mass market lingerie brand to remove airbrushing from campaigns and extend their representation of women by featuring models in wheelchairs, with colostomy bags and other disabilities. For Aerie, the ideal body becomes a site where multiple identities come together and demonstrate that there is not one correct way to be a woman. Other brands look to integrate intersectional values into their supply chain (lingerie is overwhelmingly – unsafely and painstakingly – produced by women of color), such as Hesperios, Hara and BehindBars that provide textile-based training for incarcerated women. Now that is intersectionality.
By appealing to a greater number of women, rather than side-lining certain bodies in favor of others or representing women as two-dimensional planes upon which to project male fantasies, brands that acknowledge and support intersectionality have and will continue to reach more women and maintain far deeper connections with female consumers. Just the plus-size market alone should prove this with its 17% increase between 2013 to 2016.
Here, the key shift is from the body as a singular, idealized, static object to the body as an open, accumulative, changing story. The embracing of imperfection leads to greater storytelling, a more robust narrative arc: stretch-marks, moles, sagging, scars, tattoos all show a woman’s collection of experiences. To be airbrushed is to symbolise naïveté and unknowing. As we culturally and aesthetically move away from the sanitising wave of mid-2010s Minimalism – we open ourselves up to a richer way of being and conversing.
Even Luxury itself is less about attaining an externalised ideal, and closer towards enabling internal growth and expression. Old World luxury privileged the ornamental – objects of excess, opulence and status – but today, as our cultural values have shifted towards optimisation, innovation and purpose, the object of New Luxury is an ‘enabler’. This is particularly pertinent in lingerie, for a generation of young women who came of age in a recession, with a distrust of institutions, and an eye on their pockets. To them, living up to a frivolous ‘fantasy’ is no longer their idea of a luxury spend.
Take, for example, the monumental rise of the triangle bra in recent years (sell outs in 2017 rocketed by 120%), usurping its predecessor: the push-up or plunge bra, sales of which have fallen by 50%. Instead of scaffolding and contorting the female body, the triangle bra and other soft-cup bras simultaneously merge performance and comfort (much like the parallel trend in athleisure). So, too, they also hold a strong symbolic power that lingerie does not speak for the woman (and nor do her bodily ‘assets’), but rather becomes a tool to enable a greater, more free expression of the self. The triangle bra has formulated its own identity and sex-appeal, as crafted by women.
2/ Emergent Sexuality: From Objectification to New Subjectivity
We are living in a post-Roe v. Wade, post-AIDS, post-Lawrence v. Texas culture. The pop side of that culture has taken to depicting sexuality in frank and authentic ways – from Lady Bird to Call Me By Your Name – one of which is that pleasure is no longer owned solely by thin, white, able, hetero bodies. The once seedy sex toy industry is now opening up directly to women alongside sexual health and wellness products rather than through hushed innuendos and raincoat purchases for “body massagers”. Brands such as Maude (“modern sex essentials for all”) and Chakrubs – the latter of which produces rose quartz and amethyst devices – are visually reshaping the industry that was once dominated by hot pink, (dangerous) synthetics and marabou. Even Pornhub is diversifying to become a ‘lifestyle’ brand with ‘drops’ and collaborations in fashion, music, tech and health. In the age of #MeToo, the foundational dialogue over sex and sexuality has come to the fore – recognising that historic shame and embarrassment over women’s bodies is what has ushered in claims to a ‘grey area’ – openness and frankness is the new currency. Brands must address their consumer with honesty, trust and advocacy to promote self-assertion, particularly when dealing with intimate products (that typically go unregulated).
Instead of positioning the female body as the target of the male gaze, the new sex-positive age values truth, frankness, openness and humor. Take, for example, the prevalence of the ‘female gaze’ in sexual-wellness culture – the work of Arvida Bystrom and Petra Collins heavily inspired the campaign materials for Thinx (a free-bleeding underwear company) and Billie (the first, female-forward, DTC shaving company to show body hair). The female-gaze is intimate and honest, depicting the female body as agentic, non-objectified – it often reclaims the sensuality and primality of pink and neutrals, emboldening them with a new power. In this new age of positivity and wellness, all consensual sex is good sex. And within this new way of being with each other, femininity is increasingly moving away from gender essentialism towards gender performativity. Here, femininity is about what you do, not who you ‘are’. Essentially, behaviour creates gender, so a claim to being a woman does not rest with biology but upon ascribing to certain practices. As such, lingerie is not a material product but a process.
This opens very wide spaces for the lingerie industry to play with historic, outdated codes and craft new ones not founded on a sexuality shaped solely by (male) fantasy and ‘the unattainable’ but by the authentic, the real, the confident and the self-assured, written by women.
3/ New Luxury, New Consumer Preferences, New Models
Women’s purchasing power is significant. Particularly in old world gifting spaces such as lingerie or jewelry, women are often making purchases themselves for themselves.
Here we are witnessing the crux of a radical shift, from the category of Woman being a product that could be consumed, to Woman being recognised as a consumer in her own right. Formerly ‘womanhood’ was a product for consumption by women – as they purchased objects and accessories in order to live up to pre-set codes – and by men. Today, we see this refusal to ascribe to pre-set codes of womanhood in the rise of unisex lingerie, and clothing in the mainstream. Serena Rees, former co-founder of Agent Provocateur, made the switch to unisex lingerie with her new label ‘Les Boys, Les Girls’: a high-end, streetwear-infused brand that features high-rise briefs, silk boxer shorts and Le Marais-style luxe-sweats. Here, lingerie can still be a desirable, luxury, even frivolous purchase, but it is no longer imbued with the transactional expectations of gifting and wanting, nor limited to one gender expression. The woman’s purchase instead becomes a symbol of pride and play.
This is a current point of discussion: Is the luxury industry outdated and, if we can agree that some houses are truly in better shape than others, what is, could be or will be the New Luxury? Beyond creating a spinoff of Burberry’s digital strategy from past years or launching an online art gallery, how might luxury brands communicate, engage with and perhaps do something (serve?) more for female consumers? And perhaps most importantly of all, How might luxury brands incorporate, leverage or harness contemporary cultural values without losing the special glow, prestige and exclusivity of being a luxury brand?
Luxury or not, the lingerie business is experiencing what can variously be described as a disruption, a transformation (that is still very much in the making) or a radical break with the social values of the past. For those brands that have not embraced this ongoing change and are not somehow already engaged in promoting the opening of new spaces of performed identity, the danger is clear: irrelevance or, at the very least, repugnance. We saw the repugnance clearly in the Open Letter to Victoria’s Secret from Heidi Zak, the founder of bra company Third Love. Tearing through social media in November after the Victoria’s Secret CMO made what Zak described as “shocking, derogatory statements” about plus sized women and transsexual models in Vogue, it drove home two stark realities for the brand: that women live in reality, not in a fantasy, and that in the world of Victoria’s Secret the customer does not exist.
This is not just a challenge for Victoria’s Secret, whose popularity and market share makes it the easiest (and most obvious) target, but it’s a challenge for every lingerie brand not living the new value paradigm.
The Bad News
There is no easy way – and perhaps no way at all – to market yourself out of this decline. Young women can sense whether you are a real thing or not. And chances are that, right now, as a relatively established, traditional and conservative brand, you aren’t a real thing for Millennials and Gen Z. So instead of marketing mumbo jumbo, you need to…
Know that this is not a trend but a permanent end shift. Frilly underpants might not go away, but how we, as a culture of progressives – not populists – view, accept and love the many people who want to wear those underpants has forever changed and been set on an entirely new social, cultural and historical trajectory.
You don’t need to be a scholar to understand big topics like intersectionality. You need to be open and sort of smart, that’s all. Those of us who observe and participate in popular culture have seen this shift coming for years on TV, in film, in literature and beyond. The signs are there. All you have to do is understand when, how and by whom they were posted.
Understand It Globally
Consider how new modes of femininity translate across cultures. This is a site of anthropological investigation, especially in places where the trajectory of Western feminism does not fit like in China where women have been more active political and social players, or in the Middle East where lingerie has an interesting role to play in defining self-hood and personal agency.
Perhaps the most valuable thing as the established, traditional, conservative brand that you can do is ask yourself if a C-Suite full of 40+ heterosexual, white men is the best idea for the growth of your business. This is not a call to purge – great leaders are great leaders regardless – but a call to bring in new, more diverse and more different talent.
Buy and Scale
Learn from the beauty industry and acquire an up-and-coming lingerie brand that either is representative of or makes sense within this newly emerged cultural space. Then, after following a careful, smart and sensitive M&A process, scale it to be your next big thing.
Nothing will say you’re the same old established, traditional, conservative brand than tentative steps forward. If you want to do it, do it. Doing it garners respect and even loyalty.
Lingerie brands should not simply ask, How can we reflect contemporary femininity? or How can we present new role models and/or aspirational forms? Instead, in recognizing the history of their industry as one which has arguably treated the women wearing their products as passive objects of consumption designed for the pleasure of the male gaze, they should be considering how they can play a new and meaningful role in a woman’s life, either actively or symbolically. Simply put but far from simple, that is the question.
From a health agency perspective, we’ve never been more individually powerful – or more vulnerable.
With the balance of power falling more heavily in the laps of the everyday person than traditional healthcare providers, it is assumed that individuals will engage with their health and wellbeing to the fullest and to make the greatest use of the agency afforded them.
But agency in today’s health context is a double-edged sword. Definitions of health are expanding to become ever more holistic and so too has the market. The onus to optimize the self and body as a marker and sort of “insurance policy” for success and security has also never been stronger. Now, people navigate maddeningly myriad ways to continually surveil themselves and, in turn, try to “solve for” the many potential problems such a gaze elicits. The wellness economy, above all else, acts as both a solution and driver of this current cultural arrangement.
The emergence of the Wellness Age
The world of wellness has transformed from an industry into a culture. The practices and beliefs of modern humans are rooted in the ways we imagine “living well,” which currently exalt the notion of wellbeing and balance across the emotional, social, psychological, economic, political, and spiritual realms of life. We deeply value how well this is ‘achieved’ by the individual, whether in personal or professional domains.
But this doesn’t mean that wellness yet transcends being defined foremost by industry; wellness is a commodity, a resource to be bought, consumed, and sold. How it came to be so, tells the story of why it cannot be decoupled from this relationship, given the important human role it plays in the overall economy.
The wellness movement has grown in a context where trust in traditional authority and metanarratives of power have broken down and global structures have revealed themselves uncertain and fragile. Many factors coalesce to drive this: environmental and ecological movements since the 1970s have delivered a painful awareness of the connectedness between our actions and the world; Western bio-medicine’s monopoly over health and the patient relationship continues to dissolve in the face of increased corporatization and technologization; the globalization of markets, disintegration of the nation-state, undoing of gender binaries, mass migrations, environmental disasters, and the nuclear threat have resulted in the erosion of 20th-century identity roles.
With the dissolution of structures that give us meaning and security, a massive and complex wellness industry has rushed to fill a void, encompassing the worlds of food, fashion, mobility, life sciences, consumer technology, leisure and hospitality, urban design, retail, digital everything, and beyond.
Individual wellness: Today’s primary currency
The rise of the wellness economy is not just a symptom of the undoing of once-stable social structures. Simultaneously, it often serves to perpetuate this very situation.
In a time where many lack yesterday’s signifiers of success – homes, cars, economic capital and the like – we are left with ourselves, our bodies and minds, to leverage. This limits the ways in which we’re free to secure ourselves within the world, and in doing so, how one takes care of oneself transforms into the primary signifier for what kind of person they are and can be. Participation in the wellness economy becomes less a choice than a must; as the individual becomes the subject of investment, the question is not if one participates, but how well.
The problem with this is that wellness is the new luxury in many ways, but less honestly so. Like the luxury market, it’s not actually designed for everyone, but often fancies itself to be so. Luxury markets were traditionally about aspiration but framed intentionally for the upper few, and offered a fairly prescribed set of offerings. In contrast, the expansiveness of choices in the wellness market and focus on holistic life outcomes drives an expectation that to the masses it shall get – that even with sometimes highbrow offerings and exorbitant price points, access is a presumed given, and it is simply up to the individual to take hold of and leverage these offerings to the fullest.
And, with a vast array of goods and services promising improved health, yet being delivered only in the consumer realm (rather than being covered by socialized medical systems), a longstanding neoliberalist paradigm in which responsibility lies with the individual is further perpetuated – the role of social care systems are swept away as individual consumption and action become a prerequisite for modern survival.
Casting the eye inward
In this arrangement, the role of informal interpersonal relationships takes precedence. As wellness is framed to be holistic and all-life encompassing, so too is the performance of it. Humans have always “performed achievement” in one way or another, which has a demonstrative but also reproductive effect; when we believe who and what we see, we celebrate and therefore reinforce their belief systems and associated practices.
Today, wellness is not just sold between market players in the formal economy but is continually being “sold” through interpersonal engagements in the social economy – not just as a signal of social and cultural capital, but acting, I would argue, as the defining marker for achievement in today’s global landscape. In order to perform to the fullest, we must be watchful and mindful of our every personal move, engaging in a form of hyper self-surveillance that can be emotionally draining and psychologically overwhelming.
The experience of surveillance and the onus to self-surveil are not impelled by only the wellness economy of course. We live in an era where the topic of surveillance and privacy festers in the public consciousness, driven largely by the ways in which human personal data is shared, stored, and manipulated. This extends not only to the online world, where our second selves exist as either carefully curated representations or discrete sets of data we have little to no control over but the offline world where we are virtually always being watched; our every move in public places captured and tracked on video.
No time to waste
A number of other cultural shifts align and coincide with the emergence of wellness culture. For one, much has been made of the notion that millennials somehow inherently value experiences over things. But it can just as easily be suggested that millennials may lack the ability to accumulate things and in response, experiences become a source for achievement and meaning – that experiences have value in culture precisely as a result of economic limitations.
Interestingly, the experience economy transforms and revalues how we see time. It states that time is of the essence – as one among few “possessions,” it cannot be wasted and so must be optimized for memory-making, for doing, for action. That time is a space that is fillable as we choose, and where non-action is something to scoff at. Similarly, our culture today glorifies the entrepreneur and the entrepreneurial mindset, which is founded on risk-taking and seizing the moment. These dominant values lead to pressure to imbue each moment and move with meaning, and to jump on any signal of potential. The failure to take hold translates into the failure to live well and to attain the expanding definition of health, in turn.
Breaking down bodies
As each minute is scrutinized and broken down, so is each facet of our bodies and selves. Our contemporary culture likes to claim that we have reached a point of maturity and self-awareness that appearance doesn’t matter, that it is what’s inside that counts, but in a culture of wellness, appearance and performance are inherently social cues that may ‘say’ more about the individual now than ever.
Objectification theory proposes that in a society in which people are valued highly for their appearance, continual exposure to objectification from others leads people to take on a third-person perspective of their own bodies; they view, monitor, and judge themselves against an ideal standard. When these are out of alignment, feelings of dissatisfaction, shame, and anxiety can result.
But what happens when these ideal standards themselves start to break down?
Global movements tackling the breakdown of the cis-gendered self and body are a ripe example of how fluid and fragmented the very notion of identity has become. The wellness economy has served as both a champion for and beneficiary of these shifts, operating at the intersection of new engagements with and articulations of the body, and in doing so, giving permission and space for the ‘other-bodied’ and the non-cis-gendered to flourish.
Cultural phenomena abound that tell this story-in-the-making, such as the body-positivity movement, or the institution of hegemonic masculinity under fire in the face of #metoo and the global rise of hyper-masculine authoritarian governments, populism, and nationalism. These movements and shifts expose long-held ideals that, to be sure, are deeply problematic for society on the whole. But they also force a new kind of engagement with the body and self-making, prompting us to see the spaces between dominant boundaries and binaries – making the invisible visible, but also necessitating that people look at the world around them, and the assumptions they hold dear, for what it is.
This truth often isn’t pretty. And it takes real, emotional labor to unravel the complex and deep-seated factors in our personal and shared histories that shape why we feel certain ways when we look in the mirror – a painful kind of self-surveillance, in and of itself. Not surprisingly, anti-movements to the above, such as in the context of the questioning and re-formation of what it means to be a man, emerge in a doubled-down attempt to retain the hegemonic expressions and definitions characterizing a preferred past era.
Nonetheless, the emergent identities given rise by these global movements, in flux and myriad, means permission for one to explore. The broad array of offerings in the wellness economy make this possible, and indeed the wellness market has helped expose these dominant discourses themselves. For example, the sanction against male self-care – and notions of ‘vanity’ or ‘self-indulgence’ connected to it – has been dismantled as market offerings become intentionally less gendered and part of the standard wellness project.
The ever-looming potential of illness
In a culture of self-surveillance, being better – doing better – is a standing invitation. So, too, is illness; its prevention is ever a task to be carried out, and it’s potential to seize us never more so on our minds. As with the broader wellness market, there is an expectation that with patient agency comes the ability and access required to surveil the body in ways that incite positive action. Above the many facets of everyday wellness – social, financial, spiritual, emotional, and so on – illness, or the identified or imagined potential for it, becomes yet another layer with which people must grapple.
In this way, we are all born patients; patienthood extends across the lifespan, as each moment and action of our lives becomes rich with the potential for improvement and greater health. We have seen and will continue to see, incredible advances in our lifetime predicated on this promise. From early identification of genetic risk to the means to decide when and where one’s death can take place, we have a greater ability than ever to predict and act in ways that will determine our health and wellness.
These advances have and will improve our overall health as a society. At the same time, the self-surveillance ask of these endeavors can lead to the opposite intended reaction. When significant mental attention is required from us, a common behavior is to seek means to disengage in any way possible. Trying to escape the encompassing constancy of conditions such as chronic pain – the sensory ‘noise’, the need to pretend it’s ‘not there’ in social situations given the impossibility of its communicability, and the isolation that results – is but one example of what can happen when people fail to get respite and reprieve from an inward focus on the body.
The domain of health used to occupy a discrete time, space and set of relationships: sickness was a temporary scenario, dealt with mainly in private, between oneself and their physician. In contrast, the emergence of wellness culture, as a critical aspect of the health delivery picture, reflects and shapes an engagement with personal health that has no beginnings or ends: the project of attaining wellness has the potential to occur at all times of day, in every physical space, and from birth until death; it must be performed in public and in private, as appearance relies on outcomes of consumption occurring everywhere; it involves players and goods across the market spectrum alongside traditional care delivery.
On top of this, in the process of engaging, people navigate new products and tools touted as the answer to something, or the antidote to first answer. Many wellness tools have tapped into this overwhelm, claiming to cast aside the noisy multitude with one simple solution; in doing so, eventually, products become the antidote to the antidote to the antidote, and we find ourselves in a Borgesian nightmare. Not only is self-surveillance and self-construction paramount today, but we are asked to do this in a dizzying market of options, with a fluid and boundless set of paths to take, and with unprecedented personal risk. And in seeing every facet of our lives as a space for wellness to be attained by the individual, we run the risk of pathologizing all of normal life while glossing over the role of local and systemic approaches to help forge the balance and security people need.
If the world of wellness promulgates a problem-fix arrangement, do we see ourselves as inherently flawed and in need of its offerings? What is the alternative? And, if narratives and structures of meaning are being undone, what then becomes the opportunity to support a healthy engagement with those that are emergent?
I don’t claim to have the answers, nor that there are necessarily clear answers at all; to suggest so would likely miss (or contradict) the point. For players in this space, one way to potentially think differently is, in fact, to let go of the idea of answers at all. With the current problem-orientation, the wellness market today has been increasingly serviced by the school of design-thinking. In this vein, the outcome of innovation is often touchpoint solutions designed for today, rather than the addressing of deeper systemic reasons why issues exist – or might exist in the future. The accounting for compensatory behaviors that point to an unformed market, or the mapping and forging of emergent structures that situate the individual as part of a larger system of meaning and support, for example, tend to be overlooked in such an approach to value delivery.
Companies in the wellness space are changing the face of health care, even when they don’t explicitly see themselves as health companies – and arguably for the better. The interesting challenge for these organizations is to understand the ways in which wellness culture, as intertwined with other broad shifts and market and behavioral practices, leads to new experiences that all grapple with in one way or another. This is critical to play within these shifts in order to deliver value yet imagined.
When the offerings of the wellness economy incite a new kind of engagement with the self, they redefine what it means to be alive and human. Just starting with that recognition alone will set organizations apart, helping them to look inward in the way that the culture they’ve helped generate asks of everyone else.
One of the clearest explanations for luxury’s travails has been the sector’s inability to keep pace with large-scale cultural shifts. Specifically, luxury has failed to keep up with the new values and consumption habits heralded by the rise of digital technologies.
This has generated various mismatches between luxury brands and consumers. Luxury brands are centred on bricks and mortar retail, while consumers expect to shop online. Luxury brands seem aloof and impersonal, while digital technologies drive expectations of intimacy. Luxury brands rely on creating mystique via limiting information about products, while digital technologies democratise access to information. Luxury brands rely on formality and close control of the meanings that consumers ascribe to them, while digital technologies promote a culture of subversion and play.
In response, brands have embraced new technologies to create new, cutting-edge products, and to remould relationships with consumers. The strategies employed have been wide-ranging, as the following examples demonstrate:
Revamping instore experiences
Brands are using digital to create more immersive retail experiences. For example, Tissot allowed consumers to virtually “try on” their watches at London Selfridges and Harrod’s stores.
Becoming social media savvy
Old brands are reinventing themselves by mastering the mechanics of social media. The most notable success story is Gucci, which has revived its fortunes via its ironic and kitsch take on late 20th century luxury and “Instagrammable” products seemingly tailormade for Millennials and Generation Y.
Embracing online platforms
Online platforms such as Net-a-Porter and Farfetch are creating effortless connections between boutique luxury brands and consumers around the world.
Reinventing “analogue” technologies
Samsung and de Grisogono collaborated to reinvent the luxury watch. Whilst the design resembles a traditional luxury watch, it has a smartwatch interface and all the expected functionality. Apple incorporated luxury into its smartwatch via a special range with Hermes strap designs. EMEL + ARIS’ smart coat uses Far Infrared Technology to deliver heat energy that is absorbed by the skin to heat the muscles and increase blood flow.
The perils of technology worship
These strategies, which are all characterized by the worship of new technologies and a constitutive break from “old luxury”, have no doubt been successful for many brands. It would also be reasonable to claim that luxury’s technological revolution is spurring what, according to recent sales figures, is a modest sector-wide revival.
However, we are concerned that this is leading to the belief of “the only way for luxury brands to succeed today is to become symbols of digital progress” becoming orthodoxy. We believe that this will limit the opportunity for luxury.
Certainly, an uncritical embracing of digital technologies may limit the opportunities to create enduring and meaningful relationships with consumers. Since technology is constantly evolving, it leads to products and experiences that capture attention only fleetingly. In other words, it generates faddishness. This is fine for a brand like Gucci. As a fashion brand, faddishness is the nature of the game. Furthermore, propelled by CEO Marco Bizzarri and Creative Director Alessandro Michele, it seems happy to continually churn out new lines.
It is not clear that Instagrammable faddishness is the best strategy for brands outside fashion, or even others within fashion. Indeed, faddishness militates against signifying luxury. Much of luxury’s unique aura derives precisely from its non-faddishness. “True” luxury seems to have something timeless about it – an ability to combine past, present and future, and to conjure escape from a world of transience. Thus, it is not clear that many brands who simply chase digital trends are truly creating meaningful, long-lasting connections with consumers.
Luxury as a counterpoint to the digital age
To create authentic luxury whilst driving contemporary relevance, brands should consider an alternative and perhaps counterintuitive strategy: become not a symbol of digital progress, but a counterpoint to it.
Digital technologies are actually an ambivalent presence in consumers’ lives. On the one hand, they have created a new culture of personal choice, mobility and convenience. The smartphone, to offer only the most obvious example, allows consumers to instantly complete a range of activities that previous generations would have found mindboggling.
On the other hand, the digital age is beset by a profound crisis of meaning. It is a crisis that manifests itself in diverse ways, from the mental health crisis amongst always-on Millennials, to culture wars, to the widespread embracing of political options that previous generations would have found unpalatable.
The fundamental challenge of the digital age is that sources of meaning foundational to human wellbeing that previous generations took for granted have become scarce. Amongst them are community, connection with nature, time, and deep connections with material objects.
Across global culture, we detect a desire to escape the superficiality, relentlessness and ephemerality of digital culture. Truly meaningful products and experiences offer precisely the opposite: depth over superficiality, calm over relentlessness, timelessness over ephemerality.
This represents a powerful opportunity for luxury. More than mass or premium, luxury can offer products and experiences that meet consumer desires to transcend problematic everyday realities, and to experience the sublime.
The meaningfulness and depth the consumer demands is one that is, as it happens, embedded in the historic cultural meanings of luxury. However, many luxury brands lost touch with them during the era of late twentieth century gaudy superficial excess. Thus, for some brands, it is a question of rediscovering these old values and finding new ways to deliver them.
Meaning can be offered by products, but experiences are increasingly key. Whilst we are sceptical of some of the more hyperbolic pronouncements of “the experience economy” thesis, the importance of experiences in contemporary luxury is undeniable. In a world saturated with material possessions, experiences do often seem like the best way of connecting consumers with sources of meaning lost in the digital age.
It is important to emphasise, however, that being a counterpoint to the digital age is not about offering ways for the consumer to simply reject the digital. The new luxury consumer is not a luddite. Rather, it is about offering her the opportunity to have her cake and eat it: to live a digital life that is also connected to what is meaningful.
Thus, brands should not be troglodytes. All luxury brands must, to some extent, signify their membership of the digital age. For instance, it is hard to imagine a luxury brand succeeding today without a decent digital strategy. Brands need not be afraid of technology. However, it is important that it is not used to create frivolous, superficial experiences, but rather is put into the service of the meaningful connections that consumers desire.
We have identified two key strategic opportunities for luxury brands wishing to offer consumers a counterpoint to a world dominated by digital technologies.
Opportunity 1: Purposeful Craft
Purposeful Craft is based on the insight that what is truly scarce in a world of digital is deep, authentic relationships with objects. This depth can be provided by luxury objects that have an authentic provenance, are made via rituals of ingenuity and care, use the finest materials, are ethical, and often are nostalgic.
Around the turn of the millennium, style often seemed to matter more than substance. For example, Paris’ luxury scene was dominated by ‘porno chic’, epitomised by brands such as Louis Vuitton, Givenchy and Dior. Today, however, the equation is reversed. Many brands have gone back to their roots to locate substance. The likes of Louis Vuitton, Burberry and Hermes have gone back to their roots to signify depth. Products such as Burberry’s trench coat, with its century-old style, Montblanc’s Meisterstück ballpoint pen, and Hermes’ leather notebook covers, designed to last many years, have all become newly valued.
Today, the rituals of production are key. They can endow objects with what the cultural theorist Walter Benjamin referred to as “aura”—the sense of an object embedded in time and place. One form this takes is the rediscovery of old-fashioned methods of production. For example, selvedge denim brands like Kaihara and Naked and Famous utilise early industrial production methods like speciality looms and rope-dying to make their clothes. Or then there is the embracing of ‘exotic’ craft processes as in the case Raksasa Mod Vapes’ luxury vapes that are inspired by Hindu deities and hand-carved into Balinese wood by master craftsmen.
The increasing importance of craftsmanship as an antidote to digital faddishness already shows up in how consumers articulate their luxury preferences. In China today, the phrase “craftsmanship” is the word that most defines luxury for 64 percent of consumers, making it their most important consideration according to the market research firm Mintel.
Increasingly, ethics becomes a key part of the story, as awareness of the consequences of many production methods grows. The Food & Beverage industry is already undergoing a major transformation with consumers spending their money on specialty foods that offer authentic connections to craftsmanship, tradition, and ethical production processes. Since 2012 sales grew by more than 50% now topping USD 130 billions in the US alone.
Luxury is undergoing the same shift. Here, there is a role for technology to reinvent traditional production methods to divest them of ethically compromised elements. For example, Stella McCartney has recently been incorporating bio synthetic, biodegradable leather into her shoe designs. The Diamond Foundry produces laboratory-made diamonds to avert the environmental and human toll of the mining industry.
Opportunity 2: Transcendent Wellbeing
Transcendent Wellbeing is based on the insight that the digital age is creating a crisis of wellbeing. Millennials are recording record levels of depression, and workplace stress is at a high in the US and UK.
The crisis has multiple causes. Isolation is an important one. As described by MIT psychoanalyst Sherry Turkle in her books Alone Together and The Power of Conversation, digital technologies isolate us by encouraging us to stare at our phone screens. Rich face-to-face human relationships are replaced by attenuated online relationships, with adverse consequences for our sense of community.
Disconnection with nature is another. Nature is scientifically-proven to generate wellbeing. However, we are increasingly alienated from it. Life has long been urban for most people in developed countries, and urbanization continues unabated in developing countries. Two-thirds of the world’s people are expected to live in cities by 2050.
Finally, it is important to emphasise the scarcity of time. Material success used to be associated with the possession of time. The aristocratic lifestyle was associated with having time to indulge. However, today, the opposite is true. Material success is frequently associated with sacrificing time. For example, entrepreneurs like Jeff Bezos and Tim Cook boast of how little sleep they get by on. Digital technology is a chief driver of the scarcity of time, since technologies like smartphones and computers allow work to be conducted in any time and place.
These major drivers also increasingly show up in studies that survey how Americans assess their personal wellbeing. While 54% Americans state their stress level is usually high, fully 48% feel their stress has further increased over the past five years. Furthermore, at work, 40% of US adults describe their office environment as “most like a real-life survivor program” with a striking share of 41% of Americans who haven’t taken a single vacation day in 2015 according to the latest study of Pew Research Center.
In response to these threats to wellbeing, luxury brands should promise escape from the mundane, the potential for self-discovery, and a sense of the timeless.
Some are already. Livingston Manor Fly Fishing club offers luxury fishing trips that centre on community, reconnection with nature and enjoying peace and tranquillity. In China, Buddhism-inspired luxury hotels, spas and tea houses promise busy urbanites opportunities to recenter and reconnect.
Technology is also utilised to offer wellbeing experiences. Dornbracht Sensory Sky promises a multisensory shower experience that combines water, light and fragrance that gives the sensation of being outdoors.
Whilst many Transcendent Self-Discovery brands offer tranquillity and slowness, others promise self-discovery through responsible hedonism. The Burning Man festival beloved of Silicon Valley, with its emphasis on carnival, sexual exploration, wellbeing, and community, is a key example. Rich American consumers are travelling to South America for Ayahuasca retreats. Such retreats promise mind-altering experiences and the chance to explore new facets of the self.
These shifts in what people perceive as truly scarce already impact the travel industry in major ways. The type of travel that is aimed at improving one’s physical, emotional and/or spiritual well-being is growing double digit and is now a half-trillion-dollar market, accounting for 14% of all tourism revenues. It’s just a matter of time for this new value paradigm around Transcendent Wellbeing to play out in the luxury market as well.
It is indisputable that luxury brands need to respond to the rise of digital technologies in order to stay relevant. However, many brands have been thinking about this from a narrow and singular perspective. Brands have focused on an uncritical embracing, incorporating a number of technological trends in order to appear relevant. This misses what may be the true opportunity for many luxury brands: to provide a counterpoint to a world dominated by digital technologies. The digital age precipitates a crisis of meaning that provides powerful new opportunities for luxury brands. This article has briefly outlined two growth opportunities: Purposeful Craft and Transcendent Wellbeing.
We’ve been thinking a lot about the future of patienthood lately. It used to be that being a patient came with a clear set of social expectations and responsibilities. What was also clear was the time of patienthood, a time that was always temporary and clearly demarcated. We became patients when sick and in need of medical care and then, when we were better, we returned to our daily lives and roles and left patienthood behind. This is nothing new, the great sociologist Talcott Parsons wrote about “the sick role” in the 1950’s. The edges between patienthood and personhood have eroded over the years and decades, though, to become less and less distinct. In particular, chronic disease, with its “forever” timelines, make the phases of sickness and health fuzzy at best. To be fair, the healthcare industry from pharma and life sciences to payers and providers have invested heavily in patient-centric strategies which could be seen as ultimately helping people to regain personhood from within a designation of patienthood.
But while chronic disease brought new, sometimes permanent timelines to patienthood, new health technologies and new developments in biology introduce a new and entirely different view on patienthood that must be considered as we consider how to make patients part of the health process and how to provide them with increasing literacy, engagement and agency. As diagnostic and treatment techniques and technologies continue to develop we are able to make interventions earlier and earlier in people’s lives. With the ability to test genetic markers, with the development of criteria for ‘at risk’, we move into an area where the lines between sick and healthy are no longer clear. Instead, many people now are situated along a spectrum that sits somewhere between healthy and diseased. What does it mean for a person when they are diagnosed for a disease long before they ever have symptoms? On the one hand, it may mean earlier intervention with the promise of better long-term outcomes. But for the person, it casts them into a grey zone that is neither patienthood nor personhood, a place in which uncertainty is the order of the day.
What does it mean to seek out treatment for a disease that you are told you have but is still latent and would not manifest for many years? How does one weigh the pros and cons of risk, of potential, of an unknown future experience against a potentially unpleasant or invasive treatment today? These are questions that are faced head-on by a very small segment of the population today, most notably women with the BRCA1 gene for breast cancer, some of whom opt for preventive mastectomies in the face of possible or likely future manifestation. But these decisions and these experiences will become more and more widespread as more genetic markers are identified and as treatments are developed that intervene very early in disease progression.
These issues raise a number of questions about the evolving landscape of relationships doctors and patients will have to navigate. Questions of trust and the exchange of meaningful information come to mind. But more importantly, the fundamental question is: is the health system ready for an influx of patients who bear no discernible resemblance to sick people – or at least sick people as we have come to think of them? Many things will have to be rethought for this group of “patients” – from the mundane to the philosophical – such as what support services are relevant and useful; how does adherence work; what does proactivity mean and, even, what does sick leave look like?
Of course, this set of circumstances is not just relevant to sickness. States of so-called health and wellness are no longer absolutes but aspirational guides. We live in an era where every decision, every act, has health considerations and consequences. Of course, the backdrop to all this is a profound episode of convergence wherein questions of health and wellness have simply become part of the everyday fabric of life. In some ways the word patient is just a name that we give to a state of being sick and under the care of professionals. But names connote things of meaning. Patienthood demarcated a socially acceptable time and space to be ill, to need and deserve care, and while it denotes a sort of reliance and deference to others, it also signified a trajectory that implied an end or an exit from that status. But when the very architecture of what it means to be a patient is eroding before our eyes we must consider the consequences.
For care companies – be they life sciences and pharmaceutical or clinical providers of care – the consequences may be profound. The future of patienthood will demand that they rethink how they identify, talk to, engage and care for their clients. Without clear times and spaces of patienthood, or of sickness and health for that matter, spaces and services exclusively devoted to those concepts may need to be rethought or have an opportunity to redefine themselves in more plastic and dynamic ways. As an exercise, considering the possible futures of patienthood, and other socially foundational terms and roles that will be radically reshaped by emergent technologies, needs to be a part of everyone’s toolkit.
A future where people will increasingly be “diagnosed” with diseases – like Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s – that they don’t in any meaningful sense yet have, and by that, I mean “experience”, provides us with a kind of limit case for interrogating the futures of terms that we currently take for granted. But in an era where terms, meanings, states of being are colliding, reforming and converging anew, the new possibilities of patienthood demonstrate the fluidity by which health futures are currently forming. By considering how technologies may reshape meanings we can get ahead of the changes we will need to build into the system before it’s too late.
Last year, Americans spent $11 billion just on pampering their pets with toys, costumes and – yes – even strollers. Among those Americans, Millennials seem to be directing the latest boom. Supposedly a result of their reticence towards ‘real’ relationships and even marriage, they are getting pets like crazy – and treating them more like their own babies than previous generations. Tip: the person who writes and publishes What To Expect When You’re Expecting to Get a Cat or a Dog could quickly join the ranks of millionaires.
It’s not just man’s best friend who is adding to the pet industry’s coffers. In the U.K., according to the Pet Food Manufacturer’s Association, the number of pet cats in the country has risen by 500,000. Currently in the range of eight million in the last year alone, up from 17.1 per cent in 2016 to 18.3 per cent in 2017, cats are taking over. Again – and this might just be the result of business’ fascination with this ‘new cohort’ – the numbers are climbing thanks to Millennials. And, according to recent U.K. studies, those Millennials getting cats are almost overwhelmingly men – men who, perhaps, find it easier to have a relationship with a cat than another person.
That’s the key word in the pet industry: relationships. When it comes to our furry (and feathered) friends, relationships seem to drive every pet purchase. So, what are those relationships founded on? And how, considering that pets don’t make the best participants around the consumer co-creation table, can leaders in the pet industry understand those relationships in order to design innovative new products and services for pets?
First, they need to define the big buckets of relationships. Second, they need to understand where the most traction is occurring in them as ‘trends’ today. And third, to differentiate themselves from the pack (pun intended) they need to look to what might be outlier or even older relationships to tap into the unknown, unmet and unarticulated needs, desires and opportunities for pet innovation. At Gemic, we see four big buckets of relationships:
Animals as companions
We love our pets like best friends, especially our dogs. We all know that, and we all know just how important that love is to our lives and how it manifests. Depending on the personality and activities of the human in this ongoing relationship, that love and feeling of friendship likely emerged because we saw our dogs as fun, intelligent, protective, helpful, strong, somehow attractive and/or a constant source of company when we were alone. In fact, we’ve loved them like best friends for so long that as far back as 3000 BCE, at a site in Kentucky, we were burying dead children with dogs to ensure that they were not lonely and were well taken care of in the afterlife.
But what if this companionship isn’t based on any of those reasons but, instead, on the simple fact that our furry friends are, well, furry. According to John Bradshaw, an anthrozoologist at the University of Bristol’s Veterinary School, the real reason that we feel so connected to our dogs is an ancestral throwback to the good feelings that we get when we stroke and groom their fur. His theory suggests that because we lost our own early hominid fur some 1.6 million years ago, petting our dogs not only feels ‘natural’ to us but provides us with feelings of comfort and pleasure. While we do not consciously recognize them as such, we love our dogs because they remind us of our lost selves.
Animals as family members
If the 91% of Americans polled and the 88% of Australians are any indication, we also love our pets as family members. Consider these factors: they live inside our home, we give them names and we don’t eat them. That means that they live in the same social space that we do, that our naming endows them with very human attributes, and that we distinguish them very clearly from the rest of the animal world. In doing so, we blur the species boundaries between us and them, a practice that first emerged in 18th Century Britain when dogs, like children, became a common part of households. And our reverence for them as family members continues after they leave the home.
According to University of Tennessee zooarchaeologist Darcy Morey, the oldest convincing case of dog domestication is from Bonn-Oberkassel, in Germany, from about 14,000 years ago. Unlike the previous companion puppy, this dead dog was buried as part of a human double grave. Typically, in every land mass but Antarctica, dogs were buried by themselves. But because this dog joined its human in the afterlife and was placed in a ritualized way in position to provide maximum comfort – and because other dogs at the time have been found with grave goods – we believe their status was that of family.
Animals as social actors
If culture can be understood as a collection of shared understandings that arise out of face-to-face interactions, then dogs are part of it. As humans pursue routines that express and solidify their relationships with dogs, they create an interspecies culture that enables interaction not only with their dog but with society at large. That’s right. Dogs are social actors. Our ownership of them, depending on the level of expense they require, denotes social privilege. From big & mean to cute & cuddly, their temperament denotes a certain identity symbolization by their human. Their presence on walks – whether we are walking with them or accompanied in a wheelchair – gives us more opportunities to meet and talk with other people (and their dogs) more frequently. And perhaps most importantly, because they assist us in receiving significantly more social acknowledgement than when we are alone, they allow us to self-define ourselves, to perform ourselves in public.
Dogs symbolically represent the social identity of their owner and extend those social situations in which they attempt to define themselves. Whether we refer to them as friend, buddy, baby or ‘family member’, dogs are our significant other. Incorporated into our own social networks, they actively facilitate our social lives, they are a key part of what and how we communicate, and they enable the kinds of social experiences that, as pet owners, we value very highly.
Animals as living tools
Some scholars have suggested that dogs probably domesticated themselves, initially living on the fringes of human settlements and then adapting to co-exist with people inside the home. From their perspective, this initial relationship was likely based on their opportunity to pick up food scraps either directly from us or our ancient garbage dumps. From our perspective it was likely an opportunity to study and learn about animals. And with that learning, we learned to use them.
In the 14,000 or so years since their domestication, dogs have been invaluable to us: warning us of predators, protecting us from them, helping us track down that night’s dinner and making sure we don’t get lost out on our adventures. They get us to places. They help us find food. They give us a better chance of not getting eaten by the neighborhood lion. In short, they are functional friends, and were it not for the fur factor we love, we probably would not have fed them and let them live with us unless they did something valuable for us.
It is here where we believe that some truly interesting innovation opportunities in the global pet market lie today. It’s not that we are suggesting a return to our hunter-gatherer past or that we abandon our loving and fruitful relationships with pets in favor of turning them into our Jobs-To-Be-Done servants. No, we love our pets just as much as the next person. What we are suggesting is that companies in the pet market might be better served and better serve the humans that pay for their products and services by focusing their innovation efforts on something just a little off to the side of the mainstream pet zeitgeist and its fixation on the themes of companion and family member.
This is where almost every pet innovation plays. Recently, our companions and furry family members have been introduced to DogVacay (Air BnB-type kennels with doggy sitters), Pet Chatz (a Skype-like solution to interact with your pets while you’re at work), FitbBark (health wearables to track sleep and activity levels), Raw Bistro (a service providing 100% grass-fed, free-range organics) and Pretty Litter (litter that changes color to notify you of potential cat health issues). These and many other pet innovations fall into the categories of pampering, nurturing, interacting, intervening or otherwise acting on behalf of your pet to improve some part of its life. While they will certainly make owners feel better for taking care of their pets, few of them function for the benefit of the owners.
What would it mean for a company in the pet market to structure its innovation efforts on the theme of Animals as Living Tools? Given how most players are focused on Animals as Companions and Animals as Family members, it could mean a very distinct differentiation from competitors and, hopefully, real function, value and meaning for consumers.
If we were to return to the origins of our relationship and treat Pets as Living Tools, what might the market offer? Well, here are just a few thought starters.
The Tail Charger
One way of using our dogs productively and ethically, without making them feel any discomfort, would be with the help of a portable charger that could be attached to our furry companion’s tail. Let’s have a closer look at how this seemingly silly idea could work in practice.
Solar panels are currently the only feasible option for the effortless charging of portable devices when on the go. The issue is that the most affordable options are less effective in climates where the sun hides behind the clouds for most of the year. An alternative is a device that allows us to create small volumes of electricity through the kinetic energy of vibrations. The most popular option on the market is currently in the form of a hand-crank. However, the main issue with this solution is that it’s not as convenient as it could be – and that’s where our beloved dog comes in. Why get frustrated with endless rotating when the happy tail is already waggling around furiously right next to us? A Velcro strap-on device is all you’d need to stop putting that valuable rotation power to waste. Of course, the casing would ideally be waterproof, to avoid any accidental damage caused by an unexpected, excited jump into a nearby river.
The benefits to this innovation are simple. Firstly, there’s the time that we save when we don’t have to worry about rotating the crank ourselves. Secondly, while it may not seem like a big deal, using hand-cranks can actually be pretty tiring. If we let the dog do the job for us, the saved energy can be spent on an even longer hike in nature – feeling safe with the knowledge that if we get lost and let the night catches us, a flashlight or a phone can show us the way back. Our companion can happily roam free even longer, in turn making our batteries even fuller. Everyone wins.
We know they are highly intelligent. We know that they communicate well with each other and not so badly with us. Well, what if that intelligence and communication was available to us beyond the sounds we’re familiar with and their body language and demeanor?
Soon, it might be. Con Slobodchikoff, professor emeritus of biology at Northern Arizona University and CEO of pet-tech Animal Communications – a company whose motto is “Blending science with empathy for all living beings” – is developing a dictionary of dog barks by collecting and interpreting videos of dog vocalizations. In theory, an app like Siri could then translate an owner’s simple words into woofs and barks, or translate a dog’s woofs and barks into English. While the project is still in its infancy, the possibilities are totally mind-blowing.
Imagine being out for a walk with your dog, your phone buzzes and the message from Rover up ahead is: “Snake!” Or that Rex announces that, after hours of the two of you searching, he’s found your lost child. Or, if you are so inclined, Bowser becomes the most valuable member of your weekend hunting party because he’s always the first to locate (and tell you about) a nice 12-point buck. Or, in an evolution of how today’s therapy dogs assist their owners, Mikey’s vocalizations clearly warn you of seizures, low blood sugar or even impending cancer.
A genome-editing technique called CRISPR – Clustered Regularly Interspace Short Palindromic Repeats – allows scientists to modify DNA by cutting out undesired genes and inserting new ones. It’s relatively cheap and has potential applications in medicine, agriculture and animals. With the first embryos ready this year, scientists have already used it to insert synthetic woolly-mammoth genes into elephant cells, although nobody is certain whether the result will develop into a living animal. They are even looking to grow beagles with double the typical muscle mass to produce a super pup.
While the ethics of this approach are, perhaps, shaky at best, you can bet that if it works, somebody will be all over it. And if ethics are really your sticking point, ask yourself about the generations of gene manipulation we’ve already engaged in with our pets through the selective breeding that has maintained pure breeds for so long.
Should CRISPR prove effective, the possibilities for a pet market that can stomach this science will be huge: faster dogs, more aggressive dogs, cuter dogs and so on. Dog owners will compete among themselves to produce the biggest, brightest and best.
A variety of studies illustrate how dogs help us facilitate human social connections. On walks and at the park, they are an effective mediator in helping us to meet and socialize with other humans. So, what if your dog could smell human pheromones, interpret them in the same way a human might, and be able to suggest good partnerships or make a mate match?
If that sounds a little far-fetched consider this: the apocrine gland produces scents that convey social information through pheromones. That’s why dogs like to sniff crotches. Recent studies have found Australian shepherd dogs picking out cows that have just ovulated to assist farmers in breeding; Law Enforcement trainers recount how their dogs are able to distinguish people in a high state of fear or arousal through scent; and bomb sniffers are not just looking for the scent of bomb-making material but for the nervous sweat deposited on the bombs by those who made them.
So if dogs can so accurately detect pheromones, could they not be trained to pick out specific cues about the human they are sniffing and – perhaps through a translation app – convey information about that human to their human? Like, “Hey Bob, I’ve met a nice, calm, gentle lady over here that I think you might like.” Combined with their ability to visually read human emotion by focusing on the left side of our faces – a fact pointed out by Daniel Mills at the University of Lincoln that other animals do not do – pups already have a pretty accurate read on the humans in their midst.
While the training and technology that would enable such innovations to see the light of day might never arrive, that does not discount the opportunities that lie within the theme of Pets as Living Tools. For thousands of years, dogs have been our extra-somatic tool to help us expand the resources we can exploit. There is no reason to think that now that we are out of our caves and rarely in the neighborhoods of giant grizzlies that we no longer require our tool companions. Only the tasks have changed. And if, as many have suggested, pet ownership in its current form is unsustainable in our growing, urbanized populations, it might only be those pets that have a secondary value that we will be able to afford.
And we might consider affordability, especially with robots right around the corner. As a social technology themselves, our dogs could well perform better than our robots in helping us through our lives. They provide a good example of what robots need to become: lots of varieties, multiple purposes, various formats and a uncanny attunement to our human needs.
We live in the age of patient centricity. Look to the mission statements of every big healthcare player – from life sciences to insurance providers – and all of them inevitably cite their commitment to delivering patient-focused or patient-centric care. Let’s be clear: this in and of itself is not a bad thing. The embrace of patient centricity has been responsible for very real improvements in the ways that the industry thinks about the people it serves, how it orients and delivers care to them, and in the experiences of patients themselves who, for so long, were the buried lead of healthcare. And yet it must also be acknowledged that the patient centricity movement has neither lived up to its potential nor is even adequate, even in theory, for the needs of the ecosystems of people who make up the primary actors in any healthcare setting. This includes patients, their families and loved ones, doctors, nurses and all manner of other healthcare practitioners. But if not patient centricity, which has for some time now provided a valuable ethical underpinning that the industry relies on, then what?
So, what comes after patient centricity and why do we need to move on from it as the central organizing principle of delivering care in the 21st century?
What is patient centricity?
The origins of patient centricity can be traced back to social movements of the 1960’s when established hierarchies and power structures were being challenged. The notion that sick people were just passive receptacles for doctor’s superior knowledge and that medicine was just a functional exercise in treatment became the target of patients’ rights movements. At the same time, systemic and social changes allowed this thinking to burgeon. But it was really with the advent of the Internet and easily available access to all kinds of information – medical information, doctor ratings, drug prices and alternative therapies – that the true disruptive nature of patient centricity began to be fully realized.
With the Internet in play, the consumerization of medicine and healthcare really came to the fore. Customers – patients in this case – had choices and healthcare companies found that while they understood the science and the medicine behind their products and offerings, they did not have a sophisticated understanding of their patients’ lives, experiences, key needs and challenges.
What then is patient centricity now? Obviously, it’s no one thing but a collection of intentions (or a collective intention?) to account for the needs and experiences of patients in the provision of care. What does this mean in practice? The narrative of patient centricity has informed everything from the plethora of patient support services offered by pharma and life science companies to new ways of orienting services and care in clinical settings. Most of all, many might argue, patient centricity has come to reside in health companies’ mission statements and marketing materials. That’s not to say that it is empty of effect, but it has re-oriented the ways in which healthcare is spoken about and the ways in which the needs of patients are said, at the very least, to be prioritized.
Why patient centricity is not enough
As a movement, a genuine exercise in empathy and as a marketing strategy, patient centricity has been inadequate to the task. We need to move on now. As an organization that has and continues to bring genuine patient experiences to bear in the allocation of healthcare resources and the design of healthcare services to make healthcare more patient-centric, it may strike some as strange for us to advocate moving on from it. But we stand by this position not as a rejection of patient centricity, but in the spirit of evolution, of striving for more and doing better. The move to patient centricity was a beginning – not an ending – of how the system needs to adjust. However, there are plenty of examples how and why the system needs to evolve:
We keep spending more and more on healthcare but do not have dramatically better outcomes to show for it. Beyond this, patient satisfaction lags behind where it should and could be. According to some measures, Americans are amongst the most globally pessimistic about the future of their healthcare.
The promise of digital technologies – for so long mooted as the means to pull healthcare into a more patient-centric world – has largely failed to live up to its promise. Digital in healthcare has been transformative in some ways for sure – think EHRs – but have the potential benefits of digital truly trickled down in ways that have scaled out benefits for the patient population at large?
Patient centricity as it is currently defined seems stuck and needs a reboot. Apps, nudges, patient support programs, reimbursement support, adherence reminders, diet and exercise advice and a whole host of patient experience offices, personnel and surveys encompass the material evidence of the patient centricity movement. With all this in place, though, patients continue to feel disconnected and alienated from the system. One example is adherence. For all the effort to make adherence patient-centric and to try and equip patients with tools and advice that genuinely will help them to adjust their behavior and take their meds, little evidence is out there that these have had significant effect and resonance in people’s lives. Numbers abound on this, here are just a few cited from the American College of Preventive Medicine: non-adherence costs the US economy as much as $300 billion dollars a year; it accounts for 30-50% of treatment failures; and depending on the condition 20-50% of patients are non-adherent at any one time. These numbers are only expected to rise in the coming years as the burden of chronic disease management increases.
Perhaps most importantly, patient centricity is inadequate as a paradigm for contemporary care because it itself emerges from and is stuck in a cultural model of care that, while it may remain dominant, is no longer ascendant. Patient centricity’s cultural DNA reflects old models of medical authority, social arrangement and cohesion, and economic realities. Largely built on a model of individual acute care reflecting older socioeconomic realities, patient centricity has done little – and may very well have exacerbated – forms of atomization and alienation from the care system that continue to plague healthcare delivery and affect outcomes negatively. The democratization and distribution of medical knowledge, the increasing challenges of managing chronic care alone, the costs of care and the increasing inequality of income distribution, the hollowing out of the middle class and even the reformation of extended families all point to a model of care that needs to evolve.
Where do we go from here?
Moving on from patient centricity should not be thought of as evidence of its failure. More to the point, the current iterations of patient centricity have just exposed gaps in how it could come to life in a more robust, systemic and authentic way. In some ways this means patient centricity is a victim of its own success – that said, there are probably a few people out there that would argue that there isn’t significant room for improvement. So where exactly do we go from here?
People, not patients
While some might argue that the word ‘patient’ implies a duty of care, the word comes with a heck of a lot of baggage. Becoming a ‘patient’ is a process of linguistic and social transformation from a whole person into an object of intervention. The word patient, then, and the services designed to support it, struggle to recognize the patient as a whole person. This means that patient centricity efforts still tend to box in the person as the site for and the object of one-sided interventions of care. Seeing the person as a patient leaves distorted power imbalances in place.
Fragmented and inflexible care
In terms of care delivery, we have a significant distance to go in terms of bringing care to people on their own terms. For too long we have relied on the fictions of personal responsibility and the notion of the proactive patient to remove ourselves from the responsibility of the provision of care to all. But if patient centricity and whatever follows it means anything, it means bringing good care to as many people as possible. In recently published research by Accenture, more than 60% of patients said they would happily switch providers if it meant getting an appointment sooner. Similarly, the same research found that just over half of respondents would change providers if they were offered care in a more convenient location. What we have learned, in effect, is making access and delivery of care as flexible and integrated as possible makes a huge difference in the outcomes that are generated. But what seems easy and straightforward is actually difficult to implement. That said, the organizations that are pioneering this (such as the Commonwealth Care Alliance in Massachusetts) and making it a core value of their healthcare delivery are seeing genuine results.
Ecosystems, not individuals
One of the biggest limitations of current conceptions and orientations toward patient centricity is its bias towards individualism. Now we know, of course, that diseases are experienced by individuals. But ample work by medical anthropologists, sociologists and many others orient the experience of illness much more broadly than simply the sick individual. From these perspectives, illnesses can most productively be understood as social entities, with the experience of being sick reverberating across many different people. This can most clearly be seen in the experience of caregivers. Patient-centric services have, in some cases, sought to include them in their outreach. Yet, for the most part, patient centricity is focused on the individual with the disease and has little to offer those (beyond that individual) who remain profoundly affected by the illness. This has the unintended effect of placing enormous burdens on the sick person as the one responsible for coordinating and marshalling the help of others and places them, ironically, too often in the opposite role intended: giving care and support to others.
Care, not products and services
Most healthcare organizations have followed a model based on a blend of market research and design thinking that assesses and determines “unmet needs” and then determines which of those needs are most acute, most impactful and most easily solved. Then, they try to “solve” for them. These solutions run the spectrum from simplistic and quite spartan in nature to relatively robust. What they have in common is that they think of needs in isolation from one another. Consequently, such organizations see the patient as a patchwork of disconnected “needs” that can be serviced. While there are notable exceptions, the industry has never been able to step away and see what the connective tissue between these needs and how they can start to connect them to people within the context of building authentic relationships of care.
A commitment to care
It is on this last point that we should reflect for a moment. We need to rally around a set of cultural values that allow us to orient health within our economies, companies and everyday lives. For too long, sickness has been seen exclusively as the purview of biomedicine and bodies as sites for medico-scientific intervention. But the rise of chronic illness alongside and in conjunction with patient centricity has successfully challenged this notion. Now sickness is largely about management, health is aspirational, and we are always at risk. As such, sickness and health are knitted intricately and intimately into people’s everyday lives, inseparable from the activities, emotions, hopes and values that animate it. As part of the everyday, illness is no longer something that can be isolated or time-boxed. It has become complexly itself, tied into all the events, emotions, networks and actions that compose life.
To meet this experience, we need to place a cultural value around health, patients and the things that we do to help people recover from sickness and stay healthy. I think we can find those values in the notion of care. Care is more than the delivery of services or functional transactions between two parties; care implies a relationship. We might even say that care implies a kind of responsibility or a social contract between two parties that goes beyond economic exchange. Care, as a guiding concept, might also allow us to see how to integrate the system in ways that help to speed more transformative health solutions. Care can be a mandate for traditional health actors as much as it can or should be for food, financial services and insurance companies (just to name three).
What would patient centricity reimagined as a commitment to care mean for you and your company? Moreover, where can companies find new sources and forms of value in this shift? In the life sciences, the first one is obvious: embracing care as a commitment to the people you serve offers up the promise of better engagement with them. Better, more authentic engagement can help to communicate and embed educational materials and adherence advice as well as offer a pathway to creating relationships that can truly support behavior change. This engagement can also offer physicians more meaningful tools to forge actual human relationships with their patients. Creating an ecosystem where true and significant engagement can take place – by which I simply mean interactions that are grounded in more than a transactional or mechanical basis, interactions that take into account identities that go beyond the singular formulations of “patient” and “doctor” and interactions that take into account our emotional selves as important aspects of social need – offers the ability to create more longitudinal, lasting relationships between all persons in the care system.
A commitment to care also means enabling your company to prepare for known and unknown disruptions to come. The democratization of knowledge, the distrust of authority (scientific or otherwise), new technologies from AI to IoT ecosystems to 3D printers, to increasingly imbalanced distributions of income are just few commonly realized signals that point to significant upheaval of current business models. There are more. Because of this, resilience and sustainability will be an important feature for companies to acquire both as attributes of their working culture and as elements of their business strategy. How does looking beyond patient centricity help build these qualities of resiliency and innovation? To begin with, having the foresight to contemplate modestly and radically different futures is a means of forcing oneself to reckon with alternative business models and new paradigms. It becomes a form of discipline that helps companies to anticipate changes in the marketplace.
Perhaps more importantly, looking beyond the orthodoxies and models that have defined patient centricity up to this point will allow companies to forge more direct relationships with what truly motivates them, allowing people to live healthier, more meaningful lives. While there is appetite for innovation in this space, it is too often incremental and bogged down in what exists today rather than what could exist tomorrow.
Embracing these changes will not be easy, as even the most basic tenets of patient centricity have been unevenly taken up across the various sectors of the health industry. Moreover, these changes do not just entail adjusting how you speak to and engage with your customer. It also means taking a sober look at how you are organized internally to meet and address these challenges. Building programs and services is one thing, but building a corporate culture of care, one whose values mirror those your company wants to project to the people it employs as much as to the people it serves is hard work. But it is worth it. In an era where the values and ethics of companies are among the first things evaluated by consumers, healthcare companies are not exempt from this, despite the necessity of their services. Finding, articulating and acting on those values of care is the future of patient centricity and it must be rooted in a cultural transformation.
What does this boil down to? At the end of the day, healthcare is still more of a machine than it is a set of relationships. We are still missing the responsibilities, intimacies and care that comes from human relationships. Anthropologists and sociologists have spent a long time trying to figure out the qualities that are essential to universal and essential for human societies to form and thrive. One of those elements – communitas – refers to the ties that bind us together, the spirit of community that dispense with social hierarchies, social rules that connect us as humans living alongside one another. It’s a simple concept, but a profound one. Communitas can be the guiding north star of healthcare reform and, indeed, another way of saying communitas is: care. No matter how complex, how efficient, how mechanized or digitized or logical we need to make the system going forward, we also need to make it more human. Bringing all of these qualities together, the systemic and the human, is difficult but by no means impossible. Care lies at the center and it can lead the way.
No technology reveals as much about our relationship with the things we build as robots. In part, this is because robots and robotics are still more idea than reality. The idea of a robot centers on its ability to be the equal of humans: it is supposed to be a machine created by us that can rival us in every way. Because we are not actually able to create machines that get anywhere close to this right now, we are not in immediate risk of a robot apocalypse. But it is the idea that we can try, and may succeed one day, that captures our imaginations. We see frightening potential in a robot, and it is this that makes us uneasy. We see robots as something that can eventually be exactly like us. And as an idea, robots become a technology that forces us to ask what makes us human, and what our relationship with our technological creations should be like.
In a more practical sense, robots are exciting because they have function and purpose. They do work that humans either do not want to do, or cannot do. They tirelessly build things with more accuracy and efficiency than a human worker. They can go to Mars or to the bottom of the ocean and extend the limits of our reach and knowledge. And they can clean our floors while we do other things.
All of this provides us with immediate value and justifies the development of robots. But this makes them little more than highly-capable tools. The relationship we have with our tools is defined by human dominance and control. It is the human that uses the tool. The tool is a passive technology that is only used to accomplish a task. As tools that do things, robots are not a direct challenge to our existence or even our sense of what it means to be human.
So why is there such a gulf between the idea of robots and the practical reality of what robots are now? The idea of a robot was developed long before we developed the technology to fulfil this potential. The concept of a “mechanical man” is now over 500 years old, but the technology needed to make this a reality is still being developed. The idea comes from the past, while the technology lives in an uncertain, unfulfilled future. What this means is that our cultural understanding of what a robot is, or should be, is a lot more mature than the technologies needed to make it a reality.
Remember: this is still an idea. But this idea is the driving force behind the development of robots. This idea is more important than the practical reality of what a robot is now. And this idea is culturally determined, which means it is a collection of assumptions and beliefs that are far from the practical realities of engineering new technologies. Because it is a cultural construct, it can be different in different cultures. Hence, we must understand the assumptions and beliefs that shape our ideas of robotics. Only after we understand these driving forces, can we understand the value of robotic systems.
A Revealing Relationship
In the West, robots are not entirely good or safe things. We see them as useful, but potentially dangerous, and we are suspicious of them as a result. Much of this unease comes from a long history of literature and story-telling. Writers, filmmakers, and thinkers have created ambivalent examples of robots since Karel Čapek coined the term in his play R.U.R. (Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti or Rossum’s Universal Robots) from 1920. Shortly thereafter, Fritz Lang produced the film Metropolis (1927) where the robot created by the scientist Rotwang in a plot to take over the city of Metropolis. Lang’s film can be understood as a statement about the problematic relationship between people and technology. The robot that Rotwang creates can transform itself into an exact copy of the hero’s lost love Hel, and as such is able to be human, but the robot is not benign and proves to be the centrepiece of the scientist’s dangerous plot.
While Metropolis is the first cinematic statement of the problem of human-like robots, its depiction of the problematic relationship between humans and our creations is much older. For that we can look to examples like God and Adam, Chronos and Zeus, God and Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost, Dr. Frankenstein and his creature in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and many others. These stories show us that there is always a difficult relationship between a creator and their creation. Adam defied God by eating the apple with Eve. Zeus killed his father Chronos in a rebellion. Satan spends much of Paradise Lost thinking about how his relationship with God is restrictive, and how he wants to supplant his father. And Shelley shows us the dangers of creating new life through technological means as the creature struggles to understand himself, eventually becoming vengeful and seeking to destroy his creator.
They also tell us that the relationship between creator and creation is a difficult one and that it may often end in destruction and sorrow. Like all myths and fables, the telling and retelling of this basic story is the way in which we solidify cultural ideas and come to believe them completely. The implication of this is clear for robots: the relationship will be problematic and robots will come to be dangerous, and the robot apocalypse is coming. That we often develop military systems capable of killing remotely or autonomously adds a fatal reality to this possibility. But this is just one cultural construct amongst many. It is not strictly true. We know this because there is another example that tells a different story.
There is a counter narrative that is told just as frequently, and it tells a story of autonomous, intelligent cybernetic systems that are friendly, loyal, and hardworking. Films like Star Wars, Short Circuit, and AI, books like Isaac Asimov’s Robot series, Karl Schoeder’s Lady of Mazes, and television series like Star Trek, Lost in Space, and Astro Boy follow a pattern of robotic systems that work in collaboration with humans. Here, we overcome our fear of our creation. These robots are helpful, even kind. They provide humans with companionship and emotional support. They rarely question their creators. They even work hard to become more human. Theirs is a tale of a well-adjusted system that has found a way to work in harmony with their human colleagues.
These differing stories about technology focus on the relationship between humans as creators of artificial beings and their creation. Their difference lies in how this relationship is articulated. In the first, the creations are struggling to find a place in the world. Most of those stories depend on the fact that the robots do not have a place in society, or become unable to participate in it as healthy members. The second set of stories show us the potential of a robotic being that has found a place in human society and culture. Together, these stories present examples and patterns that help us understand our relationship with our technology. They also present us with an insight into what we expect from our technology, and that we seem to have a choice. We either provide our robots with a role in society, or they will struggle to work with us and become potentially dangerous.
Defining the Purpose to Unlock their Value
Dr. Jin Oh Kim, professor of robotics at Kwangwoon University, describes a simple model that allows us to see robots for what they are – tools that we use to accomplish a task.
Dr. Kim’s model is straight-forward:
Human → Task
Human → Tool → Task
Human → Robot → Task
By focusing on how a robot mediates a human’s approach to accomplishing a task, he has provided us with a way of looking at any real-world situation where robots are put to use. The benefit lies in that his model is unburdened by the mythologies described above. Here, the robot is designed and used to fit a particular purpose. That purpose is defined within the relationship between the human and the task.
All of a sudden the threats presented by sentient, malicious robots fall away, because within Kim’s model, a robot is just something designed to fit a purpose. It does not need to be capable of challenging us, and as a result it is less of a problem. In this way, we see that when robots are applied to a task, that they become smaller, simpler, less problematic systems. There is no challenge, because they become a tool that helps the humans in the equation of accomplishing something. The robot is a more complicated version of a knife or a screwdriver. However, it is not something that needs to challenge the capabilities or social status of a human being. If applied only to meet the needs of a task and amplifying, or modifying, our capabilities, there is no reason why it should threaten our innermost identity.
What this illustrates is that in real-world situations the value of a robot depends on the nature of the task and the capacities of a human being. The robot is the mediator of the effort and skills needed to accomplish the task and needs only to be advanced enough to accomplish what jobs we set for it.
The value of a robot lies in how well it is suited to the task that it is designed to accomplish. The principles of MVP (minimum viable product) apply here because it need not be anything more than that. This changes completely the nature of the problem of the robot’s relationship with the human being. It no longer needs to be anything that threatens the human, because in this situation the robot is there to help or enhance the human’s abilities only. This means Dr. Kim’s model provides us with an alternative to both dangerous and friendly robots. It allows us to see robots as mediators, collaborators, and extensions of ourselves. And this means that the robot has a social role. It has a place in society and a purpose for existing.
This place in society is enough to ensure that it never challenges us, simply because we need never design it beyond this human/task relationship. However, it means that we must begin to look at robotic systems in a more holistic way. It must be framed by the limits of the humans and the tasks in the equation. The robot’s value lies in how well it helps us humans accomplish our tasks. But this means that to create value through the application of robotics, we must look beyond the technology and to the task and context of the situation.
Ultimately, finding the value in robotics is still more about the human context than it is about the limits, problems, or capacities of the robotic system. The best way to approach value-driven applications of robotic technology of any kind is to begin by understanding the situation in which it is needed. So, finding value in robotics involves finding what is valuable to human beings and creating a contextually-driven set of solutions that describe what kind of robot is needed and what it will do. In the end, the robot will be a mediator and its only value will lie in its relationship with its user.
There is a crisis in luxury today, and it’s not just emanating out of China. The global luxury sector is enduring its slowest growth since 1994. At present, business and marketing analyses of the luxury retail crisis point primarily to a lag in digital, a widening stock and a failure to reach the social-networked Gen Z. But what these critiques fail to grasp are the new cultural codes and value systems that have developed around luxury consumption – ultimately, the luxury market is treading water because the luxury consumer is changing.
We are witnessing a seismic shift in luxury, one that the overwhelming majority of categories and brands refuse to acknowledge. This oversight means that brands have a difficult time distinguishing between the old and the new type of luxury consumer. The old consumer responded to cultural codes of luxury and exclusivity that were unanimously recognized from above. The new consumer, conversely, is self-made, self-assertive and selective. It is imperative for us to trace how this new consumer came to be and examine how she manifests herself in order to theorize how consumer categories should be reimagined around her.
A Brief History of Recent Luxury
The rapid expansion of the mid-90s through the early 00s opened up luxury categories to mainstream consumers across the globe. This expansion was largely steeped in the hangover of “Old World” luxury codes. The traditional signifiers of aspiration – excess, opulence and status – were transmitted by visual codes that for centuries had been financially, geographically and culturally inaccessible to the general public. These codes, a means to reading and deciphering the cultural world, needed to migrate to retain their exclusivity.
So, as luxury crept into mainstream middle-class consumption its validity was called into question. Having been defined by its exclusivity, traditional luxury came to appear less and less appealing as its availability spread. This coincided with an era of mass-market imitation, global counterfeiting and a financial crisis, which meant that luxury, as it once stood, ended up in its death throes. But that is not to say, of course, that luxury itself was disappearing – far from it. Rather, it was only morphing into its next form.
The Shift from Gilding to Optimization
Luxury transformed from the “Gilded Object” to the “Optimized Object”. Luxury was once found in 700 pairs of Manolos, the Cartier emerald, Waterford Crystal, the interiors of Liberace or Zsa Zsa Gábor; by these standards today’s objects are markedly ascetic. 1000 objects are to be replaced with just one; apparel, beauty, jewelry and cars do not change with the seasons nor with the trends but the single object satisfies all possible interpretations. The ultimate white t-shirt, the perfect walking boots, the all-in-one membership: the optimization of utility, quality and iconicity defines the aspirational luxury object of today. To crystallize this shift, we ought to look at the best-selling sneaker of 2017: Common Projects’ Achilles low-top ($415), a simple white, rounded-toe lace-up with no visible detailing. Its only allusion to luxury are Common Projects’ signature metallic article numbers embossed on the heel, but even this is understated and has a hint at the functional. The Achilles has proven to be infinitely more desirable than the “ultimate gilded shoe” – the Buscemi 100mm sneakers – which feature a nod to the Hermès Birkin bag (the fur and diamond-encrusted versions of the shoe can retail up to $132k). This example does a good job illustrating the changes happening in luxury consumption, especially when we take into account that Common Projects has never even advertised. Despite being a relatively new player in leather goods, they have become the encapsulation of the Optimized Object.
This seemingly new approach to luxury, however, is not without precedents. In 1908 the design theorist, Adolf Loos, derided the ornamentals of the Viennese Empire. He equated ornament with a feminized world of excess, frivolity and immorality. Wasting time on ornamentation, Loos argued, only hastened the designed object’s path to obsolescence. He propounded, instead, the functional, ergo masculine, and the formalistic that would come to define Modernist design of the next half century. We are beginning to see this moralistic equation mirrored in today’s luxury objects, as the purging of the superfluous becomes an adept metaphor to describe the aspirational shift towards the Optimized Object. Perhaps the best example of the fetish of utility is the unforeseeable rise of Canada Goose, a down parka originally formulated for scientists at the Antarctic station. Such coats are now ubiquitous across America’s and Europe’s cities, and have a particularly powerful appeal among China’s counterfeiters. Canada Goose’s appeal is in its excessive warmth (labelled “the warmest coat on earth”) and heavily-emphasized manufacturing. It’s a self-declared utility object and the $1000 price tag is justified by its functional, internal composition – not by its external properties. Needless to say, the absence of Yukon dog-sledding in urban centers does not deter the brand’s loyal consumers.
In the post-recession age, being mindful and having solid principles are of prime interest to the new luxury consumer. The Optimized Object expresses this temperament in a number of ways. Its purging of superfluity is not limited to its design, nor to its function, but encapsulates the entirety of the object-culture. The Optimized Object in luxury might be embodied in the reduction of many objects to few objects; the privileging of non-material resources (time, ingenuity, passion); an emphasis on down-to-earth craftsmanship; or prioritizing subtlety over overtness. However it is expressed, the Optimized Object shuns the “Old World” of gilded luxury in the quest for enlightenment. Objects for a better self – essentially a better future – are the new luxury.
In her 2017 text “The Sum of Small Things”, Elizabeth Currid-Halkett declares the death of conspicuous consumption: gone are the silver spoons and corsets of Thorstein Veblen. Enter the intangible. Investments in education, health (and its sister, wellness), travel and other services eschew the concrete materialism of the past. This makes the criteria for identifying luxury all the more opaque to the uninitiated and the division between the haves-and-have-nots more socially striking. This is a helpful observation because it posits the post-recession shift from goods to services, towards the “luxification” of the everyday. However, Currid-Halkett’s contemporary examination of the luxury class cannot account for the material goods that are still being purchased. To explain this continuity amidst an otherwise total shift, we need to look to the type of goods purchased and the rituals that encapsulate their consumption.
The Importance of Authentic Longevity
The minimalist mode of consumption may appear at odds with the very concept of luxury. It may perplex readers that a $2’500 pair of Yeezy sneakers is a minimalist purchase and, similarly, a hand-crafted BestMade hatchet (for $400) is most likely not the first object that springs to mind under “luxury”. But this pairing demands a re-evaluation of the luxury object in the everyday.
So, what makes a luxury object suitable for the everyday? It must satisfy three things: utility, quality and iconicity. The Optimized Object must necessarily therefore be an object with longevity – but this does not represent an invigorated interest in design and aesthetics. Rather, the useful, high-quality, iconic object satisfies an existential need. The objects that withstand the toils of the everyday are distinct from the “Old World” behaviors of occasion dressing and a sedentary, cushioned lifestyle. The Cipollini Bicycle, The Shinola watch, A.P.C. Selvedge Denim – these are perhaps not yet household names, but they are surreptitious signifiers of luxury, channeled through the symbolism of endurance. Up to this point, smaller brands have been the most adept providers of this mode of luxury.
We present here a test-case as an example of how certain old-world brands have failed to address this new mode of consumption. Tiffany’s own “Everyday Object” series (“The ordinary made beautiful”) – ranging from an 18k gold paperclip to a sterling silver tin can – failed to capture the luxury of the everyday object. Instead, these objects, in attempting to hide their excess, communicated their role as “the paperclip for the person who has it all”. This mode of luxury sits too close to the “Old World” in its gilding of what already exists rather than producing something innovative. Had Tiffany’s been able to demonstrate their commitment to utility, quality and iconicity, they may have been able to create truly lasting and iconic everyday objects.
Alongside a desire for “objects built to last”, there exists a desire for luxurious, ephemeral experiences: The Class by Taryn Toomey, Yachts & Friends holidays, a Hermès dinner party are examples that represent this type of luxury. There is an argument that in the face of an uncertain future, millennial consumers put off traditional milestone purchases (things like spending money on housing and weddings or investing in arts for example). This anxiety permeates even high-income earners, so what people do is use these fleeting experiences to feel momentary, luxury relief from persistent real-world problems.
The Fragmentation of the Archetype
How are these objects selected to enter the “New Luxury” landscape and why are certain “Old World” codes relegated to the dust heaps of history? What is required to craft “New Luxury” is a new type of knowledge. This new knowledge has, in part, arisen from a new category of consumers – The Innovator, a self-made, future-oriented type, who proactively seeks wealth – but also out of necessity, because in growing markets like China and India inherited wealth has been almost non-existent. In this context, the established knowledge of traditional luxury codes becomes obsolete and inaccessible, and as a result, a new form of luxury is created to satisfy desires.
What becomes aspirational, therefore, is the ingenuity: the ability to discern what is the best based on the utility, quality or iconicity of an object. Ingenuity, rather than knowledge (that sits in the static “Old Luxury” domain), involves a process of transformation. It is within this process that the luxury consumer, and the luxury object is produced. The luxury consumer is always looking for ways to remove herself from the outdated model of mass consumption, searching for ways to “game the system” and “one-up” it. The luxury consumer desires a short cut to what is best, and for this she requires ingenuity, rather than decades and generations of built-up knowledge.
Not only is new luxury an acquired skill – the intersection of time, knowledge and resources – to acquire the right products, but new luxury is defined by the self-identification with the object and its producer. The new luxury consumer desires to replicate the engineering ideal that is suggested by the Optimized Object, for ingenuity is the new currency. She wants to mirror the object, to be ingenious and savvy like its creator: the buyer of the Shinola watch regards herself in parallel with the producer who created and crafted the piece. This demonstrates that new luxury is not simply about ingenuity, but the capacity to apply (and therefore possess) others’ ingenuity in clever ways.
What is “best” has become diffused. It is up to the luxury consumer to produce their own criteria and imbue their own sense of meaning within the luxury object. Here we see a break-down of the archetype, where luxury shrugs off its role as an authority figure: gone are the Gianni Versaces, Antoni Pateks, and Elizabeth Taylors. New luxury looks to new sources, coinciding with globalization: it moves away from the hegemony of Paris, New York, London and opens itself up to cues from Addis Ababa, Chengdu and Bogotá. The consumer can imbue the new luxury object with their own selfhood, in the absence of the archetype.
What will the new luxury world look like, and how should brands respond? One of the most profound challenges will be negotiating access to knowledge. Luxury education today demands shortcuts but must maintain exclusivity. To achieve this it is crucial to build cohesive narratives, not just market one-off stories. With these narratives, luxury stores must reflect the diversification, they must speak to multiple worlds. As a result, they will become more museum-like, upholding the local and promising longevity. To do this, brands will need to not only engage with consumers, but also engage with experts, storytellers, craftsmen, archivists.
The Optimized Object, built to last, but also built to reflect the consumer and her fragmented world, is something to affix her identity onto. Luxury must shake off its former associations of grandeur – it can act as an authority and a guide to strive towards, but it should not be a doctrine to live by. New luxury must leave room for the playfulness of the new luxury consumer.
Today, it seems that if there is one thing that companies should focus on more than any other it is innovation. Often, this is a question of the company’s survival. The marketplace is more cut-throat than ever: it’s characterised by global competition, the dynamism of start-ups, and empowered consumers that are ever more difficult to impress. Innovation is necessary to simply keep the company’s head above water. And perhaps, more dramatically, it is also a question of humanity’s survival. Humanity faces many threats. However, with politics and behaviour change having mixed success in dealing with them, the onus has fallen on companies to innovate us out of trouble.
Given the importance of innovation to both companies and society, we might expect to hold a clear understanding of how to do it. However, the innovation literature, despite being sizeable, falls short.
A typical innovation book offers two things: case studies of successful innovation and guidelines on how to create the organisational culture and structure needed for innovation. Case studies might allow the author to derive some best practice guidelines on innovation, but they rarely offer a theory or even a structure on how innovation should take place in the future. Organisational guidelines might indeed allow a culture of innovation to be fostered, but this hardly guarantees that the ideas a company produces are innovative.
Consider the most influential book on innovation, Clayton Christensen’s The innovator’s dilemma: When new technologies cause great companies to fail. Christensen’s argument is that “great companies” focus on pleasing shareholders and existing customers. This leads them to innovate incrementally, rejecting riskier disruptive innovations that, when they become available, lack demand. However, disruptive innovations are embraced by smaller companies, who make them viable and take over the market before the ‘great company’ can adapt.
The innovator’s dilemma is compelling, but ultimately offers little in guiding us to create disruptive innovations. Instead, it focuses more on the barriers that stopped great companies from innovating. It is, then, less a theory of disruptive innovation and more a theory of why disruptive innovation does not happen. Furthermore, the fact that he bases his arguments on only two key case studies hardly provides him with the basis for a more general theory of innovation.
Similar issues are associated with another core innovation text, W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne’s Blue Ocean Strategy. The authors position their work as a counterpoint to the strategy orthodoxy that companies should focus on differentiating within existing markets. They call these “red oceans”, which reflects the bloody nature of competition. Red oceans have limited prospects for growth. In contrast, “blue oceans” are new markets that offer opportunities for high growth and quick returns. Thus, success means identifying these new spaces and innovating.
This all sounds great in principle, but the question is how to chart and sail into these blue oceans? In other words, how should we create innovations that create new markets? This is a question on which the authors offer little.
Beware the fetish of creativity
Given this void, it is no surprise that we turn to magic dust. This particular substance is so potent that it promises to save the world and let us rediscover ourselves. It is creativity.
It seems sensible to ‘pursue’ creativity. After all, creating truly path-breaking innovations requires a certain imagination and vision that means looking beyond the status quo.
The trouble is that we have created a fetish of creativity, and in doing so have lost sense of its meaning and use. Specifically, it has become an end rather than a means. Frequently, it seems as if what matters most is being creative rather than using creativity to transform. Thus, organizations focus on fostering the conditions for creativity. This usually means hiring young people, creating homely working conditions, and embracing design. Here, creativity becomes less a practice than a series of signs. Signifying that you are creative often stands in for actually being creative.
The perils of this are reflected in the state of the world’s cities. In his 2002 book, The Rise of the Creative Class, Richard Florida described how a new creative urban elite was transforming cities. Ironically, his analysis brought about the change he described. Cities began investing in creativity via promoting the growth of creative industries and encouraging the right sort of people to move to them. But the creative city has turned out not just to be a false promise, but a destructive one: it has created new social problems, as reflected in the title of Florida’s most recent book, The new urban crisis: How our cities are increasing inequality, deepening segregation, and failing the middle class. The cities that took Florida’s advice worshipped creativity for its own sake without thinking sensibly about the specific ways it should be applied.
Furthermore, creativity is frequently contrasted with ‘thinking’. In other words, to be creative is to suspend all prior knowledge and to get in touch with our inner child. As Stanford professor Robert Sutton puts it, in the creative process, “ignorance is bliss.”
Such an idea emerges from our binary view of the brain, in which one is either right- or left-brained, with the creative right side most valued today. This belief has some unfortunate implications for innovation. For example, it leads to the creative brainstorm being positioned as the ultimate way to innovate. Here, a bunch of creative people are placed together in a room and asked to churn out ideas at random with little or no guiding structure and few criteria to evaluate them. Such brainstorms are more frequently characterised by the excitement they generate than the quality of their end product.
None of the figures venerated in innovation texts like Darwin or Jobs created breakthroughs because they splurged random ideas. Their breakthroughs came from the ingenious applications of bodies of knowledge built up through a lifetime. True creativity involves thinking. This is an insight supported by neuroscience. As researchers at the University of Florida found, “not all people who have high levels of specialized knowledge or talent are creative, but we also know that to be creative one often needs to have specialized knowledge.”
Apparently aware of the oversights of his own work and that of other innovation scholars, Christensen has, through subsequent contributions, tried to spell out how innovation should happen. This led, for example, in Seeing what’s next: Using the theories of innovation to predict industry change to a series of models for understanding how industries are evolving. Yet this trend spotting fell short of a model of innovation.
Christensen finally provides this through his jobs-to-be-done theory. This proposes that innovation should be based on study of the particular tensions that consumers face in everyday life. These tensions are resolved through products. Consumers “hire” and “fire” products based on their efficacy in resolving the tension. Innovation should focus on identifying new jobs-to-be-done, or existing ones that are inadequately addressed by current market offers.
Whilst Christensen positions his theory as revolutionary, it is in fact a repackaging of old ideas from various disciplines. For example, it borrows a methodology from anthropology, design research and psychology, and a model of the consumer from neoclassical economics and economic sociology.
Nevertheless, jobs-to-be-done has a compelling quality. It is simple, easy to understand and relatively easy to do. It respects the consumer, in fact elevating her beyond the consumer to an entrepreneur via the language of ‘hiring’ and ‘firing’. It moves us past obsessing about product features to products’ actual use context. And it lays out a clear pathway for innovation. Once the jobs have been identified, there is an apparently strong foundation for product development.
However, it has two substantial weaknesses. First, it is reductionist in how it views the consumer. Essentially, it is based on a view of the consumer as a rational chooser. Christensen does not deny that consumption decisions may have emotional and social dimensions, but nevertheless it is clear that they are ultimately cognitive. The logic is that a consumer is presented with a challenge in her everyday life, and then makes a rational choice over a product that best answers the challenge. This is reflected ‘hiring’ and ‘firing’, which implies deliberate and decisive choice.
Consumption is a good deal more complicated than this. Many of the choices we make are not the product of rational deliberation at all. As cognitive neuroscientists are fond of telling us, 95% of mental activity is non-conscious. And as psychoanalysts have long argued, many consumption choices are based on unconscious self-ideals. Thus, jobs-to-be-done elides the actual complexity of consumption.
Christensen’s concern with rational individuals means that he lacks any conceptualisation of cultural value. Consumption is not just an individual matter, concerned with the dynamics of individual challenges and choices; it is also a cultural matter. It exists within a particular cultural context. The cultural values that shape consumption in the United States are very different from those that shape consumption in, say, China.
Jobs-to-be-done does not explicitly reject the influence that cultural value may have on consumption, but its focus on the tensions in individual lives means it has no way of understanding it.
The second problem with jobs-to-be-done is that it is not able to conceptualise what product needs may arise in the future. Its focus on understanding and resolving tensions in consumers’ lives means that it is present-biased. The tension the innovation attempts to solve might well be relevant in the present, but there is no way of knowing whether it will be relevant in the future. Jobs-to-be-done is not a future-proofed approach.
Again, this is because it lacks a conceptualisation of cultural value. The types of tensions that consumers confront are partly shaped by culture, and culture is constantly evolving. Therefore, in order to create robust and future-proofed innovations, we need the means to understand how value is changing, and what this means for consumer needs, ideals and rituals.
Jobs-to-be-done is a step in the right direction, but ultimately falls short. We need better ways of innovating.
The Cultural Framework of Value
To cure this myopia, we need to move beyond reductionism to a holistic view of value in consumers’ lives. This means building a Cultural Framework of Value. The creation of such a framework is driven by two questions:
What are the needs, ideals, tensions, interactions and rituals shaping value for consumers in the present?
How is value changing for consumers and how will value be generated for consumers in the future?
Such an approach moves beyond jobs-to-be-done by offering a much more complete picture of the influences shaping value in consumers’ lives, and by allowing innovations to be future-proofed via exploring how value is changing.
A number of methodologies are useful in answering these two questions. However, ethnography and semiotics are particularly useful.
Ethnography allows for a deep understanding of consumers’ lives and the relationship they have with products. A skilled ethnographer can reveal in depth the processes through which value is constructed, encompassing the full gamut of cognitive, emotional and cultural influences. Unlike jobs-to-be-done, it does not reduce research to individual cognition, but rather locates consumers within a rich, dynamic lived context. Doing this does not take-away consumers’ agency but rather acknowledges that the influences on consumption go beyond needs, simple tensions and cognitive processes.
Semiotics is the study of meaning. Semioticians decode what products mean to consumers, and how. They identify the different elements of a product that construct meaning (e.g. typography, iconography, colour) and analyse them according to shared cultural meanings. Semiotics provides a rigorous methodology for understanding how products come to have symbolic value for consumers.
Furthermore, semiotics provides frameworks for understanding the evolution of culture. Semioticians identify ‘codes’, clusters of meaning that provide the ‘rules of the game’ within any given area of culture, or consumer category. For example, there are many different codes of masculinity in culture or, rather, many different blueprints of being a man. Semioticians can identify which codes are emergent (new and still small), dominant (big and mainstream), or residual (declining and dated). The emergent codes provide insight into the future of value. They are a foundation for creating meaningful futures.
Semiotics and ethnography work well together. Ethnography explores value in the lived context of consumers, while semiotics explores value at the level of culture. Additionally, semiotics provides powerful tools for understanding how value is evolving. When correctly utilised, they provide a comprehensive Cultural Framework of Value. The Framework allows a proper perspective on sources of value in the present, and possible sources in the future.
More than ever, we need good innovation. At a societal level, innovation is essential to addressing the seemingly ever-increasing problems the world faces. At a business level, in an era of cut-throat competition, companies often need to innovate simply to keep their heads above water. Our models for innovating are, however, inadequate. Too often, we get lost in ideology, erroneously assuming that magic dust is enough to solve complex problems (e.g. the creative brainstorm). Alternatively, we embrace a seductively simple approach like jobs-to-be-done that fails to account for the complexity of consumers’ lives and is not future-proofed. We need better, more rigorous approaches that account for the multifaceted ways that objects become valuable to consumers. We need a Cultural Framework of Value.
Artificial intelligence, or AI, is one of the most popular business buzzwords in circulation today. Many people are talking about how AI will transform how we live, work, and play. Journalists, politicians, futurists, and technology companies are also talking about how people all over the world will lose their jobs after they are replaced by thinking machines that do everything better than their lowly human colleagues. Companies of all kinds are asking themselves how AI can help them compete better, be more innovative, and be more efficient. The idea of AI has captured our imagination so completely because it promises the ultimate technological dream: a machine that can do more than a person ever could.
Much of this is just hype. The truth about AI is relatively boring compared to the utopian fantasies that suggest we will all soon be living a life of leisure while our computerized friends do all of the work. Until recently, AI has been little more than an area of advanced computing. But with new developments—the ones that are generating all of this hype—artificial intelligence is poised to become a truly transformative technology.
Despite this potential, however, the real value of AI has yet to be realized in business. It already is an amazingly useful technology and is full of potential for the future. But its usefulness is being missed among the fantasies and problematic dialogue. This is because few understand how it works, let alone how to unlock its potential. Business leaders are not AI specialists. For many, AI is still largely just a part of the world of big data, or it is just a magical black box that you must “get” in order to compete. In part, this failure to see what AI technologies can do is due to the fact that there is a fundamental problem surrounding AI that needs to be addressed. Simply put, the hype is clouding our ability to see what we should do with this technology. And this is leading to a crisis of missed opportunities because it is not being applied well.
This story of AI has deep roots and great meaning, and it shapes how we understand what AI is and what it should be doing for us. Many of our most sophisticated AI technologies have been around for over forty years in some form or another. And we have been living with many of these technologies for years. This long history confuses the issue because much of what AI is now are technologies and processes we’ve known and used for years. Also, what we mean when we say “AI” today is only one of many definitions, and we’ve lost sight of the fact that our computer-aided world is full of carefully applied variants of AI technologies.
Visions of artificial beings have been around for five hundred years or more in one shape or another. Medieval craftsmen made mechanical monks, the earliest artificial humanoid machines. Inventors and conmen in the 18th and 19th centuries made automatons that could play chess and even speak. The science fiction of the last 100 years has added greater detail to this vision and told stories of the potential positives and negatives of creating artificial beings with thoughts of their own. All of these attempts and stories have whetted our appetites for AI and AI-enabled robots, and contributed to a feeling of the inevitability of AI’s “future” trajectory. They all tell the story that machines can match human capacities and be creative, reasoning, and social beings.
But because these stories are so caught up in the idea of general AI—a thinking intelligence that has similar, or greater, capacities to a human—they are also a burden. They hide the fact that AI is a tool that can provide solutions to many problems. While we are distracted by the idea of an artificial person, AI’s true utility as an applied solution is lost.
Making the most of AI’s potential lies in finding a purpose for it. We need to focus on applied AI, and finding ways to put AI to work now. But applied AI is not as sexy an idea as general AI. Instead of autonomous robots that can do anything, we will have more humble systems managing smaller problems. The future of well-applied AI will include self-driving trucks and trains that move cargo. It will feature computer systems that anticipate problems in traffic flow and make the necessary corrections to keep cities moving. It will also be filled with AI enhanced consumer experiences that allow us to navigate web touchpoints more easily.
To unlock AI’s potential, we need to look beyond the technology. We need to start asking good questions about how we should mobilize our technological forces to accomplish concrete tasks or solve important problems. We must begin to ask ourselves how AI can make a difference in all of our lives. Finally, we should also ask how companies can best apply artificial intelligence to create products and services that will be truly valuable to their customers.
To answer these questions, we must stop looking at AI as something that needs to be fully intelligent, and start looking at it as something smaller that can be applied to improve people’s lives and create new opportunities for creating compelling experiences.
What this means is that providing value right now, or in the next ten years, through the use of AI involves five points to consider:
You have to first cut through the hype and see AI as a set of tools that serve a function.
Next, you must assess who you are solving for and understand their problems.
Then you must design a better outcome for you and your customers.
Once this is done, you need to find the right kind of AI to fit the purpose.
Finally, you have to apply it with a light touch.
1. Cut through the hype
Cutting through the hype means understanding AI as a tool and avoiding the belief that the future of AI lies in general AI alone. Like other technologies, AI is very good at scaling tasks that humans can do already. It adds speed, a wider global reach, includes more people, and provides a greater level of repeatability. Its primary value is that it can do the work of many humans, faster, without tiring. Because it never has to be turned off, it also provides continuous presence. It is best employed to manage large amounts of information or to find novel or surprising patterns in information-rich contexts that quickly confuse individual humans. But all of these things are somewhat abstract. These capacities only come into focus when you put AI to work on a specific task. And this is what it means to apply AI.
AI can play chess and Go, but these are goal-oriented applications of pattern management and decision engines. IBM’s premier AI system, Watson, can play Jeopardy, but it is not actually a single AI system. It is several that have been connected together to accomplish a task: playing the game. It is a natural language processor, two data retrieval systems, a decision engine, a set of trained models and filters, and a final natural language processor. It reads the clue, deconstructs it, explores unstructured data for possible answers, scores the validity of these answers, synthesizes these results using human and taught filters and then constructs an answer. But these systems were built to serve a purpose, and it took time and human effort to figure out how to best tackle the problem of providing a good answer within the rules of a game. If Watson had been designed to do something else, it would have different components. It took time and effort to generalize it—to convert it from a Jeopardy! playing machine into a sophisticated analytics engine.
This is the most important thing to understand about applied AI: the context, goal, and desired outcome matter more than the technology. They guide how AI is implemented, and this defines how it is built. What this means is that applied AI is really more about design and problem solving than it is about raw technology. Yes, expertise in AI is absolutely necessary, but an engineer cannot work without a problem to solve. When we think of applied AI not as a fabulous technology, but as a resource in a design exercise focused on making life better for customers and users, we find the true value of AI.
2. Assess who you are solving for and understand their problems
The next step in correctly applying AI is to identify a problem that AI can solve or improve. To do this you have to understand the lives of the people who will be using the system or who will benefit from its application.
Today, AI can be found analyzing natural language to serve as an interface between people and relatively dumb systems like Amazon’s retail business. It is also serving to improve searches on the web, or improve the quality of Google’s translation services. In each of these examples, the AI is an enhancement of something that existed before. People were able to order books, socks, or anything else from Amazon, but Alexa provided an application of natural language processing that created a new, effortless interface. The incredible work done by Google’s team in improving their translation services was a modification of an existing product. Newer forms of neural network processing augmented their existing expert-system AI translation and made it faster and more natural.
In both of these cases, the application of AI improved something that people were already using. It made users’ experiences better. In both cases, however, these improvements were made to serve people better, and in more natural ways. Applied AI should be used as a tool to enhance people’s lives. Both of these examples demonstrate a human-centric approach to design. The AI was used to solve problems like lag, or to create new experiences that engaged people more directly and naturally.
Understanding your customers always begins with learning about them directly. What this means is that the process of applying AI well begins with human-centric investigations. An ethnographic exploration of your customer’s lives will reveal pain-points, needs, hopes, and desires that can be addressed through careful design.
3. Design a better outcome
Once you understand your customers better, you can begin to design new experiences, products, and solutions that will meet their needs. This design process should include a reimagining of your relationship with your customer. This will reveal the opportunities where AI can be applied to the greatest effect. But the opportunities are ways to create new products, services, or experiences that are enhanced with some form of AI, not opportunities to use artificial intelligence. Because of this, the design process best suited to this task is one that is based in the iterative design principles of design thinking.
4. Find the right kind of AI
Next, look for opportunities to use AI to enhance the function, scope, and purpose of your newly designed solutions. To do this, it is best to begin with an analysis of what you hope to accomplish. Do you want to remove a pain point? Do you want to enhance the abilities of your users so they can do something with the help of the AI that they could not do before? Do you want to include more people in completing a task? Or do you want to create a novel experience that was not possible without the application of AI?
These questions are essential because they outline the relationship between the user and the technology. These relationships define what the AI must do. Understanding them helps you decide what kind of AI will be needed to provide value for your customers.
It can expand or amplify the capacities of a user: The user is able to expand their own abilities beyond what they could accomplish alone. The tool can be seen as an adaptation of their body, knowledge, or information processing abilities. The tool and the user work together to accomplish the task and the relationship expands what is possible. Examples of this include centaur systems that help people problem solve or strategize, such as the forecasting platforms used by the financial industry. They help expand the reach of an analyst by providing them with information they would not be able to gather quickly otherwise.
It can shift a user’s relationship with the skills and/or knowledge needed to accomplish a task: The tool displaces some of the capacities or responsibilities of the user and assumes them itself. The user is either relieved of unwanted responsibilities, or must give up some of their own. One example is the centaur systems that are used in Free Chess, a variant of the game where a computer and a human play chess together against another team. The player and computer share the responsibility of choosing the next move, something that has created a team that is better than human or computer alone.
It can change the relationship between a user, or a group of users, and the skills necessary to complete a task: The tool transfers capacities or responsibilities between other users or other tools. The tool allows for the sharing or exchange of roles or responsibilities. It can often be a platform for the redistribution of user’s roles. This relationship is a familiar one. When people talk to Siri, Alexa, or Google Assistant, they are giving up a lot of the responsibility for what is needed to complete a task. The AI takes care of everything once it understands the request. These NLP (natural language processing) interfaces understand what you want and translate the request into something that the computer systems in the background can process. You could do the Google or Amazon search yourself, instead they do it for you, and make some decisions on your behalf.
It can change the number or type of resources needed to complete a task: The tool combines, collapses, or eliminates roles or responsibilities. The tool allows users to accomplish tasks that might require multiple users, or to eliminate entire sub-tasks entirely, thus eliminating roles. Machine learning has transformed how we process information. Technically, humans can do this kind of processing too, it would just take thousands of people and a very long time to complete the task. The AI eliminates the need for all of these resources and can process it quickly. This is the relationship that is at the core of the threat to worker’s jobs, because AI can eliminate many of them by providing a quicker, lower-resource route to completing a task like data processing and analytics.
It can produce novel solutions to problems or tasks: The user is able to do something they otherwise could not without the tool. The tool and user work in conjunction to achieve either a new task or to do it in a novel way. This is the rarest of the alterations. This is what we are really working towards with AI. We are looking for new solutions to problems. One very simple example of this is the fact that Google has put image recognition into its Google Photos application. Now you can use a keyword to search for the content of particular photos. It is an image processing AI that provides the foundation for this service.
Like Watson, no AI system is going to be a single technology. The secret to successful applications of AI lies in using it to create one of these relationships. Once you know what you want to do for your customers, you can then begin to design the system that will carry it out. This is simply about finding the best tool for the job. In most cases, you are not going to be creating this yourself, so finding the right technology partner will be an essential part of the next step.
5. Apply with a light touch
Finally, remember that the goal of any new product, service, or experience is to provide the best solution for your customer. Avoid taking a technology-first approach that prefers the technology over their needs, and use your new technology to provide for the needs that you identified earlier. Technology works best when it is invisible and works in the background. Artificial intelligence is no different. People should never know that they are dealing with AI. They should feel that they are being served well by the company they have chosen to provide them with the product, service, or experience.
Like any technology, applied AI is really nothing more than a tool that we use to accomplish a task. Its value lies in how well it does this. Ultimately, this means its value is measured in how well companies use it to serve their customers well. Once the novelty of artificial intelligence wears off, this is really all that will be left. So, to unlock the value of AI, it is best to move past the technology completely and serve your customers well.
This just in and all over the business press: Millennials are afraid of being duped by credit cards. How did this happen?
In 1950, a man forgot his wallet when it was time to pay at a restaurant. Being a true innovator and entrepreneur, he came up with an idea from his predicament. What if you had a card that you could use to pay for things now, and you take care of what you had spent at the end of the month in one go?
With that, the first credit card was born. It was based on two pillars: convenience and trust. Convenience, because you can carry a card that works almost everywhere and for almost anything. Trust, because credit card companies decide to issue loans based on your history of credibility, and you trust them to only give you money that you can pay back.
Today, the appeal of credit cards is still based on two pillars, although different from the first ones: build credit and accumulate rewards. On the surface, the shift seems benign. Yet the proliferation of credit as a prerequisite for modern life and its associated rewards game are fundamentally incompatible with the principles of both trust and convenience. Neither encourage sustainable credit card use. Both are becoming less attractive by the day. Why?
Credit: the erosion of trust
The very beginning, conventional wisdom declares, is a good place to start. Credit among people has existed for much longer than credit cards, but there are some fundamentals of credit that should be considered.
In Chinese, the word for credit is 信用, which roughly translates as “use of trust.” Trust enables credit: if both parties in an agreement trust each other, and can prove this trustworthiness, a mutually beneficial relationship is born. One person gets convenience and immediacy. The other gets profit through interest.
Following this model, credit card companies used to be the good guys who enabled people to reach their goals by purchasing things they could not (yet) afford. They set up payment plans that translated convenience into dollars. They helped people achieve the American Dream by enabling them to invest in fridges, mattresses, and other signs of modernity in and for the home.
But this is no longer true. To Millennials, credit cards are enablers in the most insidious sense: they trap people into buying things they do not need. When 73% of Millennials are carrying student debt over $10 000, the last thing they need is more debt and more temptation. They know that, which is why 71% of millennials intentionally leave the credit card at home when they go shopping. Steeped in a culture that constantly tempts them to buy, Millennials feel that one of the two pillars – trust – has been betrayed by credit card issuers that allow people to go over their means by increasing credit limits even when unprompted, and then punish them for it, all at a profit. That said, it’s not only the structure of credit cards that makes them untrustworthy. Another reason can be traced back to 1986 and the genesis of rewards.
Gamification of credit cards
What sounds familiar: it’s double cashback day for apparel, double the air miles, double cashback for entertainment! This card has an annual fee of $500 but the sign-up bonus is $300 if you spend over $1000 in the first two months, and you get 2% cashback on all your purchases!
What a headache. You can blame—or thank—Sears for the constellation of reward mechanisms in the credit card industry today. In 1986, Sears introduced a truly disruptive concept: to differentiate themselves from competitors, they issued a cashback credit card. Coinciding with the age-old American tradition of discounts and feel-good consumerism, this move set off a flurry of copycats.
Today, the world of credit cards is a cesspool of rotating points, various cashback policies, and dissimilar redemption options. This is difficult to navigate, which is partially the reason for the popularity of personal finance advising websites like NerdWallet. Online financial advisors make their living by compiling rankings of credit cards based on their aggregated rewards value. Think about this for a second: people make money by telling you which credit card to sign up for, because wading through rewards information is both complicated and tedious. The fact that the world of credit cards requires a group of professional mediators is concerning. When you trust something, you do not need a guide. The fact that you can make a “best” decision means there are “bad” decisions. In other words, the credit card reward system has become a game.
Much like how extreme couponing has fallen out of fashion with younger people, Millennials don’t care for games between an issuer and a customer. Games do not nurture trust: in fact, they do the opposite. The cardholder is playing against an adversary, the issuer, whose primary aim is to win. The cardholder “wins” when she accumulates the maximum number of points which can be translated into the maximum value of rewards; the issuer wins when points lie unredeemed or are redeemed for low-value rewards. This relationship is not mutually beneficial, because there are losers and winners by definition. There is no incentive for either party to trust the other. The new mindset is mercenary: “get what I need out of this arrangement, and get out.”
The new question, then, is what do people get out of this arrangement? Rewards will soon be insufficient, but credit card companies still have a glimmer of hope: credit cards build credit scores, which shape contemporary life.
Credit as a prerequisite for modern life
Millennials acknowledge that credit scores can affect anything from a job search to an apartment rental. Those with any financial literacy realize that building credit is an important part of modern life, and cautiously use credit cards to reap benefits down the line. However, they view credit card companies and most financial institutions with deep distrust and are only connected to the credit card business because they need to build credit scores. But building a credit history has become less and less of an incentive. More than a year ago, My Bank Tracker reported that almost 50% of Millennials do not have credit cards. More worryingly for credit card companies, 35% of those aged 25-34 have never even applied for one. Already, some credit unions are moving to a strategy where credit scores are not necessary for mortgage applications. Instead, they use a combination of paystubs, recommendation letters, and rental payment history to gauge if a borrower could be trusted. In 2015, credit unions accounted for 8% of American mortgages. Unconventional credit history is no longer the kiss of death for aspiring homeowners. And there is no reason to believe that this trend will change any time soon. On the contrary, trust in credit scores as an institution has been plummeting because of the Equifax data breach. Many articles and columns advised—rightfully—that consumers freeze their credits to protect their identities, putting a halt on credit card applications.
What comes next?
As seems to be usual these days, look to Silicon Valley where Affirm, PayPal, and Klarna belong to the new Instant Online Credit club. All three pride themselves on their proprietary algorithms that can determine the trustworthiness of a borrower within minutes and then allow their borrowers to purchase big-ticket items (such as a laptop, or a mattress) with several payment options. Unlike traditional banks, instant online credit companies do not rely on credit scores, which people recognize as both arbitrary and insufficient. Unlike credit unions, which will conduct holistic evaluations but take a long time to evaluate paystubs and letters of recommendations, instant online credit is quick. Tech saves the day, right?
It’s true that the proprietary algorithms are both sophisticated and efficient. It’s also true that Affirm, PayPal, and Klarna have tapped into a desire for more simplicity by offering few services, and offering them well. Recall the original credit card, which is based on trust and convenience. If nothing else, these tech companies have got convenience down pat.
In addition, instant online personal loan companies pride themselves in transparency. They proclaim to have no hidden fees and send borrowers reminders to pay their bills—a nice peace of mind. So, is this the future of credit? Trust determined by algorithms? Personal loans approved in an instant? All easy to do and to understand?
Maybe it would be the future of credit had companies like PayPal not been fined $10 million (plus $15 million in refunds) for signing up PayPal customers for their credit program without their explicit permission. In doing so, the company placed itself, for many people, into a Do Not Trust category that has seeped deeper into the instant online credit industry. Despite claims of radical transparency, there is still room for unexpected disappointment. Some customers are dismayed to find that a positive payment history with Affirm do not improve credit, but late payments still affect their credit score. The one-foot-in, one-foot-out engagement with credit scores at the customer’s detriment can quickly mushroom into more and more distrust.
Touting themselves as an alternative to credit cards for Millennials, we are seeing online instant credit companies make the same mistakes to alienate their customers as their old-world credit card masters. They capture the convenience aspect of credit cards and use holistic evaluations of trustworthiness, but fail to deliver trust from their end. One rotten apple does, in fact, spoil the whole bunch. If PayPal Credit can’t be trusted, why should Klarna be any different? We see the cycle repeat all over again: customer gets burned by credit, uses it reluctantly, and perhaps stops using it at all.
A new trust
60% of Millennials trust AirBnB. That’s right: they’re willing to sleep in the home of a random stranger. But 50% of them don’t have a credit card because, unlike the stranger in the strange land, they don’t trust them.
This phenomenon tells us several things. One, Millennials trust individuals. Two, institutions that are too big to fail are also too big to trust. Scale is no longer a meaningful heuristic. Three, Millennials are not risk-averse, they are risk-discerning. There is always a risk that a new AirBnB host is a serial killer, but that doesn’t stop travellers from flocking to new listings. Four, AirBnB emphasizes its ability to bring people together for the good of all. Hosts get to make friends and money, guests get to save money and have a local experience in an unfamiliar place.
What can financial companies learn from the AirBnB phenomenon? Millennials like it when actions that benefit them also benefit others – no foreclosures, no repossessions, thank you. Millennials also value the personal touch. There is a certain pleasure in knowing that your money is going towards an Italian grandmother, and not the ether of the Hilton. Overall, trust is between people, but mediated by an institution that has your back.
Yes, online instant credit companies are stealing a few customers who used to rely on banks. But the credit industry will continue. For it, the question is: Which institutions can continue to operate and profit without running off a cliff in a hasty attempt to solely profit like the old days? And for the online instant credit industry, the question is: How many hustles, missteps and betrayals do you have until your existing and potential customers lose all trust in you?
From radical simplicity and transparency, merchant fees instead of late payments, help with financial literacy, communities of consumption, micro-financing support and other initiatives, it’s clear that the traditional credit industry is going to need some better ideas if it hopes to survive the Millennial purge (and the Gen Z eradication that could arguably follow).
They’ve told you: They don’t want games. They don’t want to build credit after Equifax. They don’t want to look like the bankrupt families on TV back in 2008. And they find the idea of an industry profiting on people’s bad financial decisions and behaviors to be absolutely reprehensible.
The big question is, How will you respond to them?
When it comes to consumers, markets and businesses, shifts, changes and disruptions are occurring more frequently and with more speed than ever before. Some come with a degree of forewarning; clear and obvious signals that allow smart organizations time to develop a strategic response to their threat. But most do not. No matter how many signals of change are out there, either right in front of everyone or on the horizon where few are looking, most organizations are still surprised by change and caught off guard by its implications.
Why? Because somebody wasn’t as attentive as they should have been. Or because it was nobody’s job to keep a vigilant watch over signals of change. And so: surprise! The shift, change or disruption becomes a reality. Market share starts eroding. New players with new products begin replacing you with them. And your company has the honor of becoming the next Blockbuster.
Who should have seen change happening now and coming soon? Other than chastising the C-Suite for being asleep at the wheel, we at Gemic believe that change – in people, society, technology and culture – should be the purview of an insights department. But not just any insights department, and certainly not one that talks about that big a-ha moment in the last focus group or in-home they watched. It might be what some might call, for the corporate world, a next generation insights department, a team that works to uncover and explore the big, meaty questions of consumption and value creation.
So, how do you build a next generation insights organization? Here’s a start…
Insights departments must get smarter
Insights departments need to make the transformation – and be fully supported by the C-Suite in doing so – from being transactional and reactionary information delivery services for business units to being proactive thought leaders and sparring partners for the highest levels of corporate strategy. So, stop training and asking them to answer your goofiest, most insignificant questions and, instead, give them the room to deliver on big, existential, human, social, technological and cultural questions that are essential for the long-term survival of business.
No longer should insights be a soft skill, but rather an integral component of the company brain with a minimum headcount made up of the best possible minds you can gather. If you are truly trying to build the capability to know and understand, those minds will have advanced degrees in one of many social sciences: anthropology, sociology, social psychology, behavioral economics. And if you really want to keep an eye on people, society and culture, your team will include not only the insight people but also those who practice foresight. Without that disciplined lens on the future that foresight provides, your perspectives on humans, society and culture will largely be limited to how they are today, not how they might be tomorrow. And tomorrow is where your sights should be set.
Vertically connecting micro, macro and multiple perspectives as well as different data types across one or more disciplines like anthropology and foresight will give your organization an advantage over the many others that hire unqualified people to conduct human research, silo their insights into oblivion and ultimately fail to act or innovate on anything they have learned for any number of reasons, including the sad fact that all too often the stories that are told to business stakeholders about people today or people tomorrow just don’t inspire them to act on behalf of those people. Inspiration matters a great deal. If your insights people aren’t the most interesting conversation partners for the management team, something is broken. The corporate intuition is built in high-level conversations in which thinking on business and insight merge into one. That’s why your new insights task force will have to understand business strategy too.
You must choose the right partner
There’s a good reason why the people in corporate insights departments rarely design, conduct and report on human research: they’ve got too many projects going on at one time to have any real bandwidth for one alone. So, the reality is that your organization will likely be better served by having outside partners to help you with this research. Your challenge is to define ‘better’. To do that, you need to take a deep, hard, critical look at the pool of available consultancies out there and ask yourself how the ones that you currently work with do and the ones that you are considering working with will make your organization ‘better’.
Do they have experience? Is that experience about or adjacent to your business, and does that matter? Does their team have any qualifications to be conducting this type of research in a commercial space? Do they have proven research skills that connect to proven results? And most importantly, do they deliver interesting thoughts beyond PowerPoints? Would you give them a call late at night if you need clarity on whatever you were working on?
If the answers to those questions are all yes then you likely have a candidate partner. Vetting your choices should come down to another set of questions: What qualifications sets this consultancy apart from others? Will its teams be able to draw on previous research experience in my business and adjacent businesses to show me what’s relevant? Will they challenge me and my team or are they just a bunch of client-service experts? Do they talk about what they do and how they do it a) like pompous know it all -types, b) like people who are just trying to hustle me with words they know will resonate with me or, c) like a smoke & mirrors factory where proprietary research methodologies mask the fact that nothing smart is happening with their firm.
Figure out how your next gen model works
Once you’ve vetted and landed on a choice of consultant – or, perhaps, this topic becomes part of your vetting process – you must begin shaping both methods and methodology. There’s a difference, and it’s an important one.
A methodology is a research strategy. It is the umbrella under which you select and develop research methods and employ them in a study. More importantly, it is a theoretical analysis of the methods and principles associated with how a study is undertaken. In short, it’s the why behind your how. A method is one of the many ‘ways’ or ‘hows’ that a study is conducted: ethnography, interviews, focus groups, semiotics, co-creation, quantitative approaches etc.
So how do you create a research methodology? One that gives your organization a serious edge over your competitors through the cultivation of insights that drive empathy, experience, ideas, action and value? You begin with the three factors that should guide every consideration and decision in your efforts to build a new insight (and foresight) methodology.
The first is your research objective. What kinds of questions do you want to explore and to what extent do you even believe that there are ‘answers’ to them? Come to grips with that and you can begin assembling a team of ‘experts’ who can lead those efforts, depending on your objective. Two examples: if it’s a numbers game, consider someone from data science because the days of the old-school quant guy are numbered, or over; if it’s human-centric issues, you should look towards anthropology and sociology. And, of course, if it’s futures then do foresight. In practice, this means that you need a conversational relationship with the potential partners. Just sending requests for proposals out there is seldom a good way of choosing your thinking partners. Developing a better understanding of the types of questions you need to ask through conversations with potential partners is an essential step in choosing a partner. Good research strategy is always a match with the right questions.
The second is your corporate culture. How have insights (and the insights department) been treated in the past? Who in the organization has the authority and status to elevate the practice within the organization? In what formats and settings do (or will) leaders best receive insights? These and a litany of other questions must be answered if you plan to change your organizational insights function for the future. Answering them, strangely enough, is best achieved by having anthropologists or some other social scientists talk with your leaders, teams, employees about organizational realities. The right model has to be relatively proprietary to your organization as it needs to take into account the formal and informal practices that inform your corporate intuition. The right model will improve this intuition and clarify where the company should go next.
And the third is, ultimately, how you look to tomorrow. Imagine a car maker or a mobility service provider that wants to understand where to compete and how to compete. It will need to have a core team dedicated to strategic thinking that defines its ideal future. Chances are that if their vision of their own future is worth the paper it might have been written on, then foresight and social science will have played a significant role in shaping a robust social theory of how to create value for mobility consumers. They will have defined a POV on how the industry, its platforms and mobility ecosystems might evolve. And they will have identified where and how the mobility service provider can add unique value that taps into its core strengths. In the end, it is the combination of social sciences and foresight that will form the base of what will be your most humanly, socially, culturally and forward-thinking methodology.
However you proceed, know that no next gen insights department is possible without a tightly integrated and future oriented corporate thinking mandate. Insight will disappear as a separate function and blend more fully into strategy and all business units. When that occurs, a company will know at all times how it can create unique value.
It is a common refrain to hear how Millennials are killing countless industries. From cars to casual dining and beyond, this is supposedly the disruption generation. Nowhere are these changes more evident than in the domain of the home.
In countries where home ownership has long been a cultural dream like the USA and Japan, young adults aren’t buying homes at the same rate that they were only a generation ago. Even in countries that place less importance on home ownership like France and Germany, consumption patterns around the home are still changing: younger adults simply aren’t buying the things that people have traditionally bought to use and consume in their living spaces.
This new economy of the home has to do with global sociological shifts. Around the world, notions of who makes up a typical household and how those people should relate to one another are changing dramatically with significant impact on consumption patterns. This means that any company in the business of ‘home’ should keep track not just of how taste is changing, but of how sociological factors are recreating households and daily life on a systemic level.
The 20th century symbolic home
Ideals of the home and household are different around the world, but much of the housing built since the turn of the 20th century has certain generalizable themes. Most of this housing was built after WWII. Located at the edge of cities, it facilitated particular roles for the people who inhabited this space together. Incorporating cultural and national differences, global industrialization meant that men and women, who in many cases had previously divvied up outdoors agricultural labor, now had roles that were more starkly defined by space. Men worked outside of the home in factories and offices for wages and salaries. Women’s labor was transformed into indoor, unpaid chores. Children ate, watched, wore and played with whatever their parents provided for them. This model of the nuclear family is often presented as having ancient roots, but it actually came about in a particular historic moment that wasn’t as far back as most people think.
20th century home design around the world emphasized the idea that the home was the space of the nuclear family. In American suburbia, the open plan allowed the woman of the house to watch her kids while cooking dinner. British semi-detached terraces transformed the front of each housing unit into a public space, while preserving the back as the inner sanctum only open to family members. Japanese postwar apartments solidified the boundaries between different families’ living spaces, eliminating many of the amenities that neighbors would have previously shared. With these global changes in housing, the household itself transformed. Domestic models that had previously incorporated intergenerational relatives living together and using public facilities, morphed into the model of a nuclear family with mother, father and several children living under one roof, buying and consuming products as a single unit.
In addition to the structure of the home itself, homeware products also embodied these same social ideals. In Euro-America, you received registry gifts of kitchen appliances when you got married and bought suites of furniture when you moved into your first house. In Japan, you bought a second set of ‘fine’ tableware when you began hosting social occasions as a couple. All of this symbolized that the nuclear family was supposed to be a single consuming unit, with one underlying set of tastes and preferences. This domestic model has persisted for a long time, but around the world notions of what comprises a home and a household are changing once more. And with these changes are coming significant shifts in patterns of consumption.
In recent generations, this model of one nuclear family=one household=one consuming unit no longer applies to much of the population. Around the world, women increasingly work outside the home like men. Young adults are moving to city centers rather than remaining in the suburbs. Today, well over half of the world’s population lives in urban areas, and experts expect that proportion to increase to two thirds by 2050, driven mostly by people under the age of 35. This mass migration means that young people are leaving behind the typical life-stages that characterized the last 50-100 years. And that means that they’re leaving behind the ideals of home that accompanied them.
Urban young people today increasingly live first with flat-mates, then a series of romantic partners, before finally settling down. In Euro-American countries this trend has become the norm. In the EU, over half of co-habiting partners are unmarried, and nearly a third of all households are single. It’s also rapidly becoming that way in Latin America and Asia. In Japan, for example, living together before marriage has gone from being a significant taboo to commonly accepted in a very short span of time. Even the act of “settling down” doesn’t necessarily look like what it used to: in many cases couples don’t make that final traditional step of marriage, or they choose to forego having children. Or, increasingly in almost every country of the world, people live as adults without being part of a couple at all.
The rise of the room-mate family
The sociologist Laura Miller writes that the 20th century home presented a vision of the household as not only “a domestic alliance” that took care of its members’ needs, but also “as a group of people who enjoy one another’s company and share leisure pursuits.” That concept is changing. People now live with flat-mates and other non-related adults for a long chunk of their lives. Often this living arrangement lasts so long before marriage that even when they do eventually move into a new home with a spouse, they continue to buy their own things and consume as their own unit rather than part of a joint couple.
This is happening on a global scale. Marketing professor Jagdish Seth studies this phenomenon in India as well as the USA, and he has labeled it the rise of the “room-mate family.” Today even when people do live as part of a traditional nuclear family, the father, mother and children probably have their own tooth paste, shampoo, meal time and television programs. Social media means we’re more connected than ever, but we’re also—as far as consumption goes—more independent than ever as well.
We often hear that the world is becoming more hectic, careers more fragmented, livelihoods more insecure. This means that people want their home to offer some sanctuary and stability for their increasingly frazzled lives. It’s not where you entertain or invite outsiders (at least not often.) You go out to socialize—a demand that is being met by the exponential growth of high-end restaurants and bars around the world. If the 20th century home was a space for “family togetherness,” then the 21st century home is a space where household members practice their own rituals of relaxation and recharge, preparing for the challenges and pressures of the outside world.
What does this mean for those in the business of ‘home’?
The household may no longer be a single unit of consumption, but homes are still the site where a lot of consumption takes place. We buy products for our homes that last a week, and other products that last a decade or more. All of these products—durable, perishable and everything in between—need to be designed, manufactured and marketed with these new household formations in mind.
What are the most durable products we buy for our homes? Let’s take possibly the most prosaic item of all: the bathroom sink. As a thought experiment, what are some of the ways that this common object is designed and marketed for a specific household structure? What are some of our key assumptions about how people who live in the same home relate to that feature and each other?
In many places, there is an idea that home owners care about their homes while renters are not invested in making the space feel like their own. Even in the case of Germany, where 60% of households rent rather than own and where tenants may very well live in the same unit for many years, landlords prefer to keep fixtures and features as simple and impersonal as possible. When people own homes and renovate their bathrooms, they are presented with an array of individualized, personal touches that they can bring to their sinks. But as a renter, there are few options for making an apartment feel like its theirs. Why the difference? Why the assumption that renters are not as concerned with making their mark on their living spaces? Let’s foreground the modern household with its adult urban co-renters who buy their own brands and don’t easily accept the generic: how can we provide these perpetual renters with ways to make a house a home, and a bathroom sink feel as suited to their needs as to the owner’s? What innovations could solve this problem?
At the other extreme, what is one of the most disposable household products? If I take washing powder as an example, what are some of the ways that this product has been developed and marketed for the 20th century nuclear family? The large bottles and boxes that this product comes in invoke the self-sacrificing mother working for all the other members of her family. Could smaller units of washing powder, suited to the specific needs of each household member’s clothing and skin, translate into a more relevant product for the consumer?
As a last case study, let’s look at a product with a mid-range lifespan in our homes: tableware. This is another great example of something geared towards a very specific consuming unit. If for many people the home has become the space to recharge on your own rather than the space to display the nuclear family’s taste and preferences, and if space is becoming more and more limited, how is this affecting the demand for pieces designed for out-of-the-ordinary entertaining? What tableware products would suit the needs of a modern room-mate family? These consumers may still be future-thinking and want to invest in long-lasting tableware, but it has to be a product that they can really imagine using.
So, what to do if you are in the business of ‘home’? Companies and industries that used to rely on customers associating their brands with certain domestic ideals need to study emerging sociological trends that characterize the ‘typical’ household, develop products for that entity, and work to communicate to their customers that they understand this transformation by building meaningful, representative life-worlds around their products that their customers can relate to.
The new home designs that emerged in the 20th century were responding to emergent ideas about who comprised a household, what those people wanted from each space, and how they would ideally relate to each other. Today those patterns are changing once more. Businesses and brands that want to stay relevant to the various commercial aspects of the home need to keep these sociological and symbolic questions close. They need to think beyond superficial trends and address the larger issue of the new, often surprising ways that people choose to live in their domestic space.
How can science, technology and fabrics spark our social imaginations?
Raymond Loewy, an early Vogue illustrator, The Father of Industrial Design, and the creative force behind iconic visual branding for the likes of Shell, BP, Studebaker, Lucky Strike and Coca-Cola’s vending machines, once said, “The important improvements and innovations in clothes for the world of tomorrow will be in the fabrics themselves.”
Seventy-eight years later, his vision of a day when technology would play a role in the clothes we wear has arrived.
Today, we have the scough, a scarf that claims to filter and clean the air you breathe. Adidas’ Climachill collection has titanium and aluminum woven into garment fabric to give wearers a cold sensation when working out. Smart shirts by France’s Cityzen Sciences feature a built-in heart monitor, GPS, accelerometer and altimeter. And then there is maybe the most futuristic piece of clothing – especially for anyone whose reading of the future has been shaped by science-fiction great Arthur C. Clarke – with the synthetic spider silk of the North Face Moon Parka.
Depending on the pundits you subscribe to, this market – Functional Fashion, E-Textiles, Smart Fabric, Smart Clothing – is slated to be worth $3 billion by 2018 or $9 billion by 2024. But because our notion of ‘smart’ has been so shaped by living in the digital age, chances are that some recent materials innovations have not been included in market estimates. When ‘smart’ is just smart and not necessarily hiding a battery pack in the back of your shirt or having to pull out your cell phone every time you want to control your clothes or see your data, then innovations like spider silk, sustainable water repellency or initiatives to reduce the environmental impact of fabric manufacturing will likely increase those numbers even further.
Ultimately, the definition of smart should be based on how these and other mergers between science – not necessarily just ‘technology’ because we typically limit our thinking on that to gizmos – and fashion offer consumers the ability to excel in living. Currently, the market is split between two ways of doing this: Performance and Performance.
If you’re in the first business of Performance, you are very much focused on helping your consumers achieve a desired aesthetic effect: fabrics that light up, change color and perhaps have features that operate by harnessing energy from movement, vibration, sound or heat. Think: London duo Cute Circuit’s show at New York Fashion Week where models controlled what their dresses looked like using a cellphone.
If you’re in the second business of Performance, which most of this industry wants to claim as its commercial territory, you are very much focused on athletic or extreme pursuits where the clothes we wear help us achieve specific ends: regulating body temperature, reducing wind resistance, controlling muscle vibration, monitoring heart rate and activity. Think: Ralph Lauren’s Polo Tech collection from a couple of years back. You know, the one nobody has purchased a piece from since it first debuted.
But there is every reason to believe that a third business of Performance will soon emerge out of the wearables industry, one that will do so when both the technology and the ideas of the industry mature enough and begin to produce more than spins on existing functions (like a heart monitor) built into existing cultural forms or artifacts (like a bracelet). Part of the trick will be getting all the supposed innovators in wearables and e-fashion off the Quantified Self kick and on to more pressing matters.
That third business – and even the fourth or fifth one after that – could be focused on any number of needs or themes, with or without the current gizmo approach: fabric that protects the wearer from the harmful effects of the sun, poor air quality and other environmental threats of the future; fabric that somehow communicates, perhaps to everyone or perhaps only to others wearing the brand; fabric that doesn’t measure how we’re doing but knows and does what we need done to somehow ‘improve’ our performance.
So how do you identify those needs or themes and become the brand that ushers in the third age of Performance? And what will your Performance do for us as consumers?
We believe you begin by thinking big: your brand, your purpose, your meaning, your vision, your capabilities, your business, your future, your consumers and, of course, the world. Only by cultivating more insights, synthesizing more data, knowing more culture, gathering deeper signals of change, assessing less obvious business opportunities, and building critical self-reflexivity into your entire process will you be able to make a real and meaningful commercial contribution to the transformation that this emerging market will certainly usher in.
We also believe that the beginning of your beginning should begin by you answering 4 questions:
Do you have a ‘smart’ strategy to infuse fashion with function through technology?
Does that strategy account for and support the mythology of your brand?
Is that strategy founded on an understanding of culture and consumer behavior?
How will your innovations align with, impact or transform culture and consumers?
Answers to these 4 questions should give you a clear sense of just where your beginning is, either in the emerging smart market itself, your process of currently occupying it or your goal of entering it in the future. But before answering them, here are 4 ways that might help you think a little bit bigger about the entire topic – about what is the challenge, the opportunity, your strategy for it, and the role that your business could play in how we dress, how our clothing enables us to somehow live better, and how that enabling might forever change us as both people and cultures.
“WE ARE ALL CYBORGS NOW”
If it’s not designed to change us or our lives, what’s it designed to do?
More than a quarter century ago, this was the proclamation made by Donna Haraway. A prominent feminist scholar in the field of science and technology studies, she knew then what many of us are only now realizing: that technology has changed us and will continue to do so. From a spear in the hand to eyeglasses on the face to a Fitbit on the wrist, it augments, alternates and extends the culturally informed practices through which the human body acts and is affected. Whatever a Smart Fabric might offer, it should be a tool that enables us to somehow transform ourselves, as good tools have always done. And whatever vein of the human zeitgeist that designers of the third wave of Performance unveil, one challenge will be identifying how consumers want to be ‘better’.
CLOTHES ARE ALREADY TECHNOLOGY
How could a dress do what a dress does in a whole new way?
It doesn’t have to have bells, whistles, batteries or a Wi-Fi connection. If it involves material culture (a thing that we’ve made), a technique (a way of doing or using) and a socio-technical system (a distinct activity that emerges from material culture and techniques), then it’s technology. Clothing is one of humankind’s oldest technologies. It has been designed and re-designed to protect us from the elements, give us a sense of belonging, mark our status, communicate with potential partners and allow us to execute self-expression as a member of a desired social group. As original technology companies, fashion brands need to catch up on their category, develop a POV on just what technology is today and could be tomorrow and, in the pursuit of materials innovation, explore how past function might inform possible futures.
LOOK TO EXPRESSION AND EXPERIENCE
How do we help people be better versions of themselves in the world?
Today, most wearable technologies and their designers are focused on the goal or the very human fantasy of physical self-optimization. Quite simply, they are meant to improve us. But because all technologies hold the promise of opening new social systems and of raising imagined communities, however, there are bigger, more human and more cultural opportunities to consider than just the optimization of the body. Given how existing the technologies in our lives today support greater connections between people than ever before, emerging fusions between fashion and technology might help us experience the world and express ourselves in new, improved and more social ways. Or, considering the aspirational nature of much fashion, they might help us engage in new expressions of status or knowledge
START WITH THE SYMBOLIC
Ask not what technology can do for your brand, but what your brand can do for technology. Rather than taking inspiration from the functional or technological cues that the category currently presents and then trying to back-end needs and Reason To Believe into them, consider the symbolic world that your brand is a part of or wants to be a part of as a starting point. Staying true to your brand will serve you and your consumers best. So start the conversation on technology by clearly articulating the meaning and purpose of your brand. What do you stand for? Believe in? Want to ‘do’ for your consumers? Or, perhaps, more important: What was your founder’s passion or purpose? Only by critically examining why (and how) your business is a successful business will you be able to truly discover a strategy that will serve you and your consumers best.
Because clothing is such an ancient technology it is cultural, social, symbolic, filled with meaning and, to put it plainly, very powerful. Whether Creative Directors and their teams of designers are pursuing inspiration from a nostalgic past or rushing straight into the future for next season and beyond, most know that clothing and fashion are very much about our social imaginations. So, what social imaginaries could your brand one day make real through this fusion of fashion, technology and science?
Don’t be stupid. Let’s keep it simple. To run a successful business, there are only two questions that a CEO needs to answer: Where to compete? and How to compete?
The frustrating thing is that neither of these questions is simple to answer. In fact, there’s nothing simple about them. They are among the oldest business questions. They’re big, difficult, meaty challenges to overcome. They romance best-seller buyers with the latest shiny new bullshit business book. And they make and break CEO careers on the regular.
In these questions, “where” could be anything from what global market to invest in for expansion to where in the grocery store you think your fresh new sausage stands the best chance of getting noticed and sold. And “how” could implicate any number of possible candidates from organizational culture to innovation methodology to supply chain logistics.
Good CEOs know this. They understand the intricate and interconnected complexities of their business and what is or is not working for them today. That’s what they spend every day on. Better CEOs know something more. In addition to immediate challenges, they understand that “where” and “how” should be asked as much about tomorrow as today. Whether sausage or something else, they seek to prepare their organizations for the unknown challenges and opportunities of two, five, ten or more years from today. They look to the future.
How do they look to the future? Well, lucky for those who are not part of that 1% who naturally, magically or otherwise have an uncanny ability to imagine what might come next and, in the most inspirational way possible, make it a reality, there’s now an entire industry wing in consulting dedicated to this nebulous topic of the future.
The choice of consultants available to organizations seeking to prepare themselves for what might be next and/or hoping to gain an element of surprise over their competition when that next arrives is still in its semi-nascent stage as a commercial offering. You have the trend hunters, Internet hipsters who give clients a peek into their bookmarks to learn about what’s hot and what’s not as supposed innovation guidance. Then, you have the futurists and foresight folks. While there is some contention over titles – foresight tends to critique futurists for being too predictive – the difference between the two, if any, has become blurry. Both conduct desk research to identify weak signals of change on the horizon, present their clients with a litany of those signals and hope that they know how to navigate a way forward with no map, just a bunch of semi-random signs along the way.
Then there is a small population of future consultants that lines the way forward with signs of what might be while also providing a more informed map towards tomorrow. That map is culture. Some academics, such as Nicholas A. Christakis from MIT, go as far as calling culture the first artificial intelligence. It is all that knowledge that resides in and outside us and remains ‘in the air’ even as we disappear. It guides us so that we don’t constantly have to make decisions about everything. Culture creates rules and predictability by which we can go about our lives partially on autopilot.
Culture is what you and everybody you know lives in and operates in every day of your life. It is a big and complicated concept, one that anthropologists have developed in over 160 definitions since they first began grappling with it well over one hundred years ago. Wherever you choose to land in those definitions – maybe Edward Tylor’s complex of belief, knowledge, art, morals, law and customs in a society or Clifford Geertz’s webs of meaning and significance which we ourselves have spun over time – culture shapes it all: who we are, what we do, how we interact and perform, what we value and most of the whys in your business questions list.
To answer those big business whys, you must abandon typical market speak and start to understand culture: how your brand fits into it; what meaning, if any, you hold in it; what value, if any, you have in it; what feelings, zeitgeists, movements, disruptions, innovations and ideas might be newly contributing to it, reshaping it or recasting your brand’s meaning and value in it; and, as a ‘provider’ within the economy of this thing called culture, what does your company do for people? How would you articulate its real value to people?
Once you’ve wrestled with these questions – and that metaphor aptly describes the challenge and process of describing culture and your place in it – you are more prepared than ever before to abandon the product-driven innovation that produces solutions resembling others in the market or ideas that flop because they are disconnected from real market drivers. Now, you are ready to explore an approach to growth strategy based on perceptible circumstances, events and experiences of and from that thing which connects all consumers: culture. Call it culture-driven, phenomenon-driven, driven by social realities or, if you want to be a little more audacious, driven by social fact.
An example of a business opportunity area within this culture-driven space that most of us are personally familiar with is home. When we consider this consumer category and the many products, services and brands in its ecosystem beyond the basic approach models of innovation and/or design – exploring need, prototyping form and function, activating in the market through manufacturing, go-to market strategy, marketing etc. – our aim is to research, map opportunities and launch the design process in a way that both prioritizes the cultural and ultimately aligns with contemporary and emerging culture.
Of course, the home, like most sites of cultural constants, is not only contemporary and emerging, but also ancient. At the end of many, many grand quests to explore and perhaps find new homes in strange new lands, humans all over the world – since before they were even human – have adjusted to the environment presented to them by building homes. Other than satisfying basic needs of warmth, coverage and protection, these homes – shelters, dwellings, buildings, residences, places – also fulfilled higher-level needs related to identity, culture and family.
Some of those needs are shifting. Today, two forces, somewhat opposing, are creating new needs and new demands for homes: the first is that dense urban living is constraining the size of the average new home, regardless of the type of home (house, condo, apartment etc.); and the second is that our homes increasingly need to serve more purposes than were required of them in the past. So how can we make new homes meet our rising expectations while also catering to our very central, ancient needs in a home?
At Gemic, before getting into anything downstream or design. we approach the front-end of challenges like this in five stages:
1. Ask big, basic questions about the fundamentals
So, what is a home? Is it:
A shelter from the environment and the natural world?
A place for social groups, families or others to live together communally?
A hospitality hub for entertaining social groups, families or others?
A residence with rules of behavior that have evolved over time through multiple actors?
The answer, of course, is Yes, Yes, Yes, Yes and more Yes. A home is all of these things and more. Certainly, there are many specifics about the meaning, value and use of homes that vary across cultures around the world. But as a concept, ‘home’ generally comes complete with examples of what can be called cultural constants, things like shelter, group living, hospitality, rules and more. Starting with an exploration of these constants gives your entire challenge or study and the solutions that should be a product of it an anchor in something that, like the name says, is constant. Regardless of the tide in current or emerging feelings, zeitgeists, movements, disruptions, innovations or ideas, these are all what a home is and what it will continue to be for a long, long time.
Those kinds of questions about the basic basics then begin to inform questions that probe the possible. Some of those might be:
What new needs arise with the multi-purpose, multi-function home?
How is the definition of ‘privacy’ changing for different people around the world?
What home features could help people transform and control their privacy and space?
How might privacy be disrupted by participating in sharing services such as Air BnB?
Questions like these ultimately set the foundation for the next step in these kinds of challenges; exploring the fundamentals.
2. Explore the fundamentals in two ways
As a futures exercise, any exploration of cultural constants should begin with the classic STEEP foresight model approach: Social, Technological, Economic, Environmental and Political. Like origin points from which weak signals of change typically originate and emerge from, these five lenses guide the desk research that reveals what is and might soon emerge as a new product category, service category, innovation, technological leap, brand, value, meaning idea, feeling, zeitgeist, behavioral change and so on.
In the case of the home, there are many weak signals of change, including:
Global migration + relocation
Global migration and relocation are at record highs. Currently, there are 232 million global migrants. That’s 3.2% of the entire human population. In the past five years – and this is just a tiny sample – 24% of Americans, 26% of New Zealanders and 23% of Finns have relocated from home to elsewhere.
Divorced parents need to recreate spaces of home for their kids. The days of dad homes being an occasional weekend sleepover spot for the kids to visit are over. With over 51% of fathers seeking custody finding success in recent years of U.S. appellate cases, custody and the culture of the home are continuing to change.
Home is now a center of healthcare, education and economic production. Between A.I. planning to move in, the growing popularity of K-12 online education, the more than 3 million Britons who set-up a home-based business in the past few years and the fact that 30 million Americans work remotely once a week and 3 million never enter an office, home is not only where the heart is but often where everything else is as well.
New urban economic order
Major global cities are owned by a shrinking pool of increasing large players and nodes in global economy become concentrations of the wealthiest people on the planet. Owning real-estate is becoming increasingly difficult to common people and accessing ownership increasingly requires turning home into a revenue generating asset.
Co-living as a service
The frictionless service economy is extending to home space in the form of co-living service companies that enable young people’s desire to lead lives without a long-term commitment to one single place. These companies offer living solutions that provide a mix of personal and shared space, take care of insurance, furniture, internet subscription etc. while yielding higher returns per square ft. than a traditional rental model with fixed lease and extensive home-making practices.
These signals suggest that home as the site of a set of cultural constants is in some degree of flux, one that will leave those constants intact but undoubtedly modified by how our cultural lives (in and out of the home) are changing. How? These signals tell us that home is becoming increasingly less spatially fixed than before, less nuclear than before and less defined as a space with activities separate from those of the outside world than before. So, how do we more deeply examine these potential truths, the experiences they’re creating, and their expression in today’s world?
Well, once you have identified and articulated your cultural constants and your forces of change, it is possible to reframe them as dynamic and future-oriented questions and send someone to dive into them. There is no place for market research or its proponents here. This thing called culture is the territory of the original ethnographers; anthropologists.
Through anthropology and some of its similarly odd scholarly cousins in the social sciences – sociology, social psychology, anything ethnographic – your organization will be better equipped to study the phenomenon, changing social reality or fact in question from a vantage point that will best represent those people you call ‘consumers’, ‘customers’ or ‘users’.
Regardless of topic, an anthropologist will know what to do and will do what they do: hang out, talk with people, watch them, do stuff with them, ask them about it, come home, consider those experiences, consider insights from the foresight work, and write up the overall experience in a way that helps answer those two CEO questions: Where to compete? and How to compete?
3. Articulate opportunity spaces
Articulating future-oriented opportunities should be based on a strong and logical point of view on how the ideal lived experience of cultural constants like, for example, home as a shelter from the environment and the natural world is being shaped by the forces that give rise to a new context in which people live their lives. After the project team of social scientists and strategists have agreed on its perspective, they must create a crystal-clear and actionable articulation of a market definition that accurately addresses the ideal experience of the people they have learned about. Smart companies know that concepts can be copied, but a unique articulation of a market definition can drive multiple value propositions and a constant stream of meaningful offerings while being extremely difficult to copy. Therefore, linguistic precision at this stage is very important, and corporate jargon should be avoided at all costs.
4. Define a systemic way to address the value creation opportunity
It is no longer enough for companies to address new value creation opportunities by their offerings alone. Increasingly, value is being captured by those organizations that have developed a deeply resonant philosophy that is openly practiced by developing, for example, a more sustainable supply chain or a powerful charitable wing of a brand. At Gemic we use a model called “The Six Pillars of Value Creation” to systematically align our clients’ operations with identified future opportunities. These are:
New core market definition needed to rally the organization around the opportunity
Production platform required to optimize the organization and external partners to address the value creation opportunity
Profit generation logic to address the opportunity cost of making the shift from old value creation paradigm to a new one
The other three pillars address the required steps to translate the opportunity to meaningful consumer value propositions and experiences.
Value proposition and a core experience that translates the identified opportunity into a contextually relevant consumer value
Cultural strategy surrounding the core experience – defining the deeper meaning of the value proposition and its potential to create a sense of having a positive stake in the future
Financial value logic – defining the way our value proposition is more appealing and more meaningful than that of the competition’s
5. Refine and build a blueprint
Now that you’ve identified your opportunity spaces, tweaked your organization’s mindset and built value propositions, it’s a good idea to move to more traditional research methods and design thinking approaches to refine the developed opportunities. Revisiting people’s reality today will also give us indications as to how we can ideally start building our way into the future by creating a road-map that connects our ideal future with what is possible today. This method, known as back-casting, is essential to master because very few companies are willing to revolutionize their business overnight. Also, many foresight projects leave too much room for interpretation. Providing baby steps to the future is a way to connect a bold future direction with what key people in the organization do today.
That we are living in an age of disruptive, tumultuous change and transformation should be clear to everyone by now. With innovations in A.I., robotics and driverless cars alone, we are seeing a greater acceleration towards tomorrow than ever before. For some people the speed can be scary. For others, it’s exciting. For business, it creates enough uncertainty that it can immobilize the ability to plan, never mind activate or execute.
In times of change like this, smart companies go back to asking fundamental, existential questions about their role in the world. They craft a unique market definition by asking foundational questions like ‘what is home´? They consider all inputs, past, present and possible future. They design to support ways of being in the world. They don’t just jump on a technology hype cycle because it’s the latest. They build confident value propositions with a strong point of view on what truly matters to people. And in this era of endless hype, they understand what it means to be human and how to augment that.
Ever since the 1970s, the promise of increased productivity through technology has been under intense scrutiny. It’s a promise that has pushed questions about nature and the role of technology in society into the hands of scholars, including anthropologists. For those working in industry – really, one of the few places where anthropologists can engage with technology the real, rather than technology the theory – the question always boils down to value. Whether it’s big data, AI, biotech, nanotechnology, robots, smart dust or driverless cars, the one question we’re always looking to answer is: What’s the value of a new technology?
Economically, the promise and gains of technological efficiency – particularly information technology – is known as the productivity paradox. Whether a paradox or a series of assumptions about the impact of technology on productivity, the question of the value of technology sparked heated debate among economists over the first wave of computerization. In 1987, current Emeritus Institute Professor of Economics at MIT, Robert Solow, put the question thus: “You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics.”
But studies by economists such as Kevin Stiroh (2002) have shown that investments in new IT do, in most cases, generate positive effects. Certainly, the successful production of those effects depends on how quickly a company can locate valuable applications of its IT and how critically it can rethink and deliver on its value proposition to consumers. Such IT implementation processes take time, as organizational cultures need to adopt change and adapt to new ways of working, communicating and conducting everyday business. Yet, when and where they do that, these studies reveal that most IT investments do boost productivity.
Ultimately, the productivity paradox is – as first year anthropology students are prone to decry once they’ve got a few lectures under their belts – reductive. Even they know that it fails to consider the many other possible values that people ascribe to technology, such as power, freedom, choice or control and how they might relate to personal or cultural economic value, rather than the kind of economic values of the corporation striving for efficiency, increased profits and market share. Because when value tilts towards only efficiency, increased profits and market share, things can get scary. At least we think they can. Primed by decades of classic science fiction novels, we somehow feel it in our gut that when The Company gets big, maybe too big, it will unleash its capitalist fury on us all with job-stealing robots and mind-controlling A.I.
So where does this fear of the technological come from? Or this sense that, as scholars, we feel almost obliged to give technology a failing grade when it comes to its positive impact on our lives and productivity? The answer is 19th and 20th Century romanticism and contemporary articulations of it, like “technology is an intellectually and imaginatively degenerative force in the lives of our children.” Again, even those first-year anthropology students with a few lectures under their belts will tell you that it’s just intellectually flawed for scholars to continue to promote this storied, romantic idea of human as non-technological, as only truly or purely human in a kind of noble, non-techy savage kind of way.
Humanity has never been that way. As Marcel Mauss pointed out in 1934, our first technology was our biology, our very corporeality. Next, of course, we can all debate just how valuable stone flaking was to our species. In fact, the very crafts, arts or practices that our bodies and minds have afforded us to be or to become over the past million or so years are at the very core of humanity and what it means to be human.
Like flaking stone, IT, digitalization, big data, AI and all those bells and whistles we talk about as being on the horizon are technologies that work as extensions of our corporeal existence. They do or will form discrete moments in our material (and beyond) culture. As such, they are not by default against us – they are always working for us, or for somebody, as an extension or a material prosthesis of an intention.
Donna Haraway (1984/1991) said it: we are all cyborgs now. Whether our hands, mouths, eyes, ears, brains or whatever part of our physicality, what we can do through new technologies is most amazing to us because our networks, communications, tasks, platforms, activities or events are just extensions of our selves. Something like the digital technology which is so much a part of our daily lives today has become that which Marshall McLuhan described as an extended nervous system that enables us to wear all humankind as our skin.
And as the social scientists of humankind, we anthropologists need critique to explore and unearth the problems that technology might create. Yes, there might exist unfair value propositions that put us in an uneven, asymmetric power position with powerful companies that want to tie us into their much tighter, technologically enabled networks. Yes, there might be technologies that take away our freedom by enabling large-scale surveillance at individual level. And yes, there might be algorithms that do not work every time, everywhere, and for everybody. More than ever there is a role for critique, but we should not conflate political critique with flawed claims about humanity and technology. It is irresponsible to advance lazy arguments that can be disregarded as untrue and un-actionable.
Lazy critique – prevalent in the habits of armchair philosophers – does not help in solving these issues. This is why critique has seemingly run out of steam, as Bruno Latour (2004) wrote almost fifteen years ago. Lazy critique places value judgements on entire systems, generalising from one or two lived experiences, and ends up being imprecise. It may strike a chord with the reader’s gut, but it leads to inaction because a) it is often not based on facts, b) it does not provide enough specificity to enable action, such as which aspects of new technologies might be valuable to society/companies, and which may be cause for concern, and c) it is highly abstract so it does not help society or companies prioritise which areas they should rethink/reform in their deployment of new technologies.
No wonder, then, that critical thinking has turned against itself. We have entered an era in which lazy critique has become so deeply entrenched in our economy, politics and science that even well-educated people can critique and ‘relativize’ matters of fact such as climate change, evolution, even the collapse of Twin Towers without ethical concern. This is the cultural price for critique without thinking about the values we want to create in the world.
What we need is first to be more responsible with critique, and then to describe an alternative, more valuable world through our anthropological imagination. Now is the time for anthropologists to contribute more to visions of the future, but we’ll need to learn how to practice foresight. Now is the time for anthropologists to shape better value creation mechanisms and innovative value propositions, but we’ll need to polish up on our strategy skills. To do these and other things, anthropologists need to become more precise in critique, more creative and bold in suggesting valuable alternatives. They must forge ahead to participate in the critical re-design of positive futures with new technologies. And we need to reimagine the entire value proposition of the technological future.
Thus, we need to reimagine the value propositions of a future where technology plays its role(s) and ask: Where do we want to find ourselves?
Whether it’s big data, AI, biotech, nanotechnology, robots, smart dust, driverless cars or something few, if any, of us even know about yet, it’s time to engage as anthropologists, not as self-elected troglodytes comfy in our armchairs who sound a warning to our so-called critical thinking pals every time a new gizmo comes out that makes us uneasy. Next time when you feel that so-called critical thinking urge come alive, ask yourself three questions: How do my critical thinking faculties shape my approach to field research and how I seek human truths in the experience of technology? How do I shape what I have learned about humans and technology into insights that can inspire a culturally valuable point of view? How can I participate in shaping more culturally sensitive and, ultimately, valuable experiences for people using technology?
Answer those questions without hitting an existential technology panic button and you are well on your way.
Haraway, Donna (1991). “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” In Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. Routledge.
Mauss, Marcel (1934). “Les techniques du corps,” Psychology Journal XXXII, 3–4, 15 March – 15 April 1936. Paper presented to the Society of Psychology on 17 May 1934.
McLuhan, Marshall (1964). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man.
Stiroh, Kevin (2002). Information Technology and the U.S. Productivity Revival: What Do the Industry Data Say? American Economic Review 92, 5, 1559–1576.
Solow, Robert (1957). “Technical change and the aggregate production function.” Review of Economics and Statistics 39 (3): 312–320.
Latour, Bruno. “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern,” Critical Inquiry 30, 2, 225–248.
Brewers, distillers, even wineries across North America are worried. For the first time in nearly 100 years, alcohol has real competition.
With legalization set to sweep across Canada in July 2018 and the 30 U.S. states with legal medical access paying close attention to the 8 U.S. states now experiencing an economic boom because of legal recreational sales, smoking a joint has very clearly gone mainstream. As this mainstreaming continues, gathering greater numbers of consumers, some of the most basic value propositions, brand tenets and tried-and-true Reasons To Believe once exclusively owned by the alcohol industry are under siege.
It turns out that ‘enjoy’, ‘chill’, ‘relax’, ‘unwind’, ‘socialise’, ‘good times’ and ‘good times with friends’ are facilitated as well if not better, according to many of its consumers, by cannabis. That’s why the archetypal Hollywood stoner wears a ‘This Bud’s For You’ t-shirt in the movies.
So what happens when mind share and market share shifts from one Bud to another? Well, if you’re any kind of social historian, cultural anthropologist or scholar of food and drink, you will likely describe this shift using that most populist of words in contemporary business lexicon: disruption. Or, to be less academic but more accurate, total disruption.
Think about it. This isn’t insurance, banking, shipping, luxury fashion, IOT, A.I., the latest gadget or soda. This is alcohol, which is why we’re talking total disruption. And by total, the suggestion is, of course, that such disruption is, at its very core, cultural in nature.
We may have been drinking alcohol since before we were human. For anthropologist Michael Dietler, it is and probably always has been “the most widely used psychoactive agent in the world.” Upon becoming human, that agent has woven itself into our social, economic, political and religious lives.
According to Dietler, alcohol is a type of embodied material culture – a thing produced only to be destroyed in the body, like food. In fact, he and other scholars view alcohol very much like a food, something that might be free innovation opportunity number one. Because alcohol is an embodied material culture – and because its psychotropic properties have historically made it particularly popular and valuable in ritual contexts – it has what Deitler calls an “unusually close relationship” with us as humans. In cultures where it has traditionally been consumed, it has played a huge role in what he calls the “symbolization of concepts of identity and difference in the construction of the self.”
That’s huge for a consumer product to be so embedded in culture. But the spirit of alcohol (no pun intended) is everywhere. Thanks to our voracious consumption of it over the millennia, alcohol isn’t just a drink but is a highly charged symbolic medium and social tool. It has shaped our rituals, religions, politics, ways of being in the world, means and methods of interaction, aesthetic and moral evaluations, modes of behaviour, household relations of authority and – through its crops, manufacturing, distribution, sales and the various ‘powers’ each of those bestow on their owners – much of our political economy.
So, yes, total disruption. These social, cultural and historical roles of alcohol in our lives may be under threat from cannabis. Right now, that threat seems small: Americans spent $219 billion on alcohol compared to $6.7 billion on cannabis last year. But, as any good tactician or foresight strategist will tell you, threats have a tendency of growing. With the dollar figure of the cannabis industry projected to be $50 billion by 2020, now is the time for leaders in the alcohol industry to begin defining short and long-term strategies.
Some giants of industry will abdicate strategy in favour of trying to stave off the “if” through increased lobbying efforts. Certainly, there is reason to believe that the current federal administration is more than open to rolling back legalization. They might, however, not want to engage in a particularly un-Republican battle with individual liberty and individual states.
So, how do distillers, brewers and wineries respond as legalization continues blazing its way across North America (and then Europe)? Recently, some have been addressing the challenge by exploring what happens to the alcohol industry if, and when, cannabis becomes legal across the nation. And the smartest among them have been asking: What happens after that?
Most of the answers they’ve been getting, particularly from the usual run-of-the-mill innovation and design agencies, are anything but forward-thinking when it comes to strategy. Some suggest that alcohol embed itself in cannabis culture through a pairings system with, for example, beers and different cannabis strains. But that’s been done by people in the cannabis world, and it’s their product first. Others suggest their client be the first to release a beer infused with cannabis. But that, too, been done by people in the cannabis world, and it’s their product first.
That’s the problem that is—or will soon be—the most pressing: it’s always going to be cannabis first. Every industry where cannabis threatens market share – and it’s a big list that includes snack foods, beauty, pulp & paper, hospitality, every player across the health spectrum from pharma to OTC to alternative medicine, and more – can expect to come second in an innovation race against cannabis. Given the efficacy of the product and the fact that its global population of consumers have been in an ongoing state of ideation over what their favorite product could be or could do for more than a generation, there is little chance that companies struggling with innovation within their category today are going to stand any chance against the progressive market penetration of cannabis tomorrow.
So, what should drinks do?
To chart a path towards a prosperous future in the face of this threat, the alcohol industry will have to start asking some very existential questions about its place in people’s lives. To do this well requires going way beyond understanding people as consumers of brands. It means looking at us beyond the old paradigms of need-states and use-occasions. There are deeper questions that must be answered first, some of which include:
What is alcohol: its histories, mythologies, uses, social lives and cultures?
What is cannabis: its histories, mythologies, uses, social lives and cultures?
Why do people first turn to cannabis? And what keeps them using it?
What is the anatomy of the socio-cultural context in which people suddenly find themselves increasingly attracted to cannabis over alcohol?
Without a robust theory of change, why it is occurring and what the new value equations driving preference are at both an individual and cultural level, developing a future-proof strategy during a time of cultural discontinuity is guesswork at best. What then are the building blocks for a future-proof strategy? To keep it simple, here are three steps:
Get the shift right
Conduct a rigorous socio-historical analysis of the interconnectedness between wider social context and the use of or preference for alcohol and cannabis. Develop an anthropologically-informed theory of why and how people are making sense of value in the new substance paradigm. With a clear picture of emerging and past paradigms as well as why those changes took place, you now have the raw materials of ideation.
Get started. With the above, you are in a far better position to roadmap your way into the future.
Articulate the new value equation
Once you’ve developed an anthropologically-informed theory of how people are making sense of value in the new substance paradigm, begin charting your way through it using an activity like scenario planning. Here, map potential market trajectories of cannabis as it becomes increasingly legal across the U.S. as well as your response to that legalization and the potentially-increasing popularity of cannabis through your brand, product, ingredients, packaging, services, experiences, whatever.
Land on a direction forward
Now, consider those futures. What are most, more, less and least likely? What is your organization most, more, less and least likely to act on in response to the increasing popularization of cannabis and a potentially corresponding drop in alcohol sales? What are the key metrics and components of a solid roadmap in your organization? And how are you going to translate that roadmap into growth platforms for drinks? These and others are the big questions you have to answer in order to land on a direction forward and, as anyone who has tried that innovation thing knows, have the moxy to actually get it done and in market.
Between the frequent features in the business press and the sheer volume of postings on LinkedIn, you might think that every company far and wide is embracing design thinking as the new big promise. Read the headlines: any organization can be innovative if they just follow the design thinking process and, of course, have open-minded people with a positive attitude. Look at the photos: with a handful of people trained in one design discipline or another in a workshop, the evidence of that innovation is on every Post-It note adorning the whiteboard.
But most organizations will end up being disappointed with the outcome of their design thinking flirtation, experimentation or implementation. Not all. For some it will fit. For most, however, it will fall short across multiple metrics. It will produce little more than incremental innovations. It will offer the exact same competitive advantage available to every competitor. And because of our very human belief in and fascination with the power of process, it will undermine extraordinary thinking.
That’s dangerous because extraordinary thinking is what propels great companies forward. Rather than a preference of methods – in design thinking’s case the standard Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, Test model – they have a preference for thoughts, theories, ideas and concepts. Their epistemology rests on a foundation much more substantial than centric-this or centric-that.
For organizations currently using design thinking in teams, all is not lost. It can play at least one important role. In the hectic world of the corporation, its step-by-step process can be a quick and efficient way to develop new ideas and create clarity around product or service concepts within existing categories. But when it comes to reimagining a business, what it provides consumers and how it contributes to their experience of the world, design thinking will be a disappointment. Here are just some of the challenges that will be faced by design thinking organizations that, in all those business press stories and LinkedIn posts, its champions fail to own up to.
Weak on empathy
For all you might expect from the first stage in such a process, design thinking falls short on the empathy quotient. Typically weak when it comes to the wider socio-cultural context in which people (as individuals and as part of a cultural system) live their lives, the research stage of design thinking demands little more than a surface skimming of so-called ‘needs’. Rarely does it call for the kind of expertise and experience in human culture and behavior that one would think would be required to begin a process of true, sustainable or even disruptive innovation.
Design thinking practioners tend to assume that the value of a product or service lies in a consumer’s interaction with it. Lacking a solid foundation in human research, most assume that all of the insights and a-ha moments will be based in the observable world of interactions. They won’t. Interactions are not the only way that people, individually or collectively, ascribe value to products and services. There are histories, memories, socialities, signs, symbols, indexes and other shapers of the How and Why of human experience that are far more significant than the interactional.
Focus on the user
It’s the holy grail of design thinking and of innovation: just focus on the user and your chances of a big win are increased. One of the appeals of design thinking lies in its promise to address the complex, even chaotic world of contemporary business through this simple focus. But this is a problem, because reducing human beings to users with tasks to complete or jobs to be done detaches innovation efforts from the larger socio-cultural reality within which people experience and ascribe meaning to products and services. User focus almost always leads to incremental improvements to value propositions that are already articulated.
Design thinking can generate tangible innovation results, but the value of them depends solely on the quality of conversations during the process. Or, design thinking can emerge as an obstacle to innovation for the simple fact that its standardized terminology becomes part and parcel of corporate lexicon in those conversations. Unless your company is tasked with chasing incremental innovation, the process of developing the truly new, unique or disruptive innovation requires new ways of speaking that allow us to redefine opportunities, situations, markets and realities. New language precedes ideas, not the other way around.
With all the current hype over design thinking – its second wave of hype in recent years – convincing business leaders to consider another way forward will be a challenge. But there is another way forward, one that seeks more than incremental moves in deteriorating markets. We’ll call it Good Thinking.
Good Thinking (we’ll capitalize it to make it seem important) tells business leaders that to first imagine and then begin activating a prosperous and sustainable future for their organizations they must understand the dynamics of value creation as they are occurring today and might occur tomorrow. To do that, they must abandon all market research and, instead, pursue a deep understanding of all of the private, public, personal, performative, social and cultural ways that people live their lives. You know, stuff you don’t get in a focus group. And to identify and understand those and then locate ways to align your business objectives with them requires big thinking about history and humanity.
For example, many of today’s dominant consumer businesses grew into giants, global or otherwise, in the post-war Western world. Needless to say, that was a time and place very different from the societal dynamics of today: women stayed at home and their household products saved them time, effort and mundanity. It’s impossible to understand the original value propositions of those products without seeing the societal context in which their early value was born. Why would things be any different today? Often, what happens in large companies is that, over time, their understanding of the original value proposition disappears and all focus falls on act of category management, just like they’re taught to do in business school.
So how does one practice Good Thinking?
Put the right people on to the people
The key to successful innovation often lies in understanding the paradigm shift that is currently or could soon be occurring and how it is or might soon shape how people live their lives and make sense of the world. The winners understand history and know that most companies manage businesses with value propositions that were at their strongest many decades ago.
Because all innovation is about people who live in social worlds that means every project should begin by making sense of the society (and its history) where an offering will be situated. To do that, you need anthropologists, sociologists, social psychologists and others. MBAs and designers are not at fault, nor are they doing anything wrong. It’s just that they weren’t trained to study people, social systems, culture and all that complicated human stuff.
Companies that already have such people skills on staff already know and have seen the benefits of their contributions. Companies that do not make themselves vulnerable to disruptors because they lack an understanding of the human why or how of innovation. Meanwhile, the novel innovation lexicon of design thinking reinforces a separation between companies and the wider context in which value to consumers is born. It reinforces the tendency of corporation to develop fields of power with their own language, detached from the everyday life of people for whom they are innovating. To deal with that, you might want to hire a semiotician too!
Get HR to go divergent
As the social sciences increasingly become core competencies in forward-thinking businesses that want to learn more, know more, hear more, see more and consider more, so will other disciplines. Ultimately, Good Thinking requires divergent thinking. Creating a new school pool of employees means not just hiring a Brand Manager with the best business pedigree but – and here’s where we will certainly lose some of you – hiring a Brand Manager with an obviously value human pedigree like, maybe, a poetry passion that lived through hip hop, an advanced degree in rocket science, a cool but failed digital start-up stint or a former life lived in the culinary arts.
People like this already work in companies around the world – companies that have nothing to do with hip hop, rockets, computers or food. If Good Thinking was the latest business shtick, we’d make deliberately hiring people not only for their obvious smarts and skills but also for the value of their past, non-business experience part of the manifesto.
The trick to this, of course, is how do you communicate such an ephemeral ask to a department like HR which, kudos to them, requires a little bit more of a clear reality to make its decisions?
Try predictive cultural analytics
The underdeveloped understanding of demand-side dynamics is a real business problem for the simple reason that relying on existing models of analysis does not give investors a real first-mover advantage in the markets. Real edge over the competition requires knowing what people – the people you might call consumers – almost already do. We’re talking about tomorrow.
Organizations that know how to apply human sciences in business have an edge over those that do not because they have a better lens on possible futures. They understand the real sources of value in human systems that allow companies to develop unique market offerings and definitions of ‘markets’ themselves. Interestingly, many of them also understand exactly what business they are in and, because of that, are able to evaluate and adopt new technologies in relation to their ability to generate more meaningful value.
Value is the issue. Current transactional models of thinking yield little to no predictive power, and this is particularly problematic for investors that seek either underappreciated assets or early opportunities. For them, knowing where to invest without an understanding of change is scary. To help those investors and your teams and organization, it is critical to begin paying very close attention to emergence. What is emerging as value? What actor or technology is best positioned to deliver that value? Together with a rigorous approach to studying possible futures and foresight, teams built on the social sciences have a much clearer way forward.
When teams force their thinking into boxes – and nobody loves boxes more than design thinkers – that operate within and serve to reinforce existing paradigms, business leaders miss their mark and metrics. They lose the opportunity to harness the power of the social sciences and, as a result, miss the most critical insights. They rely on goofy linguistic anchors that make them feel as if they are engaged in an important activity (Yay, we’re prototyping!). They force half-baked ideas into concrete forms too early in the process. And once the idea is supposedly fully-baked, they fail to consider or act on all the human politics and problems that will keep it ever from seeing the light of execution or activation.
Big ideas require new perspectives that can only emerge through open and critical conversation and contemplation that enables a new way of speaking about what could and should be. Ideas with transformative potential seldom relate to a strict process and identified pain points against which designers develop solutions.
Companies must create a space for critical conversations and a more meaningful process for translating good thinking into value propositions and offerings. The real innovators will dare to go against the tide and think better. They will hire smart people trained in human sciences and frame their business questions as existential ones. They will make sense of societal shifts and the new value creation logic. They will facilitate non-linear critical conversations that help teams step outside the paradigm that’s become a prison to their competition. And they will be incredibly efficient at applying design competence to developing and refining solutions once they have their good thinking right.