The Current Global’s Innovation Mansion came to New York last weekend exploring how retail’s future needs to focus on technology and humans working as one.
Attended by c-suite executives from Fortune 500 companies and the world’s leading brands, the experiential activation aligned with NRF’s Big Show event happening this week.
Under the theme of “The Human Factor”, it examined the techniques used by top innovators, showcased rising technologies and explored how tech can deliver personalization, experience and convenience while being increasingly led by emotion.
One of the highlights was a live Innovators podcast recording with retail trailblazer, Ron Johnson, who is best known as the man behind the Apple store and the Genius Bar concept, and then CEO of JC Penney. Today, he is the founder and CEO of Enjoy, an e-commerce company that aims to reinvent the last mile.
Speaking to Current Global’s co-founder and CEO, Liz Bacelar, Johnson discussed the importance of deepening relationships with consumers at every step of the shopping journey. He explained how he believes the future of commerce is mobile retail, and how he is focusing on helping premium brands deliver joy and convenience to the consumer’s home.
Meanwhile Ben Kaufman, co-founder and CEO of family store Camp, and former CMO of Buzzfeed, talked on the podcast about how his retail concept is using the winning recipe of merchandise, theatre and experience. Described as the “Speakeasy for kids”, the store brings a fresh perspective to traditional brick-and-mortar, with a rotating schedule of activities and themes, allowing customers to always find something new.
“We find a way to integrate productive retail space into even the big immersive experiential set pieces,” he explained to Bacelar, demonstrating how every square foot of the store is used to its best potential.
Wrapping up the day was a panel focused on direct-to-consumer brands. It featured sunscreen brand Supergoop!, DTC incubator dtx company and retail concept SHOWFIELDS. The discussion explored how to build a brand for modern consumers, who see no boundaries between physical and digital.
Guests also had the opportunity to explore the latest technologies set to transform your business in 2020 with “The Hot 12” tech exhibit from Current Global, which included everything from smart mirrors to cutting-edge vending machines.
Look out for our Innovators podcast episodes with Enjoy’s Johnson and Camp’s Kaufman, publishing soon. Meanwhile, subscribe here to keep up with the latest episodes.
Want to know more about how our technology partners can help you reach your innovation goals? The Current Global is a transformation consultancy driving growth within fashion, luxury and retail. Our mission is to solve challenges and facilitate change. We are thinkers and builders delivering innovative solutions and experiences. Get in touch to learn more.
I recently binge-watched a BBC drama called Years and Years. Featuring Emma Thompson as a controversial British prime minister, it’s a frighteningly realistic portrayal of what society might look like given a few more twists and turns from both our political leadership and the technology developments that surround us.
If you haven’t seen it, I recommend it as one to hunker down to next time the weather turns poor wherever you are. The reason for referencing this, however, is that there’s one speech in the show that feels particularly poignant to retail today.
“We blame these vast sweeping tides of history like they’re out of our control, like we’re so helpless and little and small, but it’s our fault,” the family’s matriarch explains. “You know why? Because of that £1 t-shirt. We can’t resist it, every single one of us – we see a t-shirt that costs £1 and we think that’s a bargain, I’ll have that… The shopkeeper gets 5p for that t-shirt, and some little peasant in a field gets paid 0.01p and we think that’s fine. We buy into that system for life.
“I saw it all going wrong when it began in the supermarkets, when they replaced all the women on the tills with those automated checkouts… Now all those women are gone and we let it happen. And I think we do like them, those checkouts. We want them because it means we can stroll through, pick up our shopping and we don’t have to look that women in the eye, the woman who’s paid less than us. She’s gone, we got rid of her – sacked. Well done. So yes, it’s our fault. This is the world we built. Congratulations.”
Each of us is complicit in the future world we’re creating, she suggests. And in her view, one full of automation, frankly, is a negative.
But it’s the detail that’s important here – it’s the fact we thought any level of this automation was right in the first place, even in the most basic sense, and we forgot about the human element of it all in the process. Which is why it stuck in my head, because it’s really so real.
Automation is something we’ve been talking about for years for the sake of efficiency. In our company, we help integrate all sorts of solutions that facilitate it constantly. And we’ve seen the industry really expanding on this front both in stores and through warehousing for some time.
UK food delivery service, Ocado, is a market leader for warehouse automation, for instance. Its state-of-the-art facility processes 3.5 million items or around 65,000 orders every week, thanks to a fleet of 1,100 robots.
Meanwhile, Amazon Go, the unmanned grocery store in the US, is one of the best known customer-facing initiatives in this space. It makes use of a multitude of different technologies – from sensors to image recognition – to enable shoppers to simply walk out while payment is automatically taken without having to interact with any other human being at all.
The interesting thing here, is that for every part of this in action, there are a multitude of startups we work with that do this even better. This is nothing short of a burgeoning space.
Doing so comes with a multitude of benefits of course – from increased convenience for shoppers when things are faster and easier, through to better service in the process from the sales associates who are on hand to help where it matters. That also means opportunities for upskilling of staff – giving them new and higher skills, leading ultimately to better paid positions. And there’s economic incentive too. According to PWC, AI, robotics and other forms of smart automation have the potential to contribute $15 trillion to global GDP by 2030.
This is all incredibly relevant in the context of John Lewis – one of the most trusted brands on the UK high street. The idea it suggests is that it can turn its customer promise into improved service and commercial value via robotics.
The question really though is should it? According to the World Economic Forum, nearly 50% of companies expect automation to lead to some reduction in their full-time workforce by 2022. Meanwhile, the British Retail Consortium estimates that 60% of retail jobs will be at risk due to automation over the next 20 years.
There’s an argument that previous industrial revolutions have ultimately led to progress – unemployment in one generation opening up new opportunities in the next. But if you want to look really far out, the University of Oxford predicts there is a 50% chance machines will be capable of taking over all human jobs in 120 years.
That’s a fairly cynical view, but either way there’s an important note about ethics here. The John Lewis announcement came with a note that said its intention is to create an environment of safe and ethical adoption of robots in the industry. Presumably that means one that benefits its workers and not just removes their jobs.
This isn’t a new conversation in a wider sense. AI ethics and all it consists of has been a technology debate and concern for some time. But for me, this isn’t about worrying over some apocalyptic future where the robots ultimately have intelligence enough to take over from the human race at large. It’s about the right now – the next 10 years and shaping how we want this industry to continue to work.
I am all for efficiencies – it’s one of the linchpins of what we offer as a company, but that has to come with balance. A report by the Harvard Business Review is interesting in this sense. It suggests that those companies who are using automation mainly to displace employees, should expect to see only short-term productivity gains, whereas those who adopt it alongside staff, will achieve the most significant performance improvements.
That’s the ideal – making it great for business and for the people involved. If automation can give us greater ability to do the things we love, to remove the mundane tasks and those not adding value, it makes sense. After all, why are we doing any of this otherwise if it’s not about benefiting humanity long term.
But we need to take a stand on this now and decide what we want for our future. There’s a certain element of inevitability to it all, but the human factor should be part of every conversation happening in this space. Ultimately what it comes down to is not do we want this change to happen, but how? It’s our choice, meaning otherwise, as per Year and Years, it will be “our fault”.
How are you thinking about innovative solutions? The Current Global is a transformation consultancy driving growth within fashion, luxury and retail. Our mission is to solve challenges and facilitate change. We are thinkers and builders delivering innovative solutions and experiences. Get in touch to learn more.
In the end it’s not about the technology itself, but the outcome it delivers, said Samsung’s global CMO, YoungHee Lee, on stage at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity this week.
Speaking about whether tech would be the downfall or saviour of creativity, Lee highlighted that Samsung’s bigger mission is to hit the sweet spot between brand, tech and people.
To further enforce that point, Lee presented the company’s three major trends that it believes will shape this new era of transformation:
Personal empowerment: As title and money begin to lose importance, consumers are seeking to know what makes them better personally. Tech in this case will enable people to achieve their personal goals.
People demanding for brands to take a stand: As a result of consumer introspection and the search for a sense of purpose, brands, Lee urged, need to demonstrate they share their consumers’ perspectives of the world.
People seeing tech as a force for good: The way consumers are experience tech is different, as a result of being better informed, better entertained, and better connected with friends and family. Technology is changing the lives of people for the better, she explained, and it is a brand’s responsibility to demonstrate that and behave responsibly.
Emphasizing technology as a vehicle for human transformation and creativity is key because tech has and always was about human change, Lee said. Her advice to marketers in the room was to live in the intersection of tech and humanity. This is particularly important because within 10 years of the first smartphone coming to market, there are now 2.6 billion people connected to the internet, 84% of which are on mobile.
With every consumer now considering themselves a content creator – in the case of professional YouTubers, a one-man media company – Samsung hopes to exist in the space that enables those behaviors, as well as pushing for the good of humankind as a whole.
While there were keynote talks about everything from quantum computing to expeditions to Mars at SXSW Interactive this year, underpinning the festival more than ever was a more down to earth (forgive the pun) reflection on society.
This is an event that used to be about future technologies at its core; anchored in the evolution of this thing called the internet. Today, however, it’s increasingly focused on much wider cultural movements because of the way in which connectivity infiltrates every part of our lives. The two are no longer distinguishable.
Politics, entertainment and human rights are all just as much a part of the conversation in Austin these days as those big tech or forward-looking viewpoints, as a result. And thus, this year’s trends are equally a mirror of that fact – a blend of what really matters to humanity first and foremost, underpinned by the technology that is both shaping and supporting it.
While artificial intelligence permeated the entire festival – noteworthy not as a trend but as an overarching umbrella to which all arrows are pointing for the future of computing – nearly every conversation kept coming back to one thing: being human.
With discussions exploring the role of automation, multiple case studies for machine learning, not to mention examples of how fast and how deep such systems are being trained, the focus, time and again, returned to the very idea of our humanity and our culture.
Even Bruce Stering, author and longstanding commentator, closed out the five-day event by turning the view on robotics into a conversation around art and culture: “We’re spending too much time making robots useful and commercially viable. We’re not thinking enough about what this exquisite control of motion ought to mean aesthetically. It’s like we’re spending too much time at the gym doing squats and not enough dancing. So I think the tech world needs to find more confidence in their artistic impulses.”
But the festival at large wasn’t just about creative license or inputting empathy in the robots or artificial intelligence we’re building (as was so focused on in 2017), but actually about reminding us of who we are as a society full stop.
Evidence lay in the very fact so many of the big keynotes on stage weren’t from the world of technology at all. Esther Perel, a renowned relationship therapist, stole the limelight on day one for instance, when she discussed the role of belonging and loneliness in the context of modern community. “We used to have belonging but little freedom. Now we have so much freedom but little sense of belonging,” she said, highlighting the very idea of what we’re craving.
Our constant battle, Bozoma Saint John, the gregarious chief brand officer from Uber, agreed, is around balancing our sense of connectivity with actual human connections. “We can use our tech to better our society and our everyday lives, but we also need to connect to people… How do we make sure in a world where things are moving so fast, that we can keep up, yet still be in touch with our humanity?” she asked.
What’s interesting to see is how this focus is starting to impact the experiences we’re creating. Even in retail today, the idea of connected or interactive stores, like Amazon Go, are becoming less about the technology itself, and more about the tech moving out of the way, or being increasingly invisible, so as to allow us to get back to the human side of what we’re doing. It’s about optimizing experiences for the human involved –in Amazon’s case, by making it about convenience.
But the same goes at the luxury end of things. As José Neves, CEO of Farfetch, said in a fireside conversation with TheCurrent’s Liz Bacelar: “If anything, companies need to think [about] how can we develop technologies that enhance the human? The store of the future for us is about how can we make the storytelling about everything humans can do – the computers can check stock, the computer can do payment; let’s get the robotic stuff out of the way, and let the human concentrate on the interaction.”
Women and diversity
That notion of humanity, society and culture spilled over unsurprisingly into widespread discussions around equality and diversity. The idea of women having a seat at the table is not a new topic for SXSW. Women in tech has long been a subject at this festival, but it had new resonance, greater weight and a bigger focus on action off the back of the #TimesUp and #MeToo movements, both of which were represented on stage this year.
In her keynote, Melinda Gates, co-chair of Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, said: “Companies all of a sudden have to listen to what their employees want. I see the #MeToo movement finally causing a reckoning.”
“We’re in a really serious and complicated moment, where we have to take the power to change the industries and communities and environments we’re in for the better,” said Saint John of Uber, referring both to being a woman on a leadership team as much as to being one of color. She called for both women and men to now be standing up for this.
“We’re seeing it right now, we are demanding change. But this is not the issue of people of color to make the noise. Everyone else needs to make the noise. I want white men to look around in their offices and say let’s change this,” she added.
Whitney Wolfe-Herd, founder of dating app, Bumble, which in its conception is about giving women a greater element of control, likewise pushed the idea of men being part of the solution. “A lot of them have been the problem, but now it’s time to be part of the solution. That stands for something.”
Bumble, she said, has always been about doing things in a female-forward way, from the nature of the app itself, to the structure of the team internally. “We encourage more and more seats, we built bigger tables,” she said.
And Saint John then brought it back to our humanity once more: “We need to use this moment in time to remember what our humanity is. It will help in all the things we are talking about – in diversity, in women empowerment and in moving forward.”
Tied up in the equality and diversity conversation, is a greater underlying societal reflection of uncertainty. Trust is at an all-time low hot off the heels of the fake news agenda that dominated headlines last year, not to mention a much broader perspective on weakened political and institutional beliefs, and growing concerns for the role of privacy and ownership over our own data.
In fact, the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer, which was referenced multiple times during SXSW, has shown a straight-line decline for 25 years, with trust in government, the media, and banks at an all-time low. Rohit Bhargava of the Non-Obvious Company, referred to us as being “in the midst of a believability crisis”. With consumers as natural sceptics, the role for brands then is around seeking how to develop or engender a sense of trust in new ways.
This is something Adidas particularly referenced. Eric Liedtke, head of global brands at the company, said: “People don’t just buy what you make, they buy what you stand for.” Referring to a youth generation that has grown up in a world that is highly stressed, he added that people are “looking for trusted brands they can rely on” and that “authenticity is going to be core for this”.
Adidas announced that it’s aiming for all of its products to be made from recycled plastics by 2024, as part of its partnership with Parley for the Oceans, and it called on the rest of the industry to start thinking about the same. The worst problem we have right now is inaction, Liedtke added. “Everyone has to opt in, put their hand in the pile and play.”
That view on sustainability and on climate change, reverberated throughout the week, including in a session hosted by TheCurrent around bioengineering for the fashion industry. All of it tied nicely to the fact Edelman’s 2018 survey also shows there has been a renewed confidence in experts and academics, and a fast recovering belief in CEOs, rewarded for speaking out on specific issues.
With that idea of authenticity, then, came a focus at the festival on how technology can help take this to the next level. Blockchain was the big tech buzzword of the week, once again, with endless sessions dedicated to deciphering and applying it to the future of business and consumerism today.
Explained in basic terms as a digital ledger that acts as a verified and immutable source of truth, it was referenced with regards to everything from healthcare to global supply chain management. “Whether it’s diamonds being pulled out of the ground or fish from the ocean, or a shoe being manufactured and transported, the blockchain means you are able to track that and have high confidence that it’s coming from the place it’s meant to,” said Brian Behlendorf, executive director of Hyperledger.
Graham Wetzbarger, chief authenticator of resale service, The RealReal, similarly said there is a major opportunity to use blockchain to connect consumers to authentication. “Imagine adding a digital ledger for every product, not only for when they’re first bought, but when they’re reselling. How interesting would it be if a product were always telling data? Always adding every place it’s been?” Through provenance then, we can bring about trust.
Joseph Lubin, co-founder of Ethereum, also noted blockchain’s relevancy to the privacy element of the trust debate. “On the web right now, I would argue that identity is broken,” he said. “We spray aspects of our identity around the web, it’s stored on corporate servers and is monetized by corporations, and often aspects of your identity aren’t well secured by those organizations.” His belief is that blockchain can solve this.
Of course, this tech isn’t a solution for everything, but in helping to bring back a sense of trust in our everyday systems, it’s evidently part of that broader conversation on humanity and society that SXSW has become so much about. The future, once more then, comes back to us being humans, albeit with tech playing an ever-increasing role in enhancing us in the process.
*Want to know which specific technologies and startups we deemed most relevant from the festival? Our team of startup scouts combed through the innovations demonstrated, examining and analyzing those of chief importance to retailers and brands today. Get in touch to find out more.