My father recently told me the story of how his grandfather once explained to him how much the world had changed during the old man’s lifetime. He had been alive when the first modern bicycles had been made in Scotland, and he was still alive when Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon.
How the world had developed during those years was not just remarkable, but incomprehensible. Very few people living in the 1880s would have seriously considered the possibility of humans travelling into space during their lifetimes, and yet it happened.
The question my father posed in re-telling this story was whether my great-grandfather saw more change during his life than I would during mine. It’s not an easy question to answer because what defined the late 19th century and most of the 20th century were huge strides in industry and infrastructure. What will probably define most of my life, is information and technology.
And because the changes we see in technology these days are almost constant, they might not feel as extreme as those experienced by my great-grandfather. So much of the time we accept this development without really noticing that it’s happening.
That’s why trend analysts like Dion Chang of Flux Trends have such interesting jobs. They ask us to stop a moment and observe the changes and try to comprehend what they could mean not only for individuals, but businesses.
Speaking at last week’s Economic Outlook conference in Stellenbosch hosted by the Gordon Institute for Business Science (GIBS), Chang highlighted a number of technological trends that are shaping the way we live.
“In the last two years, we have crossed over into a new world order,” he said, “and technology is the driver of that. The thing is that technologies can go one way or another – good or bad. That’s why we are calling this the fork in the road.”
The first major trend Chang highlighted was the rise of driverless cars. Google has already been testing these vehicles for two years and a number of car companies are now also developing their own models.
“The first commercial use of driverless cars will be in airports and huge parking lots,” he said. “Heathrow has already dropped some of its buses and is now using driverless pods.”
On top of this, Chang highlighted how cars are really becoming “computers on wheels”. Car manufacturers are even now displaying their latest models at technology fares.
As the systems in these vehicles are becoming more complicated they are also becoming more user-friendly. As a result, both Apple and Android have now produced operating systems for cars that will effectively make them another part of ones connected experience. This will very likely have an interesting effect on consumers.
“Ultimately it’s not just about the gadgets that you buy, but the ‘ecosystem’ in which they operate,” Chang said. “We live in an app world, so the more apps you download, the less inclined you are going to be to change your operating system. So if cars are also going to be embedded with operating systems, this will also change the way you choose your car.”
The second major technological development Chang discussed was 3D printing.
“I can’t believe how fast this has evolved,” he said. “They said that this would revolutionise manufacturing because the industry has always been based on mass production, but now you can do once-off production in your own home.”
Although the costs are still prohibitively high, the potential already exists to print items such as shoes and fashion wear. Chang suggested that one of the big potentials for the technology is bio-printing – creating live tissues for organ transplants. The medical industry has already successfully produced eye cells.
He was however less enthusiastic about the possibility of printing food, as this would raise many questions about its suitability for human consumption.
Wearable technology was next on Chang’s list, and he predicted that this is going to become a huge market. These are clothing and accessories incorporating electronics that often include practical functions and features.
“You know this is going to be a significant industry when you see who the players are,” he said. “For instance Louis Vuitton and Harry Winston have come up with a personalised skin protection device that measures sun exposure. It then gives the user recommendations on products to use to protect themselves.”
Chang expects wearable tech to gain massive traction because it fits in with the growing “me-me-me” culture.
“We are becoming completely self-obsessed,” he said. “Introspection has become a pivotal lifestyle trend. It’s no surprise that ‘selfie’ was the word of 2013.”
Wearable technology will feed this trend as people can obsessively measure just about anything they do – how far they run every morning, how many steps they took during the day, and even their mood swings. It’s not completely narcissistic, however, as there are potentially large benefits too.
“Already we are looking at remote patient monitoring in South Africa, and wearable technology is part of this,” Chang said. “Because you have so much self-data that you are able to produce, this could change the waiting time to ‘see’ a doctor. Insurance companies are going to start looking at this, and I think the health sector is going to be changed by this technology.”
Chang was however less enthusiastic about other gadgets that are also collecting information about us.
“One of the scariest technological trends is the rise of the machines – artificial intelligence. Your machines and your gadgets are watching you,” he said.
Chang explained how the dustbins that had been set up at the London Olympics as information portals to assist tourists have been modified to track cell phone serial numbers. In other words, the authorities are able to locate any cell phone just about anywhere in London.
“Retailers are also starting to do something similar in-store, ostensibly to give you a better user experience,” Chang said. “But it’s getting a little bit spooky, because collecting that information and that data is becoming very intrusive.”
He highlighted a recent court case in which an electronics company was sued for selling a television to a customer without warning him that the set would track his viewing habits and send that information to the networks.
“The reality is that your laptop, your television, even your fridge are going to be collecting data about you,” Chang said.
Moving his focus to retail and marketing, Chang argued that the conflict between online and offline shopping is forcing retails to rethink the way they do business. A Financial Times report predicts that 15% of the USA’s malls will close in the next five years, and that UK high streets could see as much as 20% of their shops closing over the same time period due to online shopping.
But Chang argued that the most successful retailers will not be those that focus on an either/or strategy, but those that cater to the hybrid consumer who moves between the online and offline world.
“For example, retailers may have a pod within their store that contains only a very small range of clothing, but with a digital ‘magic mirror’ that superimposes a much wider range of clothing on the customer’s image,” he explained. “These are connected to social media so you can immediately send the pictures to your friends for feedback. And when you’ve made your choice, you can then request ‘buy and deliver’ and the garment will be sent to your home or office.”
In this environment, Chang argues that delivery time will become an important competitive edge, as the quicker retailers can get the product to the customer, the more immediate the experience will be and the more satisfied the shopper will feel. He mentioned one retailer that already guaranteed delivery within an hour.
In comments that brought much of this together, Chang spoke about how we are entering a ‘reassurance economy’ – where trust has become a vital commodity.
“Consumer trust is at an all-time low,” he said. “We have been bombarded with evidence that we’ve been consistently lied to by all sorts of people. We don’t trust governments, we don’t trust the police, we don’t trust institutions, we don’t trust the food we eat, we don’t even trust the sport we watch. We don’t trust anything or anyone.”
The result is that word-of-mouth and online consumer opinions have become preferred methods of discovering new brands. And businesses cannot rely on transient advertising campaigns, but need to develop long-term trust.
“So for brands, trust has become a commodity,” Chang said. “You have to build a long-term current of showing that you are acting in your customer’s best interests. The problem, of course, is that this is very easily broken.”