xrematon

June 22, 2019

Totemic objects

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Things are never just ‘things’, are they?

There are some objects that manage to transform daily life into something very different to what was happening before they appeared on the scene. Now it would be very tempting to call out the internet here but not only is that not really ‘a thing’ (it’s too big and messy to be that), I am not actually sure it has radically changed my everyday life experience. As someone who grew up with a childhood that was internet-free and only encountered email, web browsers and more in early adulthood, I have to point out that I still seem to be living in a house built with bricks with tiles on the roof, with a car in the drive, a fridge in the kitchen full of the same kind of foods etc. Perhaps I might feel differently in a couple of decades.

No, I was thinking more of the objects found in Tim Harford’s book Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy. The book starts with the plough, which is a particularly striking example of a catalyst for change: as the author claims, it was the plough that kick started civilisation in the first place. The plough made farming much more efficient, thereby freeing up a large proportion of the population to do other activities and specialise in these, whether baking bread, building houses, constructing bridges and roads – in other creating civilisation. In addition, the agricultural abundance that existed as a result (people were no longer foragers living at subsistence levels), meant powerful people could confiscate food and thus reinforce their power. This enabled the rise of kings and soldiers, bureaucrats and priests etc to live off the work of others.

The plough also changed domestic arrangements. Ploughing was awkward and required men’s strength, whilst the wheat and rice grown required more preparation than nuts and berries, which became women’s work at home. And as these women were no longer out and about foraging all day, they were more able to look after little children and thus had more frequent pregnancies. This was supported by the guaranteed good supply of food, helping to increase population size significantly.

And that’s not all – there are other impacts set in play which are perhaps less positive: switching from foraging to eating grain was actually less nutritious and average height dropped, whilst living more closely with many other people increased the chance of disease, parasites and other challenges to good health.

That’s a lot from just a plough.

There are other types of objects which are notable not for what they trigger but for what they represent. This came through very clearly in an interesting piece from Vox on the rise of granny panties and why this happened. It’s about a number of different things: the rejection of hypersexualisation, the rise of female empowerment (you can wear what you want and feel good), the advent of new garment technology permitting seamless underwear, reinvented granny panties can be also folded into the athleisure movement as women now look for comfortable clothes suitable for everything from working in an office to working. It’s about more than ‘just underwear’.

What totemic object would you want to put on a pedestal?

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April 23, 2019

The future was present – at the V&A

Was it really? The above is a mangled abbreviation of a quote from sci-fi author William Gibson. The full version (“The future is already here. It’s just not evenly distributed yet.”) is much beloved of people who work in ‘futures thinking’ (I’m avoiding the labels ‘futurists’ and ‘futurologists’).  Occasionally, yes, this statement does come through as a pretty good way of looking at the world.

My latest reinforcement of its validity came when I visited a recent exhibition at the V&A rather impressively titled ‘The Future Starts Here – 100 projects shaping the world of tomorrow’. I record my impressions through a series of observations.

Firstly, I should acknowledge that it was a good excuse to go to the V&A and inspect the new entrance – a rather interesting mixture of textures with different shades of white stone, as well as some fine wood structures (but those was only temporary, I think).

Then there was the descent into the exhibition space itself – a dark area with no natural daylight – is that telling about what is envisioned for the future? But luckily there was lots of lighting and colour to bring out the exhibits around which you gradually wound your way.

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Unsurprisingly, there were the obligatory techie items – robots, AI, smart objects that capture and analysis data – but also, later on, objects which are low-tech versions of the technologies we now have come to rely on – phones and internet access. I applaud a view of the future which sees the need for regression as well as progression in innovation.

There were a fair number of objects which were familiar to me, either the items themselves or the core concepts behind them. Examples include a restaurant setting meant to be inviting to the increasing number likely to be living ‘single’ and thus wanting to be able to eat out alone without feeling uncomfortable. There was also a bottle of Soylent on the table too – not sure about that one.

There was also a special personal cleansing care range, designed in response to the fact we now go to considerable effort to stay very clean and effectively remove all bacteria and dirt from the skin, despite the fact, just like the inside of our bodies, our skin also relies on good bacteria to be healthy. Hence the need for Motherdirect, which uses special bacteria called AOB (Ammonia Oxidizing Bacteria) to help convert the irritating components of sweat and turn them into beneficial byproducts like Nitrite and Nitric Oxide, which help to calm and soothe the skin.

Motherdirt was an item that is already being commercialised. There were some exhibits that have been in existence – conceptually at least – for many years but as a completed project, remain indefinitely in the future. See here a fabulous city – clean and smart – which uses the latest technologies and will be completely powered by the sun, or something like that.

dubai city

There were objects that are more about hope than rigorous assessments of what might be possible in the future. In contrast to the shiny technology devices, one case contained the pink ‘pussy hat’ which was developed to make a bold and powerful visual statement of solidarity in support of women’s rights and against Trump, ideally to be worn at the Women’s Marches that have taken place in numerous countries in recent months. Yes, a symbol for hope because Trump is still around and who knows how much has actually changed for women?

My final observation is very simple – I have chosen it to illustrate the fact that looking ahead into the future, we have to recognise that actually lots of how we live we still be very similar. There are certain aspects of everyday living which are remarkably resistant to change, in particular what we eat and drink. There was an exhibit displaying a coffee machine designed by Lavazza to allow people in space to still be able to have a good cup of coffee. Probably quite important actually!

 

November 20, 2018

Get real!

Though almost one pound in every six is spent online in the UK and despite the fact I have already written a post lauding the internet, I think that engaging in consumer activity with real human interaction, face to face or on the phone, still has a lot going for it. Let me justify my perspective with three bits of evidence / recently experienced examples.

Firstly, the boring but perhaps surprising nugget of evidence. With the shift to the virtual world, many have proclaimed the end of all things physical. Whilst this may be happening with many forms of media, books are challenging these lazy assumptions. Sales of physical books are expected to grow modestly, by about 1 percent annually, every year. And it seems that ebooks, in whatever form, just aren’t so exciting any more. According to the American Association of Publishers, e-book sales in 2017 fell for the third consecutive year, off 4.7 percent from 2016, to $1.1 billion from $1.16 billion.

Second, let me tell you about my beloved oven, which recently broke down beyond repair. I did the necessary research online in order to get a sense of the different options out there and what kind of deals and promotions were available. Before I made the purchase, I did a quick call to the online retailer, ao, I had selected. Having worked through my various questions with the person at the end of the phone, instead of making the purchase online, I was identified as a repeat customer (my washing machine broke several months ago – not sure I can cope with any more domestic disaster), and without asking or prompting, I was offered a £15 discount. This unexpected bonus would not have been granted if I had gone online only.

My third example comes from a trip to the great extravaganza that is Bird Fair. As hinted in a previous post, I live in a household of keen birders and Bird Fair is the place to go for individuals of this inclination. Though there is obviously lots of activity online in the world of birding, including the indispensable Rare Bird Alert app to keep track of unexpected species appearing somewhere in the British Isles, as well as Whatsapp groups to keep communities of interest in the loop, going to the Fair brought particular advantages. It allowed us to visit stands and ask people the type of questions you ask when you are face to face – more informal, less structured, with immediate follow-up, more effective often than a time-symmetric drawn-out drip-flow of an email thread. You could look people in the eye to see if you trust them with lots of money for a Big Birding Trip. We managed to get binoculars repaired for free, something that would have been very unlikely to happen otherwise. And I haven’t even mentioned the lectures and talks on a whole variety of diverse topics, ranging from ‘Why birdwatching isn’t just a man’s world’ to ‘An introduction to the avian riches of North West Ecuador’ and ‘Why you should never ever write a field guide’ (surprisingly gripping).

Here’s an entertaining bonus photo: of all the different recycling bins at the Fair! But there still were some I felt to be lacking, namely for food. We’ll have to go back next year to see if that is addressed – amongst other pleasures.

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September 19, 2018

Change in the financial sector – three observations

Over the past couple of years, I have had the opportunity to dabble in numerous projects for FMCG clients. Recently, however, this pattern has shifted and I have worked on several projects in the financial services sector, giving me a chance to engage with the challenges and dynamics impacting this sector.

Across all areas of commercial activity, there is increasing focus on innovation. In mature markets, growth is slow and it seems that the best opportunities to deliver against revenue targets come from not simply tweaking the existing but taking a fresh approach. When it comes to the financial sector, innovation is undeniably taking place, but a lot of this is driven by the external context, rather than established players deciding for themselves to do things differently. How money is managed is changing rapidly – thanks to changes in technology and the accompanying shifts in consumer expectations and habits. What is most interesting of all is the way that this new of ‘doing things’ is most apparent in emerging and developing markets, with mature markets lagging often behind.

Think about mobile money – this initially got going in Kenya. And now look at where the most sophisticated mobile payment ecosystems exist – there are in China. In mature markets, we are hobbled by our legacy systems which make switching to quicker and more convenient processes hard. Moving to contactless payment didn’t require waiting for the technology to be invented (that was around a long while ago); the delay came from having enough retailers who had installed the pay points that could accept this payment method. In emerging markets, it has been possible to build the infrastructure from scratch, using only the latest and best, which can work seamlessly across all types of digital processes and systems.

Mature markets are not only behind the curve in innovation. Some might argue there is a backlash as well as momentum to maintain the status quo. In an article earlier this year, Victoria Cleland, the Bank of England’s chief cashier, mentioned that she does not use contactless payment cards for personal spending – in part because she is yet to trust the technology completely. In Sweden, though the country is making rapid progress towards becoming the world’s first completely cashless society, there are growing concerns it is causing problems for the elderly and other vulnerable groups, as well as recognition that phasing out coins and notes could put the entire country at risk should Sweden encounter a serious crisis or war.

My final observation relates to how our relationship with money, and those organisations whom we talk to about money, is changing in the core fundamentals. In the UK, being able to buy a house is not a realistic aspiration for those in early adulthood. First-time buyers now wait longer – on average, they are seven years older than in 1960, and likely to be in their late thirties. In the face of this situation, some decide they will simply rent. Likewise, buying a car no longer seems such a critical entry milestone to adult life. Instead, there is great aspirational appeal in not being tied down, and instead taking the opportunity to experience life and work in a more flexible manner. I paint an extreme picture but only to bring out what challenges this presents for financial organisations.

If people are no longer buying houses or cars, gone is their opportunity to establish a long-term relationship with customers by providing them a mortgage or loan; if people are not slotting into standard regular jobs, gone is the opportunity to have salaries deposited in a nice and steady manner to build up bank capital; and with a desire to travel and focus on experiences, gone is the need for credit cards and other vehicles to facilitate spending.

It is a world for the brave, with the greatest innovation found not quite where and how you might expect it.

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April 21, 2018

Hairy business

Filed under: Business,Consumer Trends,Futures,Innovation,Marketing,Uncategorized — by xrematon @ 10:34 pm
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Over the past year or so, I have had the opportunity to work on projects in the ‘personal care’ category – think all things hair, skin and other forms of beauty care.

Now, my first learning was actually that I had a lot to learn. Unlike food, where I not only have done many pieces of work over the years, but I am also deeply personally engaged given that I generally cook from scratch at least 10 meals a week, for personal care, I have limited exposure. I have bought the same brand of shampoo for the past 25 years and the same brand of facial cream for the past ten, and apart from other bare essentials (toothpaste and deodorant), I’m done. I have in effect opted out of some whole categories – make-up, more sophisticated hair care, treatments and styling and skin care (the latter, I realise now, is a particularly bit gap given that I am of the age when I should spending a good proportion of my disposable income on anti-ageing products. (For the record, I am currently relying on addressing wrinkles from within by eating lots of avocadoes).

But it turns out that personal care is a fascinating category which has some dynamics it shares with food and some which are quite specific to personal care. Let’s start with the similarity:

Personal care and food are both deeply influenced by the local cultural context. How and what we eat will, to a certain extent, vary depending on where we are: in the US, the UK and increasingly Europe, we shop from supermarkets and are happy to a certain amount of ready-made foods, going from dried pasta and bread all the way through to ready meals, and the food we eat will be quite diverse with many non-native items. In other countries, there are often stronger food cultures and more variety within that culture of food, for example think of all the different types of curry in Asia, but curry will still dominant, with fast food nibbling away at the edges.

In personal care too there are culturally-dependent preferences, for example beauty regimes in Asia are more complex and a lot of effort going into achieving fair skin. Interestingly one might argue, that just as with food, there is starting to be some globalisation/less variation across geographies. Think of the impact of social media on the convergence of aspirational aesthetics – everyone wants to look as lovely and beautiful as the Duchess of Cambridge or Meghan Markle etc.

However, there are important differences between the dynamics of food and personal care.

A key one is the direction of influence. In food, though we have ‘hot’ food cuisines, which become trendy for a year or two, for example it was Korean recently, but perhaps the crown has now gone to Scandi food, in general, food is becoming more ‘Westernised’. By this I mean that people are cooking less from scratch, there is greater consumption of processed and ready-prepared food, people’s food routines are changing with more snacking, whether to fill hunger gaps between meals or to replace meals entirely. And that’s not to mention the irresistible temptations of delights such as burgers, pasta and pizza.

In personal care, in particular beauty and skin care, the more interesting ‘stuff’ tends to be happening in the East first, in particular countries such as Korea and Japan, where people are willing to invest considerable time, money and effort into looking after their appearance. Fancy a 12-step skin-care regime anyone? It is from this region that the BB cream came, now a major staple in the beauty product world, as well as many other weird and wonderful products, such as syringe face-masks (not quite as dramatic as they sound!). So look East for beauty tips!

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March 21, 2018

Can graphic design save your life?

Can Graphic Design Save Your Life?

This is the arresting title of an exhibition I saw at the Wellcome Collection. It was a more interesting experience than I had expected, but I am not convinced I would answer ‘yes’ to the exhibition’s opening question.

Do you remember those iconic Silk Cut print adverts from the 1980s?

Silk cut

Well, that’s what the exhibition started with – adverts to be admired for the way in which creativity was used to circumvent restrictions on advertising. This, in effect, is graphic design that brings you closer to the end of your life.

However, after this, the exhibits were centred on communications from the world of healthcare, and not just for patients, but also for would-be medics. The latter was covered by excerpts from text books and teaching manuals which were closer to works of art than academic material, as the below images suggest.

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What struck me most about the exhibits of medicines and other health products is the way in which they reflect the best in lowest common denominator communication approaches. The pill boxes below make it very clear what consumer need they are responding to. I have seen a similar approach used by smoothies and herbal infusions, which pitch specific products as the solution for a particular moment, whether it is the search for an invigorating uplift or a soothing experience.

design pill boxes

One area getting increasing interest as a way to increase public health is behavioural economics – for example making ‘good’ products easier to get hold of, whether this is about making them more visible or accessible on a shelf, or making the default option the ‘good’ one. Behavioural economics wasn’t mentioned in the exhibition but graphic design could be used in partnership with behavioural design to up the ‘oomph’ factor of a piece of communication or instruction.

And finally, it’s worth noting that it was a refreshing experience to think about paper and packaging which didn’t come alive. If the exhibition was repeated in 10 years’ time, it would be about how augmented and virtual reality can save your life!

January 20, 2018

Sea blindness

This is the term that the chief of the Royal Navy has used to describe our attitude towards the great expanses of water that cover our planet. “We travel by cheap flights, not liners. The sea is the distance to be flown over, a downward backdrop between take-off and landing, a blue expanse that soothes on the moving map as the plane jerks over it. It is for leisure and beaches and fish and chips, not for use or work.”

Not so – this is the driving force behind a recent read Deep Sea and Foreign Going by Rose George, a comprehensive investigation into the world of container shipping. I have long had an unrequited respect and interest in shipping – it is one of the topics which can be endless source of fascination once you actually open your eyes to its importance. At the start of her book, George describes playing a numbers game on the train – you think through what goods will have been transported by sea and the answer is nearly everything : that man’s iPhone and headphones, his book printed in China, the fabric of the seats people are sitting on, the coffee the author is drinking, the fruit they are carrying in the bag and so forth.

The book itself is centred around a journey George made from Felixstowe to Singapore on a huge container ship – if the ship discharged its containers onto lorries, the line of traffic would be 50 miles long. However, the book is more than simply a description of this voyage- the author effectively uses it as a springboard to investigate many other weird and wonderful places, people and phenomena that connect into shipping. This takes her into spending a week on board an EU warship part of the international effort to counteract piracy off the Somali coast, accompanying the chaplain at the Seafarers’ Centre in Immingham, a port on the north-eastern coast of England, and even ringing up one of the ladies who knits the woolly hats that are distributed to sailors.

Despite this breadth of detail, I must confess that I finished the book with my curiosity not completely satisfied. I wanted more depth – to connect with what it really feels like to spend a month on one of these ships. What did she do each day, given that internet connection was sporadic, some of the crew didn’t talk much English and they weren’t really many of them? Come the end of her journey, George seems to be loath to leave the ship but I haven’t got enough of the experience to understand why this can be, given the potential for boredom hinted at earlier, coupled with the fact that she describes how vibrations from the ship’s engine (aside from any weather-related pitching and rolling) make sleep difficult, and she is vegetarian on a boat where the cook seems to struggle to understand what this means and there is very little fresh fruit and veg.

Perhaps what I was after was more poeticism. Just after finishing the book, I read a review of a more recent contribution which describes ten winter days on a Finnish icebreaker. According to the review, Horatio Clare, the author, writes “seeing silence”, and the ship itself seems to him no more than “the tip of a pencil line trailing off into empty space”. He is intoxicated by elemental extremes, dizzied, brought close to laughter. His dead mineral world—all crystalline ice and hard metal—stirs and quickens. Ice “sidles aboard, rinds the rails with icicles…is all but alive”. While down below, in the engine room, there grow “vines of copper piping and sprouting thermometers, the fuel pumps budded with bolts and flowering stopcocks”. There isn’t anything really like this in Deep Sea and Foreign Going. Perhaps just a few more pictures, and of better quality than the almost grainy, soul-dead black and white ones currently included, would have helped.

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Griping aside – I must make clear that the book is definitely worth reading, incredibly interesting and well written. There are a couple of stand-out bits and pieces.

The first is the little discussed but very real issue of noise pollution. This is discussed in a chapter George devotes to investigating whales and their interaction with all those ships trekking back and forth across the oceans. Rose goes to visit a laboratory in Cape Cod whose scientists aim to better understand how to protect the declining North Atlantic right whale population. We know that whales have been affected by hunting as well as chemical and material pollution. Well, it seems that the additional sounds we humans create will have noxious effects too. This is not just from the incredibly noisy engines of huge ships, but also from laying out cables on the sea bed, firing airguns for seismic surveys, fishermen sending out pings for echolocation to find fish, whilst the military deploy sonar. Sometimes the effect of all this is tangible: forced change of habit to flee the sound, whilst military sonar induces the bends in dolphins and whales so that they arrive on the beach with blood on their brains. Sometimes, it is hard to work out what the impact might be, but one researcher found that a quiet and still sea resulted in much lower levels of stress hormones present in whales compared to days of noise.

The second picks up on the harsh and potentially dangerous livelihoods of those who work on container ships. There are the obvious negatives, such as being away from loved ones for long stretches of time, but this is exacerbated by the fact financial pressure often forces these individuals to all too swiftly sign up for another passage. In addition, a large proportion of those who make up crews come from parts of Asia and get their work through middle men whom they don’t want to annoy by refusing jobs. Then you have to factor in the risk of accidents from storms and the bigger worry of piracy, which becomes particularly challenging when it is not clear who has responsibility for looking after the workers when these problems arise. Is it their own country? But their own country would argue it is the company employing them, coming from another country? Or is it the flag under which they are flying, or the territory in whose water the incident took place? It isn’t clear and that’s why it is often takes a long time to get kidnaps resolved. Despite this, and the fact conditions all round can be compared to a sweatshop, the Fair Trade Association’s comment is of one defeat: “Incorporating shipping requirements into our standards and certification processes would add to auditing costs.”

The third and final point is that there is no mention of the possibility that the flows of good might possibly start to change. In the general media, there has been much hype around the potential for 3D manufacturing to make near-shoring a real possibility, whilst a shift to services as well as intangibles (think of streamed media replacing DVDs and CDs) means that less ‘stuff’ needs to be shunted around the world. But given the volumes currently involved, I am not sure a marked shift will happen any time soon. Until then, we need to remember to be less sea blind.

May 17, 2017

Homo Deus

Filed under: Business,Futures,Innovation,Technology,Uncategorized — by xrematon @ 9:32 pm
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In an earlier post, I gave some thoughts on Yuval Noah Harari’s first book Sapiens. Though I don’t normally like to read books by the same author, preferring to endlessly taste the new and different, I had the opportunity to get to grips with his follow-up tome, Homo Deus, as I received it as a gift.

As with Sapiens, it is an intoxicating read, with grand sweeping ideas set to make you think differently and challenge your assumptions about how you think things are progressing. In Homo Deus, the Big Idea is that now Man has learnt how to conquer famine and horrible diseases that used to wipe out whole populations, he can think about higher objectives. We can focus on achieving immortality and eternal happiness, making use of the latest technological innovations to reach this goal. Our brains and bodies will be re-engineered by algorithms with those controlling these algorithms becoming the elite and the rest rendered useless from a societal perspective.

Harari puts forward all too convincing evidence and examples of how the steps leading to this are already taking place. Whilst I agree with his prognosis of increasing and insidious inequality spreading beyond basic wealth status to social mental and physical wellbeing, I am not so convinced that the conversion to a technologically determined utopia (for some) will be that straightforward.

These ideas make sense when taking a macro, more ‘godlike’ top down perspective, but less so when going bottom up and thinking about how individuals think and act. For a start, people have become more wary about how their personal data is used. 84% of US consumers are worried about the security of their personally identifiable information.

And there are signs that people simply can’t bothered to keep collecting personal data if it is left up to them. Research among those who have invested in wearables, still very much at the early adopter stage, reveals that barely a third of them continue to gather information about personal performance. This is surprising low for what would otherwise be assumed to be the keenest part of the market.

In addition, I am not sure that people will necessarily be that keen on options which have been designed as perfect for them. Instead, realistically, they are more likely to go to opt for what is most satisfying. Food is the most obvious example here. Though vitamin pills have been around for a long time, we still bother to prepare food. Soylent is still has pretty niche appeal, despite its recent efforts to go mainstream. And I haven’t even touched upon resistance to genetically modified and other forms of manipulated food.

My final quick challenge is about something completely different and only an aside, albeit an interesting one. In chapter one, Harari uses lawns as a way to illustrate how many of our preferences and aspirations connect back to earlier dynamics in society, though we are often now oblivious. Lawns were the preserve of the rich and thus associated with political power.

But I would argue that the ‘smart set’ are now increasingly opting for astro turf.  In fact, this is actually another demonstration of how the elite are using better technology to improve their lives. But it could be done better: surely the super elite would have grass personalised to match their wellbeing needs, being in the right shade and right texture to deliver optimal stress release. Perhaps I should try that on Kickstarter…..

April 18, 2017

When something goes wrong at work, what happens?

The answer to this question is explored in Matthew Syed’s book, Black Box Thinking, which proposes that we could benefit from embracing our mistakes and learning from them in order to improve our performance. As with many of these books, the ideas they put forward are, on the surface, very compelling. Who could argue with the need for pompous senior health care professionals to accept they make errors, that hierarchy can be challenged, and the system reformed to ensure that people do not die from what are avoidable mistakes? The airline industry has shown that it is possible.

This is all well and good, but there is more to say about the process behind which we make decisions. Just pick up something by Malcolm Gladwell for instance. In Blink, as well as Outliers, we are introduced to people who are altogether brilliant at knowing what to do: they can make amazing snap decisions better than others who might spend hours on analysis and evaluation; and it’s often because they have in fact spent thousands of hours becoming expert in the area. That to me sounds a bit like what you want from a senior surgeon. So, it seems that it’s acceptable to work something out super quickly and trust your instincts, except for when it goes wrong. The key learning that comes out sounds surprisingly moral: avoid complacency and hubris.

But let’s go back to question in the title to this post: what happens if things go wrong at work. In my area of consumer trends and insight, I am not sure! This is both in terms of knowing whether things do go wrong or not, and if they do, what the implications are. Unlike in surgery or aviation, when a mistake can lead to the loss of human life, in marketing, the consequences are less clear cut.

Though it might be possible to argue that product sales or the loss of a client account are indicative, the more significant issue is that there is a lack of a clearly agreed metric or consensus over how such evaluations are to take place, let alone an obvious path or process for acknowledging these situations and actively learning from them. To be fair, I have known some agencies that carry out review sessions after big pitches or projects in order dissect what worked well and what didn’t. However, this is rarely consistently done, even within the same place, more often than not it is at the whim of how agency culture and priorities ebb and flow over time.

But the space where there is some energy and debate as to what is the right thing to do in marketing is not quite around learning from mistakes, but another form of improvement/trying to make things better: innovation. In a piece on Branding Strategy Insider, Geoffrey Colon argues that the challenge in marketing lies not so much in accepting that mistakes represent learning opportunities, but in being ready to have an open mind as to whether ideas might come from.

Teams of “experts and insiders” can be marketing’s worst enemy. Because they believe there is only one approach to finding a solution, they tend not to accept outlying ideas. When marketing teams represent a cross section of disciplines, the problems are quickly solved and the solutions are often applicable to other areas of business as well. One reason industries are being overthrown is that they don’t allow outsiders into their inner circle to provide new ways of thinking.

It seems the challenge for marketers lies not so much in removing the boundaries of hierarchy, but those of subject matter and discipline. But, at the end of the day, it is still about humility and being ready to accept that you don’t have all the answers – even if we can’t be too sure when it’s not right!

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March 19, 2017

Weapons of Math Destruction

Filed under: Business,Coaching,Consumer Trends,Marketing,Sustainability,Uncategorized — by xrematon @ 8:50 pm
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There is much chatter about corporate social responsibility but little deep thinking about more complex moral concepts. This is what struck me as I read a polemical book about the troubling implications of living in a world ‘controlled’ by algorithms – Weapons of Mass Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy by Cathy O’Neil.

The author’s Big Message is to highlight how the clever models that sit behind how decisions to evaluate teachers, job candidates, prospective customers for insurance, consumers etc, are not as objectively fair as we might think, often capturing the biases of their creators, as well as more importantly creating negative feedback loops reinforcing social divides. Poor people living in bad neighbourhoods pay more for insurance as they are higher risk; thanks to accurate targeting, they can be more easily identified to be sold payday (or equivalent high cost/poor value) loans.

Whilst this is indeed troubling, my overall response to the book was to feel glad that I don’t live in the US and that, in the UK (I think!), there are more checks and balances in place to stop the level of exploitation seen across the Atlantic occurring.

However, after reading the book, I did start to notice other examples of concerns being raised about the moral implications of business approaches.

First example: an article widely circulated among the senior management at a major international marketing powerhouse. This article raises far more worrying concepts – how search engines are effectively being ‘gamed’ by organisations who wish to propagate ideas that would normally be dismissed out of hand in a liberal democracy. The journalist tried seeing what happens when you start typing in “are muslims…”, and seeing what comes up in Google Instant (though I must confess, I didn’t get anything as bad), she observes, “I feel like I’ve fallen down a wormhole, entered some parallel universe where black is white, and good is bad.”

Second example: an interesting piece in a recent edition of 1843. A writer for the magazine went to California to ‘meet the scientists who make apps addictive’. In a way, this article provides a much-needed human face to the O’Neill book. It seems that the clever people behind all the clever new apps and algorithms are not actually evil. They are described as ‘hipsters from San Francisco – all nice people’.

However, some of them have realised that what they are unleashing on the world may not be so straightforwardly ‘good’ after all. The founding father of ‘behaviour design’, B.J. Fogg, is quoted as saying, “I look at some of my former students and I wonder if they’re really trying to make the world better, or just make money. What I always wanted to do was un-enslave people from technology.” Let’s see what some of these students have been up to:

  • One of Fogg’s alumni, Nir Eyal, went on to write a successful book, aimed at tech entrepreneurs, called “Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products”.
  • Another, Tristan Harris, resigned after working for Google for a year in order to pursue research into the ethics of the digital economy. “I wanted to know what responsibility comes with the ability to influence the psychology of a billion people? What’s the Hippocratic oath?” Whilst Harris was convinced to stay on temporarily as design ethicist and product philosopher, he soon realised that, although his colleagues were listening politely, they would never take his message seriously without pressure from the outside. He left Google for good to become a writer and advocate, on a mission to wake the world up to how digital technology is diminishing the human capacity for making free choices.

My final example is a film, but it succeeded in make me think the most as it captured my imagination and brought to life the moral dilemmas at play most powerfully. Eye In The Sky explores what happens when a drone is to be used to launch a bomb into a crowded street in Kenya in order to kill a wanted terrorist. Clever algorithms make use of Big Data to calculate what is the likelihood that a small girl selling bread on this street might be killed too by this bomb. For the minsters approving the mission, it is only acceptable for the bomb to be launched if the likelihood is below 50%. Initially calculations suggest the risk is over 50% (that’s what the model says), but in the film we can see how human actors can override and manipulate models. It is clear that ultimately humans need to be ready to make difficult decisions – and live with the consequences.

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