Amid all the excitement and hype of last week’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) – products demonstrated included a games console for dogs and a smart belt (unfortunately called the Welt) that monitors your waistline – there are some big trends that will potentially affect us all.
While last year was all about wearables, CES 2016 was focused on travel and transport. In fact, there was more noise about cars than at the once dominant Detroit Motor show held a week later. GM announced a $500m investment in Lyft, as well as launching its latest Bolt electric car. BMW showed off a concept car controlled by gestures (taking giving the finger to another motorist to a whole new level), while Ford talked about its progress in self-driving cars. There was even a hoverboard or two – though not something that Marty McFly would recognise from Back to the Future.
What’s interesting is that it shows that the traditional car makers are waking up and fighting back hard against tech companies in the battle for future motoring. As cars essentially transform into computers on wheels, manufacturers risk becoming relegated to providers of hardware (the car chassis), with all the value and ongoing profit going to the tech firms providing the software that makes them intelligent, self-driving, more efficient or more comfortable spaces. Allied to this, there is a lot of talk about the Uber effect, with younger consumers turning away from car ownership and instead just hailing one when they need it or renting on an ad-hoc basis.
So car manufacturers are worried – fewer people buying their products and margins squeezed as the profits go elsewhere. Personally, I don’t think it will be as bad as some naysayers predict – younger people have been hard hit by the recession, so don’t necessarily have the money to buy and run a car. And owning your own vehicle isn’t absolutely necessarily if you are one of the 54% of the world’s population that lives in a city. For those living in the countryside without Uber or buses, the picture is very different.
But what is interesting is how the car giants are changing their behaviour. They have realised that they are up against a smaller, more agile foe – but one that has access to new ideas, brands well known for innovation, and no preconceptions about the business. They have to market themselves better, embrace technology and work together to convince consumers that traditional car makers have what it takes to meet their future needs. Hence investments in start-ups such as Lyft, car clubs and the joint purchase of mapping firm Here by a consortium of VW/Audi, BMW and Daimler.
But both sides face significant marketing obstacles. Aside from a few supercar manufacturers, the majority of car companies are not sexy – and VW’s issues with faked emissions tests back up the view that they can’t be trusted. Cars are expensive to buy, depreciate quickly and require ongoing maintenance and fuel. I’m not saying that tech companies are angels, but the majority of people pay nothing to use Google’s services, even if that means that they themselves become the product. So tech companies need to convince consumers that they combine style and innovation with security and safety, and that they won’t have to reboot their self-driving car before driving away in the morning. Essentially the incumbent needs to show a bit of excitement, while the new player needs to demonstrate a bit of gravitas – a classic marketing dilemma.
As the battle moves from the phony war to full on combat, and new companies (such as Apple) join the market, then expect a much greater focus on marketing from both sides – as each one aims to convince us of their benefits in the brave new motoring world. My money is on whoever develops a proper hoverboard first…………….
500 years ago, during the Renaissance, it was possible for one person to know pretty much everything across a wide range of subjects. Leonardo da Vinci, for example, was a painter, anatomist, sculptor and inventor, designing objects as diverse as an early helicopter and an adding machine. A little later polymaths such as Isaac Newton were leaders in fields as different as mathematics, physics and optics, while still believing in alchemy and experimenting to try and turn lead into gold.
In the late 20th century the place of the Renaissance man shifted again, moving from laboratory and academia to the hallowed pub quiz. This was the foremost place for polymaths to show off their knowledge, particularly if their family and friends refused to play Trivial Pursuit with them anymore.
But, in the same way that the days of a da Vinci or Newton are gone, I fear that time has been called on the pub quiz. And it is all down to technology and the way it is shaping how we learn and retain facts/useless information. Nowadays we can access all the knowledge in the world instantly with a smartphone and Google (except in my village, which only has 2G coverage). I remember as a ten year old memorising the capital cities of Europe (including mastering the trick question of what the capital of the Netherlands was), but am now sorrowfully realising that I may have been wasting my time.
Shared experiences and the herd mind
This means that rather than priding themselves on learning and retaining information, my children are much more focused on how to find it in a hurry. While this is good in a way – there’s no way you can know everything, so why try? – it is also disheartening in others. We relate to other people through shared experiences – whether that is knowledge of the same events, watching the same TV programmes or attending sports matches. And if you erode that – such as through the explosion in viewing choice, the plethora of pay-TV options and rising ticket prices at sports events, you take away much of how we relate to others.
Why is that important? Essentially because mankind is a herd animal, and a lot of our choices are not based on being rational, but fitting in with those around us. So take away our shared offline experiences and we won’t know how to behave, meaning we will start trying to find new herds to potentially join online. At its most extreme this can lead to the bandwagon jumping you see on Twitter, when everyone tweets/retweets on a particular topic or trend, without thinking, or at its worst joining radical organisations that provide a sense of belonging, however misplaced.
It also provides opportunities for marketers – good and bad. Marketers can position their brands as essential to the lifestyle and experiences we want to share, but this opens them up to charges of psychological manipulation if they are simply using PR and are not genuinely delivering what they promise. It is a balancing act – consumers are both more susceptible and more cynical at the same time – and are also apt to forget your brand in the wider noise if you don’t keep communicating with them.
So, while pub quizzes will never be the same, the need for shared experiences remains: as humans we should remember this and ensure that we find them in the physical as well as the online world. And that means making sure we still retain enough useless trivia to interact with those around us – and of course to dominate at Trivial Pursuit.
We live in a world where the skills needed to thrive are changing fast. A combination of the rise of digital, artificial intelligence and the move to a global economy means that many previously ‘safe’ middle-income administrative jobs have either been offshored or computerised. Consequently commentators predict a hollowing out of the economy, with a greater number of low wage, low skill roles at the bottom and a smaller number of highly paid jobs at the top of the pyramid. This growing imbalance – and the potential social issues it brings – has been analysed and written about by a number of leading economists, such as Thomas Piketty, in his surprise bestseller, Capital in the Twenty-First Century.
Despite what the nostalgic might think, this process is irreversible. Globalisation is accelerating and we can’t put the genie of artificial intelligence back into the box. So, how do we ensure that the UK workforce, and UK companies, are able to cope?
Go.On and On?
The key start point is to understand that the traditional model of learning a particular trade or profession and then spending your entire life working at it is no longer valid. Kids at school today will have multiple jobs during their careers, many of which may not even have been invented yet. Given that you can’t teach someone about a profession that doesn’t exist, the best approach is to provide the skills for lifelong, independent learning, such as self-reliance, adaptability, collaboration and other thinking skills.
The other vital element is to have an understanding, and mastery of, technology. To be fair, most children are miles ahead of their parents in this regard, and initiatives such as re-introducing programming to the school curriculum and low cost machines such as the Raspberry Pi are helping to drive these digital skills.
But the risk is that the current adult generation is falling behind. Research by charity Go.On UK has found that 12 million people (roughly a quarter of the adult population), lack the basic digital skills required today. 23% of small businesses also don’t have these skills. Go.On defines these skills in 5 areas:
- Managing information (finding, storing and managing online information)
- Communicating (communicating digitally, interacting online)
- Transacting (shopping/selling online, managing finances digitally, registering for government services)
- Problem-solving (using online resources to learn and solve problems)
- Creating (basic content creation, such as writing a social media post)
For many of us, these are not particularly complex or challenging, but failure to learn them not only hurts the chance of a good job, but also financially impoverishes people. If they aren’t able to buy goods online, they may well end up paying more, while they will be increasingly cut off from family and friends. At the same time a significant number of people are being held back, such as by slow internet access speeds, poverty and a lack of technology.
To show the scale of the problem Go.On has created a digital heatmap of the country, which combines local factors (infrastructure, education, demographics), with the percentage of those with digital skills. This shows the areas that are at risk of being left behind – “digitally excluded” – in the future. What is stark when looking at the map is how few regions and local authorities are safe – the vast majority have a medium to high likelihood of exclusion.
The Go.On findings must act as a wake-up call and a way of focusing efforts on increasing digital skills. My concern is that there doesn’t seem to be one body responsible for this – it is left to a combination of local authorities, central/regional government, schools, colleges, charities and even the BBC. While everyone should be responsible for learning basic digital skills, it needs a co-ordinated effort to level the playing field. Otherwise the imbalance shown in the Go.On map will actually widen, rather than shrink, hurting both individual prospects and the overall economy. It is time for rapid government-led action, and it needs to happen quickly.