The importance of designing digitally connected experiences in a sustainable manner
The inexorable rise of digital and data presents new opportunities for everyone, so long as companies put the demands of the consumer - and sustainable practices - front and centre.
A huge rise in connectivity during the next decade will lead to richer experiences for consumers, but only if businesses are able to develop new products and services in an inclusive and sustainable manner.
That was the main conclusion from an event hosted by Vodafone that brought together experts across the automotive and technology sectors. The panel event coincided with a new report from Vodafone and The Future Laboratory that suggests connectivity and smart technology will transform consumers' experience of the world within the next decade.
The report, entitled The Connected Consumer 2030, analyzes the impact of technological innovations such as smart devices, wearables and autonomous vehicles. It refers to IDC research that suggests the average person will interact with a smart device every 18 seconds, or 4,800 times, a day by 2025.
Introducing the panel debate, Chris Sanderson, co-founder of The Future Laboratory, reflected on the report and suggested that, although innovation and the rise of the connected consumer creates many opportunities for big business, executives must be careful to ensure they put the needs of the people who will use their products and services first:
The next decade is going to see the rise of an increasingly data-savvy consumer who wants to use information to regain control over their lives, and to be more front and centre when it comes to decision-making. At The Future Laboratory, we believe that technology does not transform society: society transforms itself using technology.
Valentina Contini, founder of the innovation lab at Porsche Engineering, recognized that businesses have a big opportunity to create products that improve people's lives. She said consumers are under a huge amount of time pressure. Most people are keen to use technology to help them work and play in a more efficient manner:
We all have a limited amount of time, and we want to be free to use it in the best way. Connectivity can support autonomous mobility, for example, and free-up the time that we spend driving to instead do whatever we like - we can play, we can sleep, or we can work.
Contini says this transformation to true autonomous lifestyles will require high levels of connectivity. This process will lead to new demands for software and infrastructure - and it means all organizations, not just manufacturers like Porsche, will become systems companies:
We will need fast and reliable connectivity to enable real autonomous solutions. The automotive companies are moving forward - they're not just thinking about building a car. Right now, they're focusing on, ‘Okay, now we must build services, we have to do software. We must understand software and build infrastructure. So, all these companies that were just doing one thing before, they're now becoming system companies - and that's a big shift.
Giving consumers information
Such is nature of this digital transformation that Tobi Ajala, creative director and founder at digital agency TECHTEE, says all companies must be aware of this new era of connectivity and create technologies that are inclusive and sustainable:
It's almost an assumption and expectation to be connected to people faster and faster, and in multiple different ways. So, in a sense, as human beings, we're expecting what's new, what's coming next. And that's where the software developers and the companies come into play in a conscious and environmentally friendly way.
Ajala's organization works with a range of different brands. The good news is that many C-suite executives are waking up to the importance of key issues like the circular economy and sustainable action as they develop new products and services:
We've seen a very big shift in attitude from, ‘Can you guys make this to?' to, ‘How does this work? If we give this to people, how are they going to receive it? How sustainable is it?' So, I'm seeing that shift from the point of view of clients, brands and corporations. And that is directly because consumers want it to happen.
Industry research backs up this sentiment. Consultant McKinsey discovered that 67 percent of consumers consider the use of sustainable materials to be an important purchasing factor, and 63 percent consider a brand's promotion of sustainability to be crucial. Ajala says consumers will continue to seek products and services that are environmentally credible - and connectivity will allow them to find brands that meet this demand:
As a consumer, we're all wiser. We have access to that information, just through the existing connectivity we have now. And as that continues to grow, we want to know more, and we expect more. So, we're going to see that grow as time goes on.
Simon Gosling, futurist and CMO at Quiet Mark, says his organization runs an international approval programme that encourages companies worldwide to prioritize noise reduction. The scheme awards companies that meet the Quiet Mark and he suggests a similar mark could help consumers to identify which businesses are environmentally conscious:
I think we need a symbol that lets people know the products that are most sustainable because that's what people want to choose, and they need that information. A standard that identifies the most sustainable products takes away a lot of decision paralysis because otherwise you can't see the wood for the trees.
Contini says that a first important step in this direction would be to help consumers recognize that the things they do and buy might have a potentially negative environmental impact. Once again, connectivity - and ease of access to the right information - might help consumers become more aware of the choices they make:
Some people don't know that most of their actions have an impact that is maybe unsustainable. Technology and connectivity can help us make people aware that what they're doing now is the least sustainable action and to think what it might take to make their action more sustainable.
However, there was also concern from the panel about pushing too much responsibility for action on sustainability to end users. Ajala says the responsibility for environmental action resides with the creators of the technology that consumers use. She says the onus to create products and services that will benefit everyone must fall on big business:
Consumers naturally purchase and use services without thinking that something damaging is happening. So, I think that saying all responsibility for sustainability is now in the hands of the consumer is unfair. I think this is an issue that needs to be looked on the inside amongst corporations. They need to say, ‘If we're going to build something, let's build it responsibly. Let's build it sustainably.