As questions go, ‘what?’ is never as interesting as ‘how?’ and ‘why?’. When it comes to technology and innovation in business since the ignition of the Covid-19 global pandemic, that’s certainly the case.
The what: adoption of a plethora of technologies and platforms from QR codes to video conferencing and ecommerce has accelerated as people have sought ways to stay safe and socially distanced, while connected. So far, so linear. The why and the how, though, have proven to be far more instructive and surprising.
Dominik Heinrich SVP, Global Executive Director, Product Innovation and LAB13, MRM has been looking at society’s rapid transition to a touchless society, and what that has meant for brands. The team has recently published a white paper called ‘The Zero-Touch Society’
that delves into the changes forced upon businesses suddenly trying to navigate a marketplace where people just do not want to touch anything. And while there are lots of examples of brands doing clever things, for Dominik, there are deeper changes too. The transition to a ‘zero-touch society’ means completely re-writing our relationship with technology.
“I feel like humanity, right now, is in a massive real life incubator. I think it's very exciting to see how technology becomes seen as more of an infrastructure, which enables us to create and to have entirely new experiences,” he says enthusiastically.
To that end, what he’s seen isn’t so much a proliferation of new inventions in 2020 – it’s how necessity has forced individuals and businesses to think about existing technology to solve all sorts of brand new challenges. Instead of starting with a technology and devising interesting uses, the mindset is problem-first.
“We think way too much in terms of, 'oh there's a new technology, how can we use it and how can we make everybody use it?' instead of understanding what the consumer actually needs. How can we use technology in a creative and innovative way to enable these experiences and make them more seamless, and more useful for people.”
One example that immediately springs to mind is the Apple Watch hand washing app that helps people to wash their hands for an appropriate length of time – an application of voice tech that none of the trendwatchers could have predicted.
“Nobody actually understands that the hand wash functionality in the Apple Watch is voice-based. It's listening to the running water, and the acceleration of your hands. So it's a combination of different technology touch points,” he says. “But if I would have explained that to you a year ago, you would have said, ‘Well, why would we do this? What is changing, I don't believe people want to wash their hands?’ And now we have a need.”
One heartening lesson from the way that businesses have cobbled together existing technologies and tools to create a safe zero-touch society is that those brands that have always centred accessibility in their experience have had a real foundation to build upon. That’s something Dominik and his team have experienced up close, with SIGNS, a gesture control platform.
SIGNS was designed with deaf people and people who struggle with speaking in mind by MRM Germany, LAB13 Frankfurt with the German Youth Association of People With Hearing Loss. It's since been applied as a means of checking into airports.
“Our idea was how can we democratise what's accessible for everyone? Even the 11% of the population with access to the internet who cannot speak and hear. But now it's becoming more of a question of, ‘how can we democratise touch and make things touchless for everybody?’ And so this project literally started around accessibility last year with this client,” says Dominik.
“I think the redesign and the re-usage of existing technologies and solutions is the most interesting area. And I think when we built Project Signs, we built it on the on the premise of making voice accessible for everyone. So coming from the inclusion angle, and all of a sudden, we realise that this is a much wider usage and has way more possibilities,” he says.
The SIGNS was a product licensed out to the client but the team are working on building a library of gestures and figuring out how to apply the platform to other physical experiences – such as cash machines and vending machines. “It's very interesting, the team invested in the last few months a lot of time to build a platform that allows everybody to create gestures online and added to the database,” says Dominik. “So, we have a product we can easily deliver to any client in the world and creating their use case, for a zero-touch environment.”
That idea of recombination and re-engineering can be seen in a more immediate and raw way in small businesses like bars, restaurants and local stores. All of a sudden, old school pubs are serving up pints through apps, restaurants are guiding patrons to PDFs of their menu via QR code and corner shops are selling groceries via Deliveroo and Uber Eats. These business are figuring out how to stay compliant with local regulations while also making money and doing business – and that means cobbling together what they can, experimenting and building on what they already have easy access to. They're also looking to product and interior design to create safer dining and shopping experiences - Dominik singles out the work of designer and visual merchandise expert Christophe Gernigon and his sleek dining shields
“I feel like what we are seeing is that the buzzword of 'digital transformation' is getting adopted in a completely different mindset by these smaller companies, because they have a need,” says Dominik. “They have a need to serve the customers and making money and staying safe at the same time. I think the unknown was so scary for them for a long time, and so that's why they never did it.”
While major brands and international retailers have been the ones to propel tech innovation in retail, these have until now largely been novelty experiences in rarefied flagship stores. But it’s when tech is woven into the fabric of the local, small businesses and into day to day life, that’s when we see a substantial shift.
“It's almost like: ‘boom!’ - zero-touch has led to digital transformation overnight. Which is crazy - if you think how long we’ve talked about digital transformation. And not just at that scale. When I say scale, I don't mean the big brands, I mean that it is just naturally in our environment. And it's just happening overnight,” says Dominik, before reflecting, “…And the funny part is, people don't even consider it as a digital transformation. They still believe it's like nothing happened.”
Of course, for big businesses, scale matters. And for Dominik, the cool part is that their mindset has shifted completely. “For me, the most exciting part in working in this business and leading innovation for MRM is that we can we have really serious conversations with clients. They're saying 'no, no, no, we don't want to just experiment. We just want to do the project. How do we get this to market at scale?'”
In fact, the team at Lab 13 has seen the ‘zero-touch society’ driving more conversations and work. “You would probably assume that, especially innovation is not a high priority for companies at the moment, because they very often require investment, but what we actually experienced is quite the opposite, especially for companies who are in an environment or have products, which require more ‘touch-ful’ experience,” he says. Some brands are looking to engage with customers digitally, for example, through ecommerce, and others trying to make their physical spaces and experience safe – but both sorts of strands come from the same place.”
Looking forward, beyond the zero-touch society, this year has, in a finger snap, upped the ante for people working in product innovation. Niche technologies are now in commonplace use and that means opening up a whole new slew of challenges and possibilities.
“It feels like I see old people, young people, people with disabilities, it doesn't matter who you are, where you're from, what background you have. Everybody is just adapting overnight and just using it,” says Dominik. “I think that's, for me, the most fascinating part of the story.”