Innovation in Isolation

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INFLUENCER: Grey New York's Daniel Bennett on how the current coronavirus situation will catalyse some areas of innovation in business
Innovation in Isolation

Uncertainty and disruption are uncomfortable, and in the current case life changing for some. It is also the time when innovation is forced to be at its most progressive. Let’s unpack that a little as it relates to some of the current issues business are facing with a consumer or customer base currently living their lives in isolation, for an indefinite amount of time. A period where many of our routes to market are stemmed, and the demand cycle has changed unrecognisably. 

We are already seeing this shift play out in those businesses that serve the remote working community and other in-home experiences. In fact, to some extent, many of the disruptor businesses that have come online in the last few years have actually been in service of this new world order. As an example, shares in companies that provide remote working tools are up markedly in recent days even as the markets slump in record fashion. Were also seeing other companies benefiting from short term anxiety buying but these don’t represent the long-term innovation driven shift I mention above. In fact they may be the cases that prove the following points. 

So with the above in mind, how do we think this current situation will catalyse some areas of innovation in business? 

Connections and Demand - In the next 12 months or so we are going to see an explosion of connected devices fuelled by the emergence of 5G. Connectedness will take on meanings beyond its human element. The data inherent in this will enable governments and businesses to predict more accurately the spread of illness, but also the spread of demand. The demand side of that equation will be the currency that new and existing businesses will be able to capitalise on. At very least as an input into their customers current need states. For example, how will entertainment brands react to increased demands online, while also facing diminishing returns in theatre? Do we return to a more advanced paywall experience for ‘premier’ content? Perhaps these channels start to think about meaningful experiences that allow for watching with friends, without the need for Facetime or equivalent. The gaming world is already ahead in this regard. Many of the biggest platforms in the world are now games and they are built around live community and experience. As demand prediction becomes more accurate, brands should be thinking about how their models flex to deliver utilising a more advanced understanding of demand and the channels that will need servicing accordingly. 

Localisation – In the last few weeks and certainly in the weeks ahead, small local business have and will suffer. Many, sadly won’t be able to sustain. Main street already had issues, this wave of isolation and online platforms filling the gaps will mark a turning point in how these business model themselves. Hopefully it will also be seen as an opportunity for existing companies (set up on the back of local businesses) to help them evolve. Think about Seamless, Door Dash or Uber eats in the restaurant world. Without local restaurants they in turn have no business. So how do these big platforms step up to help the small ones will be critical. We can again pull in ideas from the connections point above in this situation. With the right forecasting it may be that local businesses can start adapting more quickly when the sands shift. Could local restaurants consider freezing or freeze drying some of their most popular dishes and having them stored in a central location ready to be delivered in future times of need. Giving them the ability to hedge against future downturns in their physical spaces. There are perhaps similar models for other local businesses through partnerships with Amazon. The key for these individuals maybe a service that better helps educate them on their ability to create their own hedge by utilising the Amazon platform.

Immersive Experiences – Every year it is ‘the year of VR’ and for one reason or other it doesn’t quite pop like we keep thinking it will. This could be hardware based - expensive, difficult to access etc OR it could be human based - we just prefer our experiences to be shared. Well whatever it is, the idea of isolation may mean that some business take a fresh look at VR. The technology is largely there, and we may be entering a time when the demand is there too. Without sharing too much in the way of the personal, my wife and I are currently WFH and with school out were also TTFH (Trying to Teach From Home). There may be an argument that say’s we’re not doing either of them well enough when tasked with doing both. Candidly, the ‘remote learning’ experience that our school has set families up with is adequate at best. It’s a mixture of app based and adult supervised learning. This could very well be the broad scale opportunity. Why couldn’t some of this experience be virtual? Why couldn’t some of the more immersive subjects still be taught in a virtual world? I think it could, and likely there are business that will take this on. This example is one among many. Could restaurants/chefs take their downtime to teach cooking? Could the travel industry utilise this tech to help us explore the world and entice us to start planning our next trip? Some of this is a bit Black Mirror, I get that, but it’s also reality. 

The Robots are Coming. Still – Now, this is where we have to be careful. Artificial Intelligence is already very very much here. The way we rely on our phones means we are all in fact cyborgs. I mean that. We function at a higher order because of them. In the last year or so, we have seen the rise of AI influencers and pop stars. Automated driving experiences are getting more common place. This may be one of the areas where we have seen the most resistance from people and brands to lean in. That reaction is actually healthy, so long as it’s an educated one. However, I think this current crisis is going to change how many people think about AI, and those businesses already in the space will start to gain momentum. It also offers an opportunity for brands to innovate in this area. For example, we are seeing nursing homes be badly hit, mostly from the inability for their occupants to receive visitors, driving loneliness and depression. AI or conversation bots while dystopian at first glance could at least provide an outlet for discussion. They could even be smart enough to be topic experts, to allow for deeper conversations on areas of interest. Another big area here is mobility. I think we will see an expedited move toward driverless cars and vehicles. This will have ramifications in the personal transport space, but also in the eCommerce and delivery space. 

Old School – Here’s a little left field thinking based solely on my own behaviour over the last week or so. I have been going back to the very basics. I have sent letters along with some supplies to elderly neighbours from our last home. I have found myself making (gasp) basic phone calls much more often. Without even texting first to see if they are currently available for me to make said call (gasp again). We have been walking the block with our kids and actually talking to neighbours, from at least 6ft away obviously. I don’t know entirely what this means from an anthropological point of view, but I know what It means from a brand point of view. It means that if you didn’t think you had to be human before, you have no choice now. What an innovation. 


Daniel Bennett is chief innovation officer at Grey New York
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Grey New York, 2 months ago