Around the world, we’re seeing people reject the status quo. The Brexit vote in Britain, the Trump phenomenon in the USA, the rise of populist parties across Europe: all represent a deeply-felt backlash against the establishment. The liberal consensus is no longer a consensus. In addition, experts are no longer believed. It’s not what they think, it’s what I think, that counts: received wisdom isn’t wise at all. As a result, keeping things roughly as they are – which used to feel safe – is no longer the natural thing to do. And this counter-reformation is not just deeply felt but also widely shared. The mainstream view is no longer mainstream.
We talked about this phenomenon in our 2012 report The new mainstream, which showed the readiness of consumers to side-step the institutions and the incumbents – in other words, to side-step the status quo. But this trend seems to be moving further and faster than we’d imagined. So what does it mean for business?
Clearly, it creates uncertainty: anything could happen, and anyone could do it. We could be retreating to a protectionist or even nationalistic world. But equally, we could be opening up possibilities for new kinds of cooperation and progress. Today’s uncertainties create anxiety – but this could be an opportunity for brands to reassure. The new mainstream is full of disloyalty: old loyalties to your brand may not be as firm as they look. And they expect a totally different relationship with corporations: they mistrust remote authority, and expect a greater degree of self-determination.
Here are four ways we can see businesses responding.
First, in the age of uncertainty, where anyone could do anything, companies are breaking through traditional boundaries, whether they’re a new ‘disruptor’ or an older business. (Indeed, many businesses have grown tired of the over-used D-word). An established hotels business like Hyatt can be just as ‘disruptive’ as an Airbnb. And some of the most exciting new possibilities demand a mix of old and new, like Galvani, the joint venture between Google and GlaxoSmithKline to create bioelectronics medicines. These organisations are rejecting the status quo of industry pigeonholes.
Second, in the age of anxiety, companies want to give people some kind of magnetic north, by being clearer than ever what they stand for. They’re rediscovering the advantages of an over-aching brand idea. Some are using their brand to inspire better, more connected and more distinctive customer experiences. Others, like Co-op and NatWest in Britain, are digging back into their histories, and making their roots contemporary. These organisations are replacing a generic status quo with something much more distinctive to them.
Third, in the age of disloyalty, organisations no longer expect blind faith from their consumers. Instead, they’re winning people’s commitment not through words, but through progressive action. In Beijing, Genesis is fostering mental wellbeing and social connection through very concrete means: a brilliantly designed urban development in the city. Sweden’s IKEA isn’t just talking about sustainability: it’s aiming to create a fully recycling, or ‘circular’, business. These organisations are leading their own revolutions against the status quo.
Fourth, in the age of self-determination, clients are appealing to the new, different mainstream. Rather than expecting people to buy into a whole corporate ethos, they give them options: components from which they can construct their own sense of identity. Most telcos have launched entry-level brands like Sosh or giffgaff, smart alternatives to its main brand. And Citroen has created an alternative to itself, called DS. These organisations are creatively self-criticising their own status quo.
Above all, these organisations are equating ‘mainstream’ not with ‘bland’ but with adjectives like prickly, awkward and nonconformist. It’s this trend that could eventually make the new world a much more exciting place than the old familiar status quo.
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Challenging the accepted order of things comes naturally to Suzanne Livingston. One of Wolff Olins’ s global team of Principals, Suzanne has a Phd in Philosophy specializing in Cybernetics - the relationship between humans and machines. She sees the collision of tech and disruption as something to embrace.
“My work here spans technology, education and culture, often in developing markets or in areas of the world very different to our own - Sony in Japan, helping them bridge the cultural and geographic divide between the Eastern and Western arms of their business. Or in Doha, for the Qatari government, helping them to create a home-grown arts infrastructure, to support their astonishing investment in museums. The Olympics here in 2012 was another example of work I love – when we helped to create an Olympic experience so energetic and bold in its strategy, a total departure from ‘business as usual'"
“There's nothing good about narrowcast. I'm a bigger believer in globalisation – for the massive opportunities and exchange it opens up, particularly in less affluent parts of the world. But not every single thing about globalisation is good. Sometimes, it can look like everything is becoming the same. But this is only temporary because of the force of change itself is so irrepressible these days. As much as I believe in globalisation, I also believe in difference – embracing and celebrating every kind of difference.”
“For example, I am now working in Beijing for a wonderful client from an academic background who is creating an urban development in the city devoted to mental wellbeing and a positive, pragmatic outlook to life. In its conception and experience, it directly draws from Chinese philosophy, which is an unbelievably rich vein of thought, helpful to life in general. This is a quintessentially Chinese brand that reaches out to a global community and has global relevance, using creativity as its driving force. Here is the West, we have so much to learn from China. In my work, it is difference and diversity which makes the outcome rich and creative, and there must be some bigger lesson in that.”
A bigger lesson from which some parts of our culture in the West would undoubtedly benefit .
Suzanne Livingston is Strategy Director & Global Principal at Wolff Olins Get in touch
A group of scientists have recently declared that we have entered a new geological age, the Anthropocene. I have often thought of Digital as an epoch rather than a channel or medium and this is a useful analogy when we are considering the real-world impacts of our Digital strategy. The eras of Digital since the birth of the World Wide Web might look something like this:
1994 — 2001: The web eraA technology which connects documents to one another explodes, ushering in the Digital Age. People are connecting to information in a world-changing manner.
2001 — 2007: The application web (2.0) The web evolves to a platform for applications - commerce, communication, utility. People are connecting to services and transactions.
2007 — 2015: The Social web People are connecting to people. Businesses have also had to learn how to have relationships directly with people again.
2015 — Now: HTTP everywhere The basic unit of transaction within most Digital systems and the driving force of the web - a simple call for a request and response from a server - now connects us not just to information, services and people, but also to our lifestyles and environments.
When you think about Digital this way, you don't consider individual technologies in the traditional "cool list" fashion, but one thinks more of how this new paradigm might change how people interact with brands and each other. Technology does drive paradigm shifts, but it’s far more valuable to look at what those shifts are, instead of the technologies themselves. Here are a few to consider:
1. The receding interface There is a gradual shift away from sharing through social networks in favour of messaging. Whereas we might have been inclined to share an interesting article or video through our social networks, we are now tending to share through WhatsApp and the like. This behaviour is now also extending into transactional interactions and has given rise to technologies such as conversational applications and chatbots which act as agents. Uber has been experimenting with booking cars directly within the chat interface and others will surely follow. The interesting thing about this is that the transaction is happening directly at the point of need, and in the natural flow of conversation. Technologies like Amazon’s Echo/Alexa will break this down even further, removing the need for a visual interface entirely. This creates new challenges in digital design and strategy as non-visual cues - inflection, natural language processing, haptics etc. - become more and more important.
2. Everything is a service Whereas we might previously have built apps, channels and platforms (often on enterprise software) for specific uses (there’s an app for that!), we are now understanding the importance of having our business logic available in discreet micro-services which are accessible through any interface (your phone, a chatbot, the web, a physical interface). The new breed of digitally driven businesses (Uber, Airbnb etc) have, again, been incredibly successful in erasing the friction of interfaces, and focus purely on meeting the users needs through the exposure of their services directly at the point of need. This can be a huge architectural challenge, not to mention information security and user experience, but increasingly vital.
3. Machine understanding We want our services to be smarter and to understand our context better. Personalisation has been a blunt tool up until recently. For example, recommendations engines make generalised suggestions based on previous browsing history to serve us relevant ads. They are rarely relevant, often giving us ads for things we’ve just bought. They don’t truly understand our needs because they don’t understand – or ask us for - the context that we are currently browsing in. I was delighted on a recent trip to Slovenia when my Android phone’s interface automatically placed a translation window on my home screen with the Slovene for “good morning” pre-populated. It did this on the basis of my location, knowing that English was my native language and the time of day where I was, without my asking. The more that machine based processes can understand the data which I’m giving them about my environment, the more useful they can be.
4. Environment sensing We will continue to be more and more connected to our environment. This comes with some utility. My smart home can be aware of my presence and be energy efficient. My wearables connect me to my lifestyle better - what are my patterns of movement, how much sleep am I getting? For example, my phone always gives me a traffic report for the A1 at 6pm every Friday, knowing that I frequently travel to my cello lesson in St Albans at that time. Sensors are becoming sophisticated to the point that they can now reliably control a self-driving car. Lidar (a passive radar system) will be commonplace in the next 10 years, and tiny and cheap enough to place in many different devices. The consumers’ understanding of the Internet of Things has largely been confined to a fridge that orders milk when you run out, but actually this is really about our digital lives understanding our context more readily and providing better service. This utility will become so commonplace that we barely notice it.
5. Automation The final paradigm shift really ties all of the above together. When we talk about automation, we are once again talking about passive service at the point of need through an understanding of a user's needs. It’s the world of difference between ordering a cab after a party in 1995 and 2016. So much of that process is now dealt with by background digital processes, the upshot of which is that my needs get met far more quickly and easily. The automation of our cars, our homes, our cities and our lifestyles will, optimistically, provide us with great service and utility, and brands will continue to need to be radical in order to provide this service layer.
What began as a networking technology has evolved to become the underlying mechanism for how we live now, and it will continue to go in directions which we can barely imagine right now. This is ultimately what I mean when I say that technology itself isn’t the driver for change. Digital hasn’t just been about HTTP in the same way that VR itself (whilst undeniably ‘cool’) probably doesn’t have much application for, say, an insurance brand. But what these technologies do impact is how we experience the world and they do so broadly. Brands need to consider how they fit into these shifting paradigms and how their customers are living digitally.
Since October 2015, Wolff Olins has been working with Genesis Beijing –
a new kind of urban development in downtown Beijing. The project is conceived and led by Dr. Whitney Duan, an academic and social policy expert, affiliated to Tsinghua University and Oxford University, who has a very clear and pioneering vision about the cities of the future.
We spoke to her to find out more:
B: In what ways is Genesis Beijing new for China?
WD: Since the Cultural Revolution, we have lost the concept of community in China. Genesis Beijing is designed to repair this – it is a place for people to feed their soul, and to find meaning in life. Our project is not just about creating a functional space, but rather a space that allows people to simply be – an environment where thought is inspired, minds enlightened and spirits soothed. People can come here to pursue their passions in line with their own interests.
Currently in China, our work ethic is shaped by money, but as we become financially wealthy, we are not moving beyond the most basic level of Maslow’s hierarchy. There is no consideration of the meaning of life. The mentality is purely set on the basics of food, money, and home. There are no questions such as ‘What is life?’, ‘Why are we alive?’.
I hope for a community in which we trust each other, help each other, and encourage each other. It will be a place of mutual trust and inspiration where people can come together to collaborate for the better of society.
B: What are the ambitions of Genesis in the world?
WD: Genesis Beijing is a place for people to work, to learn, and (most importantly) to enjoy life. We want to create a community that embraces people holistically – a place where people’s physical, intellectual, and spiritual lives are understood and integrated.
In five years time, we hope it will be a new model for cities that aids human development. Let’s call it the urban experiment 2.0 – a new category for society and a model of relevance to both public policy and the business sector.
We want to move beyond the mindset of making money off every square metre, instead helping people to think about both social and business value together.
Why is Genesis Beijing of particular importance at this moment in time?
At this moment, we have a dilemma in the world – there is too much emphasis on capitalism and individualism. Both are good, but not to an extreme. This is particularly true in China where, following the Cultural Revolution, we saw rapid economic development but we lost focus on culture and social values.
We need to now foster a more balanced view. I believe we can help individuals look beyond their own self-interest to the public good. We can encourage them to a deeper understanding of the human relationship with society, with nature, and with the self.
What have been your challenges in the project and how have you overcome them?
This is pioneering work so there haven’t been any models to guide us. From the very beginning we have needed to think anew and create anew simultaneously.
It has been a challenge to introduce others to our concept – many people are only familiar with the traditional model of property development and not with the creation of public space - so we have had to educate on this front.
Can you characterise your partnership with Wolff Olins? What has this partnership brought to your work?
Before working with Wolff Olins, it was a challenge to find partners who naturally understood our vision. With Wolff Olins, we found people who understand and share our fundamental values.
The team is very passionate about what we are trying to achieve – that passion is evidenced by the team’s willingness to really immerse themselves in this process with us as we explore our endeavour. We see how dedicated they are to the work and as a result, there is a strong collaborative effort between the two organisations.
I have also been very impressed by the creativity of the team as a whole and I have learned many things from the team along the way, such as how to express and break down the core idea and how to convey our thinking so that many more people understand it.
We have an extremely passionate, dynamic, creative and collaborative team. We are on a journey together – it’s an inspiring and joyful journey, and an adventure - which we will continue in the future.
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