Oct 2016, Sophie Jurkiewicz, Designer
Flying cars, robot colleagues and missions to Mars have transcended fantasy and fiction; they’ll feasibly be part of this lifetime and, in some instances, are already being prototyped.
Alongside these radical industrial changes, “digital”, that ubiquitous yet ultimately ambiguous word has found its way to the lips and to-do lists of brands everywhere as they grapple with technological advance and race to remain relevant.
In this new landscape of innovation, technology is at the forefront of our minds. However, it’s the intangible elements of design – human creativity and experience – that will move us forward.
The implication for brands is to engage with technology in a way that is both useful and meaningful when measured against their positioning.
Useful is fruitful
Some of our greatest brands and innovations in recent time have been born out of an awareness of human need, and a response to that need. One of the most effective marketing tools is simple usefulness.
Airbnb, now a titan in the arenas of tech and hospitality, has reached its status from humble beginnings that were based on a basic human need – a place to sleep. Combine this with human logic and awareness (a large conference was coming to San Francisco and they knew hotels would be booked out) and a new, creative, and useful solution emerged.
Of course the argument from technocrats is that this solution could be reached, if not now, then in the near future, by a computer. A series of data inputs and swift analysis may reach the same conclusion as the founders of one of the original and eminent participants in the sharing economy. However, do we believe a problem-solving algorithm can perceive the human value of the experience of living like a local, or the comfort of a friendly greeting, and of a home instead of a hotel? And if it can, is that an outcome that we want, as humans? This is not necessarily the polarising question that it seems, but rather a line of inquiry into the relationship between technology, people and brand.
A valuable union
Technology has enabled wonderful innovation and solutions, and it continues to permeate human experience on almost every level. While it hasn’t yet replaced the human mind, machines are taking on more of the attributes that were formerly defined as ‘human’, including reason, logic, adaptation and learning. They’re starting to ‘think’, but importantly, they still can’t feel.
This is the basis for a partnership between brand (as a manifestation of humanity, creativity, and subjective experience) and technology (a representative for quantitative insight, speed, and efficiency). They can play for the same side; operate as a synthesis that will amount to constant innovation and transformation in organisations.
The financial journalist Felix Salmon has previously demonstrated this in his work for Wired using The National Weather Service. It employs meteorologists who improve forecasts by as much as 25 per cent compared to computers alone, because as humans they comprehend the dynamics of weather systems. Similarly, this holds in economic forecasting. Adding human judgment to statistical methods increases the accuracy of results by roughly 15 per cent. This perspective on innovation has already been absorbed as a core process in some of the most successful organisations.
Amazon is never far from the fingertips of those writing about effective brands, and it remains so because they repeatedly behave in a strategic and aligned way that supports their positioning. In this instance, it’s because they’ve identified an opportunity to harness technological advance in a meaningful way through their use of delivery drones. As they continuously seek to deliver their promise of speed and ease, they considered their business and adopted this innovation in order to make more deliveries, faster, and with greater efficiency. It works so well because it’s not a gratuitous engagement with a new toy. It’s a considered evolution of their brand strategy, enabled by intelligent technology.
Innovations that matter
Beyond useful, brand-led innovation, there is a meaningful role for this union between human creativity and technology. In a world where AI can predict the outcome of a human rights trial with 79 per cent accuracy, a welcome space has opened for tech with purpose.
Computerised tomography, magnetic resonance imaging and positron emission topography (you may recognise them more readily as CT, MRIs and PET scans) are a crucial, enormously beneficial technological advance. For children, and even some adults, they’re also terrifying. This is equipment that was designed in an outcome-oriented way, with limited consideration for the human experience.
It was over 5 years ago now that a team of industrial designers from GE Healthcare, incredibly accomplished technicians, adopted a human-centric approach to a solution. They began quite simply, by talking to people. They spoke to doctors, parents, and perhaps most importantly, to children. They deduced that it was the darkness, the loud noises and the enclosed space that was contributing to the cloud of fear shrouding the equipment. From these insights, they engaged their technical expertise and launched The Adventure Series. The machines became a playground, a series of themes such as space voyages and pirate islands with engaging visuals, and scripted roles for practitioners.
It revolutionised the patient experience and also had a positive impact on hospitals economically and practically – they could complete more scans per day, could buy fewer machines, and a significantly reduced number of children needed to be sedated with anaesthetics. For the GE brand, The Adventure Series is deeply aligned with their purpose, which is encapsulated by their strapline “imagination at work”. The series is acknowledged as a model of innovation and design thinking and, as the lead industrial designer Doug Dietz said of this project, “when you design for meaning, good things will happen”.
This has great significance for more compelling innovations grounded in human creativity and experience. Imagine using augmented or virtual reality to overcome a fear of flying, or bringing simulators into schools so that creativity can be integrated with problem solving, and embedded in curricula to encourage collaborative and analytical behaviour from an early age.
Alone, technology and human creativity can be compelling and powerful. Together they can take us toward a future of continued innovation in which the unique capacity of humans to create, experience and feel is enhanced by technology, not replaced by it.