Four For Friday — 2016 in predictions

Welcome to 2016!

The curated links today are all about predictions for design, luxury, jewellery, and fashion tech in 2016.

“Simplicity will win.. but don’t oversimplify and sacrifice thrill of discovery” is my favourite from these 10 predictions for design in 2016.

Thanks to the digitization of everything, we now have the most hyperreactive markets in history. However, innovation at this speed comes with an unintended consequence—a never-ending glut of options. From more than a million apps in the Apple Store to your grocery’s milk aisle, every aspect of our lives now requires making a choice. It is becoming increasingly difficult for consumers to make sense of all the noise. In 2016, brands will help people take things off the “thinking list.”

Companies have already enjoyed some success doing so. Aldi built a successful and disruptive business model while offering significantly fewer choices than traditional supermarkets. When Proctor & Gamble cut its Head & Shoulders line from 26 products to 15, the organization saw a 10% increase in sales.

Services that are able to automate low-maintenance decisions will be an especially important step. We’re already starting to see this with Google Now, while Australian startup Pocketbook prompts users of their upcoming payments and bills to avoid missed payments.

“Conscious consumption” and “owning over becoming” are two that caught my eye in luxury and design.

On conscious consumption:

Perhaps all of the above trends could at some level be attributed to the fact that manufacturing has now become so easy, cheap and ubiquitous. There is so much stuff, there’s room now for the weird, the wonderful and the fun. On the other hand, however, there is so much stuff there’s also an urgent need to zoom out and see the bigger picture. Disillusioned with focusing our lifestyles on the attainment of more material goods, more of us are seeking to achieve balance and enhance life with a greater sense of wholeness: making conscious choices, taking greater responsibility for ourselves, our communities and the wider planet. What does that mean for design? Activist brands, more conscious and considered design methodologies, anti-obsolescence and slow design.

On owning over becoming:

The direct result of brands needing to extend their role and remit as entertainers, educators and also enablers. This will take the form of new collectives, still deeper examples of hybridisation and also concepts attuned to borrowing… The premise is ‘owning over becoming’ which the luxury sector will embrace by connecting their audience with increasingly rarefied experiences and access of a highly topical, often intellectual nature.

The predictions for jewellery however seem to be focused on one key theme — personalisation.

Emin, a woman who, like few others, has captured the essence of our age and the idea of expressing your personal history, has put her finger on it. The biggest trend in jewellery today is in fact all about making it your own, be it how you wear it, or indeed sporting a tattoo.

Joanne Ooi, co-founder and creative director of Plukka – the new online fine jewellery e-tailer – came back to me with her predictions for 2016. “Delicate jewellery that is like a second skin and as easy to wear as a tattoo appears to be here to stay, as women, especially younger ones, eschew the look of large cocktail rings and reject the aesthetic of jewellery as an object.”

Fashion tech is an active area of investment, innovation and possibilities. WT Vox predicts many things about fashion tech but this would be an interesting one to watch.

In Q1 of 2016 we will see Jimmy Choo and Moncler investing in tech startups. More important, just like Amazon that is working hard to launch their digital health online store, we will see the appearance of dedicated online stores/sections for fashion technology.

Keep an eye on Asos, and Net-a-Porter. Not a real surprise as both companies are fashion technology ventures at their nuclei.

I enjoy, sometimes, reading predictions for the arbitrary one-year period that starts on January the 1st. I regret though that ex post assessments of such predictions a year down the line are few and far in between. JP Rangaswamy articulates some of my other ishoos with the predictions gig.

Everything is connected. That phenomenon is accelerating. And everything is affected. The effects are far-reaching and themselves seem to be accelerating in speed and intensity.

What should I do about all this? That’s my predicament.

My instinct is to believe that in that connectedness lies the solution. That we’ve spent far too long steeped in the cult of the individual. That we need to understand more about what it means to be connected rather than to try and reverse the process of connection.

The Janusian nature of the predictions linked above contain the essence of creativity — namely, how to balance the connected and tracked nature of our emergent world with our innate need to stand out, be seen, be counted, be individual? This tension is where all that matters and will matter will emerge. That is what I intend to watch over this year.

John Williams Waterhouse (1902) – The Crystal Ball (Image from Wikimedia)

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As the year draws to a close, reviews of the year appear as do predictions for the future. The latter are inevitably rooted in the former. Without the past and the present, there is no future. This week’s varied links are all about history.

As the year that made Bitcoin mainstream and saw the launch of ApplePay draws to a close, some are predicting the end of cash, never mind that 2 billion people in this world remain without access to banking and other more sophisticated financial services. This fascinating history of money, from shells and coins to apps and Bitcoin, explores the evolutionary aspect of money and the divergent narratives of what money signifies, and makes the case for how it is all about human relationships.

Money is a special good, however. It can’t work without the technological and regulatory infrastructures enabling it. The evolutionary story leaves out the regulatory and consumer protection architectures that are necessary to make any new money and payment systems function. The state will enforce the payment of a debt in its money – but you are largely on your own if you want help enforcing a debt in your own private token or, at least, having it treated as a real debt. The state will also usually accept only its own money for the payment of public debts: taxes, fees, tolls and fines. Here we see clearly money in its means-of-payment aspect, indicating the state’s power to create money, trumping its means-of-exchange aspect, and the market’s power to set prices.

The evolutionary story also leaves out the fact that people do all sorts of things with money besides earn it, pay with it and save it, let alone that people are already doing all sorts of things with the ‘latest’ stage in the evolution of money – the mobile phone. Money – and mobiles – are very special items in that they both express relationships and, in a very real way, are relationships. This is what we miss in the evolutionary story, and this is where the action really is in innovations for how we pay. Imagining new moneys, and new payments, is thus simultaneously a reimagination of our relationships with each other. So: how would we like to pay?

Money is of course most valued for its fungibility. Which brings us to things money can buy.

Fashion, for instance. This week I came across a photo essay documenting Chinese women’s fashion over a century. Fashion’s deep links with culture and politics of a time are in evidence.

As the years went by Western influences gradually became more prevalent in Chinese society. Take note of how the short collar has become more prominent, how the clothes hug the body more closely than before. The first women to bring back this new style were individuals who had the opportunity to study abroad. It was readily adopted both by the wealthy and by prostitutes of the era.

Image copyright Sina.com.cnThis NPR interview with author Aja Raden is worth listening to.  Her book Stoned takes a walk through world history using jewellery as the lens.

Aja Raden’s new book, Stoned, is about jewelry, but on the first page she lays out a bold statement: “The history of the world is the history of desire.”

“There’s no more powerful statement than ‘I want,’ ” Raden tells NPR’s Audie Cornish. ” ‘I want that. I wantthem.’ … Even if it’s an issue of survival, you still are driven by what you want and what you are compelled to take or have or maintain.”

As Raden tells it, jewelry is the quintessential object of desire — and it’s the perfect lens through which to view human history. She makes her case through the stories of eight noteworthy jewels, starting with the glass beads a Dutchman used to buy Manhattan from the Lenape Indians in 1626.

The recent weeks have seen one of the GOP Presidential hopefuls sound more and more fundamentalist, some say “unAmerican”, in his speeches that are drawing large crowds in the world’s oldest democracy. This long essay wonders about the history of the religious fundamentalism he is citing and the role of the west in shaping it.

The force at stake here does not stem, in what constitutes it essentially, from the resources of what is called “fundamentalism” or “fanaticism”. Certainly, active, vindictive and aggressive fundamentalism — be it Islamic (Sunni or Shiite), Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Jewish, Hindu (even exceptionally Buddhist) — characterizes for a significant part the last 25 years. But how can one ignore the fact that this fundamentalism is a response to what can be called the economical fundamentalism inaugurated at the end of the bipolar separation and the extension of a “globalization” that had already been identified and named almost two generations ago (McLuhan’s “global village” dates back to 1967)? How not to notice also the haste in which the experience of totalitarianisms was erased? As if representative democracy, along with technical and social progress, could adequately respond to the concerns raised a long time ago by modern nihilism, as well as by the civilizational “discontent” mentioned by Freud in 1930?

It would be remiss to not remind ourselves of George Santayana, as we stand at the brink of many political and social changes: “Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it.”

Luxury watches and tech: who is driving whom?

Luxury products, it seems, are being trampled over by technology-enabled products enticing luxury customers.

Apple created its own version of ceramic enforced gold. The real number of the Apple watches in gold casing shipped remains a mystery although an estimated total of 10M pieces are expected to have shipped by the end of 2015.

Apple approached Hermès, the 600 year old luxury marque for a collaboration. Possibly so Apple could open a new market for itself and Hermès could make its mark on tech savvy luxury buyers.

Hermès, however, is an odd choice, seeing as it is far from being the top luxury watch maker and seller. Apple gets to borrow Hermes’s aura, their channel and possibly their customer base — Hermès does not market aggressively to its masstige customer while its prestige customer may or may not like being sold to — and Hermès gets to sell some fabulous leather straps to Apple. The collaboration looked like Apple is driving it.

Meanwhile out of Rolex, Omega and Breitling, the top 3 luxury watch marques, only Breitling has dipped its toe in the smartwatch waters. With its Breitling B55 Connected.

Brietling’s vision is to make the phone subservient to the watch, to enhance the watch. To wit: “In creating its first connected chronograph, Breitling has applied a new philosophy placing the smartphone in the service of the watch so as to enhance its functionality and conviviality. The instrument of the future.” The Breitling B55 Connected builds on the earlier launch of B50, which is an an electronic multi-function chronograph movement, with analogue and digital displays. The idea was to serve pilots — Breitling’s primary audience, but also its aspirational audience — better and to pave the way for other developments.

A few others have made their first moves too. Gucci unveiled a high fashion version of Will.I.Am‘s smartband. Will.I.Am’s role as the creative innovation lead in Intel’s wearables business is not widely known. He is not afraid to fail or experiment. Movado has teamed up with HP to create an Android and iOS compatible watch – the Movado Bold Motion – which uses Bluetooth connectivity and vibrations and visual cues to upcoming important things, all while looking stunning as Movado watches do. At Baselworld 2015, Bulgari unveiled its Diagono Magnesium Concept watch. The watch uses WISeKey’s NFC chip to unlock an application that can store encrypted data on the cloud and communicate with other devices within its range. The data is reportedly secure in an underground bunker in the Swiss Alps. Um, ok. WISeKey’s technology works with both Android and iOS. Then there is Tag Heuer’s Connected, which runs Google Wearable OS, and the order numbers have just been upped significantly to serve the upcoming holiday demand.

With all these options, one wonders: What does a customer choose first — the watch or the technology platform/ OS? More to the point, will the technology platform ever drive a watch purchase?

Curious, I conducted an unscientific survey of (admittedly male) friends, who own watches each costing over £10,000. Unsurprisingly they are all eyeing the Tag Heuer and the Breitling, but not as their main watches.

“Look, I need the battery to last weeks not 6h. I sometimes have two flights to catch in a day and a tight meeting schedule in between.”, said one.

Another said, “As I become more senior, I am less interested in being available to all messages and people all the time. I need time to reflect, uninterrupted by pings and notifications, and as far as I can tell that is all smart watches are doing right now.”

“Whatever it is, I ain’t changing my mobile phone for a god-damned watch. Something will come along that suits me and does not ask me to suit it. Capiche?”, said another. Ooh, burn.

So, if the smart watch is not the main watch, is the connectedness spiel just another nice-to-have and not really a need-to-have feature?

What does that mean for the market that can actually afford luxury smart watches?

Who understands this subtlety of customer behaviour in the luxury market?

It sure ain’t Apple. Or HP. Or even WISeKey.

The luxury brand, on the other hand, owns the customer relationship and understands their customers’ behaviour and quirks. The brand also gets to choose which tech to use, and may choose technologies that are OS-agnostic so as to serve all of their existing customers. The brand, if not inclined to investing in development by itself, could always reach out to wearable companies such as Olio Devices, which were among the first to understand that the customer doesn’t want to change her phone OS, based on the watch she covets.

So, back to — who is driving whom as far as luxury watches and tech go?

Tech may have started it all but tech isn’t driving the conversation in this space any more.

As luxury goes, consumers rule, and luxury brands are expectedly showing a more subtle understanding of the consumer than tech players may assume.

PS: I am an all-in Apple ecosystem user.

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Nearly everyone has an opinion on “robots“. My nerdier friends get excited and talk about the latest advances; my sociologist and anthropologist friends shake their heads and bring up issues of inbuilt prejudices and morality; some of us STEAM types, who operate on cusps of disciplines, see the possibilities and the risks and get alternately curious, elated, worried.

This week’s links — far more numerous than four! — are about artificial intelligence, robotics, consciousness and machine ethics.

If you have ever used Cortana, or engaged in pointless back-and-forth with Siri, you already know that speech recognition platforms are getting better at context recognition. Bigger developments are in the works.

A leading unnamed bank in the UK is testing Amelia to help its staff assess mortgage lending suitability of applicants. Amelia is an AI and machine learning driven cognitive platform, a machine agent, to assist or perhaps, replace human agents in some customer interactions. Colloquially, a “robo-advisor”.

… traditional automated response systems, which are pre-recorded menus, equipped with speech recognition software that guides customers through a range of options, are cumbersome.

Amelia, however, has contextual filters which allows it to understand loosely stated problems and recognise sentences that have the same meaning but are structured differently.

When faced with foreign queries, the system will call upon a more experienced human agent to help resolve the issue. It will then listen in to the human-to-human interaction and create new steps in its process ontology, which will enable Amelia to address the same type of issue with subsequent callers.

Transactive memory ably assisted by cloud sharing may be a reality by 2030, according to Ray Kurzweil who spoke earlier in the year about it.

Kurzweil predicts that humans will become hybrids in the 2030s. That means our brains will be able to connect directly to the cloud, where there will be thousands of computers, and those computers will augment our existing intelligence. He said the brain will connect via nanobots — tiny robots made from DNA strands.

“Our thinking then will be a hybrid of biological and non-biological thinking,” he said.

The bigger and more complex the cloud, the more advanced our thinking. By the time we get to the late 2030s or the early 2040s, Kurzweil believes our thinking will be predominately non-biological.

Many of Kurzweil’s predictions have been on the ball. So this one is worth watching. Meanwhile a new startup is working on transferring people’s consciousness into artificial bodies or deceased humans. Considering the question “what is consciousness?” is still unresolved, this will be fascinating to watch. Not least because of the many questions of medical ethics arising from the way they word their value proposition now.

“We’re using artificial intelligence and nanotechnology to store data of conversational styles, behavioral patterns, thought processes and information about how your body functions from the inside-out. This data will be coded into multiple sensor technologies, which will be built into an artificial body with the brain of a deceased human. Using cloning technology, we will restore the brain as it matures.”

Is our fascination with machines and making them “human-like” new?

Far from it. This beautiful essay looks at medieval technology and human fascination with things invisible but powerful. It is hard to imagine now how exciting it must have been back then to see a galvanometer needle move.

In the 19th century, scientists and artists offered a vision of the natural world that was alive with hidden powers and sympathies. Machines such as the galvanometer – to measure electricity – placed scientists in communication with invisible forces. Perhaps the very spark of life was electrical.

Even today, we find traces of belief in the preternatural, though it is found more often in conjunction with natural, rather than artificial, phenomena: the idea that one can balance an egg on end more easily at the vernal equinox, for example, or a belief in ley lines and other Earth mysteries. Yet our ongoing fascination with machines that escape our control or bridge the human-machine divide, played out countless times in books and on screen, suggest that a touch of that old medieval wonder still adheres to the mechanical realm.

Finally, machine ethics. The Human Computer Interaction Lab at Tufts University is tackling an important problem in robotics: “How exactly do you program a robot to think through its orders and overrule them if it decides they’re wrong or dangerous to either a human or itself?

This is what researchers at Tufts University’s Human-Robot Interaction Lab are tackling, and they’ve come up with at least one strategy for intelligently rejecting human orders.

The strategy works similarly to the process human brains carry out when we’re given spoken orders. It’s all about a long list of trust and ethics questions that we think through when asked to do something. The questions start with “do I know how to do that?” and move through other questions like “do I have to do that based on my job?” before ending with “does it violate any sort of normal principle if I do that?” This last question is the key, of course, since it’s “normal” to not hurt people or damage things.

The Tufts team has simplified this sort of inner human monologue into a set of logical arguments that a robot’s software can understand, and the results seem reassuring. For example, the team’s experimental android said “no” when instructed to walk forward though a wall it could easily smash because the person telling it to try this potentially dangerous trick wasn’t trusted.

The video in the link — please click through for the 1min long clip — shows a robot that is programmed for intelligent rejection of an order that puts it at risk or comes from an unauthorised person.

To the untrained eye, not concerned with either the technology or the ethical implications, this sufficiently advanced technology looks like Arthur C Clarke’s ‘magic’. However to many of us, this raises interesting and important questions about future developments. The algorithm embodies the biases and prejudices of the humans who design it. Including unconscious bias which doesn’t go away with “training”.

The year 1968 was not so far back in time but back then, 2001 was far out enough in time. This was fiction then, but as we close 2015, we are getting closer to making it a reality.

“Open the pod bay doors, Hal.”

“I am sorry, Dave, I am afraid I can’t do that.”

 

 

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This week’s links on design-thinking and design come right after I shared some observations made on a recent trip to India.

Apple is giving design a bad name, writes Don Norman, who established the User Experience Architect’s Office later becoming Vice President of Apple’s Advanced Technology Group. His co author is Bruce Tognazzini, a usability expert. A long read that Norman first said in August 2015 he was writing.

Apple is destroying design. Worse, it is revitalizing the old belief that design is only about making things look pretty. No, not so! Design is a way of thinking, of determining people’s true, underlying needs, and then delivering products and services that help them. Design combines an understanding of people, technology, society, and business. The production of beautiful objects is only one small component of modern design: Designers today work on such problems as the design of cities, of transportation systems, of health care. Apple is reinforcing the old, discredited idea that the designer’s sole job is to make things beautiful, even at the expense of providing the right functions, aiding understandability, and ensuring ease of use.

So, what is the special sauce that makes one an exceptional designer?

Exceptional designers have strong human values such as empathy, respect, and honesty. These values not only influence a designer’s approach to developing products, but also their approach to working with colleagues. After all, building great products doesn’t happen in a vacuum.

Here is another twist on design. Our desire to design humans has a long and peculiar history. With a presentist lens much of it is quite squirm-inducing. But a worthy read.

Not all Americans who supported eugenics were racist and nativist. To a first approximation, everyone was a eugenicist in the early 20th-century US. But for the core of the movement, the eugenic tenet that any disability was all in the genes also put scientific teeth into laws setting racial quotas for immigrants. Reformers pressed for mandated sexual sterilisation of those deemed unfit, including the feebleminded, the criminal, the deaf, the crippled, those with venereal disease and other conditions.

Finally this eclectic collection of one hundred quotes on design caught my eye. Here is one:

Design is thinking made visual. — Saul Bass