How our ‘helpful’ technology is getting in the way.
Getting the tube every morning is a monotonous experience, so any small change to the routine is discernible. An increase of signs (as above) posted near ticket barriers, warning against ‘Card Clash’, has caught the eye recently.
Card Clash occurs when commuters tap in using their Oyster card but also have a contactless credit card in the same wallet or sleeve. It can result in punters paying extra, confusing the machines and causing queues to build up, especially in rush hour, when time means money and the platforms are crowded. It is not a new issue, but for TFL it is an increasing concern with the rising prevalence of contactless cards.
This prompts several questions about our reliance on helpful technology.
Technology, conventional wisdom presumes, makes our lives easier and run more smoothly. TFL’s Oyster card system is a great example of excellent service design which does this (even if the technology’s hastening of ticket office closure has been met with industrial action). Contactless card payments and transport apps, whether CityMapper or Hailo, do the same.
We carry more and more of this technology on our bodies at all times. Oyster cards, smartphones (connected to sensor-enabled thermostats like Hive and Nest), FitBit and FuelBand, contactless credit cards and building or key fobs. We carry so much that it can become a physical and financial hindrance, as with Card Clash. People can be put out of pocket from this, but there is a larger issue at play here.
Many of these services which we now keep so close to ourselves in fact come under the domain of fundamental, infrastructural utilities and sectors. These are absolutely necessary to the fabric of a society. For FitBit or FuelBand, read Health, for Oyster read Transport, for Nest read Energy and so on. Much of this is held together by smartphones, for which we would traditionally have read Telecommunications, even if all-pervasive software has disrupted how we conceive of communication.
It is debatable whether this is a positive social phenomenon, with our tacit acceptance of the transferal of responsibility to individuals from institutions on issues like health, energy savings, and public transport. Is it helpful to have your thermostat in your hands at all times? Or, as suggested recently on this blog, is mobile ‘on point’ better than ‘always on’? The technical ingenuity of a remotely-controlled washing machine is not in doubt; rather, could we not be spending our time doing something that has a bit more meaning?
However, that people seem so willing “to take control”, as the rhetoric goes, of these aspects of their lives reflects a loss of faith in our institutions. This surely presents an opportunity for brands in these fundamental areas of people’s lives to do something uniquely positive and helpful, not exploitative and cynical.
We should shoulder some responsibility for allowing ourselves to be duped into taking on the work of companies and institutions under the glistening veneer of technological progress. Rising fares, bills and unconnected, frustrating customer service whenever anything goes wrong do not suggest at progress or empowerment.
Health, communication, transport and energy are vital to people’s lives. Brands who take responsibility and pride in this over anything else stand to build something quite remarkable for themselves and for the people who rely on them. Three starting points could be:
1) True customer-centricity (e.g. flexible billing structures which adapt according to usage)
2) Implementing effective two-way services which allows for inevitable errors in the system and doesn’t leave customers stranded twice
3) A focus, where relevant, on the real and collective benefits which technology can bring on a structural level, not the clandestine transferal of accountability to the individual customer
There are many great initiatives and features companies have created which harness the benefits that emerging technology can bring. Some may even bring happiness to millions of people. However, whilst they remain predicated on shifting the work to the customer, the concern of people living in a utility-seeking, always-on and individualistic environment persists.
Dan Gavshon Brady is a strategist at Wolff Olins London, you can follow him @DanGB88
Here’s a snap that should warm you up on this snowy day.
Little Sun is a project developed in response to the energy deficit facing many parts of the world. It is a project to bring light to the 1.6 billion people in the world who live without reliable access to electricity. Little Sun is a beautiful solar-powered light in the shape of a hand-sized sun. It’s a work of art that works in life. And this week, it was nominated for a 2013 Designs of The Year award by the Design Museum in London.
Wolff Olins is one of Little Sun’s partners and last year we worked closely with the team to take Little Sun from an idea and prototype to a fully fledged brand out in the world. The picture at top shows the first Little Sun flagship store. It was taken in Chitungwiza, Zimbabwe where the store was built by the network of Plan Zimbabwe Former Sponsored Children and the Junior Achievement Zimbabwe (JAZ).
In accordance with Little Sun’s goal of spreading light, safe energy, and profits everywhere, this Little Sun store is operated by local residents and generates local profits.Residents can purchase a little sun for $9 USD.
Technology changes lives, and sometimes quite literally, sustains lives. But that awe-inspiring ability can be its greatest enemy. People, amazingly, often take a stand against things like advanced fertility treatment, artificial organs (an artificial heart transplant patient broke new ground this week in being able to leave hospital, go home and begin living an independent life) or stem cell therapy. There is a quite common view, that we will not let technology’s ability exceed our own. Two thousand years of a human centric world is built on this notion.
Also in this category of technologies too clever by half, is GMO technology. GM foods – Frankenstein foods – are often assumed to be insecticide or herbicide resistant crops and are frowned upon (this seems less right in a world still so challenged by famine). But GMO properties extend far beyond this – offering massive nutritional advantage. Purple tomatoes can carry a much heavier load of the good things that vegetables give us – health promoting anthocyanins. Golden Rice fights vitamin A deficiency and therefore the malnutrition that causes blindness. Other GM benefits can include significant reduction in carbon used for food production and the production of alternative energy sources for fuels and pharmaceuticals. We’re looking at hardier food, potentially better for us, able to fight disease and produce biofuels. The difference these technologies can make to vast parts of the world challenged by hostile environmental conditions is enormous.
Whilst it’s difficult to talk about GM in one lump - they, and their effects are too diverse (and there is no doubt, given their power, that they need to be deployed carefully) - there is much to suggest the need for a new climate of opinion. As long as the public don’t support research in this area, it will remain in the hands of private companies who can pursue opportunistic, sometime monopolistic intentions. We have to stop shooting ourselves, and the people who need help, in the proverbial foot. We have to bring GM into the mainstream – to serve public interests, not such commercial agendas. That means that it has to become something people feel much more positive talking about.
The biggest source of general resistance to GMO seems to be the idea that it is not ‘natural’. And yet our bodies moved beyond natural a long time ago – we continually consume all kinds of additives and drugs, apply a wealth of lotions, breathe in polluted air and literally shape our bodies and minds to physical technologies all around us. Natural is a fantasy. Ironic then, that one of the possibilities of GM technology could be to get plants and crops back to their original traits – to undo the muddying of plant and crop varieties which has happened already as a result of centuries of farmers’ cross breeding to create stronger, tastier, prettier variants which suit prevailing tastes.
The idea of ‘natural’ is holding us back and potentially depriving people of life-saving improvements to how we live. This is exactly the kind of issue that companies like Wolff Olins need to get their teeth into. How can we ensure that a one-sided story doesn’t take over, and that technologies with so much potential aren’t ruled out wholesale? It’s our role as a brand consultancy to keep looking at difficult issues with fresh eyes, in order to ensure that the pervading opinion does not shape our reality for the worse.
When I was last in São Paulo, we did some workshops for a wonderful bunch of designers. Our task was, in just one day, to create a brand for a co-op of people who collect rubbish from landfill sites for recycling. As an organization it’s a model in terms of democracy, collaboration, support and idealism. The profit is shared equally between all the workers, all the way up to the president.
People who would be otherwise excluded from society, can get work, can get a sense of pride in doing something so crucial to the planet. On the day, we all created an idea that would help them focus as an organization and some routes for the visual language. After the event, one of the routes was selected and then further developed here at Wolff Olins London.
Have a look at the result. The overall idea is about recycling lives.
That is based on the notion that besides recycling materials, the co-op creates new opportunities for people, for communities and for the environment.
The visual language tells the story of transforming waste into opportunities.