Let’s get physical!
My entire working career has been spent extolling the virtues of technology. For nearly 30 years, I have been working with businesses to drive an agenda that is digital first and increasingly digital only.
I have had a ringside seat as banks have come to terms with the fact that this internet thing is not a passing fad and have seen them enthusiastically “lean in” once they realised the opportunity of extracting costs through digitisation.
I have watched as branches have closed amid the relentless rise of the smartphone, which has changed us all – for better and for worse. Mobile is now unequivocally the most important channel for people’s day-to-day banking needs. But we are addicted to the technology. There are now 6.84 billion smartphones globally, and we spend a fair chunk of our waking lives looking at them. In the UK, the average is now over four hours spent peering at our black mirrors daily. This addiction to technology is likely to worsen and has some drawbacks – for instance, the impact of social media on global politics.
The pace of technological change is accelerating. And we are all struggling to keep up. According to Scott Brinker’s Martec’s Law, technology changes exponentially (fast), but organisations change logarithmically (slow). Generative AI has the potential to super-charge transformation, and Martec’s technology axis is about to go hockey stick and leave us all scratching our heads.
Prompted by recent experiences, I believe that before we head into a virtual future, the moment has arrived to take stock of what is happening, consider balance and maybe reassess the importance of the physical world strategically.
I have three stories to illustrate what I am talking about.
I have just concluded a citizen science project. Funded by a lobby group called River Action, I have been testing a stretch of the River Thames near where I live for bacteria and pollutants. I won’t go into details on the backstory of the hows and whys of my involvement, but suffice it to say I am a river swimmer, and the rivers we swim in are polluted. I was keen to gather evidence of the problem, hence citizen scientist Dave!
It has been a thoroughly engaging process involving a big pole, sample bottles and test kits. The science side has been fascinating, but the softer facets have been the biggest surprise. The testing meant turning up at the same stretch of the riverbank and collecting samples every working day for a month. And that meant that I got to know the river intimately. Because of what I have been doing, I have had to look, smell and touch – the polar opposite of what I do in my day job, which is almost entirely ethereal and digital. My job involves consultation, ideation and, if I am honest, a lot of pontification.
This physical connection connected me with the river at an emotional level.
I could have gone to ChatGPT and asked it to give me a rundown of problems with my stretch of water. I tried it, and it is actually quite good, but it is just words. I could have commissioned an agency to film down by the river and build me a virtual experience. But no purely digital experience would have given me the connection I gained just by turning up every day and using my eyes, ears, nose and the touch of my hands to experience things. We are multi-sensory beings, and magic happens when we use them all in tandem.
When considering the channels available, banks must think very carefully about how they will be experienced in the real world – at their branches.
Trust in banks has been eroded, and part of that is because customers have a sense that it is no longer easy to visit or even find a physical location for their bank. I remember undertaking research in Canada on why people chose a particular bank. A key response was the prevalence of a high-street presence: the more branches, the greater the trust.
So no matter what the futurologists say, banks need a physical presence. What would have happened if Monzo had a branch network? In all likelihood, it would be more successful in customers switching their banking relationships rather than being the spending app it currently is.
The second story is a conversation with a head of innovation at one of the world’s most famous media businesses. What keeps him awake at night is the potential for generative AI to erode trust in what they publish. This comes from several perspectives. For example, AI being used by journalists to create stories and the provenance of content. It is already seeing LLMs taking its content (even from behind paywalls) and repurposing it into unattributed new articles. The impact is the erosion of trust from the consumer about where content originates. Apparently, consumers are already worrying about AI-generated content that spoofs real life. Think of that image of the Pope wearing a puffer jacket that did the rounds on social media. This erosion of trust has serious implications. One outcome could be the renaissance of printed media such as newspapers. Again, the physical wandering back onto the stage.
The final story is as follows. A friend of mine is a graphic designer. He has already had to redirect what he does, as he can see his role already being diminished by GAI. One of the things he has done is take up pottery. The future he sees is tangible and physical in pots, paintings and installations. He believes that GAI will decimate the design industry forcing designers to refocus on output in the real world.
It seems that the irony of the next wave of technological advancement is that it may force us back into focusing on the real world.
About the author
He is a passionate customer advocate and champion and a successful entrepreneur.