SXSW: The new industrial revolution and the digital frontier

Zaid Al-Zaidy, chief strategy officer, TBWA\London
Zaid Al-Zaidy, chief strategy officer, TBWA\London

Instead of leaving Austin's SXSWi with a large sack full of complex, emerging technology news with little or no practical application to brands and businesses, Zaid Al-Zaidy, chief strategy officer of TBWA\London, identified two 'disruptive' technology movements that he believes can help marketers transform what they do today.

1. Physical is the new digital frontier

This feels like one of the biggest themes in SXSWi 2013. The most exciting developments in technology will no longer be defined by what we can achieve virtually, but by what we can do to enhance the physical world by overlaying seamless digital experiences. 

The Google Glass project is a perfect example. A digital screen, wearable as a pair of spectacles, that overlays current smart phone functionality onto what you can see, like ‘film + share’ what you see, finding directions, creating sending and receiving SMS messages and accessing basic information like time & temperature. Jason Silva, futurist and philosopher, described Google Glass as a total paradigm shift and ‘one of the first examples of the convergence of the digital and human space in a way that is not intrusive’.

We are merely at the ‘beginning of infinite’, argues Silva; our world is being transformed by technology more quickly and more radically than natural evolution itself and there’s so much more to come.

Elon Musk, super-entrepreneur and inspiration for the character Tony Spark in the movie Iron Man, is CEO of space company SpaceX. Musk expects man to land on Mars within his lifetime, in a ship that he’s going to build. And owing to Moore’s law (the curve describing the exponential growth in tech capability over time) soon we will be wearing devices inside our bodies to enhance our human capabilities – this isn’t the stuff of sci-fi anymore, we will become cyborgs.

The new Smileage app, a Volkswagen and Google collaboration, was revealed at Google’s ‘Art, copy & code’ exhibit and is another good example of the blurring of the lines between the physical and digital worlds. Smileage is an app designed to ‘maximise fun on every drive’ by making it a social experience. It’s a little like Foursquare for cars, allowing drivers to pair the app with their cars and then track their routes, comment on trips in real-time, deliver ‘punches’ when passing other Smileage users, and get virtual badges for certain achievements.

What does this mean for brands today?  The world is changing exponentially, yet much of the marketing innovation we see feels incremental and symptomatic of the continued internalisation of corporate innovation culture. Companies need to reach out to ‘tech city’ and realise new exponential opportunities.

2. 3D printing: the new industrial revolution

Today you can buy a good 3D printer for £1000 and, with the advancements in nano and materials science, soon we’ll all be able to build anything out of anything. Imagination is the only limit.

SXSWi’s opening keynote speaker was Bre Pettis, CEO of MakerBot Industries, who make and sell affordable high-resolution 3D printers. While I didn’t find Pettis to be the most inspiring presenter, the content of his talk was mind-blowing as it revealed two huge consequences of this new technology.

Firstly, the means of production is now in the hands of the consumer; this is giving re-birth to a cottage industry marketplace, with SMEs using imagination and technology to build new ventures like prettysmallthings, who make small often unique runs of doll house toys for a discrete audience. Goodbye mass production and lack of personalised choice, proving the premise of Chris Anderson’s famous book ‘The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More’.

Secondly, consumers whose needs are not being met by manufacturers and brands are finding their own ways to solve problems. For example, the Lego-Brio connector (that both companies refuse to make) allows stacks of Lego bricks to connect to Brio train sets to improve the overall play experience. And there’s the prosthetic hand company that is able to cheaply produce the many Robohands that children with certain disabilities require as they grow.

So, thanks to 3D technology, we will witness a new breed of ‘makers’ ignite a new industrial revolution, as argued by Anderson again in his latest novel.

What does it all mean for brands today? With the new accessibility of 3D printers, entrepreneurial marketers can shortcut their sometimes slow, capex-heavy and cumbersome supply chains to deliver highly modern personalised customer solutions. This way marketers can explore new revenue streams at low cost and nurture a new ‘Beta-type’ innovation culture.

Follow Zaid on @zaidalzaidy

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