Thursday, June 30, 2016

The Second Age of Enlightenment

How technology, culture and society need to find a new harmony

Remember the Industrial Revolution?  OK, maybe not but it was in the late 18th century that the concepts of technology, culture and society began to be inextricably linked and have remained so ever since.  The Industrial Revolution was a time of incredible technical discovery and innovation, heralding a shift from agriculture and artisan craftsmanship to mass production.  But it also transformed society, driving the establishment of the major cities we know today, making old jobs redundant and creating new ones.  But equally it changed culture, with the birth of a new generation of art, literature, philosophy and the new political ideologies of liberty, fraternity and democracy.  It was during the Industrial Revolution that we reinvented the concept of how the world works and our individual and collective roles and responsibilities, in it. 

We now refer to the Industrial Revolution and the movements that arose from it as the dawn of the Age of Enlightenment, one in which technology, culture and society found a new kind of harmony.

The same principles still apply today.  For a new technology to succeed it must of course have a practical purpose, to solve a problem and be useful.  It must serve a cultural purpose in that it contributes to our shared ideas, language, rituals, beliefs and behaviours. And it must serve a social purpose in that it must make the world a better place in some way and have a benefit beyond just the individual user.

Let’s take the iPhone, which solved a problem we didn’t even know we had.  Before iPhones we didn’t know that we’d rather have a computer in our pockets than a telephone, but it was perfectly obvious after the fact.  Similarly, it never occurred to us that 2D printing was a limitation until we saw the endless possibilities of 3D.

At the same time, the iPhone has had a profound impact on our culture and by buying an iPhone we’re not just buying an easier way to manage our day but a personal membership to the cult of excellence at the heart of Apple.  By buying Apple, we’re displaying our badge of belonging to the culture, which explains people’s passionate, often irrational, devotion to the brand.  The cultural perspective also explains why we’re so interested in technology entrepreneurs – from Elon Musk and Daniel Ek to Satya Nadella and Travis Kalanik and love the myths and legends that surround them.  The more charismatic and mysterious they are, the more culturally powerful they become.

Similarly, every successful new technology has an impact on society. It shapes how we organise ourselves as social groups, how we define our place and role in society and how we collaborate and contribute to it.  It improves how we live and work, how we connect and communicate with each other.  The advent of mobile phones gave undeveloped communities access to education, health and financial services, the connections to establish small businesses and, more recently, a lifeline for refugees on their perilous journeys to safety.   Take Twitter, and the way it has created a culture of ‘everyone’s entitled to my opinions’.  To many people, ‘society’ means the Twitter community and if they want to know what the world is thinking, that’s who they ask.

At the same time, both culture and society drive the development and help to define the applications, of new technology.  The best new technologies arise from our social and cultural needs, as well as our functional requirements.  Take the recent PayPal advertising campaign: New money.  The campaign doesn’t ask us to open a PayPal account so we can pay for things more conveniently, it’s inviting us to join a movement and show the Old Money who’s boss now.  Similarly, products such as noise-cancelling headphones play to our sense of social obligation as well as our individual needs and give our fellow commuters, as well as ourselves, privacy and peace.

Disruptive innovators such as Uber and AirBNB have arguably succeeded because they solve a problem – in Uber’s case that of replacing the uncertainty of the meter and the complexities of the tariff, with the certainty of a fixed fare paid via PayPal and a driver you could plot on a map.  But what Uber and other brands in the Sharing Economy have really enabled through their technology is a new form of social culture.

The balance of power is more equal than in a black cab, we’re not just a passenger, we’re an investor in a social enterprise. We like the way we’re catching a ride with an enterprising car-owner than a slave to the Knowledge. We could be an Uber driver or an AirBNB owner whereas we’re very unlikely ever to be a black cab driver or a hotelier. AirBNB and Uber simply provide the platform and the process, it’s up to all of us to provide the people.

When Cisco refers to a digitized world of connected people and devices as the Second Industrial Revolution, what it’s really referring to is a Second Age of Enlightenment in which technology, culture and society are not only interlinked but inseparable.  This is an era in which technical connectivity brings with it social and cultural connectivity and productivity. This is an era in which the concept of a ‘digital detox’ as a way of purifying your social and cultural soul, finding ‘ true’ intimacy and ‘real’ rituals and behavioural norms is an outdated concept.  A digitized society isn’t a new world, it’s the real world.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Here at Teamspirit, the communications agency specialising in financial and professional services, we are often tasked with campaigns targeting consumers over 50. In fact, this is a vital audience for our clients, especially in the light of a fast-changing and increasingly crowded and competitive landscape for pensions, investments and savings. But, we asked ourselves, did we really understand this audience or were we making the same assumptions, and perhaps arriving at the same misconceptions, as everybody else? Surely, we thought, given the profound social, economic and technological change this audience has experienced in just a few years, there are new truths to discover. To that end, we decided to find out more about the over 50s and in the process, attended some exceptional events, particularly the Age of No Retirement conference in Manchester, met some inspirational people, uncovered some surprising data and learned some fascinating stories and insights. These have dramatically changed our understanding and, most importantly, have transformed the way we help our clients engage with this audience. With strategies and creative campaigns that position our clients as champions and pioneers of this new landscape, together, we can break down barriers, champion best practice and most importantly, create great work that works.

Who you calling old?

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Restoration Nation

What online data can tell us about our attitudes and behaviours in an uncertain climate

Back in 2009, in the depths of the recession, I carried out an analysis of the hopes and fears of the nation as they are reflected in searches on Google, arguably the largest, most honest and unselfconsious focus group in the world. Titled ‘Chin Up Britain’ it was a testament to the spirit of resilience and an emerging trend towards creativity and self-expression in contrast to the media depiction of us as a cowed and passive people receptive only to hysterical headlines and deep discounts.  My next paper, Reset Britain,  written in 2011, when we were able to look back at the recession proper but look forward to an indefinite period of austerity, showed how we had grown up and wised up.  We were determined not to be caught out again, with a growing cynicism towards once-trusted institutions, and an increasing awareness of our power as consumers.

So now, looking at the data again today, what has changed in recent  years and what can it tell us about our attitudes and aspirations for the future?   Now that it seems to be an accepted fact that we are officially ‘in recovery’ and the media feeds us a steady diet of economic growth and an optimistic future, does the data bear out this assertion? 

 What’s worth noting before we look at the data is that Google changed its geographical assignment of search terms in January 2011. This means that when a chart spans pre and post January 2011, there is often a small vertical jump in the data, but any upward and downward movements after that point are an accurate depiction of trends.

Let’s start by looking at our emotional health, as reflected in our Google searches for stres and depression

What’s particularly interesting is that as I found in my last two papers, searches for anxiety actually went down during the recession.  But since early 2011, interest in has been markedly higher.   In fact, searches for anxiety are now 50% higher than three years ago and the highest peak was January 2014.   So perhaps it’s true after all that a period of crisis, in which we accept that times are bad, is actually good for our mental health whereas the current climate of not knowing what the future holds, is more demanding to our emotional well-being.


Yet, this uncertainty does not appear to extend to our view of ourselves as employees. When we compare searches for  ‘minimum wage’ and ‘redundancy’ there is evidence that we are increasingly confident of our job security. 

What this chart shows is that searches for minimum wage having dropped significantly between 2008 and 2009, have climbed steadily ever since as our confidence as employees has risen.  In fact, searches are as high as they have ever been.   During the mid-winter of the recession, when our fears of redundancy were at their peak, we weren’t going to start asking our employers awkward questions about wages or encouraging our union to lobby for more but the last couple of years have seen those concerns recede.  

Let’s next take the issue of Zero Hours, which has hit the headlines in the last year.  News that a million British workers could potentially be affected by these controversial employment contracts caused a sharp spike in searches, but interest, although it died away very quickly, has been maintained at around 20% of the initial surge.  So what this might imply is that although 80% have lost interest, a more committed 20% remains.  The classic 80/20 rule might apply here.  These people could be our Zero Hours activists of the future. 

Now let’s look at the employment situation as reflected in searches for jobs in the NHS, the UK’s large public sector employer. 

What this shows is that demand for jobs in the NHS steadily rose, year on year, reaching a marked peak during the recession, perhaps because work in this sector was seen as more secure.  But the prospect of cuts to the NHS from 2010 onwards caused a dramatic dip in demand and the last three years have seen a stabilisation at a much lower level than before the recession.   

Yet if we look at demand for jobs at Tesco, the UK’s largest private employer, we see a very different pattern.  Demand steadily rose during the recession and well into 2012.   

But interest has declined in the last two years, perhaps as we feel that Tesco can’t possibly get any bigger than it is and that opportunities for employment are therefore more limited than they were.   Or perhaps employees of the other big supermarkets and those in similar types of work are staying put and not looking for anything new until the economic future looks more secure.  


When it comes to education, we’ve seen a marked loss of aspiration, with searches at both ends of the academic spectrum, for NVQs and MBAs both suffering a decline since 2011.  Only recently, the Financial Times was bemoaning the decline in MBA applications and the loss to Britain’s entrepreneurial and innovation leadership that will result from it.  At the other end, with a record number of NEETs, young people not in employment, education or training, this situation can only get worse as the drive to achieve competitive advantage declines before people have even started their careers. 

The financial sector data paints a startling picture of where the money has been going in recent years.    The spike in 2009, caused by the stampede to Tracker mortgages when interest rates fell so dramatically, was followed by a high point for fixed mortgages soon after as consumers hoped to take advantage of low rates for the longer term. 

But it’s in the Buy To Let market that we can see the biggest movements.  Fuelled by a booming rental market, as prospective first-time buyers struggle to raise deposits, wealthy people who can afford to invest in property are capitalising on this demand.   As there’s no such thing as a high interest savings account any more, property is the category offering the best return on investment.
There have been similarly dramatic changes around benefits, as changes in policy have fuelled huge spikes in interest, especially in child benefit.  

But it’s interesting that there hasn’t been a similar spike in interest for housing benefit after the introduction of the so-called Bedroom Tax, which did lead to a surge in interest.  So does this mean that people who Googled ‘Bedroom Tax’ don’t claim Housing Benefit?   Are they simply people who have heard the news in the press and social media following up on the headlines?  

Now let’s look at what’s happening in the energy space – and whether recent increases in energy prices have driven interest in alternative sources, be that solar panels or fracking. 

What the data shows is that interest in solar panels enjoyed enormous demand in 2011 and 2012 but this seems to have settled down – although there are still more searches for solar panels than there are for energy prices so it’s clearly still a key area of interest.  We can also see that interest in Fracking and Energy prices, having reached unprecedented heights fell as quickly as it rose although interest has not declined to nothing but is continuing albeit at a lower level. 

Yet, as with Zero Hours contracts, a high proportion of the remaining search demand that has been maintained is likely to be from an engaged activist community.  So although the quantity of interest in fracking has declined, perhaps the intensity has increased, which is mixed news for a healthy debate on the energy situation in Britain today.  This is a debate that the whole nation needs to be involved in, not simply the angry, aggrieved on the one side and the self-interested on the other. 


Now let’s have a look at what’s happening in our personal lives.   Firstly, the news that Caesarian sections now account for 25% of all births, compared to just 12% in 1990 is clearly reflected in the data as there has been a steady upward rise in searches.  But the rate of Epidurals has increased at a similar rate and are now used in 28% of all births, but there is no similar increase in search demand.  

Is this because women tend to plan to have a C-Section and so research it beforehand, so it’s this that’s being reflected in the data rather than the uptake rate itself?  Is it because C-Sections have simply received more publicity with media coverage of celebrities ‘too posh to push’?  Or is it because in our social, sharing world, a tweet or a Facebook post about a C-Section makes for a better story than an epidural?  We are what we post, after all.  

In a similar vein, searches for Breast Implants are testament to the power of the media and the fascinating relationship between bad news stories and increased commercial demand.  

Searches for implants had been chugging along, with the occasional peak caused by minor scare stories and celebrity gossip and a slight dip during the worst of the recession when we had more important things to worry about.  But in January 2012, the story of the faulty PIP implants led to an immediate surge in interest and – surprisingly - demand for clinics, procedures and prices which has been maintained ever since.   So the old adage is true.  No news is bad news after all.   

Of course, it might simply be that thanks to social media we live in a world of soundbites, so if all a person hears is that everyone is talking about ‘Breast Implants’ that’s enough to drive demand regardless of the original context of the story.    

Yet bad news can save lives too.   Look at this fascinating chart showing how the diagnosis and subsequent death of reality star Jade Goody caused an immediate surge in searches for ‘cervical cancer’ symptoms (and also for preventative action such as testing), which has been maintained ever since.  

Without wishing to sound glib, this in fact makes perfect sense.  Jade’s death was the perfect vehicle to reach a demographic generally disengaged from health messaging and whilst the searches today may not be directly attributed to her, they are symptomatic of a shift in grassroots awareness and more importantly, action.  That’s quite a legacy. 

On the subject of legacy, the next chart is a testament to the success of London 2012 in raising the profile of Paralympic sport.  It is widely known that the Paralympic Games of London 2012 enjoyed  a dramatic increase in interest compared to previous Olympics.   

But what is particularly cheering is that interest in disabled issues shows a moderate but significant increase after the games.  For example, searches for  ‘wheelchair rugby’ increased by 60% in 2013 compared to 2011 and those for ‘wheelchair games’ in general by 40%.  Even more heartening, searches on ‘disability rights’ have grown by 14%.  This, surely, is evidence that perceptions of disabled people, and of course, their perceptions of themselves, have entered a new phase of assertiveness and achievement . 

Let’s now look at what Brian Cox has done for physics, with a clearly discernable boost in interest in the subject after years of progressive decline.  What’s even more encouraging is that the pattern of searches clearly matches the academic year, so interest has risen among schoolchildren rather than Brian’s army of female admirers….   

Finally, I’ve talked a lot in this paper about the role the media plays in creating awareness and driving perceptions around an issue.  Guess which one has enjoyed the most success – and therefore influence- over the last few years?   Yep.  It’s The Mail. 

So, to summarise what does the data tell us about the changes wrought by the recession and its subsequent recovery period to the cultural, economic and social fabric of Britain?  Firstly, there’s a sense that the short, sharp shock of the credit crunch was good for us in some ways.  We put our emotional well-being on hold and looked for recession-proof jobs.   But in the last couple of years, there’s a sense that uncertainty has taken its toll on our emotional as well as financial health.
Although our fears of redundancy have faded, we no longer trust the old institutions for jobs or trust our employers to pay the going rate.  No wonder our interest in the minimum wage and zero hours contracts has never been higher. 

There is a sense of resignation to our fate.  We turned to the sun at the end of the recession, hoping that solar power would prove a viable solution to the energy crisis, but that hope seems to have faded and our outrage at rising energy prices was something of a flash in the pan.  And young people have less hope than ever of getting their first home or even job, while landlords are doing a roaring trade.    

Instead, we seem to have turned inwards, looking to superficial feelgood solutions like breast implants, swayed by soundbites and not properly engaging with the news we should be reading and over-reacting to stories that have no direct relevance to us.  

But there is hope.  A generation of young women are not dying unnecessarily from cervical cancer, and more schoolchildren are discovering the wonders of physics, which bodes well for Britain’s competitive advantage in the global innovation arena.  Our enthusiasm for the Paralympics seems to have changed attitudes and perceptions, not only of disabled sport but of disability itself, which can only be good. 
Likewise, issues such as Zero Hours contracts and fracking are starting to build more committed communities around them, to advocate for change, or at least encourage discussion of the issues.  Given that these people are invariably young and idealistic, maybe then, the emerging generation will be facing a much brighter, more active future than the jaded and faded middle-aged can at present envision for themselves and the Restoration Nation that we dreamed of at the end of the recession can be built on firm foundations.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

A Planner's View of Notoriety

At work recently, I was given the challenge of finding a way to provide an evidence-based analysis of whether a liar can be forgiven.  This wasn't one of our clients, I hasten to add, but one of their competitors.  After a bit of plannery nurdling on Social Mention I came up with this chart, which plots the number of mentions against the number of mentions divided by the number of people doing the mentioning.  In other words, it makes a Boston Matrix of Visibility and Engagement.  

To mix things up a bit, I charted up an eclectic mix of scandal-hit politicians, mass murderers and environmental disasters. 

This is what I got.

There are some fascinating observations here.  Firstly, let's look at the top left quadrant.  They're the people who get a lot of mentions but are low on engagement.  In other words, they tend to be one off mentions.  So it might be students tweeting that their teacher is a little Hitler, or a blogger comparing her shoe collection to that of Imelda Marcos.   I've done a similar market map on airlines and Ryan Air was right in the top left corner.  It's not a bad place to be - it means you're being talked about but there's no organised coalition against you.  But on the other hand, you don't have a loyal community of advocates in your corner.

The bottom left corner is where the bad guys go to die.  With low visibility and low engagement, they're not really on our radar.  It makes perfect sense that Profumo is here. By modern standards, it wasn't much of a scandal. Likewise, Myra Hindley has been dead for several years now.  She'll get a brief resurgence when Ian Brady dies but afterwards be consigned to the dustbin of history. 

The top right corner is the highest levels of visibility AND engagement.  In other words, these get a lot of mentions but also a lot of people making those mentions, so they have large, active, vocal communities of interest clustered around them.  It's significant that Three Mile Island, Exxon Valdez and Chernobyl are in this quadrant - and generate more engagement than Stalin, Hitler and Nixon.  Even after all this time. 

In the bottom right are the ones with low visibility but high engagement.  Bill Clinton's in the far corner of this quadrant, meaning that he doesn't have Hillary's profile, but he still has an energetic community of advocates and detractors centered around him.  The same goes for Fred 'The Shred' Goodwin and Tony 'I'd like my life back' Hayward - they don't generate the publicity they once did, but they are far from forgotten (and presumably, forgiven) for certain people. 

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Baby names written in the stars

With the increased interest in astro-physics and the wonders of the universe and solar system, I wonder if new parents will start looking to the stars for baby names?   Here’s a selection of what might be the most suitable candidates, in terms of cultural neutrality, ease of pronunciation and social aspiration. 

What do you think?  

Friday, May 24, 2013

Is waste the new theft?

In times of plenty, there is no such thing as waste.  Few protested when the Victorian hunters decimated the wildlife in the pristine African and American wildernesses for sport.  As the 20th century progressed, nobody in their right mind questioned the need for televisions to have standby buttons, for cars to be fast or for razors and nappies to be disposable.   It wasn’t waste, it was profit and progress.  It was innovation.      
Today, when we look at a well-lit motorway, a deli salad or a flushing toilet, we don’t see waste, we think how lucky we are to have so much choice and convenience, to have so many luxuries and labour saving devices at such reasonable prices.   We feel protected, pampered and proud.

At the same time, there’s a whole world of waste that consumers don’t see.  Until the recent horsemeat scandal, we would have only a vague idea that multiple ingredients were trafficked around the world and back to make a single burger.  We don’t see the entire harvests ploughed back into the field because they aren’t the right size or colour.  We don’t know that making a single gold ring can generate more than 20 tones of crushed rock that has been soaked in toxic chemicals including cyanide.  Nor do we realise that the water footprint of a half litre of soft drink is estimated to be between 170 and 310 litres depending on the origin of the ingredients.
We are relieved rather than annoyed when cinemas, swimming pools, planes and trains are half empty and love getting something for nothing with a buy-one-get-one-free offer.  It never occurs to us that the empty space or the free offer are a waste of resources, because we’ve paid for the bit we use.
Even when waste is right under our noses, we tend to give ourselves and others an easy ride as a sin of omission or a regrettable necessity.   For example, we are so fussy when we choose our fruit and vegetables that the supermarkets logically apply the same buying criteria with their suppliers. We are uncomfortably aware that we don’t need to drive around the corner and could easily walk, but we don’t have time.  We know that millions of gallons of water are lost every day through leaking pipes but we don’t want higher bills to pay for a wholesale upgrade to the sewerage system.   We can see for ourselves that household items are over-packaged but as long as we recycle, that solves the problem, doesn't it?

There are signs that this is changing.  Whilst activist groups and charities have started to campaign against waste, it has become a standard element of most companies’ Corporate and Social Responsibility that they reduce, reuse and recycle more.  There are campaigns to encourage greater prudence in consumer consumption and a growing general awareness of waste.  We fix dripping taps, tut about patio heaters and lavish floodlighting and happily endorse campaigns to end the scandal of throwing perfectly edible fish back into the sea dead to meet catch quotas.  
After all, nature doesn’t waste. 

But what we haven’t seen yet is any challenge to the view that waste is a victimless crime.  Like smoking in the 1990s, waste is increasingly seen as anti-social but not an actual offence.  Waste is expensive – we are starting to understand that – but it’s not against the law and until that happens there will always be people prepared to pay more to do it, or pay less instead of not doing it.  When a cup of coffee costs the same from a disposable paper cup or a consumer's own reusable cup, where's the incentive? 
 Perhaps one way to find a solution is to look back to a time when waste came under the double whammy of social censure and legal restriction.  With the advent of two world wars suddenly the resources that seemed so unlimited were dramatically curtailed and our island nation was forced to become largely self-sufficient.  Our burgeoning throw-away society became one of wasting and wanting not.  The US and UK’s Governments’ approach is still a brilliant study of mass behaviour change.  On the one hand, it quantified the benefits of reducing waste:


Whilst making it clear it what the consequences could ultimately be:      

At the same time, it gave people the questions to ask themselves:

… whilst giving people step by step instructions on what to do and making it look fun and fulfilling at the same time.  Reducing waste was positioned as an exercise in creativity and self-expression, the opportunity to make something new and exciting to be worn with pleasure and pride. 

Side by side with this, the introduction of rationing was a great leveller – equating waste with injustice


… and, as the black market developed and people grew weary of endless scraping and saving, eventually escalated into the portrayal of those who subverted the system as traitors, not spivs.  


What this clearly shows is the war on waste needs to be fought on two fronts against a common enemy.  On the one hand, there needs to be policy and regulatory change.  Waste needs to be penalised, not necessarily with criminal charges (at first) but with higher costs, greater operational barriers and restrictions.   The penalties for waste could provide a useful source of revenue for national and local government in the same way that parking fines make a valuable contribution to council coffers which help to fund local schools, hospitals and other amenities. 
If we apply this to say, the use of water, energy or paper, we might see a system whereby homes and businesses are allocated a ‘ration’ and need to give a good account of why they need more.  There needs to be a fundamental difference between this and the carbon trading system whereby companies can effectively pay a premium to neutralise their footprint.

On the other hand, there needs to be powerful cultural and social change to collectively drive, support and help enforce these new policies.  The public needs to be shown the hidden waste that’s all around us, the worst offenders named and shamed and conversely, those who are taking active steps to reduce it should be celebrated.  At the same time, people need to be told exactly what to do and be rewarded with stories and social status to recruit others to the cause.   

If we look at more recent behaviour changing campaigns, it’s very interesting to see, for example, how the concept of the ‘enemy’ has changed over the years.  For example, the first ‘stop smoking’ adverts portrayed smokers as anti-social.  If you smoked, you were stupid, inconsiderate and possibly impotent.  Oh, and you stank, too. 

But more recently, campaigns have shifted the blame away from the smoker to the cigarette as the enemy.  The cigarette became the punchbag, quite literally, for ex-smokers to attack.   So, in the war on waste, it won’t work to make the consumer the ‘villain’ but it could instead be the companies and public sector organisations who are cheating us, our communities and wider society in the interests of profit. 

When it comes to giving consumers precise instructions on what to do, the ‘five a day’ campaign took the line that people already knew why they should eat more fruit and vegetables and focussed instead on creating an easy and simple plan for consumers to integrate into their everyday lives. The campaign for alcohol units took exactly the same ‘show and tell’ approach.  We can all count to 13. 

Another approach used in the war, that of openly giving consumers the straight facts that they could then re-tell in their own conversations and use to justify their own decisions and behaviour, will need to be a key part of how brands tell their ‘waste reduction’ stories direct to consumers, not buried deep in a CSR report.   For example, McDonalds is already using this strategy as regards the provenance of the ingredients in its meals, giving them a prominent position on its website and optimising them for search on Google.

But bearing in mind that consumers don’t tell stories about brands but about themselves, companies will need to ensure that they help consumers to say ‘I don’t waste’, rather than ‘Brand X, which I buy, doesn’t waste’. 

So, what history teaches us is that if waste is going to be the new theft, the consumer needs to be the victim not the villain.  The thief can be an attitude or a culture, a government or a company.  We can’t go around telling people they’re stealing from their community or society, or from each other but we can tell them that ‘others’ are stealing from them and it’s time to fight back.