I gave a talk in The Netherlands recently which specifically asked for predictions for the year 2035. I love challenges like this, scary though they are. General rhetoric about shifts in behavior are not enough; you have to really put your neck on the line. So here’s a summary of my forecast for 2035:
Firstly, I call myself a Retail Futurist because that’s exactly what I do: I worked in retail design for over 20 years and now I track retail and consumer trends internationally to build a picture of how things are likely to develop. Shops, and consequently our towns and cities, are in a state of flux as never before. It’s such an exciting time: new technologies have given rise to new consumer behaviour and we are just beginning to see the manifestations of this.
Secondly, I must also declare that I am an optimist. So, to take the serious issues head on I believe we will largely overcome the threat of climate change and whilst terrorist groups will continue to multiply and become ever more dangerous, I believe, as the figures prove, we will continue to live in a more peaceful and less violent society than ever. Since the financial crash, I believe our towns and cities are experiencing a renaissance. Paradoxically, in this digital age we are rediscovering the importance of community and this has to be great news for the future.
I think it’s important here to point out the natural gravity toward the negative when it comes to prediction. We have good evidence of how different civilisations, across many centuries, reacted when they saw Halley’s Comet, for example. In 1066 they thought it was an omen for the death of Harold II at Hastings and before that this ‘sign from the gods’ was responsible for endless predictions of failing crops as well as thousands of brutal sacrificial killings.
Not one civilisation that we know of thought the comet’s bright tail in the sky foretold a better crop or more healthy offspring. It seems the power of portent lies clearly at the negative end of the spectrum.
Cities are ultimately places for the exchange of ideas. They are, and always will be, hubs for the young and ambitious who want to change things or simply feel close to the centre of the universe. In mature democracies our cities are at the beginning of an age of enlightenment: we are learning how to regenerate broken spaces, learning to love our heritage and history and coming up with ever more inventive ways to make spaces alive and vibrant. The good news is that retail is now seen as a catalyst for this. Architects and town planners who once preferred a purist vision of civic buildings and green spaces are learning that select retail can bring colour and life to a space. So, in 2035 we can expect our global cities to have many more communal spaces, urban parks, oases, event spaces and arenas where people gather for fashion and food shows, markets, theatre, performances and promotions of all kinds. The marriage of commerce and culture will be a much more comfortable one with big companies wanting to benefit from the warm glow of community. Parts of our city centres will be ‘ring-fenced’ and better managed with branded cleaners and security staff paid for by corporate sponsorship.
I may be a futurist and an optimist but I’m also a realist. There will be no shortage of issues to worry us. Health scares will increase in frequency and give rise to ever more niche, restrictive diets, which in turn will require niche food operators and diet specialists. For insurance purposes we will all be expected to monitor our own health much more closely with our personal devices and for those of us that can afford it medicine and healthcare will become highly bespoke with hourly monitoring.
Contrary to popular predictions we will not be commuting in our driverless cars, nor will the sky be thick with drones delivering toothpaste. Drones will be used mostly for surveillance, security, crowd control at events and for emergency deliveries. Driverless cars will only be seen in highly managed city epicentres, and even then they will be restricted to under 40 kph. Many of our major global cities are projected to grow by at least 20% by 2035 and no matter how small and eco-friendly our cars become, the infrastructure will simply not be able to cope with individual vehicles for the general population. Car sharing is a much more practical, and therefore likely, model for getting us all around, and we are already witnessing the beginnings of this with Uber and its contemporaries. On our motorways, driverless trucks will run constantly in a designated lane, only requiring human drivers to help them reach their final destinations.
Politics will continue to be a bumpy and reactionary road but the incremental move away from post war socialism will continue as we learn better how to manage our economies, reduce state dependency and harness corporate sponsorship.
After several decades that saw our venues for cinema and theatre gradually get smaller and more intimate, we will see the resurgence of big, communal venues of a thousand plus: the increasingly bespoke nature of our ‘inner worlds’ will see us cherish big, communal events again and enjoy feeling part of a big crowd.
As for the mix of stores and shops, we are at the beginning of some big changes on the high street. I would expect to see a much more polarized picture: big, glamorous fashion flagships in our major cities, alongside niche independents. Many department store brands will have disappeared making way for ‘click & collect’ centres run by new brands to the high street that made their names online, including players such as Amazon. Rents will flex to encourage start-ups to join the fun and I’d expect to see shorter leases and increased turn around bringing new players to market more frequently. Stores will become brand showcases, arriving in a town for a few weeks at a time, before moving on. Technology will make stores much more informative showing us how and where things are made and how we can customize them. Out of town and edge of town supermarkets will have become value warehouses selling largely on price. Smaller, high end food brands will sell groceries in town but with a much greater focus on good quality take away meals. Banks will have gone the way of the dinosaurs.
Advertising will be highly targeted and individually bespoke. City billboards will be interactive, talking to passers-by in real time, offering us Minority Report style tailored promotions and opportunities. Our favourite stores and brands will be our personal ‘clubs’, inviting us to previews and events in return for holding all our personal information so that cash and credit cards will become obsolete. Payment systems will be invisible with fingerprint recognition widespread. Privacy will be bigger issue than ever before as we become a highly monitored society. ‘The internet of things’ will bring us bespoke service and better information…but at the price of much greater surveillance. Our mobile devices will be critical for us to access services and information of all sorts, but they will also dissuade and restrict us from ‘buying that last drink’ or eating unhealthily. In short, we will be both better served and far more restricted.
Voice responsive operating systems will see the end of the keyboard on our mobile devices but this may give new life to the Google Glass, or equivalent, as we will need to hear our OS responses from an earpiece or from the arm of a pair of glasses. We will continue to be ‘moths’ ie. screen focussed, but screens are likely to become ‘bendyware’ ie. soft, malleable, expandable and much more comfortable to carry and wear than today’s hardware. Information will be held remotely so that a screen I touch will reveal different information than when you touch the same screen.
Robotics is another subject that brings out droves of doom and gloom merchants. However, just as it took the digital age to help us recognise the importance of community, so the rise of robotics will help reveal what is great about humanity: emotion, empathy, hospitality and the human connection.
It is not difficult to imagine a world in which data ‘knows’ everything about us: our personal preferences, habits and tastes in fashion, food, film and music. This is already happening. The consequences for retail though are particularly exciting. If during a film your favourite star can be ‘clicked on’ to order her dress in your size and colour, then exactly what constitutes a ‘shop’ will change yet again.
All of this comes with huge issues of security and privacy but ultimately, as an optimist, I believe that we can look forward to a world where there will be no customers, no consumers. Finally, we will all be individuals.
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