Howard Saunders   Mar 02, 2023   Uncategorized   0 Comment

Is all this talk of ChatGPT, artificial intelligence, drones and robots giving you a headache? Maybe you’re convinced your kids will soon be moving to the Metaverse with Mark Zuckerberg and you’re wondering if you’ll ever see them again. And if you’re in retail, well you’d be forgiven for thinking the entire industry is winding down ready to hand over the keys to smiling Jeff Bezos.

The world has become so confusing, the future so scary it’s amazing that any of us bother to get out of bed in the morning. Listen to a couple of TedTalks or browse a few LinkedIn articles, by way of staying ahead of the game, and it’s as if they’re talking another language. They are. Tech geeks get turned on by excluding ordinary humans from their nerdy prognostications.

Cut through the jargon however, and it’s clear there’s a push for a future in which humanity takes a backseat. This is understandable when you consider that mankind is the source of most our problems, however that does not mean all these techno-predictions will come true. This headlong rush for the future is surely fuelled by a dislike and distrust of the present. Whether it’s robotics, smart cities, fake meat, autonomous vehicles or the much hyped Metaverse, it’s clear we’re designing ourselves a future that diminishes us. A future in which, out of guilt, we pass the baton to technology to rule over a world with barely a trace of us in it.

I blame science fiction. We’ve imagined ourselves living in glass domes, being waited on by robots for almost a hundred years. Way back in 1930, Einstein’s superhuman intellect predicted mankind would soon be overtaken by machines, leaving humanity as “a generation of idiots.” That’s a century of fear mongering and yet, when Elon Musk unveiled his billion dollar Optimus robot in September last year, the reception was notably underwhelming: a teetering, tin humanoid staggered on and off stage like a cautious drunk. A drunk, incidentally, that couldn’t begin to contemplate a small flight of stairs. These then, are the Daleks that in 2019 the mighty Mckinsey warned would destroy 800 million jobs by 2030. Well, they’d better hurry up.

So enamoured are we with the future, we wilfully ignore the smirking elephant in the room that knows the robotic revolution is a long, long way off. Whether it’s fake meat, the rise of rental culture, the internet of things or 3D printing, it seems the future we promise ourselves keeps getting kicked further down the road.

Even long proven technology comes unstuck in the cold light of day. Drone deliveries, for example, life saving in rural environments are utterly hopeless in our busy, high-rise cities. Likewise, autonomous cars may be the future in linear Los Angeles but they don’t look so clever trying to navigate the pot holes, roadworks and tangled lanes of most European cities.  

But hey, we’ve just emerged from a uniquely comprehensive global experiment and the results are now in. After two years of being locked indoors…wait for it… it turns out the vast majority of us want to get out and mix with other humans after all! The evidence is clear: we prefer to visit shops and restaurants than swiping endlessly through Amazon. This explains the dramatic surge in events, parties, celebrations and festivals last year. It seems, given half a chance, we’ll turn up to the opening of an envelope.

And therein lies the secret of great retail. In a world where we can access everything anywhere, retail is no longer about getting hold of ‘stuff’. What really helps us part with our hard earned cash is a place that feels alive and happening, whether it be a bustling bakery or a megabrand flagship.

Thankfully, for us real-world enthusiasts, the future looks safe: Amazon is axing ten thousand staff, Zuckerberg’s Metaverse is bleeding cash, Beyond Meat is bleeding to death and Elon promises Optimus will be able to walk properly very soon.

The Failure of the Metaverse and the Rise of the Real World - Utah Stories

Don’t get me wrong. Technology is sure to reshape our world in bewilderingly beautiful ways. In less than a decade we’ve evolved into a global species of screen addicted voyeurs and needy narcissists. Our attention spans may have shrivelled and our morals evaporated but it’s comforting to know that, at the end of the day, whatever spectacular gizmos they throw at us one thing remains universally true: we still want to hang out with friends, family, peers and colleagues in markets, shops, bars, delis and restaurants just like our digitally deprived ancestors did two millennia ago.

Now peel me a grape.

Join me on Twitter @retailfuturist for profound insight and newsy nonsense

About Howard Saunders

The Retail Futurist, otherwise known as Howard Saunders, is a writer and speaker whose job it is to see beyond retail’s currently choppy waters. Howard spent the first twenty five years of his career at some of London’s most renowned retail design agencies, including Fitch & Company, where he created concepts, strategies and identities for dozens of British high street brands. In 2003 he founded trend-hunting agency, Echochamber, inspiring his clients with new and innovative store designs from across the globe. Howard relocated to New York in 2012 where the energetic regeneration of Brooklyn inspired his book, Brooklynization, published in 2017. His newfound role as champion for retail’s future in our town and city centres gave rise to the title The Retail Futurist. Howard has been interviewed on numerous television and radio programs and podcasts for BBC Radio 4, BBC Scotland, the British Retail Consortium, Sky News Australia and TVNZ, New Zealand. His talks are hi-energy, jargon-free journeys that explore the exciting, if not terrifying, retail landscape that lies ahead. When not in retail mode, Howard has recorded, literally, thousands of digital music masterpieces, most of which remain, thankfully, unheard.

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