Fjord’s Mark Curtis on predicting the future of technology

24 May 2018

Mark Curtis, co-founder of Fjord. Image: Accenture

On the back of Fjord releasing its 2018 trends report, we sat down with the company’s co-founder to discuss the most important trends to consider when creating products for the consumer of today.

Design thinking has always been Mark Curtis’ bread and butter. In his long and illustrious career, which has meandered through media, digital and mobile, he has always had both a fascination with and evident expertise in creating experiences that best befit the end user.

This expertise crystallised in 2001 when he, alongside Mike Beeston and Olof Schybergson, co-founded service design consultancy firm Fjord. Since the company was acquired by Accenture in 2013, it has gone from strength to strength.

Indeed, it has never been a more interesting time to be in the business of trying to ascertain the nebulous wants and needs of consumers. Society has arrived at a critical inflexion point in the discussion of technological progress. The heights of human innovation have begun to clash with people’s own sense of comfort as consumers become wary of the potential invasiveness of some of the latest inventions.

There probably isn’t a single person in the world who wouldn’t profit greatly from having a crystal ball to eradicate uncertainty about what is to come.

While that is ultimately just a fantasy, Fjord has this year released a trends report detailing what lies in store for business, technology and design, tackling everything from data concerns to blockchain to marketing-marring algorithms. We sat down with Curtis to chat about some of the most pressing concerns for business leaders in the future.

The computer stares back

In recent times, many of the conversations about people’s relationships with their devices have revolved around our increasing reliance on them. Toddlers can use Skype, your phone knows how much you’ve walked and overexposure to blue light is causing headaches.

The world has been looking at screens too much, but what happens when the screen looks back?

Mirrors with in-built cameras were, Curtis explained, featured heavily at CES this year in Las Vegas. The incredible potential of this kind of device lies in the daily habits they represent “that almost all of us do at least twice – when we brush our teeth, or shave or do our make-up or just check our hair, whatever it is we’re doing”.

He continued: “Humans have a lot of habits, but those habits represent a data point, and having cameras embedded in mirrors means that we can catch some data; we can capture information about all sorts of things.

“For example, time of day, regularity of being there, what they’re doing when there, how they look, what emotions they may be revealing – that’s a rich treasure trove delivered on a regular basis.”

Envision it: you peel yourself out from underneath your covers, sleepily slapping the snooze button on your alarm as you head to your bathroom. It’s the fifth consecutive day that you’ve had quite a serious chesty cough. There’s a thin patina of night sweats across your brow.

In this future foretold by Curtis and Fjord, your mirror could conceivably say, upon seeing you, that you look unwell. It may take the liberty of booking a doctor’s appointment for you. Better yet, advances in telemedicine might mean that a doctor could be beamed on to your screen and could instantly begin assessing your health.

Curtis agreed that it was “very Star Trek-y”, but was quick to add that it is also “very imminent”.

He continued: “At that stage when we’re explaining this, I think people get quite uncomfortable – an entirely reasonable response.”

The future and AI

There is a cognitive dissonance that can plague people when new technologies are introduced. As Curtis puts it, the dissonance arises from the disparity between how quickly we can ‘adopt’ new technologies and how quickly we actually ‘adapt’ to them.

“Technology is changing extraordinarily quickly right now and I think many people would argue (I would) that it’s changing more quickly than we’ve ever seen in the history of mankind.” Artificial intelligence (AI), he opined, will likely only accelerate this change. “The difficulty is that humans don’t change very quickly.”

It is easy to get so caught up in what is possible grâce à science and the level of convenience it can provide, while in the process failing to properly consider the ethical, social and even psychological implications. While businesses may forget about this, will consumers?

Amid a climate where popular science heavyweights such as Elon Musk and the late Stephen Hawking have expressed concern about the potential effects of proliferating AI, there is a risk that people won’t want anything to do with AI-powered products, but Curtis doesn’t believe the issue is so straightforward. Instead, he said, the levels of acceptability are tiered.

At the lowest, individual level – “small services where AI is involved” – Curtis doesn’t anticipate any qualms. Already, AI customer service chatbots are widely deployed by businesses, and consumers don’t seem to have any compunction about using them if they address their queries efficiently.

The self-driving car, which has hit headlines for all the wrong reasons in recent months, is more along the second tier of acceptability. AI is navigating a more complex environment and, as a result, tragic accidents have happened. Despite this, Curtis argues, the self-driving car will eventually be proliferated “because of the social benefit of self-driving cars”.

He added: “Once we have confidence in the technology, the other social advantages that come with it – lower insurance, way fewer traffic deaths (in theory), better traffic management – who’s going to say no to that?”

The third tier, and by far the most difficult one to resolve, is the tier that Musk and his ilk are operating on: dealing with the moral and ethical implications of AI. Curtis would strenuously encourage public debate on how AI is applied.

“If I had to single out one area that I think will prompt a lot of debate about this, it’s the use of artificial intelligence in the military.” This, of course, famously manifested this month in a number of Google employees resigning in objection to Alphabet’s involvement in Maven, a US military drone programme.

“That will probably drive a lot of that debate because it goes to the heart of our sense of security, to the heart of the thing that Isaac Asimov wrote about.”

Repairing broken trust

In general, Curtis argued, trust is something that has been eroded of late in our society. Trust in government, in the church, in the media and in the concept of ‘fact’ has fallen apart, and technology has had a role to play in this destruction. Technology, however, offers a potential solution: blockchain.

“What is striking when you look into it is the range of different places where people are talking about blockchain.” Curtis referred to, as an example, the ID2020 project, which Fjord has undertaken in collaboration with Microsoft, Accenture and Avanade. The aim of the project is to use blockchain technology to develop a global ID system for use by people in “distressed situations without ID”, such as refugees.

This only scratches the surface. Curtis namechecked various potential applications for blockchain, such as peer-to-peer energy trading, validating charity donations to ensure money gets to who its meant to (as opposed to being intercepted by corrupt governments) and even along the supply chain to prevent unlawful arms trade. On a larger scale, however, blockchain offers something the world desperately needs right now: transparency.

“The thing that I think makes it more than just a peer-to-peer thing, the way to think about it, is that blockchain stops something that we thought was inherent in digital.

“The thing they thought was inherent in digital was that, for next-to-zero marginal cost, you could copy and distribute things endlessly. That’s what eviscerated the music industry.

“Blockchain verifies that something is an original, unique … It allows us to establish unique credentials around things on the digital ecosystem. That, I think, is a big game-changer.”

Eva Short was a journalist at Silicon Republic