“Leading medical researchers say your broken hand is healing just fine, and you should be able to perform Yoga handstands again in 17 days, maybe 18” my doctor explains to me. She puts a projection on the huge screen in her office so I can see what she is talking about. The screen shows an MRI of my wrist on the left side. The right side of the screen shows a list of research articles about similar fractures. I leave the doctor’s office, and a self-driving electric car stops the moment I arrive on street level. The car recognizes my face, and opens the door. While I enter the car, I receive an update from headquarters: Our new kid’s toy will be produced by a vendor in Milan. Since the rise of the fidget spinner in 2017 we have software in place that analyzes social media to discover new toy trends early, complementing our previous three-year-planning-cycle for the product roadmap. Another software negotiates production details with the vendors we work with, once we have decided which trend to follow.
That is how the future might look like. And for some elements in that little story I had the pleasure to work with the researchers and companies that are currently building this future. There is contextflow in Vienna who are creating a search engine that innovates the clinical routine of radiologists. It links a medical image like an MRI to similar cases, together with findings and expert assessments.
Software like this does not replace humans. Instead, this tool allows doctors to work faster and with much higher quality. Contextflow uses a 3D image search technology that identifies the anatomy, and compares a region marked by the doctor to imaging data stored in medical databases. Within in a second it returns similar images, together with the text that went with it.
The Economist, a weekly magazine, reported in September how the fidget spinner changed the toy business. Fidget spinners seem to be the leading toy fad of 2017. Already in May 2017, fidget spinners held 43 spots of the top 50 toy rankings at online retailer Amazon. According to the Economist, the fidget spinner became popular through YouTube and Instagram. No person or firm has a patent on it; there seem to be no big plan behind it. Which is a big change for a business where big retailers plan their stock 18 months ahead of peak seasons, based for example on toys that are expected to become popular through upcoming movies.
Today, it is already harder to make big plans because so many unexpected things could happen, for example images and videos that might appear on social media and change the game for an entire industry. Field Marshall Helmuth von Moltke the Elder famously said in his 1871 book On Strategy: “No plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first contact with the main hostile force.”
While each piece of the little story about the future might look a bit far-fetched in isolation, looking at the larger puzzle, all those individual pieces look much more plausible. Shared patterns emerge. Take movies for example. For the past decade, movies were produced for the cinema, after that came a DVD release, and finally TV. Re-using content was already the norm for movies, but not so much for the news snippets produced by TV stations. This is what Marnechia “Marnie” Alexander, an undergrad at the University of Pennsylvania, found during an internship at Philadelphia TV station Channel 6 ABC.
She wondered what happened to all the content that ended up in the content storage room. “Nothing” said the producer. That is when Marnie developed the idea for her startup Episo. Episo helps media companies to acquire “novel” content, and helps content creators get discovered. Filed medical case get re-used to help further patients, memories of good times posted to social media are re-used as inspiration for toy makers, TV content produced in Philadelphia might be re-used and travel the globe.
Talking about watching TV, there is shift currently going on from watching movies on TV to watching TV series. This can also be felt by people working in that industry. As entertainment trade magazine Variety explained in September 2017: While writers and producers made $20,000 an episode a few years ago, they are now able to get fees closer to $40,000 or even more. A lot of that budget comes from streaming heavyweights like Amazon and Netflix. That shift has the potential to change how creative people work with story plots. If the series comes through a streaming service, the station knows so much more about viewer habits. These habits could inform the plot of the next season or even next episode.
According to business magazine Forbes, “Netflix understood what its viewers wanted before they knew”. In June the New York Times reported that streaming media company Netflix experiments with interactive plots. For the animated show “The Adventures of Puss in Boots”, viewers can choose which plot point the show should follow. In the own Technology Blog, Netflix described in 2016 their data pipeline through which flow video viewing activities, interactions with the user interface, and even system errors. Traditional TV stations that broadcast their shows over satellite or DVD rentals simply do not get the same amount of data. So there seems to be the Digital 1.0 where just the content is in a digital format, and a Digital 2.0 which rethinks what you could do now that content is digital.
In the future, we could see the creation of content in an even more interactive way with much shorter feedback loops. We could also see re-using existing content on a much larger scale. The example in the intro of the fidget spinner growing big through social media is a real case, and so is the search engine for medical cases based on medical imaging. Companies who just finished their digital transformation might discover that they did not walk all the way. It is a like a path in the forest where around each corner new parts of the path becomes visible.
One: The first steps into digital was having data available in electronic format, making it easier to handle data and maintain an overview.
Two: Then came the insight that now that data is digital, you could do things you could not do before. If your product catalogue is a long list of items living on the internet rather than products filling shelves in a physical store, you can start selling what only few customer want. Those items that make a few customers very happy no longer eat up shelf space; they eat up digital space, which is almost limitless and easy to navigate.
Now: Currently we see a lot of innovation that comes from connecting several digital services. If doctors’ offices are digital, if medical imaging is digital, and if medical research and case reports are stored digitally, why not try to connect all of them? Why not bring the latest medical research directly to the patient, within seconds of publication? On the other hand, if changes can be performed quickly because you change a digital asset, not a physical asset, why not develop more options in parallel?
This allows delaying decisions to a point when more info is available. Many photo apps work that way when they offer not a preview of a single filter applied to an image, but a preview of many filters applied to the same image, all on a single screen. And if you can get digital assets out to customers and collect feedback electronically, why not bring in more feedback, and earlier? If you are producing a TV series, and publish it through a streaming service to digital TVs, much quicker feedback on when people stopped watching your show is available, and more accurate. Which helps to write scripts for the show that excites more viewers.
How does this kind of innovation come into companies? I have seen three ways of companies innovating, and they all have different implications.
First, companies might look for a topic that might make them look innovative in a press release without having too much impact on daily operations within the company. A clear advantage is that it can be done quickly, and very nice press coverage might come from that. Obvious disadvantage that nothing substantial was changed.
Second, companies might feel pressure from their employees who have more advanced digital services at home than they use at their job. When employees feel they travel into the past when they commute to work, this might frustrate employees. However, that frustration could be translated into inspiration. It could inspire leaders within the company, and show which processes need to be “upgraded” to catch-up with the outside world.
Third, and that is in my experience the hardest, looking at internal processes from a bird's eye view, identifying new options that arise because some assets are available in a digital format, and see which digital hubs in the company could be connected to unleash new possibilities.
For everyone working with images or video in any way, as a producer, user, buyer or seller, it might be smart to observe what other industries do with images and videos. And maybe even get that latest technology into your house. Because that future for other people will be your future, too.