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Reflections and predictions image

Reflections and predictions

18th December, 2013

We asked the Head of our Digital Media team (Adam) and the Head of our Digital Cities team (Ray) to give us their highlights from the last 12 months and tell us a bit about their thoughts for the new year. Here are their reflections, insights and predictions as we go full steam ahead into 2014...


First up it's Ray, sharing his views on the future of digital in cities:

What were your work highlights of 2013?

My highlight has to be the work we have been doing with the City of Manchester and Marketing Manchester. We have now launched a fifth project that builds upon the Fabric API, which we created as part of the redevelopment of It's rewarding to see that the strategy to put an API with shared content at the core of a digital vision for Manchester is now playing a central role in providing content for on street MiGuide's and for screens planned around city buildings in 2014. I’m also proud we have extended and built on top of Fabric – a new system that helps the city to control the distribution of this content across multiple screens. While other systems exist as a digital partner to the city, we have been able to provide something more sophisticated that also provides a solid base of branding and communication for anyone within the city administration to use.

I also found that two events I was invited to speak at, IHBC Digital heritage conference and Base Glasgow, were personal highlights. It was great to be invited to speak to audiences that aren't  designers or within the digital sector, and spend time really considering how to communicate our ideas around the digital focus many industries now have.

We have found that when people mention the word ‘digital’ or ‘smart’ in a cities context there is so much focus on the technology, and we feel that there is a disconnect with the people who live in cities or like visit places of culture. People are being treated as mere consumers and we know that everyone is more socially aware and connected than ever before; people are not simply the end users.

It was interesting to see how different organisations and professions are trying to help shape the different ways in which we experience the world and how we understand our past, heritage and culture. We should understand how people are becoming natively digital, and the lines are blurring between what people termed "the real world" and “the virtual world”. The focus was instead on creating great ideas that people love, and offering a different point of view to the general message of efficiency driven big technology.

What inspired and excited you this year?

I always find so much inspiration outside of our industry. I also find it important to understand trends happening outside my own sphere of the industry I work in, and trends within my age group or the people I know.

I have always had a genuine interest in business – the clever ways that while living in a capitalist society that you can make money and have a good life without losing your soul. I keep mentioning Burberry to colleagues as a shining example of how design and a digital focus combined with strong creative leadership has helped them become a top 5 brand again. We all remember the years of Burberry prints and the associations with people such as Daniella Westbrook, but in Angela Ahrendts (now poached by Apple) and Christopher Bailey the brand and company has been reborn, and are now the leaders not the followers in luxury brands. When you see the TEDx talk Angela Ahrendts gave on human energy it's no surprise they have become an inspirational business. A future Steve Jobs style icon for apple, perhaps?

Incidentally while everyone looks to London, New York, the Far East, Middle East and Copenhagen for future city thinking I find myself being more influenced by thought leaders in Australia. I think there is something in the water there, and I happen to keep finding further people and ideas coming out of Australia that are leading the charge in design thinking. In the last year I have done a course on Skillshare with Mark Pollard of Big Spaceship, found inspiration in Sally Hill and Michelle Tabet, felt inspired in the simple but amazing story of Renew Newcastle and followed the work of Dr Keir Winesmith.

I find myself listening to two podcasts religiously nowadays (around the staple diet of This American Life). Out the Front, focused on fresh ideas in design, community and social enterprise, is recorded from the home of Sydney residents Siobhan Toohill and Adrian Wiggins. I often come into the office the next day and urge other people to listen as well. Highlights so far have been the episodes with Rachel Dixon, Sally Hill and Michelle Tabet.

I have also had a lot of fun listening to 99% invisible. It's such an amazing podcast and has delightful stories about design and human behaviour that always gives me the inspiration to go out there and create the best work I can. This year we have had great episodes such as Future Screens are Mostly Blue, Revolving Doors, All the Buildings and Bubble Houses.

What was been the best event or conference you attended in 2013?

I have been lucky to attend some great events this year, from Base Glasgow to TEDx London looking at cities 2.0. I find I often seek inspiration and perspectives from outside the industry, so for me a summer of thought provoking culture at Manchester International Festival and the Edinburgh Fringe was vitally important. Interestingly for me among one of many highlights from both of these was a panel debate held by MIF around the subject "Are we powerless?" – I still have the badge from the event attached to my bag in case I ever forget that indeed "We are the many and they are the few".

Reasons to be Creative (formerly Flash on the Beach) in Brighton felt like a good portion of the digital scene had decamped to the sunny coast for a few days. The focus on creative industries instead of just one technology platform brings a great mix of people. There were some great speakers but Sagmeister and Spiekermann were worth the ticket price alone – true design greats.

However, it was an event closer to home that helped solidify some of my thinking in terms of cities in the last year. FutureEverything held a summit conference this year and the two keynote speakers, Dan Hill and Anthony Townsend, were inspired bookings. Anthony Townsend's book is essential reading when looking at smart city ideas and it’s important that industries such as ours consider all the different viewpoints on how we apply technology to cities.

Looking forward to 2014, what are the plans for you and your team?

We have spent years considering the role of digital in society. We feel we are living in the moment of the tipping point where digital is moving beyond just websites, apps and screens, and we want to use our expert knowledge working in collaboration with clients with the goal of creating genuinely world changing ideas.

We will be focusing on creating real world examples of how digital and physical experiences combine to offer something compelling and new that will bring a smile to people's faces. We will continue our work with the City of Manchester, exploring the different ways in which everyone can interact with their city and the people within it.

We also want to look at various business sectors, retail in particular, and hope to find clever solutions in some of the biggest challenges facing us.

What are your predictions for cities in 2014?

There will continue to be lots of debate about smart cities and the future trends for cities. It reminds me a lot of the discussions and debates that were had about mobile a few years ago but on a larger scale and involving multiple disciplines. Soon however, practical applications of innovations will need to appear for anyone to believe these are sustainable changes in society, and not just an episode of Tomorrow's World. I find it interesting that the elements we are tackling are the infrastructure because they feel like a practical place to start. I feel that we need to involve more social aspects of a city, and look at how new trends in culture – both offline and online – can bring new ideas and ways for people to have better lives in cities.

I think that digital will continue to establish itself at the centre of innovation for many businesses and organisations. We are seeing that digital has grown up and it now has an important central role in nearly every sector. Therefore digital is not simply about the output, but something that now gives organisations a genuine advantage against competitors who are treating digital as simply a marketing channel.

More cities and businesses will embrace digital as part of a service, creating new ways to merge physical experience with digital productivity and communication. Retail will continue to change; it's not all doom and gloom but a fundamental shift in how people choose to shop. We can already see terms such as "experiential" becoming the new "responsive design" buzzword du jour, and although it might be a buzzword it's still a very valid and important aspect of a new retail approach. People want experiences; they don't just want to be consumers anymore. Everyone wants to believe in the businesses and services they use, and marketing has shifted in this information age society. We are seeing a move into digital being a core way to deliver content, services or communication with brands and organisations. Fab, AirBnB, Uber, Ebay Now all point to the trends where digital is not just a channel but the core way you deliver your business that a physical store or location is wrapped around. If I go back to Burberry again, there’s a quote from Angela Ahrendts that highlights this need to understand that digital is now where things start not just something that is tacked on:

“That’s our language today. Digital is not an afterthought. Our design teams design for a landing page and the landing page dictates what the store windows will look like, not the other way round. In creative media, they’re shooting for digital, then we are turning it back to physical.”

Oh, and I also predict that everyone will start talking about and quickly get bored of hearing Ethnography, as user centered design just won’t cut it any longer as a buzzword. Prepare your bingo cards now...


Next up - Adam on all things digital media and entertainment:

What were your work highlights of 2013?

2013 was a year for firsts at mN. We created our first fully formed app (coming to a store near you soon) and we launched our strategy offering. I’m really proud of what the team accomplished with the MiGuide touch screens, which you can find across the centre of Manchester. My highlight though was starting an exciting project for the Imperial War Museum. It is exciting to start the new year with a new client and a new project. 

What inspired and excited you this year?

It was great to see more of Sagmeister’s ‘Happy Film’ at the Reasons To Be Creative conference in September. I found his piece on how ‘worrying solves nothing’ particularly inspiring. The Great Discontent’s interview with Joshua Davis was really interesting as well. I found his honesty and attitude to the industry heartening. This is going to sound cheesy, but my biggest inspiration this year has been friends and family. Learning to really take note of how people use and interact with technology has had the biggest influence on my work this year. 

What was the best event or conference you attended in 2013?

The year has included meeting lots of new people and organisations. Conference highlights included Future Cities at JMU which was really insightful, especially as a resident of Liverpool. It was good to be back in Brighton for Reasons to be Creative and it was great to see how the conference has developed since its days as Flash on the Beach. Meeting the staff and students at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design in Dundee and taking part in their Guru’s day was also inspiring.

Looking forward to 2014, what are the plans for you and your team?

We hope to continue our work with connected television and with large format touch screens. We are also interested in more projects centered on bringing archives to life. 

What are your predictions for 2014? 

Trying to predict the future is a risky game, but as the amount of digital content and services advance, the concern for designers will continue to be about ease of use. Maybe 2014 will also be the year we get Apple’s answer to home entertainment?