Looking back into the future; the last year I had to think more than once on a project we did back in 2013 on the future of e-commerce; Shopping 2020. It would be nice to have a look into the trends we projected back then to see what became true or not, not to prove ourselves right, but more to learn from the thinking patterns. Thinking about this and exploring the articles of June that might be the base for this month’s look-back update, I could not deny the rise in attention for the metaverse for some time now. A new promise for future forecasters from consultancies especially those with a technology focus. As often, without planning to do, links between the stories pop up… First, let’s go back to the shopping future.
It was back in 2013 that we were invited to chair an expert group for the organization that researched the future of online shopping, aka e-commerce. Shopping 2020 is the framing. We got the theme Future Touchpoints to explore; what will be our touchpoints of shopping 7 years in the future. As always the future is unclear, but trends can be reasoned. And so we did. It is nice to look back to the future, with the lens of today, the lens of this newsletter on cities of things.
We defined seven drivers, or trends as you like. I will not mention them all here, if you are interested, you can check our report here. One important central belief we had was that everything could become a shop, every object could be the start for a shopping-ritual as everything was connected to the cloud for information and transaction services. Our future touchpoints were new devices that could pick up the id of an object and connect it to that information. We coined it in concepts like “Retail in the Cloud”, “The Everything Store”, “Retail as Media”, and “Product as Platform”.
The objects become more intelligent from themselves so to say, make interesting combinations, become valuable based on the specific context, that is what a “product as a platform” specifically stands for. We advised the stores and producers to make the product information ready for atomic use. It is what happened over the years after in the way big players like Amazon and bol.com in the Netherlands have become resellers mainly. And Amazon has been scaling up its seamless shopping experience (cashier-less shopping) last month. And even more part of this distributed shopping revolution is the growth of Shopify as software as a service for shops everywhere; the “Everything Store” so to say.
I really like the image that Matt Webb sketched out last month in this article on having Shopify touchpoints in the real world, the vending machines. Everyone who has been to Japan can imagine this easily. Matt stresses how a platform like Shopify could become the back-end integrator of a real-world shopping experience and digitized inventory management that we are now used to. “So I do think there’s a startup in re-inventing the vending machine and becoming the Shopify of physical retail. Not one giant store but, like Shopify, a network of a million tiny ones.” An a step further; ghost kitchens (build for delivery) have become now robotised even.
A good moment to link to the metaverse here. You could say that the metaverse is a catchy term for the development sketched above, but stretching out to all of our lives, to everything we do. The metaverse is the digital twin that equals our physical reality. the reflections on the metaverse operating system by Matthew Ball of last month is a nice reference for making sense of the metaverse as a new era. Or not per se a new era yet as he analyses looking at other technical revolutions coming in waves:
“In truth, there’s never a flip. We can identify when a specific technology was created, tested, or deployed, but not when an era precisely occurred. This is because technological change requires a lot of technological changes, plural, to all come together.” (…) “The difference between the first and second waves is not how much of American industry used electricity, but the extent to which it did — and designed around it.”
Both the electrical revolution and the mobile internet revolution are not single events or inventions driving the change, but are a whole of influencing events. Matthew makes a case against to limited definitions of the multiverse as virtual reality or even “a persistent virtual space enabling continuity of identity and assets”. It is the combination of specific hardware, networking, compute, virtual platforms, interchange tools and standards, payments, content and assets, user behaviours. “we have a good sense for the individual technologies and behaviors needed to enable the Metaverse, but how they come together and what they produce is the hard, important, and society-altering part.”
It is kind of hard to disagree as it is a bit of a generic conclusion in the end. To link it to the cities of things realm I think the metaverse is a useful concept to understand we are moving into a new reality that is merging technology presence and physical presence in a collaborative way. Where mobile internet for instance much more is a digital lens on the physical reality unlocking new tooling and services, metaverse is a blend, virtuality is a starting point and an endpoint. With cities of thing we look into the new relations we will have with objects that also become integrated into this virtual space you could say. Physical things that become really just like digital entities (the fluid assemblages). Matthew Ball is a VC and is concluding ” that the metaverse will revolutionize nearly every industry and function” which is nice for investors to believe of course, and is probably a driver for lots of new startups. What is more interesting is how it influence our relationship with these technologies, shapes our societies and interactions with others. Who will be the creator, the initiator?