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How will the metaverse change customer experience?


Some believe it will offer a cornucopia of heightened consumer experiences; others fear it will become a dystopia. But they’re unlikely to find out for at least another five years

Jan 28, 2022

David Benady

Fancy meeting some interesting-looking new people at a virtual coffee shop? You’ll sit at home sipping your own brew, but wear a virtual reality (VR) headset to experience the café and mingle with your new acquaintances as a cartoon avatar. Or how about wearing a waterproof headset and entering a swimming pool to simulate the sensations of space travel? Or letting your avatar walk round a clothes store and try items on for size? Virtual fitting will be an exact process, because your avatar will be measured up for all your vital statistics, from inside leg to collar size. 

These are just a few of the experiences that will be made possible by the metaverse, the giant VR network that the tech industry is constructing. 

“The metaverse proposes to transform the internet, which is largely a transfer of information from a server to a user, into a more immersive and real-feeling experience that can be shared by an unlimited number of users,” explains Doug Stephens, founder of consultancy Retail Prophet.

A space where you can exist as an avatar, character or player, the metaverse offers either an immersive virtual world or enables virtual experiences to be superimposed on to the real world. You’ll probably need to wear a headset, which could be a deal-breaker for some people – 3D cinema has never really taken off because of those irritating glasses. But, for those willing to put up with this, the metaverse promises a profusion of experiences that could vastly improve consumers’ lives. Inevitably, though, there could be some serious downsides. 

“We have rampant problems on the internet, including bullying and fraud, that we haven’t even begun to tackle,” Stephens says. “To simply hurtle forward into a more immersive and persistent version of that would be reckless, to say the least.”

Who’s averse to the metaverse?

Could the metaverse really turn out to be an unwelcoming world of virtual vendettas and 3D thievery? How will its inhabitants be protected from harm? 

Stephens believes that we need to appeal to our “better angels” to create a positive vision of the metaverse. Jonathan Manzi, co-founder and CEO of blockchain provider Beyond Protocol, has just such a vision. He foresees a virtual realm that is autonomous, yet democratic, decentralised and enabling. 

Manzi enthuses about the possibilities for building a better experience than that currently offered by Web 2.0, which has been overshadowed by the dysfunctionality associated with some social media platforms. The metaverse will be part of the next stage of internet development known as Web 3.0, he says. This will use blockchain technology to create the truly egalitarian, participatory internet that was originally envisaged by its inventors.

The latest wave of Web 3.0 hype was triggered by the renaming of the parent company of Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Oculus from Facebook Inc to Meta Platforms in October 2021. Meta’s co-founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, gave a presentation showing the possibilities offered by the metaverse, revealing that his company had invested $10bn (£7.45bn) in developing the technology that year alone. 

This sparked an ideological battle between technologists and human rights activists about the nature of the metaverse. Would it be dominated by corporate interests? How would its users be shielded from invasions of privacy and the misuse of data? How could real consumer choice be enhanced?

Manzi says that new blockchain-based unions known as decentralised autonomous organisations (DAUs) will give consumers the power to control their private data and the experiences they have in the metaverse. A DAU would serve as a trusted intermediary, run democratically in the interests of its members, who join it via an immutable blockchain ledger and vote on their relationships with brands and retailers by means of so-called smart contracts.

Imagine that a group of employees are working in a virtual office space and lunchtime rolls around, Manzi says: “You could have those users’ information flow through the DAU, which decides whether it’s appropriate to serve them an advert about the food from trusted restaurants in the area. The ad is served, the food is delivered and money is exchanged to pay for it, all on a smart contract. That’s something that adds value. It’s good marketing – something that’s helpful to my life.”

This contrasts with the invasive advertising practices that have become a characteristic of Web 2.0. Some advertisers use psychological profiling to find people’s weak points and target them with ads for inappropriate or even harmful products and services. 

“The DAU framework has checks and balances inherent in it all the way through –something that has not been possible in Web 2.0,” he says.

When can customers shop in the metaverse?

But such developments are still thought to be at least five years away. The metaverse will be a native world for generations Z and alpha. It will require users to have technological knowledge and an understanding of DAUs, blockchains, cryptocurrencies and non-fungible tokens, which will act as exchange systems. So it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, sipped virtually or not.

The early indicators of how it will work are already available, though, in meeting apps such as Gather Town and gaming platforms such as Animal Crossing and Roblox. 

Kathryn Bishop is foresight editor of, which highlights trends predicted by The Future Laboratory, a brand consultancy. She points to South Korea as a society that’s already making strong advances in metaverse tech. It offers apps such as social network Zepeto, which uses facial recognition systems to create 3D avatars of users that can already interact virtually. 

Meanwhile, Ralph Lauren has released a collection on Roblox and even runs a virtual coffee shop. The fashion giant and other brands that are getting involved in early metaverse spaces all see this as a way to connect with the next generation of customers.

As a consumer entering such spaces, “you can meet other people and have a completely alternative brand experience to one that you’ve been used to,” Bishop says. “It’s a great way to discover new products or perhaps unlock some kind of loyalty bonus.” 

Stephens acknowledges that the shopping experience could be vastly improved by Web 3.0. In essence, ecommerce is “digital catalogue shopping” in its current form, he says. “It’s not social, it’s not engaging and it’s certainly not fun. The metaverse could change that.”

Written by
David Benady

Middle East’s critical infrastructure faces cyberattacks while digital transformation fuels data theft

The Middle East, with its patchwork of political rivalries and disputes, is suffering nation-state-sponsored cyberattacks on infrastructure such as utilities, oil and gas and transport hubs. Meanwhile, the move to cloud services and growth of digital commerce is fuelling a worrying rise in the theft of consumer data. Critical infrastructure must segregate and protect networks while Governments must bring forward new GDPR-style data protection.

By David Benady

IDG Connect | MAR 16, 2021 11:30 PM PDT


Across the Middle East, security teams at critical infrastructure plants are on maximum alert as a wave of politically-motivated cyberattacks targets their operations.

Many of the attacks go undetected and those that are discovered are often unreported, which may disguise the nature and extent of the problem. Attackers target infrastructure such as water systems, oil and gas facilities, transport hubs and manufacturing plants. As Tarek Kuzbari, Middle East and Turkey director for security vendor Cybereason, says: “In the Middle East, the number of politically-driven cyberattacks is very high compared to other regions.

“With all the politics in the region, such as the revolutions of the Arab Spring and tensions between different nations, each country has started to build their own cyber offensive capability and have launched their own operations.”

A series of cyberattacks on Israel’s rural water infrastructure last year which disrupted water supplies is a recent case. Shortly after, a cyberattack shut down Iran’s Shahid Rajaee port for days. A Washington Post report attributed the attack to Israel, in retaliation for the earlier incursions into its water systems. This cycle of tit-for-tat attacks threatens the security of a wide range of industries.

Shamoon 3 virus sabotages oil and gas installations

A report by UAE cybersecurity company DarkMatter in 2019 showed that the oil and gas sectors, finance, transport and utilities have been targeted by state-sponsored groups seeking to undermine the economic and social stability of rival nations. Three quarters of oil and gas companies in the region had experienced cybersecurity breaches.

DarkMatter’s analysis identified eight key “intrusion sets” — co-ordinated attacks — Bitter, Molerats, MuddyWater, Chafer, DarkHydrus, Shamoon 3, OilRig, and DNSpionage. Shamoon 3 in particular has been used to sabotage major organisations.

According to Karim Sabbagh, CEO of DarkMatter Group, the lesson of these intrusions is clear: “Organizations in the region have a short window of time to transform their cybersecurity posture and demonstrate stronger resilience in the face of escalating and increasingly sophisticated cybersecurity threats.”

But as infrastructure providers attempt to boost their protective measures, these are routinely circumvented by attackers, which are developing ever greater expertise in penetrating networks. As Kuzbari says: “The more you evolve as a defender, the cybercriminal will evolve too based on every measure you are taking.” Simply installing more sophisticated protection tools, whether firewalls or end-point protections, is insufficient. Cybereason’s approach involves closely monitoring all network data to identify any unusual activity, and if it is a potential threat, to neutralise it.

Keeping industrial networks segregated from IT

According to Vibin Shaju, director of presales at McAfee for EMEA Enterprise, defenders must avoid complacency. In the past, Operational Technology (OT) networks — the digital communication systems which connect industrial plants and machinery — have been kept segregated from corporate IT networks which interact with the outside world. Cyber attackers will typically try and gain entry to a company’s IT network — for instance through phishing emails — and from there seek to enter the organisation’s OT network which controls critical plant and machinery. Segregating networks has been a key defensive measure to stop attackers finding a way through.

But networks are growing more integrated as Internet of Things sensors are used to collect and emit data about plant and machinery. With the increasing data sharing between OT and IT networks, organisations are becoming vulnerable, he says.

“We need to make sure that every type of security monitoring tool that we have deployed for our enterprise (IT) network is going into the OT network. We need to make sure that there is the same level of monitoring for that OT network as for the IT network, because there is a bridge between them.”

Shaju adds that vendors such as Siemens, which create the OT systems used by critical infrastructure, are investing heavily in security and are partnering with cybersecurity providers to test their tools. Working together, they are creating new security blueprints and building them into critical infrastructure. “They were not looking at security 10 years back, but today they are really looking at those scenarios and providing solutions,” he says.

Consumer data theft on the rise

Politically-motivated cyberwarfare is not the only area of concern when it comes to network security. The region is also experiencing a wave of cyber-crime as its economy undergoes rapid digital transformation. Digital banking is on the rise triggering an explosion of digital launches from takeaway food to taxis. In a few years, Amazon has taken a huge share of e-commerce after buying local online marketplace Souq in 2017. This has been accompanied by a rapid shift to using cloud services, but many businesses are still in the process of developing their cybersecurity strategies.

Regulation and legislation in many Middle East states is lagging western nations – with laws such as Europe’s GDPR and the California Consumer Privacy Act  – leaving their economies unprepared for the challenges of cybercrime.

As Kuzbari says: “One of our major concerns in the region is that information tends not to go public. There are lots of regulators trying to change that, but currently if any financial institutions, airlines or government bodies gets compromised, they report to the local authority privately and no information goes out to customers.”

Meanwhile, Shaju warns that businesses are rapidly moving data to the cloud and this could create the potential for cyberattacks. “Knowing that this (cloud adoption) is going to be on a high curve for the next two or three years, will be a major area of concern that every CISO (chief information security officer) or transformation architect needs to be looking at,” he says.  

Pull your SOCs up

While tooling up with the latest security technology is vital — deploying firewalls, end- point protections and scans — organisations should not solely rely on these.

“Technology is one part, but I would always say invest in a good Security Operations Centre (SOC) and good people. All those attacks don’t happen in a day or two, they take months,” says Shaju. Attackers target networks over a long period, such as through repeated email scams, until they gain entry to a network. They can then either wait for the opportune moment to trigger an attack or gradually exfiltrate — transfer — data over a period.  

Organisations should create effective cybersecurity operations and SOCs that keep tabs on network traffic and identify any suspicious activity. And for industrial operations, OT and IT networks must be kept segregated as far as possible. The price of cybersecurity failure is too high.

Russia’s AI challenge

Russia has unleashed a new strategy to boost AI as both a business tool and a military solution. National bank Sberbank has been given a crucial role in building AI strategy and is helping develop a range of supercomputers to aid AI innovation. We look at Sberbank’s launches and assess the future of Russia’s AI industry and its impact across Europe and globally.

By David Benady

IDG Connect | MAR 9, 2021 10:30 PM PST



Russia is staking its future on Artificial Intelligence as President Vladimir Putin puts the technology at the heart of the nation’s digital transformation. With the US, China and Europe all investing heavily in AI, the scene is set for a global battle for supremacy. As Putin has said, the nation that leads in AI “will be ruler of the world.”

In a speech to the AI Journey Conference 2020 held in Moscow in December, Putin told 10,000 online delegates that AI is “one of the greatest technologies ever created by humanity.” He promised that AI would become deeply embedded into the nation’s infrastructure as part of a new Russian revolution.

Observers have warned about the use of the technology in military and internal security applications amid fears of a new AI-powered global stand-off. Russia has trialled the Uran-9 unmanned robot tank in Syria and aims to have 30% of combat capability powered autonomously by 2030. But it is in the civil sphere that AI promises a profound transformation of everyday life.

During the event, Putin spent two hours expounding on AI, flanked by former economy minister Herman Gref, who is Chief Executive of Sberbank, Russia’s largest financial institution.

Gref plays a key role in Russia’s AI transformation. Sberbank is a 150-year old institution, half Government-owned and with 100 million customers. The bank is undergoing a dramatic re-invention using AI technology. Sberbank is in the process of launching an eco-system of AI-powered consumer services under the Sber brand, spanning ride-hailing, food delivery, digital assistants and automated banking. 

But as Sberbank’s Chief Technology Officer David Rafalovsky explains: “What makes Sber unique in the financial industry is that we are not only users of technology, we are creators of technology.”

Introducing Christofari

Sberbank has built the powerful Christofari supercomputer, unveiled in December 2019, which allows for the fast processing of AI models. 

One of the world’s 40 fastest supercomputers and the most powerful in Russia, Christofari was developed in association with US chip maker Nvidia. It allows users to train machine learning models using neural networks in a matter of days rather than weeks. This is boosting AI areas such as natural language processing, predictive analytics, computer vision and fraud detection.

Rafalovsky says this has greatly improved the quality of Russian artificial language generation, putting it on a par with anything produced by the US tech giants. Christofari’s natural language processing uses GPT-3, the Generative pre-Trained Transformer model that uses deep learning to produce human like text. This is powering Sber’s digital assistants such as a service called Duet. This is comparable to Google’s Duo, a voice assistant that can book appointments over the phone, interacting with humans. “Only Sber and Google, as far as I know, have the ability (for a digital assistant) to maintain a robust conversation and make a decision on our behalf and I am very proud of that,” he says.

Meanwhile, Sberbank’s commercial loan product known as K7M promises to make loan decisions in seven minutes. While it might take a committee weeks or months of deliberation to give credit to a small business, K7M uses AI to make rapid decisions. “That’s down to many years of investment in AI,” says Rafalovsky. “It’s a lot of work but there’s no magic. It is a model we train over a long period of time with a lot of trial and error. It also involved a lot of parallel execution with humans to see if we were making the right decisions before we launched it in real life,” he says.

A significant feature of Christophari is that Sber hires out usage through its Sber Cloud service, which is like a Russian version of Amazon Web Services.

“A small start-up in Russia can in a few clicks have access to this amazing technological platform,” says Rafalovsky. “We are in the midst of a revolution and the access to AI technology is becoming more democratic.”  

AI for everyone

Sberbank is a founding member of the AI-Russia Alliance, a cross-industry initiative bringing together Sber, Gazprom Neft, search and e-commerce giant Yandex, which runs its own AI-powered eco-system of consumer services., the email and social network operator, and the Russian Direct Investment Fund are also involved. The Alliance aims to promote AI.

“AI cannot be just accessible to large companies with deep pockets, we have passed that point of development. Everything we are doing through the alliance is aligned with that strategy to make it as democratic as possible,” he says.

According to Elena Semenovskaia, a senior researcher at IDC, Russia has been more successful at embedding AI in industrial rather than consumer applications. Twinned with data from Internet of Things sensors, AI is used in the oil and gas industry to simulate and predict extraction processes. There are digital assistants in metallurgical plants, while AI is being used widely in urban infrastructure. “It is in everything that relates to smart cities and the safe city, so image recognition, facial recognition, analysing different movement patterns,” she says. 

AI development requires advanced hardware, highly skilled data scientists and access to high quality data. “The bottom line is it is expensive,” she adds.

A challenge for Russia is a lack of cleaned, reliable data for analysis that can be used for developing algorithms. “They are just starting to combine internal data with external data from website visits, mobile operator data and retail data, it is in the process. I believe that next year there will be more data ready for writing AI properly.”

Russia has a highly-educated workforce of scientists, mathematicians and statisticians. But Semenovskaia says the country lacks advanced business thinking and needs to train and attract more business intelligence consultants.

AI is rapidly developing self-service applications making it easier for non-professionals to create models and build their own digital assistants and predictive analytics. This will be a world where every desktop has a robot and an AI model builder.  

“To understand the whole business process of the company or organisation, you need people who have good problem-solving skills and good logic and development skills and understand the business,” says Semenovskaia.

As ever, knowing how to process data is just the start. To make AI effective, applying it to solve real-world challenges – from speeding up loan approvals to developing chatbots – is the key. Practical business, logistical and management skills will be vital to achieving Russia’s grand vision for AI.

How a new generation is embracing gender diversity in engineering

How a new generation is embracing gender diversity in engineering

While great progress has been made in the sector over the past few decades, younger people are now leading the charge when it comes to making engineering an inviting field for womenSupported byAbout this content

David Benady

Fri 24 Jul 2020 14.12 BSTLast modified on Fri 24 Jul 2020 14.14 BST


Stem ambassadors at engineering firm Renishaw
 Stem ambassadors at engineering firm Renishaw

When structural engineer Martin Burden first came to the UK from Australia 30 years ago, the engineering profession was thoroughly male-dominated, he says. In his first UK job, there was just one female engineer out of 50 males, while in Australia he hadn’t worked with a single woman engineer.

“It felt like a gentlemen’s club that didn’t want women to be involved. And as a result, they felt that they couldn’t be,” he says. “It’s hard to put your finger on why. It comes down to not being welcome. With science, technology, engineering and mathematics in universities, women didn’t feel like it was something they were naturally steered towards.”

How times change. Today, the majority of the engineers Burden works with are female. In the design office at engineering and architecture company Ramboll, where he is consulting director, about 15 out of 20 engineers are women. He has witnessed a sea change in female participation.

“For entry level design and engineering at the first three or four rungs on the ladder, gender balance is about 50/50,” he says. “But it drops off past the age of 30 or 35 to around 15% higher up the business.”

Martin Burden
 Structural engineer and consulting director Martin Burden says he has witnessed a sea change in female participation in the profession over the past 30 years

Changing engineering’s reputation as a male preserve and making women feel welcome in the profession requires a transformation in the attitudes of both men and women. Engineering firms are putting in place training in unconscious bias to alert men when their thinking and behaviour may unconsciously discriminate against certain groups, including women.

Attitudes of younger male engineers seem a world away from the archaic approaches of the past. Kristian Goodchild, a graduate software engineer at engineering firm Renishaw, believes everyone involved in engineering should focus on the lack of diversity in the field. “Without prolonged thought on these issues, many male engineers would not take the time to consider the lack of diversity in the workplace and the possible reasons why there is a gender imbalance,” he says.

Diversity training, discussion and constant self-questioning are required to identify and deal with examples of bias, he adds.

He says he has noticed subtle – though probably unconscious – “microaggressions” from senior male engineers about female engineers and their ability to do their job. He concedes that similar comments are also made about male engineers, but he wonders whether women are held to higher standards. Even so, he hasn’t experienced substantial gender imbalance, as about 40% of the engineers in his department are women.

Mind the (pay) gap: how to get more women into senior engineering roles

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Meanwhile, Jesse Mitchell, who since graduating last year has worked on Renishaw’s mechanical engineering graduate scheme, says he was unaware of the issues of conscious and unconscious bias when he first started his job. But his company has been active in training and educating staff to raise awareness of these factors and how staff should act in the workplace to avoid discrimination.

He says that some of his female engineering friends are apprehensive about the gender imbalance in situations such as meetings or idea sharing sessions. Others are unfazed by the imbalance while some actually enjoy the gender ratio.

While engineering firms are waking up to the need to increase diversity, an area that has seen little progress is construction sites, where there are still very few women engineers or workers. “The construction environment is not really tailored to women’s needs,” says Burden. An example is the personal protective equipment of hi-vis jackets, helmets and boots. These invariably do not come in women’s sizes and are not designed to fit women. “Women think if I’ve got to go to the site, I’ve got to go through loops and hoops to actually be able to get a piece of kit that makes me feel comfortable. It’s an unconscious thing. If you’re a woman wanting to go to a site, it’s not inviting. It’s not actually set up for you.”

Even so, in most cases, male attitudes to inclusivity have improved – it will take time for young women to see engineering in the same light as more gender-balanced professions such as medicine, media or education. But with men becoming more aware of the issues surrounding gender bias, the dial is moving in the right direction.Topics

Wouldn’t it be better to say that your business has purpose?


The Guardian, March 27th, 2015

Read here

Large companies are starting to realise that when it comes to introducing ethical practices into their day-to-day operations, small is still beautiful. David Benady reports on a recent Guardian seminar on systems thinking

Tipping point: helping people access good sanitation, promoted at the International Toilet Festival in New Delhi, is part of companies’ corporate social responsibilities.

Tipping point: helping people access good sanitation, promoted at the International Toilet Festival in New Delhi, is part of companies’ corporate social responsibilities. Photograph: Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images
David Benady
Friday 27 March 2015 07.10 GMT Last modified on Monday 30 March 2015 12.42 BST
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Grappling with the burning environmental issues of climate change, resource scarcity, poverty and population growth, it’s easy to feel powerless. However, one approach gaining popularity in the world of sustainability is systems thinking. This looks at systems in their entirety and seeks holistic remedies, rather than concentrating on discrete problems.

It is an approach that businesses are beginning to embrace as they look to transform their organisations and embed environmental and ethical practices into their everyday activities. It requires businesses to change their corporate purpose. But where do they start?

To discuss how systems thinking can help business leaders transform their organisations, the Guardian, in association with PwC, brought together about 50 company bosses, leaders in sustainability and academics to discuss the issue. They split into four working groups to share best practice and debate how systems thinking offers a practical way of introducing environmental and social thinking into business activities. Each group then reported back to the conference; this was followed by a panel discussion.

One of the biggest problems for any large organisation looking to transform its approach is overcoming silos and power bases – different departments tend to work independently and resist outside change. Jane Clark, climate change adviser and head of learning at the Department for International Development, said: “The problem is with silos – system thinking is the antithesis of that.”

Clark gave an example of how systems thinking had changed approaches to forestry. Thirty years ago this was simply about planting trees, measuring them and cutting them down. “Now if we define a forestry project it’s about governance, it’s about markets, it’s about partnerships, it’s about working with the EU on trade law around timber. That’s an example of where the development world is shifting from the technocratic view towards a much more holistic way of thinking,” she said.

A significant challenge for businesses is deciding how to start a transformation programme. PwC’s global corporate responsibility leader Lisa Greenlee told a working group discussion that a few years ago the company began training about one quarter of its staff in sustainability issues to create a “tipping point”.

“If you get enough influential people in your organisation starting to think in a new way then they can start to be the change agents,” Greenlee said.

Veolia’s Estelle Brachlianoff said the waste management company had moved into the circular economy. Veolia’s Estelle Brachlianoff said the waste management company had moved into the circular economy. Photograph: Sam Friedrich
Estelle Brachlianoff, senior executive vice president for the UK and Ireland at environmental services company Veolia, said the business had identified 40 employees as change agents, not for their expertise in sustainability, but because they were influencers who would carry other employees with them.

Brachlianoff explained that Veolia has transformed its corporate purpose away from being simply a waste-disposal company to become a mining and chemicals business working in the circular economy. It has created a project producing energy for 5,000 homes in Southwark, south London, using black bin bag refuse.

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Veolia has also found ways of extracting minerals from street sweepings, such as palladium emitted by car exhausts, and has manufactured plastics made from human waste.

“We are not solving the whole circularity of the entire world, but I have a list of examples of real business cases that are happening now in the UK. We want to show our customers that it is possible,” she said.

Collaboration and participation were strong themes in the discussion, as business transformation requires partnerships between organisations that would often never work together. Chris Cook, global sustainability director at paint manufacturer AkzoNobel, said the company was looking at recycling the paint left over after decorating that tends to sit in cans in sheds and garages.

AkzoNobel went into partnership with a small business that had the same goals, because it would have struggled to achieve its aims had the project been carried out internally. “We are working with small companies – something we normally never do –because we’re beginning to realise that there are too many barriers due to our own systems,” Cook said.

A prime opportunity for implementing change is when businesses relaunch their processes after a change in market conditions or when introducing new technology. But as Baran Osmanoğlu, a business transformation consultant working in France, told the discussion, companies she has worked with have been resistant to introducing sustainable practices. “Usually the answer is: ‘Yes, but the cost will be higher.’ Or: ‘I’m so used to doing my job that way. What you say is nice, but maybe later.’”


A positive outcome of taking a system-wide approach to transforming businesses is that the usual blame game associated with environmental lobbying could become a thing of the past. As Nadine McCormick, programme officer at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, said: “It’s not about blaming people, but looking at the systems and why they failed.”

McCormick said that it would be helpful if the Guardian “stopped pointing fingers” at people and corporations, and instead outlined the system issues that had gone wrong and how they should be addressed. The discussion heard about attempts to transform the way business leaders and their customers view the purpose of organisations. Jan Levy, managing director of consultancy Three Hands, described how he had liaised with business leaders from British Gas to help them work with an affordable warmth group in Birmingham.

“We exposed business leaders to the social issues surrounding people’s need for warmth, health, affordability and safety and the relevance that had to their business. It gave them an understanding of what life is like if you are living in fuel poverty.” Levy said that the aim was “to make it more real for them”.

Geoff Lane: ‘There isn’t any substitute for first-hand experience.’
Geoff Lane: ‘There isn’t any substitute for first-hand experience.’ Photograph: Sam Friedrich
Picking up on this, PwC’s partner for sustainability and climate change, Geoff Lane, told the panel: “How do you get more people to think along these lines? In my opinion, there isn’t any substitute for first-hand experience. You can do the theoretical bit online, but you’ve got to immerse people into systems situations.”

Meanwhile James Tiernan, energy and environment manager at Unite Students, a provider of accommodation for 43,000 UK students, said his role was to get these residents to act more sustainably, something that would save energy and water costs for the company. Tiernan said the company had tried to embed a system-wide approach to sustainability by stealth. “What we’ve ended up with is a flexible tool kit that can be given to 140-odd buildings across the country locally, in a way that is right for them.”

Floor tile company Interface, which has strong ethical and environmental policies, was considered by the panel to be a good example of a company that had made an effective transformation to sustainability.

Nicola Millson, managing director of sustainability consultancy 6heads, who has done consultancy work with Interface, said: “[Interface] stands out because, in some ways, it is not as process-driven. It really doesn’t like process, which allows a lot of space for people to explore and experiment.”

John Hutton, head of sustainability at construction giant Bam Nuttall, added that it is important to remember in any review of corporate purpose that sustainability is about humanity. “It is about bringing more humanity to work if we want our businesses to be more sustainable. It’s about embracing that emotion,” he said.

Prof Stephen Martin: ‘There is a huge dysfunctional mess that systems thinking can help clean up.’
Prof Stephen Martin: ‘There is a huge dysfunctional mess that systems thinking can help clean up.’ Photograph: Sam Friedrich
Prof Stephen Martin, honorary professor at the University of Worcester, told the panel that there is so much complexity in organisational systems that they can appear to be beyond change. Finding ways to cut through this complexity is the great challenge of systems thinking. “This is a huge dysfunctional mess that systems thinking can help clean up,” he said.

Richard Spencer, head of sustainability at accountancy body ICAEW, said that the accountancy profession needed to look at the core purpose of business and how this is accounted for. Ultimately, businesses need to move away from a profit-first approach.

“Wouldn’t it be better to say that as a business you have a purpose – for example, a pharma company’s is to make people well – and that to fulfill that purpose we have a socially constructed model that is a profit model?” Spencer said.

This would put social purpose before profit and ensure that businesses take into account their wider responsibilities to the world. Such a system-wide approach could be just what’s needed to change the practices of companies so they can help solve humanity’s problems.
Six things we learned about business and sustainability policy
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On the panel
Jo Confino (Chair)
Executive editor, the Guardian

Estelle Brachlianoff
Director, UK and Northern Europe, Veolia Environment

Geoff Lane
Partner, PwC

Stephen Martin
Honorary professor, University of Worcester

The systems thinking series is funded by PwC. All content is editorially independent except for pieces labelled advertisement feature. Find out more here.

How technology is changing marketing – the Guardian, 29/9/2014

Sponsored feature: With our attention turning away from the traditional advertising domains of TV and print and towards our electronic devices, how can the marketing industry keep up?

The rise of smartphones and apps means marketers have to develop digital skills to communicate effectively with customers. Photograph: Alamy
David Benady
Monday 29 September 2014 12.14 BST
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A transformation of marketing is underway as we spend more time on our mobiles, tablets and laptops. The challenge for brands is to connect with customers through all these devices in real time and create campaigns that work across social media, display advertising and e-commerce.

The real-time conversations brands have with people as they interact with websites and mobile apps has changed the nature of marketing. The modern-day marketing department needs to combine the creative side of the discipline – using powerful narratives to tap into people’s wishes and aspirations – with the technical side of data, digital engineering and analytics. The two areas do not always sit easily together. Getting creative marketers to work alongside technical staff can be a huge challenge.

To explore these issues, the Guardian, in association with software firm Adobe, invited a panel of five top marketers and digital chiefs to discuss the matter before an audience of about 50 marketing and digital professionals. The question they addressed was: “What does the merging of technology and marketing mean for marketers?”

The panel examined the challenges of bringing together these two distinct worlds. Marketing is concerned with understanding people’s motivations and using these insights to create campaigns that promote brands and encourage people to buy their products. It is a creative and often intuitive process. The technology used to achieve this, however, requires skills in mathematics, statistics and computing. How can these two different areas work together effectively?

As Guardian News and Media’s chief digital officer Tanya Cordrey told the panel: “Where marketing hasn’t changed is the creativity and the passion from brands that have really helped build loyalty and emotion.” But she added: “Those things you still need, but almost all aspects of marketing have changed very dramatically.”

Three areas of marketing which have been transformed by digital are the speed, relevance and reach of campaigns. Mark Singleton, head of sportsbook marketing at betting brand Paddy Power, recalled an incident in the Premiership last March when Newcastle United manager Alan Pardew headbutted Hull City midfielder David Meyler in a touchline clash. Within half an hour, Paddy Power had reacted to the incident with wit and speed by booking print ads referring to the incident for the next morning’s press. The bookie offered a money-back guarantee on bets for Newcastle’s following fixture should one of its team score a header.


“To be able to turn around a press ad at half past four in the afternoon and for it to be in the papers the next morning is fantastic, it wouldn’t have happened four or five years ago,” said Singleton. “The rise of digital means you can be incredibly fast,” he added.

Digital marketing has also greatly increased relevancy. Messages can be targeted with a laser focus to very specific groups offering them relevant content.

Meanwhile, the reach of campaigns has also increased greatly. With so many different ways that customers access media, whether through Facebook, YouTube, news websites, via mobile or tablet apps, a strong idea can quickly gain huge scale. “If you come up with that nugget of an idea, you’ve now got such reach that you can expand that and get tremendous coverage just from a little niche idea,” said Singleton.

Marketers need to update their skills in order to make the most of these fast-moving, and highly relevant campaigns through digital. They need to work closely with data specialists, web developers and social media professionals. Charles Wells, chief marketing officer at charity fundraising service JustGiving, told the panel that the marketer of the future needs to combine marketing and creative skills with an understanding of real-time technology. He said his marketing team has data scientists, engineers, developers and user experience experts, who work together in small project teams to try and create growth. This is a radical change from the way traditional marketing departments work, he said.

He thought the big task for people in marketing would be to find their own niche: “The biggest challenge for the marketer of the future isn’t how do I get skilled up, but how do I get to fit into this machine and which cog am I going to try and be?”

Just as marketers need to become more savvy about technology, data and analytics, so the technically minded staff on the digital side have to get more creative. They are rising to this challenge, said Wells. A fifth of staff at JustGiving are data strategists whose sole job is to identify patterns from the data the service gathers from millions of charity fundraisers. “They are probably some of the most creative people in the building, they are looking for fascinating things and they are building amazing engines,” said Wells. “Some of the algorithm stuff I’ve seen over the past few months has been some of the sexiest marketing I’ve seen for a long time,” he added.

A vital quality for marketers in the fast-changing digital environment is curiosity, rather than any specific technical knowledge, said Adobe digital marketing director John Watton.

“It’s not about a particular tool or system, it is about being curious about other possibilities because the tools we will use in two or three years time will be totally different from the ones we were using two years ago,” he told the discussion.

A question about the effectiveness of digital marketing was raised by audience member Steve Mullins, content director of brand-e. He felt that targeted advertising hasn’t really improved over the years and that brands are spending a lot of money on technology without necessarily reaping rewards. “Should the merger of buying and tech mean buyer beware?” he asked.

Lisa Bridgett, sales and marketing director at upmarket online fashion retailer Net-a-Porter, answered that marketers ultimately need to rely on their natural intuition rather than on technology.

She referred to programmatic ad buying, where computers buy and place online ads in an automated way, and said that there are few people who really understand how such technology works.

“You can’t just say that the technology is perfect because of course it’s not. In fact, I’m sitting with my agency and really unpicking programmatic and the truth is that they don’t understand it at all. I don’t actually think that there is anyone who understands a lot of these things when you get into the world of big data.” She added: “What I do is build up an arsenal of data and then I use my intuition. Time and time again it plays out right. So you need to be dextrous in these two different worlds.”

For brands to work effectively together in the digital world, chief marketing officers and chief information officers must work in unison. But this is hard to achieve for many organisations and the two sides can end up in conflict. Pure digital players such as Net-a-Porter that have always been digital are structured for the digital age.

But “legacy” businesses that need to undergo a digital transformation must decide who should lead that change. Should it be the chief information officer or the chief marketing officer or perhaps someone from a different department? As Adobe’s Watton said: “There is a battle going on. I don’t know who will win that battle.”

Meanwhile, Hema Chauhan, marketing executive at agency TMW, asked whether brand teams, technologists or agencies were best placed to implement new technology systems. The panel agreed that it is usually agencies who are responsible for this. But JustGiving’s Charles Well said agencies had to stop trying to pitch technology and start offering creative ideas that can improve the organisation. “My challenge to agencies is do what you are really good at, which is to come up with amazing ideas,” he said.

The question of how businesses should identify the marketers and technologists of the future was raised by Omaid Hiwaizi, chief strategy officer at agency Geometry Global. “Do you filter them out, grow them or hire millennials and put up with them?” he asked.

The panel agreed that having a mix of millennials and more experienced staff was important. Paddy Power’s David Singleton said it was a struggle trying to hang on to good staff, who might go elsewhere. And Adobe’s John Watton said: “You need a balance, you need experienced people who have learned some of the pitfalls. We re-skill people on the job, we move people from traditional content roles into web content roles and spot opportunities for people to move towards more data roles.”

Another audience member, Gregory Gillette, insight analyst at agency 1000 Heads, asked what kind of skills were needed from those looking to get into marketing.

Net-a-Porter’s Lisa Bridgett said she was impressed by the millennial generation as they see no boundaries to what they can do. Marketers can come from many backgrounds: “I think the dexterity around the disciplines is fantastic,” she said.

Those looking for a career in marketing must be prepared to bring together the magic of marketing and the science of technology to create powerful and relevant marketing campaigns.

Bridgett summed up the challenge. “The real stars are the ones who can balance a passion for technology, data, fashion and creativity at the same time.”

Key discussion points
How has the explosion of digital technology changed marketing? This was the theme of the discussion panel organised by the Guardian in association with Adobe. Today’s connected consumers are using smartphones, iPads, laptops – and even glasses and watches – to access content. As a result, marketing departments need to provide compelling campaigns across these different devices and become proficient in using technology. Marketers need to work closely with IT departments and technologists. They need to understand the processes behind developing websites, handling data and running social media campaigns. The panel discussed how marketers could develop the skills to enable them to work hand in hand with technologists while retaining their creativity, flair and intuition.

At the table
Robin Hough (Chair), editor, Guardian Media Network

Charles Wells, chief marketing officer, JustGiving

Tanya Cordrey, chief digital officer, Guardian News & Media

John Watton, director, digital marketing EMEA, Adobe

Lisa Bridgett, director of global sales and marketing, Net-a-Porter

Mark Singleton, head of sportsbook marketing, Paddy Power