For Telefonica, innovation means a deeper understanding of our humanity

The Collision conference is a sprawling, noisy celebration of the ways technology and entrepreneurial hustle are transforming business.

One of the core themes woven throughout the four-day event is how technology can reinvent marketing, and more specifically—in the parlance preferred by the tech community—consumer experiences. It’s the intersection of UX and branded communications to really elevate brands in the hearts and minds of consumers.

But the subtext in some of the presentations is not how technology can solve branding problems, but how brands can solve the human problems created by technology. That was a key focus of a presentation by Telefonica and Interbrand Group on Tuesday.

Telefonica is a $73 billion-a-year European telecom giant, but rather than talk about the power of its 5G network, global head of insight and strategy for innovation Lucia Komljen was there to talk about the company’s efforts to understand how 5G networks are changing the world, for good and bad.

While marketing conferences have been talking about putting their customers at the core of the brand for years now, several speakers have talked about the current challenge of understanding what consumers really want and need—despite the seemingly endless data about them.

“The thing about technology is that what we love as innovators may not be what consumers and humans and people appreciate understand or value,” said Christopher Nurko, chief innovation officer with Interbrand Group. So how does a company become both human-centric while staying dedicated to the most innovative technology?

You need a leadership that is uncomfortable with the status quo, a culture of innovation and risk taking, and a strategy that aligns business priorities with consumer needs, wants and values.

Business leaders know they need innovation to drive new revenue streams, but also say they don’t understand consumers, he said. “We are data rich, but meaning poor.”  Brands need to “build superlative understanding of people first and then make them customers,” he said.

In other words, no matter how great the technology, or how much data companies have to work with, they have to adopt a way of operating and thinking that makes understanding people a priority.

As much as advances in technology are “incredibly exciting,” Komijen said that you can see “the hazard lurking” below the surface if you look closely. Today’s businesses have to take more responsibility for those dangers and concerns, and strive for a better understanding of the consequences.

At the moment, she said, too much product development is being done by a small cast of technologists who decide how to turn technology into business opportunity, but fail to consider the human perspective.

“The things that excite technologists about technology don’t necessarily excite people; and the things people want, technologists often don’t understand,” she said. The team that worked on Alexa reportedly said they were inspired by Star Trek, she said, but people have repeatedly said they want voice technology and smart assistants to be more like a mother to help with life decisions.

To fully adopt a human-centred design approach, Telefonica developed what it calls the “human core”—a methodology to better understand what people want, need and desire. “It is about human insight as the centre of gravity of our innovation strategy,” she said.

As it started to prepare for the arrival of 5G a few years ago, for example, Telefonica went to South Korea—the most advanced networked market in the world—to see how how society was changing because of ultra-fast networks. When you look beyond the ability to stream live baseball games on the subway, you see there is a “profound tension,” she said. On the one hand, she said, people are excited by the potential for amazing content experiences. “On the other hand, it also puts people’s focus, people’s mental capabilities and the ability to be present at risk.”

Similarly, when Telefonica began thinking about the future of its video platforms, it ran an experiment asking people to go on “video detox.” It’s about resetting systems and understanding the effects of video content: what video is delicious, what is nutritious and what is just junk, she said. “We realized that video in this age has become the enemy of social connection, physical wellbeing and productivity.”

The specific examples illustrated how Telefonica is working hard to understand how technology is changing society, rather than figuring out a cool new technology that can be pitched to consumers tomorrow.

David Brown