Wireless Technologies

How Technology is Reshaping our Physical World

The consumerisation of technology and digitisation of our world have changed how we live, work and interact. The rise of smartphones means we now have a wealth of information on our person whenever and wherever we need it. Social networks allow us to be constantly connected and up-to-date with what is happening around us and the increasing blurring of professional and personal environments is being driven thanks to the popularity of bringing your own devices (BYOD) into work.

We have seen how the average office has evolved over the past few years. Employees hot-desk more than ever as many work remotely from home, or from customer sites. They also work from laptops or tablets instead of the clunky desktops we experienced in the late 20th century, and they may work odd hours, picking up emails at home or early in the morning, and therefore attending a gym class during the day instead.

And now we are reshaping the physical world to map the digital. Whereas previously we tried to replicate real life experience on a website, this is now reversed and we are actually trying to mirror the digital experience in the everyday world.

Let us take cities as an example: historically, to profit from trade routes, they were built on sea fronts, then by rivers, then by railroads, essentially anywhere close to transportation. Now, they are built according to connectivity, clustering around connectivity hubs instead of transport routes. The rise of 4G and emergence of 5G and WiFi connectivity everywhere will change where cities and communities spring up and how they are designed. In fact, they can be built anywhere as people can work from anywhere – as we have been predicting in the Future of Work – and follow the path of information.

In addition to where we live, our infrastructures are also adapting, with technology informing the architectural design to take best advantage of lighting, heating and cooling as we move towards finding smarter ways of consumption of resources globally.

Not only that, we are reshaping our living and working spaces based more around technology than a lot of other considerations: for example, a company in Lisbon is expanding its office within the same building, but rather than expand across the floor, it is adding offices one below the other because it is easier to extend the networking and WiFi between floors.

Think about retail. Everybody has heard about the Tesco ‘virtual stores in Korea’ but you can now get versions of this from other retailers, for example in the middle of Brussels Midi station when you disembark from the Eurostar. My local Sainsbury’s has a wall-to-wall bank of delivery cubicles for Amazon deliveries. In the Apple Store, there are no tills. In fact you can pay using your own iPhone if you have the Apple Store app (it uses your credit card which you used to sign up with iTunes).

Or think of cars. Recently, there was the story of how Tesla is able to address physical problems with its cars through software updates. Spark plugs potentially causing fires? Suspensions too low for high speeds? No problem; spark plugs can be updated and suspensions raised via software updates to thirty thousand cars!

We often talk about how cities need to be smart and adapt to our increasingly global, modernised world, especially with the UN predicting that there will be nine billion people on earth by 2050. We claim that cities need to adapt to the increasing economic, environmental and social challenges facing them. In reality, instead of continuing to expand existing conglomerations or creating new towns along traditional lines, technologies such as social, mobile, analytics and cloud (SMAC) have disrupted traditional infrastructures and should be taken into consideration for new developments.

Barcelona has clearly taken the lead in the Smart City space. With projects ranging from smart transportation – rethinking the bus lines, remotely controllable street lighting and irrigation control for the green spaces, and even a smart innovation district (22@). But they’re not alone. Copenhagen has smart bikes which provide sensor-based data to the rider but also to the civic authorities, for congestion and pollution control. And from Zipcar to Hailo and Uber, we are rethinking urban transport in so many new digital and physical ways.

As a result, new communities can now be created wherever access is available thanks to mobile communications, new forms of social connections, the availability of data and information and increased storage and computing power via the cloud. New cities nowadays are already smart, and naturally so: they follow connectivity where once they followed a river and it is this connectivity that is helping to reshape our physical world.

The technology is changing more than urban landscapes; it is also transforming the services that we use each day. Just consider banking branches and retailers. A significant amount of transactions and service delivery have already moved away from the physical branch or retail store to digital versions (think Simple.com, Asos or Amazon), but as consumers carry their mobile and, increasingly, wearable devices to the store or branch, we will need to build those spaces differently from today. What will be an intuitive response in this space could be very different from today.

In shops, the rise of the self-checkout counters has steadily changed the store layout. Soon, the self- checkout will be on shoppers’ own mobile phones and that will negate the need for specific checkout tills, potentially allowing more space for display or other services such as checking stock or buying products that are not physically located at the shop… the possibilities are endless.

Meanwhile, in a typical bank branch, most of the space is organised into queuing, meeting or waiting spaces. But as transactions become digital the reasons for people to come to a branch will evolve. We could see queues give way to booths that enable us to speak over a video link to a remote financial advisor. Our mobile phones could help personalise the service we receive when visiting a branch by provide geo-location information alerting the bank to our presence. A pop-up service menu could then be sent to our phones to allow us to indicate the reason for our visit and we could accordingly be guided to a specific meeting space, screen or counter.

It is always tricky to predict how exactly these changes will play out. But what is abundantly clear is that the world has already undergone a revolution due to disruptive information and communication technologies such as the internet and smartphones but it is taking us time to adapt, especially in legacy environments. The physical change is one of the ‘legacy challenges’ that could take the longest, because of the investment amounts and the time it takes to actually change a physical store, office or branch. However, the time has definitely come for us to consider not just how to wrap the digital experience around existing physical environments, but equally, how to reshape the physical environment based on exploiting digital services.


Ved Sen, Mobility Practice Head, UK and Europe at Cognizant Technology Solutions


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Ved Sen

Ved Sen is Head of Mobility at Cognizant Technology Solutions

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