What far-out ideas and cutting-edge technologies will mainstream as a result of mass confinement, safety worries and inventory shortages?

At times of crisis like this, we see innovation flourish. In particular, we see the popularization of obscure technologies and the mainstreaming of niche consumer behaviors. Yes, we can point to the jet engine or the radar as examples of this, but did you know that China’s strength in ecommerce rose out of the impact of the SARS epidemic, or that Shopify’s user base exploded during the financial crisis when people were laid off and wanted to find something to do online? 

For this analysis piece, PSFK researchers explored what ideas and technologies that have been manifesting at the ‘edges' will evolve rapidly as a result of mass confinement, safety worries and inventory shortages? Here's a run-through of possibilities:

Facial Recognition Roll-Out Organizations and government bodies ask people to adjust their privacy expectations for access to mass transport, health care and other services. In China, facial recognition programs have been designed to both overcome the wearing of surgical masks and identify people whose foreheads have high temperatures.

Take-Out Becomes Grocery-In — Unsure about the safety of the food prepared in restaurant kitchens, people order the delivery of the raw ingredients instead to cook at home. For some restaurants in China, delivery has declined 50% while grocery stores have seen a 70% increase.

Informal Group Buying — This sees shoppers getting together to buy in bulk. They communicate over chat platforms and then one of them buys the products. In China, people are doing this to buy their apartment block’s weekly shopping: Residents scan a QR code, join a WeChat group, and post a list of what they have run out of. 

Informal Wholesaling — People notice demand for a product and buy up in bulk so they can then retail individual units through ecommerce channels. We witness this with surgical masks on Facebook and Craigslist.

Video Connections — Video conferencing and chat becomes the main way for people, businesses and services  to connect. Here are five sub-themes:

  • Cloud Entertainment — Musicians play live from venues (and their bedrooms) to at-home crowds watching and sharing on social media. Lots of examples have cropped up in China as festivals and night clubs now entertain through social streams.
  • Streaming Fitness — Like musicians, physical trainers and gym instructors share routines in a crammed space. We’ve been watching the rise of premium versions of this with the likes of Peloton; now we witness the broadening of access to live fitness instruction over the web. The BBC also writes about a scenario in China where friends tag other friends on social media to do plank challenges. 
  • Show Conferencing — The broadcast of fashion and business events to a professional audience via web conference. Giorgio Armani recently streamed his Milan Fashion Week runway show from inside an empty showroom.
  • Connected Education — Meeting the right teacher to give the right lesson at the right time via web-conferencing. In China, students are sending videos back as homework assignments.
  • Live Commerce — Real time web-shows retailing products across platforms. When Chinese brand Forest Cabin realized recently they were two months away from running out of cash, they asked 500 of their staff to work as livestream hosts to sell products online. 

Robot Delivery — The autonomous transportation of shopping to peoples' homes with wheels and with rotors. Ecommerce company Meituan-Dianping is running mini-trucks for groceries on some Chinese streets and in Wuhan, customers use facial recognition tech to access parcels in JD.com’s autonomous carts (without having to touch the vehicle).

Citizen Reporting — The contribution of information to help authorities understand needs. In China and Korea, developers have created hacks for the phone that use government and user-reported data to provide geography-based health reports.

Try & Return — The shipping of products so prospective consumers can check them out. In Korea, Samsung has cancelled its experiential retail program and switched to an at-home testing strategy.

QR Signage — The use of QR to share public information or allow access. Some signage is being hung by drones and at other times the codes check personal credentials to grant entry to a bus or market.

Contactless Delivery Options — Restaurants and other retail businesses use click-and-drop units in third-party areas to avoid human-to-human connection. eCommerce company Meituan-Dianping is offering a “contactless” solution where delivery drivers drop off customer orders at special cabinets. 

A lot of these ideas have been circulating for a while now, but PSFK researchers think that this crisis is going to bring then to the mainstream. Sometimes the “way we always did things” needs to change, so we move on to different tools, means and formats—and then once again, we will meet up with each other and still laugh and play, eat and dance.