Shanghai and the digital destitute

Oliver Ward, client partner, Digitas Melbourne
By Oliver Ward, client partner, Digitas Melbourne | 1 October 2019

Earlier this year, I visited Shanghai for the first time since 2012.

It’s a city I know well. I lived there for nearly five years.

I’d been dying to get back to find out what my remaining expat mates were getting up to and to see for myself how much had changed.

As I expected, plenty has. It’s that sort of place. But the most difficult barrier to overcome surprisingly had nothing to do with language or politics.

Without a connected device in Shanghai, you are fundamentally disconnected from the city. Your phone really becomes mandatory.

Want to pay for the taxi ride from the airport? Don’t be surprised if the driver looks at you like you’re crazy for suggesting he exchanges his services for a piece of dirty paper. Cash is seemingly no good here, neither is your credit card. The only way to pay is WeChat Pay or AliPay.

Once you’re in the city, you’ll need WeChat or AliPay to register a local DiDi account. You’ll be stuck otherwise. Taxis barely exist outside of the airport arrivals area anymore.

It wasn’t just the nature of the change but the pace of adoption and penetration that blew me away. Every local restaurant, flower shop, fruit vender - even the local beggars ask for WeChat or AliPay first.

Of course, digital wallets are just one function of the beasts that are WeChat and Alibaba, that also combine social feeds, marketplaces and content platforms into one app.

The advantages of this centralised, connected system are amazing. Once you’re in, you’re hooked. The thought of going back to a combination of various social media, banking, eComm, travel and messaging apps here in Australia felt like a huge, unnecessary step backwards.

It’s so much easier this way. It’s so intuitive.

But that sense of being outside of the ecosystem when I first arrived left me feeling far more foreign than not being able to read the street signs ever did.

Is this an insight into the future of our lives in an increasingly connected, digital world?

Are those who object, or, for various reasons, can’t keep up with digital technology, resigned to exist in a new disadvantaged class of society?

The Digital Destitute?

Long bow, right? Not really.

It's starting to happen slowly here in Australia. My Health Record is a good example.

Ignoring the persistent issues around consent, privacy and insurance implications, opting in means that eventually, much of your medical history will be in one place. In an emergency, it could be life-saving.

And because it’s part of a connected ecosystem, your information will be shared across a number of other health services. If you update your personal details, it will be reflected on your MyGov and Medicare profile. If it didn’t, you’d be annoyed.

Over time, your profile will evolve to enable more personalised services and ultimately, better care. The potential is huge.

But what if you don’t opt-in? What is the penalty for not being within this digitally-enabled healthcare system? Will it outweigh initial objections? Very likely, yes.

So what does this mean for brands?

Consumers are now very aware of the value of their data. They won’t just give it away unless there is a clear, easy to understand value exchange.

Most of the time that value is delivered through better, more personal, customer experiences.

The classic example is Uber. Most people don’t care what data Uber accesses, as long as they get picked up from where they’re standing, get taken to where they want to go, and can pay all by touching a couple of buttons.

Most people used to feel this way about Facebook until the value pendulum swung the other way.

For brands, delivering these connected experiences means stitching a lot of technology and data together. It requires organisational change to breakdown silos. It’s a huge challenge.

Nowadays, the expectation is that brands need to do this to stay relevant. And, as more businesses transform to deliver these connected services in everyday life, those that don’t will be left further behind.

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