“What’s hot for you right now?” I remember asking an IT director at a retail firm, somewhat earlier in my career, looking for an insight into his business, possible campaign content and the like.
“Email,” he replied. “Email is a big priority for us this year.”
I didn’t think that was very sexy at the time, but with hindsight it makes a lot of sense. Technology isn’t all drones, swarm intelligence and hype – and even the worlds of virtual reality (despite the ready availability of headsets), 3D printing and the IoT are a reasonably long way from ubiquitous adoption across the UK. In an age where many rural areas still struggle to get broadband speeds of over 2Mbps, our industry is often guilty of looking at the ‘latest and greatest’, which runs the risk of turning us into a London-centric hype factory, rather than grounded thinkers with a pragmatic understanding of the here and now.
So, which sectors do we think will rise to red-hot levels of heated fame in 2017? Here’s a few of my top bets so far.
Igniting public understanding about Fintech:
The UK has been named a global Fintech hub, and rightly so. We’ve seen a cornucopia of retail banking, investment and information services spring up in the last few years and many of them have been hugely successful. If you’ve not come across the likes of Atom, Nutmeg, Bud, DueDil, Crowdcube, FundingCircle or Seedrs before, they’re all well worth a look – these are the companies which are radically changing how consumers and businesses handle their money.
A lot of these contenders launched a few years ago, but whilst almost any startup can make a splash (A compact doubling as a USB charger? Self-warming shoes?), it takes a lot more staying power to provide services to the financial services industry and thrive over three to four years.
These kinds of companies will have a virtuous effect on other, more established companies, showing traditional retail banks and investment companies how to do business better. That’s before we’ve even talked about the blockchain industry, which is slowly changing how transactions – effectively one of the cornerstones of modern society – are conducted and recorded.
Unfortunately, whilst fintech is lauded as a sector, it also poses a challenge to communications professionals. Fintech itself has many press titles dedicated to it, but it is often poorly understood in broader press circles: for example, in a recent video by a blockchain company, the main benefit of its technology was accelerating business transaction times from four days to a matter of seconds. To a consumer, or consumer journalist, this is unexciting: the likes of PayPal allow you to do the same – and has done for years. It is only by educating press about the technology and how it works in reality that comms professionals in emerging fintech sectors will be able to do their brands justice.
Accelerating change in the automotive industry:
After decades of incremental improvements, the automotive sector is finally becoming the bus that just won’t slow down. Hybrid and electric vehicles, autonomous vehicles, better connected cars, not to mention the ever-present impact of Uber and its competitors – whilst not all of these will become mainstream in 2017, the UK will soon be glowing red and white hot from the benefits.
There will also be a wave of secondary benefits, including lower emissions and pollutants, significantly lower maintenance bills (electric cars have fewer moving parts, so require less work) and safe roads from smart vehicle detection systems.
However, many large, bold steps are still needed in this sector. For example, there are still too few charging stations in the broader UK for electric vehicles to be truly widespread. Most charging points are clustered in large cities and major motorways, giving a situation parallel to the UK’s broadband, where countryside locations suffer from poor connectivity and low speeds, whilst major cities enjoy a feast of fibre (optic cable, that is). Unless the automotive industry finds a creative solution to this, our electric and hybrid fleets may be stuck at a thirty limit for some time.
In this sector, communications professionals face a different challenge. There have been a number of trials of autonomous vehicles, for example, but the press have been quick to jump on any problems or accidents. This in turn affects how politicians regulate the sector, because it influences public sentiment. Many of these issues will verge on the philosophical, as people and organisations debate the ethics, morality and liability involved with autonomous vehicles – not least of all the impact on the insurance industry!
PR professionals in this area must address these wider industry issues and push for change, smarter regulation and solid commercial partnerships which will motor the industry forward, and not keep the brakes of fear, uncertainty or doubt firmly pushed down.
2017: A year of change
A lot of change was brewing in 2016, but 2017 will be a year of fruition as these developments start to pay off. The UK has invested a significant amount in technology, and whilst sometimes these initiatives can be slow to pay off, the time is finally arriving. In much the same way as our investment pre- and post- the London 2012 Olympics paved the way for our success in Rio last year, the hard graft that the technology community has made in the preceding years will make 2017 a bigger, better year for the sector.
However, to make the most of this, and continue to drive the improvements needed in the sector, communications professionals must knuckle down, identify the areas where they can make the most impact and find partners who will help them to accelerate this change. It is only through the combined work of PR professionals and technologists that we can continue to make the UK technology industry great – and get it the recognition it deserves.