Profile: Sophie Hackford on the future of tech
Jan 11, 2017
Sophie Hackford’s job is to know what the future of technology will be. As the director of Consulting and Education at WIRED Magazine having curated conferences for them including WIRED Retail and WIRED Money, she translates the complexities and opportunities of the future for global leaders from all walks of life, supporting them in the decisions of tomorrow.

Prior to that, Hackford initially transformed the interdisciplinary research department, the Oxford Matin School, at Oxford University before going on to becoming the Director of Strategic Relations at Google’s own Singularity University, located at the NASA campus. She is also a committee member for President Bill Clinton’s Millenium Network and as the curatorial consultant for the V&A’s Future Design exhibition that will open in 2017, she speaks regularly on the merging of man and machine. Here she talks to Gianluca Longo about the future of retail technology in-store, the butler versus stalker approach to consumer data and how the on-demand economy is changing our expectations.

Gianluca Longo: Good morning Sophie. What’s on your desk today?

Sophie Hackford: A Mess! A SpaceX pen shaped like a rocket, mini electrocardiogram device, a Google Cardboard VR headset, a 3D printed bust of myself, piles of WIRED magazines, bars of 90% dark chocolate, green tea, books, conkers, a volcanic rock from the Congo and candles.

GL: Sounds interesting, what projects are you working on at the moment?

SH: I am working on a talk on the future of luxury for the Condé Nast Luxury Conference in Seoul next month. This year the conference will focus on the future of luxury, and the role of Northeast Asia as a new hub for fashion. I’m also working on an essay for the Victoria & Albert Museum’s forthcoming Future Design exhibition, among other things.

“We have so much technology at our fingertips, and so little imagination of what to do with it”

GL: I met you last year in Florence at that same luxury conference, and I was impressed how you talked about the future of brands in a fast moving world, and how they can navigate a world increasingly obsessed with social media and online shopping.

SH: Yes, I demonstrated virtual reality on stage. You know, it’s really beginning to explode now in every industry, and I’m excited to see how it will elevate the experience of luxury, and our consumption of entertainment. I would reiterate what I said than about how retailers should be ‘butlers’ not ‘stalkers’ with our data. Being followed around the Internet by the kettle you have just bought is not cool.

GL: What is luxury for you?

SH: Our natural world. Like jungles, mountains, trees, plains and the ocean.

GL: What do you buy online?

SH: Groceries I buy, but not luxuries. I almost never buy clothing online, with one recent exception, which was a pair of NikeIDs, which I obviously customised! I wanted to see how you were taken through the process from design to pickup in- store; it was impressively ‘butler’, not ‘stalker’.

GL: Up to just a few years ago, nobody would have imagined that we would buy luxury items such as jewellery and art online. Do you think that this is the future of all our shopping?

SH: I think our problem is a lack of imagination. We have so much technology at our fingertips and so little imagination of what to do with it. Twenty years ago, few company executives believed they had anything to learn from the Internet - how it would change media, retail, movies and music. So, rather than say yes or no to your question, I would rather think: I wonder how we will shop in the future, and what technologies we will use to interact with brands? Virtual reality, augmented reality, online, offline, virtual gamescapes, movies and live video.

“Assumptions that we previously used to determine retail success such as sales per square foot need to be abandoned”

GL: In the last couple of years, an increasing amount of brands are concentrating on building their own retail spaces, with top architects working on the designs in order to attract more consumers. What is your take on this?

SH: Assumptions that we previously used to determine retail success such as sales per square foot need to be abandoned. It is not good enough to have a starchitect-designed retail space if you still have tills, queues, and poor connectivity in-store. Web-grade thinking in the offline world – most stores are only just adopting technologies that our grandparents know how to use. I think web in-store, and in-store online, bringing emotion to the Internet experience and web-like seamlessness to the physical shop. Also I expect to see more experimentation with way more interfaces, environments, creative ideas, genres, movies and installations. It should be fun! For example, I no longer need my daily news on paper, but I do want beautifully created and curated aspirational physical experiences, which goes as much for a magazine as for a cool store.

GL: Instagram, SnapChat and other social media create a community around a brand. How important it is the future of them?SH: I don't really think that much of social media.GL: What are you obsessed with at the moment?

SH: Quantum computing, private space travel (as a concept, I don't want to go), unusual places, ideas and technologies that aren't covered to death in the popular press. I'm also obsessed with hipster coffee.

GL: If you wanted to write an essay today what would it be about?

SH: I would write about the apparent failure of the social sciences to better capture and explain our developing relationship with technologies. Philosophy, economics, and psychology all seem to let us down when applied to today's pace of technological change. We are no longer just using computers, we are using them to use the world, and I can't find much smart dialogue about that, other than a screaming tabloid style alarm about whether they will TAKE ALL OUR JOBS?

“Try and forget about the competition, do what you do really well and take your customers with you”

GL: Do you like architecture?

SH: Yes, and I think we have a lot to learn about the built environment and its impact on our human-ness. I love what Alain de Botton is doing with his Living Architecture practice.

GL: If you could act tomorrow, in changing the way we live, what would you do?

SH: I'd radically shift our fossil fuel dependency, as I think it is so risky, economically and from a social and environmental justice perspective. Also I would be much smarter than we are about migration - as a conduit for so many good things throughout history (job creation, patents, poverty alleviation, international development) but spectacularly mismanaged it ends up used for so many political agendas that everyone comes out confused. Show me the data.

GL: What is your favourite TV programme?

SH: I am a passionate documentary watcher. Making a Murderer, anything about prisons, anything by Werner Herzog. I'm an anthropologist at heart, so anything about the human condition, our relationships with each other, and with our history fascinates me. I'm excited to see how the documentary genre will be transformed by virtual reality.

GL: Why do you think the Netflix model has become so successful?

SH: We have become accustomed to the on-demand economy by Amazon, Uber, Google and Apple. That we would expect to consume entertainment in the same way is not surprising. The magic of technology (e.g. ordering your first Uber) disappears rapidly, and quickly becomes the new normal. The algorithms to help us choose good content are still pretty poor, but artificial intelligence will make them much more targeted and individual.

GL: Do you think quality is in danger in a time when even luxury is screaming to world: "see it now, want it now, buy it now"?

SH: Only if brands panic and try and keep up in a way that doesn't make sense for their products. I always paraphrase a WWII US Navy General during questions like this: "Navigate by the stars, not by the light of each passing ship". Try and forget about the competition, do what you do really well and take your customers with you.

GL: Do you own a watch?

SH: No. I took off my glow-in-the-dark Swatch around 1997 when I got my first mobile phone, and haven't worn a watch since.

GL: How do you spend your spare time?

SH: Spare time?