The digital layer over future cities

This is one of Flow XO’s Future Insights — high quality monthly articles about how messaging will shape the future of how people interact with businesses, and the world around them. You can get future articles sent by email.

Imagine a digital layer that sits over the cities of the future. Enabling instant and one-to-one connections between people, places, and brands. Creating connected, interactive retail environments. Making public spaces safer and easier to navigate. Connecting people through the events they attend, or through the journeys they are on.

The next evolution of the internet sees the lines between online and offline blurring. The medium or device no longer matters, only the connection, or the ‘thread’. In fact, this simple, universal, and accessible interface already exists — messaging.

Billions of people, young and old, already use messaging to interact on a personal level. Top 10 lists in app stores are dominated by messaging apps.

Facebook saw the future when they paid $20B for WhatsApp. The convenience and appeal of messaging is indisputable.

Read on to learn how this digital layer will change how we interact with the world we live in, and how concepts such as QR codes, geo-location and micro-payments are the catalyst to this messaging future.

A safer, more personal parent/preschool relationship

Very few customer relationships are as important as that between a parent and their preschool. We’re not talking about being responsible for dinner or a parcel delivery, but the most precious thing in that person’s life — their child.

What parents want, and what the preschool really needs, is a streamlined way to communicate on a personal level with parents. Unlike social media, it has to be one-to-one, and it has to feel more personal and more instant than email.

Messaging is the channel. As immediate as social, as personal as a real human conversation.

It starts in the morning, 8:30am. You’re at your desk but you already know your child has safely been dropped off at preschool by your partner, because you got a friendly little message saying so. It’s expected, but reassuring.

At lunchtime, you get an update on what your kid is eating for lunch, and how hungry they were. This is helpful whilst you think about what to serve up for dinner.

During the afternoon, photos and updates come through, telling the story of your child’s day. You browse through the updates on your break and save a couple of the photos to your phone. One of the photos is so good that you share it with your parents, and it makes their day too. At the same time, you send a quick message to remind them that they’re on pick-up duty today whilst you work late.

At just after 4pm, a photo comes through of your child being collected by your parents, which is both reassuring and heartwarming in equal measure.

Sure, there’s a lot of information, but every update matters. It’s about the most important person in the world, your child.

The future connected relationship with the preschool helps the parent feel reassured and informed like never before. Ultimately, it’s a social channel more powerful than any public feed. Parents share their delight with friends and family, reinforcing the reputation of the nursery school as they go.

Restaurants without waiters

Just as there’s a permanent relationship with our preschool, a temporary relationship starts when you enter a restaurant until the moment you leave.

Food is only one factor that contributes to a successful restaurant. Making the guest feel valued and happy is surely up there near the top.

You’re in the restaurant of the future, and things are certainly different. But what’s changed might surprise you. It’s not really the food. Or the great, personal service.

There’s a warm welcome at the door and you’re shown to a table. There’s a QR code fixed to the table at each place setting. Your host asks you to check-in by scanning the code.

You do that, and up pops a welcome and a thank you for coming back for the 6th time. You get 10% off and the other guests at your table get a free drink. What’s not to like about that? Everyone’s happy, especially you.

Next up, you explore the menu right from within your messaging app. Because the restaurant remembers you, they can recommend things you might like or have enjoyed before. You make your choices, and place your order and pay right from within the message thread.

Once all the group have ordered, the restaurant’s system takes account of all the food choices and how busy the kitchen is, and tells you when to expect your meal.

Now things get back to basics. Your food is brought over and you chat away over a great meal, with your phone firmly in your pocket. Technology is an enabler, and shouldn’t get in the way of the restaurant experience itself.

When you’re done, you simply walk off. No bill to ask for, no payments to split. As you leave the staff take the time to say thank you and goodbye.

That evening, you get a message asking if you’d like to give some feedback on the meal. You have a little time, so why not. By doing this, you’ll get better recommendations next time, and the restaurant can learn where they can improve.

The restaurant’s digital layer, delivered through messaging, helps the team to focus on what they do best — cooking great food. Even more important, it helps diners to get the most enjoyment out of every visit, by saving time and hassle.

The icing on the cake is that all this frees up restaurant staff to focus on the guest — the warm & friendly welcome, noticing a table is missing something, or being proactive if a diner looks unhappy.

Future cities actually get more personal as technology takes care of the practicalities, not less.

The evolution of bricks & mortar retail

E-commerce has left everyone wondering what the future holds for traditional retail. Many believe that the key to success is evolving retail spaces into an experience, rather than just a place to physically locate a product on a shelf.

Who’d have thought a unique one-way layout, bargain meatballs, and a free kids play area would enable IKEA to become the world’s largest furniture retailer? This kind of innovation will be the norm in the future rather than the exception.

Walk around the retail space of the future and you’ll be able to make an instant connection with any product via your phone. Just scan the code to begin.

This new layer will allow the lines of offline and online retail to blur. Use it to access technical specs for a TV, or to check stock levels in the store or nearby, or simply to express an interest and ‘follow’ the product.

Customers can even buy the product through this new messaging channel — just a couple of clicks and it’s on its way for home delivery.

In fashion retail, we’ll see digital photo screens that take snaps of customers in their new clothes. But there’s no photo printer here, they can be shared via social, or sent to the customer’s phone via messaging.

The messaging layer can even help to attract footfall. Using geo-location, the store knows when a customer is walking past, and can deliver timely, targeted promotions (coupons that can be scanned at the payment counter).

Just like the restaurant without waiters rewarded us for returning for a 6th time, retail stores will offer loyalty discounts, incentives, offers and prizes to loyal customers.

By making retail a more connected experience, online and offline retail becomes one. Physical retail spaces start to compliment e-commerce, and vice versa.

To make this happen, the world needs a channel. Something that all of us are familiar with and have instant access to. Messaging apps, and conversational interfaces, fulfil this need.

Marketplaces via messaging

The internet hasn’t just opened up new ways to communicate with each other, or new ways to buy from businesses. It’s also been an enabler for people who want to trade with each other.

The obvious example is eBay. Hundreds of millions of people buy and sell from each other every year using eBay’s platform. It works for services too. Think about the explosive growth in the gig economy. We’re now driving each other around, renting out our empty apartments, even offering our driveways as parking spaces if there’s a demand.

Marketplaces via messaging are a natural evolution in digital peer-to-peer trade. The mechanics are perfectly suited.

Jumping forward into the future again. We have a car to sell. You pull up your messaging app and find the most popular motor trading group.

It asks whether you’re buying or selling. We’re selling of course. A few taps later and you’ve put the details in.

Next, you click the camera icon to take some photos. You’re guided along as you make the car look as good as you can and snap the pictures.

Because we’re in messaging, the platform already knows your details so you don’t have to sign up or fill out a profile.

Once that’s done, you sit back and wait a day or two. As other people join the group to buy, the platform matches potential buyers to active sellers.

When there’s enough interest, or a few days have passed, a message pops up to say who’s out there. You get their anonymised details, a buyer rating, how many miles away they are, and a short note from each user.

Next, you can choose to connect to one or more of the potential buyers, and chat directly with them. Once you’re in conversation, you can share extra photos to reassure the buyer, and make sure that you’re happy with who you’re dealing with.

When you both feel comfortable, you tell the platform you’re ready to do the deal. This is just a button click away.

Messages then guide you both through choosing a suitable time slot to meet in person, to inspect the car and complete the deal. Both buyer and seller get some advice at this stage too, to make sure the transaction is safe and secure.

It’s a day later and you’re here in person with your buyer. Finding the meeting place was easy, as a map was sent to the message thread for both of you to use.

The car is in perfect condition, and your buyer is ready to drive away. There’s just one last thing to do for now. The buyer clicks a button in their message thread, the messaging app handles the payment, and a message lands to tell you that you now have a bunch of money instead of your car.

Next day, a message comes through to ask you to rate the buyer. Were they polite? Quick to respond? Were they on time for the exchange? The same goes for the buyer — they rate you as a seller. Just like a traditional marketplace, the more buyers and sellers can trust each other, the better it works.

In fact, marketplaces via messaging are already becoming incredibly successful. Not quite yet for goods and services, but for knowledge. People are exchanging advice and opinion with people they meet through messaging.

We started on social networks with ‘the wall’. We then moved to a focus on ‘the feed’. The next shift is a focus on ‘the message’.

The personal airport concierge

So messaging will change how people interact with each other, but what about how people connect to public places?

No one sees an airport as a destination in itself. It’s a means to an end, and a frustrating, stressful one at that. That said, airports have come a long way in recent years, and are slowly becoming more pleasant places to spend a few hours.

But the journey doesn’t stop there. There’s lots more to do. In the digital city of the future, the messaging layer helps keep the person and place connected.

It all starts as you book your flight. On the confirmation page you connect up to the airport by scanning the QR code that pops up on screen.

The code embeds your info so the airport knows who you are and what flight you’re booked onto. A few seconds later, your airport parking details and a QR code to use at the car park barrier pops up in your messenger.

It’s the day before the flight. A message comes through to help you plan your journey. As well as a suggested departure time from your house to get you to the airport in good time, there’s directions for finding the car park you’ve chosen.

As you reach the car park, you hold your phone up to the barrier to scan your code.

As you walk into the terminal, luggage in tow, your phone pings with a message to reassure you that your flight is on time, and tells you exactly which desk to check-in at. Because the airport knows where you parked (the exact spot, through geo-location), it even offers easy-to-follow directions right up to the desk.

Just a few moments after check-in, you get a message through explaining how to get to the security area and which lane to use. The airport’s own building management systems can shape traffic through the lanes to minimise queues.

On the other side of security, the messaging layer turns into a helpful guide to the airport. You’re offered dining, shopping, business lounges, and more. Whatever you need, you’ll be directed to it.

From now until you step into the plane, you’ll receive regular updates on your flight. Gone are the days where you had to keep one eye on a departures board.

You’re in a coffee shop waiting for your flight to be called. The message you’ve been waiting for comes through — the flight is boarding. Just like before, you’re told which gate to head for and exactly how to get there.

As you board your flight, free of stress, caffeine fuelled and energised, you wonder how people navigated airports in the past.

In fact, the messages you didn’t receive provide a glimpse into the real power of this new future.

If there’s an emergency, messaging provides a crucial medium for broadcasting alerts to people within the airport, or on their way to it.

If the flight is delayed, the airport can get information and updates out to affected passengers in a way that simply wasn’t possible before. It’s even possible to send coupons for free food & drink, making a bad situation at least slightly more bearable.

Or consider passengers who are late to the boarding gate. The connected airport of the future exposes a direct and accessible way to individually contact every passenger within the airport.

A couple of weeks later, you’re back in the airport terminal, and ready to get home after a well deserved holiday. As you read the message reminding you exactly where your car is parked and offering to direct you there, you make a mental note to book your next holiday soon.

Linking healthcare providers to patients

No matter what the situation, from an exciting holiday to a mundane doctors appointment, the digital layer can bring services closer to the people that use them.

Healthcare used to be personal. Going to see the doctor was like visiting a friend. Not quite gossip over tea and biscuits, but at least you felt known and understood.

We’ll never quite return to this, but future healthcare will at least start to feel more connected again.

Our journey into future healthcare starts with a bad cough that’s been around too long now — you can’t ignore it any longer.

You tap into your messaging app and call up the messaging thread with your local doctor, and explain your symptoms.

The next step is to make an appointment. Up pops up a calendar showing the available appointment slots, and you choose one that suits. As this is a messaging thread, you don’t even need to type in your name, let alone any other details. Appointment made, no hassle.

You’re reminded of your appointment the day before, and you have the option to change it. It’s still fine, and you hit the button to confirm again.

As you arrive for your appointment, you check-in right from the message thread. You helpfully get an estimated wait time, and it looks like things are on schedule.

After a few minutes, a message pops up to tell you to head in to see the doctor. Messaging has replaced the intrusive wallboards of the past.

You leave the consultation with a prescription, and of course, it’s sent directly to your phone right within the messaging thread. You hit a button to authorise your payment with a single tap.

When you arrive at the counter to collect your prescription, the pharmacist scans the QR code on the screen to both verify your identity and call up your details. The prescription is already there waiting for you.

After a week, you get a message through to check up on your symptoms. From there, you can either give a thumbs up to say you’re happy and healthy again, or schedule a follow-up appointment.

Go a little further into the future, and expect to see one-to-one consultations over video calling, and Q&A with the doctor directly via messaging. Far from being a burden on health services, this multi-channel, connected approach means the right tool is chosen for the job. It’s efficient and convenient, for everyone.

A future being shaped right now

Whilst restaurants without waiters and truly connected airports are not yet a reality, the headwinds and cultural changes that are needed to make them happen definitely are.

The rise and rise of messaging makes conversational interfaces ever more omnipresent and viable as a channel, not just for communication but also for service delivery and control.

Just look at how messaging (usually via SMS or email) is already used very successfully in parcel delivery. Logistics firms have turned to messaging out of need, to keep people informed about their deliveries and offer flexibility.

The best of all? All this technology is already available. It’s ready and waiting for the ideas and innovation of modern businesses to make it come alive.

Flow XO is the ideal platform for innovative businesses like yours to build a digital layer. There’s flexibility when you need it, without getting complicated if you don’t. It’s also completely free to get started.

See you in the connected city of the future.

Download it? You can download this article in PDF format.
Like it? We’d really appreciate it if you’d recommend this post (by clicking the clap 👏 icon below) so other people can find it.
More of it? If you enjoyed this Flow XO Future Insight, please consider joining the mailing list to get new content delivered straight to your inbox.
Take action? You can create a free business chatbot at Flow XO and start connecting to your customers through messaging channels like Facebook Messenger.