‘Ethics Guidelines for Trustworthy AI’ Summarised

On the 8thof April 2019, the EU’s High-Level Expert Group (HLEG) on AI released their Ethics Guidelines for Trustworthy AI, building on over 500 recommendations received on the ‘Draft Ethics Guidelines’ released in December 2018.

In this blog, I want to help you understand what this document is, why it matters to us and how we may make use of it.

What is it?

The ‘Draft Ethics Guidelines’ is an advisory document, describing the components for ‘Trustworthy AI,’ a brand for AI which is lawful, ethical and robust.  As the title suggests, this document focuses on the ethical aspect of Trustworthy AI.  It does make some reference to the requirements for robust AI and to a lesser extent the law that surrounds AI but clearly states that it is not a policy document and does not attempt to offer advice on legal compliance for AI.  The HLEG is tasked separately with creating a second document advising the European Commission on AI Policy, due later in 2019.

The document is split into three chapters;

  1. Ethical principles, the related values and their application to AI
  2. Seven requirements that Trustworthy AI should meet
  3. A non-exhaustive assessment list to operationalise Trustworthy AI

This structure begins with the most abstract and ends with concrete information.  There is also an opportunity to pilot and feedback on the assessment list to help shape a future version of this document due in 2020.  Register your interest here.

Why does this matter?

I am writing this article as a UK national, working for a business in London.  Considering Brexit and the UK’s (potential) withdrawal from the European Union it’s fair to ask whether this document is still relevant to us.  TL;DR, yes. But why?

Trustworthy AI must display three characteristics, being lawful, ethical and robust.

Ethical AI extends beyond law and as such is no more legally enforceable to EU member states than those who are independent.  The ethical component of Trustworthy AI means that the system is aligned with our values, and our values in the UK are in turn closely aligned to the rest of Europe as a result of our physical proximity and decades of cultural sharing. The same may be true to an extent for the USA, who share much of their film, music and literature with Europe. The ethical values listed in this document still resonate with the British public, and this document stands as the best and most useful guide to operationalise those values.

Lawful AI isn’t the focus of this document but is an essential component for Trustworthy AI. The document refers to several EU laws like the EU Charter and European Convention of Human Rights, but it doesn’t explicitly say that Lawful AI needs to be compliant with EU law.  Trustworthy AI could instead implement the locally relevant laws to this framework.  Arguably compliance with EU laws is the most sensible route to take, with of 45% of the UK’s trade in Q4 2018 was with the EU[1]according to these two statistics from the ONS.  If people and businesses in EU member states only want to buy Trustworthy AI, compliant with EU law, they become an economic force rather than a legal requirement.  We can see the same pattern in the USA, with business building services compliant with GDPR, a law they do not have to follow, to capture a market that matters to them.

The final component, Robust AI, describes platforms which continue to operate in the desired way in the broad spectrum of situations that it could face throughout its operational life and in the face of adversarial attacks.  If we agree in principle with the lawful and ethical components of Trustworthy AI and accept that unpredictable or adversarial attacks may challenge either then the third component, Robust AI, becomes logically necessary.

 

What is Trustworthy AI?

Trustworthy AI is built from three components; it’s lawful, ethical and robust.

Diagram

Lawful AI may not be ethical where our values extend beyond policy.  Ethical AI may not be robust where, even with the best intentions, undesirable actions result unexpectedly or as the result of an adversarial attack. Robust AI may be neither ethical nor legal, for instance, if it were designed to discriminate, robustness would only ensure that it discriminates reliably, and resists attempts to take it down.

This document focuses on the ethical aspect of Trustworthy AI, and so shall I in this summary.

What is Ethical AI?

The document outlines four ethical principles in Chapter I (p.12-13) which are;

  • Respect for human autonomy
  • Prevention of harm
  • Fairness
  • Explicability

These four principles are expanded in chapter II, Realising Trustworthy AI, translating them into seven requirements that also make some reference to robustness and lawful aspects. They are;

  1. Human agency and oversight

AI systems have the potential to support or erode fundamental rights.  Where there is a risk of erosion, a ‘fundamental rights impact assessment’ should be carried out before development, identifying whether risks can be mitigated and determine whether the risk is justifiable given any benefits. Human agencymust be preserved, allowing people to make ‘informed autonomous decisions regarding AI system [free from] various forms of unfair manipulation, deception, herding and conditioning’ (p.16).   For greater safety and protection of autonomy human oversightis required, and may be present at every step of the process (HITL), at the design cycle (HOTL) or in a holistic overall position (HIC), allowing the human override the system, establish levels of discretion, and offer public enforces oversight (p.16).

  1. Technical robustness and safety

Fulfilling the requirements for robust AI, a system must have resilience to attack and security, taking account for additional requirements unique to AI systems that extend beyond traditional software, considering hardware and software vulnerabilities, dual-use, misuse and abuse of systems. It must satisfy a level of accuracyappropriate to its implementation and criticality, assessing the risks from incorrect judgements, the system’s ability to make correct judgements and ability to indicate how likely errors are. Reliability and reproducibilityare required to ensure the system performs as expected across a broad range of situations and inputs, with repeatable behaviour to enable greater scientific and policy oversight and interrogation.

  1. Privacy and data governance

This links to the ‘prevention of harm’ ethical principle and the fundamental right of privacy.  Privacy and data protectionrequire that both aspects are protected throughout the whole system lifecycle, including data provided by the user and additional data generated through their continued interactions with the system. None of this data will be used unlawfully or to unfairly discriminate.  Both in-house developed and procured AI systems must consider the quality and integrity of data, prior to training as ‘it may contain socially constructed biases, inaccuracies, errors and mistakes’ (p.17) or malicious data that may influence its behaviour. Processes must be implemented to provide individuals access to dataconcerning them, administered only by people with the correct qualifications and competence.

  1. Transparency

The system must be documented to enable traceability, for instance identifying and reasons for a decision the system hade with a level of explainablity, using the right timing and tone to communicate effectively with the relevant human stakeholder.  The system should employ clear communicationto inform humans when they are interacting with an AI rather than a human and allow them to opt for a human interaction when required by fundamental rights.

  1. Diversity, non-discrimination and fairness

Avoidance of unfair biasis essential as AI has the potential to introduce new unfair biases and amplify existing historical types, leading to prejudice and discrimination.  Trustworthy AI instead advocates accessible and universal design, building and implementing systems which are inclusive of all regardless of ‘age, gender, abilities or characteristics’ (p.18), mindful that one-size does not fit all, and that particular attention may need to be given to vulnerable persons.  This is best achieved through regular stakeholder participation, including all those who may directly or indirectly interact with the system.

  1. Societal and environmental wellbeing

When considered in wider society, sustainable and environmentally friendly AImay offer a solution to urgent global concerns such as reaching the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.  It may also have a social impact, and should ‘enhance social skills’, while taking care to ensure it does not cause them to deteriorate (p.19).  Its impact on society and democracyshould also be considered where it has the potential to influence ‘institutions, democracy and society at large (p.19).

  1. Accountability

‘Algorithms, data and design processes’ (p.19) must be designed for internal and external auditabilitywithout needing to give away IP or business model, but rather enhance trustworthiness.  Minimisation and reporting of negativeimpacts work proportionally to risks associated with the AI system, documenting and reporting the potential negative impacts of AI systems (p.20) and protecting those who report legitimate concerns.  Where the two above points conflict trade-offsmay be made, based on evidence and logical reasoning, and where there is no acceptable trade-off the AI system should not be used. When a negative impact occurs, adequate redressshould be provided to the individual.

Assessing Trustworthy AI

Moving to the most concrete guidance, Chapter III offers an assessment list for realising Trustworthy AI. This is a non-exhaustive list of questions, some of which will not be appropriate to the context of certain AI applications, while other questions need to be extended for the same reason. None of the questions in the list should be answered by gut instinct, but rather through substantive evidence-based research and logical reasoning.

The guidelines expect there will be moments of tension between ethical principles, where trade-offs need to be made, for instance where predictive policing may, on the one hand, keep people from harm, but on the other infringe on privacy and liberty. The same evidence-based reasoning is required at these points to understand where the benefits outweigh the costs and where it is not appropriate to employ the AI system.

In summary

This is not the end of the HLEG’s project.  We can expect policy recommendations later in 2019 to emerge from the same group which will likely give us a strong indication for the future requirements for lawful AI, and we will also see a new iteration on the assessment framework for Trustworthy AI in 2020.

This document represents the most comprehensive and concrete guideline towards building Ethical AI, expanding on what this means by complementing it with the overlapping lawful and robustness aspects.  Its usefulness extends beyond nations bound by EU law by summarising the ethical values which are shared by nations outside of the European Union, and a framework where location specific laws can be switched in and out where necessary.

[1]Source: ONS – Total UK exports £165,752m total, £74,568m to the EU – 44.98% (rounded to 45%) of UK trade is to the EU.

A sneak peek inside a hothouse sprint week extravaganza

Most public and private sector leaders are acutely aware that they are supposed to be living and breathing digital: working smarter, serving people better, collaborating more intuitively. So why do front line realities so often make achieving a state of digital nirvana feel like just that: an achievable dream? The world is much messier and more complex for most organisations than they dare to admit, even internally. Achieving meaningfully digital transformation, with my staff/ customers/ deadlines/ management structure/ budgets? It’s just not realistic.

That’s where the Innovation Practice at Sopra Steria steps in.

I count myself lucky to be one of our global network of DigiLab Managers. My job is not just to help our clients re-imagine the future; anyone can do that. It’s to define and take practical steps to realising that new reality in meaningful ways, through the innovative use of integrated digital technologies, no matter what obstacles seem to bar the path ahead.

This is not innovation for the sake of it. Instead, our obsession is with delivering deep business performance, employee and customer experience transformation that really does make that living and breathing digital difference. Innovation for the sake of transformation taking clients from the land of make-believe to the tried and tested, in the here and now.

The beautiful bit? The only essentials for this process are qualities that we all have to hand: the ability to ask awkward questions, self-scrutinise and allow ourselves to be inquisitive and hopeful, fearlessly asking “What If?”.

Welcome to five days of relentless focus, scrutiny and radical thinking

The practical approach we adopt to achieving all this takes the form of an Innovation Sprint: a Google-inspired methodology which lets us cover serious amounts of ground in a short space of time. The Sopra Steria version of this Sprint is typically conducted over 5 days at one of our network of DigiLabs. These modular and open creative spaces are designed for free thinking, with walls you can write on, furniture on wheels and a rich and shifting roll-call of experts coming together to share their challenges, insights and aspirations. We also try to have a resident artist at hand, because once you can visualise something, solving it becomes that bit easier.

The only rule we allow? That anything legal and ethical is fair game as an idea.

Taking a crowbar and opening the box on aspiration

Innovation Sprints are the best way I know to shake up complex challenges, rid ourselves of preconceptions and reform for success. I want to take you through the structure of one of the recent Sprints we conducted to give you a peak at how they work, using the example of a Central Government client we have been working with. Due to the sensitive nature of the topics we discussed, names and details obviously need to stay anonymous.

In this Sprint we used a bulging kitbag of tools to drive out insight, create deliberate tensions, prioritise actions and, as one contributor neatly put it, ‘push beyond the obvious’. That kitbag included Journey Maps, Personas, Value Maps, Business Model Canvases and non-stop sketching alongside taking stacks of photos and videos of our work to keep us on track and help us capture new thinking.

Before we started, we outlined a framework for the five days in the conjunction with two senior service delivery and digital transformation leads from the Central Government Department in question. This allowed us to distil three broad but well-defined focus areas around their most urgent crunch points and pains. The three we settled on were ‘Channel shifting services’, ‘Tackling digital exclusion’  and ‘Upskilling teams with digital knowhow and tools’.

Monday: Mapping the problem

We kicked off by defining the problems and their context. Using a ‘Lightning Talks’ approach, we let our specialists and stakeholders rapidly download their challenges, getting it all out in the open and calling out any unhelpful defaults or limited thinking. In this particular Sprint, we covered legacy IT issues, employee motivation, citizen needs and vulnerabilities and how to deliver the most compassionate service, alongside PR, brand and press challenges, strategic aims and aspirations and major roadblocks. That was just Day One! By getting the tangle of challenges out there, we were able to start really seeing the size and shape of the problem.

Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday: Diving into the molten core

This is where things always get fluid, heated and transformation. We looked in turn at the  three core topics that we wanted to address, following a set calendar each day. We would ‘decode’ in the morning, looking at challenges in more detail again using ‘Lightning Talks’ from key stakeholders to orientate us. Our experts shared their pains in a frank and open way.  We then drilled each of our key topics, ideating and value mapping, identifying  opportunities to harness innovation and adopt a more user-centric approach to technology.

At the heart of this activity we created key citizen and employee personas using a mixture of data-driven analysis and educated insight. An exercise called “How might we…?” helped us to free-think around scenarios, with key stakeholders deciding what challenges they wanted to prioritise for exploration. We were then directed by these to map key user journeys for our selected personas, quickly identifying roadblocks, testing or own assumptions, refining parameters and sparking ideas for smarter service design.

On each day we created Day +1 breakaway groups that were able to remain focused on the ideas generated the day before, ensuring that every topic had a chance to rest and enjoy a renewed focus.

Friday: Solidifying and reshaping for the future

On our final day, we pulled it all together and started to make the ideas real. We invited key stakeholders back into the room and revealed the most powerful insights and synergies that we had unearthed. We also explored how we could use the latest digital thinking to start solving their most pressing challenges now and evolve the service to where it would need to be in 3-5 years’ time. Our expert consultants and leads in automation and AI had already started to design prototypes and we honestly validated their potential as a group. Some ideas flew, new ones were generated, some were revealed to be unworkable and some were banked, to be pursued at a later date. We then discussed as a team how to achieve the transformations needed at scale (the department is predicting a rapid 4-fold growth in service use) while delivering vital quick wins that would make a palpable difference, at speed. This would help us to secure the very senior buy in our clients needed for the deeper digital transformations required.  To wrap up, we explored how we could blueprint the tech needed, work together to build tight business cases, design more fully fledged prototypes, strike up new partnerships and financial models and do it all with incredible agility.

Some photos from the week

Fast forward into the new

My personal motto is: How difficult could that be? When you’re dealing with huge enterprises and Central Government departments devoted to looking after the needs of some of the most vulnerable and disenfranchised in our society, the answer is sometimes: Very! But in my experience, there is nothing like this Sprint process for helping organisations of all stripes and sizes to move beyond unhelpful default thinking and get contributions from the people who really know the challenges inside out. With this client, we were able to map their challenges and talk with real insight and empathy about solutions, in ways they had never experienced before. We were also able to think about how we could leverage Sopra Steria’s own knowledge and embedded relationships with other government departments to create valuable strategic synergies and economies of scale.

A Sprint is never just about brainstorming around past challenges. It’s about fast-forwarding into a better, more digital, seamless and achievable future, marrying micro-steps with macro-thinking to get there. It’s an incredibly satisfying experience for all involved and one that delivers deep strategic insight and advantage, at extreme speed. And which organisation doesn’t need that?

Let’s innovate! If you’d like to book your own hothouse sprint week extravaganza or just want to know more about the process, please get in touch

Solving organisational challenges in partnership

On Monday 14 January, I and seven colleagues spanning all areas of our delivery – from the training room to the web team and the data team – attended a Tech for Good Hackathon with some fifty Sopra Steria graduates and mentors.

We know that if our charity is to continue to grow both in its impact and its reach we need more effective and efficient systems, and to achieve this will require a greater focus both on problem-solving within our current workflow as well as implementation of new digital solutions.

hackathon monatge

Focussing on the student journey, from enrolment, on-course support to completion, we were hugely impressed by the enthusiasm, professionalism and team-work that the Sopra Steria graduates showed, tackling what often appear to us as quite intractable operational challenges.

The opportunity for me and my colleagues to simply take a day out to reflect on current practice was in itself hugely helpful, and one that we don’t otherwise find the space for: but to marry that opportunity with the creative ideas and plans put forward by the Sopra Steria graduates really made it a worthwhile day, giving us the clarity and focus this piece of work deserves.

Over the next few weeks and months we’ll begin implementing some of the ideas from the Hackathon, and can’t wait to see how those ideas develop.


Anthony Harmer – CEO, ELATT

Looking Ahead to Customer Experience Design in 2019

As we get into the new year here’s a look ahead at some things I hope to see more of in Customer Experience Design during 2019.

Conversational Graphical User Interface (GUI)

While voice UI continued to be a big focus in 2018 and will no doubt carry on advancing in 2019, I hope to see more GUI’s taking a steer from conversational design, chatbots replacing forms for common interactions with an organisation (like updating stored details) and even guiding customers in product selection and decision making instead of traditional navigation structures. Add a dash of AI and you could see apps and websites becoming more and more like virtual assistants – with or without voice enablement – making digital experiences feel ever more natural and personal.

Augmented Reality (AR)

Virtual Reality (VR) is still finding its place in the world of commerce and although we have some great examples of VR applications in training and recruitment (including some developed by our colleagues in Shared Services Connected Ltd for the Ministry of Justice) I expect AR to really come into its own next year, with a multitude of possible uses in a variety of fields such as commerce, government, and healthcare. Although mobile AR has been around for some time I can see it becoming more widely used as product designers recognise the untapped potential in the device we all carry around every day, so that AR capabilities can be brought into everyday experiences, not just preserved for those with specialist kit.

Hyper-Personalisation

Again, not a new fad but something that has been steadily building for a few years. As we continue to take more of a holistic view of customer journeys – designing the service not just the digital product – I can see the application of big and dynamic data to tailor end-to-end journeys to the specific needs of an individual. At the micro level, when designing products I expect to see less segmentation by traditional demographics and more thought given to mindsets, motivations, behaviours and attitudes, underpinned by data. If we are going to be given permission to keep collecting customers’ data we need to be very quick to use it to improve their experiences and demonstrate value back to the customer.

Investment in Customer Experience

And at a market level, it is becoming clear that brands will increasingly compete on Customer Experience in coming years, with an Econsultancy report this year showing that 69% of companies believe they will be competing on customer experience by 2020*. As experience becomes a key differentiator I expect more focus on the skills and tools needed to deliver great experiences, with design becoming a core part of any Digital Transformation programme and organisations continuing to build their own in-house capability to support this. External creative teams (such as ours) working with client organisations, will need to demonstrate how we can establish and support blended in-house/external teams, with a strong focus on DesignOps and close collaboration, ensuring that we can provide the right support and specialist skills to complement existing teams. Nelson Hall recently announced that Sopra Steria have been identified as a ‘Leader’ their NEAT assessment for UX/UI services and we are continuing to focus on this vital capability to make sure we deliver world-class experiences for our clients and their customers.

2019 looks set to be a bumper year for customer experience design, and I’m really excited about what we can achieve with a renewed focus on improving lives by putting customers at the heart of digital transformation.

For more information about how Sopra Steria can help you get closer to your customers and design transformative experiences, please contact:

Bethany Jarroussié
Digital Practice Director – Experience Design
bethany.jarroussie@soprasteria.com

* ‘Bridging the customer experience gap’ 2018 by Econsultancy and Zone

 

Is DevOps dead?

In certain circles, DevOps has become a dirty word – an outdated, ‘of the minute’ trend that was banded about in the tech world without anyone having a solid idea of what it means. It’s very easy to say you’re doing DevOps, but often, everyone is on a different page.

For many, DevOps has stopped being something to shout about – it’s what we expect as a minimum and it’s business as usual. In a fast-paced digital world, taking months to deploy your code or respond to customer feedback is no longer good enough. With the likes of Amazon deploying code an average of every 11.7 seconds, the expectations of customers are shifting.

Having a successful DevOps strategy isn’t just about having the right tools available, or having everyone sit in the same room – it’s about a complete cultural and procedural overhaul. Done right, DevOps can make life much easier for everyone and attract the best talent. Done wrong, DevOps is just another failed experiment that will get teams frustrated and falling back into time-consuming habits.

I’m working with who?!

One of the major obstacles to successful implementation of DevOps is cultural change. Siloes between operational, development, design and security teams should be broken and replaced by a product team, requiring a redefinition of roles and responsibilities. These teams should have cross-functional skillsets, and be small and self-organising. Thus, training and assessing the skills of the workforce is essential.

Whilst a pilot project can be a low-risk way of starting to implement DevOps, scaling this strategy can be difficult and slow. This is a major hurdle preventing large organisations from achieving the agility and speed that allows them to compete with the tech giants.

Create a flow

Improving workflows requires coordination between application delivery and backend infrastructure. Standards for each phase of the project – building, testing, delivery and monitoring – must be defined and agreed by the whole team. With the right approach to governance, a balance can be struck between flexibility and quality assurance.

Automation is the key to unlocking efficiency through DevOps. Using technologies such as microservice architectures will help to form a deployment pipeline for each service and lower the risk of code changes, whilst using Infrastructure as Code will increase the efficiency and repeatability of the build process.

Tic tac tool

Finally, whilst tooling isn’t the only thing taking you from monthly to weekly deployment, agreeing and using the right toolkit will ensure an efficient workflow. Whilst there are innumerable available tools, agreeing a toolkit that covers release, configuration management, orchestration, monitoring, testing and containerisation will ensure the team is able to provide robust service delivery and adapt to users’ needs in real-time.

The end goal

Of course, the real game-changer is the speed of delivery. Creating an efficient DevOps workflow is pointless if we are not considering the outcomes. But given the speed of change in technology, DevOps is about more than efficient operations – it’s about keeping up with your customers.

Call it what you will – continuous delivery, DevOps, or tech in the modern era – DevOps practices will be the line between those who survive the pace of digital, and those who don’t.

Why Digital Skills should be top of the class in today’s schools

What will the jobs market be like in 5 years’ time (or even in 1 years’ time) – given the rapid changes that are going on right now?

Robotics and Intelligent Automation are becoming mainstream, chatbots and avatars are taking over call centres and new fintech banks such as Monzo and Starling are turning the traditional banking market on its head.  People of all ages will have to start acquiring new skills and approaches to working if they want an interesting, sustainable and well-paid job.

It’s a fact that digital is transforming the jobs market.  People with digital skills and knowledge are in high demand and are commanding high salaries.  Data is the major differentiator – and understanding how to gain insight from the increasingly huge volumes of data that we are all generating is crucial to every business right now.  Universities and many Financial Services organisations have already started investing in digital and data.  There are a plethora of courses and training available – but until recently – digital wasn’t really taught in schools – leaving young people who didn’t choose (or couldn’t afford) to go to university woefully under skilled and unprepared for the new reality of employment in today’s demanding jobs market.

The first Digital School of Excellence

That’s why it’s great to see Newbattle High School in Midlothian launching the first Scottish-based Digital School of Excellence.  As well as teaching digital skills, Newbattle will be one of the first schools to also include Data Science as a core part of its curriculum. The Scottish Government, Edinburgh University’s School of Informatics as well as local businesses like Sopra Steria are investing in this landmark Digital School as they know it’s the only way to get the right ‘talent’ and skills into the jobs market.  The school doesn’t just teach digital and data skills – it also encourages its pupils to be entrepreneurial, to challenge the status quo and to understand the creation process of great products as well as instilling the right skills and techniques to ‘sell’ their ideas to a sceptical and highly demanding audience.

The Unified Schools Programme

In Scotland, the financial services industry is working on its ‘Unified Schools Programme’ under the leadership of Scottish Financial Enterprise (SFE) and led by HSBC’s Colin Halpin. It’s an exciting project with a joint message about why financial services is an exciting, progressive and diverse industry to work in. The programme is focused on promoting the sector as THE digitally focused and customer centric place to be for young people, highlighting the advantages a career in digital can offer.

An SFE pilot project involving Newbattle High School and Queensferry High School kicked off in November 2018 to give young people opportunities to experience financial services through short placements. SFE members and Skills Development Scotland are fully supporting the initiative.  Why?  Big business knows it needs fresh talent and realises it needs to promote the financial services industry as a great place to work, highlighting the multiple opportunities that the sector can deliver if it’s to get the creative and talented people it needs to be future ready. There really is a job for everyone in financial services – and for young people with a positive attitude, creativity, enthusiasm and focus, it can be a fantastic first step into the world of work.

I used to be concerned for today’s young people facing an uncertain future in a demanding jobs market.  Now I can see exciting new career opportunities where the education system, with support from government and industry helps the next generation to think differently, to be brave and to create ideas that will shape our future.  Scotland is setting the pace for change – the question is – when will the rest of the UK catch up and put digital skills top of the agenda?

From East to West – the changing dynamics in retail

Have you come across Zozotown yet? It’s an example of a retail phenomenon that is pushing the boundaries of what’s possible in omni-commerce – the dedicated online shopping channel. The business model behind Zozotown – known as Zozo to many of its users – represents a shift towards true unified commerce.

As well as being an online shopping marketplace, it provides both a warehouse and fulfilment for major and minor brands. Sellers ship their products for storage to a Zozotown warehouse. As there is no inventory risk for Zozotown, and since no initial fees are paid, a higher commission rate is charged compared to other marketplace businesses – in some cases, up to a third of the item price.

Getting personal in retail

The Zozo shopping experience is personalised and interactive, with a customer’s size choice remembered from purchase-to-purchase and styling ideas offered. This model, along with other retail innovations, began not with the online retail giants in the West, but in Asia where e-commerce is expanding at record rates. For example, China’s e-commerce sales are set to grow by £180bn in 2018 alone, which is £23bn more than the UK’s entire annual online spend.

This is the topic of a new opinion paper that I’ve recently published, ‘Retailers look East for digital inspiration’. In it I look at how technology is changing the face of retail and how much of the innovation in this sector has traditionally come from the likes of Silicon Valley in the US. That’s all changing. We are increasingly seeing retail innovations stemming from the East, several of which I describe in my paper. There’s a heightened consumer appetite for digital commerce. Even Japan with its ageing population sees 70 per cent of all the fashion sold online purchased via smartphones.

Putting the customer first

What lessons can the East share with the West? Perhaps the key one is the region’s focus on an effortless customer journey, where the experience is quick, seamless and continually improving. Innovations are very much attuned to the customer, for example with easy (mobile) access, multiple payment options and an almost ‘a la carte’ shopping and delivery experience.

As a consulting-led organisation, Sopra Steria retains a lively interest in developments like this. We constantly monitor disruptive new technologies and business models in the market. This enables us to see which ones are evolving and who is innovating at the fastest pace.

We’re also innovating ourselves. I am particularly interested in Sopra Steria’s development of a voice-enabled conversational chatbot proposition, known as Digital Customer Interaction. This ties in neatly with my earlier point about the need to build an effortless customer journey. It’s a trailblazing proposition in which a conversational bot uses real-time insight to provide a highly-tailored and personalised customer journey, regardless of channel used. From responses to frequently asked questions and automated customer identification and verification, to multimedia objects pushed to a smartphone for multi-channel interactions, our solution supports an end-to-end customer journey using natural language processing enabled by digital voice.

This is just one of the many exciting developments we are seeing in the retail sector, where digital is fast creating a level playing field globally. Retail pioneers in the West, such as Amazon and eBay, should now be looking closely at their peers in the East, where being customer centric is di rigueur.

I am looking forward to the next phase in the evolution of retail and feel sure it will have customer centricity at its core.

Download ‘Retailers look East for digital inspiration’’

For more information on Sopra Steria’s approach to delivering real and lasting value in retail, contact me on sylvester.eseigbe@soprasteria.com