“Liquid” business models … the dynamic fusion of digital and physical concepts, devices, and channels … from Apple WWDC to Babylon Health, Icon Construction to Singularity Sushi

July 17, 2020

As lockdown shifts to downturn, we have seen how many companies have adapted to new low-touch, socially-distant norms. Cafes and restaurants have developed thriving street-food and delivery businesses, cinemas and theatres have become drive-in experiences, students study online together, contactless payment has finally replaced cash.

In sport, Norway created the “Impossible Games” with athletes from Europe and Africa competing synchronously by video-link in different locations. In business, Apple hosted its annual developer conference (WWDC20) virtually, with impressive online keynotes, animations and interactions, shared by more people than ever. London Fashion Week did likewise.

Fundamentally, we are seeing a rapid shift to what I call “liquid” business models.

In chemistry, you will remember, a “liquid” state exists between a solid and a gas – between a structured and unstructured state. In the business world, between a physical and digital world.

“Liquid” means that we can fuse together the best of physical and digital formats, devices and channels, and also give consumers much more choice in how it is constructed. Liquid businesses are more accessible and agile, responsive and personal.

These “liquid” attributes permeate both the inside and outside of business – shaping the new ways in which we work – how we communicate, collaborate and learn – and the new ways in which we compete – sell, create, manufacture, and support customers.

“Liquid” is a much better word than hybrid, or multi/omni-channel, or physigital, as I’ve even heard the combination of digital and physical called. (Plus, I haven’t heard “liquid” applied to business, or business models, before, so I’m claiming it right here!)

The pandemic has seen rapid adoption of new technologies, and more significantly a shift to “digital me” with elevated Maslow-style human needs of belonging and connectedness. New formats emerge, responding to the new consumer, fusing the best of digital and physical:

  • Liquid Health… the fluid combination of digital technologies like Babylon Health and Good Doctor, providing smartphone consultations, AI-enabled diagnostics, robotic surgery, together with empathetic care.
  • Liquid Work… the fluid combination of more distributed yet collaborative working from anywhere, more flexible jobs and employment, more diverse and talented teams, creative people augmented by tech.
  • Liquid Production… the fluid combination of made remotely and on demand, embracing 3D printing to print what we like as we need it, the shift from fragile slow supply chains to dynamic personal ecosystems.
  • Liquid Retail… the fluid combination of digital consumers, with physical delivery – dark kitchens of Deliveroo delivering restaurant meals to our home, luxury brands selling direct, from Tiffany & Co. diamonds to Amazon’s Common Threads.
  • Liquid Mobility … the fluid combination of multi-modal transport, as we shift to electric and autonomous cars, we shift from ownership to subscription, enabling a choice of transport modes, as we become more local.
  • Liquid Learning… the fluid combination of distance and physical learning experiences, for children to executives, lifelong learning becoming the norm with flexible qualifications, topped up over time, relevant and applied.

Here are some examples:

Babylon Health … Ali Parsa’s “liquid healthcare” app uses AI to diagnose your problem, leading to a smartphone consultation, connected to a network of pharmacies, and specialist doctors and hospitals if needed.

Babylon, based in London, now employs over 750 doctors, scientists, engineers and data analysts. They offer a subscription-based service to individuals wanting faster, on-demand health advice. A deal with the UK’s NHS to create a version of Babylon’s service called “GP at Hand” has dramatically scaled-up the service, with similar partnerships internationally. For the NHS it creates a fast, more personal service to patients, directly on your smartphone, and relieves the pressure on physical resources.

Parsa sees Babylon as “the biggest doctor’s brain in the world”, and loves to show how his AI-based analytics can more effectively diagnose patients’ needs than a real person. His real ambition is to create personal and predictive healthcare, using a range of wearable sensors that can monitor individual health, and take action before it’s ever needed.

Icon … the US tech start-up’s “liquid construction” approach enables architects to turn visions for new homes into reality within 24 hours using industrial-scale 3D printing.

In southern Mexico, 50 homeless families have just moved into a 3D-printed housing community, their homes each built in 24 hours, and at a cost of around $4000, by a massive 3D-printer made by Icon. The 15m long printer squirts out layers of Lavacrete, a customised mix of resilient, fluid-like cement, guided by the architect’s digital design, and also includes plumbing and electrical wiring.

Jason Ballard, CEO of Icon, says that the fast construction is ideal for disaster recovery, after earthquakes or hurricanes, but also to improve the standard of housing across the world. Icon is partnering with New Story, a non-profit seeking affordable housing in emerging countries. In Mexico, they are building homes for some of the poorest residents in a rural area near the city of Nacajuca. The homes will be donated to families who are currently living in makeshift shacks that flood every time there’s heavy rain.

Singularity Sushi … Japan’s “liquid restaurant” requires you to order and submit a DNA test in advance of your restaurant visit, at which the chef prepares you personalised sushi to match your nutritional needs and tastes.

“Hyper-personalisation will become common for future foods. Based on DNA, urine and intestinal tests, people will each have individual health IDs,” said the founder. “This identity is analysed, and nutritional matching is performed to match nourishment needs with biometrics, thus the person is automatically provided with the optical diet.”

Once a reservation is booked, the restaurant will send guests a health-test kit to return approximately two weeks prior to the date of the meal. Working in partnership with two health-technology companies, they will use the results of these tests to create a unique health ID for each visitor.