Hosted an event on living-as-a-service this week. Here’s an intro to what it is, and what it can be

Will we have a roaming network for all our needs in living?

Life-as-a-service is a concept of subscribing to solutions to common problems, and avoiding them to happen in the first place, as opposed to fixing problems as they happen. Life-as-a-service aims at a frictionless experience of life, where needs are tended to with the tap of a button instead of the entire process of prospection of solution, decision-making, purchase and delivery. To some extent, it’s thinking of services and benefits as the “Spotify of things” or “the Netflix of things”.

Loyly Helsinki
Löyly, Helsinki
life-as-a-service blockbuster
That’s not what a movie-as-a-service looks like.

How we became services: giving up your CD collection

Reflecting about living-as-a-service brought me back to the research for an article I was working on a few years back, about the digitalisation of music.

When the first blow in music industry kicked in — Napster for music download, followed by Kazaa and The Pirate Bay — WinAmp was perhaps the most popular interface for listening to digital music. Winamp’s UI mimicked the stereo system layout, except it would display a playlist with the tracks you had in your computer, or the ones you dragged and dropped for one nice, late night music session while chatting on IRC on your 32Kbps modem.

It should be made clear that, while there was excitement about the amazing possibilities of finding free music, there was also an increasing feeling of grief.

On the bright side, one should remember how expensive albums were. One could not just order them through the internet with much ease. And then it was available for free, in peer-to-peer networks, a model that reached its peak in the rather poetic app SoulSeek, where users could browse download music straight from another user’s library — and, in the process, get to experience that longing and sublime identification with someone who share a similarly great taste in music (this concept is just so awesome, and for some reason the scarcity and perils of downloading music from someone else is unmatched with the industrial ease of sharing your own playlist on Spotify).

The downside of the revolution was that, quickly, we have noticed that something was missing. We didn’t own anything anymore. We merely had boring, single-icon files displayed in lists, activated when we wanted to listen to music. For as silly or awkward as it may sound, this was some sort of phantasmagoria that kept users buying buying physical albums for a few years, still.

Finally, iTunes came up with the sleek solution that would properly display albums. Cover artworks were in display again, virtual shelves were used to make the experience browsable. More than conforming to the skeuomorphic era of internet, iTunes, the iPod and the iPhone were driving what skeuemorphism should be.

But all of a sudden, shelves and artworks seemed more like an unnecessary nuisance than an actual part of the music experience. Of course, there has been and always will be a place for the graphic representation of music, albums and artists (that’s a core topic of my theory of paramedia, by the way). But the experience of music had very little to do with handling physical objects or controls. When music reached the music-as-a-service status, it became all about listening, not owning — all the social aspects of the experience were embodied by it in the act of sharing the music you listen to. So instead of displaying a fancy library of records in your housewarming party, the social aspect of music became the newsfeed that one populates with their log of “now listening”.

In many ways, this shift represents a torrent of changes in music (no pun intended). It was the shift from status of ownership to status of membership; status of object to status of subject. Status of assets to status of action. People who had great jazz vinyls, yet spent their time on guilty-pleasure pop, had to adapt to a world that suggested you to make it public what you were listening, when, and for how long. The state of mind in real time became the object of envy, finding its culprit in a soundtracked Instagram post in Bali or Tuscany.

The dark side: problems in a world-as-a-service

Much like in music, we seem to be overcoming the need of things in other aspects of our lives. We are overcoming, as well, the need of owning things. It’s not a coincidence the huge success of the KonMari method, where people are invited to declutter their lives, tidy up their homes and keep to themselves only the objects that spark joy.

With the end of ownership and the age of subscription, we may ask ourselves — as users and designers and innovators — what are the pitfalls and problems that this new model will eventually encounter. I say eventually because of the nature of innovation: it creates new problems. It doesn’t mean there are not solutions to these new problems, but every innovation is a system that, like anything else, must adapt to its environments to survive the long run.

One new problem I see in that is the saturation of the customer’s share of wallet. Just how much, exactly, will the average person need to be able to commit out of their budget to entertainment, transportation, housing, eating, going out and literally, anything else? I say that because the model of subscription is the preferred one for service providers. Few business models are more stable than recurrent revenue. It’s the “single push” loyalty generator. Yet we could choose to cut a few movie rentals on a given weekend to save for an upcoming concert. It’s not that easy to think in these terms in the recurrent subscription models. Surely you are able to cancel and resubscribe — but then we fall into the second problem I see in this brave new world.

The second problem is in the nature of access. A customer buys a record and it’s theirs for life, or at least while it physically lasts. A lot can happen to a fragile vinyl record, but the most careful collectors know that it can be played for a long time, with no intermediary regulating the access to it. In an economy of access, if there’s no money, there’s no honey.

An economy of access also demands a continuous mutual agreement, renewed at every session. Users need to be compliant to each rule — all the rules — at all moments. So if an user misbehaves, disrespects or disagrees with the rules, many of them set by community standards, when services are social networks, access is denied.

And lastly, given the fast scalability potential of these services, they may become extremely big and powerful, and become the gatekeepers of all content of a certain genre. Disney content will belong only to the Disney streaming service; Netflix series belong only to Netflix — and non-compliance does not prevent users to access content from one vendor. It prevents users to access all content from the only vendor.

Of course, these are bad scenarios to a vibrating, full of energy profusion of new services and possibilities. Users tend to have way better services, with competing vendors, than ever before — it’s just good to look at the blindspots that such radical changes may entice.

Life, as a service: Finnish start-ups advancing the field

Helsinki’s Wood City (WoodCity.Fi)

Life as a service is getting real. Finland is a lab for a number of these, with extremely active startups doing what they love the most: testing innovations with customers, in public, usable, launched products. 

To Jarkko Jakkola, Area Manager, Nordics & Baltics, at MaaS Global, one solution is to be the everything company for mobility. An user can just care about point A, then point B. Whim will fill in the gaps, wherever. While certain services are concerned in creating and allowing access, Whim has a different impact: “it’s all about promise”, said Jakkola. “Users need to know that if they are taking their kid to a soccer tournament, the car will be there, no matter what”.

“Mobile phones only picked up when companies were able to create a global network of phones”, he states. That was rather surprising, as common sense makes us think that all it took was one big, bulky, working cellphone to make the magic happen.

As Teemu Lehtonen (Chief of Digitalization of kiraDIGI) states, “we need solutions with decent UI out there so that users actually use it”. In Digitalist we use the usability pyramid view to discuss that with clients: it takes a cake slice from the whole pyramid, bottom to top, to make an MVP — not just a chunk of the bottom or a great deal of usability up to its middle.

While MaaS and Whim have a specific, powerful mission, kiraDIGI seems more of a magic box of new ideas. They have run over 130 experiments to bring new ideas to the public. Those range from paperless construction sites to robotic window cleaners. Their foundational spirit seems to be the bold idea of space as a service. The startup operates with venture capital and government funds, and promotes hackathons to fuel new ideas, continuously.

Digitalist’s event on topic: Innovation and the city

Helsinki is a highly technological city, and one of the most vibrant start-up cities in Europe. Third speaker in Digitalist’s event was Harri Tuomaala, CEO of the Finnish Housing Fair. The company is now part of developments in Jätkäsaari, a radically experimental and innovative neighbourhood in Helsinki.

For example, it’s the case of Wood City, a building complex — an office building, a hotel and two apartment buildings — displaying pine wood in its sumptuous architecture. That was a joint project between SRV Group and Stora Enso, and potentially putting Finland in the map of architectural tourism. Together with other gorgeous wood design, such as Löyly or the seaside pool, they strengthen the postcard profile of the city.

“You definitely needs partners”, says Tuomaala, stressing that the stakes are high for these impactful, substantial experiments. “You cannot know in advance that Löyly is an investment that will pay off; you cannot know in advance”. 

Be it life as data, spaces, moods, atmospheres or entire neighbourhoods, a few things are clear: creativity, the right partnerships, complex ecosystems and rapid experimentation seems to play an essential part to it. 

City Living – Living as a Service; event by Digitalist Group

City Living in Jätkäsaari: Harri Tuomaala, CEO, Finnish Housing Fair; Digitalization in Traffic – Mobility as a Service: Jarkko Jaakkola, Area Manager, Nordics & Baltics, MaaS Global; Digitalization in Real Estate and Construction – Living as a Service: Teemu Lehtinen, Chief of Digitalization, KIRAdigi. The complete program is available here.