3 Ways Consumer-Focused Tech Startups Can Better Serve Connected Communities And Attract Investors in 2021

UCLA Professor Matthew Lieberman once said, “being socially connected is our brain’s lifelong passion … It’s been baked into our operating system for tens of millions of years.” Now, in light of stay-at-home measures and social distancing, such connection has never been more important.

During the COVID-19 pandemic alone, internet use surged 70 percent as billions of people around the world moved their personal and professional connections with the outer world online seemingly overnight. 

While the mass online shift has driven predictable technology booms in edtech, social media, e-commerce and digital entertainment, the new normal has unearthed “new problems” in parts of society that had once been resistant to digital transformation. In response, there’s a wealth of opportunities for startups that are able to pivot and tackle the most pressing issues for newly connected communities. 

Housing, cultural events, local business activity and friendly interactions are being powered by smart technology that is better serving community inhabitants. That’s why consumer-focused products are at the heart of what we call connected communities — where emerging technology improves services and quality of life within populations. 

At the turn of the year, following is how B2C companies can best serve those communities, and ultimately catch the eyes of investors looking for the next Zoom or BYJU’S.

 

Cater to newly online demographics and industries

New, nonorganic user markets are currently emerging. These are demographics that aren’t traditionally digitally fluent but have recently been transitioning online. The most notable is the elderly population. These shifts have opened the door for companies looking to solve problems for these new users, including how to get online in the first place.

B2C companies can also support elderly people struggling with loneliness. Today in the United States, close to two-thirds of adults report feeling lonely, up from 54 percent in 2018, with people over 80 being some of the most vulnerable. In response, B2C companies can develop specialized technology that connects the elderly with family and friends. However, this tech has to be mindfully designed, taking into account users’ possible health and mobility issues. For example, Norwegian startup No Isolation uses no-touch, high-contrast analog devices to share photos and messages, and make video calls in a way that is familiar for non-tech-savvy generations.

Elsewhere, B2C companies can shift toward typically offline, slow-to-modernize community processes like social and housing services that have been forced to move online. In the United Kingdom, more than 220 councils and public sector bodies have made a commitment to use digital technology for greater efficiency in their services. On top of that, the government has given £800,000 ($1.12 million) to help local authorities “make technology an enabler, not a barrier” for communities.

While many housing authorities do have online portals in place, engagement rates tend to be low among residents. Likewise, there’s a disconnect between services such as online repair requests and maintenance scheduling. These two gaps present B2C companies with the opportunity to better optimize user experience in the online housing sphere, as well as integrate digital processes with in-person administration. Before doing so, B2C businesses need to dedicate time to truly understanding the residents they’ll be serving, particularly as housing associations work with very diverse audiences. Being inclusive is especially important in this field, so things like providing digital services in multiple languages and offering online training/support for residents with disabilities need to be considered.

 

Apply a green focus to your vision

Being able to socialize normally again will no doubt be good for our social health, and many of us will return to our old ways once the pandemic subsides. But some of the practices we have implemented will naturally evolve because they can keep our societies healthier in the long run and because they provide connectivity solutions for people in niche spaces. 

In particular, B2C companies can help shape smarter, greener housing. Currently, the United States’ 125 million homes and commercial buildings use 40 percent of the entire country’s energy and 74 percent of its electricity. Solutions like 5G-powered sensors, controls and analytics can significantly reduce this usage and curate more energy-efficient buildings in general.

For example, FUERGY is an AI-powered platform that connects with IoT home appliances and allows residents to optimize their energy consumption. Residents who generate surplus solar or wind power can even sell it directly to other members in their community instead of feeding it to the grid.

In the U.K., the Green Homes Grant has recently been extended through 2021. The grant, which gives homeowners in England up to £10,000 to install insulation, heat pumps, draft proofing and more to cut energy bills, was prolonged after people had difficulties finding certified tradespersons to carry out the work under scheme. Here’s more potential for B2C companies to improve citizens’ access to specialized green services, as well as offer people an affordable range of sustainable housing tools. 

 

Make cybersecurity a priority

Cybersecurity is necessary to protect connected communities. Without robust cybersecurity, digital tools and platforms can easily expose personal data and foster mistrust toward connected tech. A chilling example is TRENDnet, with baby monitoring and home security cameras that were found to be hackable using only the IP address. It also later transpired that the company was transmitting users’ login information online without any encryption.

Furthermore, B2C software and devices are being used more frequently to complete financial transactions, as well as to store data for official processes. In the pandemic, which has reduced our use of physical cash, retailers have reported a 69 percent increase in contactless transactions since January, while biometric authentication has rapidly been adopted to reduce transmission of the virus. For instance, British startup VST Enterprises has developed a biometrics-backed digital health care passport to assist critical NHS and emergency workers in getting back to work safely and quickly.

B2C companies need to prioritize building trustworthy solutions that protect users’ privacy while also granting them greater connectivity to their peers and environment. When developing a product, the best technology against potential cyberattacks needs to be built into each element from the start, rather than become an afterthought. But beyond that, as the gap closes between our personal, professional and social lives, solutions will need to compartmentalize internet usage and access to data depending on what the user is doing. For example, by ensuring that social media companies can’t view materials that are uploaded for work purposes, or vice versa.

Greater technology and digitalization have opened up a new era of connected people, services and livelihoods. The foundation for that is a thriving B2C market; as long as it can maneuver its way through changing demographics, sustainability and cybersecurity musts. If successful, connected communities are set to be powered by the businesses of tomorrow.


Luisa Rubio is Head of Wayra X, Telefonica’s digital innovation hub which offers funds and support for 100 percent digital, disruptive startups with a focus on  5G, e-health, e-learning, smart home, entertainment, mobility, and the future of work.