Are we using our intelligence to get the best out of AI and tech? An Op-Ed by Fiona Carter

Are we using our intelligence to get the best out of AI and tech? An Op-Ed by Fiona Carter

On a wet miserable February evening, a sell out crowd gathered at GCU to hear an illustrious group of speakers talk about Fashion-Tech, Disrupting business models, AI Innovations and Fashion Futures. Quite an agenda, but all with the desire to be inclusive, informative, and disruptive. Fashion has always been the enfant terrible of the business world. However, lets not forget that it provides the UK with £32 bn GDP which is over 20 times more than fisheries at £1.6bn GDP. Where is our minister for fashion, I ask?

Jodi Muter Hamiliton of Black Neon Digital kicked off the evening with statistics about the growth of Digital Luxury Fashion which has seen a 49% growth in the last 4 years. DCMS (Digital Cultural Media Sport) say that Digital alone made £130bn in 2017, with luxury fashion brands like Net-a-Porter, Matches and Farfetch being the market leaders. One of the issues is that is hard to breakdown fashion and tech as shopping habits move away from bricks and mortar shops to online. For larger mid-range stores to survive they need to create more experience for the customer using shop space for art and food with the high street then having more niche shops, perhaps not even an online presence. In the UK today we lead the field for attracting new creative talent and fashion education, the consequences of which is that we are ranked the No.1 ‘Soft Power” in the world. Tamara explained that ‘Soft Power’ is an attraction: i.e. nice restaurants, art galleries, fashion boutiques, theatre etc. 

Social media in fashion has opened the door to more transparency. Technology means we can see where our clothes are sourced and made. Digital can provide better labelling and auditing. Although, if these tech systems are then controlled by companies like Facebook, this can be very damaging because of the way they use algorithms to advertise and influence.

Brooke Roberts Islam is a radiographer turned textile designer, a hybrid between science and fashion. She talked about using tech in manufacturing to help reduce waste and be more sustainable. Using a 3-D render tool in clothing design means a physical sample is no longer necessary. This alone will have a big impact on waste, reduce costs, time and ultimately benefit the customer.  Technology can also be used as a creative tool in fashion, as they do in film. We could create our own digital persona, make our own collection use an avatar on the catwalk and none of this would damage the environment. Where luxury fashion once focused on the finest natural fabrics and hand-crafted skills, the laboratory is now creating luxury sustainable fabrics of the future, like those of award winning Alice Potts.

Joe Hunter and Adam Thorpe created Vexed Generation 25yrs ago, asking questions about over surveillance. Their clever garments are created to stimulate discussion about CCTV and privacy laws. They are looking for customers to have an individual experience with the makers of their clothes - a proper working relationship, where you buy the design pattern and choose who makes your clothes. They want Vexed Generation to be more of a relationship rather than a transaction. Its as if we have gone full circle from when clothes in pre 20th Century were made by your bespoke tailor, we then moved to mass, cheap, anonymous, overseas manufacturing back to a personal relationship with the person who makes your clothes. It is not a novel idea as such, it is more, seeking a human reconnect that Joe and Adam have rediscovered.

Ivana Bartoletti from the Fabian Society, embraces the whole world of tech and AI as something positive. Her caution is that fundamentally our digital environment requires as much ethical care and attention as our physical environment. This is so obvious, but so overlooked and of course it makes so much sense. AI and algorithms can be useful tools in making a garment but not so helpful, for example, when you choose a book on Amazon and then all subsequent advertising is pitched at you offering all the same type of books. Algorithms stifle and limit your variety and choice. Who is feeding the information into these algorithms? Generally, it is male engineers, which naturally leads to algorithms that have a male engineering bias. You may want to use your own data to help cancer research but then that same data can be used against you to get health insurance. 

This needs to change. We need to shape our digital world not the other way round.

However with all of us having a smart phone and being connected to the web it means we have given up our privacy. Privacy is divided between consumer and competition, and all this data is owned by huge companies.  We have to change these business models so there is distinction between use and trust. Personal data and privacy is a human right in my view but our unregulated use of tech has reduced it to a cheap commodity. If this is going to change we need to have different business models and political will to secure it. We can start with #whoownsmydata in the same way #whomademyclothes changed clothes manufacturing.

Craig Crawford made the simple point that fashion makes us feel better. He also went on to say that when it comes to successful fashion brands there are 3 necessary factors: To be Seen, To be Heard, To Belong. When brands do these 3 things they have a loyal customer.  Technology is integral to making this happen effectively.  Although when the tech and algorithms get it wrong it really goes wrong for the customer and the brand. Also where design is driven solely by data it knocks out creativity, which reflects on the brand. We need to be smart with our use of tech.

Tech is a great tool to help fashion be more sustainable. We can make personalised garments quickly for customers with zero waste which will reduce cost and therefore be able to reach to a wider market. It is important that tech is used to Protect, Explore and Inspire and not just for tech sake. If the product is good, there is no longer the need for a traditional retailer as digital now gives us access to a global market.

What is clear is that we need a more realistic, genuine relationship with AI and digital technology where we own our own data and control how we use it. It should not belong to google, apple or any other corporation. We need to claim it back. We can start by contacting Jeremy Wright minister for Digital Culture Media and Sport.  #whoownsmydata

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