It is a dreary, overcast Monday morning in San Francisco, and a small group of journalists are being herded onto a bus for a whistlestop tour of three highly disruptive tech brands. The city is quickly overtaking Silicon Valley, the Californian region to its south, as the world’s premier technology hub and cloud computing group Salesforce (itself a native of San Francisco) has organised the outing as a prelude to its huge Dreamforce conference.
For the media in attendance, the attraction of the tour is two-fold. Firstly, it holds the promise of exclusive insights into the technologies and trends that could shape the world for years to come; and secondly, it offers rare inside access to the notoriously secretive world of big tech.
Uber is already reshaping the world as we know it. Since launching in 2010, the car hire app has grown rapidly at the expense of the traditional taxi industry by offering a simple and cheap way for people to order and pay for a ride using their smartphone.
The company achieved a reported $50bn valuation from its investors earlier this year – reaching the milestone at a faster rate than Facebook – but it has also courted controversy due to regulatory hurdles in different countries and concerns over its treatment of the drivers that use its platform.
Security is tight when we arrive at what is actually a rather unremarkable office, located just around the corner from Twitter’s HQ. The layout is relatively sparse and the ominous black of Uber’s logo seems to pervade every space. This week Uber confirmed plans to expand to two further offices in the San Francisco Bay Area over the next two years.
Uber’s chief adviser David Plouffe is on hand to answer questions – an interesting fact in itself given that he was formerly an adviser to President Obama. Plouffe was hired by Uber last year to help the company navigate its PR and political troubles and during the briefing he proves adept at batting away questions about the regulatory challenges facing Uber. In fact, he expects laws to change to fit its model.
“We’re going to continue working with governments – we’re making a lot of regulatory progress here in the US and Mexico City just became the biggest city in the world to pass new laws,” he declares. “That’s what’s required – if the conversation is ‘how does Uber fit into 40-year-old transportation laws’, that’s not going to be a very productive or satisfactory conversation.”
Plouffe is keen to talk about Uber’s expanding role within society more broadly, arguing that its ‘sharing economy’ business model has enabled partners such as its drivers to earn extra money and consumers to find cheaper services with greater flexibility. He highlights Uber for Business, the company’s expanding B2B service, and UberEats, a new food delivery option, as examples of the company’s rapid transition from disruptive startup to powerful global brand.
“Our goal is to continue to innovate so that the experience gets better and better and that includes experimenting with new products,” adds Plouffe.
By contrast to Uber’s clinical decor, 3D design company Autodesk has a bright, free-flowing office space that doubles up as a mini-museum of exhibits – each revealing how 3D technology is transforming different industries such as engineering, manufacturing and entertainment. A giant Lego dinosaur sits in the middle of the room, for example, to demonstrate how the toy company uses the software to create the massive sculptures that appear at its theme parks and retail outlets.
Autodesk senior vice-president of marketing Andrew Anagnost sounds a note of caution about 3D printing, pointing out that businesses have so far failed to adopt the technology on a mass scale. He argues, though, that recent advances – such as the ability to print metal structures – could have a hugely disruptive impact on the business world by allowing small companies to produce customised products with greater ease and efficiency.
“What will it do to the automotive industry when someone figures out how to 3D print the chassis of a car?” he says. “It opens up the door for a whole host of people to make cars.”
Of course Autodesk has an interest in talking up the potential of 3D printing, but Anagnost makes a compelling case for the wider trends that are disrupting traditional modes of production. This includes the growth of crowdfunding and high-tech ‘micro-factories’ as ways of bringing concepts to market more quickly.
“People today care a lot more about how things are made and where they are made – and they want things that are made just for them,” he says. “We’re moving away from rampant consumerism to a more selective consumerism and 3D printing enables that type of activity.”
The final stop on the tour – the head office of wearable technology firm Fitbit – is a relaxed affair, perhaps reflecting the brand’s growing strength and self-confidence. Fitbit, which manufactures fitness-tracking devices, is riding high at present, having completed an IPO on the New York Stock Exchange in June.
The company was named the world’s largest wearables brand by market research group IDC after achieving global sales of 4.4 million devices in the second quarter of 2015. It is currently pressing home this market dominance with a TV ad in several international markets, including the UK.
Chief revenue officer Woody Scal exudes positivity during his presentation to the assembled media as he explains that Fitbit is extending its presence through deeper integrations with social channels and via new content-led services on its mobile app. This follows Fitbit’s $17.8m acquisition earlier this year of FitStar, an app for delivering personalised exercise videos.
Scal also dismisses concerns about the recent spate of smartwatch launches by the likes of Apple, arguing that it presents an opportunity for Fitbit rather than a problem. “We don’t think that smartwatches will or won’t win, but that differentiation between the two categories will blur,” he says. “It’s a spectrum and we see our devices becoming smarter and smarter.”
This is probably the overriding message from the tour as a whole – that true innovation means embracing change, rather than fearing it. It’s an interesting takeaway to ponder as we depart back into the San Francisco drizzle.