Using Digital Co-Creation for Business Development

Connecting the digital, physical and social:
New thinking about the future of services

Dr. Mohamed Zaki

Deputy Director, Cambridge Service Alliance

Institute for manufacturing, Department of Engineering

University of Cambridge


New technologies and new business models have already changed the way organisations interact with their customers. In the not too distant future, developments such as AI, robots and virtual reality will be a completely normal part of the customer experience. However, these new ways of engaging with customers will not replace face-to-face encounters but will work alongside them, making already complex service systems even more so.  In this world, managers will need to understand customer experiences across the digital, physical and social ‘spaces’. Until now service research has looked at these three distinct service environments separately but organisations increasingly need to understand how they come together to create satisfying customer experiences and to design their services accordingly. We know service delivery is going to change over the next 30 years thanks to new technologies. To get a better idea of what that will mean in the digital, physical and social spaces, we consider the likely trajectory of three different service sectors.

Why is it so important to think in terms of these three digital, physical and social spaces?

The simple answer is that doing so will enable organisations to design better services for – and with – their customers. It will also help them avoid potential pitfalls. Not thinking about

these connections when dealing with complex service systems can have serious consequences. A good (or bad) example of this is when a small electrical fire started at Atlanta’s airport (in its physical space) in 2017. The back-up power system (in its digital space) responded by shutting itself down which in turn stopped the emergency teams (in its social space) from dealing with the fire. Result: passengers were going nowhere fast. Each of those systems responded to a local issue in a logical way but a lack of integration ended up escalating the problem rather than solving it.

How can organisations connect across the digital, physical and social spaces?

We have developed a framework¹ that allows us to categorise services according to how digital, physical or social they are and the levels of complexity they have in each space. This allows us to identify areas of opportunity and of potential conflict and to devise ways to resolve them. At the most complex end of the spectrum, where services are highly physical, digital and social, organisations are going to have to manage the relationships between the spaces very carefully in order to deliver the right service to the right customers. Customers will choose which elements they want from which space: organisations will need the systems in place to cope with that seamlessly. Where the move is towards a greater social presence in a digital space we anticipate a number of challenges, including arriving at a better understanding of how human customers are going to react to robot assistants. We are used to getting help from Siri or Alexa and researchers are developing robots that can show signs of empathy, recognising someone’s emotional state and showing emotion in response. These kinds of robots will affect the customer experience in ways we do not yet understand.


¹ ‘Customer experience challenges: bringing together digital, physical and social realms’ Bolton, Ruth, N., McColl-Kennedy, Janet, R., Cheung, Lilliemay, Gallan, Andrew, Orsingher, Chiara, Witell, Lars, Zaki, Mohamed. Journal of Service Management, 29 (5).



If you would like learn more, reserve your seat from open event in Helsinki on October 30th  to meet Dr Mohammed Zaki and other well-established speakers.