Five key themes from 2019’s RISE conference

With RISE having concluded on July 11, it is now possible to take stock of the learnings that have emerged from Asia’s largest tech conference. Here we summarise five key themes that emerged across the four days of this year’s event in Hong Kong:


Emerging markets are fertile ground for unicorns


While the US and China still lead the way when it comes to unicorns, emerging markets such as Southeast Asia, Latin America and India, are fast catching up. A key driver of this development is that emerging markets often have unique challenges, such as a lack of infrastructure, that at the same time create opportunities for new and disruptive business models.

“We know some of the underlying principles [of unicorns] are consistent and can be applied in new regions, but they require a lot of localisation and adaptation based on the ingenuity of founders in these local markets,” said GGV Capital’s Hans Tung.


Polarisation of physical retail


Reports of physical retail’s death over the last few years may have been greatly exaggerated. Instead, we are seeing is a shift in the role of the store, with a polarisation taking place between stores that focus on utility or experience.

Shoppers do not expect to bamboozled by experiential bells and whistles during boring trips to the supermarket. Rather, we want to get it over with as soon as possible. Conversely, shoppers expect much more from the experience when it comes to categories such as fashion and beauty.

Tim Kobe, the brains behind the first Apple store, said that physical retail will be much more about tech-enabled store environments. He said: “Offline is still going to be prevalent, but in a very different way. Maybe it’s the experience or the fact that you’re not spending time in a queue behind 20 people trying to check-out.”


AI moves beyond the hype


Artificial intelligence first made an appearance on Gartner’s hype cycle back in 2011, but fast forward to 2019 and we can see widespread usage of the technology across industries, driven by data growth – not only in volume, but also in complexity.

Within the retail sphere,’s Bowen Zhou explained how the ecommerce giant is using AI to improve the entire ecommerce experience, including searches, recommendations and customer service. He identified three main benefits that AI will deliver in retail: cost savings through automation, augmenting business decisions through data analysis and driving new markets through personalisation. “Combining all three together, I think the future of retailing is very bright,” commented Zhou.


Cashless payments driven by the development of super apps


For those who read Tofugear’s latest research report on the digital payments landscape in Hong Kong, it is perhaps not a surprising conclusion that cashless payments are fast gaining traction outside of China. By 2024, there are expected to be 4 billion digital wallet users around the globe, up from 2.3 billion this year.

Much of this growth is driven by Southeast Asia, where many local players are following in the footsteps of the likes of Alibaba and WeChat by creating ‘super apps’ that do so much more than payments, such as ride sharing, food deliveries and ecommerce. Ajey Gore, CTO at Indonesian super app GOJEK, said: “It’s about creating an ecosystem, understanding the local mindset and trying to remove this daily pain [from consumers’ day-to-day lives].”


Say it with a gif and taking one for the team


It wasn’t all serious business at RISE, with Alex Chung, the founder of Giphy, a particular highlight. Each day, Giphy reaches over 500 million people around the globe, highlighting how this medium has established itself as such a key form of day-to-day communication (and perhaps one not to be ignored by businesses too). Chung said: “YouTube videos are five minutes on average. It’s too long, you have to make your content short enough to fit within a scroll.”

Last but not least, a shout-out to Air Asia founder Tony Fernandes for having the choicest quotes of the conference, including this gem on branding: “I sponsored Manchester United when we had seven planes. Very, very painful for me because I hate that football club, but you’ve got to be a prostitute once in a while.”

Philip Wiggenraad

Philip Wiggenraad

As Head of Research at Tofugear, Philip provides insight on how retailers are adapting their digital strategies to target the connected consumer. Prior to relocating to Hong Kong, he led Retail Week’s research team in London, researching the tech and ecommerce strategies of the UK’s leading retailers.