The future of navigation in a digitized world: An interview with what3words’s Clare Jones

| Interview

Clare Jones firmly believes that getting lost should be a thing of the past. “We live in a digital world, with technology accessible everywhere—on our wrists, phones, in our pockets, and in our cars. I find it strange that we are using the same address system that was designed 300 years ago to deliver mail on horseback,” she says.

The solution was what3words, an app that divides the world into small squares and assigns each square a unique combination of three words—an easy way to find and share an exact location.

As chief commercial officer at the company, Jones has seen the concept grow over time. Russell Hensley, a partner and coleader at the McKinsey Center for Future Mobility, sat down with her at the M30 Mobility Summit to discuss how what3words is helping shape the future of mobility. An edited transcript of their conversation follows.

McKinsey: For those less familiar with what3words, can you explain exactly what your company does?

Clare Jones: We took the entire world and divided it into a grid of 57 trillion squares. Each square was three meters by three meters, and we labeled every one with three words from the dictionary. Each label is equivalent to a square. It is totally unique. Our office in London, for example, is at “filled count soap.” You can use this just like a normal address.

McKinsey: And how does this play into the future of mobility?

Clare Jones: In a few ways. The technology has already been integrated into millions of cars across the globe. It can be accessed through navigation systems such as HERE or TomTom—whichever map the car uses.

Voice is becoming more and more powerful. And I think a major frustration in the automotive industry is that voice technology is not being used to its full potential. Consumers are comfortable using the technology for temperature control and music, for example, but they do not really use it for navigation just yet. The result is a negative consumer experience, because manually inputting a street address into your car can be both time-consuming and frustrating.

Voice is becoming more and more powerful. And I think a major frustration in the automotive industry is that voice technology is not being used to its full potential.

What3words works around this challenge. By saying just three words, you know you are going to get to the right place. You can leave your phone in your pocket and keep your hands on the wheel.

McKinsey: Fantastic. And is it an application used just on land? Or do you use it on water, too?

Clare Jones: That is a good question. As I said, we have mapped the whole world into 57 trillion squares, and this does include the ocean. Yet we do mostly see it used on land. Sailors are already well-versed in using GPS coordinates in their everyday operations.

That said, we have actually seen it used by boaters, people meeting up on yachts, people going fishing, and even scuba diving. Yet, mostly, we are talking about land.

McKinsey: As the future of mobility becomes a reality, what role do you see what3words playing?

Clare Jones: All the pain points I have outlined in terms of address navigation will be magnified as the autonomy of vehicles increases. Right now, if an Uber or Lyft driver cannot find your chosen address, you have a conversation and work it out together. With autonomous vehicles, that trust is removed. Are you going to trust a computer to get you to your destination? You need to be confident that the technology is going to take you to the right place.

The same issue applies to delivery services. How many of us have had a delivery driver phone us to find our address? How can this challenge be addressed when the person delivering is an autonomous delivery robot or a drone? We want to make sure that these issues are fixed now, so that when we move into a more digital world, we are not still fighting this analog-digital divide.

McKinsey: How long has what3words been around for, and if you could re-live that time, what would you do differently?

Clare Jones: We started in 2013. We laid a lot of the groundwork then, but the business has really taken off in the past few years as a growing number of partners have come onboard.

In terms of what I would do differently, I think my key learning would be to learn patience earlier. As much as I would have liked everything to happen immediately, I learned that things take their own time. If your business is being built into a navigation system that is part of a five-year plan, you cannot change that. You just have to accept it.

We have since worked out ways to get around this. One solution has been to build strong relationships with suppliers, for example HERE and TomTom. Working with them earlier would have helped relieve some of our pain points. But yes, patience is definitely key.

McKinsey: Patience. Wonderful. And as a startup, how have you learned to work with larger companies?

Clare Jones: It is people, always people. There are people we work with who are truly invested in their jobs. I am thinking about some navigation engineers we have met. They work so hard to make a beautiful experience. If they are going to spend five years developing an app system, they want customers to use it.

If you find people who care deeply about what they are doing, they unlock the path for you. I had no idea how to work with car companies before I started this role, and I had to be guided by these amazing heroes working for them. It felt like they were an extended part of our team.

Explore a career with us