RECODE … How tech will change life in the post-pandemic “new future”

May 26, 2020 at Technology Future Week, Ambrosetti Forum Online 2020, The European House (1630-1830 CET)

The Ambrosetti Forum, organised by The European House, is an annual international economic conference held at Villa d’Este, in the Italian town of Cernobbio on the shores of Lake Como. Since its inception in 1975, the Forum has brought together heads of state, ministers, Nobel laureates and business people to discuss current challenges to the world’s economies and societies. This year it takes place online.

In my opening keynote at this year’s online forum, I will focus on these themes:

Crisis as catalyst for innovation … in economic cycles, every financial downturn is matched by an innovation upturn. In fact 57% of the current Fortune 500 were founded in a downturn. Right now, the next generation if businesses are being shaped. And below today’s business turmoil, a tremendous digital revolution is taking shape.

Megatrends are accelerating … the shift in power from west to east (Asia continues to grow), the dependent needs of ageing generations (care, infrastructure), the huge concentration of people in megacities (healthcare), the fragility of our environment and natural resources (less is more), and the rise of intelligent, connected technologies (AI).

Driving human and tech ingenuity … pandemic has seen rapid adoption of new technologies, and the “digital me” (belonging and connected) – in distributed working (remote and hybrid), intelligent healthcare (online and data-driven), digital retail (cashless and automated), personal mobility (electric and local) education (hybrid and collaborative).

Creating a better future business… now is the time for leaders to step up, to find a better future, not just recover the old world – more enlightened (purpose beyond profit, human before technology), more agile (networks not hierarchies, fast and liquid), more resilient (innovation not efficiency, future-proofed portfolio).

Download:Summary of Peter Fisk’s RECODE session

Here are 10 technology trends that are helping people get through lockdown, and build a resilient society, as well as considerations about their effects on how we do business, how we trade, how we work, how we produce goods, how we learn, how we seek medical services and how we entertain ourselves.

1. Online shopping

In late 2002, the SARS outbreak led to a tremendous growth of both business-to-business and business-to-consumer online marketplace platforms in China including the acceleration of Alibaba’s emergence as a global force. Similarly, COVID-19 has transformed online shopping from a nice-to-have to a must-have around the world. Instacart has taught to recruit 300,000 new pickers, packers and deliverers in USA, Amazon has continued to thrive, and some bars in Beijing have even continued to offer happy hours through online orders and delivery.

Online shopping needs to be supported by a robust logistics system. In-person delivery is not virus-proof. Many delivery companies and restaurants in the US and China are launching contactless delivery services where goods are picked up and dropped off at a designated location instead of from or into the hands of a person. Chinese e-commerce giants are also ramping up their development of robot deliveries as has UK’s Starship Technologies.

2. Contactless payments

Contactless digital payments, either in the form of cards or e-wallets, have become the preferred form of payment method to avoid the spread of COVID-19. Digital payments enable people to make online purchases and payments of goods, services and even utility payments, as well as to receive stimulus funds faster.

Cash might carry the virus, so central banks in China, USA and South Korea have implemented various measures to ensure banknotes are clean before they go into circulation. However, according to the World Bank, there are more than 1.7 billion unbanked people, who may not have easy access to digital payments. The availability of digital payments also relies on internet availability, devices and a network to convert cash into a digitalized format.

3. Remote Working

Most people have opted to work from home when possible. A host of new technologies have become indispensable to our daily routines, as Zoom, for example has massively grown – 130% growth in market cap in 3 months since February –  now more valuable than the world’s top 7 airlines combined.

Cloud technology, work collaboration tools and even facial recognition technologies that enable a person to appear before a virtual background at home, have also massively grown. In addition to preventing the spread of viruses, remote work also saves commute time and provides more flexibility. This is likely to accelerate a more hybrid workforce – more dispersed, more contracted as necessary, more agile to meet changing situations.

At the same time not all jobs can be done from home, which creates disparity. Workers with college educations are at least five times more likely to have jobs that allow them to work from home. Some professions, such as medical services and manufacturing, may not have the option at all. Policies with respect to data flows and taxation would need to be adjusted.

4. Liquid Learning

As of mid-April, 191 countries announced or implemented school or university closures, impacting 1.57 billion students. Many educational institutions started offering courses online to ensure education was not disrupted by quarantine measures. Technologies involved in distant learning are similar to those for remote work and also include virtual reality, augmented reality, 3D printing and artificial-intelligence-enabled robot teachers.

Concerns about distance learning include the possibility the technologies could create a wider divide in terms of digital readiness and income level. Distance learning could also create economic pressure on parents – more often women – who need to stay home to watch their children and may face decreased productivity at work.

5. Digital healthcare

Digital health can be an effective way to contain the spread of COVID-19 while still providing essential primary care. Wearable personal IoT devices can track vital signs. Chatbots can make initial diagnoses based on symptoms identified by patients. Two companies which I have featured most are Good Doctor, part of the Chinese PingAn platform, Doctor on Demand in USA,  and Babylon Health, developed by Ali Parsa in the UK, and offering smarter phone AI-enhanced diagnostics and consultations.

However, in countries where medical costs are high, it’s important to ensure digital health will be covered by insurance. It also requires a certain level of tech literacy to operate, as well as a good internet connection. And as medical services are one of the most heavily regulated businesses, doctors typically can only provide medical care to patients who live in the same jurisdiction. Regulations, at the time they were written, may not have envisioned a world where digital health would be available.

6. Online Entertainment

Although quarantine measures have reduced in-person interactions significantly, human creativity has brought the party online. Cloud raves and online streaming of concerts have gain traction around the world. Chinese film production companies also released films online. Museums and international heritage sites offer virtual tours. There has also been a surge of online gaming traffic since the outbreak.

7. Supply Chain 4.0

The COVID-19 pandemic has massively disrupted global supply chain. With distancing and quarantine orders, some factories are completely shut down. While demand for food and personal protective equipment soar, some countries have implemented different levels of export bans on those items. Heavy reliance on paper-based records, a lack of visibility on data and lack of diversity and flexibility have made existing supply chain system vulnerable to any pandemic.

Core technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, such as Big Data, cloud computing, Internet-of-Things (“IoT”) and blockchain are building a more resilient supply chain management system for the future by enhancing the accuracy of data and encouraging data sharing. Maersk is a great example of how this can be implemented.

8. 3D Printing

3D printing technology has been deployed to mitigate shocks to the supply chain and export bans on personal protective equipment. 3D printing offers flexibility in production: the same printer can produce different products based on different design files and materials, and simple parts can be made onsite quickly without requiring a lengthy procurement process and a long wait for the shipment to arrive. Applications range from spare parts for a machine, printed on demand, to entire new buildings printed in 24 hours, like those by Ikon with particular application to disaster relief.

However, massive production using 3D printing faces a few obstacles. First, there may be intellectual property issues involved in producing parts that are protected by patent. Second, production of certain goods, such as surgical masks, is subject to regulatory approvals, which can take a long time to obtain. Other unsolved issues include how design files should be protected under patent regimes, the place of origin and impact on trade volumes and product liability associated with 3D printed products.

9. Robotics and Drones

COVID-19 makes the world realise how heavily we rely on human interactions to make things work. Hi-touch, people intensive businesses, such as retail, food, manufacturing and logistics are the worst hit.

COVID-19 provided a strong push to rollout the usage of robots and research on robotics. In recent weeks, robots have been used to disinfect areas and to deliver food to those in quarantine. Drones have walked dogs and delivered items.

While there are some reports that predict many manufacturing jobs will be replaced by robots in the future, at the same time, new jobs will be created in the process. Policies must be in place to provide sufficient training and social welfare to the labour force to embrace the change.

10. 5G and Information and Communications Technology (ICT)

All these technology trends rely on a stable, high-speed and affordable internet. While 5G has demonstrated its importance in remote monitoring and healthcare consultation, the rollout of 5G is delayed in Europe at the time when the technology may be needed the most. The adoption of 5G will increase the cost of compatible devices and the cost of data plans. Addressing these issues to ensure inclusive access to internet will continue to be a challenge as the 5G network expands globally.

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